Humility and Joy
In public imagination, humility is more associated with mildly depressive moods than with joy; to have joy, it is often assumed, you need pride in who you are and what you have achieved. In conversation with Max Scheler (“Humility”) and Martin Luther (“The Magnificat”), I will argue that properly understood humility is a condition of the possibility of genuine joy. Leaning on the work of Alain Ehrenberg (The Weariness of the Self), I will also suggest that the contemporary culture of unending self-achievement leads more to depression than to joy.
Humility is a signature virtue of the Christian faith. Joy, is its signature emotion. The title of my talk is Humility and Joy. Today in the West at least we love joy but are ambivalent, even highly ambivalent about humility. Partly because I think humility strikes us as the virtue of the docile and of the depressed.
A certain iconographic depiction of Mary, the mother of God is for many the image of humility. Hands folded submissively over the chest. Head neatly covered and a bit askew. Eyes rolled slightly heavenward and a face mildly pained by, so it seems the very fact of her own worldly existence. In a phrase a posture of, maybe lowly malleability or something like that. Now joy, on the other hand, is Miriam. The sister of the great liberator Moses. Rhythmic movements of tambourine over her head. Heavy necklaces, the spoils of the Egyptians.
Their heavy necklaces bouncing over her breasts. Her hair and her clothes flying. And she leads the dance of celebration for the destruction of the Egyptians. Miriam and Mary, joy and humility, are two irreconcilable, seem to be, two irreconcilable souls of the Christian faith. Many think that way today. But I think we have gotten humility wrong. Once we get it right, a new way opens up to joy. A joy of Miriam’s kind, exuberant over the improbable fortune of ethnic liberation and national constitution, and perhaps, more importantly, to a quieter kind of joy, both deeper and more pervasive.
A delight in life’s recurring goods, both our own, and those of others. So in the mind of many, humility is about self-abasement. About considering oneself, in the famously self-deprecating phrases from the rule of Saint Benedict as worthless workmen or as of less account than anyone else. Or at least it is about appearing to do so. Now whether facing the reality or appearance of such humility, a wrought of untruthfulness, both factual and existential, is eating at humility’s core. Only one person can have the distinction of being lower than anyone else. And none but God knows who that is.
Many of those who seem to consider themselves worthless and the lowest, even many of those who believe to be such, are secretly hoping that others, including God, will see and publicly recognize them as worthy and at least in their own way, great and adorned with the jewels of humility on top of it. Now humility’s current troubles, including humility’s modern homelessness, to which I gestured earlier, are however not mainly the consequence of unresolved inner tensions in the way in which we tend to understand and practice humility. Any plausible account of humility, and not just humility as self-abasement, seems at odds with the very shape of the modern self. We moderns tend to imagine ourselves as owners of ourselves and of our action. Each engage in the great endeavor of self-achievement.
A modern self is kind of a pop cultural incarnation of Nietzsche’s Sovereign Man. Here’s a quote from The Genealogy of Morals. “With disquiet…” well, for the Sovereign Man, writes Nietzsche, the proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege and responsibility the consciousness of this rare freedom, of this power over himself and over faith, these things have sunk right down to his innermost depths, and has become an instinct, a dominating instinct.
Now, it’s hard to come up with a better description of the owners of themselves and their action who have actually achieved themselves, than are these three lines from The Genealogy of Morals. Though none but hardcore narcissists would dare to describe himself or herself in just that way. Yet from behind the reach of self-awareness, this kind of quasi-Neitzschean vision guides much of what we hope for and what we hope to be and hope to do.
And now a qualification to this, kind of, wise pop-Neitzschean incarnation of, pop cultural incarnation of Neitzschean vision of Sovereign Man. Instead of knowing ourselves as masters so powerful and secure as to dispense even with pride, we experience ourselves as fragile and insecure. In the business of self-achievement, the self we crave to be eludes us. What troubles most of us is not so much gnawing? G-N-A-W-I-N-G…pronounce it please for me. [laughter] There we go.
I love English language but sometimes can’t pronounce it. [laughter] Pronounce the words. So it’s not that kind of a guilt you just pronounced. In the face of an unfulfillable moral law, as was the case only maybe a few decades ago, even less is it a crushing fear of an angry, overbearing, and omnipotent lawgiver, as was the case a few centuries ago.
Our problem is a self-undoing sense of inadequacy in the face of an impossible task. Now self-achievement is impossible, I think, in any setting. But we do the hard labor of self-achievement in the cultural environment in which almost everything is possible, and almost nothing is forbidden. And in the social environment of competitive struggle for recognition. The achieved self is a moving target. An able competitor’s threatened at every turn to expose our inadequacy. A sovereign man, as Nietzsche imagined him, has an instinctive pride about the power over himself and over his faith.
He is also, you will remember, a being full of zest for life. Nietzsche describes him as a dancing star. His very act of living is identical with joy, unclouded by either inadequacy or guilt. In contrast, contemporary individuals who can never measure up, must incessantly work to achieve their pride. And when their efforts are crowned with success, the pride turns out to be fleeting. No more secure than the fragile and passing grandeur of the self of which that pride boasts. And joy? We feel it in the celebrations of the victories of self-achievement and pride, but the dance of jubilation is as fugacious as are the things it exalts. The Egyptian army, undefeated, stands ready for the battle at the edge of the dance floor. Alain Ehrenberg has argued, that’s not how you pronounce his name in French, last name in French, I tried, vainly, French pronunciation of his first name and then a totally German thing with his last name, a terrible butchering of a good man’s name. [laughter]
So Mr. Ehrenberg, to Germanize him, has argued in the book The Weariness of the Self, depression, that tragedy of inadequacy, is a more likely fate of contemporary self-achievers than is joy. And then, their is depression’s sibling: dependency. The very opposite of the proud sovereignty. We need legal and illegal drugs to help us manufacture the kind of self that can sustain the impossible struggle, or maybe, for the most part, most modestly, to keep the floods of inadequacy-fed depression at bay.
Modern individuals are further from being sovereign men and women than they are to being Nietzsche’s last men. People who have given up on all striving, and half-drunk, half-drugged blinks satisfied that they have invented. Happiness, not joy. The mixture of struggle for self-achievement and pride shadowed by depression and dependency that our lives have become, that mixture nudges us to look for alternatives to the modern self. The joyless owner of itself, and its action, and the troubled slave of its own impossible achievement.
A compelling narrative which draws a good deal of its inspiration from the apostle Paul takes us back to humility and opens up the possibility of its unity with joy. In the following, I will explore Martin Luther’s version of this alternative. Tomorrow you will be able to hear my colleague Jennifer Hurt, who will give you kind of Thomas Aquinas’s take on happiness and joy.
A wonderful paper make sure that all of you attend her lecture. Now, Luther’s Reformation discovery centers on the self freed from compulsion to achieve itself. He interprets the virgin mother of Jesus as the embodiment of free, humble, and joyous self.
Singing joyously the Magnificat, Mary, Luther’s Mary, Gospel of Luke’s Mary, I think also, looks more like the dancing Miriam than like life-weary Madonna. But before I come to the great reformer, I need to pay a brief visit to Max Scheler, an early twentieth century Christian philosopher. He can serve as a bridge from the fifteenth century self, plagued by inability to properly love God and neighbor, to the more contemporary self, plagued by its inadequacy before an impossible task of self-achievement.
So, Max Scheler, briefly. He writes, “It is the most ridiculous misjudgment of Christian humility to represent it as a type of servility raised to the position of virtue and dedicated to God. As the virtue of the poor, the weak, the little ones.” Now for such misreading to seem compelling, Scheler believes the person must place singular emphasis, I’m quoting him, on the value of everything self-earned, and of becoming someone by one’s own initiative.
In the early twentieth century when he wrote his essay on humility, on which I base all of my comments, this was the posture of the bourgeoisie. Struggling to assert itself against all the hereditary privilege of masters and kings. Now in contrast to humility itself, now abnegation, Scheler posits, proposes humility as the virtue of the born masters.
Now the phrase is reminiscent of Nietzsche, but its inspiration is Christ as portrayed in one of the earliest pieces of Christian literature, this ancient hymn to Christ, which the apostle Paul quotes to motivate the church in Philippi to practice humility. “Though Christ was originally in the form of God, He, that hymn says, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Now this something to be exploited, there is a flurry, there was, and still continues to be flurry of interpretive activity, you can’t follow it, in your lifetime read all of it that was written on that one word. Well I’m exaggerating a bit. So he didn’t consider, Christ didn’t, equality with God as something to be exploited.
That’s NRSV version, maybe better something to be used for one’s own advantage, or something like that. But that’s kind of, interpretive question. But emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Now, Scheler says humility is the inner replica in the soul, of the one great gesture of Christian divinity, freely to abandon its grandeur and majesty to come to man, to humanity, in order to become every man’s and all creation’s, free and blessed servant. Now the proud, they cling to their grandeur and majesty.
And always grasp for more. They trace back to themselves their own superior greatness. It’s theirs, and they have achieved it, and would be undone without that greatness. But there’s something paradoxical in their ascending. Always elevating themselves above others, the proud ultimately reduce all values to the naked center of the eye. That’s Scheler’s quote; he explains: “Pride causes the subject, proud of himself, to leap again and again above all things and values, until with complete supremacy he can look down on all except on the total emptiness and nothingness which he has now achieved.
Three consequences follow. First, in filling themselves, the proud are in fact hollowing themselves out. In ascending, they’re in fact falling into an abyss. In striving to be something, they in fact end up being nothing. Second, due to futile and joyless ascending, to the position of absolute lordship, the proud show themselves as incurably poverty-stricken. Scheler puts it this way: “All pride is beggar’s pride.” Third, in referring all values to themselves, the proud are caught in the gesture of contempt and are incapable of joy. Each value the proud person beholds appears to him as a theft and robbery from his own worth. So he must always be a devil and the negator.
Humility, writes Scheler, is the virtue of the rich. Pride belongs to the poor. But what comes first, humility or wealth? Here’s one line: Be humble, and you will immediately be rich and powerful. That’s what Scheler advises at one point. Now the advice is too simple, of course. Its point is to underscore that no matter how powerful the rich are, without humility, no matter how powerful and rich we are, without humility, we experience ourselves as lacking, and not quite adequate, and therefore thirst for more. But the main thrust of Scheler’s argument goes in the opposite direction. You’ve got to be rich to be humble.
Not only the humble are, not that only humble are great, but that only those who are truly great, who are rich and powerful, who can do without stretching themselves to become such, only those who are born masters can be humble. Now the question is, how does one become a humble master? How does one acquire what Scheler describes as humility of being? And part of the answer is, the path to such humility, and that’s I think only part of the answer, lies through self-surrender, he believes, rather than self-exertion. What does he mean by self-surrender? For the humble one, there is ever-present the picture of his own individual self. Which he constantly perceives as traced anew, as well as born before him by what?
By the movement of God’s love aimed at him. Put very simply, the humble one sees himself or herself in God. Those are also Scheler’s words. This kind of seeing involves a two-fold movement of self-perceiving. As a person penetrates into the divine picture of himself, I’m using masculine pronouns because he consistently, our translation consistently uses them and I didn’t have time to change the translation, and so I adjusted my text, so my apologies for this. So, as a person penetrates into the divine picture of himself he is sinking down as far as his conscious experience of himself is concerned. And simultaneously, this beautiful picture actually draws him up to God and in the substance of his being, he rises gently to heaven.
Humility of being is the effacement of the self through its arrival to itself as established in God. I’ll say it one more time, this is my paraphrase of him. Humility of being is the effacement of the self through its arrival to itself as established in God. It may seem that such effaced self has lost everything, both herself and the world, and the exact opposite Scheler believes is the case. The only self who can win all is the self who assumed that nothing is deserved and that everything is a gift and a wonder. Including her own strength and the smallest worthiness. The humble, they receive themselves and the world with gratitude and they joyfully discover ever anew those things, a foot, an eye, a hand, for instance whose value we otherwise seem to be able to grasp only when they are rare and others do not possess them.
There’s a tension in Scheler’s account of humility. It’s evident in the ambiguity of the phrase love of God, which he uses to describe how the humble self is constituted. On the one hand, humility is rooted in the movement of God’s love aimed at the person. On the other hand, in its purest form, here’s a quote from Scheler, “Humility is only the delicate silhouette which the movement of the holy God-oriented love casts over the soul.
Now, the first love is received. The second love is actually love given. Humility then ends up both somehow a gift and achievement without there being kind of reconciliation between the two. But perhaps the gift and the achievement are united in the absolute, here’s a quote from him, “the absolute trust in being and in the root from which all things sprout.” Now, that’s what Luther believed. As a monk, whose entire life was one of humility, he knew however, that one can glory not just in one’s worthiness, but also in one’s unworthiness.
To counter the attempts to make something out of nothingness of one’s own self-renunciation, he insists that the trust itself, the trust of which Scheler speaks, the trust itself is a gift of the very love in which it is placed, and more fundamentally, that those things, those doing the trusting, as well as those who aren’t, owe the existence of their entire selves and of their world to love in which they trust. That’s my bridge to Luther.
Let’s see how that looks as explicated then by Luther. But before then, a brief comment of Luther’s work. In his last book, Pluralistic Universe, William James identified Martin Luther as the first to break with any effectiveness to the crust of the self-sufficiently of pagan naturalistic and legalistic morality.
I don’t know whether that’s true. Or not, a lot of people might contest this. But Scheler, the reason I’m mentioning this is Scheler quoted the relevant passage from William James at length, and wrote an essay on humility, his essay on humility, note it is the master and servant dialectic that plays a significant role, as a kind of philosophical variant on Luther’s theology of humility, especially on Luther’s Philippians 2-inspired relation between Master, the lord, and the slave within the same person, of course, this is not a master-slave dialectic of Hegelian type.
The ties between the two are not absent, of course. That was probably, that piece, if you haven’t read the text where he treats this relation between master and slave, it’s his text, Freedom of the Christian, published in November 1520. Now, Luther discusses humility most extensively in a commentary on the Magnificat, that’s why I started with Mary and Miriam, and he preached multiple sermons on the Magnificat and then committed it to writing shortly after composing the Freedom Tractate in March of 1521. So you’ve got in the space of about five months he’s writing these two very significant texts. And my comments will be based on both. So Luther, now…am I putting you to sleep?
Audience Member: No.
Okay good. Luther distinguished implicitly rather than explicitly between humility of being and humility in acting. It’s not very sharp distinction that has to do with his personal ontology, but let’s treat it this way. I think it helps fully organize the material. Humility of being has two intimately related moments. The first is the realization that what we ordinarily understand as self is literally nothing.
Or rather, that it exists in a very active, and by the way pernicious way, but only in sinful personal and collective imaginations. We project ourselves as something self-standing, as owners of ourselves and our actions onto ourselves forgetting that we, with all our powers and possessions, are held in existence by the God of love.
We ascribe powers and possessions to ourselves derived from God, but in words, deeds, and demeanor boast of them before others and before God as if they were fully our own. To realize that we are nothing on our own we often need a jolt of personal and social humbling. A pinch of sickness, of poverty or lowliness, or God forbid an avalanche of real evil rolling down and picking us up along the way. But a lowly state, though often necessary, is not an indispensable element of humility. I haven’t checked, Ryan sent me a message two days ago, that for lowly state, Luther uses gering, and for humility proper, demutig.
I’ll have to check that. But he defines also humility I think as the lowly state. But it’s not an indispensable element of humility. I’ll come back to the relationship between humility proper and the lowly state. Now, so the self’s nothingness, and the point that I wish to make is this, that in Luther the self’s nothingness is not social. It’s not I’m nobody compared to other people. Or I’m less on account than anyone else. As rule of Saint Benedict.
Nothingness is also not existential. I’m nothing compared to what I could be. Or I’m a bad, in Benedict’s words, I’m a bad and worthless workman. Nothingness here is ontological. Along with all other human beings in the rest of creation, my own self is not such a thing that could be something on its own. I think that’s what he means by, kind of nothingness. Which is to say the feature of creation as a whole, also. The self except that we don’t quite see it often that way.
So the first moment of humility of being is a truthful recognition of the nothingness of the false self, parading self-importantly as something glorious, or hiding self-dejectedly as something shameful. Call it humiliation. Though that would be to name the first moment from the perspective of the false self.
Now the second moment in the humility of being again, that’s now spoken from the perspective of the false self, the second moment, is exaltation. Now the relationship between humiliation and exaltation would be really interesting to explore. I think roughly it goes something like that. That the first moment humiliation is the precursor of exaltation in the order of becoming. But in the order of being, it’s the other way around. It’s the really exaltation that makes actually humiliation in Luther’s technical sense, possible.
So that humiliation ends up only as obverse of the exaltation itself. Of the constitution of the self. Now the second paragraph of Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat, which expresses the central conviction of his theology of humility and also his theology more broadly, begins as follows. Just as God in the beginning of creation made the world out of nothing, whence He is called the Creator and the Almighty, so His manner of working continues unchanged. Even now, and to the end of the world, all His works are such that out of that which is nothing, worthless, despised, wretched, and dead, He makes that which is something precious, honorable, blessed, and living.
The second moment of humility of being is an awareness of oneself as being made into something. And something that is, by virtue of being created in God’s image, not just alive, but precious and honorable and blessed. Now Luther uses the term lord and master to describe such self. In Freedom of the Christian that’s the governing description. That’s because exaltation of the self that needed to be humiliated on account of its enacted false image of itself, it’s important to say enacted false image.
It’s not that you have just the image of itself, but your creation of the self, here’s the partly relational ontology, that means you are how you relate, right? So that humiliation that needed to take place and exaltation above all that needed to take place takes place through the indwelling of the Lord Jesus Christ in the self–Lord Jesus Christ in the self. Now he’s echoing here the hymn to Christ which the apostle Paul quotes in Philippians.
The Christ is the Lord who did not graspingly cling to his divinity as if that divinity were something that could be lost and as if it were something that could be, would need to be regained. And in union with Christ, every self is Lord and Christ always already achieved as the self and never in fear of losing itself as long as Christ indwells it. This is the exaltation of the self which is identical with the proper constitution of the self, the second and central moment of humility of being. This then is the proper relation between God and the self that constitutes humility of being.
First God is a generous Creator rather than the glory-hungry and law-imposing overlord. God’s love is not performance-conditioned approval, but an unconditional commitment as Creator, Savior, to make the self into something precious and honorable. Third, the self is creature whose very self is constituted by divine presence and activity. He uses the image in Magnificat of Mary’s, of Mary and Mary’s womb, a cheerful guest-chamber and willing hostess to a great guest. So the self is constituted by divine presence and activity rather than a self being self-enclosed individual owner of itself and its actions. Fourth, such self is not passive object of God’s action nonetheless.
The entirety of the self, including the self’s proper action must be traced back to God. And finally, the self who is and who has and does all things on account of God’s creative generosity, the self who is the lord over all things, is truthful only if it ascribes everything to God alone and from God receive. Oh, something is wrong with my sentence. If that self ascribes everything to God alone from whom the self receives that. So in other words, in faith and trust. Now, that’s a kind of humility of being. According to, now a few comments on humility in acting. And I’ll return back to Miriam and Mary.
According to Philippians two, Christ is the Lord, who just because He’s free from both eager striving to become the lord and fear for clinging to being the lord can in obedience to the law of love, reach down to those in need and humble himself to the point of self-sacrifice. The gesture of giving rather than of grasping is characteristic of God. Luther’s God isn’t a proud divinity soaking up glory. God has glory, of course, and possesses it inalienably. It consists in God’s unconditional love.
To honor God is to extol God, is not to extol God as the greatest of all proud and exalted potentates, but to recognize God as the omnipotent indiscriminate Lover. Humility of being comes about, is constituted, to trust in God, again that’s a gift from God, as a mode of relating to God as the Giver of all good gifts and to oneself as their recipient. Humility in acting, which is nothing other than the other oriented side of humility of being, issues from, is, or takes form of love for God made real in passing God’s gifts to others who need them.
In union with Christ, a Christian is Christ to others. A lord who considers proud grasping for lordship as the lordship’s loss, and who considers humble service to others in love as the lordship’s enactment. Now let me push back against Luther just a little bit so that I can gain credibility about my praise of him. And that’ll take me just a touch to humility but above all to the issue of joy.
The Magnificat begins with the following words. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” These words, writes Luther, express the strong ardor and exuberant joy with which all her mind and life are inwardly exalted in the Spirit. Mary’s song is joyous because her entire life, a life of a lowly and humble servant is joy. Now, here’s where my critique begins. Luther is very careful to specify what kind of joy is this. It is not a joy over who she is. It is not a joy over any goods that she has received from God.
A person, says Luther, rejoices properly when she finds joy not in good things of God, but only in God. Alone the bare goodness of God is the proper object of joy, without any reference to the advantage of the self. Now Luther likes to use the term “alone” and he’s not quite literal in meaning here. Elsewhere he fudges a little bit. It’s a rhetorical stance sometimes. Because he will also think it proper for people to rejoice in the goods that others receive.
But his concern is with joy that accrues in the goods that come to oneself. And there he pushes against the idea of joy, I think partly because he thinks that’s gonna be somehow credited, first I’m gonna start grasping it and then I’m gonna start crediting it to myself. Now, analogously, and that’s where I want to push against some of his comments on humility, I’ve given you obviously a particular reading of Luther. Luther can be read in many ways, immensely complex writer. But analogously to his unwillingness to let the person rejoice over the goods that she has, or things that, good things that she does and has accomplished, he wants humble person to despise herself. Exalt others but despise oneself.
So the Mary self-perception, then, becomes a self-perception primarily as the one who enacts the false self, right? But nonetheless Luther can’t quite in any domain of worldly things, recognize the proper activity of the true self in rejoicing over the goods that one has, has received rather than somehow inherently one’s own. That’s where I will want to push Luther. So let me come to my last section.
To what kind of joy does humility give birth, as Scheler, and likely modified Luther, conceive of it? It is grateful joy over the goodness of the world, joy over having always already been achieved by love, this is a slightly modified Scheler, joy over the beauty and the wonder of the world and of the self, that’s modified Luther, joy in all these things notwithstanding their deficiencies.
Humility opens up wide the gates of the joy over the gift that everything good, in fact, is. But what about Miriam’s kind of joy? Joy not simply of the gift received, but over the task accomplished? Joy over being freed from oppression and poverty and thousands of daily humiliations associated with them? Even joy over the fall of the armed mighty. Remember those hallelujahs over the fall of the great and bloody-handed Babylon at the end of Revelation that we all cringe when we read? That’s Miriam’s joy, right? Or am I wrong there?
The answer is, can the humble rejoice with Miriam? That’s now my question. The answer is yes, and the reason is simple. Properly understood, a great and good task accomplished is a gift received, and the glory belongs to the Giver. But is humility of the kind Luther and Scheler advocated humility of the lords who don’t strive to achieve themselves by ascending, compatible with the struggle that arises out of longing for the joy of the world become God’s home among mortals.
Not the world and its goodness as it is, but the world that we might struggle to make in correspondence to what is to come. Now let me first take Scheler on. Scheler treats pride as a personal tragedy. The proud see themselves as ascending. But they’re in fact falling into nothingness. The humble are the exalted masters. His aim, however, is to undermine the cultural prevalence of a bourgeois morality of self-creation, along with its pride before kings’ thrones.
But underneath personal and cultural concerns lies I think an anti-egalitarian political vision. The problem is that he has completely, in my judgment, problem is that he has completely detached pride and humility from actual differentials of power, wealth, and social honor.
A humble ruler, he will give you an example, will manifest, I quote him, “a deeply secret readiness to serve him who she rules. But she will sit comfortable on the throne as an un-self-conscious queen born a mistress. It won’t occur to her to share power with those who she rules. Or to seek legitimacy from and accept oversight by them. Humility now in no way unsettles her power and her privilege. In the biblical traditions, by contrast, whatever else pride may be, it is a decidedly political and economic reality.
The proud must be taken down from their thrones. As the virgin pregnant with God’s son sings, especially those among the proud whose realms and riches are vast. In their ultimately futile climbing, the proud do not just undermine themselves. As Scheler I think rightly insists, there’s no polemic against what Scheler says, but what he doesn’t say, I suppose. They demean, they oppress, and at times destroy those around them. Struggling to ascend, the proud don’t just look down with contempt on what is beneath them, they pull down everything above them and push under everything around them.
It may seem that to solve the problem, it would suffice for them to give up pride and assume the posture of humility. So you might ask, why is it that biblical traditions demand that they give up their power along with their pride? Now Luther, who saw himself above all as interpreter of the Scripture, treats pride and humility primarily, emphasis here on primarily, as modes of being human before God.
Yet he’s keenly aware that economic wealth, political might, and cultural influence feed the pride of those who possess them, as well as enable the proud, who are powerful, to swagger their way through the world and cover the tracks of their ruinous iniquity. Now this formulation is mine, but I’ll read to you Luther’s. How long have I been going?
Audience Member: You’re good. I’m good? Oh Lord, I have about five minutes. I’m trying to assess what I should read to you, both from the introduction to Magnificat and epilogue, or just from one. But the Magnificat was written as a present to the Prince Frederick, to his ruler, right? And then he writes an introduction to him. “Since the heart of man by nature is flesh and blood, it is of itself prone to presumption.
And when in addition, power, riches, and honor come to him, these form so strong an incentive to presumption and smugness, that he, [meaning the ruler], forgets God and does not care about his subjects. Being able to do wrong with impunity, he lets himself go and becomes a beast, does whatever he pleases, and is a ruler in name but monster in deed.” That’s opening lines to the letter. Not quite, he bows very deep down before he comes to this, but on the second page that’s what he says.
And then in the epilogue, you’ve got also something very similar. And both times he’s addressing the prince directly. “For great possessions, glory and favor, as well as the flatterers no lord may be without, surround and lay siege to the heart of a prince, moving it to pride.” As pride is insatiable, it demands even more possessions, greater glory, bigger favor, which in turn inflate pride even more.
It’s this feedback loop between pride and power that makes Luther then go the other way and suggest that actual experience of lowliness in Luther’s phrase, lack of all temporal goods, is almost indispensable if a person is to become and to remain humble. Now, Luther knows, and if you read the main body of the text you’ll see that very clearly, Luther knows that you don’t have to be mighty to be proud, and inversely, that you don’t need to be weak to be humble. Gives example of Abraham and other saints from the Hebrew Bible. He also knows that the mighty aren’t the only one who oppress and destroy.
The weak and impoverished who are proud oppress and destroy too. The difference is that the pride of the lowly is more fragile and their injustice less consequential. That’s why Mary sings of God who in Christ has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, and who has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty. Now, the question is, can the humble take part in bringing down the powerful?
If all of us are supposed to be humble, what happens to our revolutionary ardor and our agency? I don’t see many revolutionaries here. I don’t count myself one. Now, Luther doesn’t entertain this thought. At least he doesn’t mention it to the prince. But the answer must be positive. If Christ the Lord become Servant can take down the mighty, that’s of whom, in Luther’s account, the virgin sings, if Jesus Christ can overturn the tables of the moneychangers so can his followers whose humility is an echo of His.
At least their humility ought not to stand in way of that. Moreover, once we acknowledge that might generates, confirms, and increases pride, and Luther adds, at least while we are on Earth. He’s kind of aware of this kind of earthly dimension of things. And you may want, figure out, what happens in the world to come and I’ll leave that maybe for some other time. But once one acknowledges that might generates, confirms, increases pride, the interest in humility is an added motivation for bringing the mighty down from their thrones.
Now but the interest in humility also precludes the lowly to seek to occupy the thrones that they have just made empty. When God lifts the lowly, Luther writes, God does not put the lowly in the seat of those he has cast out. The humble will reject the struggle for reversal of positions of privilege, for such struggle is driven by envy and by pride. But they will embrace the struggle for equality in political, economic, and cultural power.
And like Mary in the Gospel of Luke, and Miriam in Exodus, that person will rejoice in victories. Now Mary, I want to conclude with these words, Mary is Miriam, and Miriam is Mary. Their joy is one, or rather, they are two sides of one and the same joy.
And that joy is carried on the wings of humility of the sense that all the self’s goods and its very existence, all the world’s goods and the world’s very existence that everything good, everything good that is both sought after and comes unbidden, that is deserved and undeserved, done by myself or by somebody else, that all of this, all the good of such sort, is a gift, and therefore, an occasion for joy. Thank you.