Oxford University Press is set to release Humility and Human Flourishing from Michael Austin, the newly elected President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. In the below interview, Michael talks about his latest book and the importance of further philosophical and theological work to be done on humility as a virtue integral for human flourishing.
What is Humility?
In short, humility is “proper self-assessment” and “a self-lowering other-centeredness”. I analyze it in much more detail, of course. To do so, I employ Robert Adams’ notion of the modularity of virtue. So in terms of what will be true of the humble person, I discuss several cognitive, emotive, and active modules of humility, as follows:
(C1) The humble person possesses self-knowledge with respect to his virtues, vices, and limitations, both personal and qua human person.
(C2) The humble person knows that God deserves the credit for her salvation, talents, abilities, accomplishments, and virtues.
(C3) The humble person believes that he ought to have a prima facie preference for the satisfaction of the interests of others over the satisfaction of his own interests.
(C4) The humble person will not conceive of human beings in a hierarchical manner in light of their equal inherent dignity and worth as image-bearers of God.
(C5) The humble person is properly concerned with how others perceive her.
(E1) The humble person has a prima facie preference for the satisfaction of the interests of others over his own.
(E2) The humble person is motivated to act by her love for God and for the sake of his kingdom.
(A1) The humble person will be disposed to obey God.
(A2) The humble person will be disposed to engage in self-sacrificial actions for the good of others.
There is a lot here, but this is the account of the humble person that I offer as a Christological account of this moral virtue in such a person. The account is grounded in philosophical reflection and analysis, classic and contemporary theology and biblical studies, and some recent empirical work on this virtue. Reading the above, one might wonder about how I individuate humility from other virtues. For that, you’ll have to read the book!
With that account in mind, how is a philosophical-theological account of Humility integral to an account of Human Flourishing?
There are many ways, but one that stands out is that humility is a virtue that is central in and essential for rightly relating us to God, others, and to the good, the true, and the beautiful in creation and God’s kingdom. On a Christian account of human flourishing, humility is rational, benefits its possessor, and is conducive to individual and social flourishing. Given the historical skepticism of thinkers such as Hume and Nietzsche, and contemporary thinkers like Tara Smith, it is important to defend humility’s status as a moral virtue as part of a larger case for the rationality and goodness of the Christian moral life, insofar as humility is an essential aspect of such a life.
How did this project come about for you?
I was reading Erik Wielenberg’s Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, where he discusses a naturalistic account of the virtue of humility but also some of what C.S. Lewis thought about it. I thought Lewis was partially right, but realized that in both popular and scholarly literature, there are many inaccurate or truncated views about the nature of humility. So that got me into the topic and just 8 short years later my work resulted in this book!
That’s interesting. What did you discover about this topic that most intrigued you?
I constructed my initial account of the virtue, as I noted above, employing philosophy, theology, and biblical studies. I was fascinated to find that the operational definition of this trait that is used by many psychologists corresponds to my account. This helped my work substantially. For example, some of the ways in which I respond to Hume’s criticisms of humility’s status as a virtue make use of this excellent work in psychology on the virtue of humility.
What have you found to be so distinct about a Christian account of humility?
For me what is most distinct from a Christian perspective is that humility is primarily an interpersonal virtue. The current naturalistic versions of humility on offer construe it as a self-regarding virtue, and several Christian accounts follow suit. While humility does have self-regarding elements, including a knowledge of our limits and other kinds of self-knowledge, that is not the heart of the virtue. The picture we get from examining the Scriptures is that it is primarily other-regarding; it is about putting the interests of others ahead of one’s own, as the gospels and Philippians 2:1-11 make clear that Jesus himself habitually did. So my initial concerns about construing humility as merely self-knowledge, a knowledge of one’s limits, turned out to be confirmed by not only an in-depth scriptural analysis of humility, but of what many have thought about this trait over the centuries. This means that humility is a robustly action-guiding virtue, and is relevant to a variety of issues in applied ethics as well as spiritual formation. I discuss how this is so in the book.
Your project is engaged in ‘analytic moral theology.’ What do you find distinct about that approach and why does it matter?
It is distinct insofar as it involves approaching theological topics where moral concerns are central, with the ambitions of an analytic philosopher: prizing particular intellectual virtues, using the analytic style of discourse, seeking clarity, and using the other tools of analytic philosophy. This is not the only method that we should use, but it is one that brings some underutilized tools to bear on Christian moral theology. I discuss this in more detail in the book, and consider several objections to it. One desired result of this kind of work is that it helps us acquire moral knowledge that we can then apply as we see fit. In this sense, it is quite practical. In short, to seek to grow in and exemplify humility, it helps to know what it actually is!
The book ends with a reflection on John 13. How is Jesus brilliant on ‘humility and human flourishing.’
First and foremost, Jesus is brilliant on these topics because both his teaching and his life exemplify humility and human flourishing. In the foot-washing we see his brilliance and humility on display. He offers us a way out of our own crippling egoistic pride, not only by lighting the way, so to speak, but by enabling us to be transformed by his grace into the freedom that humility can deliver.
Given the contours of your book, what do you recommend for further philosophical-theological work to be done by Christians in this area?
I think more work should be done on other virtues and a general Christian account of flourishing, by Christians. Then, we need to translate this scholarly work into more popular forms so that the picture of the good person and the good life that we see in Christ is made concrete, specific, and attainable by those who humbly depend on him for doing seeking to experience and embody God’s goodness. As Dallas Willard argued, we need a curriculum for Christlikeness. My view is that the evangelical segment of the Christian church in the United States is in desperate need of a moral reformation, with the pursuit of knowing and loving God at the center of our lives, in tandem with a true transformation of character. Otherwise, the movement will die out, and rightly so. It is up to Christian scholars to work in moral theology, offering insights related to both theory and practice. I’d like to see what happened with philosophy of religion and apologetics resources in the past 30 years also happen in the moral realm. We need popular-level resources for how to grow that are grounded in excellent scholarship, but also aimed at becoming, as C.S. Lewis said, “little Christs.”