Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue

Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue—the title is straightforward, the subtitle a lament easily understood and therefore not much elaborated. This book by Paul Woodruff (Professor of Humanities at the University of Texas in Austin) is a delight, in part from the beauty and pertinence of the poetry that Woodruff brings in to illuminate his discussion, and from the charm added by his explications. Woodruff is an experienced and widely published translator of Plato, Thucydides, and other classic works, and his prose is a joy as he illustrates the various facets of reverence with brief scenarios and as well as longer stories.

This book is readable—its language plain, its content home fare, its illustrative material charming. But for me the primary values are I was unobtrusively challenged for having forgotten reverence; I was provoked— especially by the ideal of a Chinese emperor learning, through ceremonial behavior, to revere his subjects, like his European counterpart with the ideal of noblesse oblige. Such an ideal does not always take, of course, but what is the alternative? The provocation was this: Is God reverent? Of what could the Great Creator stand in awe? After showing Moses something of his creations, he said, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). The size and scope of that divine undertaking argues more than a passing interest. He must see something in us to have made such a huge investment. That something must have to do with our intellect, its potential at least, for he seems willing, against profound regret, to let us slip slowly or plunge precipitately down to hell, but only because he holds that something he sees in us inviolate. Considering the costs to him in labor, compassion, and all the rest, that is an awe-inspiring instance of reverence.

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