The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

by Rev. Professor W. P. Paterson, D.D.
Volume 15, 1904, pg. 561-571

[William Paterson Paterson, 1860-1939, was a Scottish minister. He married Jane Sanderson and they had seven children.]

A sermon preached in St. George's United Free Church. Edinburgh, on Sunday, May 29th, 1904.

"Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."--Ex. iii. 5.

It has been intimated that this sermon is preached in connection with the conference of the Parents' National Educational Union, and I have thought that by considering the subject of Reverence we might be helped to realise the importance of the contribution which religion has made to the great problem in which this Union of parents is interested. For the matter seems to stand thus--that the chief end of education is the formation of character, that in character-building, nothing is more indispensable than the instilment of reverence, and that reverence is a sentiment which can hardly be generated, or at least perpetuated, apart from religion.

The Modern Appreciation of Reverence.

Very noteworthy is the unanimity with which the best writers of last century accorded to reverence a high place, and sometimes the very highest, in the holy family of the virtues and the graces. In a well-known passage in Wilhelm Meister, Goethe declares it to be the essence of religion, and reduces the historical religions to three types according as they rest on reverence for what is above us, or around us, or beneath us. The conception was taken over from Goethe by Thomas Carlyle, who insisted with characteristic heat and iteration on "the indispensableness of reverence," and the more so because in the special form which it assumes in hero-worship, he saw the only hope of our weak and foolish world. Ruskin practised the virtue more consistently while preaching it as unweariedly; and it came to equal honour in the melodious verse of Tennyson. And with this judgment many philosophers and educationists concurred. "If with all your teaching," says Professor Laurie, "you have failed to evoke reverence, you have failed altogether." In his Types of Ethical Theory, Dr. [James] Martineau has a long passage in which, in his eloquent and inspiring manner, he develops the proposition that it is the "apex and crown" of character. In short, it may almost be said to have been a commonplace of nineteenth century literature that in religion reverence is the one thing needful, and that in the sphere of morality it is the fulfilling of the law.

The Scriptural Point of View.

Personally I think that some modern panegyrics on reverence overstate the case, and that it is necessary to make quite explicit the caveat of the Bible, that the worth of reverence depends upon the worth of the objects which we revere. What prophets and apostles primarily require is, not reverence, but knowledge of the true God, childlike trust, and hearty obedience. From the Biblical point of view, reverence is a mere row of cyphers which derive any value they may have from the figure that may be placed in front of them. And no doubt this is implicitly held, even when it is not expressly stated, by our modern eulogists of the incomparable grace. The typical Roman Catholic, it may be granted, is more reverent than the typical Protestant, and neither attains to the standard of the devout worshipper in a Mohammedan mosque; but we should all agree that other important considerations must be weighed before we pronounce Mohammedanism to be superior to Christianity, and Romanism to be the highest form of the Christian religion.

But if reverence does not appear in Scripture as the primary grace, it is certainly held that religion is inconceivable without it. True religion creates the reverential mind, and this spontaneously shapes for itself a ritual expressive of adoration, dependence and trust. In the homage of the bowed head, the closed eyes, and the shoeless feet, in the appeal of the outstretched hands, in the passionate penitence of prostration, and of sackcloth and ashes, the piety of the Old Testament supplemented the spoken utterances of prayer and song. The vision of Isaiah gives typical expression to what Hebrew prophecy felt to be the due attitude of the creature in the presence of the Creator. "Above the throne stood the seraphim; each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts." Especially, however, would one wish to linger upon the elements of the teaching of Jesus as to the sensitive reverence which we owe to God, and to all which belongs in a peculiar sense to the sphere of holy things. For the universe He claims a sanctity to be acknowledged in our language. He claims it for Heaven as God's throne, and for the earth as His footstool. Further, while most forms of sin drew out from Him a sorrow mingled with compassion, His sorrow became armed wrath in presence of those sins which had the special colour of profanity. Hence His scathing denunciations of hypocrisy, hence His condemnation of those who perverted and distorted the word of God, hence His zeal in cleansing the house of God of the unholy merchandise by which it was polluted. But the most distinctive feature of the teaching of Jesus on this point was His inculcation of reverence for every manifestation of the divine in our fellow-creatures. From Him, as Goethe truly observed, we have learned to reverence the godlike in what, to the natural man, seems to lie beneath us. From Him we have learned that even the commonplace human being, as made in God's image, is of a value that cannot be measured by worlds; that in the little child there are qualities that are an earnest of what God would have in the members of a perfected humanity; and that even in the characters of the most degraded of the children of sin there are slumbering possibilities of good which can be awakened out of sleep by the sympathy that can feel, and by the charity that can believe all things.

The Twofold Office of Reverence.

The high value attached to right reverence is due to two circumstances--that it reveals a noble type of character, and that it moulds a noble type of character.

Reverence supplies us with one of the finest tests of character. For one thing it speaks to the possession of qualities which we have in mind when we speak of a gentleman. It might be described as an extension of good manners from the sphere of social intercourse to the wider realm which embraces the magnitudes of existence and the sanctities of human life. Further, a reverent soul is a humble soul, and true humility is a moral triumph as splendid as it is rare. What would be the most ridiculous thing in the world, were it not so common, is our egotistical over-valuation of ourselves; and the beautiful thing about the reverent man is that he has a tolerable apprehension of his real place in the scale of existence, and of his standing in the court of duty and God. Moreover, the fact that a man reveres goodness in others is a clear proof that his own character contains at least germs of the same excellences; while contrariwise the man who is incapable of reverence is almost certainly one who has discovered in his own character and life little that would enable him to understand and to believe in goodness.

That reverence, besides revealing noble character, also helps to mould it, need not be laboured. It involves the desire to become like unto, or at least to be associated with, the object of our reverence. The Christian attitude toward God, it was taught by Jesus, creates and fosters the aspiration to became godlike in the particulars of magnanimity and clemency. The moral utility of hero-worship lies in the fact that it constrains us to copy our hero, or to be asked to be used as an instrument in the realisation of his ideas.

The Latter-day Decay of Reverence.

If reverence was the favourite virtue of the writers of last century, it cannot be said this was because it was a characteristic virtue of the age. Rather it might seem that the panegyrics upon it resembled the kind things which we say about a friend who is sick unto death. The literature of the nineteenth century, it is true, was more reverent than that of the eighteenth, but there is good ground for thinking that in the nation at large, and especially during the last quarter of a century, there has been a marked growth of the spirit of irreverence.

In the first place, the new spirit might be traced in the relations of inferiors to their superiors. It is a common remark of fathers and mothers that they would not have dared to speak to their parents as their children speak to them. The child's point of view now very commonly is that, at the best, a parent is an indulgent friend whom he likes, at the worst, an unjust and unkind person whom he dislikes and occasionally defies. The mistress of a household feels that authority over servants now depends very much upon capacity and other personal qualities, and derives little support from the mere official relationship. In earlier times the general mind was deeply influenced by the apostolic injunction not "to speak evil of dignities," which was interpreted to mean that everyone in a public station from the king on the throne to the magnate of the parish, was protected from malicious and contemptuous criticism by the dignity of his position. The newer attitude might be described as a real irreverence towards greatness tempered outwardly by some sordid respect for titles and wealth.

There ha also been a marked change in the tone which we adopt towards the providential order of things, and the solemnities of human life. The Shorter Catechism requires us to reverence the works of God, and many things which were reverentially spoken of as among the divinely-appointed arrangements of the universe, are now freely treated as the subject of complaint or jest. The topic of the weather furnishes a significant illustration. In the traditional Scottish view it was to be enjoyed with thankfulness, or endured without repining, because it was God's will; while to the contemporary mind it is a surprising idea that it may be sinful to complain about it, and that to make a joke about "the clerk of the weather" may be profane as well as vulgar. An epidemic was felt to be a summons to self-examination and prayer; now, at least if the plague be no more serious than influenza, it suggests quips about the bacillus, and supplies copy for the comic papers. I take it to be more serious that experiences of human life with which is bound up so much of its sublimity and pathos, furnish the occasion of so great a volume of frivolous thought and speech. Birth, love and marriage, and even death, are found to have their amusing aspects; while the domestic relationships, not excluding the sorrowful case of the widow and the fatherless, open up a wide field for the sallies of our brighter spirits. For the frivolous treatment of what may be called the big things of life, some blame attaches to a school of American humorists, widely read by the younger generation, whose method is largely to handle the great events and the great men of the past, as well as the sanctities of life and death, with an offensive and degrading familiarity. However this may be, it would seem that the true humour, which delights us by glorifying the commonplace, has been considerably ousted by the spurious sort which tries to entertain us by vulgarising the objects which have a right to be handled with reverence.

The same tendency may be traced in the sphere of holy things, narrowly so-called. As regards Scotland, the superficial irreverence of the older Protestantism has no doubt been successfully combated. The tourist uncovers on entering an ecclesiastical building. Moments of silent prayer at the beginning and at the close of the service; more devout attitudes in praise and prayer, and other "improvements in public worship," are all in the line of giving more reverential expression to the religious sentiments. But it is another question if the successful attack on superficial irreverence has been accompanied by increased devoutness of thought, feeling and speech in relation to holy things. Is the general attitude to the Bible, for instance, as reverential as it was? Is it not the case that the Biblical reference, which was formerly reserved for a serious religious discussion, or for the ministry in the sick-room, is now freely used to light up a political argument, or to give piquancy to a repartee? In past ages, how many lives have been touched to abiding seriousness, and inspired with a habitual sense of responsibility, by the doctrine of a future state of retribution; to-day if we open the latest admired collection of anecdotes we might conclude that for the modern mind, Hell scarcely exists save as the permanent possibility of a surprising and grim innuendo. As touching God Himself, there is less blasphemy printed, and not more uttered, than in some earlier periods; but it will hardly be disputed that there has been a general weakening of that realising sense of the presence and rule of the Almighty which was one of the most characteristic notes of our ancestral religion.

The decay of reverence in our time has been so palpable that there has been a certain amount of discussion as to the causes. The age has been distinguished by an aggressive intellectual curiosity, and has had its self-confidence established by an extraordinary record of first-rate discoveries and inventions; and these conditions, it has been pointed out, are not favourable to the growth of the more modest sentiments. It has also been observed that the hurry and the strain of the time militate against the formation of the habit of thoughtfulness which is necessary to allow great objects to make their due impression on the intellect and the feelings. It would appear, however, that the main cause of a general decay of reverence must be sought in some defect or defects in the system of educational influences which operate to mould character during the most impressionable period of life. It may therefore throw some light upon the subject if we try to trace the influences which operate, and the principal stages which are traversed, in the normal development of the reverent character. When we understand what may be called the life-history of reverence, we shall be in a better position to understand why, in many cases, the sentiment withers and dies, and fails to come to maturity.

The Life-History of Reverence.

The germ of reverence is part of the natural endowment of human beings. There is an instinctive tendency, implanted by nature in the breast of the child, which makes it look out questioningly over its little world in search of what it can revere. The usual conditions of human life give it in the mother one whose providing and protecting care enable it to see in her the embodiment of love; while the father, appealing with less impressiveness to the emotions, is apprehended as the representative of law. If the parents really fulfill their mission of revealing to the child the realms of love and law, its spiritual nature gains in strength and confidence; but if the cry be unanswered, the hope disappointed, not only is the soul starved by the refusal of its appropriate food, but a disappointment is suffered which later on makes it easy to disbelieve in trustworthiness of the universe, and in the reality of goodness. Before the age of five, sometimes considerably earlier, the child-mind begins to see past the parents to some vision of God. This early religious phase is possible, partly because of instinctive predisposition, partly because the most vital elements in the idea of God can be explained with the help of the ideas collected from family-life. In the subsequent period of childhood new factors come into play which make a further call upon the capacity of reverence--the teacher who in many lives is the most potent guardian of the principle of authority; the admired school-fellow, who as the embodiment of an elementary moral ideal, is an educational factor of vast, if unrealised, possibilities; and the church which makes some representation to the imagination of the glory and solemnity of the unseen world, while it also imposes ceremonial forms which have the aim of bringing reverence under the influence of habit. In the later period of childhood there may often be observed a phase of religious backsliding, in which the sense of God becomes weaker, and church attendance becomes a weariness. Later on, however, in the stage of adolescence, there very frequently takes place a second religious awakening, in which the idea of God is apprehended in greater depth and fulness, and it is felt that He makes a solemn appeal for the possession of the heart and control of the life. If this crisis have a negative issue, there results in the great majority of cases a permanent indifference to God and divine things. If it issue in the positive result of a conversion, God becomes a permanent factor in the experience, supplying a rich element in all one's serious thinking, a sacred vein in his deepest feeling, and a powerful motive in all weighty action. And reverence for God, once firmly established, becomes the spring of the lesser reverences. In contact with God, its highest possible object, it acquires a new depth and energy; and naturally extends its sphere of influence so as to envelop, not merely "holy things," but all the truly great things of the world and of human life. To put the whole process figuratively, we might liken reverence to a river which has collected its waters from streams that have their chief source in the home, and which, rising into a flood when God opens the windows of Heaven, overflows its banks, and irrigates the wide plains by which the lower reaches are bordered.

The Supreme Object of Reverence.

If this sketch be a description of a train of experience which may fairly be termed normal, we may pause to emphasise the important fact that the proper object sought by the reverential instinct is God. To Him it works upward, and from Him it works downward and outward. If it does not find Him, it fails in its quest. Moreover, it is doubtful if a real reverence can be cultivated, or at least if it can endure, if not rooted in God, through the trying experiences of later life. For human experience is perforce to a large extent a process of disenchantment in regard to those who were idealised and glorified by the optimism of childhood and youth. The imperfections of parents are soon painfully realised; the limitations of teachers are discovered and perhaps wickedly exaggerated; we outgrow our early heroes; we are disappointed in many of our friends; and it is not easy to see how, unless we believe in and lean on the Being in whom is all perfection, our character can be saved from the corroding influences of the spirit of doubt and mistrust.

The Instilment of Reverence for God.

If, now, reverence for God is the highest form of the grace, and also the source of the habit of reverential thought and feeling, it is desirable to look more closely at the question as to the methods by which it is to be inculcated. From what has been already said of the life-history of reverence, it is clear that very much depends on the character of those with whom, in the early stages, the child is brought into contact. The vital matter is that the parent and the teacher should themselves evoke those feelings of veneration and love which, in purified and exalted form, can afterwards be extended to God. Every teacher whose discipline illustrates the principle of justice, and whose insight and consideration reveal the grace of sympathy, is enabling the child to work richer elements into its conception of God. Every mother who is a mother indeed is persuading her child, because of the love which goes forth from her, to take on trust the good God in whom she believes, and to whom she prays. This point has been beautifully put by Carlyle in a reference to his own childhood:--"The highest whom I knew on earth I saw bowed down with awe unspeakable before a higher in Heaven. Such things, especially in infancy, reach inwards to the very core of your being; mysteriously does a Holy of Holies build itself into visibility in the mysterious deeps; and reverence, the divinest in man, springs undying from its mean envelopment of fear."

To foster and develop this spirit of reverence toward God is the proper end of the training, summarily described as religious education, which is distributed betwixt the home, the school and the church. That it is conspicuously successful in attaining this object cannot be affirmed. It would be interesting, but also disappointing, to ascertain what proportion of those who carry a child's promising piety into the elementary school at the age of six, have had it developed into habitudes of religious thought and feeling when they leave the school at fourteen. Even the Sunday school can scarcely be credited with producing in its average scholar a type of character which can be called definitely religious. The reasons for this comparative failure are mainly two. One reason, already adverted to, is that in the period of late childhood we seem to have to reckon with a temporary ebb of the religious life. The other is that religious education is so largely based on the idea that its main business is the communication of historical and doctrinal knowledge. Such instruction, of course, has its use and necessity in a rational system of religion; but it is a fatal error if it is treated as anything but a means to the end of enabling the child to realise God as about him and within him, to recognise duty as His will, and to trust in His fatherly love. It should also be noted that all great educationalists have emphasised the importance of insisting on reverence in attitude and gesture, as a means not only of expressing, but of deepening those religious feelings which it is sought to cultivate.

The Hopeful Element in the Problem.

Undoubtedly there is not a little to discourage us as parents when we reflect upon the spiritual conditions of the age, upon the barrenness of much well-meant religious effort, and above all upon the lofty and stern demand which is made upon us to be to our children the vehicle of their preliminary and most impressive revelation of God. But over against this we have to set the comfortable discovery, which is also but a rediscovery, that every wise and earnest effort has its powerful allies in the spiritual constitution of the child. The Christian doctrine of original sin has, of course, its element of truth which is recognised in modern conceptions of the influence of heredity; but it is also true that at an early stage capacities and aspirations make themselves felt which link the soul to the realm of truth and goodness of which God is the centre and sun. Children want to find the love they can trust, the goodness they can revere; and if filial reverence is on the wane, is not the most probable reason that the virtues which they instinctively sought in us they have not largely found? They cry out for the God from whom they came, and in whom they move and have their being; and if they miss Him or lose Him, may not the deepest explanation be that we who should have shown them the Father have interposed an obscuring veil? Jesus warned us against making them to stumble--as if their feet instinctively moved heavenward, and the chief danger was that we should place obstacles in their path, and cause them to fall or to wander out of the way. Weak, no doubt, they are, and unstable, often vain and selfish, sometimes tyrannical and cruel; but we cannot be wrong in making larger ventures of faith upon the religious instincts and the moral qualities of the children which were present to the mind of the Saviour when He said, "of such is the kingdom of Heaven."

Typed by LovieWie, August, 2023; Proofread by LNL, August, 2023