Should We Be Humble?08-09-2015
By Martin Wagner
“We are reminded of Socrates’ great insight that no man can be wise, out of which love for wisdom, or philosophy, was born; the whole life story of Jesus seems to testify how love for goodness arises out of the insight that no man can be good.”
-- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
At the core of Christian ethics stands a radical demand for the primacy of humility over all other virtues. The true Christian does not presume to judge anyone’s behavior, not even his or her own. Today, in the age of tolerance, the Christian virtue of humility enjoys unprecedented authority. What we overlook in the shadow of humility’s dominance, however, are the ways in which humility might threaten our most fundamental notions of justice.
This development reached its comical climax two years ago when former basketball star Dennis Rodman visited the North Korean leader in Pyongyang. Though pressed by American journalists, Rodman refused to pass judgment on his ‘friend’ Kim Jong-Un. Rodman received heavy criticism in the mainstream media for his statements, but few commentators were able to see that Rodman’s response reveals a problematic aspect of our contemporary culture in which the Christian withholding of judgment is almost invariably morally superior.
[caption id="attachment_16419" align="aligncenter" width="530"] Source: USA Today[/caption]
Academics may here think of the oddity that honest judgment of their own research is still deemed to be possible only under the guise of blind peer review. More importantly, this reluctance to judge was revealed in recent political debates, where the theoretical readiness to condemn torture or police violence was often oddly coupled with the unwillingness to denounce any individual police officer or serviceman--for who are we to judge these people who have such difficult jobs to fulfill?
The questions that should have emerged then in response to Rodman’s comical escapade, as well as more recent events, are those of Christianity’s original justification of the supremacy of humility and of the strengths--and weaknesses--of this justification. In this inquiry, Hannah Arendt’s nuanced notes on Christian ethics in The Human Condition and elsewhere can help us a good way along.
[caption id="attachment_16420" align="alignright" width="300"] Source: Psephizo[/caption]
One the of the key texts for understanding the Christian demand for humility and the withholding of judgment is the biblical parable of two men praying in the temple, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector (Luke 18, 9-14). The Pharisee thanks God that he made him a just man: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” The tax collector, in contrast, beats his breast and says “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus’s verdict about the two men is unambiguous: only the humble tax collector will be rewarded, not the proud Pharisee. “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In this parable, Jesus does not, as is sometimes claimed, simply show us a bad man in the Pharisee and a good man in the tax collector. Instead, he shows us a good, law abiding, and just slightly proud man in the Pharisee--and a possibly very corrupt, but certainly humble man in the tax collector. Yes, the Pharisee believes himself better than others. And this is his fault. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled.” But then he really only believes himself better than thieves, adulterers, rogues, and tax collectors. And we would have to give up our basic ideas of justice to say that he is not better than them.
Jesus of Nazareth insists that the tax collector shall be rewarded, and he thus asks us to see in humility the highest virtue. What makes Jesus’s insistence on humility so challenging to our conventional notions of justice is that under the primacy of humility I can no longer know for sure whether I myself or anyone around me is behaving as he or she should. The point is not simply that before Jesus we had to fast twice a week and give a tenth of our income to the synagogue and now, by contrast, we have to be humble. What changes is the very structure of the law, the way we can follow it or break it. Traditional law institutes a clear border that separates those who keep the law from those who break it. We can always know whether we kept the law to fast or to pay taxes. The Christian principle of humility, in contrast, does not provide such a border. We can never be sure that we did our duty by being humble. For if we know ourselves to be humble--and therefore good in the eyes of God--we have already ceased to be humble. The only way to be humble is by not knowing that we are humble.
The tax collector shall be rewarded precisely because he does not think that he is worthy of any reward. He believes himself a sinner. The tax collector’s ignorance of his virtuous humility is not accidental to the parable; it is crucial to Christian ethics. Subscribing to the Christian primacy of humility means that we can no longer be judges even of our own goodness. To be humble does not simply require that one does not boast with one’s goodness. It requires that even oneself is not aware of this goodness. “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6,3-4)
What this insistence on humility as ignorance of one’s own goodness-and-humility amounts to is nothing less than--quite logically--the fact that no man can be good, no man can be humble. For if anyone would be declared to be humble and good, his goodness and humility would be in danger. And this is really what Jesus says. When “a certain ruler” addresses him as “good teacher,” Jesus rebukes him by saying: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Luke 18,19)
Subscribing to the Christian ethics of humility means to affirm a world in which no man can be good. This is an amazing provocation. Although we generally subscribe to a vague form of humble civility, we rarely consider Christian humility in all its relentless radicalism. Hannah Arendt’s work is a notable exception here. Arendt understood the radicalism of Christian humility; she appreciated it--and she eventually rejected it.
Arendt saw that the essence of Christian ethics was to be found in the assertion that no man can be good because goodness requires humility and true humility is an essentially secret quality, unknown even to its agent. Arendt understood, moreover, that the Christian insight into the impossibility of being good and humble does not have to decrease our appreciation of goodness and humility. Quite to the contrary, understanding this impossibility can provide us the basis for the love of goodness. To explain her insight, Arendt reminds us of the Greek philosopher Socrates’s assertion that it is impossible to be wise, for according to him, anyone who believes himself to be wise shows by this very belief that he is in fact not wise at all. The important point here is that the insight into the impossibility of wisdom can instill the love for the purity of wisdom. Because wisdom is never realized as a fixed state or quality that I can claim to possess or that I have to envy in others, our striving for wisdom remains essentially pure, unaffected by any worldly use or abuse of it.
[caption id="attachment_16421" align="aligncenter" width="530"] Source: The Open Mind[/caption]
In a similar way, Arendt saw that Jesus’s teaching of the impossibility of goodness and humility should not lead one to abandon goodness and humility, but to love them. In The Human Condition, Arendt writes: “We are reminded of Socrates’ great insight that no man can be wise, out of which love for wisdom, or philosophy, was born; the whole life story of Jesus seems to testify how love for goodness arises out of the insight that no man can be good."
Jesus of Nazareth, Arendt explains, teaches us to love pure goodness for its own sake: as a quality that always remains hidden, especially to its agent--the good man. What makes this secrecy of goodness so pure and beautiful is that because of this secrecy good acts can never be used and abused for the sake of anything else. No one can do truly good works in order to impress others--or even just to be pleased with his or her own goodness. For if one had any such purpose in mind, one’s works would cease to be good in the Christian sense.
As much as Arendt admired this pure goodness of the gospels, she struggled fully to commit to it. She feared that giving up on a public and legal notion of goodness was too high a price to pay. Having seen the scores of bureaucrats who had taken part in the Holocaust and who afterwards abdicated their responsibility by saying that they had only followed commands, she believed that we need to be able to make judgments between what is good and what is bad. Arendt did not want to give up on the idea that every person for himself--and we together as a public--can and must debate the question of what is a good act and what is a bad act. Arendt believed in the fundamental importance of a dialogue governed by reason to decide between goodness and evil. She fully understood that this vision of public justice could not easily be consoled with the essential secrecy of Christian humility and goodness, which she nonetheless cherished.
(Featured image sourced from The Unbounded Spirit.)