To write anything about humility runs a risk of conveying the presumption that one either knows what it is or, worse, that one has managed to accomplish it.
Remember the old joke about the fellow who wrote the book “Humility and How I Attained It”?
Humility is easy to equate with various qualities, from low self-esteem to the kind of “aw shucks” responses we might make to others’ affirmations.
As with the “meek” of Jesus’ beatitudes who will inherit the earth, we are often led to think of meekness and humility in terms of persons who have heeded Paul’s counsel not to think of themselves “more highly than they ought to think.”
A recent column on EthicsDaily.com by Aaron Tyler offered very helpful insights on the importance of tolerance in interfaith dialogue, and it prompted for me some reflection on humility as a companion virtue to the openness and respect that tolerance provides.
This thinking has led me beyond the personality style that we are prone to identify as “humble,” to the realization that humility has its roots deep in the intellect, and it has theological implications as well.
Intellectually, humility is the recognition of the partiality of our understanding of anything.
There will always be more to things and people than we know of them at any given time. The more complex the reality, the more partial our understanding of that reality will always be.
I may know the reality of love because of my experience with it, but it would be intellectually “un-humble” to think that I know it in its fullness.
I may know the reality of God through my faith experience, but it would be a not-so-subtle form of conceptual idolatry to equate God with what I have seen “through a glass darkly,” as Paul put it.
In our increasingly pluralistic world of faith communities and the diverse perspectives of our fellow pilgrims on life’s journey, the openness and respect of tolerance and hospitality are essential unless we choose to engage in a theological contest that substitutes ideological victory for an openness to truth.
Along with a deep commitment to tolerance, it seems that a measure of intellectual and theological humility would be a part of interfaith dialogue’s substance, as an honest recognition of the limitations of our understanding, no matter how complete and passionate our commitment.
Here I am thinking not only of an open, kind and compassionate attitude toward those of different perspectives, but also a clear and honest awareness that there is more to the substance of our faith journey that I can understand.
As many advocates of interfaith dialogue have suggested, unless I have full and complete understanding of God and my relationship to God’s unfolding truth, my brothers and sisters of other faiths – my siblings in God’s family – have things to teach me, and I most likely have things to teach them.
Failing to recognize the partiality of our thinking can and does lead to the kind of arrogance that has accompanied evangelistic efforts on the part of a number of faiths.
The presumption that I have the truth and you need it leads more to surrender or alienation (depending on your response to my perspective) than to discovery, growth and community.
I remember a line from a Southeastern Baptist Seminary chapel sermon by Professor James Tull, whom some readers will remember: “I never have been able to understand,” he said, “how someone can become arrogant by studying the New Testament.” Indeed.
The kind of humility that has surfaced in the thinking Aaron’s article has stimulated is a choice – a matter of how we think about our own thinking.
Do I approach my fellow pilgrims with a sense that I have what they need and I must find an effective way to give it to them?
Or do I approach them with a sense of shared need for the light of each person’s perspective to help us see the path more clearly?
If genuine tolerance is the spirit of authentic interfaith dialogue, as it clearly seems to be, then humility would seem to be its prerequisite.
In the oft-quoted words of D.T. Niles, maybe we all are a company of beggars telling each other where to find bread.
Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).