Can We Please Practice a Little Humility

This Musing is the conclusion presented in chapter 6 of my “Let’s Talk” book, titled “Lessons Learned and Questions for Conversation.”

As I have already proposed, elements of my personal biography deeply inform my beliefs, as do other elements of my social location, such as my gender, my race, my sexual orientation and my socio-economic status. The beliefs of someone who disagrees with me about a given issue may be deeply informed by her differing set of particularities that may enable her to see things that I miss, just as my unique particularities may enable me to see things that she misses. And since we are both finite and fallible human beings, we cannot claim that either of our partial glimpses captures the full truth on the matter, as only fully understood by God. In addition, I can be blinded when I succumb to the temptation to sin by thinking it’s all about me and those who agree with me. As Scripture teaches, we all “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It is hubris—a gross failure to exemplify an appropriate attitude of humility for me to assume that I have a God’s eye view of the truth about the issue at hand. It takes genuine humility for me to express my beliefs with clarity and conviction while acknowledging that the contrary beliefs of another person may help me to refine my beliefs, possibly improving them or even correcting them.

Note that such humility does not mean being wishy-washy about your beliefs. Rather, it involves holding in tension that very rare combination of embracing and expressing your beliefs with clarity and deep conviction while also acknowledging that you have only a partial view of the “whole truth” and you may even be wrong about some things.

Both Ian Barbour and Richard Mouw have given eloquent expression to the nature of this rare combination. In his book Myths, Models and Paradigms, Barbour proposes the following definition of “religious maturity”:

It is by no means easy to hold beliefs for which you would be willing to die, and yet to remain open to new insights. But it is precisely such a combination of commitment and inquiry that constitutes religious maturity (136).

In his splendid book Uncommon Decency, Richard Mouw draws on Martin Marty to highlight the importance of “civility” in living out this rare combination of commitment and inquiry, calling for a “convicted civility.” 

One of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions often lack civility … We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a “passionate intensity” about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility (12, emphasis original).

 Openness to the beliefs of others without commitment to your own beliefs too easily leads to sheer relativism (I have my beliefs, you have yours, end of conversation). Commitment to your own beliefs without openness to listening to and carefully considering the contrary beliefs of others too easily leads to fanaticism, even terrorism.  As C. S. Lewis has observed in his book Reflections on the Psalms, and what past and current world events tragically testify, “Those who are readiest to die for a cause may easily become those who are readiest to kill for it” (28).

One of the most pressing needs in our world today is for all human beings, whatever their religious or secular faith commitments, to embrace and hold in tension both commitment and openness, giving living expression to “convicted civility.”

Do we Christians avoid engaging those from other Christian traditions or those who hold differing beliefs about a given issue because we lack humility? There is a way forward only if Christian communities can identify members of their communities who embrace that rare combination of deep commitment to their own beliefs with openness to respectfully listen to and then talk with other Christians who are deeply committed to a differing set of beliefs.

Richard Mouw goes on to argue that practicing “convicted civility,” that rare combination of commitment and openness, requires that you be careful to not “jump too quickly into the fray,” a topic to be addressed in the next Musing.


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