Irreverence is quite cool at the moment. A film or theater critic who wants to praise a work will say it is “an irreverent look at [some respected person or institution].” A stand-up comedian can do no better than to be branded “irreverent.”
So it is mildly surprising to read that reverence is the foundation for all other virtues. Yet that is exactly what Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand argue in The Art of Living. The book identifies and explains seven capital virtues from which good deeds spring. These include faithfulness, responsibility, veracity, goodness, hope, and gratitude. But first: reverence. It seems an odd primacy, even for those of us who don’t see ourselves as irreverent: Wouldn’t goodness be more important? Or hope, which is one of the theological virtues? But as they explain what reverence is, the fog clears.
Reverence is an attitude of wonder toward the world, a sense of awe when regarding all that is, from the simplest stone to the highest mountains, from seaweed to each human being. This attitude is open to all of creation and seeks to learn from it. The reverent man knows he is not the measure of all things, nor the center of all things. He is able to be still, to contemplate the reality around him so as to know its essence and then to respond accordingly.
The irreverent man, conversely, “approaches everything with a presumptuous, sham superiority, and never makes any effort to understand a thing from within. He is the know-it-all schoolmaster type who believes that he penetrates everything at first sight . . . The world is flattened before his impertinent and stupid gaze; it becomes limited to one dimension, shallow and mute.”
That sounds an awful lot like our New Atheists. Read more about them in the articles by Christopher Kaczor, Mark Brumley, and Andrew Seddon.
C.S. Lewis did not use the word “irreverent,” but I think he was talking about the problem faced by the irreverent when he explained:
You cannot go on “seeing through” things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden, too? It is no use trying to “see through” first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see. (The Abolition of Man)
Opportunities for wonder abound if we don’t let the irreverent flatten and obscure them.