How might the New Testament contribute to our understanding of intellectual humility? And specifically, how does it offer unique perspectives in the context of philosophical and scientific research?
Recent Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Approaches to Intellectual Humility
Let’s start with some context.1 In May 2014, I participated in a conference bringing two research projects together: one on the Philosophy and Theology of Intellectual Humility and the other on the Science of Intellectual Humility. As the two projects came together in Saint Louis, those working on the science of intellectual humility presented some of their preliminary findings, all of which were fascinating and provocative. But two broad features of the discussion were quite striking.
1. How to Define Intellectual Humility
The first was that the precise meaning of the expression “intellectual humility” still wasn’t entirely clear to many of the contributors, a problem they acknowledged openly. Typically, it was approached by contrasting it with “intellectual arrogance,” with one project seeking to catalogue popular (or “folk”) views on what constituted the respective virtue and vice. This should not be surprising: The very idea of “virtue” has limited currency in the late modern West and even where it has been maintained, humility is not universally considered one of its forms.
It is often pointed out that the Jewish and Christian traditions were unusual in their positive estimation of the virtue of humility in ancient times and in modern times it has been harshly criticized as a “virtue” that serves only those who subjugate the humble, reinforcing uneven power relationships. As such, the idea of humility, of which intellectual humility is a sub-species, has been largely marginalized in modernity. The current study of intellectual humility, then, is a work of recovery: small wonder that its students do not tacitly know the details of its composition.“The idea of humility, of which intellectual humility is a sub-species, has been largely marginalized in modernity.”
2. Viewing Intellectual Humility Through Open-Mindedness
The second feature of the discussion perhaps reflects this first difficulty: Most of the work being undertaken in the scientific studies concerned one particular aspect of intellectual humility, namely open-mindedness. The intellectually humble recognize the limits of their knowledge and are, therefore, open and respectful to the views and insights of others. This is undoubtedly a key element of intellectual humility, but is it the only element? Is there a danger of neglecting other important factors in such a discussion? Furthermore, does this way of thinking about intellectual humility provide the necessary resources by which we can understand how the virtue operates when the humble person is right (and knows it!) and is dealing with someone whose beliefs are undoubtedly foolish or misguided? In that case, open-mindedness is no longer applicable; does that also mean that intellectual humility has reached its limit?
The New Testament as a Source for Understanding Intellectual Humility
Here is the point where the New Testament contribution prompts us to think about things a little differently.
The Humility of the Creature
It is certainly the case that the biblical writings share in the common emphasis on intellectual humility as involving a recognition of our limits. In fact, they take this emphasis even further than is generally the case by recognizing that it is not merely that we have constitutional limits as investigators (for limits can be pushed or exceeded), but that there are some things that are ontologically beyond investigation by scientific method or rational inquiry. Certain things can only be known by us if they are “revealed” to us, and this revelation involves both the object that is made known and a transformation of those enabled to recognize it for what it is. We could pile up the evidence for this particular emphasis in the New Testament, but let’s just take one example. In Matthew 11:27, Jesus says: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (NRSV). The statement is dramatically enacted in Matthew 16:16-18, where Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and Jesus states: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (NRSV). The theme echoes throughout the New Testament and subsequent Christian theology: some of God’s truths, particularly those that bear on his self-disclosure in Christ, require revelation. However far science advances, it will never have access to those truths that originate and exist beyond the cosmos, for all that we can investigate are those things that belong to the same created order as ourselves.
The Humility of the Sinner
To this basic humility of finitude—which we may designate the humility of the creature—the New Testament adds a further dimension, which may or may not be shared with science and philosophy: the humility of the sinner in need of, or in the process of, redemption. The two elements of humility are not separate, of course. The things that are revealed by God to creatures who could not know them without such an “apocalypse” are precisely matters of salvation or redemption from sin. But the fact that we are, in the context of this revelation, diagnosed as sinful is an important truth in its own right. We are, in key ways, damaged or corrupt; our processing and transmission of the truth that we observe is, consequently, corrupt. We can see what it suits us to see, know things only as they are comfortable to us. We suppress even the manifest truth in our wickedness (Romans 1:18-19). Science and philosophy, of course, have versions of this insight, whether it is the tenacity of the obsolete paradigm in Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of scientific communities, or the potential for cognitive dissonance to prevent us from seeing things as they really are.