reverence matter in today's secular society?
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
We are in the grip of a crisis of international
proportions. Is it terrorism? Is it ethnopolitical conflict? I suggest
that the underlying problem may be the loss of reverence for life.
In a diverse multicultural society, respect
for others is touted as the highest virtue while reverence for life
is relegated to the dustbin of history. There is something incongruent
and self-contradictory in these two social trends.
Advocates for political correctness insist that
we must respect every cultural practice, no matter how it offends
Western sensitivities. Some courses on cultural anthropology even
teach students that there is nothing inherently wrong with human
sacrifice of infants, as long as it is performed as a cultural/religious
Personally, I am still troubled by the images
of slogan-shouting and flag-waving Red Guards during the heydays
of the Chinese culture revolution. Like gangs of bandits, these
teenagers marched up and down the streets, brutally beating up law-abiding
citizens and destroying their properties in the name of communism.
I am haunted by the images of young Muslims blowing themselves up
and killing many innocent people in the name of Islam.
Could we justify such barbaric acts by applying
the doctrine of respect for cultural relativism? Is it possible
to practice tolerance without valuing those who are different from
us? I have come to the conclusion that it is difficult to promote
respect for human rights without a profound sense of reverence for
Schweitzer was right, when he pointed out that "the highest court
is reverence for life". There is indeed no higher law, no higher
moral, than to protect and celebrate life. "Reference for life affords
me my fundamental principle of morality, namely that good consists
in maintaining, assisting, and enhancing life, and that to destroy,
to harm, or to hinder life is evil."
Loss of the ancient virtue of reverence
Many people have dismissed reverence as an ancient
virtue, which is totally irrelevant to modern society. But the moment
we destroy reverence for what is a good and sacred in life, we destroy
the very foundation for civil society.
We cannot truly appreciate the value of reverence
until we realize what life is like without it. All that makes life
beautiful and good would be gone with the death of reverence. All
that is left would be crass consumerism, cut-throat competition
and brutal domination.
There is little room for reverence in a democracy
where unscrupulous individuals can get rich and famous by shocking
people with their profanities or slandering authority figures with
It makes me sick that so many movies and TV
shows portrait parents as bumbling idiots, law enforcing officers
as corrupt cops and religious leaders as mean-spirited power-mongers.
How do we expect our children to develop reverence and respect in
a society where nothing is sacred anymore?
We pay a heavy price when we discard traditional
virtues as worn out clothes. The unraveling of the family, the breakdown
of community, the decline of civility, and the problems of addiction
and violence all attest to the consequences of forgetting the ancient
virtue of reverence.
Restoration of reverence
Paul Woodruff (2002) makes an impassionate plea
for restoring the forgotten virtue of reverence, because it is essential
for a humane, well-functioning society. It is the foundation for
other virtues like respect, humility, and compassion.
Frost and Richardson (2004) propose that ancient
virtue of reverence, "an often but not necessarily religious appreciation
of which involves coming to terms with intractable human limitations"
(p.116), can help strengthen a civil society without violating individual
this year, I went to Dharma Drum Center in Taiwan to pay a return
visit to Chan (Zen) Master Sheng-yen and learn more about mindful
meditation. When we followed the training Coordinator into a very
spacious meditation hall, we instinctively talked softly and walked
gingerly, lest we disturbed the silence and sacred that filled the
place. Several people prostrated themselves before the Buddha. "They
want to show respect to the Buddha before meditation," our trainer
Throughout the day, I met several Buddhist devotees
at the mediation center, and I was really impressed by the kind
and respectful way they treated me and my wife. I am sure that their
attitude has something to do with the Buddhist teaching of reverence
for all sentient beings.
After bidding farewell to the beautiful people
of Dharma Drum Center, I said to myself: "There is hope for Taiwan,
there is hope for China and the rest of the world only if we can
restore the ancient virtue of reverence for life."
Definition of reverence
But how do we define reverence? Reverence and
awe are clearly related, for both constructs contain elements of
wonder, amazement and adoration, but there are also differences.
While awe is a spontaneous, profound feeling
moved by something magical, reverence often refers to an acquired
attitude towards something that deserves our respect, such as the
office of presidency or the flag of a country. Individuals also
learn to show reverence or veneration to anything considered sacred
- an icon or a sacrament without feelings of awe.
Another essential ingredient of reverence is
respect. Reverence may be considered as a radical form of respect.
It sees sacredness in everything, and honors all of creation. Nothing
is too small or too insignificant to merit our reverence.
But it is a different story when we consider
showing respect to people, especially individuals we know personally.
"How can we respect those child molesters, animal
abusers or cold-blooded rapists and murderers?" you may question
in all sincerity.
"I find it impossible to respect the traitors,
swindlers and scumbags who destroy other people's lives for their
own gains," you make your point with a certain measure of self-justification.
I can sense your moral outrage. I can even sympathize
with your difficulty, because I too have a problem respecting certain
people. For example, I do not suffer fools very well, especially
when I am under a lot of pressure. Is this a problem of pride or
simply a trait of my intense personality? Do I have the right to
inflict pain on others simply because I find them too slow, too
incompetent, and too irresponsible?
Yes, we all have problems showing reverence
for individuals who do not deserve our respect. Even the Reverend
does not have our reverence, if he does not behave like a servant
In spite of these difficulties we have with
people, we can still need to cultivate reverence. If we observe
deeply and think deeply, we would recognize our common humanity.
There is a divine spark in every soul and a dark side to every life.
We are all interconnected by our shames as much as by our noble
Today, the sun shines gently and the cheery
trees freely display their beauty. As I enjoy the warmth and exuberance
of spring, I feel grateful to be alive. The symphony of nature fills
my heart with hope.
My gloomy thoughts have given way to a joyful
song. Let's live and let live in this beautiful world. Respect and
care for every sentient being. Give and receive love whatever the
cost. Above all, let everything that has breath rejoice and praise
the Lord. When I bow in worship, my spirit is lifted up. How wonderful
life could be only if we open our hearts and experience the magic
Woodruff, P. (2002). Reverence: Renewing
a forgotten virtue. New York: Oxford University Press.
Frost, K. M., & Richardson, F. C. (2004). Hate,
individualism, and the social bond. Humanity and Society,