Humility is a good thing, a necessary thing. G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) in his classic, Orthodoxy, said that it was “largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of man,” (pg. 51). Without humility he notes it is impossible to enjoy anything in life.
He asserts that what society suffers from (back when this was originally published in 1908) is modesty in the wrong place.
Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert – himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt – the Divine Reason.
The new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. . . . There is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it’s practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. . . .
The old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which makes him stop working altogether. . . . We are on the road to producing a race of man too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table, (pg. 51-52).
Our thoughts or ability have been elevated to a level they were never meant to attain, but at the same time many in our society claim we can’t know truth. And yet we are assertive in that belief; resting in our knowledge.
This modesty or humility, in reality, is arrogance. True humility recognizes human inability to understand or act apart from Divine Reason. True humility recognizes our place in Divine order:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts,” (Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV).
Yet as a society we claim superior knowledge. Science is elevated above theology and is seen as the golden standard of what is true. Without abiding in Christ our knowledge and ability is futile as Jesus pointed out.
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing, (John 15:5, ESV).
This is intuitive knowledge that the Apostle Paul pointed out to the “movers and shakers” in Athens as he addressed them in the Areopagus. Quoting one of their own writers (likely Epimenides of Crete) he said, “for ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’” (Acts 17:28, ESV).
It is in God we have our being. It is Jesus who sustains our very life, (Colossians 1:17). Why in the world should we place confidence in ourselves? We can know God not because of any superior knowledge that we have, but because He has made Himself know to us. Let’s move modesty back where it belongs from the “organ of conviction” back to the “organ of ambition.”
Chesterton certainly must have been looking to today.