Some time ago, I entered a classroom at Niagara University where I was teaching “froshies” the rudiments of the New Testament, focusing on the teachings of Jesus in the gospels. The classroom was located near the Campus Ministry office. In the corridor, I noticed a series of handmade posters promoting classical religious virtues. The one that really caught my eye highlighted the virtue of humility. It said something like this: humility is admiration for the gifts that God has given to others – reverence for God in others – recognizing and developing our own gifts for others. It seemed a bit prosaic for an inspirational poster, but it accomplished its purpose. So much so, that I pulled out the journal I always carry and recorded the sentiments expressed. It really accomplished its purpose when you realize that the year 1991 and I still refer to it.
Too often when we hear the word humility, we think of how we ought to be self-effacing – diminish ourselves in the light of others. Here however, the word admiration opened for me a new way of thinking about humility. On seeing admiration in connection with humility, I began to recognize all the ways in which, being preoccupied with myself, I failed to stop and admire the gifts of others. I am happy to say the poster almost immediately made me admire the gifts of those around me, including my students!
I’ve recalled that poster many times since, especially when I witness pitched battles over social issues. It is so amazingly easy to get drawn into confrontations over policies, structures, and outcomes when we confront the problems that face our communities. Regardless of which side we may take on a particular issue, we are all thinking about doing what we deem “good.” The problem emerges when we see anyone who questions or opposes us as a barrier to accomplishing that good. We come close to falling into what is known as a “technocratic paradigm,” where we treat others not as persons but as thing – as unruly “parts” of a mechanical assembly. But society is not a machine. It is something that we do with other people. Thus, church teachings are not exclusively about policies and plans. As Christians our “positions” must reflect virtues – the positive habits we form as we learn how to interact with others. To overcome the growing divisions in our communities, we may need something like what we might call social humility – something like what is rooted in the convictions the poster expressed.
To develop a sense of social humility, we must acknowledge that none of us can see the whole picture. None of us has a “God’s-eye view” of something as vast and complicated as society. This may seem like common sense, but it is especially important for Christians.
From the beginning, wanting to “be like gods” has been part of the human condition. This temptation grows stronger when we try to better society motivated by religious faith. If we believe we are doing God’s work, we can too easily believe anyone who opposes us opposes God. “Social humility” reminds us that situations are never that simple. Social humility asks us to admire that piece of the picture that God has given to others to see and that may be hidden from our eyes.
Another important aspect is rooted in our traditional teaching about conscience—namely, it is nearly impossible to snuff out one’s conscience entirely. No matter how poorly an individual’s conscience may have been formed over time, we believe that there is still a fundamental inclination placed there by God: to do what is good. Problems emerge, however, when we are mistaken about what the good genuinely is and what means we can use to achieve it. Even so, if we believe that we search for the good with some degree of clarity, and our opponent does not, we must still believe that our opponent also seeks what is good – as they see it. Then, there is something in their view that is good and thus worth admiring.
Finally, we believe that God created humanity to be one family. Family metaphors dominate the language of human relationships in Christianity. We grow accustomed to being addressed as “brothers and sisters,” that God is “our father,” and that Mary was the “mother” of the “son” who is the “brother” to us all. Our first response to others, then, should a response we would hope for in family relationships: no matter the conflict, the option of total rejection or destruction is off the table. This is not to say that family relationships cannot break down. Parents reject children, children reject parents. People become alienated from their own families. Even Jesus recognized that possibility. But the pain of such situations alerts us that this is not God’s design for us. Instead, we should seek to find the good in our brothers and sisters—and not just our biological ones – but everyone in God’s human family.
This admiration-first approach is not easy. We need to be aware of the particular “structures of sin” that we face in trying to cultivate such humility. One of the biggest problems we face today are the ubiquitous online forums that prioritize getting attention and rousing followers. It is always easier to cultivate humility when we come face-to-face with real, not virtual, people. We know all too well that even real-life social relationships can be infected by pride, hostility, and arrogance. But we also recognize it is harder to hate someone to their face.
This isn’t about being “nice” to everyone. It isn’t about trying to get the other person to be “nice” to us. It is about living out the gospel values of respect and an acknowledgement of the dignity of every human being, even those we may not “like.”
To follow the Way of Love, as Jesus proclaims it, we must stand up for dignity. We should especially minister to those who suffer at the hands of those who fail to respect others’ dignity. Even so, we never have permission to fail in respecting the dignity of those on the “other side.”
Is that a path of foolishness? If we think in terms of maximizing outcomes, it certainly is. But the poster in the hall at Niagara U. reminds us why it is not foolish. It is a way of experiencing conflict that says to an opponent: “you are a Child of God, and nothing you do or say is going to make me stop trying to connect with the Child within you.” It is about admiring their basic dignity and finding their gifts, no matter what. In doing that, we can never truly lose.
Source: Rector’s Blog