Genuine humility

51Xdo+eQz6LI am continuing to work through Thom Shultz’ Why Nobody Wants to go to Church Anymoreand we have been discussing it in our ‘missional community’ in St Nic’s church. Having explored the question of whether church can become ‘irresistible’, we looked at the first two of the four Acts of Love: Radical Welcome and Fearless Conversation.

The third Act of Love is Genuine Humility, which Shultz characterises by:

  • Radically relational.
  • Open to learning from others with different beliefs.
  • Open to learning from people of different ages.
  • Admitting mistakes.
  • Free from churchy, insider language.
  • Putting people first.
  • Communicating directly.

and he includes some striking examples of this. One student group set up a confessional on their college campus, but instead of inviting individuals to confess their sins, they were invited to hear Christian confess the sins of the church. It is a powerful example of ‘admitting mistakes’, and one that is needed where the institutional church is seen by many as being a real obstacle to taking the claims of Christian faith seriously.

In our discussion, the first thing that came to mind in thinking about humility was the examples we ourselves had seen of humility in others. I was reminded of John Stott, who used to sit at the back of All Souls talking to homeless men who had wandered in, and to whom he was simply known as ‘John’. I was on the first Springboard mission with Michael Green (remember the Decade of Evangelism?!) and remember one evening when we were eating with our hosts. Michael was the first up from the table to do the washing up. Just last week, someone commented to me about his experience of attending Dick France’s funeral in 2012. Dick was a leading evangelical NT scholar, but was known by one of the congregation as a kind pastor who also sold tickets for the local steam railway. ‘Oh, and I think he might have written a book on the NT once.’

It is possible to dismiss such examples of ‘great people’ doing ordinary things—after all, ordinary people do them all the time! And yet they offer a profound insight into the importance of humility: when any of us sets aside our sense of self-importance and is ready to bless others with acts of service, it leaves a profound impression, and it both challenges and frees other to do the same. Paul explores this theme in the example of Jesus most clearly in Phil 2.5–11:

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he emptied himself…

Madox Brown Jesus washing PeterAs we reflected on examples we had seen, we noticed something else as well. Those who exercise humility very often seemed to be those who were secure in themselves, no matter what their background, and so did not need to assert their importance over others. So humility is not the sense of personal unworthiness, or self loathing—quite the opposite. It is as we find our security in God that we are free to offer ourselves to others. Again, we see this supremely in the example of Jesus. In the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, John starts his account with precisely this sense of Jesus’ own security in the Father:

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13.1)

It is Jesus’ security in the Father which allows him to undertake this extraordinary act of service, an act which epitomises his relationship with all his followers. And, as I have explored elsewhere, the challenge for us then is not simply to imitate his action, but to allow him to minister to us so that we, too, can enjoy this secure heavenly relationship which will free us into earthly service.

In the chapters on humility in Shultz’ book, he goes on to explore a different dimension which is, in some ways, more surprising. It makes a link with the previous section on fearless conversation: are we humble enough to be willing to learn from people with quite different believes from us? He gives several challenging examples, some of which relate to the current Shared Conversations on sexuality in the Church of England: listening to a transgender woman talk about her own personal experiences without offering judgement; inviting Mormons to a meeting where they are allowed to explain their own beliefs; creating a genuine sense of encounter with people who follow Wicca.

In justifying such an approach, Shultz draws on two aspects of Jesus and his teaching. First, he argues that genuine humility flows from Jesus’ expression of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matt 7.12). If went to visit someone with a different set of beliefs from you, would you want them to spend the time telling you why you are wrong, and what you should believe? No, you wouldn’t—so why do Christians do that to others?

Secondly, he notes how often Jesus holds back from telling people the answers, and how he appears to be asking genuine questions in his encounters with them. If Jesus, who presumably had all the answers, held back from imposing them on all the people he met, shouldn’t we?

As we discovered in reflecting on Fearless Conversation, this does assume that we are confident in what we ourselves belief—as with humility expressed in acts of service, humility in openness to others flows from a sense of security, not insecurity. It also implies that we have a space where we can explore our own questions in a context where we might discover some clear answers. Jesus’ questions to others never appeared to flow from his own lack of clarity about the truth. For me, that left one big question unanswered in the book: can we be confident in our own faith? Shultz added in a another factor to the debate: we are all on a journey, and none of us has all the answers, so we need to be willing to learn from others, even those very different from ourselves. In a church culture which looks quite ghettoised, where it is very easy to lapse into a kind of ‘culture wars’ approach to belief, I can see how refreshing that is. But in many parts of the UK context, things are different, and many in the Church of England appear to question whether we actually have anything distinctive to bring.

But all this challenged us to take some practical action. So we have committed to, over the next four weeks, ask three of our friends who are outside the church or faith what questions they have about faith. We then hope to invite as many as will come to explore them at our meeting in July. It should be an interesting journey!

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6 thoughts on “Genuine humility”

  1. I don’t know the book, or the author.

    There’s a big difference between the humility that says I don’t have all the answers and I make mistakes (hence the need to listen to other Christians, especially those from different traditions), the love that values other people enough to listen to them and the epistemic apostasy that says that listening to others opinions and experiences produces truth that can be put on a par with (or above) the Bible.

    All too often it seems that people who rightly advocate the first two tragically seem to slip into the third.

    • Thanks John. In many ways I would agree, but there is also a problem with the way I think you phrase the question.

      First, would anyone claim that no non-Christian has any insight to offer about life, God and spiritual reality? That seems an odd claim to make.

      Second, and conversely, to what extent does our confidence depend on our own (epistemic) grasp of issues, and to what extent on the sense of revelation from God? Many Christians seem to me to have made the opposite error to the one you mention, and moved too quickly from the infallibility of God’s revelation to us to the infallibility of our grasp of it.

      • Ian,

        Please excuse the interruption, but I read your response to John:

        ‘First, would anyone claim that no non-Christian has any insight to offer about life, God and spiritual reality? That seems an odd claim to make.’

        I’m left to wonder what it was about John’s comment that prompted you to suggest that this was his claim. Even the most ardent evangelicals accept that St. Paul in his speech before the Areopagus took pains to work from the Athenians’ God-given insights (by quoting Aratus and Cleanthes).

        I really don’t see how John’s statement that warns of: ‘the epistemic apostasy that says that listening to others opinions and experiences produces truth that can be put on a par with (or above) the Bible’ would be tantamount to the claim that no non-Christian has any insights of the kind that you describe.

        I’ve met Mormons and listened to their explanations of the prophetic claims of Joseph Smith. I’ve also had thoughtful conversations with Seventh Day Adventists who are convinced that faith in Christ leads to keeping the Sabbath as much as I am persuaded that it doesn’t. Treating unscriptural claims as invalid is not the same as assuming that they are incapable of spiritual insight.
        Dare I say that what is missed in this reflection on humility is that while Christ emptied himself of every aspect of divine glory that would compromise his mission, the glory that He did not abandon was that which marked him out morally as the Son of God, the fullness of grace and truth. Humility should never incur a belittling of harsh moral truths as His uncompromising rejection of any listening process in Matthew 23 showed.

        In respect of the infallibility of our grasp of God’s revelation, I think that Rev. Dr. Robert J. Sanders put it best when he related TEC’s position in 2000 to the development of the historic episcopate:

        ‘The need to guard the faith arose very early in the Church’s history. Most significantly, the faith was undermined in the second century by the gnostics. They quoted Scripture, and to counter their teaching the Church appealed to the regula. The regula was the oral and proto­-creedal teaching of the apostles. With their deaths, it was passed it on to their successors the bishops. As heirs of the apostles, the early bishops could legitimately oppose heresy since they possessed the apostolic teaching. By contrast, the heretics could not claim the succession. Therefore, their teaching was not authoritative. In short, the Episcopate was charged with the task of safeguarding the ancient regula from generation to generation through the historic succession.

        The regula was eventually formulated in the historic creeds. The internal order of these creeds is important. The Apostles and “Nicene” Creeds both place the second article on Jesus Christ prior to the third article on the Spirit and the Church. This is because the objective truth of revelation, Jesus Christ and the essential facts of his life, are prior to and create the Church. In recent centuries there has been a massive reversal of this order. There has been what theologians call a “turn to the self,” the belief that the Church creates the truth of Christ so that theological statements are really descriptions of communal faith, ethical claims are expressions of community commitments rather than divine commands, and the gospels are creations of the early Church placing its insights upon the lips of Jesus. In this regard, one Episcopal bishop recently commented, “The Church wrote Scripture and the Church can certainly rewrite it.”

        Well, why not? Especially if a re-write demonstrates the humility that admits that the Church’s previous understanding derived from the apostles about Jesus were indicative of a fallible and inconclusive grasp of His identity.

    • I’ve just posted this on Facebook which relates to John’s question

      I’ve never met a good mathematician with much epistemic humility.on many issues. You should be certain that there are numbers that can not be expressed as a fraction of whole numbers. I believe you bet your life on the consistency of the laws of flight several times a year. I expect you understand them but most people who fly don’t. This is where the reply is made, but those are not the sort of statements I am talking about. However committing your life to Christ requires a sort of practical confidence similar to getting on a plane. Getting down to the contested areas in philosophy, theology and apologetics, you will learn humility if you try out your arguments in the real world. You must consider the opposing arguments in their best presentation. Avoid using put down arguments which sound good but which you know can be refuted. Personal humility determines our presentation style. Epistemic humility may be another name for intellectual integrity – don’t make claims beyond the evidence you have.

  2. Quote: “He gives several challenging examples, some of which relate to the current Shared Conversations on sexuality in the Church of England: listening to a transgender woman talk about her own personal experiences without offering judgement; inviting Mormons to a meeting where they are allowed to explain their own beliefs; creating a genuine sense of encounter with people who follow Wicca.”

    Or perhaps we could set them a different challenge – invite a group of people to discuss any topic without reference to their own beliefs or experiences? Ban the “I” word entirely and see how people get on?

    None of the characters who encounter Jesus in the Bible are given space to talk about themselves. We know nothing about the thief on the cross who said “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom” other than he (presumably) had committed a capital offence and died a few hours later. What happened to the rich young ruler? What prompted him to reject Jesus’ advice and walk away grieving? What was he thinking as he turned away? We don’t know. The authors of the Bible didn’t think it was especially important to give us a record of a “fearless conversation” with any of these characters.

    • Thanks for the comment, Joe. ‘None of the characters who encounter Jesus in the Bible are given space to talk about themselves.’ Do you really think that is true? Didn’t Jesus invite the rich young man to give his version first, before setting him a challenge? The gospel writers were very focused and even terse in what they record, and of course their supreme aim is to record the words and insight of Jesus. But it seems clear enough that Jesus engaged in dialogue and conversation.

      The example of the woman at the well is instructive here…and surely is not a unique example…?


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