In this little book Paul Woodruff describes reverence as a ‘capacity’.
Specifically, it is ‘the well-developed capacity to have feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have’. In this way it is like courage which is similar but concerns feelings of confidence and fear.
Reverence, then, is not particularly connected with either religion or ceremony. Both are better when filled with reverence, but neither on their own are evidence or encouragement of reverence – which Woodruff sees as something universal – and integral to good life and good politics.
In a chapter entitled ‘Base Reverence’ he offers short answers to an imagined interlocutor. Here we learn:
- that it is impossible to give a complete account of this or any other virtue;
- that virtues don’t provide moral rules, but that neither do they replace them;
- that reverence begins with the sense that there is something larger than a human being;
- that ‘the principal object of reverence is Something that reminds us of human limitations’;
- and that reverence is different from respect in that you can have too much respect and place it in the wrong things.
In case any of this gives the impression that reverence is worthy, dull and witless Woodruff clarifies that much of what is called ‘irreverent’ today is not the opposite of reverence but a bold and energetic expression of it. Irreverent humour can serve the case of the greater good by unmasking the abuse of power and closed-mindedness. This is not irreverence. It is anti-pomposity.
Towards the end of the book there are two very practical chapters, one about leadership and one about teaching – both areas where the presence or absence of reverence makes a vital difference. I particularly appreciated the one on leadership, which seemed deeper and more to the point than much writing on that subject. As he puts it, leadership without reverence is tyranny. Those who have ears should hear this, and wise-up about reverence.
How do we acquire reverence? Well we already have some and we just need to nurture the seeds and shoots of reverence within us with self-awareness until we realise that we are gradually experiencing awe and respect more wisely, and feeling shame more and more appropriately.
This readable and helpful book, subtitled ‘Renewing a Forgotten Virtue’ was published in 2001 by Oxford University Press..