The Virtue of Humility in Theological Inquiry

Yesterday, my boyfriend and I were in the kitchen talking about theology when the subject of Hell came up. I mentioned that I was bothered by people who stopped going to church or believing in God completely because they found the idea of Hell so repulsive. My boyfriend replied that there were different conceptions of Hell but that he found the idea of eternal torture somewhat difficult to swallow because it does not seem that God’s justice would include eternal punishment for anything we could do on earth. I responded that God’s love makes eternal life with Him possible; why should not His justice include eternal punishment?

The conversation was a long one. My boyfriend and I brought out Scripture, the Church Fathers (and specifically Justin Martyr for this particular conversation), metaphysical speculation, and of course, Thomas Aquinas. We batted around different conceptions of God’s justice and tried to figure out which seemed most true in light of the different resources at our disposal. We never got to the point that we could say definitively that we fully understood how God in his justice could condemn people to a Hell of eternal suffering but we also didn’t conclude that because we could not fully understand, we were going to either (a) give up our faith or (b) dismiss the concept of Hell as false.

I am sure that all of us know people who say that they refuse to worship Yahweh because the Hebrew Scriptures reveal Him to be a wrathful, angry God who is arbitrary in His punishments and guilty of horrible atrocities like genocide. How many people have you talked to who have rejected the New Testament in response to things like Paul saying that women should keep silent, cover their heads, and stay obedient to their husbands? Christopher Hitchens has built his career on arguing that every religion, but especially Christianity, prove in their sacred texts that God is not great, and therefore not something we should worship.

The Christian faith is a complicated one, and it is perfectly reasonable that even the most pious Christian will have questions and doubts. There is, however, a way to pursue these questions within a faith tradition, without rejecting the faith outright. The conversation my boyfriend and I had illustrates how such conversations can proceed, even regarding topics we may have trouble fully consenting to intellectually.

St. Anselm of Canterbury famously defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” But he too ran into people who, failing to reach understanding, gave up faith. In a text called “The Incarnation of the Word,” he describes

the presumption of those who, since they are unable to understand intellectually things the Christian faith professes, and with foolish pride think that there cannot in any way be things that they cannot understand, with unspeakable rashness dare to argue against such things rather than with humble wisdom admit their possibility. Indeed, no Christian ought to argue how things that the Catholic Church sincerely believes and verbally professes are not so, but by always adhering to the same faith without hesitation, by loving it, and by humbly living according to it, a Christian ought to argue how they are, inasmuch as one can look for reasons. If one can understand, one should thank God; if one cannot, one should bow one’s head in veneration rather than sound off trumpets.

Anselm is not saying here that we should refrain from asking difficult questions about our faith or even dare to disagree about how a particular doctrinal issue like Hell should be understood. But he is saying that the failure to come to some sort of understanding gives one license to reject the doctrine in question.

Thomas Aquinas identifies a particular virtue necessary for theological inquiry. The virtue of humility lies between the two extremes of pride and despair (see Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 161). The object of humility is the “difficult good,” such as knowledge that is hard to achieve, and this virtue serves to protect the mind from the pursuit of things which are against right reason. It is the virtue of humility that allows a person to remember her place in reference to God, and to subject herself to God, and to others for the sake of God, when appropriate.

Regarding theological inquiry specifically, Aquinas says that humility restrains a person from confiding in her own powers regarding great things (e.g. knowledge of God’s essence), but encourages her to aim at greater things “through confidence in God’s help . . . especially since the more one subjects oneself to God the more is one exalted in God’s sight. Hence Augustine says: ‘It is one thing to raise oneself to God and another to raise oneself up against God. He that abases himself before Him, him He raiseth up he that raises himself up against Him, him He casteth down” (II-II, Q. 161, art. 2, ad. 2).

Modern sentiments are wont to follow Machiavelli, Hume, and Spinoza, among others, in rejecting humility as a virtue only for the overly-pious or the feint-hearted. Aquinas’ understanding of humility is not one that encourages inactivity or self-deprecation, but rather pushes people to achieve great things and reach great intellectual feats in relation to others, and to God. Aquinas himself was a paradigm of such intellectual humility. He was not afraid to take on difficult points of doctrine, and to disagree with even his most illustrious predecessors like Augustine. But he was also not afraid to admit that some things were a mystery that our human minds could never exhaust. With the aid of humility, one can approach these mysteries as opportunities to grow in faith, rather than abandon it.

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8 comments so far

  1. Kate on

    This reminded me of a conversation from a few years ago.

    Philip: Ok Rita, this is my biggest question ever….”Why is sweat salty?”

    Rita: That’s your biggest question ever?

    Philip: Well, actually my biggest question is, “How can man, with a single finite act, merit eternal damnation?” But the sweat one is right up there too.

  2. Cooch' version 69.0 on

    Girl Sie sind verrückt. Sie schreiben wie Menschen interessiert sind, in der Politik. Hallo! Schreiben Sie ein Blog über den Süden landen. Der einzige Ort, fühle ich mich wie zu Hause. Schreiben Sie über die Art und Weise ein guter Mann, arbeitet bis zu dem Tag, Lichter verschwunden. Schreiben Sie über den Regen auf dem Dach in einer Sommernacht. Schreiben Sie über die Art, wie wir wissen immer noch falsch von rechts. Schreiben Sie über den Süden landen. Girl, schreiben über mein Leben.

  3. everydaythomist on

    Cooch,

    Du darfst mich auf “du” berufen. Ich bin deine Schwester, keine Fremde. Und hier habe ich uber die Art und Weise ein guter Mensch geschrieben. Fur ein guter Mensch ist die Bescheidenheit besonders nötig. Mann darf nicht zu viel über Gott sagen, wenn mann immer true bleiben will. Du sollst das nie vergessen.

  4. Scott on

    Allemand est difficile. George Strait est un très bon chanteur.

  5. Trish on

    🙂 Cool blog.

  6. d on

    I can’t get myself to agree or accept the block quote you provide:

    “the presumption of those who, since they are unable to understand intellectually things the Christian faith professes, and with foolish pride think that there cannot in any way be things that they cannot understand, with unspeakable rashness dare to argue against such things rather than with humble wisdom admit their possibility. Indeed, no Christian ought to argue how things that the Catholic Church sincerely believes and verbally professes are not so, but by always adhering to the same faith without hesitation, by loving it, and by humbly living according to it, a Christian ought to argue how they are, inasmuch as one can look for reasons. If one can understand, one should thank God; if one cannot, one should bow one’s head in veneration rather than sound off trumpets.”

    It suggests that pride rather than humility is the reason that one would reject tenets of faith that are unreasonable/incomprehensible/incoherent. It suggests that humility in inquiry would lead one to accept the teachings of an authority they do not understand. This is dangerous and foolish, as well as misleading. It seems to me that humility would encourage one to allow one’s self to linger in the limbo of not understanding, not accepting or rejecting, rather than bowing before what one (pridefully?) presumes to be an institution that has the correct answers (or is somewhat closer to the correct answers).

    I’ll admit, it’s difficult for me to engage in dialog around an institution for which I have little respect, but it seems that the inquiry which tip-toes around the inconsistency and irrationality of faith – treating it with kid gloves rather than harsh scientific skepticism and investigation – sets unnecessary parameters around a discussion and ultimately removes the possibility of genuine discovery.

    I’m glad to see you writing this, though!

  7. Richard Froggatt on

    Did you mean to say God will always remain true? Is that what you actually said? Maybe Google translated it wrong. 🙂

  8. charles gregory on

    Re: “Anselm is not saying here that we should refrain from asking difficult questions about our faith or even dare to disagree about how a particular doctrinal issue like Hell should be understood. But he is saying that the failure to come to some sort of understanding gives one license to reject the doctrine in question.” I’m thinking the last sentence does not say what you meant it to say.

    I’m delighted to have discovered this site.


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