“They were gods of the highest standing and dignity—gods of civilized peoples—worshiped and believed in by millions.
All were theoretically omnipotent, omniscient, and immortal.
And all are dead.”
~H. L. Mencken, “In Memoriam”, (In Hitchens, 2007, p. 146)
I place my hope and my heart into my experience and my observation of reverence. Reverential living is what contributes to my resonance with idealism, romanticism, and spirituality. I believe that deep reverence for the mystery, the unknown, is the Great Humbler, and is the portal to wisdom. Reverence for that which “passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) is central to our search through science and theology, personally and corporately, to understand more and more deeply. Reverence at its highest is the deepest respect and deference toward the ineffable, is a continuing exploration of the mystery, it is plumbing the depths of our understanding, seeking more substance through the range of what-is-out-there-and-in-there.
Yet not all reverence is healthy.
Remember that great scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when Indy drinks a potion which puts him into a trance? Then the great archaeologist, irreverent treasure hunter, life seeker, and independent adventurer must mindlessly serve the great, evil, maniacal high priest. He cares not that his love interest, Willie, is about to be burned as a human sacrifice for the Goddess, Kali. The priest is a member of a cult which, of course, wants to conquer the world. Fortunately, our sidekick, Short Round, takes the initiative to burn Indy, which breaks him out of his trance. Dr. Jones goes on to save the girl, free the children who had been enslaved by this evil cult, overcome the priest who falls to his death, and thereby saves the world. It is just another day in the life of an archaeologist.
In the movie, the Hindu goddess Kali is worshiped maniacally by a “thuggee” cult, with the priest Mola Ram as their front-and-center representative. Child slavery, ritualistic human sacrifice, and sacred stones are all part of the deal too. The people who revere here are serious about it.
It is important, perhaps, to be able to discern that which one is reverent about and the type of reverence it is.
At its worst, reverence is blind respect and unquestioning deference. What I call true believer reverence rests on the assumption that someone or some organization possesses “truth”, which they have translated into a set of beliefs, which then become dogma and doctrine. The underlying quality of true believer reverence is one of unquestioning loyalty to a belief that needs no further exploration, no additional inquiry. Transformative reverence, on the other hand, is a continuing search to understand the impenetrable mystery, the infinite unknown, and to continue moving toward a truth that can never be, for mere humans at least, fully comprehended. True believer reverence has stopped that search.
So-called cults are dangerous places for reverence, because the individual gives up autonomy and individuality and at some point, and if and when blind reverence evolves into clear-eyed rationality, she or he cannot easily extricate him or herself from the group. Revering the wrong cult leader can lead to “drinking the grape juice”, a term symbolizing the act of following blindly, and even death, as over 900 followers of Jim Jones experienced on November 18, 1978, in Guyana. A mass suicide, these men, women, and children killed themselves by voluntarily downing a grape-flavored, cyanide-laced drink because Jones told them to down it. He was upfront about it – he told them to kill themselves. The founder of his own temple of doom, The People’s Temple, Jones become immortal himself. Immortally reviled, that is, and a case study of the dangers of cults and of blind reverence for a person or idea.
Reverence for your country can lead to fascism or Nazism, reverence for your religion can lead to the Crusades or the Inquisition; reverence for any ideology can lead to extremism, prejudice, and bigotry.
Too, if your reverence is based on following a particular God, if you are around long enough you had better be prepared to switch from time to time. H.L. Mencken, in the tongue-in-cheek “Memorial Service” (in Hitchens, 2007), gives a eulogy to the gods who have passed on. He starts,
Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their mounds? There was a day when Jupiter was the kind of the god, and any man who doubted his puissance was ipso facto a barbarian and an ignoramus. But where in all the world is there a man who worships Jupiter today? And what of Huitzilopochtli? In one year—and it is no more than five hundred years ago—fifty thousand youths and maidens were slain in sacrifice to him. Today, if he is remembered at all, it is only by some vagrant savage in the depths of the Mexican forest…When he frowned, his father, the sun, stood still. When he roared with rage, earthquakes engulfed whole cities. When he thirsted he was watered with ten thousand gallons of human blood (p. 143).
Today, Huitzilopochtli is forgotten. This once-revered God is now a footnote. Mencken lists 138 gods, including such headliners as Odin, Osiris, and, of course Baal, who are no longer worshiped by vast crowds of people. No longer do their followers build them temples, serve as priests or evangelists or diviners to interpret their wishes, or lead great armies to kill and destroy their enemies. No longer do people fear them or bow down to them. “In the end,” Mencken says, they all withered and died, and today there is none so poor to do them reverence” (p. 144).
(Mencken’s treatise can be found in Christopher Hitchens’ book, The Portable Atheist (2007), which is an excellent book to peruse if you find yourself in one of those skeptical, perhaps even irascible, moods).
Gods have not always had staying power.
Jennifer Michael Hecht demonstrates this transitoriness of religions, religious leaders, and gods so convincingly in her book Doubt (2003). She shows that periods of certainty, those times when beliefs and therefore reverence for a god or religious perspective were strong and sure, are followed by periods of uncertainty, those times with “in-between” (p. 1) periods. It is in these interim periods, when beliefs are uncertain, that doubt presides. She starts with 600 BCE, Zeus, and Hera, she then takes us through—in a true, 551 page, tour de force—Greek doubt, doubt and the ancient Jews, ancient doubt in Asia, doubt in Rome, Christian and Zen doubt, Medieval doubt, the Renaissance and Inquisition, and up through 18th century doubt and freethinking. Have you ever had any doubts about your beliefs? You are not alone.
I have had many doubts over the years, and have vacillated from time to time. Beliefs appear to be a solid rock on which to stand, but for anyone who is interested in learning more about “the mystery” of creation, beliefs can only be considered provisional. I call my own belief system “working beliefs” or “beliefs-in-progress”, because the more I learn the more, if I am open, I will adapt those beliefs to new knowledge and insights. Indeed, the effect of wonder and awe is to open one up to new insights and possibilities that one could not have imagined prior.
It may seem here that I am disparaging reverence here, that I am discouraging us from seeking that which would inspire reverence in us, but that is not the case at all. As I said here at the first, I am a reverent person, and that reverence guides me to my innermost self. I am making the argument that reverence needs to be balanced by irreverence, by discernment and questioning, sometimes by just testing or breaking the rules, in order to lead to healthy reverence.
People can be reverent without believing in God or in any religion.
“The great religions are also, and tragically, sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering” (Wilson, 2014, p. 150). So saith Pulitzer-prize winning biologist, Edward O. Wilson, and anyone who has followed history, and even current events, knows that what he says is true. Wilson does not seem to fit the role of intellectual-elite radical, but there are those who consider any scientist a radical socialist, any subscriber to the New York Times a Bill Ayers-bomb throwing-communist, any believer in climate change as anti-business. Let them. Wilson is the world’s leading expert in ants. Yes ants. It does not seem all that impressive but when you read Wilson, there is a sense of dry-reverence about ants. Though he, the data-geek, numbers-slinging humanities-wantstabelieve-connect-science&humanities scientist, might not dare admit it. No reverence for him. To wit:
A great many educated citizens have realized that their own faiths are indeed false, or at least questionable in details. But they understand the rule attributed to the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger that religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful. (p.153)
“Faith,” he says, “is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things” (p. 154). Wilson does not pull punches about religion and God:
I believe the evidence is massive enough and clear enough to tell us this much: We were created not by a supernatural intelligence but by chance and necessity as one species out of millions of species in Earth’s biosphere. Hope and wish otherwise as we will, there is no evidence of an external grace shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned to us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one. We are, it seems, completely alone. And that in my opinion is a very good thing. It means we are completely free. (p. 173).
He probably does not kneel in prayer most Sundays or ask God forgiveness for his sins. Yet Wilson says “If our species can be said to have a soul, it lives in the humanities” (p. 185). Science, he believes, will continue to grow and grow at a fabulous rate, but at some point that rate of increase will slow. The humanities, on the other hand, will evolve and diversify to infinity, especially as those involved in them will have more access to scientific discoveries. The two, science and the humanities, are complementary, he thinks, even as they are fundamentally different. He speaks of their relationship almost rhapsodically, perhaps even reverently. “If the heuristic and analytic power of science can be joined with the introspective creativity of the humanities, human existence will rise to an infinitely more productive and interesting meaning” (p. 187).
OK, OK, Wilson is not exactly Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but one can sense the romantic in him, even as he falls back to his comforting scientific rationale. (“It is reasonable to conclude that our loving devotion to [music] has been hardwired by evolution in the human brain” (p. 147)). Yes, this from a man who is the world’s leading expert in ants. There are fourteen thousand species of them after all. But none of them have expressed love (“Let me count the ways…”) or equated poetry to their habitats (“I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree,” Joyce Kilmer) like our species does every day.
Hecht, J. M. (2003). Doubt: a history: the great doubters and their legacy of innovation, from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. United States of America, HarperSanFrancisco.
Hitchens, C. (2007). The portable atheist: essential readings for the nonbeliever. Philadelphia, PA, Da Capo.
Wilson, E. O. (2014). The meaning of human existence. New York, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W.W. Norton & Company.