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.
Herein we find the first hint to the solution of our conundrum. I have no right to be proud of those things which I have only borrowed. However, I am convinced that the whole truth lies deeper still.
Intellectual humility vs. Faith
For my part, I believe that intellectual humility involves not simply the thought that my ideas have their roots elsewhere, though this is a beginning. Isaac Newton famously said “If I have seen farther than other men it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” It also involves the very real understanding that I may be completely wrong in what I think.
I know of no better illustration of this truth than my having woken from a dream in which I flew to school and tried to explain that fact to my mocking classmates. I knew what I had experienced, and their mockery only served to heighten my sense of pride because I knew something that they didn’t, and was therefore somehow better than they were. I knew how to fly, and they did not. Alas, I did not even know that they did not exist, let alone that I could not fly.
A proper view of reality demands that I may not even know what reality is. This does not mean that will not argue my case, or that I am to live in a state of perpetual uncertainty. It does mean however that I must remember that I am not God. Martin Luther rightfully said:
“Knowledge and doubt are inseparable to man. The sole alternative to “knowledge-with-doubt” is no knowledge at all. Only God and certain madmen have no doubts!” –Martin Luther
In fact the more I search, the more I am convicted that I at least, have missed something very important. I have written repeatedly how the first step in changing the way we think involves changing our vocabulary to conform to the meanings expressed by the biblical authors.
I realize that in this I am a radical fish, and that few are willing to go to the same lengths to express what I think I see in scripture. This is a slippery slope that once started on seems to have no end. To remove apostle from our vocabulary and replace it with ambassador seems no great feat, and it has only a small impact on our thinking. To abandon the word “Christ” seems heretical, and replacing it consistently with king is difficult due to the grammatical habits we have developed from our youth. Yet I have found doing so consistently yields great rewards both spiritually and intellectually. (For a full explanation of this please see my book.)
Why won’t He let me stop here. Haven’t enough people dismissed me as a heretic. Now it seems that as I search the scriptures I am finding that it isn’t just the word for the object of our faith (“Christ”) that has been obscured, but that the very word faith itself, in English, does not convey what our king expects from us.
And now what?…
I am not sure at this point where this is heading. I do know that God has been gracious, and my time is not as free as it has been, because He has provided some much needed (albeit temporary) employment. I am hoping that I will be able to present smaller posts a bit more often, but that is uncertain. Time will tell.
I am embarking on a journey to understand more fully the New Testament Greek noun pistis (πίστις) , the adjective pistos (πιστός) and the verb, pisteuo (πιστεύω). These are usually translated into English using the noun “faith’” or belief,” the adjective “faithful,” and the verb “believe.” I am convinced that at the very least the meaning of those terms will need to be modified in my mind. If that proves untenable then I will need to find substitutes that will allow for a more biblical mode of thought.
I have only the dimmest idea of where this is going to end up, and I invite you to travel with me, and offer your questions and advice below. I do know (within the constraints of this current (possible) dream) that God grants favor to the humble and opposes the proud. I have no reason to believe that this does not apply to the area of the intellect as well.
Please pray that I will be truly humble as I pursue God’s truth in these areas. If you believe that this is revealing an important truth please +1, share, like, or otherwise tell others about it. And to our King Jesus be ALL the glory.
For the king,
PS–I realize that I am a bit behind on responding to earlier comments. Thank you for them, and please keep the comments and questions coming. Lord willing I will catch up in the next few days.