Monday, March 15, 2010

Pride and Humility-Means and Ends


This blog is not about Korea so do not read if you are interested only in my experiences in Korea or if you do not want to read about my religious/philosophical/personal concepts and ideas.

March 13, 2010

I was talking with an old friend of mine recently and she was asking me about pride, in particular mine. Back in high school I had told her how I struggled with pride and how I sought to be humble in all my relationships but especially in my relationship with God. She then asked if my current disbelief in the Christian God wasn't simply a matter of my pride. Basically who am I to judge God? I wrote her back fairly quickly but have not stopped thinking about her questions and new thoughts have come to me that I want to catalogue.

I knew instantly that my friend was right that it took pride to reject the God of my youth and to find him morally lacking but I also knew it took a certain kind of pride. It was the type of pride that questioned everything it was told unwilling to accept anything based solely upon faith. A pride that did not recognize any authority that was propped up merely by its own self-validation. A pride that demanded evidence for physical and metaphysical claims and accountability for how those claims were lived out. And a pride that spoke loudly and openly about its own thoughts and ideas. Now this is a pride that is very visible to the world especially those who demand faith and it is a pride I do carry but when examined closely this pride leads to an amazing place. It ultimately led me to a place of humility. It led me to a place where I can now openly say “I don’t know but this is what I think” and add with honesty “there is a good chance I am wrong so please look for yourself.”

Then as I examined my previous Christian beliefs I saw that they did, in fact, require a great deal of humility but it was a certain kind of humility. It was the type of humility that said even though I don’t understand I will trust in you because I know you are right. This humility recognized its place (and others) in the world and God’s place in the world. It acknowledged that God was greater and worthy of trust and praise because God said so. Having this humility meant accepting the mysteries that accompanied the nature and workings of God and knowing that we could not expect to understand all of God’s ways but we must trust him anyway. So ultimately humility meant putting God above all else in one’s life but when examined closely this humility leads to a dangerous place. It ultimately led me to a place of pride. A place where I openly said “I don’t know” yet always added (or implied) “but I know I am right so just trust me.”

It sounds odd but just lining up what I use to believe next to what I currently believe I think it becomes quite clear. Previously I knew what happened to everyone after we died. We would either go to heaven or hell. Currently I say I do not know what happens after we die but I think we merely cease to exist. Previously I knew not only where we went after we die but I knew who went where. I knew who (generally speaking) would get into heaven and who would go to hell. Those who believed in Christ (the right way of course) would be allowed into heaven while those who “rejected” him would be sent to hell. Currently I again say I don't know what happens to us after we die but I believe whatever does happen to us it will likely be the same for us all. Previously I believed that there was only one way to truth and that was through God's special revelation (the bible), which I just happened to have. Currently I believe that truth is open to all. No one holds a special key to truth that everyone else must blindly believe in. Previously I was aware that other religions had different beliefs and had their own sacred texts but knew that only the bible was God's word and that they needed to read it to understand. Currently I believe that all religions have wisdom to share with this world and that one certainly shouldn't judge a text that one hasn't even bothered to read. Previously I knew that God's revelation had to be properly understood and interpreted otherwise it would lead to errors and sin and I, of course, knew those proper interpretations, particularly the important ones. Currently I believe that through the use of our reason and experience we can all move towards truth and can be held accountable by one another. Previously I always adapted any new information I learned to fit into the conclusions I had already made. If something did not fit into the Christian worldview properly then it must either be wrong or simply a mystery but either way I knew I still held the truth. It was never a matter of saying I was wrong but rather matter of saying I (and you) merely did not understand. Currently I allow the evidence to speak for itself. I am no longer afraid to change my beliefs based on what I learn and to openly admit that I was wrong. Previously I never pretended to understand but always maintained I was right. Currently I never pretend to understand but always maintain I could be wrong.

So we are left with an odd picture of two lives that both contain pride and humility. One contains an openly visible pride that is loud and often obnoxious but serves as a path to an often unnoticed humility. What I would call a prideful humility. The other contains an openly visible humility that is markedly submissive but serves as a path to a routinely unacknowledged pride. What I would call a humble pride. Neither path is easy, neither path produces only good people and neither path is perfect. So what path should one choose? It seems it comes down to a question of humble means or humble ends? Well my friend was right about my desire for humility so in the end I would rather end up in a place of humility even if it is a prideful humility then end up in a place of pride no matter how humble or unnoticed that pride may be…but the great thing is I could be wrong.


  1. It's fascinating to go back and look at these things side by side sometimes. One of the pieces in Bill Maher's "Religulous" that I most loved and most hated:

    Five minutes from the end of the film, Maher quotes, "There is only one reasonable standpoint. It is not the arrogant certainty of religion, but doubt. Doubt is inherently humble." This is an amazing gem of genius. He's right, and he's more right that he is probably even aware. Continuing, however, Maher then authoritatively tells his audience to grow up and "give up" religion before we destroy each other and ourselves. His doubt - that virtue which, for one brief, shining and glorious moment, he understood to mean that he didn't understand - had transformed into an ugly arrogance, the very kind he was defaming.

    It's a very similar story to your 'prideful humility' vs 'humble pride,' I think.

    On a slightly different note, I've always wondered about how pride came to be categorized (if you will). I'm proud of my sister for graduating college this June, or proud of my favorite hockey team for winning the Stanley Cup, but surely this "pride" is not the same as that evil which is condemned at every (religious) turn?

  2. The line between pride and humility is definitely precarious. I do like the Bill Maher quote but understand and share your distaste for where he takes it. In my piece I tried to be careful to use my own story and comment upon it. My story is by no means authoritative or the only way things work out for those in the Christian tradition. So I hope I did not come off as Bill Maher did with an arrogant certainty in my own truth.

    I guess a good question become is it possible to hold on to one's faith/religion and doubt at the same time? Does religion have to lead to unquestioned certainty? If religion leads to unquestioned certainty then I do believe humility easily becomes lost and the potential for danger increases. That is were Maher might have a point. The certainty it takes to kill (not die) for a religious belief is a prideful certainty and I gladly speak out against and label it for what it is vile, idiotic and morally abhorrent.

    As far as the word pride itself it clearly has many layers. Being proud of others certainly is nothing like having pride in the religious sense. Off the top of my head I don't know exactly how I would describe the difference but I know it is there. The pride against which I think we must struggle against seems to have a certain level of self-importance and smugness that is not associated with pride in terms of supporting another person...or hockey team. :) But that is all I can think of right now. What do you think?

  3. There's an interesting tradition that has lasted from some of the early church fathers (in the Eastern Orthodox denomination) regarding faith - they consider doubt to be an integral part of faith. Faith and doubt are meant to be constantly fighting and feeding each other, weakening where need be and strengthening where need be. Faith is not absolute; it is growth.
    As for the pride which you and I agree is "evil," the pride which Maher condemns, it is essentially the same as the pride it claims not to be. You've made a very good point as to the pride containing this sense of self-importance, and "religious" pride (the "I know what happens after death and I know the Bible is God's word" and so on) certainly contains this. It's more dangerous in that the pride is masked as humility - you think you are being prideful of God's wisdom and not your own, when in reality you are merely being prideful of your own "wisdom" regarding God's wisdom. Slippery slope, that is.

  4. I think we are on the same page.

    I agree with you and the Orthodox Church that faith and doubt can and should be used together. But sadly I believe more often then not they are not used together. I believe most pastors/priests and churches discourage doubt and show the two (faith/doubt) as incompatible opposites battling for your soul as opposed to needed partners in one's spiritual journey.

    As always I love reading your thoughts. Keep 'em coming

  5. Indeed! Anyone (any religious tradition, etc) who teaches that you must purge yourself of doubt is hindering, not helping, your spiritual journey.