August 23, 2010

Being Grounded

by Tobias Winright
Scripture Reflection: Sir 3:17-29; Ps 68:4-11; Heb 12:18-24; Lk 14:1-14

When I was a child, getting “grounded” was a form of discipline imposed on me by my parents. From my perspective then, it was something to try to avoid. However, both the book of Sirach (which Jesus, son of Eleazar, says was written by his grandfather Jesus Ben Sira) and the Gospel of Luke emphasize the importance of being “grounded,” though admittedly in another sense of the word. That is, as New Testament scholar Barbara E. Reid, O.P. has noted, these two readings convey proverbial wisdom about the virtue of humility, which is “earthy” or “grounded” wisdom (humility is derived from the Latin humilis, which is derived from humus). During dinner at the house of “a leader of the Pharisees,” Jesus noted the seating arrangements whereby persons occupied “the places of honor, which is the opposite of what they ought to do. “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place…. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (14:10-11). Here Jesus echoes Sirach, “The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself…” (3:18). Rather than endeavoring to climb the social ladder by sitting with people of higher status, it is better to be grounded by spending time with “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13), seeing from their perspective and identifying with them.

Curiously, in most of the books occupying my office shelf about Christian ethics and character, the virtue of humility is rarely mentioned or treated. Usually, if it is addressed, humility has to do with what medieval theologians referred to as docta ignorantia, a “learned ignorance,” involving knowing the limits of our knowledge. Marquette University’s Daniel C. Maguire thus notes, “Noonday clarity is not available at dusk, and there are many dusks in matters moral”(Ethics: A Complete Method for Moral Choice, 75). Here humility is about making careful, well-grounded (to the extent possible) moral judgments rather than certain pronouncements from on high that “close the door on subsequent discussion” (91). On the other hand, Duke University’s Stanley Hauerwas warns, “Pretension and presumptuousness…cannot be defeated by false humility. Rather, our task is to be what we were made to be at Pentecost: a people so formed by the Spirit that our humility is but a reflection of our confidence in God’s sure work,” which is “most fully manifest on a cross” and as such serves as a check against temptations to pride, self-righteousness, and self-aggrandizement (The Hauerwas Reader, 149).

For his part, Boston College’s James F. Keenan, S.J., criticizes the “equally self-serving presumptuous belief that we all merit salvation because we are so good” (Moral Wisdom: Lessons & Texts from the Catholic Tradition, 167). The virtue of humility helps counter such presumption. It is not self-deprecation, “but rather the virtue for knowing the place of one’s power in God’s world” (168). It trains us to exercise the power that God has given us in this world. “The more we practice humility, the more we understand the power that we, as leaders, are called to exercise” (169). In this connection, Keenan raises the specter of “the recent crisis” in the Catholic church, and he rightly, I think, calls for improved instruction and formation from the church’s leaders on “the ethical exercise of power” informed by the virtue of humility. In the words of Sirach, “The mind of the intelligent appreciates proverbs, and an attentive ear is the desire of the wise” (3:29). The one who has ears, let them hear—and may they be grounded.

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