On Humility


image from Gary on flickr

I am 100% sure that you are wrong, but I’m humble about it.

Does that phrase strike you as a bit contradictory? It does me. But that’s how many faith leaders would have us think. We are commanded to be humble. But we are also told we must be 100% sure of what we believe.

So when we meet someone who believes differently we have no response but, ‘You’re wrong, I’m right, but at least I’m humble.’

I would suggest that there is a better way to handle differences in beliefs, and it starts with an honest embrace of our own uncertainty.

Complete assurance of any fact is philosophically suspect. Even the famous ‘I think, therefore I am’ has its holes. And to be 100% certain of invisible matters of faith is, frankly, impossible. Even the most devout believers admit that belief takes ‘a leap of faith.’

So instead of brandishing our impossible certainty as a shield, why not offer our honest uncertainty as an olive branch? If I embrace my natural uncertainty and say that I am, perhaps, 90% or 95% certain of my beliefs, this leaves room for the beliefs of others. “Well, I confidently believe something else,” I can say to someone who thinks differently than me, “but I also think there is a chance that you are right.”

Embracing our uncertainty is the root of true humility. And this sort of humility will bloom with honest, respectful dialogue across the many boundaries of belief in our world.

7 Comments

  1. Good sentiment. Empathy and understanding are keys of humility, though I am not sure you can say certainty does not equal humility. I think it may be more what you do with certainty and what disposition you have. Nor do I think certainty is impossible, though I agree that doubt and questioning are healthy and necessary in the process. If love covers any knowledge or certainty you have, then you can be certain, humble, understanding, empathetic, and not wield “certainty as a shield.” Good post and food for thought.

    1. John! I appreciate the thoughts, my friend. Question: If you can be certain about spiritual matters, then what is faith?

      1. James, as Peter pointed out below, faith is a type of certainty, though not an empirical one. People throughout history have gone to their death on the certainty of what they believed. While I believe that if you have faith, it is not in something 100% empirically proven, because that is a contradiction–you don’t need faith if you can fully see it. But that is far different than certainty. To quote Pascal: The heart has its reason that reason cannot know. If your point is that people with faith saying they are right and everyone else is wrong is not humble, that could be true given the context (though it sounds like you would say that there is an inherent lack of humility in that statement because nothing can be 100% known with certainty). But if you are saying that it is impossible to ever make a claim that you know something for certain, particularly in matters of faith, and that any time that is stated it inherently is prideful (or whatever you would say is the opposite of humility), that I cannot say I am on the same page with you. If you believe in God, and you believe God is the creator, and is the unmoved mover and uncaused causer, then there is nothing more appropriate than to be humble in front of such a force, i.e. know your place and limitations. Where that humility extends horizontally, I would also say has everything to do with knowing your place and limitations. Anyone who says, I know everything and have all the answers is full of it, but that does not preclude the possibility and ability of someone to make an exclusive truth claim. Just because they are certain of something does not mean they are certain of everything, and if they act like it, then there is a huge lack of humility (and I know that from personal experience because I used to think I knew everything). And if God is that all powerful being, then anyone trying to elevate themselves to the level of all knowing is setting themselves up for a major fall.

        Bottom line: certainty does not equal total comprehension, but the areas of mystery do not necessarily negate those areas in which a person can be certain.

  2. Wise words, as always James. With faith issues, I think people find it easier to simplify things down to black and white issues. As a society, we create systems, such as time, money and religion, the make the masses feel more comfortable. I think this comfort comes from a feeling (albiet false) of control.

    When you can convince yourself that you have all the answers, it’s easy to feel comfortably in control. But there’s a great inner peace that comes from understanding that you don’t, and never will, have it all figured out.

    If we were able to completely figure God out, God would cease to be the force we believe God to be. So why does society continue to push for simplification? Because society needs to feel that they are in control.

    Giving up the need for control, finding peace in the mystery and pleasure in the conversation and the journey is what true enlightenment is (at least for me).

    1. Thanks for sharing, Jared. It’s a good insight that our desire for certainty is also a desire for control and comfort. Once we’re certain we’re right, and that we are on the path to God’s good side, we can breathe easier. Embracing our uncertainty means we have to keep our minds open, have to continue weighing various evidence and ideas, have to keep checking our pride in the face of competing beliefs.

      Nonetheless I agree that there is a peace in it. For me it’s the peace of being honest with myself and living from that honesty, rather than from a veneer of certainty.

  3. I always considered faith to be certainty in itself. Certainty in uncertainty, perhaps. I don’t always know why things happen the way that they do, but I do know that everything is in God’s control.

    I agree that people actually try to use humility as a way to one-up people, too! I have heard fellow Christians actually describe themselves as “more humble” than others. Out loud. The kind of thought process behind that just baffles me.

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