Humility. Everyone knows it’s a virtue, since its opposite is . . . what? hubris? Excessive pride? Well, anyway, something not good.
But what does humility look like? And—since its a virtue and therefore something good to have—how do we achieve it?
In an April 15, 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, published an article titled “The Quiet Power of Humility.” Mr. Wehner praises humility, and opines that this virtue comes from modeling oneself on Christ.
This assertion comes as no surprise, since the think tank that Mr. Wehner is part of is, quote, “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”
In traditional Christian theology kenosis—a Greek word meaning “emptiness”—has come to describe the idea that God in the form of Jesus Christ, part of the Holy Trinity, “emptied” himself—at least partially—of divinity and became human to dwell among us.
The articulation of this theology occurs in the book of Philippians: “But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” ( 2:7 King James Version).
If indeed Jesus was hanging out in heaven as part of the Trinity and made the decision to “empty” himself of omnipotence, that was an act of humbleness.
The Unitarian minister and scientist Joseph Priestly saw it another way—Jesus “humbled” himself in the Garden of Gethsemane when he made the decision to follow God’s wishes and suffer death.
From the Judeo- part of the tradition comes the words of the prophet Micah:
It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God. (Mechon Mamre)
Those outside Mr. Wehner’s Judeo-Christian moral tradition believe in humbleness as well. The Nez Perce of the Pacific Northwest remind themselves, “Every animal knows more than you do.” A Zen adage reminds us, “When you see a fault in someone, go correct it in yourself.”
What is humility for a Humanist?
The English word “humility” comes from the Latin word humilitas. That word in turn derives from the Latin word for the earth, humus. Close to the earth. Grounded.
The English word “humble” is of the same origin.
The language is telling us the naturalistic meaning of the word: stay grounded; keep perspective; remember that you are part of the continuum of existence.
Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Since my “god” is nature, I’ll stay close to the humus and plan to rejoin the more undifferentiated molecules one day.
Humility. It’s about the compassion that comes from knowing you’re part of the flow. It’s about laughing at yourself and realizing we’re tribal animals, oh so dependent upon others. It’s about knowing the sun will burn out one day.
Humility. Religions teach it. But it goes deeper than that.