Humility in Times of (Culture) War

Can one write about humility without being just a bit proud if it comes out sounding profound, well-expressed and, well, humble? Let me give it a try.

Humility is one of the most attractive and powerful of the virtues, but it will at best get you a tip of the hat in the culture wars and no respect at all from your inner atheist (who will take it as weakness). With humility plus four dollars you can get a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

The word ultimately derives from humus—the Latin for earth (soil, ground)—and includes the idea of being grounded and down-to-earth. It suggest modesty, respect for others, and a realistic understanding of one’s place in the universe (and before God).

I would like to suggest that humility is an indispensable virtue for those who would be wise and who would engage helpfully in the contemporary dialogue regarding values, world view, political engagement, remedies to social problems, intellectual and artistic endeavors, and the like. Requiring humility in public (and internal) debate would be like requiring cowboys to check their six-shooters at the bar room door.

The kind of humility most appropriate to public debate is epistemological humility. That is, humility about how certain any human being can be about anything, including what we know. Given our limitations, the complexity of anything involving human nature, our penchant for being self-serving, our tendency to ignore contrary evidence and balancing truths, and our general desire to “win,” humility is not only desirable, it is the only reasonable stance in proclaiming anything.

Humility, then, is simple wisdom, not weakness.

A second manifestation of humility is humility of expression. It involves how one engages others and the world. It involves related virtues like modesty, kindness, self-deprecation, humor (as opposed to mockery), openness, flexibility, wise tentativeness (not timidity), and eagerness to listen. It may result in losing some arguments but in the long run will strengthen your cause.

Humility is not a synonym for weakness, wishy-washiness, or lack of commitment. One can, and should, be both humble and committed. Committed because it is our responsibility as human beings (made in the image of God) to work diligently for truth and shalom in the world. It is also the appropriate response to having been given gifts, skills, and opportunities. Humble because we see as through a glass darkly (the apostle Paul) and because others, equally committed and wise, often disagree with us. It was Kierkegaard, I think, who wisely prayed that truth would not be overcome in his hands.

There are two, seemingly opposite, offenses to humility. The obvious one is pride—arrogating to yourself more credit than is due you. The less obvious, also perhaps a form of pride, is so denigrating your (God-gven) capabilities as to see yourself as worthless and having nothing to offer to the human community.

The skeptical believer should avoid both offenses. It is healthy to be humble about how much you know about God, eternity, the Bible, good and evil, salvation, and everything else. But also be humble about your doubts, frustrations, questions, and accusations. Do not let their mere existence keep you from commitment to the story of faith—as best you understand it. Take them with you as you try to live out that story, but do not give them more power than they deserve.

There. I’ve said what I have to say about humility. But not so well as not be proud about it.