Humble: Free Yourself from the Traps of a Narcissistic World
Learning Humility: A Year of Searching for a Vanishing Virtue
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to ask Eugene Heideman, who served the Reformed Church in America in a variety of roles for a half century, “What is the most important quality that a disciple of Jesus needs to demonstrate in our day and time?” He did a little bit of pondering on the question and then answered in a quite firm manner, “Humility; a follower of Jesus most needs humility!”
Given the tenor of our times, it is not surprising that two books have just been published this year in 2022 on the theme and virtue of humility. Richard Foster, the celebrated author of a modern spiritual classic Celebration of Discipline, has written a 185-page book entitled, Learning Humility: A Year of Searching for a Vanishing Virtue. Foster’s book is in the spiritual discipline and theological stream of other fine books that Foster has authored. A second book on humility, which is a bit longer—290 pages–is by Daryl Van Tongeren entitled, Humble: Free Yourself from the Traps of a Narcissistic World. Van Tongeren is Associate Professor of Psychology at Hope College. His book uses extensive psychological research to argue that humility is not a weakness but rather “it is time to rethink humility as your greatest strength.” Van Tongeren’s book is not specifically religious, and readers from a wide range of religious traditions, and of none, would certainly find the book helpful.
Since I have been trained and served as a parish pastor, I must honestly acknowledge that I gravitated to the book on humility more directly tied to the Christian tradition by Richard Foster, an evangelical Quaker, more than I resonated with Daryl Van Tongeren’s psychological based approach to humility. Rather than needing a great deal of psychological research and data to convince me that I need to further develop the character of humility, I found myself reading the book by Psychology Professor Van Tongeren, exclaiming, “Just give me Jesus!” But I need humility recognizing that the biblical-theological and devotional way of understanding life is not all the world that God has made. Psychology may have significant insights into how I am constructed, how other human beings are put together, and what that means for relationships and our impact on the world. As Van Tongeren points out in his book “confirmation bias,” or the desire to see ourselves in a positive light, often is a hindrance to the development of humility. Give me psychology too, for was not Jesus a master psychologist as well?
Richard Foster organizes his book on humility by not only rooting the virtue in Christian spiritual soil such as the life of Christ and Christian classics, but he alternates chapters with the inclusion of Lakota American spirituality. These alternating spiritualities can be used for a year-long journey in the virtue of humility. The book is not technical or difficult to read. The engagement with the Christian tradition makes use of familiar scripture passage with fresh insight combined with several spiritual classics; some references I have never previously encountered. Then Foster makes use of the Lakota calendar in alternating chapters. Interesting “humility” is the initial virtue in the Lakota calendar, and all other virtues are derivatives of humility. We might say that as love is the primary Christian virtue, in Lakota spirituality humility is the foundation of all other virtues.
Why does Foster make use of Lakota spirituality? For one, Foster and his wife live in the American West and have engagement with the suffering of native Americans. Foster particularly believes that we need to enter the history, culture, and journey of the Lakota people so that those of us in the majority culture of America can learn humility from our history of mistreatment and exploitation of native Americans. And the inclusion of Lakota spirituality requires humility to learn and receive from a religious spirituality that is different from our own. Two-thirds through the book, there is a moving description of the Battle at Wounded Knee told through the eyes of Black Elk. According to General Nelson Miles, Wounded Knee was “the most abominable criminal military blunder and a horrible massacre of women and children.” Foster reflects in his diary writing at night, “For Black Elk the tragedy of Wounded Knee meant the end of a culture and a way of life. This evening, in my feeble efforts to recount this enormous crucible of grief, my heart is saddened beyond the telling.” And I too had tears reading this account.
But the spirituality of the Lakota people in the book is more insightful and uplifting than sad and tragic. One example, in a chapter devoted to Lakota spirituality entitled, “The Moon when the Ducks come Back,” which is late March to April in the Lakota calendar (which I like as a description for the coming of spring), Foster shares the third Lakota virtue of the year, “Wawoohola,” “respect.” A Lakota virtue is respect for all things—plants, animals, stones, wind, little people, all creation. “Our Lakota ancestors would ceremonially hunt their bison which would provide clothing, shelter and food for the people. Every part was used, and their spirit was honored by placing their skull facing east to meet the rising sun in unison with the rhythm of life (pg 39).”
Foster also does an excellent job, not only exploring humility within the life of Jesus Christ and other well-known Christian classical writers such as Augustine, C.S. Lewis, but the author also introduces us to an anonymous author who wrote, The Cloud of Unknowing. However, as I read Foster’s book, the theologian in me wondered: How are the biblical texts and the Christian classics which are quite extensive related to Lakota spirituality? As a pastor familiar with the theology of Karl Barth, I have been trained that the coming of Jesus is the end of all religion, and we should be aware and discern idolatry in other religions or spiritualities.
Foster tackles this issue head on with the concern about religious syncretism which is alone worth the cost of the book. Quoting I John 1:5-9, Foster asserts that Jesus, the Christ, has been at work in all peoples and cultures whether they know him or not. Foster draws on Romans 2:14-16 and “the law written on the conscience.” Time does not permit me to sketch out his full argument, but these words are helpful for this review: “So in every culture and people group we look for those areas that are “consonant” with the gospel of Jesus. These we rejoice in and accept as marks of the Spirit. Those areas in the culture that are “dissonant” with the gospel of Jesus, we gladly turn from (pg 123).”
Foster’s book is not a complete biblical-theological exploration of humility, and it leans toward spiritual reflection and meditation in a devotional framework. If you are looking for something more exhaustive and solely related to the Christian tradition, this book might not meet your hopes and wishes. However, Christian pastors and people steeped in the Christian tradition may need to expand their understanding of humility by delving into other religious traditions. Not answered or supplied in the book is what other religious traditions beyond the Lakota tradition can lead us into a fuller awareness of humility.
Van Tongeren as a young psychological researcher and teacher brings a lifetime of psychological research to the subject of humility in his book, Humble: Free Yourself from the Traps of a Narcissistic World. In his doctoral work in Psychology, Van Tongeren discovered that the subject of humility has not been researched because it is difficult to get honest responses and feedback. Our human tendency to have a ‘fragile sense of self’ leads to overestimating our capabilities, which makes it difficult to measure accurately. But in a culture with an epidemic of narcissism, Van Tongeren set out to study humility, apply it to his own life and to the life of his students, convinced from the research that humility can transform our lives, our relationships, and bring meaning to all of life.
Van Tongeren keeps the psychological research studies that undergird the chapters in the book to a minimum and places the extensive research in the footnotes in the back of the book. Occasionally, he brings the research into the main body of the book. For example, he draws on a study by Jennifer Crock and Lora Park that highlights the considerable toll a relentless pursuit of self-esteem may exact on us when we pursue positive self-views above all else. Yes, there is a place for positive views of the self, but the research indicates that when we pursue this above all else, we do not get feedback that gives us an honest assessment of ourselves. The result is that we tend to try to meet the high standards of our culture or place our worth in the hands of other people which results in forfeiting control of our own life. Van Tongeren’s conclusion is that humility unlocks a life of freedom. “We are unshackled from the narrow cultural expectations of what it means to be successful, attractive, rich, or worthy (pg 91).”
In the first part of the book, Van Tongeren introduces us to the benefits of humility with the following chapters: Awareness and acceptance, authentic relationships, and ambition and achievement. Then in part two, the author helps us to cultivate humility through seeking feedback, reducing our defensiveness, building empathy, and developing greater self-regulation. Part three is about how humility can help us change our lives by bridging cultural divides, making progress in humility, and flourishing in community. He concludes the book with a moving affirmation about humility in relation to existential meaning, which can complement any theologian’s description of the human despair of our times: “We all need existential humility, in which we can revel in our smallness in the scope of the universe, feel grateful to simply be alive, realize that there are deep and enduring questions about life that we will never solve, and still find peace in the unknowing—to rest in the comfort of knowing that we all share a similar, human fate, and our core fears are shared by all . . . An authentic humility provides us with deep and lasting security (pg 249).” Sounds a bit like the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism to me.
Sometimes with the extensive psychological studies tucked into the footnotes in the back of the book, Van Tongeren sounded, “preachy,” or resorting to sage advice. I would have liked him to bring a few more of the results of psychological research into the body of the chapters. Helpful to the reader were Van Tongeren’s stories complementing the psychological research. He tells the story of a student of color on the Hope College campus who visited him at his office. She was concerned about security on the campus, and it took humility to listen to her concerns and support a plan to implement her ideas. A humorous story was his desire to learn how to swim as an adult. His work on the virtue of humility helped him to persevere beyond the initial shaming of a swimming instructor. And a precious and helpful story that made the author approachable to the reader was when he asked his wife, “On a scale of one to ten, how much humility do I have?” Of course, his wife did not rate him very high, which is not good for someone writing a book on humility. I will not dare to ask my wife that question until I have spent a year with the book developing the virtue of humility!
Both Foster and Van Tongeren have a similar definition of humility. It is not a worm theology in which we put ourselves down. Drawing on the spiritual writers, Foster states that humility comes from the Latin word humus, “from the earth,” or “grounded.” “Humility is seeing yourself as you really are . . . Humility is when we are brought down to earth.” Or as the Apostle Paul put it, “Don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought to think.” Van Tongeren from a psychological research point of view states that humility is, “an accurate self-assessment, the ability to regulate one’s ego, and an orientation toward other people. Put more simply, humility is knowing yourself, checking yourself, and going beyond yourself.” And for Foster, he encourages us “to keep going in humility so that a deep settleness in spirit and a keen concern for the bruised and broken of our society can take root in our hearts.” And for Van Tongeren, “Humility liberates from a wholly narcissistic self . . . committed to humility is precisely what the world needs right now.”
We need the forgotten virtue of humility in our lives. I need more humility in my own life and plan to use both books for devotions, “for Jesus humbled himself taking the form of a servant.” And the world needs humility from all of us in the community of the Reformed Journal. I would commend both books, which require not a quick read, but reflection and inward digestion, so especially in an age of narcissism we can be formed as humble disciples of Jesus.