Theological education is demanding. It requires endless reading, memorization, absorbing information through lectures, writing, dialogue, and more. Students today usually balance academic work with jobs, family commitments, and church responsibilities, all while managing the realities of a global pandemic, economic difficulties, and socio-political turmoil. For those with disabilities and/or experiences of marginalization, their efforts may be doubled or even tripled. To develop a deep life of the mind is hard work. To “be transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Rom 12:2) amid today’s difficulties and distractions requires herculean striving.
In addition to sheer effort, truly formative theological education also requires the cultivation of a particular virtue, namely, humility. Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some colleagues on a project for our school’s Intellectual and Spiritual Humility Institute. It didn’t take me long to realize that humility is a slippery concept over which there is substantial disagreement. Biblical writers, Jesus himself, and the Christian tradition affirm the necessity of humility for a life with God. Yet some philosophers, including Aristotle, David Hume, and Friedrich Nietzsche, have argued that humility is a problem to avoid. Furthermore, contemporary theorists can’t seem to agree on a definition of humility! It was surprisingly difficult to nail down what we mean by humility or why it is something to which we should aspire.
We found it helpful to begin with what humility is not. It is, for instance, the opposite of arrogance or an overly indulgent preoccupation with one’s status. We do not act humbly when we are unwilling to consider others’ views or admit that we might be wrong. More constructively, humility is a virtue, cultivated over time and in community. It has several characteristics. In both the Old and New Testaments, the biblical witnesses stress the relational nature of humility. To be humble, one must recognize one’s status before God and one’s place within God’s created order (e.g., 1 Sam 2:7; 2 Sam 22:28; Isa 2:8–11). For New Testament writers in particular, Christ’s example of self-giving for others provides the central paradigm for humility (e.g., Phil 2:5–11). Growth in this virtue involves learning to recognize one’s limits (including the limits of one’s knowledge), growing in self-awareness, developing the habit of considering feedback from others, and becoming oriented towards others in thought and action. To be humble, requires, as my colleague Dr. Elvera Berry puts it, a willingness to think otherwise—a commitment to considering multiple perspectives hospitably.
The cultivation of humility is difficult because it requires us to admit not only that we could be wrong but that we are indeed wrong about some things. The difficulty of that admission isn’t due merely to a superficial pride we might have in being right—like, say, my reluctance to admit to my wife and kids that I regularly miss turns while driving on family trips (maybe I prefer alternate routes!), or that I often forget to pick things up at the store (I simply concluded that we didn’t need that!). The difficulty is due to the fact that our core beliefs orient us and help us to navigate life. To allow such beliefs to be questioned is to risk having our worlds rearranged.
Cultivating humility is also frightening precisely because it’s a communal virtue. As Alan Jacobs writes in his book, How to Think, “Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social.” To think otherwise is not only to risk changing one’s mind but also the nature of one’s relationships. If I have my perspective radically altered on a major theological, political, or moral issue, I will find myself in a closer relationship with some and more distant—perhaps even alienated—from others. Such prospects are scary, and understandably so.
If growth in humility is so difficult and scary, then why pursue it? Isn’t theological education difficult enough without embracing the challenges of self-criticism or the risks involved in learning to think otherwise about important matters? Perhaps those philosophers were onto something, we might be tempted to think! I admit, the stakes are high if we seek humility, but the consequences are likely far worse if we don’t. We would not, for instance, become virtuous in our character as Jesus was (Matt 11:29), and thus we would not orient ourselves toward others as he did. Moreover, we live in contexts fraught with injustice, socio-political contentiousness, and division. By resisting humility, we may perpetuate environments of inequity and polarized entrenchment. Cultivating humility is hard work. But, as much as ever, we need courageous souls who are willing to embrace the challenges of introspection and the risks involved in learning to think otherwise—to answer the call to “humble themselves” (Luke 14:11; 18:14; Matt 23:12) as they walk the difficult road of moral and theological formation.