On what’s so offensive about humility

David Bentley Hart explains how the story of Jesus changed our understanding of morality.



David Bentley Hart explains how the story of Jesus changed our understanding of morality.


Humility is one of the special inflections of the uniquely Christian moral sensibility that changes the way the ancient world understands human nature, I think that’s true. Stoicism had advocated simplicity, in a sense – if not humility, at least a kind of fraternal sense of limitations that we all share. But still, not the same thing. It was not this radical sense that the first step in spiritual wisdom is to relinquish your pretension to privileges, powers, rights, immemorial pedigrees.

The ancient world put a great emphasis upon pedigree, upon class; most cultures do. And even up into the 19th century, you can have a sort of faux pagan like Nietzsche expressing his revulsion at the Christian valuation of humility as a good. Pride, a sense of the inviolability of the self as the centre of values, is the real basis of a healthy ethos for him. 

But this sense … or not sense, this positive statement that you find in the Gospels that the humble, the meek, the gentle are closer to God in not only what is pleasing to God, but the way in which God conducts himself towards the world, is absolutely constitutive of the Christian imagination. I mean the story they tell is of – as in Philippians – a god who empties himself of all glory, the glory to which he has every right, equality with God not a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself and became a slave, the form of God in the form of a slave, and in this very way gave full and proper expression to his love in its divine depth … this is an extraordinary statement. Again, Nietzsche was repelled by the idea of God on the cross – he said what a horrifying idea this was to the ancient world. And he was right. Equally horrifying was the notion of God in the form of a slave who actually laid down his life for the peasantry of a colonial territory, and then, by extension, everyone else. 

In a world that believes that at the end of the day, the index of human value and of moral truth are degrees of privilege, power, pedigree; the right to own others, to govern others, to kill others; claims about one’s ancient derivation, about one’s relation to the gods according to one’s station in society; the notion that the highest value of all begins in resigning all of that … 

Early Christians – again, in the Didache, this very early Christian document – the emphasis it places on bishops, who generally were the more educated sort of Christian, having to yield place to a poor person entering the church, having to give up their seats if necessary to see that that person … 

Recognising that all claims to power, all claims to privilege and right, are false and violent at the end of the day and that God, as God, is most God when he pours himself out into nothingness, so utterly changes the expectations we have of ourselves and one another and what we dare call the good or what we dare claim for ourselves and what we dare deny to others that in some ways perhaps you’re right, humility may be the singular greatest offence to the moral sensibility of the ancient world and to humans in general, and the greatest revolution in our understanding of the moral good as a social and personal practice.