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“Look Who Thinks He’s Nothing!”

Entering his empty sanctuary during the high holy days, a rabbi was suddenly overcome with emotion and threw himself onto the ground proclaiming, “Lord, I am nothing!” The cantor felt this was a fine gesture so he too prostrated himself and cried out, “Lord I am nothing!” The synagogue janitor, standing in the back, got caught up in the fervor and joined in. “Lord, I am nothing!” Seeing this, the rabbi nudged the cantor and whispered, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”

This Jewish joke captures what is so maddening about humility. Our attempts to be humble so easily backfire. Our wish to be humble turns out to be motivated by a deeper desire to be better than others. Our display of humility turns out to be an occasion of pride. But how can we become humble if not by desiring humility and acting humbly? Maybe the pursuit of genuine humility is a fool’s errand, after all.

David Hume thought so. Hume was an 18th century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher who was suspicious of Christianity. He was particularly suspicious of many of the virtues that Christians like to herald—he called them “monkish virtues.” Take humility, for example. It’s true we appreciate people who are modest, but do we really value humility that, as Hume puts it, “goes beyond the outside”?1 Who wants to hang around someone who really thinks they’re nothing? Who wants to hire such a person? What we really appreciate, Hume suggests, is someone who is outwardly modest, but inwardly confident, self-assured, aspirational, and secure. That kind of person makes for an interesting friend and a valuable member of society. So don’t waste your time trying to become genuinely humble. In the unlikely event that you succeed, you’ll make yourself useless! Humility, Hume said, is really a vice.

We modern folks are inheritors of both the Christian promotion and the Enlightenment demotion of humility. That’s partly why we’re so confused about humility—about what it is and whether we should want it for ourselves and others. Most Americans, for example, would list humility as a virtue instead of a vice. Yet our president is a man whose most immediately evident character trait is his unwavering egomania. It’s not just that Donald Trump brags more than any other president in U.S. history. It’s that his braggadocio appears to have helped him win the presidency. His refusal to admit weakness, to apologize, or to acknowledge failure signaled to many voters the kind of brash self-assurance that would be necessary to “make America great again.”

And yet, even among those who think Trump’s lack of humility will make him better as a president, few would claim this lack makes him better as a person. So we are confused. We think humility will make us better people, which is just another way of saying we think humility is a virtue. But we worry, with Hume, that humility will prevent us from flourishing, which is just another way of saying we worry humility is a vice. So is humility a virtue or a vice? And what is it, anyway?

Chapter 2: “Almost the Whole of Christian Teaching Is Humility.”
The Christian tradition unanimously affirms that humility is a virtue, in one way or another the preeminent Christian virtue. Christians did not invent humility as a virtue; it is already there in the Hebrew scriptures. But Christian scripture and subsequent Christian thought put humility at the center of the moral life in a dramatic and unprecedented way. Jesus apparently thought of humility as the best measure of a person’s kingdom-readiness. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” he taught (Matthew 18:4). And the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2 identifies humility as the defining characteristic of the incarnate Christ and the one that his followers should most seek to imitate. Indeed, scripture appears to support the claim that humility is a sufficient condition for the reception of God’s grace. 1 Peter 5:5 is most explicit about this—“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”—but the principle that humility attracts God’s favor is all over scripture (Psalms 138:6, Proverbs 3:34, Proverbs 29:3, Matthew 23:12, Luke 1:52, James 4:6). Indeed, there is no case in all of scripture in which a humble person is denied by God, whereas not everyone who calls Jesus “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:23).

So perhaps St. Augustine was not exaggerating when he wrote that “almost the whole of Christian teaching is humility.”2 Elsewhere, in a letter responding to a young student named Dioscorus, Augustine wrote, “If you were to ask me, however often you might repeat the question, what are the instructions of the Christian religion, I would be disposed to answer always and only, ‘Humility.’”3

St. Thomas Aquinas is more systematic than Augustine. He explains why humility is preeminent. “Certain virtues may be said to precede faith accidentally, in so far as they remove obstacles to belief. . . . Humility removes pride, whereby a man refuses to submit himself to the truth of faith.”4 In other words, humility is a precursor virtue to faith because it removes the primary obstacle to faith: pride. Thomas thinks that although humility is not the most important Christian virtue—that honor belongs to charity (love)—it is the beginning of Christian virtue, because without humility we cannot be in a position of openness to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And since Christian virtues are bestowed by the Holy Spirit, without humility we cannot live lives of Christian holiness.

The Reformers made humility central, too. John Calvin claimed that “there is no access to salvation unless all pride is laid aside and true humility embraced.”5 And so closely connected are humility and faith for Martin Luther that they are often presented as two sides of one coin. The great champion of justification by faith alone also wrote, “humility alone saves.”6

“…[H]umility isn’t just about thinking accurately about your strengths and weaknesses; it’s more centrally about the way in which you care about those things.”

It’s no overstatement, then, to say that Christians see humility as the gateway to a life of holiness. To follow Hume and label humility a vice would be to effectively abandon a Christian vision of the good life for human persons. But if humility is so central to the Jesus way, it would be nice to get a firm grip on what exactly humility is.

Learn more from Kent Dunnington in his segment on Humility in our ecourse, “Seeking Christian Wisdom for Life’s Biggest Questions.”

Chapter 3: “The Fat, Relentless Ego”
How should we begin to get a grip on the nature of humility? Some people think we should begin with intuitions that everyday people have about humility, and then offer an account that best captures those intuitions. A pitfall of this approach is that people today might be deeply confused about humility for all we know, so that building an account of humility on commonsense intuitions would only lead to more confusion. Perhaps, then, we should start at the other end and develop an account of humility by examining its meaning in some authoritative text, maybe scripture. But this assumes that scripture sets forth a unified and systematic account of humility, or that one account of humility will capture all the scriptural usages better than any other account. There are pitfalls everywhere, and no way to avoid them. It’s best to just dive in somewhere, and thoughtfully move back and forth between contemporary intuitions and older sources of wisdom.

I begin with contemporary philosophical attempts to grasp the nature of humility, mainly because philosophers are good at distinguishing what is essential to a concept from what is accidental to a concept. The distinction between what is essential and what is accidental to a concept is akin to the distinction between what is a root cause and what is a symptom of an illness. Deformed red blood cells are a root cause of sickle-cell anemia; loss of vision is a symptom. Symptoms come and go, but they are indicative of something deeper. Similarly, philosophers want to differentiate the symptoms or “marks” of humility from what humility really is at the core.

Think of the most humble person you know, and list off their attributes. The first person that comes to my mind is a former colleague named Matthias. Here are some of Matthias’s attributes:

He’s quick to laugh at himself.
He’s quick to admit when he has made a mistake.
He typically positions himself as learner rather than teacher.
He delights in the successes of others.
He doesn’t posture or pretend to have knowledge or abilities he lacks.
He reveals his fears and vulnerabilities.
He asks for help when he needs it.
These are the marks of a humble person, as I envision humility. We usually think of a virtue as an underlying character trait that disposes people to behave well. So what is the core of the character trait that makes Matthias like this?

There are lots of contemporary philosophical efforts to answer this question, but I think three have emerged as worthy of serious consideration. I’ll call the first account the PROPER ESTIMATION account. On this account, the essence of humility is thinking of yourself in the right way. The humble person is the person who has a fairly accurate estimation of her worth, skills, achievements, status, and entitlements, and who is particularly resistant to overestimating those things.7 So on the PROPER ESTIMATION account of humility, the core of Matthias’s humility is the way he thinks about himself: he knows himself well, and where he errs he tends to underestimate himself rather than overestimate himself.

It is easy to see where this view falls short, because it is easy to imagine Matthias having perfect self-estimation but still lacking all the marks listed above. Suppose, for example, that Matthias was perfectly attuned to his being a mediocre lecturer but he was so embarrassed by this fact that he tried to hide it from his friends and colleagues: he couldn’t admit it, he couldn’t ask for help with it, he certainly couldn’t laugh about it, and he couldn’t delight when others were celebrated for their excellent lectures. Wouldn’t this show he lacked humility? I think so. So this is a strike against the PROPER ESTIMATION account. And it seems to reveal the following: humility isn’t just about thinking accurately about your strengths and weaknesses; it’s more centrally about the way in which you care about those things.

The other two leading accounts of humility on the contemporary philosophical scene both take note of the importance of what a person cares about. They both take it that the core of humility is in what philosophers and psychologists call the affective dimension of our lives. One of these views, which I’ll call the PROPER UNCONCERN view, holds that the essence of humility is the absence of a certain range of personal concerns. Most of us are concerned, indeed intensely so, about our own worth, skills, achievements, status, and entitlements. Have you ever done a good deed only to have it overlooked or, worse yet, attributed to someone else? The horror! The (rare) humble person is the one who couldn’t care less about such things. She has an especially low level of concern about her worth, skills, achievements, status, or entitlements. So says the PROPER UNCONCERN view.

Here’s a quick counterexample to the PROPER UNCONCERN view as I’ve stated it thus far. Suppose someone gets a lobotomy and as a result they lose all interest in themselves. Have they become humble? Probably not. The humble person is not just someone who happens to be unconcerned with herself; she’s unconcerned for admirable reasons. So let’s state the PROPER UNCONCERN position like this: The humble person has an especially low level of concern about her worth, skills, achievements, status, or entitlements, because of an intense concern for other apparent goods.8 Humility is present wherever one’s intense concern for some apparent good crowds out what Iris Murdoch calls the “fat, relentless ego.”9 Obviously this will be a matter of degree. The more one’s love of other goods drives the ego from the center of one’s concern, the more one grows in humility.

This seems to me to be a major advance over PROPER ESTIMATION. But some philosophers think it still misses the heart of humility. They will point especially to Matthias’s tendency to admit his errors, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, and to seek out help whenever needed. And they will claim that these dispositions reveal, not an underlying unconcern about worth, status, etc., but rather an underlying concern Matthias has to own up to his deficiencies. So on this account—let’s call it the PROPER LIMITATIONS-OWNING account—what is at the core of Matthias’s humility is that he is more concerned than you or I with owning up to his deficiencies and limitations. Whereas you or I tend to want to minimize, downplay, or flat-out ignore our deficiencies, Matthias confronts them head-on and brings them out into the open.

So the PROPER LIMITATIONS-OWNING account agrees that humility is fundamentally about our cares. But whereas the PROPER UNCONCERN focuses on getting rid of a range of concerns, PROPER LIMITATIONS-OWNING focuses on taking on a range of concerns about one’s limitations. The humble person owns her limitations: when appropriate, she takes them seriously, is disturbed by having them, does everything possible to be rid of them, regrets yet accepts them, and does her best to control and minimize their negative effects.

Which of these three accounts best captures the core of Matthias’s humility? From my perspective, it’s either PROPER UNCONCERN or PROPER LIMITATIONS-OWNING. PROPER ESTIMATION is out because humility seems to be so evidently a matter of the heart, a matter of what grips us and matters to us. But is humility fundamentally about lacking a set of ego-centric concerns or possessing a set of concerns about limitations? It’s an interesting question, and I have my views, but we don’t need to settle the matter. The benefit of thinking through the contemporary options is the discovery that these two attitudinal postures—unconcern about the self and concern to own our limitations—are very near the heart of humility. But what does any of this have to do with God?

I am a Lutheran, and perusing these things on the internet, I came upon these.

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