Sorting by

Skip to main content

Honor and Humility

By April 26, 2012 One Comment

I had the privilege of being invited to speak to the honors convocation at my college this year. Hope it’s of interest to a broader audience….

For Christians, Benjamin Franklin must remain one of the most beguiling serpents ever to inhabit the garden of America. Consider his proposal (bravely recorded in his Autobiography) for attaining virtue while leaving grace entirely out of the picture. Franklin compiled a list of thirteen virtues that covered the waterfront, then doggedly practiced one a week so as to rotate through the whole list four times a year. He kept track of his successes—more accurately, his failures—in a ledger designed for the purpose, recording each evening the number of times he had violated the virtue of the week in the previous 24 hours. A thrifty man, at the end of the quarter Franklin would erase his entries and start over again, only the erasures started wearing holes in the paper, especially at his weak spots, so he devised something of a wax tablet to substitute instead. John Locke meets the corporate quarterly report: winter, spring, summer, and fall, Franklin had a tabula rasa.

Since Christians have always honored noble pagans, we should credit Franklin for candor in the final assessment he made of his efforts. Whatever progress he achieved on some of these virtues, he reported, on one of them he got nowhere at all. That was humility. The more he focused on it, the slipperier it got. To claim humility, Franklin found, is to be seduced into pride, erasing your accomplishment at the very moment of success.

Yet, it has long seemed to me that if the honors program at a Christian college is to truly bear the marks of faith, it ought to do so by combining excellence, hard striving, and high achievement with humility. If you’re worried about maintaining religious distinctiveness at a Christian college, this might be part of the solution, for in my experience, humility is not the prevailing aura at this country’s leading universities. There the bold and chosen and confident show up on poppy and mommsy’s money to learn to become masters of the universe, and then flock off to Wall St and K Street and the White House and the Supreme Court and other habitations of the principalities and powers of this world. As Jesus told his disciples, “It shall not be so among you.”

Now my assignment tonight is to thank all you honors students for brightening and improving this place. More on that in a moment. But first an assurance that in calling for humility to be our measure, I’m not lowering upon you the boom of guilt, or scolding you for taking pride in your accomplishments, or calling us to settle for small potatoes. Rather, I want to offer up humility as a word of encouragement, as an invitation to learning and a call to joy. I want to commend humility not just as a Christian obligation but as an attitude particularly productive in the life of the mind. This is so on three counts.

Humility means we don’t have to be perfect, and so it relieves anxiety, the besetting burden of so many of the bright and talented. What we are, what we are worth, what we mean does not depend on our intellectual trophies but in accepting with thankfulness, every morning, the particular package of gifts we have been given.

Humility means we can listen—the gateway to true learning as it is to hospitality, perhaps today’s most needed spiritual gift. There is no greater grace we can extend to each other than the willingness to hear each other out, to register the presence, the passion, the pain, and the better longings of our neighbor.

Thirdly, in cultivating the patience to hear and finally to fathom another’s question, we can be led to craft a better question of our own. If you haven’t done so already, you will one day discover what a joy it is to close down the answer machine that our churning little brains are so inclined to become and to start reflecting instead on what might be the question. From pastoral situations we know how fatal it is to prate at someone that Jesus is the answer, without knowing what question in our listener Jesus might be the answer to. Walking that path, we might finally find in Jesus a question and an answer deeper, and probably simpler, than any we had ever thought to pose.  

So here’s our thanks to you from us on the faculty. Thank you for bearing with our many, many words which eventually stumble onto something significant. Thank you for probing our answers until we discovered what we were talking about. Thank you for your questions. Thank you for restoring our spirits when the weight of those  “less interested” students in the back row made us wonder why we had chosen this line of work in the first place. That exasperation can simply be the flip side of pride, of course, pride in our brilliance and our ambition. In your persistent curiosity, your ethical passion, your friendships and your faith, in those gorgeous essays turned in on time and in your witty rejoinders and off-hand profundity in class discussion, you have reminded us of our true calling and called us back to it. You make our jobs, and a big part of our lives, meaningful. For all of that, please accept from those privileged to teach you our humble thanks.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I was taught by a sage old elder to thank my congregation regularly for my vacations, for my days off, for my salary, for them listening to me, and for them accepting my dithering work as their pastor.

Leave a Reply