What is intellectual humility, and why do I call it a hidden virtue? Quite simply, intellectual humility is the trait of humility applied to our intellect, that is, to what we think. The reason I call it a hidden Christian virtue is that most of us Christians don’t seem to think that it is a virtue at all. In fact many seem to consider it a defect of Christian character!
How is this so, you say? Well, consider the definition of humility. Merriam-Webster gives the following: the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people. If we remove the negative, it means thinking that other people are at least as good, or better than our-selves.
When we apply the definition of humility to the realm of the intellect and ideas it would therefore mean: the quality or state of not thinking your ideas are better than those of other people. Again removing the negative it would mean thinking that other people’s ideas or thoughts are at least as good or better than ours.
“Humility is the first of the virtues—for other people”–Oliver Wendell Holmes
Therein lies the rub! Intellectual humility seems to fly directly in the face of the first virtue of Christianity—faith. Faith is after all the prerequisite for being a Christian. Is not Christianity itself called a faith? Is not faith the assurance that what you think about certain things is absolutely trueWhen we are confronted by someone challenging our faith in Jesus, how can we possibly consider their ideas as “at least as good as ours, when they are clearly wrong, and we are clearly right?”
It’s me oh Lord–Standin in the need of prayer!
Anyone who has read much of this blog, or my book, knows that I have some very strong and very specific ideas about how the Bible is to be understood. As a result, I am writing this post not so much for my audience, as for myself. This site has recently passed several significant benchmarks in terms of readership and referrals, and seems to be gaining some small modicum of popularity. (Thank you, by the way!)
This puts me in a particularly vulnerable position. Our enemy excels at finding chinks in our armor. It is all too easy to fall for the trap of being proud of our humility. Strange as it may seem, I like the thought that people are starting to appreciate my ideas. But wait a minute—are they really my ideas? Well they are certainly my ideas in the sense that I hold them; but if they have any claim to truth, they certainly did not originate with me.