The Other Benedict Option: Humility

What a sixth-century monk can teach all of us about public engagement
The Other Benedict Option: Humility
Image: Farbod Poorreza / EyeEm / Getty Images

In sixth-century Europe, unprecedented chaos gripped the dying remnants of the Roman Empire. As Europe entered a period of political chaos and moral decline, a young Christian by the name of Benedict started a movement that would radically reshape Christian habits of life for more than a millennium.

His primary contribution was fairly basic, perhaps even pedestrian: He offered a clear and orderly way to organize Christian monasteries, penning what came to be known as The Rule, which detailed how monasteries should run, down to meal times and organization charts. But these monasteries, stabilized and fortified by TheRule, would eventually become agents of subtle social change and guardians of a rich and vibrant faith amid the political chaos and cultural decline of the proceeding centuries.

In 2017, journalist Rod Dreher argued that we find ourselves in a circumstance not so different from Benedict’s: a moment of social upheaval and decline in which “serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives” but must focus on nurturing “creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them.” Building on the work of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who argued for the relevance of Benedict’s preservation of Christian moral reasoning over 30 years ago, Dreher contended that this would involve painful but necessary shifts in mindset for evangelical Christians.

The ensuing discussion has been well-documented in CT’s pages. Supporters of the “Benedict Option” contend that it is essential to evangelical public engagement in an increasingly post-Christian environment, while critics have argued that diminishing evangelical influence at the current moment would constitute a consequential failure of nerve and a tactical misstep. That conversation will continue to evolve as cultural and political events unfold.

But missing throughout this discussion has been serious consideration of the virtue that Saint Benedict highlighted most prominently in his Rule: humility. Though this virtue is at the heart of the Benedictine project and is a keystone for Christian ethics, it has remained an untapped resource for understanding what it means to live in a moment of political and social upheaval. Buried among the treasures of the Christian tradition is a rich vision of humility capable of speaking deep and complex truths especially relevant to our present moment.

Humility’s Complex Heritage

Most of us know from experience that humility is difficult to cultivate. But philosophers, theologians, and psychologists alike also find in humility a different challenge: It is notoriously difficult to define. In a growing body of research dedicated to humility, there are no less than a dozen divergent definitions currently in use. And even when we turn to the pages of Scripture for an authoritative word on the matter, we are faced with surprising complexity.

One set of views of humility advanced by philosophers and social scientists emphasizes that humility is fundamentally a matter of seeing ourselves rightly: a recognition of our frailty and fallenness in God’s sight, leading to a willing submission to God’s will. This seems to be what is meant when God calls Israel to “humble themselves and pray” (2 Chron. 7:14) or when the Proverbs urge us to “lean not on our own understanding” (Prov. 3:5).

Paul seems to have something like accurate self-evaluation in mind when he commends his audience not to think of themselves more highly than they ought (Rom. 12:3) and argues that when it comes to repentance and faith, there is no room for boasting (Rom. 3:27). Humble people, on this view, are primarily marked by a deep awareness of their limitations and sin and can say with the psalmist, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me” (Ps. 131:1).

But this view inevitably collides with the example of Jesus. Consider the well-known Christ-hymn of Philippians 2. There, Paul commends the Philippians to imitate Jesus’ humble example, giving up status and power to live a life of self-denial and servanthood. It would be nonsense to argue that the incarnation was motivated by the Son of God’s recognition of his limitations and shortcomings—he had none to recognize! Similarly, when Jesus takes up the degrading task of washing his disciples’ feet and then calls his disciples to imitate his example, he is surely not calling them to do better self-evaluation (John 13:1–20). If Jesus is an example of humility, then humility must be something other than accurate self-evaluation.

This has led to another set of views that point in the very opposite direction: Rather than being especially good at self-evaluation, humble people are those with a habit of being so unconcerned about themselves altogether that they can focus squarely on loving others. As C. S. Lewis argued in Mere Christianity, genuinely humble people are generally not overly concerned with recognizing their limits—rather, they are so focused on doing what is right that they have little time to navel-gaze. Humble people, then, are not so much marked by an absence of ambition for great and marvelous things but by an unwavering commitment to love and justice, without excessive worry about themselves or their status.

Humility and Public Engagement

An important effect of these divergent views of humility is that they tend to underwrite radically different views of Christian public engagement. When Christians focus on the first type of humility—let’s call it the “fallen-and-finite” view—they often set their sights on making small, incremental impact on their communities. Dreams of radical transformation at the national level are rejected as unrealistic, and Christian political engagement may be regarded with some suspicion.

On this view, change will come not through the penetration and overturning of large and prestigious institutions, but through the winsome witness of Christians loving their neighbors in everyday ways.

In contrast, those emphasizing the “other-centeredness” vision of humility often feel comfortable aiming higher. They are willing to penetrate the halls of power, to campaign for just treatment of the marginalized, to influence titans of industry toward fairer labor agreements—whatever must be done in order to demonstrate the radical love of Christ.

On this view, the preeminent danger facing the church is not aiming too high, but choosing a path of self-focused living under the pretense of pursuing holiness. True humility, in contrast, requires forgetting ourselves and seeking to do the most good we can, which inevitably means transforming institutions (Phil. 2:3).

The outlines of the Benedict-option dilemma once again emerge. Noting that evangelical public engagement over the last 30 years has failed to stem social decline in serious ways, Dreher and his allies commend a new approach with more modest aspirations. Opponents, meanwhile, contend that such a withdrawal is likely to lead away from, rather than toward, the radical example of Jesus, who calls us to use what status and influence we may have (or be able to attain) in favor of the poor and marginalized.

Savvy readers will recognize here the hallmarks of a false dichotomy. Advocates of the “fallen-and-finite” view of humility do not typically reject all attempts to influence institutions toward justice, and those in favor of the “other-centeredness” view are generally not opposed to sober-minded realism about our limitations and brokenness. Straw men are poor aides in moving us toward genuine and nuanced obedience to Jesus.

Surely wisdom here requires admitting that this fundamental tension in the biblical vision of humility—between self-focus and other-focus, between laying power aside and using power for others—is a feature of our faith, not a bug. After all, the good news is not only that Jesus has given up his power on our behalf but also that he is now exalted and intercedes for us as omnipotent Lord. And he calls us not only to a life of painful confrontation with our faults and frailties—being united with him in his death—but also to a new life in which we share in the very Spirit in whose power Jesus lived and rose again.

So at the individual level, Christian humility calls us to marry the two tendencies we have outlined, holding in tension our need to reckon with our frailties and our calling to shift our gaze away from ourselves and toward our neighbors. In fact, this is precisely why Paul calls Jesus to our attention in Philippians 2. The incarnation was an act of the limitless taking on boundaries, and in his life and death, Jesus demonstrated exactly what it looks like to confront the frailty of the human condition without drowning in a sea of self-focus.

What’s more, this complex vision of humility has the potential to fund a mode of public engagement that is equally audacious and conscious of human limitations. In a moment of political upheaval and moral decline, we need the humility that revolutionaries like Jesus, Moses, or Paul exemplified; they each made radical claims that confronted and ultimately transformed their worlds. But we cannot afford to ignore that humility marked by the recognition of the deep fragility and sinfulness of ourselves and our institutions, which calls us to calibrate our expectations accordingly.

This is what makes Christian humility distinct from its counterfeits, which are in wide circulation both inside and outside the contemporary church. It refuses the ambition of self-assured political operators whose designs fail to take into account the frailty and fallenness of themselves and their institutions, but it equally condemns the easy resignation of those who seek refuge in the safe pursuit of personal holiness.

What Would Saint Benedict Do?

We return, briefly, to Benedict. It may at first appear obvious that Benedict would side with those advocating a more modest vision of public engagement. After all, he was a monk, not a politician, and his Rule called fellow monks to a radical withdrawal from the world for the sake of contemplation and service.

But the picture we get from history is slightly more complicated. The Rule was widely adopted primarily because it was seen as a balanced document—a way of disciplining the unsustainably radical tendencies of many monks who were so withdrawn from the world that they endangered themselves physically and morally.

Benedict himself is reported to have preferred his early life as a solitary hermit but ultimately felt called to take the position of abbot at a nearby monastery because of his desire to see monastic communities transformed. By the time he wrote The Rule’s influential material on humility, he was likely the head over several monasteries and had achieved regional notoriety, suggesting that he did not consider humility inconsistent with holding and exercising uncommon power and influence.

Moreover, as The Rule was passed down, Christians did not typically regard it as inconsistent with using power to impact public life at the highest levels. In fact, the most influential proponent of Benedict’s teaching on humility was Bernard of Clairvaux, who was one of the most politically active monks in Christian history.

Ultimately, Bernard found himself caught up in one of the darkest exercises of Christian political power in history: rallying others toward the terror and violence of the Second Crusade. It’s likely that Bernard simply miscalculated. Though he may have been right to aim high—seeking to use his political access to push reform throughout the European government and church—he underestimated the tendency of powerful institutions to shape Christian witness, rather than the other way around. This may be the most prescient part of the story for evangelicals in the US, who have gained, by many accounts, unique access to the levers of power in the current administration.

Cultivating a life of faithful public engagement is hard, and simple solutions are unlikely to satisfy. But a full-orbed vision of humility offers a framework for holding together the biblical summons to use our power for others with an appreciation that our inadequacies run deeper than we know.

Stephen T. Pardue is associate professor of theology at the International Graduate School of Leadership in Manila. He is co-editor of the Majority World Theology Series (Eerdmans/Langham) and the author of The Mind of Christ (T&T Clark, 2013).

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The Other Benedict Option: Humility