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The Table Video

George Marsden

Humility for American Evangelicals - George Marsden

American evangelicals are not known for their humility. In addition to the perennial problems of human pride and spiritual pride, some evangelical structures and emphases may help mute emphases on cultivating humility as a central virtue. C. S. Lewis and Jonathan Edwards are two of the wisest mentors for Christians today. In this talk, I explore what we can learn from them on this topic.


By now, just about everything’s been said about humility at this wonderful conference, though not everyone has said it yet. And the one angle new I can bring is that I’m addressing something that I’ve studied, which is the history of American evangelicalism and thinking about humility as an issue for American evangelicals. And that’s because evangelicals are not particularly known for their humility, even though they often talk about it as an important Christian virtue.

And evangelicals often are thought to be arrogant, and sometimes that just unfair because evangelicals are said to be arrogant because they’re so dogmatic about what they believe. But in fact, there’s lots of people who profess to be relativist, who are very dogmatic about the relativism and just about being dogmatic is not an unusual among human traits. But evangelicals are I think, particularly conspicuous in their assertiveness.

And in saying that they have everything right and everybody else has everything wrong. And that’s understandable, I think, I mean they are evangelicals after all, and that means that not only do they see their views as founded on the solid rock of God’s word, but both lay people as well pastors see it as their duty, and the kind of thing you can do for your neighbor to share that truth with other people. So they tend to be assertive about what they believe because they believe that eternity rest in the balance.

So part of the problem is, is simply the inevitable offense of the cross that’s involved in proclaiming Christianity and that we’re told is going to be foolishness to the Gentiles. And so, evangelicals will not be seen as particularly humble people. But wherever the inevitable offense there might be in these traits of evangelicalism, they’re accentuated by some other conspicuous trades. Modern evangelicalism differs from most sorts of Christianity in that it’s structured as a set of competitive free enterprise religious movements, and that encourages enterprising entrepreneurs.

And one benefit of that is it encourages competition and encourages growth. But it also encourages competitive entrepreneurs and competitive brand name denominations that succeed in part by combining the gospel message, or at least aspects of it with a good bit of self promotion. And self promotion, again, is a necessary trait in any public enterprise. And anyone preachers need to be bold. You can’t really preach the gospel of maybe. But evangelical competitive free enterprise system can also encourage spiritual pride.

And often that happens at leaders or groups proclaim that their particular views are the only truly orthodox ones and they emphasize their emphasis are distinctive teachings in a way that encourages dogmatic loyalties that really go beyond the gospel itself. So recognizing that evangelical Christians face the challenge of trying to be sufficiently humble, I propose to enlist the insights of two of the most trusted mentors of the movement, CS Lewis and Jonathan Edwards. And as you heard, I’ve worked in both of these and last couple years I’ve been talking about them together and I find that even though they sound, as though it would be a hard match, they really are great complimentary in having insights on most topics. Lewis is a theological minimalist, who often has very precise insights on things.

Whereas Edwards is a maximalist who provides exhaustive analysis of things and can bring out elements that you wouldn’t you might not see otherwise. And I think it’s what when finances that they’re complimentary and the reason for that is they’re both working in the Grande Christian tradition. And so saying to Jennifer Hart that I couldn’t make it this, Edwards, Lewis and Thomas Aquinas, and it would work well because there’s a harmony there. If you could add Luther from last night. They’re all working in the same tradition. In the essence of what they say is going to therefore harmonize. Lewis provides a great starting point for talking about issues of pride and humility as a central to the Christian experience in Mere Christianity, Lewis organizes his chapters on Christian behavior around the virtues.

And it’s his chapter on pride that has been one of the most effective in helping people get to the essence of why one might need to be a Christian, and number of famous conversions have been resolved reading that chapter. He calls the chapter the great sin. And so, even though he’s talking about the virtues in this chapter, he talks about humility largely by talking about the great sin of pride as the opposite of humility. And he says that this is the central vice that Christianity addresses and the centrality of pride and humility is where Christian morals differ most sharply from other morals. So pride and humility is very centrally a Christian interest.

In the Christian tradition following Agustin, Lewis explains in his The Problem With Pride, “That pride is a sin and it comes from “the fall of the human race. “Pride is a phenomenon whereby a creature “that is essentially a dependent being “whose principle of existence lies not in itself, “but in another tries to set up on his own.” So humans, who is very existence is and every ability is a gift of the Creator, rebel against that dependence on the creator and think of themselves as independent authorities or the highest authority. And so they succumb to the sin of self idolatry, they come to worship themselves really rather than God.

There’s the self is at the center of things that they bow down to. So ever since the fall of the race, since the fall of the race has been spoiled by this tendency. So we all put ourselves at the center of existence and Lewis says we see this and even little children, see it and rich people, see the poor people. We see it in loving relationships that are ruined. We see it each new day when pious people pray that everything may be put in God’s hands. And before we know it, we’re organizing the day for our own pleasure and our own benefit. So pride as Lewis explains it in Mere Christianity is essentially competitive.

And I think this, I found this a very helpful insight. “Having self satisfaction as our ideal, “we search for ways to see ourselves as better than others.” And some others in this conference have pointed out the same thing. So Lewis says this, “We say that people are proud of being rich, “or clever or good looking, but they are not. “They are proud of being richer or cleverer, “or better looking than others. “So without the competitive quality, there is no pride.” And so he says, “Christians are right to claim “It is pride which has been the chief cause “of misery in every nation, “and every family since the world began. ”

Other vices he says like drunkenness or unchastity might bring people together. [laughs] This is the good vices. “But pride always means and enmity. “It is enmity, and not only enmity between humans “and humans but enmity to God.” Lewis recognizes that some people who claim to be very religious are quite obviously we’re also very proud. He explained that he thinks that that means that they are worshiping a God of their own devising. They think they’re humbling themselves before this Phantom deity, and so they see themselves as much more righteous than other people. This is sort of people that Lewis says, “Of whom Christ was thinking when he said that “some would preach about him and cast out devils in his name “only to be told at the end of the world “that he had never known them.”

Luckily, Lewis says, “We have a test, “whenever we think that our religious life “makes us better than anyone else, “we can be sure that it was not the work of God, “but of the devil.” Now, Lewis in this chapter in Mere Christianity says very little directly about humility, but he talks so much about pride. And it was for a 12 minute radio broadcast after all. It’s amazing how much he could get into a short time. But rather than thinking one aspect of humility does mention is, it is thinking of ourselves in a non competitive sort of way, that we are thinking in the interest of other people, truly humble people he observes, will not be thinking about humility, because they will not really be thinking that much about themselves. Lewis says a lot more about humility in The ScrewTape Letters as you might recall.

And so in one of The Screwtape, that is the Senior Devil Race to His Protege Wormwood, regarding Wormwood’s patience that the young man who is in danger of becoming a Christian. And he writes, Screwtape writes with alarm, “Your patient has become humble. “Have you drawn his attention to the fact “catch him Screwtape suggests “at a moment when he’s especially poor in spirit “and then remind him of how humble he has become. “He then may well become proud of his humility.”

Screwtape goes on to explain that what the enemy that is got wants is humility. “It is our enemy wants to turn the man’s attention “from self to him and to the man’s neighbors.” One way to distract from to humility Screwtape observes is, “Convince him that humility is just having “a low opinion of your talents and character.” And here I might add that Lewis as a philologist studied words, was very much aware of the double meanings of humility that we’ve been talking about. And I think it’d be helpful to make the distinction which is implicit in Lewis and that there’s Christian humility as a major vice and he always capitalizes these humility and pride and then pride for the Christian is the chief Christian vice.

But then there’s also what people sometimes called proper pride, which is, you know, having a proper view of yourself. And then there could be something like improper humility or undesirable humility, maybe a bit better term for people who have low self esteem. But those are really four different things there’s pride is an essential defect in the human race and humility as the antidote to that. And then there are these character traits of proper pride or low self esteem. Anyway, he’s quite aware of that distinction in making the talking about humility as the opposite of pride. So true humility, he says, will be non competitive, would be to achieve some great thing like design a great Cathedral, he says, but take no more pleasure in it than the accomplishments of your neighbor or no more pleasure in it than if it were a sunset or a waterfall, that what you do is a gift just as a sunset is a gift.

And if people truly love God and love their neighbors, they will rejoice in the good gifts that God has given to others, as well as themselves. So if you’re an academic as a few people here are, you should be taking just as much pride in what your colleague accomplishes. And in your field, even if they surpass you, great. That’s what you’re trying to. That’s what you wanted to happen in the first place. So humility is seeing everything you have as a gift, as well as everything anyone else does as a gift. So he says, you wouldn’t take any more pride in your accomplishments than you would take pride in the color of your hair.

So it’s essentially non competitive. Where Lewis achieving humility is an essential outcome of evangelicalism conversion. If pride is a great sin of humankind, and the source of the fall, then conversion is the essential corrective. Accordingly he describes conversion as being becoming a new person, losing what we call ourselves out of ourselves into Christ, we must go he writes in Mere Christianity. So for Lewis, true Christian humility is that attitude toward oneself, that results from subordinating yourself to God in Christ. And so if Christ is the center of your life, or God is it center of your reality rather than self, then you see yourself not as the center of reality is that we all sort of automatically do.

But you see yourselves on the periphery, along with everyone else and that allows you to be non competitive, allows you to be charitable, allows you to treat others as though they’re as important as you are, at least you can work on, on that. So, rather than being competitive toward others, we will approach them humbly knowing that we have received far beyond what we deserve, and we will rejoice in the gifts that others may receive. Okay, that’s Lewis and my second mentor is Edwards. Edwards deals with humility, most thoroughly in his great book on Religious Affections.

And that book is not about the virtues as such, but rather, it comes out of the experience that a lot of Puritans had of worrying about whether or not they had evidences of being truly converted. And then Edwards participated in the Great Awakening and in other awakenings that were associated with what was the rise of evangelicalism, so he’s dealing with a particularly evangelical phenomenon that the enthusiasm of the revivals would lead a lot of people to think they were converted, but then and he actually wrote about a lot of people who thought were converted, and then a few years later, he realized that had been a false conversion and these people really had been much more in love with their own experience, than they were really in love with God. So their self was still at the center rather than God be at the center.

So he writes religious affections to try to identify all the symptoms, all the signs that you might look for, for whether you or someone else might be converted and basic centuries, you still can’t tell for sure, but this is the best estimate that you can do by looking at and these very thorough in spelling these all out. The sixth of the sciences is humility. And for that, Edwards is not restrained at all in saying how important humility is, he says this. “This is a great and most essential thing in true religion. “And further, they that are destitute of this “have no true religion. “Whatever profession they may make “or however, how so ever their religious affections may be.”

And in a footnote, Edwards quotes John Calvin, who in turn quotes Agustin saying, “That if asked what was the first precepts “of the Christian religion, ends the quote, “I would answer firstly, humility, “Secondly, humility. “Thirdly, humility and forever humility.” So much like Lewis, Edwards sees true humility as essentially the giving up of the self for Christ. He sometimes uses the term evangelical humiliation which was an old Puritan term, which means something like, the humility that arises from seeing how beautifully good the good news is. So it’s a voluntary self denial in the light of encountering the highest beauty and the highest goodness that draws you to it.

You see the ultimate goodness of the sacrifice of Christ for the undeserving. And that gospel draws you to it and draws you out of yourself to love something beyond yourself. So it puts your self love into its proper, it doesn’t destroy your self love, but it puts it in back into its proper relationship as subordinate to love of God. So, and secondly, he says, “True humility involves denying once it says, “his natural self exaltation, and renouncing his own dignity and glory “and being emptied of himself, “so that he does freely and from his heart, “as it were renounced himself.”

In a sermon series Charity and its Fruits, he also says that, “One characteristic of the person who is humble before God “is that he will not be disposed to trust in himself.” And I think that’s a good encapsulation of how different the Edwardian and the classic Christian tradition is from the American tradition where trust yourself becomes even though In God We Trust becomes a model on the money. The real model is, is trust yourself. I saw once around the Fourth of July, a church sign that read the last four letters of American are I can, and I thought that was probably not a and words in church.

Edwards is especially concerned with how the evangelical emphasis on conversion in the revivals can lead to false humility and that’s a continuing evangelical problems. So he’s very much aware of that Catch 22 that Lewis mentions also, of people taking pride in how humble they are. Pride and how much they have submitted to God and you haven’t. So Edward says, “An infallible sign of spiritual pride “is persons being apt to think highly of their humility. “False humility is especially likely when people’s religious “affections are very much raised by emotion.”

So, at one point he writes a letter of advice to a 17 year old woman convert Deborah Hathaway and he said this, “Remember that pride is the worst Viper “that is in the heart, “the greatest disturber of the souls peace, “a sweet communion with Christ. “It was the first sin committed “and lies lowest in the foundation “of Satan’s whole building. “It is with the greatest difficulty rooted out “and it is the most hidden, secret and deceitful of all us “and often creeps in sensibly into the midst of religion, “even sometimes under the guise of humility itself.” So, as that suggests, it’s very difficult to gauge how humble one is because of that Catch 22 that if you think yourself humble, then you’re not really humble.

Now in religious affections, Edwards deals with humility almost solely as subordination due to the love of God. And he says little about humility in relation to other people. But the reason for that is that religious affections is not about the virtues and he so he doesn’t separate, didn’t make any attempt to separate out the virtues, but rather he’s all the affections all the signs of the affections are interrelated. So, prior to talking about humility, he talks about the signs of being properly enraptured by the beauty of God, the love of God and so forth that leads to humility. And then after talking about the Six Sign of Humility, he goes on to other signs, some of which are much more observable, one of them for instance is that a truly converted person would have a, would be attended with a lamb like, dove like spirit and temper of Jesus Christ or in other words, they naturally be get and promote such a spirit of love, meekness, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy as appeared in Christ.

So there’s all these symptoms that would would be outgrowth of humility, someone. Everett Worthington’s was talking about humility as a gateway virtue and it’s a gateway to for instance a charity. So, in religious affections the last and longest section of their religious affection is on the practice of Christian practices, the best test of whether you have Christian attitudes, what you do, how much charity is there. So that provides a hard practical test. Okay, so quickly, what did we learn from these two mentors about humility?

Both of them see genuine Christian humility as something like this “An attitude of an appropriate regard for oneself, “that results from having subordinated one self interest “to the love of God and to what God loves.” So you subordinate yourself to the love of God and what God loves and that gives you humble attitudes toward everything. “So for both humility involves a radical “and difficult reorientation “from our natural self centeredness.” So that’s why evangelical conversion is it certainly in the foot for them, it will be a I don’t want to say necessary condition. But it certainly would be very helpful for that kind of radical orientation.

It comes from one is truly born again an attitude of sense of belonging, not to oneself, but as I remember catechism puts it and I think Luther says something like this too, not to you it don’t belong to yourself but to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. And of course, that’s an attitude that’s a lot easier described than adhered to. Both Edwards and Lewis would emphasize that humility grows out of recognizing the true nature of our humanity, that we are creatures and everything that we have there for is it purely a gift, and then as a gift, paradoxically, is something you need to work for, but you get it as a gift.

So if you take pride in getting it, then that can undo the gift. Closely related to these attitudes of humility involves recognizing everything that you have is the gift, is that both Lewis and Edwards remind us that religiously based pride often wears a mask of humility. And Lewis is particularly alert to the kind of Pharisees who think that they have all the theological answers and correct practices and use a religion of correctness to Lord over other people.

And as I said, evangelical free enterprise and encouragement of entrepreneurs does encourage that sometimes. So, Lewis, I think is particularly helpful in trying to counter that idea that you know, that we got it and nobody else does, particularly in Mere Christianity have to talk about in a minute. Edwards is helpful on another front, and that is, he’s helpful for self examination. So one, whether one is truly humble, in that he presents all these signs of religious affections as interrelated. So if you want to say, are you really humble, you don’t need to, just look at humility, he had to look at the things that are antecedent to humility, the conditions that create it, and the things that proceed from it. So it’s all interconnected.

So, and in particular, I think it’s helpful to say if you one test of humility is Christian practice or a test of humility is how charitable are people and charity of course comes in many forms of taking time with people, helping people, actually giving money to people. And that’s a real test of are you truly humble, but what are you actually doing? And Edwards is good at bringing that out. I think, I won’t go into it but in their biographies, if you look at their biographies, both Edwards and Lewis score pretty well in being charitable in the way they lived. And so when I’m thinking about humility for evangelicals, I think one aspect of it might be to see that the evangelicals might, you know, if they have the problem, an image problem of lacking. Seem to lack humility, if they put more emphasis on charity that might be helpful.

Now, it’s actually the case that it’s well documented that people who are active churchgoers in the United States give a lot more for instance, even to secular causes, than people who don’t go to church. But that’s not usually the first thing that people think about, when they think about church goers. There’s a lot of charity going on, but it’s not very prominent in the culture, it’s not the kind of thing that’s emphasized it might be helpful to have an emphasis on something like magnanimity, if I could pronounce that word, that encourages moral greatness, or that would be the kind of moral emphasis that it would be associated with evangelicalism rather than the moral emphases of, here are the things that we are against.

And you know, that other people do that we don’t do. There could be a lot more positive emphasis on what Edwards calls the whole range of Christian practice or charity. So the internal task, so to speak, would be to cultivate in ourselves, the humility that so many Christians have agreed is central to the tradition. But then the practical extra emphasis would be the test of how does humility express itself in charity. And one of the things that we do particularly charity that goes beyond our own immediate concerns or interests. And so this is a great challenge that I think everyone but it certainly seems to me that if evangelicalism were known better for their charity, that will lead the light of their humility and often is true humility shines through a lot better. Finally, quickly, what about intellectual humility?

Let me get rid of my papers. That would be humility as it applies to our intellectual activities and believes something like owning our intellectual limitations, and not allowing our intellectual attainments to be sources of pride. And the main thing I think you can learn from Edwards on this front, is that his intellectual accomplishments grow out of his heroic efforts to subordinate his thinking, to God’s revelation. And he very much works for the sort of humility and joined in, in biblical passages like First Peter 3:8, that were were told to be a humble mind and which God gave him and reminded his characteristic.

Biblical view of humility is subordinate in your mind, intellectual humility, subordinate in your mind to the mind of God. And so Edwards did that by spending hours a day in prayer, Bible study contemplations and trying to see everything through a biblical lens. At the same time that he made these efforts to subordinate everything to God that led to some of his stunning theological achievements.

But as Neba has reminded us, often your greatest achievements can lead to some vices as well. And for Edwards, I think it’s sometimes lead to intellectual overreach or some things that Edwards thought that he was sure he could predict and know that now look like that he had millennial views at the thoughts that post millennial view that the Millennium would start the year 2000, which pretty certainly is a wrong view, in my opinion. [audience laughs] If Edwards see’s a matter of intellectual humility in the sense of seeking to submit the intellect wholly to God into God’s word.

Lewis is a suburb model for evangelical practicing intellectual humility in the sense of recognizing one’s intellectual limits. Lewis Of course could be dogmatic about the essentials of the faith. But he also makes a very helpful distinction between things essential and things not essential on which Christians often disagree. And as someone who has a strong sense of history and studied the history of Christian thought, he assumed an attitude of humility not only in learning from great Christians of the past, but recognizing that Christians today need not resolve all the ongoing debates from the past.

Rather than relying on his own genius or the latest findings of our own time. I said, just rely on the Christian teachings that have really stood the test of time. So I think there’s a very helpful way of thinking about intellectual humility in terms of Mere Christianity. And Mere Christianity is simply he’s defining as, “The belief that has been common to nearly all Christians “at all times.” It’s so he says, “My religion is Christianity is and was, “what it was long before I was born “and whether I like it or not.” So he stresses that this version of Christianity should not replace traditional creeds or forms of worship. Everyone needs a particular place of worship and tradition to develop their Christianity.

But nonetheless, and someone who referred in the conference, that hallway Christianity that here that gets you into the hallway, and then you need a particular communion to develop your Christianity, but Lewis says very helpfully, “But the rule of the house ought to be that “once people have made their choice of affiliation, “that they must be kind to those “who have made a different choice “or who are still making up their minds.” And as I mentioned earlier, one of the aspects of the evangelical free enterprise system is that it’s often so competitive and that encourages spiritual pride sometimes among leaders and parishioners. Loyalty to a subgroup is generated because we have it right and everybody else has it wrong.

So, today I think would be especially helpful if evangelicals would emphasize more the idea of Mere Christianity. That that’s more basic than their allegiance to their particular group or sect that it would Mere Christianity signals that one is committed to the essentials of the faith. But then it also Mere Christianity emphasizes our commonality with a much wider spectrum of believers, including evangelicals who may be of a different race, or different ethnicity or different nationality than we are. And also including not only varieties of Protestants, but also Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and other kinds of Christians. So we can still talk about our differences and some of which are substantial. We don’t we’re not saying that those aren’t important. We need to do the best we can to get things right.

And that’s why we have theological seminaries and Christian universities and Study centers. But we need to try to get things right in the context of humility. All that we have, and all that we know is a gift of God, all we know about God is a gift of God. So we should teach and proclaim the gospel in the most adequate way that we can. But we should do it in the framework of being willing to be corrected, and to learn from others.

And we can learn not only from the teachers and the people we have today to listen to, but we can also learn from some of the wise teachers of the past and for doing that, Lewis and Edwards and Aquinas and Luther and the like are great place to start. So thank you.