One of the more important truths we ever learn is just how little we know | Opinion

I’m taking another stab at something I’ve been experimenting with the past few weeks: looking at spiritual concepts that have nearly universal applications for the religious and non-religious alike.

Recently, I’ve talked about the importance of maintaining balance in all things, about Jesus’ two great commandments — love God and love your neighbor — and about the interlinked concepts of sin and repentance.

This week I call attention to another vital principle. Our subject for today, ladies and gentlemen, is humility.

I’ve been mulling over an essay by Frank Bruni that appeared in the New York Times. He’s a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, and a contributing writer for the Times’ Opinion section. His essay was, “The Most Important Thing I Teach My Students Isn’t on the Syllabus.”

Indulge me in a lengthy quotation. His op-ed begins like this:

“I warn my students. At the start of every semester, on the first day of every course, I confess to certain passions and quirks and tell them to be ready: I’m a stickler for correct grammar, spelling and the like, so if they don’t have it in them to care about and patrol for such errors, they probably won’t end up with the grade they’re after. I want to hear everyone’s voice — I tell them that, too — but I don’t want to hear anybody’s voice so often and so loudly that the other voices don’t have a chance.

“And I’m going to repeat one phrase more often than any other: ‘It’s complicated.’ They’ll become familiar with that. They may even become bored with it. … I want to teach them how much they have to learn — and how much they will always have to learn.”

Beautiful stuff, that.

Bruni says he’d delivered this spiel to students for a couple of years before it dawned on him that every part of it was about humility.

The part concerning grammar and spelling “was about surrendering to an established and easily understood way of doing things that eschewed wild individualism in favor of a common mode of communication. It showed respect for tradition, which is a force that binds us, a folding of the self into a greater whole. The voices bit — well, that’s obvious … And ‘it’s complicated’ is a bulwark against arrogance, absolutism, purity, zeal.”

I don’t know whether Bruni is aware of this, but the virtue he’s arguing for is in part a religious one.

In the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, humility is among the cardinal traits demanded of the faithful. In fact, I’d argue it’s the second-most-important virtue in the whole biblical virtue pecking order, behind only the “agape” style of love, which I wrote about in January.

As far back as the opening pages of Genesis, Adam and Eve’s original sin is that they lack humility. They don’t want to submit to God; instead they want to become gods.

In the New Testament, the founders of the Christian faith double-down on humility.

Here’s a sampling: Jesus: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” St. Paul: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” St. Peter: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’ ”

Why is humility so important?

Because we all — every one of us — have so much to be humble about.

If you’ve lived beyond, I don’t know, your teenage years when you knew everything, the remainder of your life has likely been a continual exercise in discovering how wrong you tend to be and how little you control what happens.

Or it should be that, since that’s the truth of our existence. Whether you’re religious or non-religious, educated or untutored, smart as a whip or dumb as a crate of gravel, the universe of things you don’t know dwarfs the pitiful dollhouse of things you do. The mistakes you’ve made outnumber the correct conclusions you’ve reached. You know you’re a cipher floating on a dust mote swirling in an infinite darkness. Humility should be your natural state.

Except that, for whatever reasons — egomania, self-delusion — some people never seem to get that sobering revelation. And therein lies much of the world’s tragedy.

“We live in an era defined and overwhelmed by grievance — by too many Americans’ obsession with how they’ve been wronged and their insistence on wallowing in ire,” Bruni observes. “This anger reflects a pessimism that previous generations didn’t feel. The ascent of identity politics and the influence of social media, it turned out, were better at inflaming us than uniting us. They promote a self-obsession at odds with community, civility, comity and compromise. It’s a problem of humility.”

Or consider our political divides.

“The Jan. 6 insurrectionists were delusional, frenzied, savage,” Bruni says. “But above all, they were unhumble. They decided that they held the truth, no matter all the evidence to the contrary. … They elevated how they viewed the world and what they wanted over tradition, institutional stability, law, order.”

These things happen when we’re sure we individually are at the center of the universe, that we know all the answers, that others can’t possibly be as important or illuminated as we are. Inevitably, we end up burning the place — and ourselves — down.

The humble know they’re not at the center. They know they don’t possess all the answers for others, and perhaps not many answers for themselves. They’re willing to listen. They’re willing to forgive. They’re willing to work for the common good.

This is exactly what Jesus, Paul and Peter were telling us 2,000 years ago.

Paul Prather
Paul Prather

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.