Sunday, August 29, 2004

On Reverence

In The Weblog Handbook (Perseus Publishing 2002), Rebecca Blood writes:

If you asked me what the weblog community needs, I would answer, stronger ties among webloggers from various clusters, more independent thinkers, and more irreverence. Much, much more irreverence. Everyone seems to take themselves so seriously. (p. 164)

This passage demonstrates a pretty thorough misunderstanding of the concept of reverence. Blood appears to be confusing reverence with self-importance. Reverence, however, is more like the opposite of self-importance. Reverence is an attitude of honor, respect, devotion, deference toward a sufficiently lofty object distinct from one’s surface self. What Kant calls the moral law is an appropriate object of reverence. Like the starry skies above me, the moral law within me stands apart from, and superordinate to, my lower self. The divine, and anything or anyone sufficiently close to the divine, are also appropriate objects of reverence.

The truth is an appropriate object of reverence. A necessary condition of being a good journalist, for example, is reverence for the truth. A good journalist aims to establish the facts which, by definition, are what they are regardless of what anyone believes them to be or desires them to be. The reverence appropriate to the competent and honest journalist has nothing to do with self-importance.

It is a commentary on the decadence of our culture that ‘reverence’ and ‘reverent’ have fallen into desuetude as terms of praise, and have almost become pejoratives. In tandem with this, ‘irreverence’ and ‘irreverent’ are constantly used nowadays to express approbation. Open up the New York Times Arts Section and read the blurbs on contemporary films and plays. Expressions like ‘witty and irreverent’ abound. The tacit message is that to be irreverent is good, and that there can be no form of reverence that is not either phony or hypocritical, or else devoid of an appropriate object.

In part this is due to the sort of confusion exemplified by Blood, the confusion of reverence with self-importance. Another part of the explanation is that the belief in reverence-worthy objects is on the wane in the upper echelons of our culture. Truth, for example, is no longer believed in by many. To the ears of decadents, all truth-claims ring hollow and are good only as fodder for deconstruction. Nietzsche clearly saw that the death of God is tantamount to the death of truth. It may be twilight time for the West as the reverse-Crusaders (as Oriana Fallaci calls them) gather to storm our gates. The owl of Minerva, spreading her wings at dusk, may take flight only to be decapitated by an Islamo-terrorist. But I’m not quite ready to enter into the Splengerian gloom or adopt the scowl of Minerva.