Humility is about Hierarchy


Early in January I was invited to attend the annual gathering of Institute for Research on Psychology and Spirituality, a group of some of the top psychology of religion researchers. We have diverse interests, and one group was working on the topic of humility.

As I visited with some from the humility workgroup their task seemed difficult. Psychology research tends to move in some pretty predictable stages. First, theoretically describe the psychological construct/phenomenon you wish to study. Second, develop ways to quantify/measure the construct. Third, empirically describe the construct and identify its correlates. Fourth, develop explanatory/causal models. Finally, test the causal models.

Rarely do we get to the end of this chain. Lots of psychological research gets stuck at Step 3. For example, why do we dream? That is a Step 4 and 5 question. But all we know is the Step 3 stuff, the correlates of REM sleep and dreamtime. The definitive "Why?" of dreaming still escapes us.

Anyway, the humility team was having trouble right from the get-go. First, how are we to define humility?

That is a hard question. Think about it. Try to define humility. It isn't easy.

Further, even if you had a good definition in hand could you measure humility? You can't really ask someone, "Are you humble?" How would a humble person answer such a question? Yes? No?

So, since the meeting I've been thinking about humility and going back to some ideas I posted about during my Christian Practice series (see sidebar). These ideas coalesced around a Psychology Department Chapel I led this week at ACU. The title of the service was On Humility, Kenosis, and Gelassenheit: From the Benedictine Monastery to the Amish Farm.

On the program of the service I had the following information and definitions:

The Rule of Saint Benedict
In about the year 500, Benedict left the comfort of a student's life in Rome and chose the life of an ascetic monk in the pursuit of personal holiness, living as a hermit in a cave near Subiaco. In time, setting a shining example with his zeal, he began to attract disciples. After considerable initial struggles with his first community at Subiaco, he eventually founded the monastery of Monte Cassino, where he wrote his Rule in about 530.

The Rule is a book of precepts written for monks living in community under the authority of an abbot. During the 1500 years of its existence, The Rule has become the leading guide in Western Christianity for monastic living in community, both in Catholicism and (since the time of the Reformation) in the Anglican and Protestant traditions. As such, The Rule is considered to be a masterpiece in the Christian literature on spiritual formation. Today’s chapel selects from Chapter V (On Obedience) and Chapter VII (On Humility) of The Rule.


Kenosis is a Greek word for emptiness, which is used as a theological term. The ancient Greek word kénōsis means an "emptying", from kenós "empty." The word is mainly used, however, in a Christian theological context, for example Philippians 2:7, "Jesus made himself nothing (ekénōse) ..." (NIV) or "...he emptied himself..." (NRSV), using the verb form kenóō "to empty."

Gelassenheit, (pronounced Ge-las-en-hite) is the Amish term for self-surrender, resignation in God's will, yieldedness to God's will, self-abandonment, the (passive) opening to God's willing, including the readiness to suffer for the sake of God. It is a governing principle of Amish life.

I also had us work through the following readings:

Philippians 2: 1-11 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


The Rule of Saint Benedict
Chapter V: On Obedience

The first degree of humility is obedience without delay.
This is the virtue of those
who hold nothing dearer to them than Christ;
who, because of the holy service they have professed,
and the glory of life everlasting,
as soon as anything has been ordered by the Superior,
receive it as a divine command
and cannot suffer any delay in executing it.
Of these the Lord says,
"As soon as he heard, he obeyed Me" (Ps. 17:45).

Such as these, therefore,
immediately leaving their own affairs
and forsaking their own will,
dropping the work they were engaged on
and leaving it unfinished,
with the ready step of obedience
follow up with their deeds the voice of him who commands.

And so as it were at the same moment
the master's command is given
and the disciple's work is completed,
the two things being speedily accomplished together
in the swiftness of the fear of God
by those who are moved
with the desire of attaining life everlasting.

But this very obedience
will be acceptable to God and pleasing to all
only if what is commanded is done
without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling, or objection.
For the obedience given to Superiors is given to God,
since He Himself has said,
"He who hears you, hears Me" (Luke 10:16).
And the disciples should offer their obedience with a good will,
for "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. 9:7).
For if the disciple obeys with an ill will
and murmurs,
not necessarily with his lips but simply in his heart,
then even though he fulfill the command
yet his work will not be acceptable to God,
who sees that his heart is murmuring.


John 13: 1-5, 12-15 It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.

The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. "Do you understand what I have done for you?" he asked them. "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.


The Rule of Saint Benedict
Selections from Chapter VII: On Humility

Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying,
"Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted" (Luke 14:11).
Hence, brethren,
if we wish to reach the very highest point of humility
we must
by our ascending actions
erect the ladder Jacob saw in his dream,
on which Angels appeared to him descending and ascending.

The first step of humility, then,
is that a person keep the fear of God before his eyes
and beware of ever forgetting it.
Let him keep himself at every moment from sins and vices,
whether of the mind, the tongue, the hands, the feet,
or the self-will.

As for self-will,
we are forbidden to do our own will
by the Scripture, which says to us,
"Turn away from your own will" (Eccles. 18:30).

The next step of humility
is that a person love not his own will
nor take pleasure in satisfying his desires,
but model his actions on the saying of the Lord,
"I have come not to do My own will,
but the will of Him who sent Me" (John 6:38).
It is written also,
"Self-will has its punishment,
but constraint wins a crown."

The next step of humility is that a person
for love of God
submit himself to his Superior in all obedience,
imitating the Lord, of whom the Apostle says,
"He became obedient even unto death."

The next step of humility
is that he hold fast to patience with a silent mind
when in this obedience he meets with difficulties
and contradictions
and even any kind of injustice,
enduring all without growing weary or running away.
"Let your heart take courage, and wait for the Lord" (Ps. 26:14)!

The next step of humility
is that he hide from his Abbot none of the evil thoughts
that enter his heart
or the sins committed in secret,
but that he humbly confess them.
"Confess to the Lord, for He is good,
for His mercy endures forever" (Ps. 105:1).
And the Prophet likewise says,
"My offense I have made known to You,
and my iniquities I have not covered up.

The next step of humility
is that a monk be content
with the poorest and worst of everything,
and that in every occupation assigned him
he consider himself a humble workman.

The next step of humility
is that he consider himself lower and of less account
than anyone else,
and this not only in verbal protestation
but also with the most heartfelt inner conviction.

The next step of humility
is that a monk not only have humility in his heart
but also by his very appearance make it always manifest
to those who see him
whether he is at the Work of God,
in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road,
in the fields or anywhere else,
whether sitting, walking or standing.


My Reflections
After the readings I made some reflections along these lines...

Generally, when we think of humility we conjure up ego-depletion models. That is, humility we think humility should involve some kind of attenuation of self-valuing or self-worth. And it does appear that some NT passages point toward ego-depletion (e.g., “consider others better than yourself.”). But we also know that it takes a great deal of ego-strength, true strength of character, to act as a servant. Further, for servanthood to be a moral demonstration it must act from strength. If people serve others out of fear or low self-esteem the service looks more like dependency than moral resolve.

So, ego-depletion models of humility seem problematic. What then is humility if it is less concerned with ego?

If you look over the readings above a certain theme strikes me. Thus, I propose this formulation of humility for your consideration:

Fundamentally, humility has to do with how you behave in hierarchies.

In both NT passages above, we see Jesus eschewing his high place in the hierarchy. Jesus’ display of “emptying” (kenosis) is intimately tied up with his refusal to act from the high place in the hierarchy. Look at how hierarchy bookends both stories in an A-B-A format, High Status : Low Status : High Status:

Philippians:
High Status:
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped…”

Low Status:
“…made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…”


High Status:
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place…”


John:
High Status:
“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power…”

Low Status:
“…and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

High Status:
"You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am.”


The point of this High Status : Low Status : High Status structure is that kenosis and humility seems less about ego-depletion than about eschewing one’s place in a hierarchy. Jesus is clearly high status, and remains so; he begins and ends in the High Status position. Yet, and here’s the point, he refuses to act in a High Status manner. He’s a High Status person acting in a Low Status manner. Thus, his actions make for a powerful moral demonstration.

Revisiting Benedict’s Rule we see that humility is manifested in the subordinate, the monk, showing obedience to the superior, the Abbot. This is fine for monastic order and structure, but it should be expanded by the notion that Christians are to “submit to one another.” Thus, as Jesus showed, we don’t interact with each other via hierarchy. We eschew hierarchy and serve one another. Even if we are in a High Status position we take a Low Status role.

Benedict’s Rule helps us evaluate how well we are doing in this. A few criteria come to mind as we evaluate our humility/kenosis, the eschewing of hierarchy (quotes are from the Rule):

Are we interruptible?
“And so as it were at the same moment the master's command is given and the disciple's work is completed…”

To be interruptible is to take a Low Status position. Those who interrupt are High Status, their agenda and concerns are trumping a Low Status agenda and concerns. Thus, to be interruptible is to take a Low Status position.

Are we swift to respond?
“…the two things being speedily accomplished together in the swiftness of the fear of God.”

High Status people can take their time responding to Low Status people. Why? The time of High Status people is valuable and that of Low Status people less so. Thus, to respond to a request quickly is to signal that you believe that the requester’s time is High Status/Important. Your quickness signals your assumption of a Low Status role.

Are we cheerful and uncomplaining?
“And the disciples should offer their obedience with a good will… For if the disciple obeys with an ill will and murmurs, not necessarily with his lips but simply in his heart, then even though he fulfill the command yet his work will not be acceptable to God, who sees that his heart is murmuring.”

Generally, complaints run downhill, from High Status to Low. Thus, to refrain from complaining you signal Low Status.

Are we willing to admit error and mistakes?
“…humbly confess…”

Inversely correlated with complaining, apology typically flows uphill, from Low Status to High. To be quick to accept mistakes and admit error is another Low Status signal.

Do we dress in a way that signals we are High Status?
“…a monk [should} not only have humility in his heart but also by his very appearance make it always manifest to those who see him whether he is at the Work of God, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road, in the fields or anywhere else, whether sitting, walking or standing.”

Finally, the cost of clothing signals status. To wear modest (i.e., less expensive) clothing again displays Lower Status. Also, more “comfortable” clothing signals Low Status. You can do manual labor in Low Status clothing (e.g., jeans). High Status clothing intentionally signals that the person is not going to do manual labor (e.g, a suit and tie).

Look over Benedict’s Rule and think of more kenosis criteria. There is lot’s to be explored here, both inside and outside the Rule.

In sum, I conclude this: Humility has to do with how you behave in hierarchies. More precisely, to be humble has very little to do with your self-esteem. Rather, humility has everything to do with your willingness to assume Low Status roles in everyday encounters.

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4 thoughts on “Humility is about Hierarchy”

  1. I agree that virtue has more to do with behavior and actions rather than emotions or how you feel about yourself. But consider this:

    Person A (We'll call him George W.) has a high degree of self-importance.
    Person B (We'll call her Mother Theresa) has a low degree of self-importance. They both get on a train, and they both give up their seat to the person next to them.

    Are they being equally humble? Because of George W.'s inflated self-importance it is harder for him to take this action than Mother Theresa. There is more surrender, more reliquishing of self, for the same action. So something about that seems more virtuous.

    It is this "degree of surrender" that makes the sacrifice of Jesus, being God, so powerful. And it seems to be what Paul is writing about in Phil.

    Since that degree of surrender is related to how you see yourself, then it seems that virtue is also tied to this view of yourself.

  2. Pecs,
    I would agree that the higher status your are the greater the act/risk of acting "as if" low status.

    Adding some more detail/clarifications:

    Hierarchy isn't the only issue in play. Ego is involved. But since so much of the talk I've heard in church is based on ego I thought I'd push the other side of the issue.

    I'd also say that a one time display of low status isn't humility or kenosis. So, I'd add two words to my description of humility:

    1. Intentional
    2. Consistent.

    Thus, my modified definition of humility is:

    Humility is the intentional and consistent willingness to assume low status roles in everyday encounters.

  3. Richard,
    I just wanted to say I appreciated your thoughts on humility. It's a vital discussion (and a dramatically underdiscussed one).

    If you're interested, we have a new book coming out in September titled "egonomics" by Simon and Schuster. Much of the book is devoted to the power (and strategic necessity of) humility in business. Until then, we're devoting our blog to the discussion.

    Just thought I'd let you know if you're interested.

    Thanks again and best wishes.

    Steve

  4. Thank you for your thoughts, here. I became aware through my son's course in Leadership that humility was not on the plate of this "leadeship" model. I was angered, and baffled by Christians accepting this "model of leadership". I have come to think that there are two levels of leadership. Leaders that are "world leaders" and "spiritual leaders". The spiritual leaders would have different qualifications, and function on a 'lower plane" in this type of hierarchy. It is a complentarity model, but I think it leads to crase abuse of others...Top dog language was used and I even wrote my pastor about it. I have since come to understand and resolve within myself that I will defend whatever opinion, thought, behavior, etc. that I have because otherwise, it becomes an issue of control, at least in my perception. I wrote about my experience of it on my blog.

    I am glad that there are professionals that are thinking about this. It is important that this information get into hands of leaders everywhere so that leaders can be aware of their own propensity to mis-use their power, influence and abuse those under them!

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