Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Worship vs. Reverence

Worship (v.): 1. To honor or revere as a supernatural being or power, or as a holy thing ; to regard or approach with veneration ; to adore with appropriate acts, rites, or ceremonies 2. To honor, to regard or treat with honor or respect 3. To invest with, raise to, honor or repute ; to confer honor or dignity upon

Reverence (n.): 1. Deep or due respect felt or shown towards a person on account of his or her position or relationship ; deference 2. A gesture indicative of respect ; an obeisance ; a bow or curtsy 3. The condition or state of being respected or venerated ; 4. “At the reverence of”—out of respect for, in honor of, for the sake of a person (verb form is “to show respect, obeisance, etc.”)

(Both definitions taken almost verbatim from the Oxford English Dictionary, 1933 edition)

The other day I found myself thinking about religious rites and doctrines, and in my train of thought I started to wonder about the difference between “reverence” and “worship”. They seem synonymous at first glance. But I think the subtle differences in meaning are reflective of the subtle differences in our beliefs. One can profess to be a Christian, Hindu, Muslim or whatever—but no two Christians believe the same thing, no two Hindus believe the same thing, and so on.

As the definitions above show, “worship” seems to be reserved more for the sacred, and “reverence” for the profane, at first glance. And in spite of what is shown, both words can be nouns or verbs (as in “performing the worship” with the former).

Let me back up for a minute and look at the different views of “God” or “deity” in general. In Western, monotheistic religions (typically Jewish, Christian, and/or Muslim) God is seen as a separate being, an intelligence behind the creation of the world, the universe, etc. In Eastern, monistic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) God is seen as immanent—part of the world, part of the universe, and part of every person. The perceived separation between humans and their God is an illusion. Additionally, as the great Joseph Campbell noted, for Western religions, “God” is the “source” of everything. In Eastern religions, a god is a vehicle for the source, but not the source itself. The Source cannot be grasped by the mind, so it requires a vehicle for us to wrap our minds around it.

If one behaves with “reverence”, it implies honoring and respecting another person. One might show reverence to their grandfather, for instance. However, one would not go a step farther and claim to “worship” one’s grandfather. If one looks at the guru—in my case, Amma—I treat her with reverence, but do I “worship” her? In India, deities are worshipped by offering flowers, washing feet, and performing aarti (the waving of a flame). However, those same rites are performed when an honored guest or family member comes to the house. There is a thin line between “reverence” and “worship”, at least in the external sense. In our society, the distinction is much clearer. “Worship” only takes place with regard to sacred things, “reverence” is reserved for priests and ministers, or perhaps an exceptional person; we don’t tend to talk about having reverence for regular, average people.

I think this demonstrates the difference in attitude quite nicely. When God is seen as part of you, the line between reverence and worship is thin. When God is seen as something external and far away from the world, there is a very strict line between reverence and worship. Furthermore, if “reverence” implies “respect” and “honor”, and we don’t show reverence to ordinary folk, it suggests that some folks are worthy of respect and some aren’t. Which in turn would imply that some folks are “lesser” than others, and can be treated as “lesser”...

Perhaps that’s going a bit far, but I still think it’s interesting.


KL said...


It has been awhile since you posted this, but I wanted you to know your post was helpful. I was looking at the difference between worship and reverence. I thought your keen observation in reference to Eastern and Western religions was helpful.


Brigid N. Burke said...

Thanks, KL! I'm glad this was useful to you.

Best wishes,