When I think of humility, my automatic tendency is to house it the sphere of ideas. A humble person admits “I don’t know,” and holds on to his opinions with a loose hand. Therefore, I find authors attractive who are slow to say “I know it!” and fast to condemn those who claim authoritative truth. But a quote by G.K. Chesterton awoke me to the reality that my definition of humility has been culturally conditioned. Humility does not mean modest truth, it means modest aspirations and self-image.
Today [we place] humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert: himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt: the Divine Reason.
Chesterton’s critique is probably more true today than it was in his own time. We’ve all been taught to be humble about our ability to know truth. Therefore, we take it for granted that we should must our own understanding of truth. But is that pre-supposition true? Ask yourself a question: why should you be humble about your ability to learn and assert truth?
You might doubt this ability if you were a child or mentally ill. But as a thinking adult, I do not think it is good to doubt that we can learn authoritative truth. We have reason for a reason.
Instead, true humility should squash our sinful ambitions. It should squash our self-consciousness, our self-obsession, and our self-worship. Ironically, many people say “I don’t know,” or “we just can’t know”, because they lack humility. They self-consciously choose not to resist the cultural grain (which resists ultimate truth), and in an act of selfish self-worship they suppress the truth.
Let me end with a brief warning. Today they are many authors claiming the banner of Christianity, preying on Christains like wolves by touting false humility. They say “there’s no way to know” and appeal to mystery (where mystery should not be appealed to). Let’s not be taken in, but instead seriously consider “is that unknowable? does mystery best explain this problem?” Use the reason God blessed you with confidently! Otherwise we are all likely to be taken in by rhetoric of false humility, mistaking “I don’t know” for humility rather than self-denial.
True humility functions on the organ of the heart better than the organ of the mind. There is a time to say “I don’t know” (namely when you actually don’t know or hold a reasonable opinion) and a time to appeal to mystery (namely when the bible does), but beyond that we may be falling into false humility.