What a Sixth-Century Monk Can Teach Us About Humility

In sixth-century Europe, unprecedented chaos gripped the dying remnants of the Roman Empire. As Europe entered a period of political chaos and moral decline, a young Christian by the name of Benedict started a movement that would radically reshape Christian habits of life for more than a millennium.

His primary contribution was fairly basic, perhaps even pedestrian: He offered a clear and orderly way to organize Christian monasteries, penning what came to be known as The Rule, which detailed how monasteries should run, down to meal times and organization charts. But these monasteries, stabilized and fortified by The Rule, would eventually become agents of subtle social change and guardians of a rich and vibrant faith amid the political chaos and cultural decline of the proceeding centuries.

In 2017, journalist Rod Dreher argued that we find ourselves in a circumstance not so different from Benedict’s: a moment of social upheaval and decline in which “serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives” but must focus on nurturing “creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them.” Building on the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who argued for the relevance of Benedict’s preservation of Christian moral reasoning over 30 years ago, Dreher contended that this would involve painful but necessary shifts in mindset for evangelical Christians.

The ensuing discussion has been well-documented in CT’s pages. Supporters of the “Benedict Option” contend that it is essential to evangelical public engagement in an increasingly post-Christian environment, while critics have argued that diminishing evangelical influence at the current moment would constitute a consequential failure of nerve and a tactical misstep. That conversation will continue to evolve as cultural and political events unfold.

But missing throughout this discussion has been serious consideration of the virtue that Saint Benedict highlighted most prominently in his Rule: humility. Though this virtue is at the heart of the Benedictine project and is a keystone for Christian ethics, it has remained an untapped resource for understanding what it means to live in a moment of political and social upheaval. Buried among the treasures of the Christian tradition is a rich vision of humility capable of speaking deep and complex truths especially relevant to our present moment.

Humility’s Complex Heritage

Most of us know from experience that humility is difficult to cultivate. But philosophers, theologians, and psychologists alike also find in humility a different challenge: It is notoriously difficult to define. In a growing body of research dedicated to humility, there are no less than a dozen divergent definitions currently in use. And even when we turn to the pages of Scripture for an authoritative word on the matter, we are faced with surprising complexity.

One set of views of humility advanced by philosophers and social scientists emphasizes that humility is fundamentally a matter of seeing ourselves rightly: a recognition of our frailty and fallenness in God’s sight, leading to a willing submission to God’s will. This seems to be what is meant when God calls Israel to “humble themselves and pray” (2 Chron. 7:14) or when the Proverbs urge us to “lean not on our own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).

Paul seems to have something like accurate self-evaluation in mind when he commends his audience not to think of themselves more highly than they ought (Rom. 12:3) and argues that when it comes to repentance and faith, there is no room for boasting (Rom. 3:27). Humble people, on this view, are primarily marked by a deep awareness of their limitations and sin and can say with the psalmist, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me” (Ps. 131:1).

But this view inevitably collides with the example of Jesus. Consider the well-known Christ-hymn of Philippians 2. There, Paul commends the Philippians to imitate Jesus’ humble example, giving up status and power to live a life of self-denial and servanthood. It would be nonsense to argue that the incarnation was motivated by the Son of God’s recognition of his limitations and shortcomings—he had none to recognize! Similarly, when Jesus takes up the degrading task of washing his disciples’ feet and then calls his disciples to imitate his example, he is surely not calling them to do better self-evaluation (John 13:1–20). If Jesus is an example of humility, then humility must be something other than accurate self-evaluation.

This has led to another set of views that point in the very opposite direction: Rather than being especially good at self-evaluation, humble people are those with a habit of being so unconcerned about themselves altogether that they can focus squarely on loving others. As C. S. Lewis argued in Mere Christianity, genuinely humble people are generally not overly concerned with recognizing their limits—rather, they are so focused on doing what is right that they have little time to navel-gaze. Humble people, then, are not so much marked by an absence of ambition for great and marvelous things but by an unwavering commitment to love and justice, without excessive worry about themselves or their status.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Stephen Pardue