Humilitas– Chapters 9-11

Greatness inspires greatness, or to put it another way, you become what you admire.  If you admire something shabby, tawdry, mediocre, or even wicked,  you’re likely to become like them.   I was appalled by the true story of an elementary school teacher who had her 8 year olds come to school one day and tell who their heroes were.  One little girl came and told about a woman she and her family admired, but the teacher did not recognize the name.  That is, until she looked it up on line and realized it was a porn star.  The family had been watching porn together, including the young children.  Yikes!

John Dickson begins Chapter 7 by observing that true greatness involves lots of small kindnesses along the way– and so he tells the tale of how his daughter got the signatures of her netball heroes, including the famous Liz Ellis who was very cordial and co-operative.   He points to Jim Collins highest ranked leader, the Level 5 leader who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will”  (p. 153 in Dickson).

Dickson makes the keen observation that one reason humility inspires workers in a corporation to get on board and work hard towards the goals of the company is that when an employee suspects or knows a leader is selfish and just in it for himself, they lose motivation or just start imitating the selfish behavior of their boss.   There is a recent U.S. Postal service commercial where the postman sees an employee in an office shipping off lots of expensive overnight envelopes and suggests a more economic alternative through the U.S. mail. The employee responds “I seriously do not care, as it is not my money”  but right as he is saying this the boss comes out of his office and the postman saves the day by adding “So what you are saying is, that you do not care what anyone says, you want to save this company money”.

Dickson says that another reason humility inspires is that it conveys to the worker that the boss is an ordinary not an alien creature.  A humble leader inspires works to aspire to greatness and achieve more.   And finally he adds that such humble leadership inspires loyalty to the team effort, and makes good workers want to stay with a company.  It also minimizes internal criticism and complaints.  Ego is what often gets in the way of effective leadership, especially when one is not maximizing the employees potential.  The good leader controls his ego, and inspires others to believe they can accomplish much.    Dickson closes the short seventh chapter by telling the humorous tale of “how me and my mates got to meet Bono and U2″.   It definitely showed some initiative, but what was impressive was the band’s humility and willing to take time with and for the young men who sought them out.

In the interesting 8th chapter Dickson contrasts the virtue of humility over against the widely praised modern virtue of tolerance.  The problem of course is that what most people mean by tolerance is not tolerance— they mean acceptance of even things one things are reprehensible and immoral.  Underlying this is the assumption that all viewpoints are equally valid or true on some subjects, particularly religious subjects.  Dickson quotes the 1995 U.N. declaration on tolerance and here is the definition it includes— “Tolerance is the recognition and acceptance of individual differences. Tolerance is the recognition that no individual culture, nation, or religion has the monopoly of knowledge or truth. Tolerance is a form of freedom, freedom from prejudice, freedom from dogma. A tolerance person is master of his own opinions and actions.” (quoted on pp. 164-65).   As Dickson points out, the problem with this definition is it asks people to soften or give up on their deepest convictions in order to establish harmony between people.  In short, it asks us to believe a relativistic view of life— that there is no absolute truth, especially when it comes to religion.   Dickson says we can do better than this.  He asks– Would we really ask a Buddhist to accept the Hindu doctrine of atman or eternal soul when Buddha himself rejected the idea and taught that there is no soul and thus ultimately there is no self?  On this logic,  a tolerant Buddhist would have to give up his beliefs to be tolerant, and of course this is the same thing is often suggested that Christians should do.   But we can no more expect Christians to give up the non-negotiable idea that Christ was both divine and human, than we can expect a devout Koran affirming Muslim to believe God expresses himself in three persons.  And these differences cannot be negotiated away without something essential being lost to the identity of these various religious groups.

As an alternative to tolerance, Dickson says we need to practice humility, and show respect and friendship towards those of different beliefs.  I agree.    By humility Dickson doesn’t mean we should believe less firmly in what we believe,  we just do so with love and respect for those who differ.  He quotes Chesterton “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself but undoubting about the truth. This has been exactly reversed…”  (quote from Orthodoxy pp. 31-32,  on p. 168).   He calls for a flexing of both the muscle of moral conviction and the muscle of compassion at the same time  (see Wesley’s famous letter to a Roman Catholic).    He stresses that secular society believes the false notion that you can only love those with whom you agree, or whose lives you approve of.

My granny used to say “don’t be so open minded that your brains fall out.”    Dickson quotes Chesterton (p. 170)  who says: “An open mind is like an open mouth: its purpose is to bite on something nourishing. Otherwise, it becomes like a sewer, accepting everything, rejecting nothing.”

The concluding chapter of the book attempts to answer the question— How do we cultivate humility?   Dickson first reminds we are shaped by what we love.   The point here is that we need to see the beauty of humility, and in a sense appreciate that beauty and even fall in love with it,  striving to attain humility.     One further clue is to spend time contemplating the lives of the humble.    But it is equally true that we tend to avoid what we despise so it pays, by way of aversion therapy, to read about the lives of the arrogant, even the brilliant but arrogant.

Dickson also suggests we look around for examples of humility amongst our friends and learn from observing them, and that we conduct though experiments as well.    For example, do you remember the prince and the pauper story?  Suppose you put yourself in the shoes of the poor for a day?  Last night as I left the ballpark in Cinci (having watched the Reds trounce the Yankees), there were all sorts of homeless folk begging for money.  I gave some to one older man and he said God bless you.   It made me think what it would be like to be him.  How humiliating to be a 60 year old man sitting on a corner next to a major baseball park hoping people will give him a little change.  Imagine just sitting there for hours, begging with little outcome.  Or think through again the story of Scrooge at Christmas.    Dickson stresses that our actions affect the way we think, and so if we will undertake to actually act humbly it will have an effect on how we think about humility.  He is not talking about pretending to act humbly.  There is no pretense to serving meals to the poor at the Salvation Army center.  The process is real and it affects you, even if you have a heart of stone.

A further tip is to invite constructive criticism of what you are saying and doing.  He cites a study which says that the last two stages of a failing enterprise are when ‘necessary feedback is stifled’  and ‘stonewalling and defensiveness are the response to any real challenge’  or even ‘any critique is taken as an attack on one’s personal authority or good judgment’.   It is interesting that Dickson stresses he is not an advocate of a horizontal or group approach to leadership— lines of authority and responsibility are there and respected in healthy organizations.  His last advice is forget about being humble, or better said forget about trying to appear humble.  It is not a self-conscious trait, but something that flows naturally from a person who is well aware of their weaknesses and limitations as well as their strengths and is not threatened by other strong people around them.     He ends with C.S. Lewis wisdom— namely that you must start with recognizing you are proud.  “If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.”  (quoted p. 183 from Mere Christianity, p. 112).   So the beginning of humility is recognizing one is not yet humble.      And on that note, the book ends.

I must say, this is an excellent book, and easy to read.  It shows wide reading in all sorts of literature, including leadership literature.   And it is written by a person who knows he has not yet entirely arrived at the goal of humility.  It is thus an excellent starting point to help us all begin to  “have this mind in ourself which was also in Christ Jesus, who……humbled himself”.

  • http://patheos david gibbs

    Dr. witherington, thanks for sharing this very neglected ( and dispised) topic with us. I cant help but thinking what an utterly amazing transformation woulf ocur if this trait of humility was affirmed much more by society

  • http://patheos david gibbs

    By the way Dr Witherington it would be useful to see how you apply humility to the following passage below which all have to do with incidents where God allows humans to debate and contend and even criticise Him and His proposed actions. Often God was intreated to change His mind and reverse His decisions and plans.
    Are these verses really suggesting that God admits that He “got it wrong” the first time and therefore conceded the errors of His ways by “repenting” and “relenting”?

    Was this a lack of humility on the part of these persons, or is God simply that Humble?

    •Gen 18: 18-25 with Abraham and God
    • Job (Job 10).
    •God in Exodus 33 and Exodus 33 with Moses and God.(Ezekiel 20: 8-9/ Numbers 14 and 16).
    •Numbers 25: 10 with the seven sisters and God.

  • Ben Witherington

    Nope David, that is not what is going on in those passages. They reflect the ancient near eastern practices of haggling, and have nothing to do with humility or God getting it wrong. The point is God condescending to the level of humans and dialoguing with them in ways they would understand.


  • Matthew

    John Dickson is such a great writer/speaker. I still enjoy listening to his radio podcasts (may still be available from 1032FM radio station website) as well as his books. I think I have nearly bought all of his books already! Some of his points here he has touched on in his other works, e.g. the understanding of true tolerance.

    Thanks for the review Ben, I think I will look out for this next time I am at the Koorong book store.

    PS: I enjoyed his little dialogue with Tamas Pataki on the ABC website recently too.

  • David Crowe

    Dr Witherington,
    Thank you for your review which gave me the scope of John Dickson’s book on a neglected topic of great import.

    I am surprised in that in answering ‘How do we cultivate humility?’ in the last chapter, that the life of Christ does not appear to be mentioned. Would becoming more enamoured with Christ not be the first place to start?

    To “have this mind in ourself which was also in Christ Jesus, who……humbled himself” I would suggest that identifying examples in His life would be the most powerful place to start.

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