Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 20th May 2012

20 May 2012 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence

What moral virtues has Christianity contributed to this world? I’m not thinking so much of particular rules of behaviour but of our basic moral orientations in life: the fundamental dispositions of character which help us live well. Faith, hope, and love - St Paul’s great triumvirate - are the three I have considered so far in Matins sermons this month. They are not unique to Christians: faith, hope, and love are found widely in human experience in people of other faiths and no faith, and to claim they come freshly minted from Christian faith alone would be unwarranted arrogance. But Christian faith has certainly offered faith, hope, and love to the world in a distinctive way, not just as ideals we might choose to adopt, but as essential dispositions of the soul: dispositions which derive from the very being of God, attitudes to life which take their shape from the nature of ultimate reality itself. This gives them a unique authority for the Christian. It also gives them a distinctive shape – the shape given in the life of Jesus Christ, where God himself lived out his own moral character in a unique way in human terms. Faith, hope, and love appear everywhere in human experience, but if we want to know best what they mean - where they are most real and luminous - there is no better place to go than this life of Christ…

The life of Christ is where we also see a fourth to add to this trio: another vital moral disposition which lies at the heart of Christian faith, at the heart of God’s own being, and an even more distinctively Christian virtue. In fact, I have a hunch it may be the most important of them all, in the sense of being a foundation for all the others. It is described by Jesus in the first beatitude as being poor in spirit. The usual word for it is humility: humble service of others.

Humility may now seem familiar as a virtue. But it wasn’t always. It’s often pointed out that the ancient world hardly rated humble service as a virtue at all. Apart from some stoics, most of the Greek world, which so influenced western culture, considered humility as moral weakness, not moral strength. Their goal for a good human life was to rule successfully over people, not to serve them. So when Christians found in Christ that God himself, the sort of God portrayed in this mornings readings, the highest ruler and judge of all, became a servant, this was moral revolution indeed. It was morally and theologically unthinkable, almost blasphemous; a 180-degree moral turn…

We should not underestimate how hard this was, and still is, to accept. Even after Christian faith replaced pagan and Greek culture as the dominant moral influence, many still found humility hard to swallow. Popular culture continued to admire more those who aspired to public acclaim by projecting themselves, not by serving others. It still does. Humility doesn’t rate highly in TV reality-shows or job recruitment programmes. Philosophers have not all been persuaded either. Humility, thought Spinoza, is really only the ‘sadness’, of realizing of our own weakness. Nietzsche, as one might expect, had no truck with it at all: humility, he said, is just being a ‘trodden worm’, someone who has curled up to be small and unnoticed in order to avoid being trodden on again. Feminists are wary of it as a male tool to keep women in their place. Even sympathetic commentators still have a go. They see it as self-contradiction. Is it really humble to believe it’s virtuous to be humble? Isn’t that really a disguised form of vanity?

Yet in spite of all its critics humility has persisted with a strange power. And that is because the critics misunderstand true humility. It does not mean worm-like subservience: undervaluing ourselves so that we just curl up, as cowards or door-mats. Nor is it a false vanity. True humility is simply being honest about ourselves: neither overvaluing nor devaluing who we really. It is being brave enough to face the truth of what we really are. Especially what we are in the eyes of God. That does indeed mean accepting we are limited, flawed, sinful; but it is also means the humility to accept we are gifted by God’s grace: it means realizing, as Martin Luther described it, that we are ‘simul iustus et peccator’ - both flawed and favoured; and so it means thinking of ourselves, as St Paul put it, ‘simply as we ought… with sober judgement: each according to the measure that God has given to us’. Such clear-eyed honesty may still not be easy, especially in the face of all the biological and social pressures constantly pushing us to self-aggrandise - but it is certainly quite different from being the curled-up worm. Above all, it is about truth, not pretence! And that is what gives it its dynamism, its power for service. Because by being free from pretence about ourselves, we are freed from pre-occupation about ourselves. And that gives space for others, space for love, space for God’s grace to work through us. Both St Augustine and Martin Luther saw this so clearly: the great block to all Christian virtue is being ‘curvatus in se’, curved in on ourselves: true humility is the release from that block, that is why it is the foundation for all other virtues. This is exactly the shape we see so clearly in Christ, whose humility was precisely a power-house for love, not a hiding place for weakness.

So - humility: an honesty about ourselves; a freedom from self-preoccupation, a power for love. And just one other thing too: humility is also simplicity. Something specially grasped in seventeenth-century Christian wisdom, and by George Herbert in particular. Simplicity - or ‘simplicitas’ as they called it - is that particular kind of honesty which is a harmony between our inner and outer selves: i.e. not parading ourselves outwardly other than as we really are inwardly, neither more nor less. Herbert tried to exemplify this in his poetry. He abandoned high rhetoric for simple precision. As in poetry, so in the rest of life. In speech, dress, action, humility as ‘simplicitas’ demands we should neither embellish nor diminish what we are but simply be true to what and who we really are.

What a counter-cultural attitude that is in age of overselling ourselves not just in substance but in spin, style, outward form! But how powerful it is too, if we can keep our nerve. For truth and honesty, in every sphere, is always stronger than any lie - and more attractive. It is the foundation for other virtues too: the truth about ourselves and God, which humility provides, sets us free for faith, hope and love itself: the greatest gift of all for living life well...

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Website design - Design by Structure