Jon Ogden is the author of When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life. We’re glad to have him as our guest.
“If you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyone share your beliefs. Pray instead that all may be reverent.” — Paul Woodruff
One morning in southern California, my missionary companion and I were biking to an appointment when we saw a man sitting on his front porch. Like any good missionaries, we stopped to talk to him.
The moment we stopped, the man called out that he didn’t want anything to do with us.
At the time, comments like that only emboldened me.
I told him that we wanted to share the most important message in the world — that God had once again called a prophet to speak to everyone on Earth.
He just stared at me. “You believe that?”
“I don’t believe it,” I said. “I know it.”
“You know it?” he asked. “How do you know it?”
I explained, still sort of shouting across the yard, that I had prayed and God had sent an assurance it was true. Hearing this, the man smirked and once again said that he didn’t want anything to do with us. I tried to continue my pitch, but he immediately cut me off and wished us a good day. As a last resort I asked if I could give him a pass-along card, but he said no. My companion and I got back on our bikes and rode away.
Something about the man’s smirk stayed with me and made me realize just how overbearing I’d become. Before that moment I had thought that if I just expressed my faith with absolute confidence, people would open up and listen to my message.
Instead, my zealous faith created a division.
It was an instance where faith worked contrary to reverence.
Faith Versus Reverence
In Mormonism, the word “reverent” is frequently used as a synonym for “quiet” — especially as it relates to children. Perhaps the word makes you visualize a young child folding her arms at the front of a Primary room, or perhaps it calls up the Primary song “Reverently, Quietly.”
While being quiet is a good thing in a busy and loud world, the word “reverent” has a bigger meaning. It comes from the Latin word reverentia, which means “to stand in awe of something.”
As the philosopher Paul Woodruff writes,
Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control — God, truth, justice, nature, even death. The capacity for awe, as it grows, brings with it the capacity for respecting fellow human beings, flaws and all.
In other words, you nurture reverence as you experience awe — a mix of surprise and fear — in the face of something bigger than yourself. This in turn causes you to respect other people despite your differences.
By contrast, if you feel confident that you’ve already figured out the major mysteries of the universe, you are less able to feel awe. You’ve lost your capacity to see that which lies outside of your control and you therefore believe that you’re somehow superior to other people — that you’re chosen and other people aren’t. This is an unfortunate side effect of the overzealous faith that often surfaces in Mormonism (expressed with the phrase “I know”).
As Paul Woodruff writes, “Reverence is not faith, because the faithful may hold their faith with arrogance and self-satisfaction, and because the reverent may not know what to believe.”
That is, a self-assured faith often prevents reverence. It says, “We have all the truth, and all those other people out there only have part of it.”
Unfortunately, “all those other people out there” often includes Mormons who doubt. In this way faith becomes divisive even within the same Mormon community.
This is problematic in an era when many Mormons have discovered uncomfortable facts about their religion and are uneasy with the dominant church narrative as a result. These members often feel uncomfortable expressing their faith with certainty. They recognize that such indomitable expressions of faith create an insular, narrow religion.
Reverence Bridges Differences of Belief
It’s clear that if we want a more expansive Mormonism — one that welcomes those who believe and those who doubt — we must learn to nurture reverence.
This doesn’t mean that we should replace the phrase “I know” with “I don’t know” in our vernacular. After all, statements of disbelief can be just as smug and divisive as statements of belief can be, especially when they’re used to boast about the speaker’s supposedly superior knowledge. In this way, people use disbelief as a weapon, to make other people feel less than.
Instead, nurturing reverence means we should focus on declarations of awe and retellings of profoundly beautiful experiences. Within Mormonism, reverence surfaces in hymns such as “How Great Thou Art” and “For the Beauty of the Earth” — declarations of amazement at the grandeur of something bigger than us, especially as it relates to nature.
These declarations of awe lead to a more expansive religion, one that recognizes that we are all small compared to the grand mysteries of life.
As I reflect on my experience that morning as a missionary, I can’t help but think of how I could have responded to the man’s request to be left alone. Here he was, taking in the beauty of the morning, and I interrupted to lecture him about my indomitable faith. Maybe there was something he taught me: That sitting still and experiencing beauty is an act of reverence, one that all humankind can have in common.