by Roger Bretherton
In 1978, the existential theologian John Macquarrie wrote a short book with an unusual title, The Humility of God. In it, he took the unassuming notion of humility and stretched it into every corner of the faith: creation, incarnation, redemption, consummation, and so on. Having done so, he concluded:
“… no self-centred absolute, no unmoved and unmovable mover, no unfeeling impersonal principle, not even a lonley monarch distantly presiding over the universe, but a Father yearning for his creatures, a Father who is most fully revealed in the suffering crucified Saviour. And the fact that he too can be touched and affected certainly does not make him any less God or any less adorable, but rather more so. The God of Christian faith, we could say, is great enough to be humble.”“…no self-centred absolute, no unmoved and unmovable mover, no unfeeling impers
It’s the kind of statement I can imagine Tom Oord writing—a God in whom love is more fundamental than power. For what is a God of uncontrolling love if not a God of humility?
Now, I need to come clean. I am a psychologist, not a theologian. Or, to put it more accurately, I am a professional psychologist, but an amateur theologian. Nevertheless, I still dare to entertain the notion that occasionally, like the detectives of Christie and Conan Doyle, an amateur can see patterns and make links that may elude the laser-like focus of the professional.
For the last few years, I have been conducting research in the psychology of humility. Prior to the last decade or so, most psychologists thought it was almost impossible to study humility in the real world, partly because it is tricky to measure. If someone gives themselves a ten out of ten for humility on a rating scale, we are more than justified in viewing their self-assessment with suspicion. For quite some time, therefore, humility tended to be studied as a void, an emptiness. It was the absence of narcissism, arrogance, boastfulness, or self-enhancement. Humble people, it was thought, lacked something.
In a sense this is true. Diminished self-focus is certainly one of the hallmarks of humility and has been denoted in numerous ways—self-forgetfulness, un-selving, the quiet ego—all qualities referring to the delightful ability of humble people to put self-concern aside when the situation requires it.
But in recent years we have become more aware of the positive aspects of humility. The humble are not charisma vacuums. They make a profound contribution to the people around them, and this is what makes them so winsome as friends, leaders and employees. They know how to listen, no matter how critical or unflattering the conversation may be. They know how to care, because they see other people without bias or distortion, accurately recognising strength and vulnerability. The fundamental gift of humility is that it acts as a gateway to professional, spiritual and ethical growth. Humble people are learning people.
It is therefore interesting to note that one of the major biblical passages that acts as a lynchpin for Tom Oord’s essential kenotic theology is a passage commending humility. The apostle Paul begins the second chapter of Philippians with an endorsement of humility over selfish ambition and then erupts into a great hymn, stressing that Christ not only emptied (kenoō) himself, but also humbled (tapeinoō) himself. For Paul, the emptying of Christ and the humility of Christ are closely aligned.
The apostle has urgently practical reasons in mind. As always with Paul, the apple of application never falls too far from the tree of doctrine, and in this case it could be that he is writing to avert the fracturing of the Philippian church. His final greetings suggest that two influential and beloved women, Euodia and Syntyche, are in conflict. Humility is essential to the future of the congregation. We psychologists are only just catching up with Paul in recognising the central role of humility in the life and health of human communities.
In recent history, several critics have reacted against the Christian virtue of humility. Nietzsche famously rewrote the eleventh verse of Luke chapter fourteen to read, ‘he who humbles himself wants to be exalted’—humble submission as a resentful performance designed to ingratiate the powerful. Camus, on the other hand, satirised the group cohesion that comes about through humility with the chilling words, ‘all together at last, but on our knees with heads bowed’—humility promoted as a device by which the church suppressed the life of the individual and enforced obedient conformity.
Likewise, contemporary evolutionary psychologists of religion are fond of the refrain that religions teach that God, like a tribal chieftain, demands submission from his worshipers, under threat of execution or exile. Submissive followers are more easily controlled, compliant, and convenient. Presumably this is what a controlling god, like the leader of any totalitarian regime, would want from his followers. God wants us to be nice, because he is nasty.
Essential kenotic theology rescues us from the master-slave mentality in which God needs us to be weak so he can be strong. By illuminating self-giving, other-enhancing love as the essential nature of God, Tom Oord frees us from viewing God as an undeniably powerful, but questionably loving dictator. God, he claims, cannot be unloving and still be God. I’d add, “…nor can God lack humility and still be God.”
God wants us to be loving, because he is loving. He wants us to be humble, because he is humble. Unlike him, we are not essentially so, and therefore must trust that God knows the ultimate power of an infinitely patient, eternally persistent, humble love. We are confronted with a choice between force and humble love, a choice keenly felt by Dostoyevsky when he wrote:
Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that, once and for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvellously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing like it.
Essential kenotic theology is good news, because it offers, perhaps, the best theological rationale imaginable for Christian character and virtue development. It applies not just to love and humility but to hope, wisdom, patience, gratitude, and so on. It addresses not just the problem of evil but the problem of good. In doing so, it offers hope that one day the character of heaven will indeed cover the earth.
Dr Roger Bretherton is Principal Lecturer for Enterprise in the School of Psychology at the University of Lincoln, UK. His current research centres on character development and leadership. He chairs the British Association of Christians in Psychology (BACiP)and is married with two sons.