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The Mother of Virtues
Reverence and the Moral Life
Reverence is the attitude that can be designated as the mother of all moral life, for in it man first takes a position toward the world that opens his spiritual eyes and enables him to grasp values. —Dietrich von Hildebrand1
Along the soffit in my library hang plaster busts representing the seven sins. (Their frightening physiognomies have the advantage of keeping the grandchildren a safe distance from the books). Pride is first in the row, because it is generally accorded preeminence among the vices—often because Christian theologians have seen pride as the first sin, manifest in Eve and Adam’s rebellion. Pride was the original sin in that view—and spawns all the rest. Hildebrand finds in reverence a corresponding virtue, which he calls “the mother of all moral life.” A moral life is not necessarily the same thing as a religious life, and he may have intended the first category as a broader one—but I agree that reverence is the precondition for both.
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We generally are accustomed in our institutional lives to think of reverence as an attitude or behavior. For young children reverence is the outward aspect, in this cultural mode, of respect or recognition. As adults, the physical display of reverence hopefully becomes interiorized. We demonstrate it by quietude, or stillness of body and mind alike.
Hildebrand is saying something a bit different. Reverence in his sense “enables [one] to grasp values.” He has said a great deal indeed in those very few words. He is here defining reverence as an orientation that is a prelude to transformation. Later in the work from which those words are drawn, Alice von Hildebrand differentiates optimism from hope. Optimism, she points out, is a characteristic of personality. Optimistic types show a positive attitude in the face of daunting circumstances. But there is no particular merit in having a disposition toward cheerful anticipation of bright outcomes. Certainly, optimists are more pleasant to be around than pessimists, and may even enjoy a better quality of life as a general rule. Yet optimism is not inherently more virtuous than extroversion or shyness or any of a dozen other personality traits. Hope, on the other hand, is not rooted in a quirk of personality. It is a response to another—to Christ in particular. We may use the terms interchangeably, but the difference to which Hildebrand points us is insightful and instructive; optimism is a trait. Hope is a learned—or an earned—responsiveness to a living reality outside the self.
This brings us back to reverence, and the grasping of values. Values, in the sense in which he means the term (as do I), are eternal verities or principles, like compassion, or integrity, or mercy, or fidelity. It is possible to talk of values, as we have of optimism, as no more than a personal proclivity, as in “he values thrift,” or “punctuality is high in his list of values.” But by making value something that we may come to grasp, Hildebrand is clearly referring to its existence outside the sphere of personality or preference. Moral life begins in this sense, and with significant overlap so does religion, when one recognizes, first, that principles and verities exist outside the self; and second, when one moves to grasp, to embrace, to internalize those principles and verities.
Students have occasionally asked me for a definition of religion, to which I respond by citing some of those definitions operative in religious or cultural studies. And I have quoted Friedrich Schleiermacher, who famously—or infamously—defined religion as “the feeling of immediate self-consciousness of absolute dependence on a divine entity,” pointing out that reducing religion to a “feeling” was a signal moment in the history of Christian thought. One fraught with the beginnings of a shift toward making religion into whatever gives us comfort and self-affirmation.
This is why I prefer Hildebrand’s lead. As human beings, we may respond in any number of ways to the news, a criticism, or a neighbor’s plea for help. But unless we are entirely deluded, our response is acknowledgement of some reality that prompted it. So it is with religion. Reverence is our personal acknowledgement of something out there, larger and lovelier and more enduring than our own personal idols and satisfactions. If we make that version of reverence the starting point of our religious lives, then our relationship to this church—or any church—as institutional mediator may change. Seeing the church, its leaders, its history, or its culture, as the object of religious faith—an object in which we can occasionally lose faith—is not even a religious attitude in Hildebrand’s model. L. Tom Perry, Harold B. Lee, and other apostles have referred to the LDS church as “scaffolding.” I’d like to think that the purpose of such scaffolding is to create the optimum conditions under which we can cultivate reverence. Reverence as response, reverence as the desire to grasp and hold dear the Christ to whom the gospel and its institutional forms can point us.
Dietrich von Hildebrand (with Alice von Hildebrand), The Art of Living (Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press, 2017).