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Humility and Religious Convictions

Joshua Hook

“The idea that an individual can find God is terribly self-centered. It is like a wave thinking it can find the sea.” – Sir John Templeton

Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of North Texas
August 11, 2014

Why is it so difficult to be humble about our religious beliefs, values, and convictions? This is a question I have been wrestling with a lot over the past few years, both in my personal and professional life. On one hand, I am deeply committed to faith in Christ, and I have religious convictions that I believe are important. On the other hand, I have a deep desire to foster peaceful relationships with those around me, including those who believe differently. Sometimes I think that religion (including Christianity) does little to heal divisions between individuals and groups who are different. Instead, religious differences seem to fuel the fires of conflict. Turn on your TV and watch a few cable news programs. I think you will see what I mean.

Why We Struggle with Humility

I think holding religious beliefs, values, and convictions with humility is an important way to be both committed to one’s faith and have positive engagement with others who believe differently. But it is difficult. I think there are a few reasons why we struggle to hold their religious beliefs, values, and convictions with humility:

1. We have a lot invested in being right.

Let’s be honest, the call to follow Jesus with our lives can be difficult. It often involves major changes. We have to love our enemies. Give away our money. Serve others and put their needs above our own. It’s not easy. And when we commit our lives to something, it’s important to know that we’re on the right track, that it’s worth our investment. Paul even says this in his letter to the church in Corinth: “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” When it’s really important that we are right about something, it’s difficult to be humble and admit that we might be wrong.

2. Being certain that our beliefs, values, and convictions are true eases our sense of existential anxiety.

There’s this huge research literature in psychology called Terror Management Theory. Basically, the idea is that we know that we will die someday, and this causes us anxiety. One way to relieve this anxiety is to commit strongly to certain worldviews (such as religion), because this commitment provides us with a sense of immortality (e.g., we will go to heaven when we die, we are part of something larger than ourselves). When we experience this anxiety, we tend to feel more positively about our own worldview, and derogate the worldviews of others. The anxiety we experience makes it difficult to be humble and think we might be wrong.

3. Sometimes Christianity actually measures the level of our faith by how sure we are that what we believe is true.

Maybe you have heard a sermon about this, the idea that faith means being absolutely certain that what we believe is true. Greg Boyd uses the analogy of that carnival game where you hit the platform with the big hammer and try to drive the puck to the top of the pole. (I have embarrassed myself a couple of times trying to impress a date doing this.) But we are taught this idea of faith. If we have a small amount of faith (or certainty about our belief), we can be saved. If we have a moderate amount of faith, we can have God work in our life and answer our prayers. And if we are able to hit the faith puck all the way to the top of the pole, we can basically ask God for anything we want, and it will happen. With a Christian worldview that equates faith with certainty about one’s beliefs, it is difficult to be humble and consider that we might be wrong.

Difficult, but Important

Even though it is difficult to be humble about our religious beliefs, values, and conviction, I believe it to be important, both individually and interpersonally.

1. On an individual level, I think there are inherent problems with believing that we have the corner on the truth in regard to religion.

Namely, religion involves our interpretations of God and God’s word. We engage with God and read the Scriptures through a particular cultural lens. I interpret God and the Bible through a White, Male, Middle-class, Millennial lens. You probably have a different lens. The thing about our lenses is that they are limited. I have blindspots and biases that keep me from seeing things clearly. Paul talks about our limitations to understand God: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.” To think that we have the corner on the truth is to deceive ourselves.

2. Also on an individual level, I think being humble in regard to our religious beliefs, values, and convictions gives us more flexibility in regard to our faith.

It allows our beliefs, values, and convictions to deepen or shift over time. I think this is a good thing. We hear all the time about how young people are leaving the church in record numbers. I think a big reason for this is that many Christians have a ‘brick wall’ type of faith. We have to be absolutely certain about each conviction and how they fit together, or else the whole wall falls apart. If a Christian becomes convinced, for example, that the world developed through evolution, this means that the Bible isn’t true and his or her whole faith falls apart. If a Christian develops a conviction that gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry, he or she needs to throw out the whole interlocking system of faith. In the pluralistic, complex world that we live in today, I don’t think this ‘brick wall’ type of faith that is focused on certainty is tenable for many individuals.

3. On an interpersonal level, I think having a humble faith helps us to connect with individuals and groups who are different from us.

If I’m engaged with another person and there is absolutely zero openness to my point of view, it’s difficult to have any sort of relationship. Sometimes it feels as if we expect other people to be affected or changed by us and our viewpoints, but we are unwilling to be affected or changed by others.  This is hypocrisy, and people can sense it pretty easily. If we want to work together with others for the common good, if we want to have any sort of impact or influence on the world, then we need to engage with humility.

As much as I would prefer not to admit it, we haven’t always gotten it right in regard to religious beliefs, values, and convictions. Christians have done amazing acts of love and service—and changed the world for the better. Christians have also committed cruelties and atrocities in the name of Jesus—and changed the world for the worse. I am deeply committed to faith in Christ and involvement in the church. But I don’t think I have everything right. I want to acknowledge limitations in my ability to understand God. I want to be open to new perspectives and different ideas. I want to be humble.

To Think About

What is one area of religious conviction that you find it difficult to be humble? Why do you think it’s so difficult? We want to hear from you! Leave your note in the comments section below or share this post on facebook to get the conversation started.