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 ritual.
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 life.
Albert 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 impunity.
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 autonomy.
Earlier 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 commented.
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 of God.
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 aspirations.
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 of reverence.
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, 28(1), 102-118.