Essay / Culture

Wanted: Humility

Well, another school year is starting here at the Torrey Honors Institute, which means there are about 375 students roaming the halls again. It’s good to see the returning students, hear what they did over the summer (if anything!) and start getting to know the freshmen. Already in only three days of classes, I have managed to lead four Torrey sessions, that is, twelve hours of discussion. I wasn’t crazy about the thought of leading class on Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France but it turned out better than expected. All of the credit, of course, goes to our intelligent seniors. The six hours that I spent with juniors in Genesis 1-11 were also delightful, a good reminder of how deep the Scriptures really are.

In addition to teaching those sessions over the past few days, I also read two religious magazines that arrived in the mail. I am tempted to reveal the title of these magazines but think that it would only serve a negative end so I will refrain. My main beef is not so much with the magazines per se but with some of the authors writing for these publications. In short, these writers are vitriolic and prideful. They have certainly decided that they have the market on truth and are not afraid to say so. Already, some of you reading this piece are saying, “Well, we need people to stand up for the truth. There is already too much relativism in this world. People willing to speak the truth are a Godsend.” I couldn’t agree more. However, do the “intellectual elites” (for what else are professors and authors if not a kind of “intellectual elite,” even if that is a self-assigned title) really know everything? Are they/we really so self-assured of our beliefs that we will go on record by calling our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ “heretics” or imply that they lack the so-called “fullness of the faith”? These authors apparently think so.

Now, I am fully supportive of a person being the loudest cheerleader for his/her own church tradition or denomination. In fact, I assume that when someone decides to be a Baptist it is because he/she is a convinced Baptist, willing to defend Baptist theology to the death, even if I don’t agree with him or her. We all know that the best kind of Roman Catholics are the so-called papalists, that is, those who actually understand the monarchical nature of Roman Catholic ecclesiology and give a hoot about what the pope (and the Vatican) say on different issues. Those who say, “I’m a Roman Catholic but the pope and his cronies in Rome can’t tell me what to do” are simply the not-so-Roman Roman Catholics, and may not really be Roman Catholic at all other than being hit by a splash of water when they were a few weeks old. Simply put, those supportive of their church tradition or denomination are to be applauded and it is from these individuals that we can truly learn. Those, however, who imply that they speak for God (and one’s church tradition/denomination is not equivalent to God himself) are simply in need of a serious dose of humility.

Allow me to use myself as an illustration. Four years ago, I became an Anglican. Why? I sensed that I needed to be in a creedal church (so that I could confess beliefs that are larger and more firmly grounded than my own convictions), I found myself in agreement with the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (Anglicanism’s own doctrinal statement) and I resonated with the tradition’s sacramental and penitential ethos. Thus, I am unapologetically Anglican! However, having come out of the Baptist tradition, I don’t look upon my former colleagues or Baptist friends as somehow not possessing the fullness of the faith or, worse, merely playing at church. No, on the contrary! They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. Period! Do I wish that they would all also become Anglicans? Sure, because I am a cheerleader for the Anglican tradition. If they choose to remain Baptists do I subtly (and not so subtly) criticize them, or worse, state that they are somehow heretical? Of course not. Why? Christian charity and God himself demand that I recognize then as fellow travelers on the Way and treat them with the respect and honor that they deserve as God’s children. And I ask them to treat me similarly: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12). Do I struggle with their theological premises and conclusions? Sure, at times. Do I think that they are transgressing what the Bible may be teaching? Sometimes, but not always. Why? Because I haven’t confused my own tradition with the mind of God itself. To do so would be an unpardonable sin.

When a person or a church veers into heresy, then they must be called out. Yet, they should only be called out for heresy when they have clearly transgressed God’s revelation, when a multitude of people from various church traditions affirm that such a person is heretical, then it is likely such. If an Eastern Orthodox theologian, for example, were to call me a heretic because I hold to some of the teachings of John Calvin, chances are, I’m not a heretic at all—I’m simply not Eastern Orthodox, which makes said theologian think that I’m “heretical.” Again, there is a difference between being a cheerleader for one’s tradition and simply being an arrogant, prideful so-called “know-it-all.” The church needs more incisive theologians than it currently possesses. It needs theologians faithful to the Scriptures, champions of their own ecclesial traditions but humble enough to realize that real Christian unity is found in the person of Jesus, in his lordship of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, which is not synonymous with any particular tradition or church on earth today. (There’s my own dogmatic statement that lacks humility but of whose truthfulness I am fully convinced!) Christ’s church is fully known to him alone and partially known to us. Saying otherwise just makes one a vitriolic and prideful writer of magazine articles (and blogs and books too!).

My goal at the beginning of this semester (and hopefully at the beginning of every semester) is that God will protect me from myself and from the temptations of Satan to think of myself more highly than I ought. That is, that I will grow more humble, realizing that I, Greg Peters, do not have the market on truth and that I am able to learn from my students (and, on occasion, magazine writers). In fact, I expect to learn from and with my students. Our pursuit of Truth is the pursuit of a person, not an abstract set of theological principles or catechisms. That is my prayer, and I hope it is the prayer of all God’s children.

O Jesus meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,
Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,
Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I,
That others may be esteemed more than I,
That in the opinion of the world, others may increase, and I may decrease,
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. Amen.
(Litany of Humility written by Cardinal Merry del Val)

One final thought, for those who are currently irate with me and for those who are in full disagreement, let’s talk sometime and see if we can come to the Truth together.

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