Human reverence

The language of reverence is the language of humanity.


Since I first engaged in conscious thought, I have been searching for a language of reverence. I am a child of humanist parents and the product of Unitarian Universalist religious education, shaped by the philosophy of the religious educator Sophia Fahs. She advocated allowing children’s own experiences and growth to lead them naturally to discover wonder and sacredness in life, rather than imposing religious texts or ideas on them. And so I have built my theology out of my own experiences, not according to any blueprint, but rather from the material of my life’s pondered meaning. I cherish the freedom of my religious inheritance, and I have never had a moment when it has seemed likely that any self-conscious supernatural personality actually presides over the universe. Nevertheless, this approach had its drawbacks.

As a young Unitarian Universalist in the 1960s, I was educated about human sexuality in a relatively open fashion; human religious experience, in contrast, was a closed book. I discovered my spirituality in much the same way that my peers raised in more conservative faiths discovered their sexuality—accidentally, furtively, without guidance, moved by overwhelming inner tides, and with some sense of shame. I longed for the white organdy First Communion dresses and the menorah candles of my neighbors. I secretly memorized Louisa May Alcott’s “My Kingdom” prayer, written when she was thirteen, and sang myself to sleep with “For the Beauty of the Earth.” I was fascinated by the hidden life of nuns. I yearned for someone, anyone, to take my childish capacity for devotion seriously. But seeds planted in paper cups on the Sunday school windowsill, the dead bird discovered in the backyard, the calligraphic hymns in We Sing of Life, and the annual flower communion were the scant resources my liberal religious education offered. To my parents and teachers—almost all of whom had grown up in other religious traditions—the absence of texts, rote prayers, sacraments, holy objects, and moralistic picture books represented freedom. But without any language for my emerging sense of mystery and wonder, I came to feel the contrary: deprived of the tools with which to understand or express those experiences.

I floundered in a kind of guilty yearning until I became intellectually mature enough to claim the rich heritage of humanity’s religious cultures for myself. I did so greedily, with none of the literalism that afflicts fundamentalists, whether orthodox or humanist. As a student of religion in college, I read the Christian women mystics, Zen teachers, Taoist poets. I studied the art and architecture, music and mysteries of the world’s religions, and discovered how each constructed the landscape of spiritual experience. What I sought was some way to bring order to what had always been going on inside of me. And I encountered a whole universe of souls, across every culture and tradition, who knew all about it.

Thus, with great interest and personal investment, I have followed the recent conversation among Unitarian Universalists exploring the call for a language, or vocabulary, of reverence. As one raised within our tradition, who claims our peculiar humanist dialect as a native tongue, I bring yet another perspective.

I see at least three different purposes for which we might find a language of reverence useful: to respond in the moment to our experiences of awe and communion; to describe those experiences to others; and to solicit such experiences, both in ourselves and in others.

It’s a great gift when those reverent moments of ecstasy and agony that demand expression yield a novel, spontaneous response within us. But rarely do new hymns rise to our lips fully formed. Most of the time we will find our responses in the images and music, the gestures and customs that we have learned. We learn what to do with our feelings by observing those who demonstrate what love in action looks like, or how to endure pain—or indeed, how to express reverence. We learn to pray by seeing those we admire do it and find comfort. We learn how to behave in the presence of death by moving through our culture’s rituals. We learn the hymns we hear sung.

The experience to which we must reply is uniquely our own, but our options for responding in a way that fulfills us are widened by knowing how other people have done it. I came away from the movie Schindler’s List desperately longing for a prayer to recite, an act of contrition, an acknowledgement of holiness, a blessing for the dead, something that carried the weight of human history and usage. At such a moment, the blank slate of theological freedom and diversity is a sterile mirror. One needs a vocabulary of reverence ready at hand. Often I do not find it.

When our goal is to describe our experiences of reverence to one another, especially across diverse cultures, what we must strive for above all is clarity. Thinkers from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to William James and Joseph Campbell have explored the commonalities of religious experience as dynamics of human personality and culture. Different traditions may use different names and images, but these conceptual archetypes deal with shared inner realities. This is where the dispassionate observations of psychology and anthropology can help us and are appropriate.

Religious humanists have long held that the phenomenon of reverence is a human experience that occurs regardless of theological belief. The feelings of reverence may be experienced in a context of atheism, agnosticism, or polytheism just as much as in monotheism. “Reverence runs across religions and even outside them through the fabric of any community, however secular,” classics professor Paul Woodruff writes in his elegant little volume Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. “We may be divided from one another by our beliefs, but never by reverence.” In a tradition as diverse as Unitarian Universalism, the language we use to describe our experiences of reverence will be most helpful if it is truthful, clear, and well-informed.

In contrast, when we seek to evoke experiences of reverence, as ministers or laypeople, what will serve us best is language that is poetic, evocative, and metaphorical. That means acknowledging that what is powerful is not always rational. The vocabulary that has been engraved on our neural pathways over the course of a lifetime has its effect, regardless of our intellectual opinions.

But mere repetition of what we know eventually creates boredom rather than reverence. When we use familiar words, symbols, and actions in creative ways, we can break through our habitual perceptions, open ourselves again to the wonder and tragedy of the world, and thus evoke reverence. The best wedding ceremony neither mechanically repeats the same prescribed text as every other wedding, nor indulges the random impulses of a particular couple, leaving the gathered congregation mystified. Rather, genuine reverence is evoked when we use the language and symbols of tradition in creative ways so that the universal is expressed through the individual.

The individual perception of reverence, like that of love or suffering, is not arguable. No one else can deny the reality of those sensations, when you feel that you have them. In the 2003 sermon that sparked much of the controversy over the language of reverence within our denomination, UUA President William G. Sinkford speaks of a long night sitting in the hospital with his teenage son, who lay near death: “I felt the hands of a loving universe reaching out to hold. The hands of God, the Spirit of Life. The name was unimportant. . . . I knew that I did not have to walk that path alone, that there is a love that has never broken faith with us and never will.” No one can argue that Sinkford didn’t have the experience he says he did. The question is whether our faith community is collectively prepared to help him understand, process, and honor it.

I submit—and I believe this is the point that Sinkford was trying to make in that sermon—that a religious tradition that does not help its members discover meaningful and satisfying ways of expressing and responding to the human experiences of reverence that happen in the course of their human lives is missing a crucial and central piece of its function. We are not dealing in debate or persuasion here. We are talking about how we—each of us, in our uniquely constituted beings—recognize and understand and make sense of that unbidden, overwhelming awe at the wonder, magnificence, danger, demand, and delight of being alive.

Such sensations cannot be imposed—we cannot make others feel awe, or respect, or ashamed of themselves, if the foundation of that feeling is not already within them. But we can elucidate those feelings, describe them, examine them, even celebrate them. We can cultivate our capacity to have them, and we can become discerning about the circumstances within which they are appropriate.

How can we best enrich the options that will be on hand for us when we need them? How do we structure our practices—both personal and communal—so that we can interpret our experiences of reverence in satisfying, life-giving ways? How might we better support one another in recognizing and honoring the reverent moments of our lives? To engage in these kinds of reflection is to nurture the virtue of reverence, and that process is made considerably more difficult when we lack a vocabulary for it.

Some in the humanist community find traditional religious language so defiled by irrationality as to be deemed unusable. I believe, on the contrary, that we need not—nor even can we—invent a new vocabulary of reverence out of whole cloth. Such an arbitrary system, no matter how unobjectionable and even true its expressions, will not have, at least within the first generation, the profound resonances of lifelong memory.

Moreover, if we are to have a deep engagement with the challenges of our own time, we need an awareness of our historical context, a recognition of our own foibles and finitude, as well as our anguish and triumph, as they are reflected across the ages of human experience. To think that we must dispense with all traditional language, symbols, and concepts in order to speak about that which is deepest and dearest, the precious source of human good, is to assume that no human beings were ever before so clever, so profound, or so committed as we are; that those who have been down the path of life before us have no wisdom to teach, that we can learn nothing from all that they have left to us.

One of the things that most reliably draws out of me a feeling of deep respect mixed with wonder, fear, and love, is the knowledge that I am not alone in this enterprise. We are not the first to walk this path, to stutter in the presence of mystery and power. The awe and gratitude, the affirmation and praise go back generations and centuries, to the first dawning of human consciousness.

What we feel on the shores of the ocean or the mountain heights is no special insight of our own; it is the common heritage of the human race. There is nothing so petulant as to throw away what our ancestors have tried to pass on to us, in stories and stones, in scriptures and songs, in rituals and prayers, because we think that we in our adolescent hubris know better now. Who can stand in the shadow of the great pyramids, or the radiant light and soaring stone of the cathedral at Chartres—who can listen to the deep cadences of the Book of Common Prayer fall sonorous on the ear—and not realize in the very fiber of being that our wonder and our hunger and our terror and even our most valiant “yes” to life are not ours alone, but echo down the ages of the whole human race?

Genuine human language is a collective enterprise. It evolves organically in response to the demands of experience and interaction. Each of us is born with the capacity to learn a variety of such languages. Indeed, that learning process shapes our understanding of the world and our very physical brains. I see no reason to suppose that the realm of the spirit is structured any differently. What we can comprehend is to some extent a function of what we have been given names for—even the awareness of that which is ultimately unnamable.

Each generation and each of us as individuals must make the language of reverence our own. The call for such a vocabulary is a call to move forward, not backward. It is a call for creativity, for experiment, a demand that we speak the truth as we know it. It summons us to recount to one another those moments that left us with a lump in the throat or a song in the heart; those night vigils in the hospital that ended in an embracing peace; the hours of soul searching that ended in remorse and a resolution to do better next time. It is an invitation to build from the wrecked timbers of old ritual the new structures of ceremony that can give shape to our reverence in the most awesome, meaning-laden moments of our lives. We are always in the process of giving birth to a new language within the religious community of shared memory and mutual promise—by telling the truth about our spiritual journeys, and by participating together in rituals that give fresh form to the ageless human impulses of homage and awe.

There is nothing whatsoever incompatible between rediscovering traditional vocabularies of reverence and creating contemporary expressions of our own experience. Ideally, the two endeavors inform and enrich one another. Walking a labyrinth at Grace Cathedral today has a far deeper resonance if one can trace its history from ancient Greece through medieval Europe to modern San Francisco. As I wrote the words to “Lady of the Season’s Laughter,” a hymn included in Singing the Living Tradition, all that I knew of ancient worship, Eastern spirituality, and the classical Western formulas of prayer, as well as all my own lifelong yearning and skepticism, was present.

The language of reverence is, finally, the language of humanity. The human experience of finding ourselves in the presence of that intense, fleeting, and demanding moment when the dull surfaces of things become transparent to a significance almost greater than we can bear belongs to all of us. Only by not paying attention can we avoid it. It doesn’t need gods or angels or magical other worlds. The world we have is magical enough, holy enough, sacred enough. We are the ones who bring the eyes to see, the minds and souls to marvel. We are the ones who must build the meanings of our brief days out of what we find to be deeply and powerfully important, right here, out of the utterly natural stuff of life. The holy is nothing but the ordinary, held up to the light and profoundly seen. It is the awareness of a creativity and a connection that we do not control, in a universe that is always larger, more intricate, and more astonishing than we imagine. It is the acknowledgment that we are formed by the earth from which we arise, and in which we live and move and have our being; and that we are, finally, not alone. For our very humanity is illuminated for us by our fellow beings, each of whom offers the authentic presence of the divine.

We must, of course, struggle against a vocabulary trivialized by sentimental platitudes and cheap reassurances. We must not let the language of reverence be manipulated by the forces of venal greed that would line the pockets of the televangelists, and the power mongers who would ascribe the will of god to their own ambitions. Most of all, we must not succumb to the fettering literal-mindedness that afflicts us today no less than those who came before us; rejecting religious language because we cannot believe it literally is just as constraining as believing we must do exactly as it says.

We ought to be about the business of re-examining and reclaiming the treasures of articulated reverence that star the landscape of human history—if for no other reason, for the sake of the children we must otherwise raise in the spiritual vacuum of our own resentments. In the process, we might find ourselves improved in modesty and maturity, as well as vocabulary, and that in itself would be no bad thing.

see below for links to related resources. An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a lecture at the 2004 General Assembly in Long Beach, California.

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