February 20, 2007


There's a classic saying, "Proud to be a humble Quaker", a joke with some truth to it. Lately, it seems like far too many conversations lead me to contemplate humility, both as a religious tenet and as an often-forgotten virtue.

Early Quakers spoke frequently of humility, and strove to cast out pride. These excerpts from a 1679 letter by George Fox (in the second volume of the Journal in the Works, pages 229-233) show the source of humility:

And therefore, my desire is, that you may all keep in the law of life and love, which ye have in Christ Jesus, by which love the body is edified, knit, and united together to Christ Jesus, the head. Which love doth bear all things, fulfils the law, will preserve all in humility, and in it to be of one mind, heart, and soul. So all may come to drink into that one spirit, that doth baptize them and circumcise them, plunging down and cutting off the body of the sins of the flesh, that is got up in man and woman by their transgressing of God's commands. So that in this holy pure spirit all may serve and worship the pure God in spirit and in truth, which is over all the worships that are out of God's spirit and his truth....

For the power of God keeps all in order, subjection, and humility, in that which is lovely, virtuous, decent, comely, temperate, and moderate; so that their moderation comes to appear to all men....

This holy seed will outlast and wear out all that which the evil seed since the fall of man hath brought forth and set up. As every one hath received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him in the humility which he teaches: and shun the occasions of strife, vain janglings, and disputings with men of corrupt minds, who are destitute of the truth; for the truth is peaceable, the gospel is a peaceable habitation in the power of God; his wisdom is peaceable and gentle, and his kingdom stands in peace. Oh! his glory shines over all his works! in Christ Jesus ye will have peace, who is not of the world; yea a peace that the world cannot take away; for the peace which ye have from him was before the world was, and will be when it is gone. This keeps all in that which is weighty and substantial over all chaff. Glory to the Lord God over all, for ever and ever! Amen.

The humility Fox describes here is humility before God, but it shows itself in a changed relation to the world, one leading to peace and glory.

In 21st century America, humility seems to me a neglected virtue. Humility before God is still a virtue for some during services, but humility as used in political speeches often seems to be a weapon. Proclaiming one's humility may also be defensive, as quotes like this one (from Anglican Archbishop Akinola), I fear, may demonstrate:

"Self-seeking, self-glory, that is not me," he said. "No. Many people say I embarrass them with my humility."

Anyone who criticizes him as power-seeking is simply trying to undermine his message, he said. "The more they demonize, the stronger the works of God," he said.

Perhaps it is reasonable to question those who proclaim their own humility, but at the same time I worry about those who question humility more broadly. Some strains of modern atheism seem intent on proclaiming human understanding a complete key to the workings of the universe, happily dethroning God in favor of their own wisdom. From that perspective, this quote from Proverbs is dangerous advice:

Trust in the Lord with all thy heart;
and lean not on thy own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him,
and he shall direct thy paths.

Be not wise in thy own eyes;
fear the Lord, and depart from evil.
It shall be health to thy navel,
and marrow to thy bones. (3:5-8)

Humility seems to remain a Quaker virtue even in this period when the larger society questions its value. Early Quakers managed to combine valuing an intensely personal religious experience without (often) lurching to the "if it makes you feel good, it's right" individualism at the heart of consumerism.

I'll be writing more about this, but thought it was time to put some of my tangled thoughts into a place where I can refer to them and hopefully collect guidance on the subject from others.