How to renew a vocabulary of reverence
(part four)

04.26.04 | Comment?

| Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four |

But what does any of this have to do with renewing a vocabulary of reverence?

Let’s look first at what we’ve got. If we’ve gone through the three investigations and spent time with the evocative questions, we will know (a) what is most evocative about our communities of authority’s traditions, stories, and habits; (b) how we actually describe the day-to-day going on of our religious practices; and (c) what in our stories of purpose rises to the level of myth. What we have, then, are raw materials for the foundation of a useful vocabulary of reverence.

But why don’t we have a full vocabulary of reverence on our hands? For one, we will likely have uncovered elements of our community of authority, practices, and stories of purpose that are wrong and/or harmful. Two, we may discover that our present vocabulary of reverence is not up to task. But why not?

A successful vocabulary of reverence will have four characteristics. (1) It will be firmly rooted in our actual, lived communities of authority, practices, and stories of purposes. (2) It will push us beyond our actual, lived experience, calling us into fuller commitment to our deeply held values. (3) It will be critiqued and amended by our actual, lived experience. And, (4) it will, in turn, critique and amend our actual, lived experience. We have, then, a dialetical relationship between our deeply held values and our actual lived relationship. This dialetical relationship should be embodied in our vocabulary of reverence.

A vocabulary of reverence is not up to task if it merely confirms our prejudices. A vocabulary of reverence is not an ideology or a party platform. It does not tell us how to think , it tells us what to wonder at. It does not tell us how to act, it tells us what to practice at.

I’ve used the phrase “deeply held values” several times, and perhaps I should fill it out a little now. An example of a deeply held value might be the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Another might be a Buddhist understanding of compassion toward all beings. Another might be a Judeo-Christian take on prophetic justice. These are all values in which we can live and move and have our being. They are values which pull us toward their own completion, even though we never see their completion.

To draw the distinction further between a vocabulary of reverence and a statement of beliefs, let’s look at our first example: the inherent worth and dignity of all people. For many who share this value, commitment to it leads to a commitment to human rights. But we would be incorrect to assume that someone who does not share a commitment to Amnesty International does not value the inherent worth and dignity of all people. It is conceivable that someone’s commitment to inherent worth and dignity could lead them to critique human rights (and some liberation theologians have done precisely that).

As long as we confuse ideology with vocabulary of reverence, we will fall short of living out our deeply held values. Ideologies promote conformity, conformity’s enforcement, and enforcement’s bureaucratization. Vocabularies of reverence promote creative interchange. It shouldn’t be a tough choice.

Of course, it’s fair to say that ideologues are living out their deeply held values, after all. As Jesus said, by their fruit you will know them. What are those values? Being right, proving others wrong, and keeping discipline. To quote Jesus again, “You are like children playing in the market: We played wedding but you didn’t dance. We played funeral but you wouldn’t cry.” Those who are liberal religion’s ideologues may protest that they are not at all interested in enforced conformity, but their actions betray them. No matter the ideology, ideologues all act the same.

It isn’t about what we can or can’t say, what we must or mustn’t do. With our deepest held values before us, our vocabularies of reverence will, on the whole, lead us to right speech and right action.

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