President’s Blog #11 – Uncertainty of Now and Humility
March 11, 2021
President’s Blog 11 – Uncertainty of Now and Humility
Recently, I was asked by a dear mentor and colleague, Dr. Everette Worthington, Jr., to present in a series of lectures on humility. The series was entitled, Deep Dive into Humility. The first lecture was by Professor Daryl Van Tongeren of Hope College. Professor Van Tongeren spoke on the topic: What can an ancient virtue teach us about life today? He raised the question, “Why is the ancient virtue of humility important in modern society?” and discussed what scientific research has revealed about how humility can help our relationships, our work, and our society. (You can find his talk at https://christpresrva.com/the-humility-talks.)
I would like to thank Professor Daryl Van Tongeren for contributing to my thoughts and understanding about humility and modern society. I absolutely valued the fact that he moved beyond the definition of humility, “Freedom from pride or arrogance,” and outlined a scientific and pragmatic understanding of humility. During his talk, Dr. Van Tongeren explained the difference between intrapersonal humility (accurate view of yourself) and interpersonal humility (thinking about the needs of others). Dr. Van Tongeren also discussed four ways (or contexts) to be humble:
- Relational humility: Being other-people oriented and checking your ego.
- Intellectual humility: Being open to new ideas, beliefs, and seeking new insight.
- Cultural humility: Learning from the cultural context and cultures of others and not viewing one’s own culture as superior.
- Existential humility: Feeling grateful and appreciative to things larger than oneself (nature and creation).
This blog focuses on The Uncertainty of Now and Humility and revolves around intellectual humility and how it relates to cultural humility. That is, I hope to take a deeper dive into the complexities of humility among members of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community, women, and our many white male allies. I am particularly thinking about how we might “Think Again” (as suggested by Adam Grant) about what goes wrong when we become too righteous in our quest for humility among BIPOC communities and women. Dr. Van Tongeren talked about differentiating humility from shame, self-deference, or humiliation. This stuck out for me as I write this blog. I have worked closely with persons who have been shamed, who are culturally sanctioned and coerced to be self-deferencing, and remain too small to be effective.
My thesis for this blog is that humility is a helpful Biblical and social concept that can truly enhance our personal, individual, and communal relationships and our daily walk with Christ and with Community. But this thesis is complicated by the reality that humility often is associated with the focus on not being haughty, not being proud, not being arrogant, and not being assertive. This type of humble orientation toward deference or submission can be problematic for all people, but particularly for women and members of BIPOC communities.
I have been reflecting on the Biblical text, Haggai 2:3, since a conversation with Dr. Deborah Flemister Mullen in November: “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” I suggest here that this text in Haggai offers us a great deal to think about when it comes to cultural, relational, and intellectual humility. There was a lot going on in Haggai’s world. The prophet is grappling with a comparison between the temple of Solomon and the restorative work he and his community are doing on the temple. In Haggai’s theology, there is solidarity between the former structure and the restored structure. Notice Haggai uses the singular word “house” (bayit) referring to both the prior and the future buildings. That is, the two buildings, in Haggai’s mind, are one.
But the Lord stirs the situation and raises the question here in an interesting way. The Lord instructs Haggai to inquire, “Who among you has seen the former temple prior to its destruction in 586 BC?” It is interesting that the prophet excludes himself from the issue. He does not ask, “who among us” (an interpersonal examination), but he asks, “who among you” (an intrapersonal examination). Possibly there were some survivors with glorified childhood memories of the good old days – some members of the community with distorted memories of how things were back then and some with accurate memories of yesterday.
It seems that God knew there was something “deeper” going on within individuals. Something was infecting the people’s view of who they were, so Haggai asked the rhetorical question, “Is it not in your sight as nothing?” This expression emphatically calls attention to the fact that how they saw the building and seeing themselves as nothing were the same. The people envisioned the work that they were doing as nothing. The high hopes they had entertained at the beginning of their work had now turned to disappointment. God wanted Haggai to help the people to see that their “now” was more uncertain because of their “nothing” perspective.
Even as believers, we become so focused on “our then” being better than “our now” that “our now” becomes “our nothing.” Our nothing then becomes a nothing perspective, and our nothing perspective then colors “our now” with uncertainty. We then become vulnerable to perceiving “our now” as less than, useless, minimal, inadequate, insignificant, valueless, and/or inconsequential. This mindset then leads to feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, despair, anger, worthlessness, and/or frustration. The point I would like to make here is that we cannot expect humility to flourish or even expect our encouragement of humility to bear effective fruit under this type of brokenness.
Last week, I was honored to present to the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a conference focused on social and restorative justice. The conference theme was: Holy Rage – Holy Hope. We reflected on how pride is not always viewed by the activist community as negative. I put forth the position that black pride has actually been reframed as positive pride and includes humility. Furthermore, I argue that when humility is equated with submission among black people, it is readily evaluated and perceived as “forced humility” and “forced submission.” These attributes are triggers for BIPOC communities and deeply associated with Slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow, Segregation, and Mass Incarceration. I surmised that it is difficult to speak with someone black about humility without first reconciling the presence and meaning of holy rage.
Another complication to humility is around women. Recently, Dean Beth Tanner and I co-taught a class on Power and Privilege, and we sought to engage students around the psychological ramifications of internalized sexism. The women in class mentioned that they were conditioned by society and culture to be modest, unassuming, to avoid at all costs being seen as haughty, proud, or assertive. This conditioning they reported hindered their abilities to be effective in ministry. They voiced that they were not considered feminine, appealing, or acceptable, unless they “acted” unassertive, submissive, agreeable, and pleasing at all times. This existential condition leads to “acting” humble – being humble on a surface and rebellious underneath.
I would also mention how racist events effect the expression of humility in other communities of people of color. For example, the recent attacks against Asian American citizens in the USA, which correlates with the rhetoric around China causing the Coronavirus, has resulted in holy rage being manifested among Asian American activists. Furthermore, people of Asian origins in America are beginning to debunk the old stereotype of Asian Americans as the humble model minority, as they realize the model minority myth of Asians was created in the 1960s in response to civil rights and the behavior of black protestors. They now realize that Asian Americans were framed as model minority to wag a finger at the Black American struggle for equality. The fact that crimes of hate and abuse have been occurring against Asian Americans via legislation and behaviors for centuries only positively reinforces the manifestation of holy rage. Let’s not talk here about the immigration, migration, asylum policies and abuses of brown skinned Latinos/as. What ever happen to America as a sanctuary country?
Anyhow, I believe that Haggai helps us position ourselves to affirm and co-create humility among holy rage, BIPOC Communities, women, and white male allies in two ways:
(1) Take Up the Courage of Our Ancestors (Haggai 2:4abc NRSV):
Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, say the Lord;
Take courage, O Joshua, Son of Jehozadak, the High Priest;
Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord;
We must not become fearful and sluggish in this quest for humility during times of uncertainty.
- Members of the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements were not afraid.
- Past protestors for social and restorative justice were not paralyzed by fear.
- Social Justice Advocates marching and demonstrating for laborers and fair and equitable employment were not afraid.
But when we are fearful in our assignments, Haggai instructs to take up the courage of our ancestors. I currently serve as the president of the oldest protestant seminary in the United States of America. It is a school that has gone through many problem periods in its existence. When I begin my tenure, being a lover of history, I spent the first year studying the history of NBTS. During this search for legacy, I learned that:
- In 1784, a New York pastor named John Henry Livingston was called by the General Synod of the Reformed Dutch Church to be its “professor.” His task was to prepare students to become Reformed Church Ministers of Word and Sacrament. Dr. Livingston fulfilled this task first in New York City and then, for 15 years, here in New Brunswick, NJ. I learned that he and his students shared a building and other resources with Queen’s College (now Rutgers University). I learned that this theology professor and his small group of students assembled around his desk, a desk that today sits here in our board room. I discovered that Dr. Livingston and his students strove to make this world a better place.
- I also learned that the Livingston family was deeply engaged with slavery.
- I learned that from 1855 to 1889, NBTS sent Reformed Church missionaries to serve in India, Korea, and Arabia.
- But I also learned of the colonial mindset that accompanied their Christian messages.
- I learned that in 1879, Islay Walden and John Bergen graduated from NBTS as the first African Americans to graduate from this institution. And I discovered that in 1882, Kumage Kimura and Moto Oghimi were the first Japanese students to graduate from NBTS.
- But systems of oppression hindered and marginalized their ministries.
- I found that in 1884, the Reverend Dr. Horace G. Underwood graduated from NBTS and traveled to Korea to establish the Presbyterian church there.
- But I learned that he was funded by the Presbyterian church and not the RCA.
- Another joyful find was that in the 1940s and 1950s the NBTS graduate, A.J. Muste worked in the labor movement, pacifist movement, antiwar movement, and the Civil Rights Movement. He is a known major influencer of Howard Thurman and a direct mentor to Bayard Rustin. Mr. Rustin was the scholar who introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. to nonviolence and directed the 1963 march on Washington.
- But Muste left NBTS frustrated and discouraged and would attribute his success and developing philosophy of social justice to his additional education from Union Seminary.
From the ups and downs of NBTS, I have been humbled and lean heavily on the words of Winston Churchill, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
(2) The Work of Humility Is Conducted in the Power of The Lord! (Haggai 2:4d, 5 NRSV):
Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of Hosts,
[Work], according to the promise I made you when you came out of Egypt
[Work], My Spirit abides among you
[Work] and do not fear
Doing the work of humility in the power of the Lord is the intersection of holy rage and humility.
Doing the work of humility in the power of the Lord is the intersection of gender power and humility.
In the words of my brother Matthew Williams, President of the Interdenominational Theological Center, I call this work the work of the Warrior Healer. I understand the warrior healer as a manner of incarnational overcoming. When we walk in this manner, our injuries are not eternal. Williams asserts, “Instead of allowing our wounds to lead us to obscurity, we must use them to reach resolution and resolve.” Williams describes a warrior healer as embodying liberating leadership. In my thinking, the warrior healer is a combination of the wounded healer of Henri Nouwen, and the peaceful warrior of Dan Millman.
Nouwen offers the metaphor of the “wounded healer” as a conceptual frame to shift our functioning to that of a healer. From the legend of the Jewish Talmud, he provides one of my favorite metaphors on power, privilege, and ministry. It is a conversation between Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi and Elijah the prophet. Standing at the entrance of Rabbi Simeron ben Yohai’s cave, the Rabbi asks the prophet, “When will the Messiah come?” This question leads to a fascinating conversation about the nature, representation, and positioning of the Jewish Messiah.
Millman calls himself a peaceful warrior because he believes the real battles we face are inside. He argues that as peaceful warriors, we learn to live with courage, love as we live daily, and face ourselves and the world with a peaceful heart and a warrior spirit.
For this blogger, the warrior healer like Haggai – diagnoses and co-creates a new understanding of the uncertainty in a manner that provides resurrected life for a troubled community. The Warrior Healer helps us embrace our uncertainty of now with humility.
Paraphrasing Mark Batterson I say it this way:
- When you can embrace racial uncertainty, it’s called freedom.
- When you can embrace relational uncertainty, it’s called romance.
- When you can embrace occupational uncertainty, it’s called destiny.
- When you can embrace emotional uncertainty, it’s called joy.
- When you can embrace intellectual uncertainty, it’s called revelation.
- When you can embrace spiritual uncertainty, it’s called mystery.
- When you can embrace existential uncertainty, it’s called humility.
Micah L. McCreary
President, New Brunswick Theological Seminary