One of the wisest books I’ve read is Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue by Paul Woodruff, professor of humanities at the University of Texas. Woodruff defines reverence as:
- Being in awe of something or someone greater than oneself.
- Respect for other people.
- Shame at not living up to common standards of virtue.
In his words, “Reverence is the virtue that keeps leaders from trying to take tight control of other people’s lives . . . that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods.”
In looking for personal examples of reverence beyond keeping quiet in church, I admit to feeling awe for busy young mothers balancing diapers, dinners, dishes, discipline and diminutive income with love, teaching, full or part time jobs, and church callings. I know I did it at one time, but I can’t even imagine tackling it again as I watch my daughter and young mothers in my neighborhood.
I respect parents who faithfully endure three hours of church meetings each Sunday because they believe it benefits their family. I also respect those who have left the LDS fold to find spiritual sustenance in other pastures.
I feel shame when a news program shows me Ethiopian women scooping water from puddles for cooking and drinking, then washing the family laundry in the same muddy pools. Nobody should have to live that way. What can I do to change their situation? What should I be doing?
By Woodruff’s definition, recognizing ridiculousness is not irreverent. I suspect he would not find Jon Stewart’s and Steve Colbert’s attacks on Glenn Beck irreverent. Beck’s most outrageous assertions certainly merit criticism. Not criticizing wrong-doing is cowardice rather than reverence.
And this brings me to the question: Are Mormons overly sensitive about questioning, criticizing or even joking about church history, doctrine, or cultural practices? Zoe Murdock, a Mormon novelist commented in an interview that she’d grown up feeling it was wrong to even ask questions about the church. I suspect the J. Golden Kimball stories are about as close as most Latter-day Saints dare come to attacking official pomposity. One of my favorite J. Golden stories has him replying to a General Authority who criticized Kimball’s family: “According to your idea of an exemplary family, the Lord God Almighty hasn’t made such a hell of a success.”
Sure we want to be a reverent people—to feel awe for a power higher than our own, to respect the humanity of all people, to respect all of God’s creations, and to feel shame when we do not meet standards of human decency. But am I out-of-line to profess doubt that God twitters President Monson throughout each day, directing his every decision and inspiring his every utterance?