Sermon Hubris and Humility
In case you were concerned, I am not actually advocating that we forego a turkey dinner on ‘Thursday in favor of fasting and prayer. I don’t think I’d get very far if did. But I’ve been thinking for some time that November, 2020 would be a good time to reflect on where we are and how we got here and what we should do next. I feel like democracy has had a close call, and we are not out of the woods yet. My friend, Patricia Hayes, whom you may have known when she was Pat Carol, District Executive of the Joseph Priestley District, said it “feels like I had survived something traumatic like a bomb blast, but still had debris in my hair.” That was November 9th and we still have debris in our hair, and will for some time. The threats to democracy have receded somewhat, or at least taken a new form, but pandemic, economic fallout, racism and the upheaval that comes with facing it, and the climate catastrophe are still looming over us.
I believe I’ve said before that I am not up to a full political analysis, but two opposing elements in our culture keep calling to me – hubris and humility. We have too much of one and not enough of the other.
Hubris is a word of uncertain etymology that came to us from the Greeks. The online Encyclopedia Britannica describes it:
Hubris, [Greek hybris,] in ancient Athens, the intentional use of violence to humiliate or degrade. The word’s connotation changed over time, and hubris came to be defined as overweening presumption that leads a person to disregard the divinely fixed limits on human action in an ordered cosmos.
Generally, the Greek idea of hubris is that a character in an authoritative position becomes so proud of his exceptional qualities that he forms a delusion that he is equal to gods, and eventually he tries to defy the gods and his fate.
In literature, hubris is often closely related to hamartia, which is the tragic flaw that leads to a character’s reversal of fate and downfall. While there are many different types of tragic flaws, hubris is one of the most common.
There are several important ideas in all that. The first is violence used to humiliate or degrade. My Greek/English dictionary gives as a first definition, “wanton violence.” It may be actual killing, or cruel behavior or words, but the hubristic person relates to others in a forceful and degrading way.
Second, that violence stems from overweening pride, a presumptuous disregard for a normal sense of shame or honor, as if the hubristic person is above all that. When a person is in the grip of hubris, they see themselves as the center of the universe.
Third, hubris violates “the divinely fixed limits on human action in an ordered cosmos.” Hubris is an assault on Themis, the goddess of justice and law – not the laws of statutes but the law of common consent and norms. Whether you, or the ancient Greeks actually believed in a divine being who embodies this justice, is not the point here. Unitarian Universalists begin by positing that all persons begin with an inherent worth and dignity, which we must not violate. I am reminded of something I heard in seminary – all you really need to know about God is that you are not God.
Humility stands at the other end of the spectrum In all these characteristics. Humility is being down to earth, grounded – literally from humus, soil.
Sister Joan Chittister writes about humility in her book Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today. She compares humility to the secret cloister garden at the center of the monastery – mostly invisible but informing and nourishing everything else. When I first read this book many years ago, I was impressed with her dexterity – somehow, she managed to get from “I am the lowest of the low” to “I have an appropriate self-esteem.” I couldn’t understand how she did that, because I had a common and distorted idea of humility. I knew that humility has been used to further oppress the disadvantaged. Tell powerless people to stay in their place and humbly accept whatever scraps the powerful give them. But it is the wealthy and powerful who need its lessons most. Humility is not meant to be subjugation to injustice but an authentic grappling with reality. Real humility frees us from entanglement with distracting desires for glittering prizes. Real humility helps us to discern our best path to blessing the world. Real humility makes space for us to be who we are meant to be. Real humility helps people take their place in the world.
An old Jewish tale says that you should always have two bits of paper, in your pocket. One says, “You are but dust and ashes.” The other says “For you the world was made.” Both are true. Humility helps you to determine which is operative on any given occasion.
And so Sister Joan can move from “the lowest and vilest of all” to “There is more that I can be.” We are held in love wherever we are on that spectrum. We are but dust and ashes, and the world was made for us.
Much of her language and that of St. Benedict in the twelve steps of humility is arcane and bound up with Christian doctrine – the Rule was written for ancient monastics after all, but it translates well if you are willing to wade through it. And Sister Joan is a lovely person who recently wrote a widely circulated piece on why being “pro birth” is not being “pro-life.”
And there in those twelve steps are the three concepts found in hubris, reversed for a better life for the community. Hubris and humility each represent how a person relates to self, to others and to the divine.
If violence meant to humiliate characterizes how a hubristic person operates with others, the humble rule of Benedict offers gentle relationship. In the hierarchical monastery this might mean subjecting oneself to the direction of the superior, but in the world at large it means to recognize that we are not in charge of everything. There will always be conflicts in community, but the Benedictine is asked to accept difficulties from others “with patience and even temper and not give up.” This applies to speech as well as action. The monastic is to speak “gently, humbly, and with gravity” (p. 63) – something we would all be advised to remember when tempted to offer harsh zingers in life or on line. Better to live so that everybody’s ideas get a chance. (p. 59).
Hubristic overweening pride in self, in one’s achievements, the sense of entitlement that leads to the accumulation of stuff, the demand to have one’s own way – all this yields in humility to an acceptance of reality. (p. 61) [ Chittister writes: “I was not put here to have the best of life’s goods. I was put here to have what I need for my body so my soul can thrive. I was put here to appreciate what is. . . . Why not have all the things I can have? Because I don’t need them and they clutter the soul and tie me down to lesser things.. . .]
Rejecting the accumulation of external encumbrances means making room in the self to focus on what is important. And that practice leads to the message I found so contradictory in my first reading of this book — how do we get from being “the lowest of the low” to a sense of wholeness? I think it has to with striving not to be “the best” but to be ourselves, life size and whole, what I have called integrity. We make room internally as well as externally for what is important.
I am reminded of an old Jewish tale. Rabbi Zusya said that when he met the Eternal One, the hard question would not be “Why were you not Moses?” but “Why were you not Zusya?” Humility is about accepting that we are not perfect, yet always moving towards what we can become. We have a place in the human race, (p. 63), in relationship to the community.
Benedict sums this all up in the first degree of humility, the total response to God – just as hubris rejects the limits and demands of Themis, justice. Chittister says it is not destructive overweening pride to take pleasure in our achievements and what we do well. That is appropriate. But the hubristic pride is an attempt to be God, to control events and other people for our own benefit.
I see this as holding space in our live and our selves for what is good, true, important, beautiful, just, creative, compassionate – all those things we long for, that lure us to making the world a better place. You could contain all of that in one word by calling it God, which is certainly Chittister’s language. How different that spaciousness is from being overwhelmed and terrified of the emptiness we may otherwise find at the center of our being. Where humility enters that space to bless the world, hubris tries to stuff the ravenous black hole, making endless futile attempts to satisfy its insatiable appetite for things, shiny objects, hollow praise, empty professions of love and false honors.
Chittister, writing in 1991, lists the then relatively new psychiatric description of narcissism, an illness for which she says the rule of Benedict might serve as a therapeutic regimen: (She is quoting Theodore Million, Disorders of the Personality.) “a grandiose and exaggerated sense of self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of success; exhibitionism and insatiable attention-getting maneuvers; disdain or disproportionate rage in the face of criticism, a sense of entitlement that undermines any hope for success in personal relationships; talk that is more self-promotion than communication.” (p. 55f)
If this makes you think that I am railing against a particular office holder, I am not. I am holding up a warning for all of us collectively. The most florid symptoms may show up most visibly in our leaders, but hubris is a constant threat to us as a society even if we do not suffer from this particular disorder. We are too easily distracted from the genuine satisfactions of life lived in harmony with nature and our neighbors. Humility is confused with humiliation. Our prideful striving lures us to harsh relationships, breaking the divine laws of justice.
And so our nation’s history is marred by with, pride, violence, trying to control others. These are not all that we are. And we are not defined by the worst moments of our history, but too often we have failed to live up our highest ideals. The promissory note for justice that Dr. King held before us is still in default.
In recent years we have experienced again and again the killing and mistreatment of people of color, the caging of children, the unequal educational opportunities, the heavy toll of the pandemic on the poor and on people of color. You know all these things, and many more. We must own them.
In a democracy, it is the people who hold the power. These things were done in our name. We allowed it to happen. We failed to wield our power in accordance with themis. The hamartia, the failure is ours. Tragedy is the downfall of greatness brought about by a flaw in the character, the tragedies of our history are in our hands and on our head, and the debris is still in our hair. We need to rethink how we live and use our power – rethink translates directly as repentance.
I realize that as individuals, we don’t hold a great deal of power. But collectively, ordinary citizens direct the course of the nation. We have seen recently the power of the determination to vote, even under difficult circumstances. We also have the power to influence the course of the public discussion, to work for the just and fair allocation of voting power – thank you, Tricia Rooney. Democracy as they say is not a spectator sport.
The 2020 election holds out hope that our nation will find its right place in the world, that we can regain our footing, chastened by our failures, but led on by our hopes and ideals. While we hold our collective breath – and support the legal actions and public witness necessary to assure that we adhere to our constitutional peaceful transition of power – during this liminal time –may we also embrace a true humility. Thanksgiving
Day is upon us. It may not need to be a day of penitential fasting and prayer. But let us reflect on our gratitude and our hope, and on our responsibility as citizens and as persons of faith. And there will be balm in Gilead, to soothe the sin sick soul. Amen, shalom, salaam, namaste, and blessed be.