For the Life of the World / Yale Center for Faith & Culture

Radical Humility: Forgetting Oneself as a Path to Flourishing

Episode Summary

Philosopher Kent Dunnington exposes the radical roots of Christian humility, exploring the centrality of humility to Christian ethics, the goal of humility in eliminating one’s own self-concern, why humility remains so appealing and so appalling, and how to respond to the abuse and weaponizing of humility to oppress. Interview with Evan Rosa.

Episode Notes

Philosopher Kent Dunnington exposes the radical roots of Christian humility, exploring the centrality of humility to Christian ethics, the goal of humility in eliminating one’s own self-concern, why humility remains so appealing and so appalling, and how to respond to the abuse and weaponizing of humility to oppress. Interview with Evan Rosa.

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About Kent Dunnington

Kent Dunnington is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University in La Mirada, CA. He teaches and writes in the areas of virtue ethics and theological ethics. Other research interests include addiction and criminal justice, inspired by his experiences teaching in prison. He is author Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice and Humility, Pride, and Christian Virtue Theory. He also contributed an essay entitled "How to Be Humble" to The Joy of Humility: The Beginning and End of the Virtues.

Show Notes

Episode Transcription

Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit

Kent Dunnington: Humility is only a virtue if there is a fundamental neediness, dependence and weakness really in human nature. As Christianity traditionally has taught, we are by nature needy, dependent creatures and are fulfilled only to the extent that we learn to acknowledge and even embrace that. Then humility goes from being this mark of failure to being a trait that puts us in right relationship with God.

But if you're someone who thinks that Jesus' life is the shape of the good life, then I think it becomes a really pressing question: How far am I willing to go? Am I really willing to give up myself in love of other people? Do I really believe that selfless love is the shape of a good human life or is it just craziness?

Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.

I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Humility is both appealing and appalling. It's the lightning rod of the virtues—under attack one century, celebrated in another. And no fewer than Aristotle, Nietzsche, Hume and Machiavelli thought it was a sure way to fail as a human being. Nevertheless, humility has held up well into contemporary times where it's now broadly considered a scientific and intellectual virtue, conducive to learning, widely taught as a foundational principle of corporate leadership and management, and widely suggested as a key factor recapturing constructive and civil discourse.

But more on the appalling side. Humility has also been weaponized, leveraged in games of social, racial and class power that keep the oppressed, keep the humble. Lest they become too proud of their dignity and worth as human beings. Now, if you're interested in this side of humility, check out our recent episode on Oppressive Humility and Black Joy featuring Stacey Floyd-Thomas.

All that said, if you want to take seriously the full history of Christian spiritual theology, you have to weigh into the words of the desert mothers and fathers—people with a radical vision of humility. Nevermind reaching to seize their dignity and worth, these folks were about the radical project of unselfing.

This radical approach to humility is our topic for this episode. And joining me is Kent Dunnington, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Biola University, and author of Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the Models of Disease and Choice, as well as Humility, Pride and Christian Virtue Theory. He also contributed an essay entitled "How to be Humble" to The Joy of Humility, a collection of essays, exploring the beginning and end of the virtues, and you can find a link to each of these in the show notes. Kent and I discuss the centrality of humility to Christian ethics, the goal of radical humility in eliminating one's own self concern, why humility remains so appealing, and how to respond to the abuses of humility to oppress. Thanks for listening.

Kent Dunnington, I really love your stuff on humility. I don't want to boost your ego on this too much, but my experience of reading both your book and reading the chapter that you contributed to The Joy of Humility is just clarifying. You're fair-minded about the way you talk about the virtue and the precarity of humility. So thanks for coming on the show to talk about it. 

Kent Dunnington: You're welcome. Thanks for inviting me. 

Evan Rosa: Why don't we just start with: why did you get interested in humility? Or if it was not all that significant a "why." what kept you so interested that you wrote a book about it?"

Kent Dunnington: I ended up thinking about it, writing about it, way more than I thought I would. And that is because it really did grip me. I think for two reasons. I don't know that I articulated these at the time, but one is very personal, which is that: I grew up in a revivalist, Wesley and holiness tradition that was focused on what was called entire sanctification. And I think there was something in that tradition that sort of primed me to be attracted to some of the most radical expressions of Christianity.

So when I read the desert fathers, for example, some of their sayings about humility resonated with me because of the tradition I came up in, which was very interested in all out surrender. And in fact later reading Wesley, I realized just how significant the virtue of humility was to Wesley. He read his Augustine and humility is central for Augustine too. So part of it was just the sort of entire sanctification background made me want to understand it more. 

But the other thing is most of my reading and writing is on the virtues. And the virtues are interesting for all kinds of reasons. They're important in positive psychology and that sort of thing because they're thought of as a way to improve happiness or positive life outcomes. But there's this tradition, at least since Alasdair MacIntyre, of thinking about the virtues a kind of window or a way of viewing the changes that Christianity brought in a culture.

And humility is an incredible sort of prism for studying that because there is no virtue that has tracked this sort of influence of Christianity more perfectly than humility. And, it went from being a despised—not even a vice, almost just a category of despised people with Aristotle—to being something that Jesus praised and the early church fathers praise as sort of the heart of Christianity. And if you look at the Enlightenment, it got dumped on again. It was rejected as a monkish virtue. So it's got these incredible up and downs. So it's an amazing way to think about the influence that Christianity has had at different times on our culture. And that's an interesting question for me in its own. 

Evan Rosa: What makes humility that kind of lightning rod or prism? Is it because it's a virtue of self-regard, it's the question of the importance of the self or the significance of an individual? 

Kent Dunnington: Exactly. Exactly. Humility is only a virtue if there is a fundamental neediness, dependence and weakness really in human nature. So if you think that, "Yeah, humans may be born weak and needy, but the endgame is to be self-sufficient, strong, non-needy, then humility may be a way of describing those who have failed as human beings. But it would never be held up as a character trait that one ought to have.

Whereas if as Christianity traditionally has taught, we are by nature needy, dependent creatures, and are fulfilled only to the extent that we learn to acknowledge and even embrace that, then humility goes from being this mark of failure to being a trait that puts us in right relationship with God. The rise and fall of humility just track the sway of human anthropology over and against pagan anthropology. And I don't say pagan anthropology as like a put down. It's just a very different view of what human success looks like. 

Evan Rosa: You said it right there. That anthropology. How you understand our humanity—it seems like that can greatly inflect how you understand the virtue of humility were the vice of pride.

Kent Dunnington: Absolutely. It greatly inflects how we understand all of the virtues in one way or the other, but it's often very subtle. The virtues that make your list only make your list depending on your vision of what human flourishing looks like. But sometimes it can be really subtle to see the difference. And one of the more interesting things about humility is that it was not subtle. It was held up by pagan teachers and thinkers as evidence that there was something fundamentally corrupt. There was something corrosive about Christianity, that it was destructive of the best in human impulses. And so it certainly inflects our worldview, our anthropology. 

But humility does it in a really striking way, which—I'll just throw out here—one of the things that made me so interested in humility is that given a general decline in what we might call a biblical worldview or biblical faith, you would expect based on the history of this virtue that it would start to lose its appeal. You'd expect there to be more Nietzsche's and more Machiavelli's critiquing humility. Yet, most secular philosophers who are not in any way interested in the biblical worldview are still heralding humility as an important social, personal virtue. And I was really curious about why that is and is that tenable. 

Evan Rosa: Why is that? Do you have any ideas about—given increased secularization, given an increased interest in broader culture to move away from traditional Christian values and more toward just a form of humanism, why do you think humility would continue to be regarded the way that it is? Is it because it's pro-social? Or, you're looking for other reasons that you might keep it around? 

Kent Dunnington: Good. I think you're on the right track there. Now, this is speculative in the way that all intellectual history is. But I think the reason that it is still appealing is because it's been repurposed in some ways. So it's really interesting if you look back at early modern philosophy. You look at Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant and Nietzsche, there was a sort of internecine conflict over whether or not humility should stay in the table of virtues or be kicked off. And Hume and Machiavelli said, "Kick it off! Get rid of it!" And I think it's because they understood how radical it was. 

But Hobbs actually repurposed it for exactly the reasons that you just said. Hobbes turned humility into a virtue that is pro-social, but it's fundamentally focused on interpersonal relationships and on a kind of modesty that undercuts the claims to receiving a divine revelation that would bring about political sedition. So strangely, Hobbes used humility to say, "Hey, if you guys were really humble, you would never engage in political sedition to overthrow the sovereign." And ever since Hobbes, humility has been repurposed as a more horizontal virtue that is pro-social and also promotes what we might call intellectual modesty or intellectual humility.

All of which is really good, but it wasn't the primary focus of, say, Augustine. His view of humility was that it's a virtue that fundamentally helps us enter into right relationship with God. It may have some pro-social effects, but that wasn't the focus of it. So it's been repurposed a little bit.

Evan Rosa: So that's really interesting. And I wanted to come to Augustine, who says that when it comes to the instruction of the Christian religion, always and only humility. This has been picked up perhaps in other threads of Christian theology over thousands of years— your distinction there: the vertical virtue, as opposed to the horizontal virtue. And that's fascinating because for Christianity, it starts fundamentally as a vertical relation to God. So I wonder if you could explain why humility is the central virtue. Because I think if you ask most Christians today, if they hadn't read Augustine, they hadn't read the early church fathers. Maybe they just read the Bible. They would say that love is the most fundamental Christian virtue. How can you help us understand why humility is so central? 

Kent Dunnington: These rankings are maybe not so helpful. I think they'd be right that it's right there in the Bible, "Faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love." So there's a long and venerable tradition of seeing love or charity as the most important Christian virtue. But Augustine thought that there was essentially no way to come into contact with Christian love apart from humility because Christian love is other directed and sometimes requires self-sacrifice and loss of self. It's a kind of love that is fundamentally opposed to our pride and our efforts to prop ourselves up. 

And so I think Augustine, if you read The Confessions, he just struggled mightily to be converted. And he identified his own pride as the fundamental obstacle. And it was that he knew that he wanted to be great in his own and so the love of God, which is the love that accepts us no matter what, is an offense to someone with pagan sensibilities. With pagan sensibilities, if you're going to be loved, you want it to be because it's merited by your excellence. And Augustine recognizes in himself and he just knew and he said that he couldn't even open himself up to the love of God unless he learned, what you said, the way of the weak.

Jesus—we kept talking about Jesus' humility as Jesus' weakness. And so for him, he knew that until he released pagan pride—the wish to be excellent, the wish to be ranked and ordered over and above others—he wasn't really even in the universe of Christian faith. So it's not the greatest of virtues for Augustine. I think so much as it's the gateway to the whole story. 

Evan Rosa: I see. I think we should dive in a little bit to that statement. That should strike most people as a radical suggestion, that what is appealing about Jesus is weakness. But it's that weakness that's lauded. And I think even in the Gospels themselves people were prepared for a Messiah that was strong, a Messiah that would reign at first coming, and which would tear down political powers and institute the kingdom of God. 

And it's interesting—endlessly interesting really—that it's this sort of upside-down perspective is one of those themes of Christianity that just continues to circle in my head, in my own faith, that that form of weakness is really this profound key to what it means to flourish, what it means to live into your humanity, what it means to conceive of your own purpose. A lot of people struggle with that. And when it comes to everything from profession, to politics, to family life, and friendships and relationships, the way of weakness is just very difficult where it seems like we're almost always met with reasons not to adopt that way. 

Kent Dunnington: Absolutely.

Evan Rosa: What do you make of all this? 

Kent Dunnington: Yes, you're quite right. And it's not surprising that we would be met with those reasons. To talk in the way that I was raised to talk, the Devil is pretty sneaky. And one of the things that strikes me is that Jesus' weakness is—Jesus is weak by pagan standards at a number of levels. I think Christians tend to focus on the more obvious ones of weakness, which is that Jesus didn't engage in physical violence, maybe that he didn't pursue a traditional earthly dynasty. Those sorts of things. But then we often forget just how deep Jesus' weakness went. 

The thing that really impressed itself on me as I was reading Augustine's De Trinitate where he talks about the Trinity is Augustine takes it as a mark of Jesus' perfect weakness that Jesus always and only does the will of the Father. It's almost like Jesus doesn't really have a self-divorced from his relationship with his Father. And it's tempting for us as moderns to read the Bible in search of the psychology of Jesus. We want to understand, "What was it like to be Jesus?" And we often impose upon Jesus a healthy, robust self, like the kind that's given to us in modern psychology. But there's just no evidence of that in the Bible. In fact, the Bible is often really disappointing in its total lack of interest in Jesus psychology. 

And so I think one of the hardest things for me as a Christian is realizing that often what we do as Christians—and Nietzsche was so onto this—is we reject some worldly way of pursuing power and personal prestige and adopt what looks like a critique of that in our life, whether that be through downward mobility or something like that. But that critique and our adoption of it is itself just a rehearsal of the attempt, again, to have a discernible self that is in some way better over and against another. And a lot of modern theology gets so focused on critique that it only makes sense as an opposition to something else.

And I think the striking thing about Jesus is that he seems to be really free of this whole project of having a self that can be identified over and against someone else. And to me, whether or not Christianity makes sense, depends on if that is a way to actually be a human being. And Nietzsche said, "No." Nietzsche famously said, "Jesus was just engaged in the pride game too; he's just more clever than anyone else ever was." And if Nietzsche's right, then we ought not to pretend to be pursuing weakness. We should just come out and be Nietzschean overnight. 

So to me, this goes so deep. And to make it practical again, I'll just talk about from my own position. I teach at a Christian university. You'd think I'd be in a real sweet spot for leaning into humility. But everything in academia trains me and prompts me to establish a CV that can distinguish me over and against others. And it's so easy to have all my energies taken up into that narrative. And what I think humility is about is trying to relinquish all that stuff in pursuit of whatever we think God is calling us to do. 

Evan Rosa: So this idea of relinquishing the self, relinquishing the projects that we build, or in some cases, constitute ourselves—I know this factor is really importantly in your own way of describing humility. So I wonder if you could introduce us to just that view. Of course, there are a background of many different philosophical ways of trying to define humility. We've talked about weakness and relinquishing the self. What is it? What exactly do you take humility to be?

Kent Dunnington: So my definition of humility has changed over time. But the most recent one that I defended in the book that I wrote is what I call "a no-concern account of humility." And it's a riff on a pretty well-known account of humility put forth by Robert Roberts and Jay wood. They call theirs "a low-concern account of humility. In their view, it goes something like this: the humble person is one who is, compared to others, relatively unconcerned about their status and entitlement. I argue that from the Christian perspective, this is on the right track, but doesn't go quite far enough. 

And so I argued for the no-concern that really the ideally humble person from the Christian perspective is the one who has literally no concern at all about their status or their entitlements. And it's a hard view to defend because it looks like it does away entirely with what sometimes called proper pride. We have this view that what we want is a sort of balancing act where you have a pretty strong sense of self, but it's not so strong that it obstructs your view of others. And so humility becomes a sort of balancing act between excessive egoism and excessive servility right. 

And I try to argue in my book that's really the wrong way of thinking of it. And that there's a reason that in the history of Christian thinking about the virtue, it's only been very recently that pride has been rehabilitated as a virtue in any way at all. So I'm trying to argue that no, in fact, the goal is to have a complete freedom from concern about your own status, entitlements, achievements and that sort of thing. 

Evan Rosa: That is really just an important segue into just the difficulty of that suggestion. And you're trying to be faithful to the descriptive nature of humility in the Desert Mothers and Fathers, early Christian texts, which present—they're speaking to cloistered monks, but their presentation of humility is one in which it is deeply radical. It's not a balancing act whatsoever. Say a little bit more about the particularly radical nature of that. To be truly free of any kind of self-concern, that leaves one in a markedly different position than most people find themselves today.  Squaring that definition with the livability of it, the how-to, which I take it was always the point. And to those Desert Mothers and Fathers, it was to be lived. They weren't concerned with defining it. They were concerned with living it. So when you come up with a definition that is just so radical, what are we left to do as modern contemporary people? 

Kent Dunnington: Yeah, there's a lot there. So first of all, you're quite right that they were way more interested in living than they were defining it. And that's the opposite of most of the contemporary stuff that we read on humility, including stuff that I've written. We're theory-bound people, now we modern academics. So we get really obsessed with theory where we really shy away from giving practical advice, or even from offering narratives of people that we think ideally embodied these virtues.

The exact opposite was true. For say the Desert Mothers and Fathers, they tell stories and they tell stories about people who live very strange lives. And they say "That's humility!" One that comes to my mind is a story of Abba Macarius. He was a monk. In the town that he lived in, a woman got pregnant out of wedlock and in her shame, she claimed that the monk, Macarius, had raped her. And so the whole town came out for this guy and instead of defending himself, he simply took it upon himself to go to work and try to support this woman and her little baby. And so he says famously—in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, there's a line where Abba Macarius says, "I discovered that I had a wife," by which he meant: "Okay, I'm going to take this, and I'm going to take all of the hatred and vile that is being put upon me by the town folk. And instead of defending myself, I'm going to care for this woman." 

Then the woman has a really difficult pregnancy and she's afraid that she's going to lose the child. And she's afraid that's because God is cursing her for lying against the whole unit. So she comes out the town and says, "This is not true; I made it up; this monk never did this to me." Suddenly the town wants to praise the monk. They see him as a man of remarkable moral beauty, and he's so concerned that it will go to his head that he flees the town. That's the story of Abba Macarius. So he says, "That's how I came to Scetis, because I had to get out of there because they wanted to praise me." Crazy story! The stories of the Desert Fathers are filled with stuff like that. 

Evan Rosa: But that form of humiliation and living into the humiliation is what makes the recommendation of a kind of radical humility that's on display in in those early Christian faithful. I mean they were held up as the standard for Christian faithfulness. And that kind of putting into humiliation is really hard to stomach for Americans. 

Kent Dunnington: That's right. So I think this is why there are so many legitimate and serious critiques of humility. It's still the case that humility is a popular virtue, but there are lines of critique. Contemporary feminists, including feminist theologians, have been really wary of the way that humility provides cover for patriarchalism, for instance, and is used to praise and to laud a kind of subservience that is really just a way of propping up power hierarchies. All of which is totally legitimate. You have to realize that in the monastic tradition, nobody had to be a monk. These are stories and exhortations to those who had already taken it upon themselves to engage in a kind of radical form of self-denial, radical spiritual commitment.

So that's the first thing to say. It would be total misunderstanding of the Desert Mothers and Fathers to say, "Oh, that's the kind of humility that I'm supposed to engender in my children." That would be totally wrong. Or that "I'm supposed to engender in my parishioners," if you're a pastor. That's a totally abusive and abused way of thinking about this. But if you're someone who thinks that Jesus' life is the shape of the good life, then I think it becomes a really pressing question: How far am I willing to go? Am I really willing to give up myself in love of other people? And these stories show us what that can look like in different forms and how frightening it can be. It presses upon us the question: Do I really believe this stuff? Do I really believe that selfless love is the shape of a good human life or is it just craziness? 

Evan Rosa: To be faced with that question though, and to allow that to continue to press against your consciousness and to press against your being every day—you can't take seriously gospel Christianity, or even the theological tradition of Christianity—you can't take it seriously without allowing that question to tear into your sense of self. But then it's important to know what that can do, like the anxiety that can produce the difficulty of that way. 

So when it comes to taking seriously both the Christian tradition around regard for oneself and simultaneously take into the historical context of how that virtue has been wielded for wrong—deep oppression, deep wrong— that further inflects how we talk about it as a community, and how we present the history of the virtue. And so I wonder if you could speak a little bit more to that and you brought up the feminist and womanist critiques of the view. But I wonder if you'd say just a little bit more about the seriousness of those takes and critiques and what do you think is the right way forward for continuing a conversation about humility and pride? 

Kent Dunnington: I think there's a temptation to recognize the critiques and to see their legitimacy, and to then backpedal and offer a less frightening view of humility, and to repackage the virtue in a way that is safe. And I don't think that's the right way forward. What I've learned the most from those critiques is that pretty much any time you find yourself espouse in the virtue of humility to anyone else, you are on the wrong track. Unless you're engaged as equals in a form of spiritual life where you're committing along with a group of friends to engage in practices of humiliation, that sort of thing. I think that's legitimate. But I think what those critiques draw attention to is just how easily humility has been wielded as a weapon, as a tool for oppression.

And what I want to do is reject all of that and yet keep on the table the view of humility that I think was so frightening, but also so attractive and exciting because if the story of Jesus is the true story, then we really are invited into kind of freedom from self-concern that is liberating. I don't think we have to be humble or anything like that, but we can be like; we're free to be. And that is a frightening invitation. But if it's true, it's incredible that we could be freed from our concern to make ourselves significant enough to merit love, respect, and those sorts of thing. My approach has been to not back down on the radical nature of humility, but to accept as true pretty much everything that the feminists have said about how humility has been used to harm people. 


Evan Rosa: On the world stage right now is hard to decouple from, in particular, a politics that seeks power, that seeks influence. And you might say the context is ripe for the teaching in radical, no self-concern. Christians are not always seeking this kind of power, but they are in contemporary American politics. And it's fascinating to think about what is the corrective to that. And if there is, I want to be sensitive to your suggestion that we ought never to suggest humility. But what is keeping it on the table look like? And can there be the suggestion that as a community, it's a sort of mutual calling toward a more humble approach to interacting in public? 

Kent Dunnington: Yeah. I find that question really difficult because one of the ways that humility has become popular in modern thought, modern discourse is as a way of chastising people that you disagree with. The bottom line is there is no contradiction between humility and the right use of power. So just to give a simple example. This actually comes up some in the Desert Mothers and Fathers in some sort of uncomfortable passages. There's a passage where these mothers, Desert Mothers, are known to have healing powers. And so people clamor after them to come heal their kids and stuff. But the Mothers start to worry that if they keep doing these healings, they're going to get proud. So they stop making themselves available to do these healings. 

Now there's something a little bit strange about that, right? You can imagine being on a plane and someone yells out "is there a doctor here" and you don't want to seem full of yourself, so you don't tell anyone that you're a doctor. And meanwhile, the person in cardiac arrest dies or something like that. That would be a completely confused way of thinking about what it means to be humble.

So the truly humble person in that case does is they seek to love; they use all of their abilities and skills to care for the person in need, and they don't care about the kind of praise or approbation that it will bring. They just want to do good. I think the same is true in modern politics. So I'm not inclined to think that if Christians were more humble, they would necessarily be any less interested in the kind of questions that contemporary politics confronts us with, which is what kinds of policies are necessary and good in pursuit of the common good. Those are still the right questions. I'm wary of turning humility into a virtue that can be leveraged for social gain. And I still think of it primarily in terms of something that helps us find our way into being creatures. 

Evan Rosa: Yeah. That's a beautiful way to conclude—that creatureliness, our dependence, remembering our finitude, remembering the frailty and allowing that to be the thing that informs our relationship to God. That's where the strength of humility starts, and probably where it persists as well. Thanks so much. I love listening to you on this particular topic. 

Kent Dunnington: Thanks Evan. Good to talk with you.

Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured philosopher, Kent Dunnington. I'm Evan Rosa, and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at We produce new episode every Saturday, and you can subscribe through any podcast app.

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