Radical Un-Selfing: Kent Dunnington on Christian Humility and Dependence on God
“Humility is ultimately the gift that frees us from that ‘selving project,’ as I call it. Rowan Williams talks about the history of radical Christianity, focusing particularly on the desert monks as they’re engaged in the crazy project of un-selfing, of trying to leave behind the ego-bound self. Trusting that reliance on God and one another is enough.”
Kent Dunnington is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. He’s editor of The Uncertain Center: Essays of Arthur McGill, and the author of Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice. His 2019 book just came out: Humility, Pride, and Christian Virtue Theory. In it, he presents his own account of humility and it’s a radical one. So in this conversation we discuss humility—in its ancient, scriptural, monastic, and Medieval Christian contexts; some damning criticisms of Christian virtue; Jesus’ radical vision of flourishing and eternal life, which includes self-sacrifice, the temptation toward ego building and self-improvement; and Kent’s own view of humility as “radical un-selfing.”
- 6:37—On how he got into the study of humility and why it’s important, the lack of humility in contemporary American culture and politics, the influence of Christianity on humility, and Immanuel Kant
- 11:00—On the Nietzschean critique of humility and Christianity, conceptions of the good/eternal life, the language of wholeness, and self-sacrifice and resurrection
- 14:51—“I argue that it’s important that, for Jesus, the life of glorification, to use the language in Philippians, is not separable from the life of humiliation.”
- 16:08—“The good news of the gospel, I take it, is that we really can give of ourselves without any limitation, in the hopes of discovering resurrected life, which is the discovery that endless self-sacrifice is actually eternal life.”
- 17:31—On a feminist and womanist critique of humility and self-sacrifice: do they perpetuate systems of oppression?, Christian and Pagan “wholeness,” the abuse of humility (and all of the virtues), humility as voluntary, and the monastic tradition and humility
- 20:50—“The project of embarking on the quest for humility is one that has to be undertaken voluntarily. It has to be an invitation that one receives from God. We are never in a position to recommend it or enforce it on others.”
- 22:28— On the “developmental trajectory” of humility, the penultimate and the ultimate, Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, and pride
- 25:25—On imitation, dependence, development of the self, Augustine, and “radical un-selfing”
- 27:34—On his autobiography, the humility of his family, and the obsession with subjectivity
- 30:01—“You don’t become humble by becoming interested in humility. You become humble by becoming interested in other people, and most especially, in God.”
- 32:17—On the attractiveness of humility, a positive account of humility, Simone Weil on affliction and love of others, and humility and love in L’Arche communities
- 35:39—“If humility is a genuine virtue, where we know how to go on, even though we don’t know who we are, it means that we can continue to love, even when everything we thought we needed to be an impressive self is under challenge or is gone.”
- 37:35—On “mundane humility,” dependence, Immanuel Kant on humility and beggars, and St. Francis of Assisi
- Hosted and produced by Evan Rosa
- Resource of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation
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- Edited and mixed by TJ Hester
- Production Assistance by Kaleb Cohen
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Evan Rosa: “The Table Audio” is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Kent Dunnington: Humility is ultimately the gift that frees us from that selving project, as I call it. Rowan Williams talks about the history of radical Christianity, focusing particularly on the desert monks as they’re engaged in the crazy project of un-selfing, of trying to leave behind the ego-bound self. Trusting that reliance on God and one another is enough.
ER: I’m Evan Rosa and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
We’ve talked a lot about humility throughout the life of this podcast and I’ve heard and made all the bad jokes about it, but there’s always room for one more humility joke. Right?
Here we go.
Entering his empty sanctuary during the high holy days, a rabbi was suddenly overcome with emotion and threw himself onto the ground, proclaiming, “Lord, I am nothing.”
The cantor felt this was a fine gesture, so he too prostrated himself and cried out, “Lord, I am nothing.” The synagogue janitor standing in the back got caught up in the fervor and joined in, “Lord, I am nothing.” Seeing this, the rabbi nudged the cantor and whispered, “Look who thinks he’s nothing.” Get it?
I blame Kent Dunnington for that joke. Kent Dunnington is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. He’s editor of The Uncertain Center: Essays of Arthur McGill, which collected the papers of a completely underrated and underappreciated 20th century theologian. Kent is author of Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice. His 2019 book just came out: Humility, Pride, and Christian Virtue Theory.
Kent is my guest on The Table Audio this episode and is also one of my good friends. We splash around and fall off surfboards together with Gregg and Tom from time to time. The ocean provides such good practice for humility. I asked Kent if he’d be up for an interview on The Table because in this recent book of his, he presents his own account of humility and it’s a radical one.
Radical in the sense of being brought back to the radix, or root, of things. He’s trying to understand why the early and medieval church said the things they said about the pursuit of Christ-like humility. Things like…
KD: Do not take much notice of your Abba and do not often go see him for you will get confidence from it and start to want to be a leader yourself.
KD: Benedict’s rule says the sixth step of humility is that a monk is content with the lowest and most menial treatment and regards himself as a poor and worthless workman in whatever task he’s given.
KD: I shall be a Christian only when the world sees me no more.
ER: Oh man.
KD: Unless you think in your heart that you have been shut in a tomb for three years, you cannot attain to self loss.
ER: That is harshing my chill. Those are some hard sayings, but here now in the modern period, we contemporary American Christians want our cake and to eat it too. We want to embrace humility, but we also take up for ourselves the project of, well, ourselves.
We cultivate and coddle and grow and are constantly trying to improve ourselves, often centering our lives around the concept of me. The Christian is faced with a radical problem. If humility is what the early Christians said it is, that includes many teachings of Christ himself, how are we to seek it while also maintaining a strong sense of individuality, personal projects, modest public praise and appreciation, or anything resembling the modern American understanding of a flourishing self?
In this conversation we discuss humility in its ancient scriptural, monastic, and Medieval Christian contexts. Some damning criticisms of Christian virtue, especially Nietzsche’s view that humility is the ultimate character flaw.
Jesus’ radical vision of flourishing and eternal life, which includes self sacrifice, the temptation toward ego building and self improvement. The “council of despair” one finds in the monastic vision of humility and humiliation.
What Simone Weil considers the true genius of Christianity. Immanuel Kant’s love for humility but his detest for beggars. And throughout the frightening challenge of getting over yourself and depending on God and others.
A final note. Kent makes an important point that might not sit too well with the intellectual Christian, which is that writing and thinking about humility won’t make you humble. At best it provides hopefully helpful theoretical signposts.
To become humble, you should stop thinking about your own pursuit of it, and focus on others, and focus on God. With that said, I hope you’ll wait to seek humility until after you listen to our conversation.
I’m just kidding. Lord, help me. Kent provides a definition for humility in his book, Humility, Pride, and Christian Virtue Theory. With this definition, he’s trying to preserve those ancient and medieval Christian understandings of humility, however harsh they come across.
He thinks of humility as “radical un‑selfing,” a state of character in which we simply have no self‑concern at all. He writes, “Humility is the disposition to have no concern to develop, clarify, attain, maintain, or safeguard an ego ideal, because of a trust that one’s well-being is entirely secured by the care of God.”
With this radical un-selfing definition in mind, I asked Kent how he got into studying humility and why he thinks it’s important now.
KD: I have long been interested in the difference that Christianity makes to the way we think about the virtues. I had read enough of St. Augustine to know that Augustine puts humility at the center of his presentation of the really dramatic difference between a Christian moral outlook at the Pagan one.
I knew that, and I knew that humility was a popular, widely-lauded virtue in contemporary life.
ER: But still conflicted recently.
KD: It’s conflicted, yeah. It’s particularly conflicted now, because… I should say it’s more apparently conflicted now because we have a political leader whose lack of apparent humility is pretty striking. I think we’re actually on a weird cultural moment where on the one hand, we think that a lack of humility is part of the story of why Trump has succeeded, and many people think it will make him a better president, that he apologizes for nothing, doesn’t back down.
Also, I think most people still share the assumption, or maybe only the worry, that a lack of humility, even if it makes you better as a businessman or a president, makes you worse as a person. I think we are culturally conflicted.
I got interested in the basic question of, how is it that what was once a distinctively Christian virtue has become a virtue that everyone thinks you ought to have, to some degree, but thinks that you don’t need any reference to Christianity or Judaism to make sense of what it is.
It was that historical puzzle that got me interested.
ER: Part of that puzzle seems like it is important, not just for the virtue of humility, but it looks like that puzzle simply applies to the fact that Christianity has become so ingrained in the consciousness of human society.
It’s grown to a point where it’s taken as a given, in some sense. I’m particularly just thinking about the moral teachings of Christianity. They’re just present in Western societies and a growing number of Eastern society as well.
Such that something like humility, which if you look at the historical documentations, and if you look at people who were thinking really careful about that character trait along the way, and comparing and contrasting to Christianity, then they decidedly find it a vice.
It’s so ingrained now that we’ve adopted it as a general perspective without necessarily adopting the radical view of Christianity.
KD: Right. One of the ways that I put it is that we sometimes, we will hear a call for humility in our corporate leaders and national leaders. It seems, even if everyone doesn’t agree that humility is important, it’s not that surprising that we would ask for it.
Aristotle would have found it really odd. Humility wasn’t even really, it’s not exactly accurate to say it was a vice. It was a hardly a moral term at all. It was just a description of poverty, ugliness, lowliness, all the things that really cut you out of the moral project in the first place.
You’re exactly right that Christianity has so dramatically changed the moral outlook of contemporary cultures, definitely all Western cultures that we have a very hard time telling the difference between what are supposedly natural moral intuitions and what are in fact deeply formed moral intuitions that have a legacy in Christianity.
You see this most clearly in Enlightenment moral philosophers like Immanuel Kant, for instance, whose project is to give an account of morality that makes appeal to nothing besides so-called natural reason.
In fact, it turns out that Kant was mostly just a Lutheran. All of the things that his natural reason end up calling for are the sorts of things that would have seemed surprising to Aristotle, or to Plato, for that matter.
ER: He’s really just baptizing Christian virtues in natural reason.
KD: That’s right. He’s baptizing Christian virtues. One of the really interesting things about humility is that it is one of these virtues that allows you to trace the influence of Christianity on a culture. Just to the extent that a culture is interested in maintaining humility as an important moral virtue, that culture remains under the sway of Christianity.
You see this especially in those few despisers of Christianity, someone like Nietzsche. I think Nietzsche’s exactly right when Nietzsche says, “Look, if we’re really going to move beyond Christianity, we have to toss out all these virtues that Christianity injected into the moral consciousness of the West.”
We have to be honest and say that humility is part of the resentment-laden project of Christianity and be done with it once and for all, recover a kind of Pagan pride.
ER: Explain the Nietzschean critique, because you suggested it’s probably the one that’s most worth noticing as a critique of humility, the ressentiment approach. I wonder if you would say a little bit about that, and maybe contrast that to, or perhaps utilize what you take to be Jesus’s concept of the good life, what you’d call eternal life.
KD: Nietzsche’s critique of humility is really pretty straightforward. Nietzsche says that Jesus, the great prophet of humility, was in fact not genuinely humble at all, but was prideful. Humility was an attempt to reframe success in a way that could make the poor, the lowly, the weak turn out to be the victors.
The sense in which it’s a project of pride is the sense in which Jesus is still fundamentally interested in winning. That is to say, in being victorious, in being rank-ordered higher than those sinners who end up in Hell.
Nietzsche cites as evidence for this some unfortunate passages from Thomas Aquinas, where Aquinas talks about how the blessed will look down from Heaven on those who are suffering in Hell, and the suffering of those in Hell will enhance the glee and the joy of those in Heaven.
Nietzsche takes that as evidence that this whole…
ER: Perhaps not Thomas’s best moment.
KD: Maybe not Thomas’s best moment. Nietzsche says, “Look, if that’s what humility is, if humility is a strategy for winning, for getting on top, for being victorious in the long run, it’s nothing really different than what the Pagans were up to in the first place.”
They were interested in winning, too. Theirs was a warrior ethic. That, I think, is a really powerful critique. I think we see in lots of contemporary theologies of Heaven, for instance, a tamer version of what Nietzsche alleges Aquinas was doing.
That is to say we tend to think of eternal life in terms of winning, in terms of having all of the possessions that we were not able to have in this life.
ER: Sometimes, it’s just the possession of knowledge as well. Finally, you get to know. It’s achievement-based.
ER: You achieve a certain kind of, whatever you’re valuing.
KD: It’s the achievement of perfect knowledge. It’s the achievement of perfect health. It’s the achievement of perfect personal power and perfect personal personality. You see this, for instance, in the language of wholeness, which is not really scriptural language.
It’s one of the ways we characterize Heaven, is that all people will be made whole. I understand the impulse there, but the idea is one that I think can and should be challenged by a truly cross-shaped vision of eternal life.
The way I think to respond to Nietzsche’s critique is to say, “Well is there really anything fundamentally different in Jesus’s picture of eternal life than in the Greek picture of immortality?” I argue that there is. I argue that it’s important that, for Jesus, the life of glorification, to use the language in Philippians, is not separable from the life of humiliation.
We sometimes think that the humiliation of the cross is an instrumental, and sadly, it’s a purely instrumental route to the glorification or the exaltation of resurrected life.
ER: The only point to self-sacrifice here right now is for the sake of glorification later?
KD: Yeah, it’s for the sake of a future in which the self no longer needs to be sacrificed. But in fact, I think the way to think about eternal life is the eternal life of Jesus is the eternal manifestation of a life of self-sacrifice.
Jesus is eternally sacrificing himself. We know this, because we have Eucharist, which is Jesus’s eternal self-sacrifice. Resurrection is the affirmation that self‑sacrifice need not lead to death. What it is to live in the devastated world after the fall is to live in a world where to give of ourselves is to open ourselves up to the vulnerability of death.
We think of self-sacrifice as necessitating an eventual death. The good news of the gospel, I take it, is that we really can give of ourselves without any limitation, in the hopes of discovering resurrected life, which is the discovery that endless self-sacrifice is actually eternal life.
ER: The first thing to point out is how paradoxical that is. That comes as paradox. It defies certain common sense sensibilities about the kind of goods that we ought to seek for ourselves and for others.
ER: Maybe defend against the critique that this kind of self-sacrifice is there to be redeemed. That’s only good, given the fall. What would you say about that? I think that’s what you’ll hear from people where, for instance, about making self-sacrifice a formal standard, based on eschatological views.
If it is part of the eschaton, then do we continue to praise deprecatory behavior that we think is perhaps fundamentally demeaning to people? How do we guard against something like that? The direction clearly being trying to make space for some sense of proper self-concern, developing a sense of self, and standing up to injustice against oneself. Trying not to play into victimization.
KD: There’s two pieces here. One is the question of what evidence really is there that this self-sacrificial mode is part of our eternal destiny, and not merely a necessary concession to a fallen world? There, I think, the answer is a deeply theological one.
It has to do with theological claims such as the ones that are made in scripture, that the lamb is slain before the foundation of the world, so that the sacrifice of Jesus is not a concession to the fall, but is an essential characteristic of Jesus and of the triune God.
Now, that raises all kinds of really thorny theological issues having to do with the impassibility of God. It would take a lot to get into all of that.
ER: We don’t have to go there.
KD: I do think what I wanted to challenge in the book, or what I wanted to challenge, is the presumption that wholeness as Christians understand it is more or less a kind of sanctified version of Pagan views of wholeness.
I think that what we see in Jesus’s life, in the very strange things that scriptures say about our future, that self-sacrifice has a future. That’s the way that Robert Jenson puts it somewhere. Now, there’s additional question which is OK, suppose that’s true.
Suppose we say that our destiny is to be eternally self-sacrificial, is to always be willing to give of ourselves without limit. Isn’t that dangerous?
Doesn’t that simply perpetuate systems of oppression in which we keep people in their place by saying, “Oh, it’s good to be humble. It’s good for you to sacrifice your well-being for the good of others”?
ER: Because you’re codifying self-sacrifice, in some way.
KD: Exactly, powerful critique. I think this has been, if not the most philosophically or theologically powerful critique, it’s certainly the most socially powerful critique of the whole tradition of Christian humility.
It’s been brought with a special force by contemporary feminist and womanist theologians who rightly point out that if you are in a system in which a powerful group, contingently powerful, they just happen to be the ones in power, that their power depends on keeping others from assuming positions of power, humility is a great virtue to have in your back pocket to keep them down, because what you can do is preach the virtue of humility and inculcate it in the oppressed, and have them essentially become complicit in their own oppression.
It’s a really powerful critique. I think the response to the critique goes something like this. Yes, all of that is right. Humility, like most virtues, is ripe for abuse, and has indeed been abused in Christian history in all the ways that feminist and womanist theologians allege.
What follows from that, I think, is that we must be extremely careful about enjoining other people to the kind of radical humility that Christianity, I think, calls us to. That in fact the project of embarking on the quest for humility is one that has to be undertaken voluntarily.
It has to be an invitation that one receives from God. We are never in a position to recommend it or enforce it on others. The tradition in which the pursuit of this kind of radical humility has been most prominent is the monastic tradition, which is a voluntary tradition.
People have read the texts of Benedict and the things he said about humility, sometimes with horror, not remembering that all the people that he’s speaking to are people who have voluntarily entered into the path of knowing self-sacrifice.
To take the things that Benedict has said about humility and to preach them from the pulpit, or to speak to our kids as though these are things that we can require and enjoin of them, not only does it not lead to genuine humility, but it’s profoundly destructive of the things that people need to develop as human beings.
My view is that humility has what I call a developmental trajectory. To put it in the simplest terms, one has to develop what are now called the proper prides in order to have anything to give away at all. In other words, one must have developed an ego that one can then learn to sacrifice.
If humility is enjoined in such a way that one never even develops the proper prides, what you have is not a humble person, but a person whose very humanity has been stripped from them. You have a slave, essentially.
ER: Would the implication of that be, though, that the point of becoming fully human, becoming a self, is to get rid of it? You don’t say this exactly, but you gesture toward, “Just get over yourself.”
KD: Yes, I do think that’s our destiny. I think in terms that I learned from Bonhoeffer, distinguishing between the penultimate and the ultimate. Sometimes, the penultimate is at odds with the ultimate, but it’s nevertheless important that we preserve it and honor the penultimate, as long as it’s kept in its proper place.
I do think that pride, there is a passage in Simone Weil where she pictures pride as the garments that we placed on our nakedness in the Garden of Eden. If you think about those garments, they are a concession to the fall, but they’re also important for our future survival.
We are now vulnerable human beings, but it’s no part of our future to be clothed in Heaven. The garments are penultimate and a recovery of paradisal nakedness is ultimate. Similarly, I think humility, the Christian virtue of humility, is a peek into our ultimate destiny.
The proper prides are important in their place, but I think we make a mistake as Christians if we baptize pride in such a way as to make it part of our eternal destiny. I really think our goal is to get over ourselves entirely.
This is why the scripture’s portrait of Jesus is so disconcerting to us. It tells us almost nothing about Jesus’s subjectivity, but we want to know about Jesus’s subjectivity, because we think that’s what’s most interesting about him.
As we think it’s what’s most interesting about ourselves than anyone else. But scripture show absolutely no interest in the subjectivity of Jesus. It shows nothing but interest in his complete reliance on obedience to and service to the Father.
I do think it’s part of the frightening challenge of Christianity that what we sometimes take to be the most interesting project of our lives, namely to get a clear grip on who we are, is in fact no part of our future.
ER: The sense you get, I love the way that you articulate that, that we’re dying to know something more about Jesus’s subjectivity. We wear t-shirts about it. We want to know exactly what Jesus would do in every situation. We want to know what he believed about everything.
KD: Yeah, how he thought of himself.
ER: That’s right. Perhaps with good purpose, because we’re concerned with the task of imitating him. Yet, if what you’re saying is right, we’re paying attention to exactly the wrong things to imitate.
We are really just trying to imitate a fundamentally self-concerned Jesus, because we have assumed about ourselves that it’s deeply important that I develop an interesting self, and that I take on this project of finding my ego ideal, as you describe it in the book.
When what we find for imitation—it looks like what you’re suggesting—what we find for imitation is dependence.
KD: That’s absolutely right. I think the gift that the church gives us in worship and in the works of the mercy is the gift of being free of the project of endless self-improvement. This is why Augustine was so ambivalent about talking about the virtues, because the virtues have historically been part of the project of the development of a self.
Now, there’s some historical anachronism there, because Aristotle didn’t think of the self in the way that we do. But setting that aside, the virtues were very much about developing a set of personal characteristics that could be had as a possession of the self, that can guarantee the self’s future in the face of the slings and arrows of fortune.
It was an ancient self-improvement project, and Augustine struggled to know what to do with that because on the one hand, he wanted to carry on the conversation with the Pagan moralists, and show how Christianity offered an alternative.
On the other hand, the alternative was so disinterested in that self-improvement project that the risk was always that the Christian virtues would simply be reinserted into that project of self-improvement. This is why I think humility is such an important virtue for Christians to think about.
Because everyone who’s tried to be humble recognizes the self-referentially incoherent challenge there. That here I am, trying to get over myself, but in so doing, I’m trying to develop an attribute that makes me really impressive.
Namely, “Jeez, that guy is really humble,” right? [laughs]
ER: Yeah, it’s classic.
KD: I do think that humility is ultimately the gift that frees us from that selving project, as I call it. Rowan Williams talks about the history of radical Christianity, focusing particularly on the desert monks as they are engaged in the crazy project of un-selfing, of trying to leave behind the ego-bound self, trusting that reliance on God and one another is enough.
I’m still drawn to that picture. I should say, as a bit of autobiography, I grew up in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. And as I’ve reflected back on that tradition, which is a revivalist tradition obsessed with personal holiness…
ER: Perfection, right?
KD: Yeah, obsessed with Christian perfection. That tradition, like every, has pitfalls. I grew up really around people that I think, if there are Christian saints living today, these were some of them.
ER: That’s right. You dedicate the book…
KD: I dedicate my book to my mom and my grandparents. One of the things that I have always been struck by is the lack of interest that my grandparents, for instance, have in their own subjectivity. It’s really hard to get them to talk about their development of self, the movement, and their psychology.
I have come to think that that’s because they have been so deeply shaped as Christians that they’ve come to believe that’s not really the most interesting thing to spend their time thinking about or talking about.
As someone who’s spent most of my life now in the academy, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Academics are like most modern people, obsessed with their subjectivity.
ER: I would say, get reflexive and meta pretty easily.
KD: Yeah, that’s right.
ER: Well, also, it’s rife with opportunity for just hypocrisy and clowning.
KD: It is. To be honest, one of my…
ER: Sorry, this is like the primary audience of this podcast. [laughs]
KD: Yeah. Honestly, I once said to a friend about this book…
ER: Sorry, everyone.
KD: I said, “Anyone who’s interested in this book probably isn’t humble, because…”
KD: “…I doubt that the genuinely humble person would have enough interest in carefully disambiguating all the senses of the self that are necessary to give an account…” All I can say is, “Yeah, that’s right.”
In some ways, this book, and my own interest in humility, it’s been about trying to assess why the pursuit of humility seems so inaccessible to me as a Christian, even though I think that it is what I should be doing.
ER: You’re telling me that things are so bad that to be truly humble is to really not even give a rip about what humility even is?
KD: Yeah, probably so. You don’t become humble by becoming interested in humility. You become humble by becoming interested in other people, and most especially, in God. I certainly am not under the illusion that thinking about humility is necessary or sufficient for becoming humble.
I think it is important and helpful that there are certain bits of wisdom in the tradition about practices you can undertake to grow in humility, put down the whole process. Getting a fine-grained and careful definition of humility is not a necessary or sufficient step for becoming humble.
To defend it, it is important, I think, that there are people who want to try to think carefully about how the virtue has come to be understood, and how recapturing an older understanding of it might open up new ways of thinking about discipleship and following Jesus.
ER: You describe in the book a Council of Despair. You depict the rule of St. Benedict, almost the whole of the ammas and abbas of the desert, as what comes initially to, let’s say, the catechumen of Christianity, or anyone who would follow Jesus.
It’s a Council of Despair. I think you phrase it really well, so I’m going to be jumping over, but you say, “In this tradition, this ancient, monastic Christian tradition, we hear little of self-confidence. We hear little of secure agency. We hear little of aspiration.
“We hear little of pride in one’s work. We hear little of a sense of dignity. We hear little of self-respect. We hear little of personal authority. It’s just the rejection of the quest for a secure sense of self that can underwrite effectual moral agency, and enable a person to remain self-confident and self-sufficient throughout the storms of life.”
That’s the Council of Despair. [laughs]
KD: It is.
ER: I think there is just something more to be said, then, for what makes it attractive. If it’s no concern for self, which is a negative expression, is there a positive expression of humility for you that is most evocative of what to seek? How do we wander through this?
KD: Why be attracted to a vision that is so at odds with our natural impulses? The most straightforward answer is the same one that Peter gave to Jesus, “Where else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
In other words, if you’re convinced, as I am, that this person, Jesus, is the center of history, and shows us what our future as human beings is meant to be, then you have to figure out what to do with the very strange call that he gives, that whoever would save his life must lose it.
My whole attempt to understand humility is an attempt to understand what appears to be the contradiction, but is at least the paradox, of that verse. That’s the first answer. Why be interested in this? Why were the desert monks interested in this?
They were trying to find their way into the strange way of living that Jesus called people to, trusting that resurrection really was its future. Now, I can say a little bit more, though, about a positive account of humility, of this radical view of humility.
In my own life, I think my own thinking about this was really spurred along by experience of suffering. Simone Weil, who’s in the back of my thinking for all of this. I think Simone Weil, along with Thomas Merton, are a couple of more contemporary Christians who have preserved in their lives and in their writing this radical vision of humility.
The fact that so many Christians are still drawn to their writings shows, I think, that we recognize that Christianity’s a call to a radical form of self-loss. Anyway, Simone Weil says, “The genius of Christianity is not that it has solved the problem of suffering, but that it’s found a use for it.”
In other words, Christianity doesn’t offer us, she thinks, what philosophers call a theodicy, an explanation for evil. It offers a use for suffering, and she thinks…This is my interpretation.
She thinks that Christianity offers a use for suffering, just because suffering so destroys the self, radical suffering, what she calls affliction, so destroys the self that along with it, it destroys the resources that typically motivate our love of others. Most of the time, our love and care of others remains motivated by pride. Most of the time, I’m a good husband and a good father, because those actions build me up as a certain kind of person.
They contribute to my view of what an impressive Kent would be. I learned that when in the midst of profound suffering, that vision I have of a noble and impressive Kent begins to be torn away from me. This happens in chronic suffering, or people who are living with a terminal condition.
It happens particularly with people whose suffering makes them, as we say, a shell of themselves. Then what you discover, as Simone Weil said, is that you have no resources to love. That’s because you have no more pride.
The question for me is, is it possible to go on in those situations? If humility is a genuine virtue, where we know how to go on, even though we don’t know who we are, it means that we can continue to love, even when everything we thought we needed to be an impressive self is under challenge or is gone.
That’s right. I talk in the book a little bit about what people learn in L’Arche communities, where they learn that people who don’t even have a self-concept are in fact the most powerful conduits of genuine love.
Now, there’s some skepticism about that. You might say, “Well, that’s just sentimental BS. People are reading into that experience what they want.” What I want to know is, theologically, why would you say that?
Why would you not think that these human beings, who are born in the image of God, who have no obstacles to their being a perfect conduit of God’s love, are in fact our example in that respect? I think humility points us in something like that direction.
If that’s true, it’s frightening to undergo suffering, but it allows us to think about suffering, extreme forms of suffering which cause humiliation, as an opportunity, as an invitation that we can learn how to love in the absence of pride.
Which is just to say that we can learn how to live off of the love that God has for us.
ER: That is the perfect expression of dependence.
KD: That’s right, that’s right.
ER: Once you get into the framework of dependence and independence, it’s quite easy to see how especially American Christians would struggle with this radical conception of humility, because of the radical embracing of the concept of independence.
KD: That’s right. That’s right. That’s true for any modern European folks. That was the…
ER: It’s going to be trouble for anyone with a democratic mindset.
KD: That was the heartbeat of the Enlightenment Movement, was the quest for autonomy. You see this really clearly. Kant is one of the major characters in this book. I use Kant to develop a view of what I call mundane humility, which is an account of humility that does not imperil proper pride, a sense of dignity, self-esteem, and the noble self.
I love Immanuel Kant. I use him as an example, because I think he gives us one of the most clear pictures of what humility looks like when it’s been rescued from this Council of Despair, as I put it.
ER: Did you just say that you’re going to use Immanuel Kant as a means to an end?
KD: [laughs] You caught me. You caught me.
ER: That is not OK.
KD: Immanuel Kant has merely instrumental worth in my project.
ER: He is an inviolable human being, Kent.
KD: Evan, I’m embarrassed to have been caught out.
KD: What I think is so important about Kant is he lauds humility, but he’s horrified by beggars. Now, that might seem incidental, but it’s not incidental. Kant has passages, for instance, where he says, “If you’re a good friend, you shouldn’t even tell your friend when you’re in need, because then, that will put him in your debt. You can’t be sure he’s really your friend anymore.”
He wanted his city to pass a citywide ban on begging, because as he said, “There’s nothing that’s more detrimental to the project of growth and virtue than seeing a beggar.” Now, just contrast this with something like St. Francis of Assisi and the whole Mendicant movement in medieval Christianity, which valorized begging as symbolic of our true state as human beings who rely continually on the gifts of God’s goodness.
Contrast it with the Sermon on the Mount, which says quite directly that it is the poor that are blessed. Why are the poor blessed? The poor are blessed because they know they’re dependent.
They’re in a state of absolute neediness, and therefore are open to God in a way that the rest of us are not. I do think that it is this question of whether or not independence is an ultimate virtue, and I don’t think it is.
I think dependence is what is characteristic of the life of the trinity, and what is characteristic of our future around the throne.
ER: Stay humble and dependent, my friends, and all the best as you walk the razor’s edge of losing and finding self. If you’re interested in more on humility, check out my interviews with Jennifer Hurt, Krista Tippett, or read Kent Dunnington’s “Introduction to Humility” article, all of which you can find on the show notes for the this episode.
Not to mention the many other videos and articles on humility featured on the CCT website. Thanks again for listening to The Table.
Vocalist: Open up our eyes to see the wounds that bind all of humankind. May our shutter hearts greet the dawn of life with charity and love.
ER: The Table Audio is hosted and produced by me, Evan Rosa, and is a resource of the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and the Blankemeyer Foundation.
Theme music is by The Brilliance. Production and engineering by the Narrativo Group. More info at narrativogroup.com. Edited and mixed by TJ Hester, production assistance by Kaleb Cohen. To subscribe to The Table Audio, check us out on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Google Play, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
This sounds like a good episode to share. Just don’t share it passive aggressively to that arrogant snob you know. That just wouldn’t be humble. On Twitter, you can follow me @EvanSubRosa, and you can follow the Center for Christian Thought @BiolaCCT or visit our website, cct.biola.edu.