Humilitas— Part Six

At the outset of Chapter 6, John Dickson refers to a historical research project done at Macquarrie University in Sydney to discern whence the fondness of Western culture for the virtue known as humility, in light of the fact that it was not seen as a virtue in the Greco-Roman world.  The conclusion is— this reflects the impact of the Judaeo-Christian worldview on Europe.

Dickson wants to make the case however that the humility revolution really begins in the main with Jesus, not with the OT.  I am not sure I agree with this finding.  It is of course true that in all ancient honor and shame cultures including in Israel humility toward the divine was de rigeur, it was taken for granted, as was humility before one’s social superiors.  But what about humility towards one’s peers or social inferiors.   Dickson argues that a text like Num. 12.3– “now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on earth” refers only to humility in relationship with God.  While the latter is certainly true, it is not at all clear to me that one can limit the meaning of humility to that.  Consider for example Moses’ call narrative at the burning bush in Exodus.  Moses tells God he doesn’t meet the job description, even though God believes he can do it. And in the end God has to enlist his brother to speak for him.  Moses clearly had not over-rated his speaking abilities.

Dickson also deals with texts like Ps. 147.6; Isaiah 11.4; 29.19; and Amos 2.7 and 8.4 in a cursory manner, each of which use the Hebrew term anaw rightly translated humble.  Dickson wants to argue that what these texts are saying (texts where the Hebrew is translated as tapeinos in the LXX) is that God has regard for the oppressed or humiliated.   I am not at all sure this suits all these texts, though it certainly suits some.  The term anaw which we can be translated as ‘humble’  is the rough equivalent of ‘poor in spirit’  or ‘meek at heart’.  It is not necessarily a term used of the humiliated.  Jesus himself stands in this tradition of the anawim but so do Mary and Elizabeth as the birth narratives make clear (see the older discussion of Raymond Brown in his classic commentary on the birth narratives).   What this means is that while we can talk about Jesus kicking up a notch the emphasis on humility, even maybe kicking it up a quantum leap,  it is not true that Jesus is the inventor of the idea of true humility.   Dickson does allow that in Sirach 4.7-8 we do hear about inclining one’s ear to the poor and returning their greeting with humility, but he wants to insist we are still a long way from the humility revolution we see in the NT.   I would say we are on the way in that direction already, and Jesus becomes the supreme exemplar and most famous teacher of this virtue.

Dickson then admits that there are not tons of sayings of Jesus about humility, but of course there is the famous yoke saying Mt. 11.29-30 which in fact draws on similar material in Sirach, and before that in the Wisdom personified material found in Prov. 3, 8-9 and the Wisdom of Solomon.  And here is where I note that the figure of Wisdom is indeed presented as a humble figure, not only in the presence of God, but in relationship to Israel. Of course the figure is a female figure, Hokmah which might account for some of this in that patriarchal culture, but the point is that Jesus is applying this earlier tradition to himself, and he says that he as the embodiment of Wisdom is gentle and humble of heart.  Again, this is not something Jesus came up with de novo  (see my Jesus the Sage and the treatment there).   Thus when we get to Mk. 10.44-45,  Jesus’ presentation of himself as Wisdom prepares us to hear about his being a servant, even the Isaianic servant of God, setting the example of service to others that his disciples should follow.

Dickson then argues that what really established humility as a virtue in Western culture was the attempt, in the first instance by his followers, to come to grips with the crucifixion of Jesus (p. 105).   Here is where I say that Jesus and his followers were ANE Jews, not Westerners.   While I agree that Christianity certainly played a role in forming what we now call Western culture, in Jesus’ day, and in Paul’s day there was no such thing as Europe!!! Those regions were just more provinces of the Roman Empire, and that includes Britain.    So, it would be wise to avoid anachronistic ways of talking about the impact of Jesus on the ‘West’.

The discussion of the death of Jesus on pp. 108-12 rightly stresses that crucifixion was not in any way seen as a noble or martyrological way to die. It was seen as the most shameful way to die, a form of total public humiliation in the nude.  Dickson rightly points to the famous Alexamenos graffito, carved on a guard house wall in the 2nd or 3rd centuries A.D. presumably by guards deriding the very many they were about execute.  Alexamenos is depicted as worshiping a human figure on a cross that has a donkey’s head.  Below in bad Greek is the inscription ‘Alexamenos worships his god’.   Clearly, the guards saw this as an asinine form of religion.   Dickson is right however that the death of Jesus which outsiders saw as true humiliation, insiders saw as true humility, a positive virtue, and one to be emulated— ‘greater love has no one than he lay down his life for his friends’.   On p. 108, Dickson cites Phil. 2.4-11, once again with the bad translation ‘think not only of your own concerns, but also of the concerns of others….   Dickson is right that Paul had teased out the implications of the transvaluation of values such that a death on a cross is seen as the clearest revelation of God’s love and identity, and indeed the clearest revelation of the meaning of true humility, establishing the cruciform pattern of life and living.   He then points to 1 Clement 2.1 where the Corinthians are lauded for their humility and lack of arrogance, yielding rather than domineering. Humility becomes a pattern of leadership based on Christ’s modus operandi.

A humility revolution took root, and  “our culture remains cruciform [seeing humility as ethically beautiful] long after it stopped being Christian” (p. 112).  Of course not all would agree—  the followers of Ayn Rand, who preached the Virtues of Selfish (N.B. she died a lonely and miserable death with few real friends) would not agree.  Arrogant and virulent atheists often don’t agree.    And we find disagreement in unexpected quarters as well.

I was sitting on the platform at the Crystal Cathedral one Sunday morning in the early part of this century with Robert Schuller and was about to be interviewed.  The choir was singing the classic Isaac Watts hymn ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’  and when they got to the line “forbid it Lord that I should boast” followed by “and pour contempt on all my pride”   Schuller wrote on his bulletin ‘No!  Pride is a good thing’  and showed it to me to punctuate his disapproval of that line of the hymn.   I was saddened by this displace of hubris, and even misunderstanding of the hymn perhaps.   Watts was not talking about taking pride in one’s work or the like. He was not talking about pride in any good sense.  He was talking about hubris as the opposite of true humility as seen on the cross.

Pride goes before the fall, says the famous saying, and it was a sad day when in 2008 Robert Schuller, 3 years after indicating that his son Robert A. Schuller would replace him on the Hour of Power show, fired him, sent his own son packing.  I have to believe hubris rather than humility had something to do with this, and hubris is particularly ugly in someone who has a worldwide ministry representing a savior who died on a cross.     God, by contrast, sent his only begotten Son to fulfill his mission and ministry to save the world.  He empowered his Son, rather than showing him the door.

  • gary

    Wow, you have a Schuller ax to grind? I’ve never seen you do this before . . . uncomfortable . . .

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    I can’t imagine how awkward that must have felt to disagree strongly – even if only mentally – w/ a leader immediately before being interviewed in front of a congregation. If your mind didn’t swirl at that, you’ve an abundance of mental discipline! Even reading your account, Paul’s example of humility and denouncement of boasting and pride to the Corinthians were among the scripture verses that leapt to my mind. That is a sad story, indeed.

  • Carole

    The Schuller incident reminds me of the fact that what may be a positive, healthy attribute or trait can so often become unhealthy & negative. I suspect many folks feel very uncomfortable when they sing those words from that hymn yet, to me, they are a reminder to give God the glory for all that God has done, given, blessed us with etc.


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