Sermon: Opening a Way to Reverence (text & audio)

It’s funny how some words can ignite great controversies. Some years ago, just as I was ending my training in seminary, reverence turned out to be one of those words for us Unitarian Universalists.

The controversy was prompted by a 2003 newspaper report that in a sermon the then-president of the UUA, William Sinkford, had called for adding the word “God” to the Unitarian Universalist purposes and principles. (Actually, in a sense it was already there, though technically not in the principles themselves but in the list that often accompanies them of six sources of our “living tradition.” Among those named sources are “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”)

In any event, Bill quickly announced that the reporter had misquoted him. What he had actually called for was that we UUs look at reclaiming some of the religious language that many of us had abandoned and, for him, that included the word God. “Religious language,” he said, “doesn’t have to mean ‘God talk’” or returning to traditional Christian language. But, he said, “I do feel that we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about . . . the ability of humans to shape and frame our world guided by what we find to be of ultimate importance.”

What was interesting is that Bill framed his sermon as inviting UUs to cultivate what he called “a vocabulary of reverence.” He said that he had borrowed that phrase from a 2001 essay by David Bumbaugh, who at the time was my advisor in seminary. David, however, had made a very different point from Bill’s in that essay, as is clear from its title, “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence.”

Rather than urging UUs to reclaim traditional religious language, David’s was an appeal to what he called “the Humanist witness among us” to consider how they might recover “a vocabulary of reverence” from our understanding of the natural world.

He reminded his readers that decades ago humanists had, in his words, “set the agenda for religious discourse.” But now, he said, it seemed to him that humanists had become increasingly defensive and dismissive of any hope of dialog with traditional religion. His concern, he said, was that humanists “have lost the ability to speak of that which is sacred, holy, of ultimate importance to us, the language that would allow us to enter once more into critical dialog with others.”

The body of his essay was devoted to demonstrating how they might do that. All the discoveries of modern day science from high-energy physics to genomics and the interwoven character of life, he argued, are not only interesting and useful developments. They also inspire us.

“The more we understanding about the macrocosm,” he said, “the more reason we have to stand in awe and reverence at the process that shaped and structure its evolution, and our evolution. . . . The history of the universe is our history. . . . How can we not stand in awe before the fact of our emergence as a consequence of the same vast processes that created galaxies, suns, stars, and planets?”

This story, David argued, “is a religious story in that it calls us out of our little local universes and invites us to see ourselves in terms of the largest self we can imagine – a self that was present, in some sense, in the singularity that produced the emergent universe, at the birth of the stars; a self that, in some sense, is related through time to every living thing on this planet, that contains within it the seeds of a future we cannot imagine in our wildest flights of fancy.”

I must admit that I am partial to David’s vision of our religious story. My point today, though, is not to promote his notion but to invite us into an expansive understanding of what reverence might be in our own lives.

I don’t happen to believe that developing a vocabulary of reverence requires that we reclaim traditional religious language, but I also think it doesn’t preclude it either. David and Bill represent two very different religious positions in the spectrum of Unitarian Universalism, but each in his own way, I believe, invites us into the kind of exploration that serves us all as we seek to get clear for ourselves on what is deepest and dearest in our lives, or, as David put it in a subsequent essay, “what is so precious to us that we cannot betray it without losing our own souls.”

What he is talking about, I believe, is that for which we have reverence. So, that means that we need to get clear on how we are using that word. A place to begin is to take note that, while it is often used in a religious context, reverence is not strictly a religious concept.

Some years ago the philosopher Paul Woodruff made this point. In his book entitled “Reverence” he noted that the idea of reverence points to that for which we have awe that engenders in us a sense of love and respect. Let me repeat that: reverence refers to that for which we have awe that engenders in us a sense of love and respect.

It may or may not emerge in a religious context. Woodruff said that it was a central concept in both Greek and Chinese Confucian thought, where it operated as a civic virtue.

For the Greeks, he said, to have reverence was to live in a way that is conscious of our humanity – both our wonder and beauty and our foibles and failures. It was, he said, “the greatest virtue of leaders, because it gives powerful people the strength to listen to those who are weaker than they, and it remind them that no one, no matter how successful, was born complete, knowing everything.”

In the same way, in the complex social system of Confucian China to live with reverence was to behave in a way that was in tune with what they believed to be the natural way of things, the duties and feelings that naturally emerge from our relations with one another.

In both cultures, the notion of reverence was also bound up with humility, a sense that our understanding is limited, that we ourselves are part of something greater than we can know and that we need to be wary of presuming that we are in control or that our knowledge is greater than it is.

So, it is possible to experience and cultivate reverence outside of religion. It is also possible for religions to operate in a way that is at odds with reverence. An example that Woodruff gives in his book is a campaign he saw conducted on the billboards of a city where he lived that declared “God voted against Proposition 2.” The sign may be an expression of faith, he says, but it is an act against reverence.

“If you wish to be reverent,” he said, “never claim the awful authority of God in support of your political views. You cannot speak on such matters with the authority of God.”

There has been much speculation recently on the positive reception to Pope Francis around the world. My sense is not that people are suddenly persuaded to the views of the Catholic Church but that they find a sense of reverence in the way that this man has taken on the mantle of his awesome new responsibilities. Acting as the leader of a church that opposes homosexuality, to say of someone who is gay, and, in Francis’ words “searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” is to speak from a sense of reverence.

So, I think that both David Bumbaugh and Bill Sinkford are right when they urge us Unitarian Universalists to reflect on that of which we can speak with reverence. What is it that fills you with a sense of awe that engenders in you a sense of love and respect? What, in the words of the Ends Statements composed by your Board of Trustees, do you embrace that helps you discern that in which you most deeply trust, that to which you give your heart?

It need not be something big and fabulous. To my mind, Robert Frost’s humble, little poem, “Hyla Brook,” that you heard earlier, is an appeal to reverence. An ephemeral stream that has only the weak and faded foliage of weeds fed by its flow to show for its ever having existed, it is nonetheless loved by its author. Equally each of us humble souls have but the memories of our loved ones to attest to our having been here.

“We love the things we love for what they are.” They might not count for much in the wide world, and yet they are worthy of our attention, our respect.

I recall that the controversy over Bill Sinkford’s sermon now 12 years ago generated quite a tempest over how we use words, over what might possibly count as a “vocabulary of reverence.” It’s understandable because words have power and they have impact.

Bill’s remarks centered on one particularly powerful word – God. In his sermon he told how he once had a life-changing experience of what he felt was God that helped evoke a sense of reverence in his life. And that experience, he said, helped connect him to his own feeling of what was ultimately important.

In an essay following Bill’s, David said the notion of God and other words of traditional religious language had the opposite effect for him. He said that in our post-modern culture he had seen that language used, in his words, “to support political agendas of questionable merit” and sell soap, cereal and automobiles. The result, he said, has been to empty what has been called “the language of faith” of any meaning for him.

Instead, David says, he has turned to language that he believes “has the potential of unshackling the religious vision from its enslavement to the politics and economics of conventional society,” a language, he says, “rooted in the vision of reality of humanity’s place in the world that has emerged from the natural sciences.”

We in this tradition gather in a covenant that insists that no words are prima facie off the table as we seek to address those deepest things in our lives. Instead, we look to each person to use those words that she or he can claim with integrity, all the while agreeing to listen with equal integrity, with reverence, knowing that they will do us the same courtesy.

From this position we can entertain the notion of finding reverence gazing at the stars or listening to the singing of “Amazing Grace.” One or the other may not do it for us, but knowing how it moves our partner in conversation may open something in us. It is one way that we express a sense of reverence for a principle at the center of our religious tradition: the inherent worth and dignity of each person.

The words we use, after all, are embedded in the stories of our lives. None of them carries the trump of settled truth. Instead, they speak to the struggles and epiphanies that made us who we are, and by opening to each other with curiosity and humility, letting go of our fearful need to have everyone share our perspective, we create the possibility of growth for us all.

I offered you the words of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore earlier as an expression of reverence that has always resonated deeply with me. This poem speaks to my sense of the deep connection of all things. It captures the sweep of all being, from humble “Hyla Brook” to “the ocean cradle of birth and death,” all shot through with the running, dancing, joyous throb of ages, which is life.

And, like the poet, my pride comes not from some vainglorious vision of my own importance or the importance of my species, but from being immersed in the midst of it. I recognize it as such an improbable gift that from this tumultuous wave of being in this brief glimpse of a moment out of all eternity the conscious entity that I have become emerged. Who would’ve thunk it? Yet, there is it.

It fills me with such awe and gratitude to reflect on it that I am called to celebrate with joy not only my existence but all of it, every leaf, every bug, as Tagore puts it, “made glorious by the touch of this world of life.”

Cause for reverence? It is everywhere you look. Let us open ourselves to it.