Each November, on the weekend before Thanksgiving, tens of thousands of people living in the U.S. and abroad who study, research, write, and teach about religion in all of its facets travel to a major U.S. city for the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). This huge conference is for academics in religion and theology what the Tony awards are for Broadway and the Academy Awards are for Hollywood: a place to see and be seen, a place to rub elbows, make connections, and bask in the glow of achievements garnered in the past year. If you have published a book, the press might hold a reception in your honor. If you have written an interesting paper, you will get to share your findings and later be clapped on the back for advancing research in your field. When you run into former classmates and advisers on the street, you will get to tell them about your new job or promotion when they inevitably ask, “What are you up to?”
I go to this meeting almost every year. I love catching up with friends I have not seen since graduate school. I love having serious and creative discussions with people who care as much about theology as I do. I love meeting someone whose writing has deeply affected my scholarship and life. Yet there is a downside to attending this conference. When I get home, I realize that the green tentacles of jealousy have taken hold of my brain. Having encountered colleagues who have published more or who have accepted an ever-coveted tenure-track job, I find myself scheming about how to rearrange my life so that I can be like them (forgetting, momentarily, that I have made the explicit decision not to be like them, choosing to be a part-time academic so that I can also be a part-time stay-at-home mom). And the worst of it is that I do not want to be like these successful colleagues so that I can make the world a better place or do God’s work in the world. I want to be like them so that I can be famous, at least in my little academic corner of the world… or maybe in a big corner. I imagine myself commenting on a religious story on Minnesota Public Radio, then National Public Radio, then CNN. Illusions of grandeur suck me in.
This week’s first reading from Sirach commends to followers of God living with the virtue of humility. It is difficult to practice humility in our culture that so highly values and rewards self-esteem, assertiveness, looking out for number one, and making a name for yourself in whatever way you can. Heck, it is hard to practice humility in general, for it is so easy for humility to turn itself into its opposite: pride.* But Christians are called to be humble. Why?
Humility is wise because it bespeaks a realistic understanding of who we are as human beings. We are created from dust and to dust we will return, and in between, we are fallible, vulnerable human beings. To be humble is to recognize our place in a universe that does not revolve around us. To be humble is to be able to praise God for being God and to put ourselves at God’s service. To be humble is not to think badly of ourselves, but it is to keep ourselves within our own bounds so that we do not try to elevate ourselves to the status of God, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.
There are certain settings in which humility seems to flow from us. For me, this happens most often when I am surrounded by the beauty of God’s natural creation. When I have canoed on a placid lake or hiked over jagged rocks, when I have beheld a rainbow field of wildflowers or counted the stars, I feel small, even insignificant, but not in a bad way. I feel humble in the most joyous way possible, knowing that I matter to God, but that so, too, does each blade of grass and each leaf on the tree. Little things that I thought mattered so much are carried away on the breeze, and I can relax my shoulders, knowing that I am not ultimately the One in control. This does not happen when I go to my big academic meeting. Maybe this year I should go camping instead.
In what settings does humility flow from you? In what settings are you more apt to be prideful and jealous?
How would you describe the wisdom of humility?