The Virtue without a Voice

Saint Anthony the Great and Saint Paul the Stylite by Diego VelazquezCan you guess which virtue I mean? Traditionally there are seven. Need a hint?  Yes, you’re right, humility.  Humility is a difficult virtue to acquire. We really can’t set goals or benchmarks for ourselves.  As soon as we think that we have mastered humility; we haven’t. So, ironically, it is difficult to write about humility or to advocate for humility with any significant degree of humility. Nevertheless let’s try. I would like for us to think about how humility as a practice might help us figure out how to differ and disagree (as will happen in a diverse society) without needing to denigrate and belittle each other.

 Humility is not a popular concept these days, in part, I think because we confuse “humility” with “humiliation”. The New Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language defines humility as, “The state of being humble; ones feeling of deference to another”. Humble, an adjective means, “Not proud or arrogant; modest; meek; submissive; low in rank or conditions.” The word humble comes from the Latin word, humilis, which itself comes from the Latin word, humus, the earth.  Humiliate is a verb, an action that one person causes to happen to another person. It is according to Webster’s, “To reduce the dignity or pride of; to humble; to disgrace”. As the definition implies, humility is a state of being, it is the way one is.  

The Desert Fathers and Mothers believed that humility was the basic and most important virtue for Christians. They believed that humility arises out of our awareness of who God is and who we are. No matter how good, no matter how smart, no matter how powerful we are; our goodness, intelligence and power are insignificant before God. And yet, God loves us and cares for us. Humility is our appropriate attitude (not the only attitude, but an important one) before God.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers also believed that humility toward each other was important.  Their world valued power and authority as much if not more than ours does. Their emphasis on humility was a repudiation of the value society placed on power and status. Humility for the Desert Christians was a community value, humility was to be practiced by everyone. To be sure, even they sometimes confussed humility with humiliation. And the church ever since then has made the same mistake. Far too many people have suffered because we confuse humility with humiliation.

Sometimes people think that humility requires us to allow ourselves to be abused or taken advantage of. But that is of course, confusing humility and humiliation. Humility involves recognizing and honoring the humanity and worth of everyone. It involves a sincere attempt to not judge people. What would happen if we set aside our pride and arrogance in our daily interactions with people? What would your day be like if you were accepted as a child of God by everyone you met? What would your day be like if you received everyone as one beloved of God?

It seems to me, that in our search for truth, in our thinking about God, in the way we live our lives, humility is a crucial and extremely counter cultural component.  We all think our beliefs are correct. None of us is trying to be wrong. No one wakes up in the morning and decides to intentionally live by a set of flawed beliefs. We all think we are right. And yet, to some extent we all are wrong. Because we are limited beings living in a particular culture, at a particular time and place, our knowledge of God and truth is limited. This doesn’t mean we can know nothing about God. It does mean we need to be careful, humble about what we believe we do know.  

Our conversations about God and truth and right and wrong would be much improved – and be actual conversations rather than debates-  if we began with with, “I have tried to think carefully about this, here’s what I believe.  I could be wrong about some of this.”*  Its a difficult thing to do. Our culture values certainty. The admission that one might be wrong is perceived as some type of character flaw in society. In many ways and for many reasons it is hard to live with the kind of uncertainty that humility brings. At the same time there is a certain freedom in admitting one doesn’t know everything. It seems to me, some humility before God and before each other is a virtue to be pursued.

I’d like to know, what do you think?

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By the way, Sightings,  a publication of the Marty Martin Center at the University of Chicago has an article this week titled “Religion and Other Animals” that you might find interesting.

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* The British scholar and Church of England Bishop, N.T. Wright was the first (and so far only) person I have ever heard start a lecture that way. I heard him say something along these lines in a lecture about 12 years ago.Last year when I had the chance to hear him speak again, he began in the same way. This sentiment is also present in his books.

If you want to read more about the Desert Christians, I would suggest the on line resources: Wikipedia, Desert Fathers ,and Monachos .  But better still, the books, “To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church” Roberta C. Bondi, Fortress Press: Philadelphia; “Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism” William Harmless,S.J. Oxford University Press, and “The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks” Translated and Introduction by Benedicta Ward, Penguin Books.

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