Humility: The Higgs Boson of the VirtuesI claim exactly the amount of knowledge of physics one can gain from listening to Radiolab and watching PBS (which is to say, very very little), but I want to suggest that humility is kind of like the Higgs boson of the virtues. That is, I think it’s exceedingly slippery and hard to detect, though we all have an intuition that it is a pervasive and important part of the flourishing life. Moreover, like all very small particles, the very observation of humility tends to affect its presence (or absence). Psychologists have struggled to create tools to measure humility, for example, because to claim to be humble on a survey may suggest that you’re actually quite proud, and genuinely humble people may not be willing to admit to their own virtuousness.
In addition to being tough to catch “in the wild”—and perhaps because of this characteristic—humility is also notoriously difficult to define. When we say that someone is humble, do we mean that they have a low estimation of themselves? That they are other-directed in important ways, having little concern for themselves? That they accept their limitations? Psychologists and philosophers, including many of the fine CCT Fellows working on humility this year, each have important contributions to make to this discussion, which means it’s an exciting time to be studying humility. The ground I’m hoping to cover is a bit less trodden, and focuses on precisely how the Bible describes humility as a part of the pursuit to be a faithful follower of Christ. To put it differently, I am interested in examining how the Christian Scriptures make the Higgs boson of the virtues available for analysis. This is by no means the only tool available to us—the study of human behavior, and the philosophical exploration of the concepts at work here are by no means to be ignored—but it is one available window into what humility is and how it works in our lives.
Tracking it Down: Humility in the Christian ScripturesHumility is of central significance to every major element in Scripture’s grand narrative. It is critical to understanding humans’ place in the universe that God created, both before and after the Fall into sin. It shapes the way in which Israel is redeemed from the land of Egypt, and prescribes its national character in and out of exile; and it is a critical element in the redeeming love that is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Interwoven with this grand story are three overlapping but distinct conceptions of humility, which I will examine in turn.
Creational HumilityWe humans have a history of placing ourselves at the center of things. A point in case is the way we tend to treat animals, especially pets, as little more than smaller, furrier human beings, projecting our desires and interests onto them, and even sometimes (disturbingly, in my own view) dressing them like ourselves. Of course, our pets are no more humanoid in their desires and appetites than the earth is the center of the universe, but like our anti-Copernican forebears, we do not typically let that stop us.A key part of the biblical story is not only that we as humans have limits, but also that we are broken and fallen.This anthropocentrism is an understandable, if regrettable feature of the human condition. After all, we are incredible creatures, capable of remarkable things in comparison to the rest of the animal kingdom. Psalm 8 sums up this tension of being human. In the span of only a few verses, the psalmist goes from lamenting the smallness of humanity, not only in relation to God but also in relation to the vast creation—“when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers…what is man that you are mindful of him?”—to remarking at how highly exalted we are above just about every aspect of creation—“you have…crowned him with glory and honor…you have put all things under his feet.”
Interestingly, the psalm begins and ends with a description of divine majesty, which is a key aspect of Scripture’s view of humility. Only when we examine ourselves in light of our creator can we cultivate creational humility, the tendency to look past the great accomplishments of our hands, or of our nation, or even our species, and to see infinitesimal smallness before our creator.
Humility and the Fall into SinBut humility must be more than simply reckoning with our finitude as creatures before an exalted and infinite God. A key part of the biblical story is not only that we as humans have limits, but also that we are broken and fallen. We are creatures crafted for glory, and while that splendor is still visible in glimpses, it is often obscured by sin and its diverse perversions of the human condition. Both as individuals and as communities, we have pursued a greatness buried in our souls, but in our quest to be exalted we have fallen from the heights for which we were created; we have been “humbled.”