Saturday, May 15, 2010

Humility 2: Follow Your Nose?

I said last time that the common view of humility is false: humility does not deny itself, and it does not decrease our self-knowledge so we only have humility when we don't realize it. So what is real humility, and how does it work?

I'll tell you a secret: I can see my nose.

Not the whole thing, of course, but most of it. And I doubt I'm especially blessed in this regard. You don't need a long or large nose to see it. And all going well, you can see past the end of your nose, which is like seeing the forest for the trees.

So what?

Simply this: again, no doubt like you, I am humble about my nose. Some people may be obsessed with the protuberance, thinking it either beautiful or ugly, but most of us probably don't think much about it.

That's the point.

I can go for amazingly long periods without noticing the thing, usually because I'm looking at something else--words on a page, vehicles on the road, and so forth. But it's there, and I know it. I can shift my attention to or from it at will.

That's humility. I've had a few moments when I realized, to my surprise, that I was being humble. Now, I often ruined it by wanting to advertise the fact. But sometimes I would just think, "Huh. That's interesting." Then I returned to the matter at hand.

If you are humble, you do not lack self-knowledge but self-absorption. A humble person can be aware of his own humility without feeling any urge to publicize it. "Look at me--I'm humble!" is wrong not because of the last clause but because of the first. A humble Christian will always say, "Look at Jesus!"

But then, a humble Christian will always be looking at Jesus, not at his own nose.

Humility 1: False Humility

I recently heard a gentleman talking about humility. He mentioned asking people at a retreat whether they were humble. Some sucker bit and raised her hand--Ha! She isn't humble, or she wouldn't raise her hand!

How droll!

How totally, almost damnably false.

This peculiar view of humility is common, unfortunately: it is the Virtue That Dare Not Speak Its Name. The first (and perhaps still the only) writer I've seen get this right is C. S. Lewis. Unfortunately, many of his "fans" have never read his writings. Pity, that.

Anyway--it doesn't take much examination to locate the problem. Suppose there is a truly humble person. You ask him, "Are you humble?" What does he--can he--answer?

1. If he says "Yes," we automatically dismiss his claim: it's a trick question for which an affirmative answer is impossible even though we have already stipulated that it would be true. That is, we have excluded truth as a possibility.

2. If he says, "No," then he is at best mistaken or deluded and at worst lying. So the only answer we will accept is a mistake, a delusion, or an outright lie. And this is a virtue?

Note that real virtues do not cost us self-knowledge: it's the vices that numb us to reality. That's why we like them. We drink to forget, in other words, though we get drunk on Pride, Wrath, Lust, and so forth. If we concentrate on vices, they will blind us to the guy on the cross and to the same guy not in the tomb but enthroned at his Father's right hand. If you fight vices and exercise virtue, you'll know as much about yourself as your friends and enemies do.

So the fact that this so-called humility at best calls for loss of self-knowledge tells us that it's really a vice. Its patron sinner is of course Uriah Heep.

Someone will probably claim that my thought experiment assumes an impossibility: no one is truly humble. Untrue: at least One was truly humble--and he said so in Matt 11:29! So by the usual reasoning, Jesus himself was guilty of the sin of pride, which would interfere with his being our Savior. Drat.

Next time, I'll explain what real humility is, and why it's as plain as the nose on your face.
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