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What does it Mean to be Humble and Unitarian?

A Lay-led Service at River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, August 27, 2000

Doris Brody
Lynn Bunis
Don Bunis


"In My Humble Opinion"
by Doris Brody

When was the last time you heard anyone begin a serious remark with the words 'in my humble opinion'? Probably no one would believe it, anymore. Maybe no one ever believed it because it's hard to believe in a public humility that's announced beforehand.

For that matter, when was the last time you noticed someone in public life being really humble? There are always plenty of public humiliations, of course, but being humble after being caught and humiliated, doesn't count.

Humility isn't much of a virtue in our culture either (modesty is often useful, but it's not the same thing as humility). Being humble is usually not the recommended way toward business achievement and success. As an example, here are some excerpts from a book designed to help create the "professional presence" necessary to succeed in business: "She walks into the important meeting confidently, greeting colleagues with a firm handshake, looking them squarely in the eye. She calls those she knows by name and introduces herself to those she doesn't." She exudes that "special quality that creates power, credibility, and a sense of competence." It is a "potent and dynamic blend of poise, self-confidence, control, and style that commands respect in any situation." She knows how to "dress with impact, name-drop with confidence and flair." She knows that "false modesty is not a virtue." This book has a whole chapter entitled "The art of self-promotion."

There are lots of other situations when humility is not considered a virtue, for instance: writing a resume; fighting a war; disciplining the dog; disciplining the kids; running for office; and selling almost anything.

Of course, a lot of anyone's public persona is probably an act, something that has to be done to play the game. Once you win, then you can be humble.

Is it possible to be publicly not humble (as required by society), but privately humble? What would a private humility (a real humility) that only you know about, consist of? Would it be something like suppression of pride or some kind of self-doubt? Are these things the beginning of humility? As you know, there are lots of times when it's a good idea to suppress pride and lots of times when you have serious self-doubts. An example from my own life: for about a year now, I've been working with a couple of editors on a manuscript of my poetry that I have been hoping their company will publish. The editors have taken out some of the poems that I like and added some that I don't like quite as well (I supplied them with what I thought were "extras" and they liked some of the extras better than the others). They have also edited some lines that I liked and asked for clarification on some lines that I thought were perfectly clear and sounded exactly the way I wanted them to sound. So what did I do? I choked down my pride and accepted a lot of their changes. But I don't think that choking down pride is the same thing as humility-especially not if you think it is necessary to get something you want.

I should add (humbly, of course) that I'm delighted that the book has been accepted. Or I was, at first, anyway. Now I'm asking myself a lot of questions like: Is it good enough? Do I really want to publish all those poems? Some are better than others etc. etc. etc. But, I think, this is just self-doubt and I'm quite sure it has not much to do with humility.

Is there a difference between both public and private secular humility and humility as a religious virtue? Because humility is often said to be a virtue that is fundamental to achieving spiritual growth? So what is the relationship between humility and religion?

It has occurred to me that emphasizing religious humility can be very useful to help keep the congregants in line-so to speak. It may be no accident that the religious "hits" for my internet search of the word humility were all for either Catholic or fundamentalist Protestant sites. In some religions it is not humble (or virtuous) to think for oneself obedience without questioning is a humble virtue. However, these religions do not extend the virtue of humility to the area of belief. "I don't know" is a very humble thing to say and not something promoted by authoritarian religions. Unitarians, at least, are better at saying, "I don't know."But there are certainly reasons beyond just control of the parishioners for why the concept of humility has so long been a part of religion.

Now comes the hard part of my talk. So far, I've pretty much talked about what humility is not. I had a lot of trouble writing this last section which I planned to be about what humility is. But when I heard Don and Lynn's pieces and when I looked at the reading, which will follow my part, I got stuck. At first, it seemed to me that we were stretching the definition of the word humility to include an awful lot, in fact, there were too many meanings for one little word and way more than any dictionary used. The dictionary uses words like "meekness, modesty, self-effacement, shyness" when defining humility. The religious connection to the behavior described by these words isn't all that clear, at least not to me as a Unitarian.

So, while part of me was resisting this expansive definition, especially as used in the reading, another part was reminding myself of why I wanted to participate in this service-which was because I felt that something about the concept of humility was important to all religious people, including Unitarians. But when it came to writing about this feeling, I was having trouble.

Finally, it came to me--while I was doing my morning exercises (OK so exercise is good for spiritual growth-as Scott points out in his book). What occurred to me as I was busily stretching is that it doesn't matter. Words are just words. It is sort of like most Unitarians trying to precisely define their meaning for the word "God." You can't do it very well.

The word humility in a religious sense is associated with values and feelings that definitions can't adequately capture. And the definition doesn't matter. There is something that is associated with the word that remains outside the word--something we can't pin down with logic and reason and definitions. Humility is what comes when we accept that we can't control many things, and that there are many things we can't know. Humility is a recognition of reality and of mortality. It is an attitude that helps open a path. In order to understand it, it is necessary to let go of the traditional definitions. They don't matter.


by Lynn Bunis

When we began to contemplate and then to discuss the topic of humility, one of the first thoughts that came to mind was that to be humble, one had to remove self or at least a fair amount of self from the equation. For it appears that with the self fully in focus, any act of humility would be just that-an act. And that sort of behavior is one of the aspects of humility that gives it a bad name.

Many of us find the word humility to be what the Scots call "cringe-making." You know what I mean. Either we conjure up obsequiousness and submissiveness of the hat-band twisting and boot-licking variety or we think of those exaggerated and oh-so-obvious "shows" of humility.

In a little over a month from now, Jews around the world will observe Rosh Hashana, their New Year, and then Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays. It is a time when all Jews are to search their souls and recall sins they have committed against God's commandments as well as against one another. For God, they believe, is in us all and so to do an unjustice to another is to hurt God as well. Observant Jews fast to remind themselves of those in want throughout the world, and to humble themselves before God-to recall slights and injustices they have committed, to vow to make amends, to atone for their sins, and to renew themselves to God's plan for them to walk in righteousness.

Surely such an atmosphere is rife for overdoing humility in one direction or another, at least in the eyes of others. To wit, this joke that Jews were telling one another during the high holidays back in the 1960s:

It was the evening service of Yom Kippur following a day of fasting, prayer, soul- searching, and worshipful observance. Following his inspiring message to his congregation, the rabbi stepped from behind the lectern and said in a loud voice, "I am nobody! I am nothing!" With that, he threw himself on the steps of the bima. Not to be outdone, the cantor moved to the steps and in his dramatic tenor voice, exclaimed "I am nobody! I am nothing!" The cantor was followed by the president of the congregation, the president of the Hadassah, and eventually, by Moishe the tailor, who rose from his seat in the back of the room, came forward, and squeaked "I am nobody! I am nothing!" At which point, the cantor turned to the rabbi and said "So, look who thinks he's nothing."

So why is it that the joke is so close to the surface even at the most serious of calendrical observances for the Jews? And why, when we hear the word humility, do many of us immediately think of the term in its two most unflattering aspects? Either subjugation or sham? Why is humility a virtue so little talked about and so subject to mistrust when it shows up? Are we humans really that far from the godliness, reverence, meekness and lowliness of heart, spoken of in scripture and hymns, and in the philosophy and poetry of other eras? Is humility just an old-fashioned notion? Or is self-less-ness simply a concept that is difficult for the Western mind to grasp and the Western personality to cope with?

After all, when you boil it down, we all understand that, as mere mortals, we have human limitations. Such understanding is a form of humility. Certainly those of us who have begun to age to the point where we can't blame our aches and pains on any other cause are well-acquainted with the notion of the "humiliation of the body." I sure am!

But wait a minute, I think I got that last phrase from my Buddhist meditation dharma talks. Which is distinctly an Eastern way of thinking. And, come to that, the bible and the Jewish religion are Eastern in origin. Perhaps we Westerners need the Eastern worldview and religious and philosophical orientation to fully grasp the positive meaning of humility. If humility has to do with removing the self from the equation, we're talking, of course, about the self that we are so prone to cling to in Western thought, especially when we intellectualize.

Jack Kornfield, teacher, psychologist, and meditation master, in his 1993 book, A Path With Heart, addresses this very point:

When Christian texts speak of losing the self in God, when Taoists and Hindus speak of merging with a True Self beyond all identity, when Buddhists speak of emptiness and of no self, what do they mean? Emptiness does not mean that things don't exist, nor does "no self" mean that we don't exist. Emptiness refers to the underlying non-separation of life and the fertile ground of energy that gives rise to all forms of life. ...Any identity we can grasp is transient, tentative. This is difficult to understand from words such as selflessness or emptiness of self. In fact, "If you try to understand it intellectually, your head will probably explode." However, the experience of selflessness in practice can bring us great freedom (p.200).

How so? When we become open and less self-involved and self-focused, we can comprehend the interconnectedness and interdependence (as we UUs put it) of our world and all that is in it.

Now, don't think that this concept is one that you can hold onto for long without its starting to slip away. Buddhist teachers will tell you it is very hard for even the most practiced to let go of self completely or for long. It does happen, but not easily and not quickly. Yet doing so brings tremendous rewards; whereas the reverse, hanging on to self, keeps one immersed in a world of woes. As Kornfield puts it, "The more solidly we grasp our identity, the more solid our problems become. Once I asked a delightful old Sri Lankan meditation master to teach me the essence of Buddhism. He just laughed and said, 'No self, no problem. No self, no problem. No self, no problem'" (pp.202-203).

Perhaps we Westerners get hung up on the notion that if we let go of self, we become nobody. Jon Kabat-Zinn academic researcher on the mind-body connection calls this notion "one of the big New Age distortions of meditation practice" (p. 238). He goes on to say:

No-self does not mean being a nobody. What it means is that everything is interdependent and that there is no isolated, independent core "you." You are only you in relationship to all other forces and events in the world.... Moreover, you are already a somebody no matter what. You are who you already are. But who you are is not your name, your age, your childhood, your beliefs, your fears. They are part of it, but not the whole.

So if you stop trying to make yourself into more than you are out of fear that you are less than you are, whoever you really are will be a lot lighter and happier, and easier to live with, too. (pp. 238-239)

Given that the opposite of humility can be excessive pride or arrogance, it's easy to see that, if we are trying to make ourselves into more out of fear, we naturally have to make others-or at least some others-into less. It's all about the tendency to judge and to compare and then to jockey for position. And think about it-this judging and jockeying is going on only in our own heads.

I'd like to conclude with Kabat-Zinn to tempt you with the positive advantage of at least trying to work toward the occasional episode of no-self experience. Think of it as a sort of life insurance policy:

It means that you can stop taking yourself so damn seriously and get out from under the pressures of having the details of your personal life be central to the operating of the universe. By recognizing and letting go of "selfing" impulses, we accord the universe a little more room to make things happen. (p.240)


Kabat-Zinn, Jon. 1994. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion.

Kornfield, Jack. 1993. A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. New York: Bantam Books.


"The Humble Unitarian"
by Don Bunis

Before we begin this segment, will you please join me in reading the Affirmation printed on the inside front cover of your Order of Service. We'll read just what is in italics.

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Earlier, Doris raised a really interesting question: Why is humility considered a religious virtue? And, in particular, what does it mean to UUs? If you look through our hymnbook, you'll get the impression that it isn't important at all. There are no hymns or readings in this book that mention humility explicitly. In fact, it seems that whoever edited the contents of the hymnal went out of his or her way to avoid the use of the word. You recall the well-known verse of the Bible, taken from Micah, "What does the Lord require of thee but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?" Well, in our hymnal, Micah gets paraphrased. It says that what is required is "... to be just and kind and to live in quiet fellowship with your God." Is the word "humble" really that offensive to UUs?

You probably also noticed that the word "humility" is nowhere to be found in our seven UU principles that appear as an affirmation on the inside cover of the order of service. Yet I believe the case for humility is written between every line of these principles and that the need for humility of spirit is as cogent for UUs as it is to practitioners of any other religion. It's time we talked about it.

When UU minister Alida DeCoster spoke from this pulpit about a month ago, she reminded us that in practicing religion we are questing to become "our truest and best selves." She said that humility is an essential aspect of that spiritual quest and explained that being humble is simply accepting our human limits. She emphasized what a great relief it can be for us to acknowledge and accept those limits, because then we can admit that we do not know everything, that we make mistakes, and that we cannot completely control our selves or our lives. Think of it. Accepting our human limits, admitting that we do not know everything, that we make mistakes, and that we cannot completely control our selves and our lives, is actually good for the soul. To expand a bit on Reverend DeCoster's point: inward humility can free us from the bonds of arrogance and self-centeredness and enable us to live in accordance with our UU principles.

Although they are not the equivalent of commandments, these seven principles serve as a sort of statement of common purpose. They are intended to under gird the moral and ethical decisions we make as we go about the business of being in community with one another and in living our lives. Remember that with UUs, it's deeds, not creeds, that count. And it strikes me that to fully accept the challenge of living up to these principles, we need to be two things: open minded and compassionate. Surely these qualities are based in humility. In fact, you can think of open-mindedness and compassion as complementary dimensions of humility. Compassion is associated with the spirit, open-mindedness with the intellect. How wonderfully Unitarian to have this balance between the two! And how fortunate. No matter where you happen to find yourself on the long UU continuum between spirituality and intellect, there is something here for you to grab hold of.

Let's take compassion first. Compassion involves being in sympathy with the circumstances of others. Yes, first it takes knowledge and understanding of others and their circumstances, which involves use of the intellect. But to get from understanding to compassion, one needs to have a spiritual sense of connection to others and that comes from a very different place than understanding. Here's where the seventh UU principle can take on tremendous relevance and can help us put all the others into perspective. That's the principle that addresses respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Lynn has helped us see that "the interdependent web of all existence" is essentially an Eastern spiritual concept. It encourages the ultimate in compassion. We're part of one great whole. Ego is subsumed in the experience that all life is one. In contrast, from a Western orientation we retain our distinct sense of self. We tend to relate to the concept of the interdependent web more on an intellectual level. We think about it in terms of disciplines, ecological science and human relations. So, while we may learn to develop a conscience and behaviors that are more sensitive to the earth and to the vast array of people and other life forms with which we share this planet, until we experience the oneness of life on a spiritual level, we will always feel somewhat separate (estranged) from others. In fact, the way our seventh UU principle is written, it seems we need to be reminded that we are, indeed, part of the interdependent web of existence and that we need to respect it. Our lack of humility actually can do harm to us. Our sense of separateness prevents true compassion from developing. The message between the lines here is that we need to be humble in order to experience the wonder of oneness.

What about open-mindedness? Being a UU is about being open to new ideas. Our principles exhort us to search for truth and meaning on our own and in community with others in the congregation. The fact that we have lay-led worship at all is an affirmation that we all have important insights to share with one another. Being open to new ideas also accounts for the phenomenon that Ginger Luke talked about last Sunday, that so many UUs are exploring and even incorporating Eastern religious concepts into their spiritual practices. Since members of UU congregations are generally predisposed to accept the philosophy of open-mindedness, we may encounter some measure of difficulty grappling with the fact that we are not always open minded in practice. It's true. Accepting the principle does not make it so.

What very often stands in the way is a sort of arrogance, in other words, the absence of humility. If my self-confidence is shaken when I encounter someone who holds a different belief from mine, how tolerant of that person will I be? What can I learn if I think I already know? How hard will I try if I believe I've got it made? It's questions like these that have led me to believe-at least for the moment-that humility is a pre-condition for true open-mindedness. Humility is what allows us to not be defensive when our ideas and beliefs are tested.

Finally, our first principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person, may pose the greatest challenge to the practice of our liberal faith. At first, it seems like a no-brainer. But I have been involved in at least four previous lay-led services about how difficult it can be to live up this ideal. It usually comes down to particulars. What about that jerk who cut me off in traffic and put my life in danger? What about the freeloaders in society, who contribute nothing and behave as though the world owes them a living? What about those self-absorbed, inconsiderate people who carry on loud, idiotic conversations on their cell phones in public places? Am I being petty here? Well, then what about the young men who shot their fellow students at Columbine? What about Saddam Hussein and Adolph Hitler? Why should I accord them my respect? How could I possibly affirm their inherent worth and dignity? And if I cannot so affirm, how can I hold my head up and claim to be a good Unitarian?

This is a crucial question for those of us who left other religions because we did not believe in their basic tenants and came to Unitarianism so we wouldn't feel like hypocrites. We each need to work this one out for ourselves, but I'll tell you how I am grappling with the dilemma of the first principle at the moment.

I have come to think of it as the principle that requires the largest commitment both of compassion and open-mindedness. Which is to say, this principle needs to be approached with a true sense of humility. I can only pray for the ability to feel at one with all, for the enlightenment to know the difference between temporal behavior and inherent human worth, and to accept that we are all just human beings-none of us perfect-but all with a great capacity to do much good. In our humility, may we indeed become our truest and best selves.