How can we grow in the virtue of humility? In this post, I’ll offer some practical suggestions for how to grow in this virtue.
I recently discussed the nature of Christian humility. But of course merely understanding a virtue is not enough. If we are serious about following Jesus Christ, we want to become virtuous, to become more like him. In this post, we’ll look at some ways to grow in this crucial Christian virtue.
Many people are confused about the nature of humility. A common misunderstanding of the Christian virtue of humility is that it means having a low view of oneself. On this understanding, the humble person thinks that neither she nor her accomplishments are worth very much. She will deflect or reject any praise of her character, accomplishments, and talents.
While some philosophers argue that humility is not a virtue, the Christian tradition holds humility in high regard. For those who want to imitate Christ, and grow in this virtue, we must first understand what it is. And for that, we must look to the example of Christ, our moral exemplar.
Even though we never met, Dallas Willard played a significant role in my decision to become a philosophy professor. I remember reading his classic book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, when I came across the following passage:
“As a response to this world’s problems, the gospel of the Kingdom will never make sense except as it is incarnated – we say “fleshed out” – in ordinary human beings in all ordinary conditions of human life. But it will make sense when janitors and storekeepers, carpenters and secretaries, businessmen and university professors, bankers and government officials brim with the degree of holiness and power formerly thought appropriate only to apostles and martyrs” (pp. 243-244).
I am not an advocate of Divine Command Theory, but one objection to it that has some popularity with the new atheists is that following such a moral view is childish. The claim is that such a view is childish because the person who accepts and operates under such a framework is not freely deciding which moral principles to accept and follow. Unlike the mature moral individual, who weighs the arguments for and against accepting some moral principle, the follower of some form of divine command theory just accepts whatever divine commands are present in her favored religion. She does not reason about them, consider their significance, but rather she just blindly and irrationally follows them.
But this view of the divine command theorist is incorrect. A follower of some form of divine command theory can still exhibit moral autonomy and rationality, in the following sense. She may not be imposing a moral law on herself, but she can exercise moral autonomy by deciding which putative divine commands are genuine divine commands, judging which interpretations of those commands are correct, determining the implications the particular commands have, and reflecting upon how best to apply those commands into her specific circumstances. This requires much more than proof-texting to support one’s political, social, or moral views.
The divine command theorist can still be self-governing in the moral realm, by autonomously choosing to be governed in that realm by another Self.
This sort of approach would require the intellectual virtues of carefulness, tenacity, fair-mindedness, humility, honesty, and courage, among others. These are not “childish” traits, but rather are central traits of the excellent mind.
As part of an online discussion of Paul Moser’s paper on Christ-shaped Philosophy, I have written a short paper on analytic moral theology as a form of Christ-shaped Philosophy, which you can access here. There are quite a few papers, and some interesting dialogue going on concerning this way of approaching philosophy; it is worth checking out.
Here’s an abstract of my paper:
In this paper, I claim that analytic moral theology is an important form of Christ-shaped moral philosophy. The analytic moral theologian takes Christ to be the starting point for moral reflection, given that He is our moral and intellectual exemplar. Christ is also the end of such moral reflection, insofar as the proper aims of analytic moral theology include both the imitation of and union with Christ Himself. This type of Christ-shaped moral philosophy begins with inquiry into the character of Jesus Christ and properly ends with the application of the results of that inquiry to the personal and social lives of those who seek to follow the “outcast Galilean.” I conclude with a call for Christian moral philosophers and analytic moral theologians to imitate the pattern in philosophy of religion by producing scholarship of the highest quality and then translating that scholarship into more popular forms in service to the church and the world.