Lisa Miller wrote a nice Newsweek column recently on the subject of humility—go here to read it.
She noted the frequency with which political leaders, right after the recent election results came in, spoke about being “humbled”—either about winning or, in President Obama’s case, by the “shellacking” his party experienced.
In exploring the role of humility in public life, Lisa Miller drew primarily on religious sources. I think we should take this as a prodding to do some teaching on the subject in the Christian community. In a time when strong religious belief is typically seen as a part of the problem in a deeply divided culture, the spiritual resources for humility need to be explored in depth.
After reading what Lisa Miller had to say on the subject (including her quotations from both Tim Keller and myself), I happened to be re-reading Simone Weil’s wonderful essay, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God”—a nice brief spiritual exercise for academics, by the way. (You can find the essay here.) In part, she says:
[T]he virtue of humility… is a far more precious treasure than all academic progress. From this point of view it is perhaps even more useful to contemplate our stupidity than our sin. Consciousness of sin gives us the feeling that we are evil, and a kind of pride sometimes finds a place in it. When we force ourselves to fix the gaze, not only of our eyes but of our souls, upon a school exercise in which we have failed through sheer stupidity, a sense of our mediocrity is borne in upon us with irresistible evidence. No knowledge is more to be desired. If we can arrive at knowing this truth with all our souls, we shall be well established on the right foundation.
What Simone Weil says here about our failures in certain academic exercises applies directly also to our leadership “sheer stupidities.”
And then there is, of course, the wisdom of John Calvin himself, who draws on two earlier writers on the subject:
I have always been exceedingly delighted with the words of Chrysostom, “The foundation of our philosophy is humility;” and still more with those of Augustine, “As the orator, when asked, What is the first precept in eloquence? answered, Delivery: What is the second? Delivery: What the third? Delivery: so, if you ask me in regard to the precepts of the Christian Religion, I will answer, first, second, and third, Humility. (Institutes 2, 2, 11)