Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Make Humility, Great Again

Some people love golf.  I love school.

And so, I'm regularly in a classroom, auditing this semester, for example, "The Letters and Theology of Paul" taught by Dr. Michael Gorman, at St. Marys Seminary and University. 

On Monday, we entered the book of Philippians, and it was akin to experiencing a master class with the master apostle, Paul. For Philippians -- like the best master classes -- is an immersion, with an exceptional mentor (e.g., Paul) -- allowing one to encounter choice aspects of the mentor’s repertoire.  

And that's what Philippians affords, as one experiences a prime narrative for Paul: the church as a missional, contrast community.

The framework for Paul’s master-class is found in the Christ-poem in Philippians 2:5-11.
“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. 
When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. 
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.  (Philippians 2: 5-11, The Message)
These verses outline the whole of Philippians, surfacing the letter's mega-themes: 1) mindfulness; 2) participation; 3) self-emptying; 4) enslavement; 5) humility; 6) particularity; 7) victory -- all pointing to the necessity of being in Christ -- in community -- in contrast -- to the self-exalting culture of Adam and Rome.

The theme of humility is especially striking. For as John Dickson points out, humility was far from a virtue in the Philippian context. In fact, in the Greco-Roman world, the word humility was roughly equivalent to ‘crushed’ or ‘debased,’ associated with failure and shame. As Dickson goes on to note,
“…in the 147 pithy maxims of the Delphic Canon from the 6th century BC, considered by ancient Greeks to be the sum and substance of the ethical life, there is no mention of the theme of… "humility"…In its place [is the theme] "the love of honor."
A prioritizing of honor, rather than humility, continues; our current trajectory is upward mobility, not downward mobility, underscoring personal privilege and status. 

An often-cited example is the prioritizing of the U.S. and its greatness (e.g. 'Make America Great'). Why, the rhetoric in direction, in particular, is on 'steroids,' as persons work overtime to 'shout others down,' in an attempt to elevate the U.S. nation-state to new levels of 'greatness.' 

But, frankly, the 'shouting' rebounds across our highly polarized society -- on any number of issues -- with more name-calling and mean-spirited innuendo, gossip -- even slander -- than in recent memory.  

Often, such a mean-spiritedness is lived out through the nasty habit of name-calling.  A while back, Quartz, itemized 'popular' pejorative words, current in the U.S. political system, used by both liberals and conservatives.  What resulted was not flattering.

And this is just a partial listing of 'name-calling,' leaving out popular terms that, frankly, are profane.  And so, for starters, in our quest for greater humility, we can humble our language, curbing our tongue, in line with the admonition of scripture:  
"...Never let ugly or hateful words come from your mouth, but instead let your words become beautiful gifts that encourage others; do this by speaking words of grace to help them..."  (Ephesians 4:29, The Passion Translation)
But as severe as our current arrogant speech and action is, it is not a recent phenomenon.  As David Brooks, argued at the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival our current hubris bias started in the 60s’ in the move toward sexual liberation, and in the ’80s in the bent toward personal financial liberation. 

Both, Brooks argued, were “…ways of separating the individual from the community, celebrating self rather than the whole.”  But the humble person, Brooks contends “…has the ability to become unselved.”

 Paul agrees -- humility unselves.

But not humility alone, but humility in Christ. For an attitudinal mind-shift is inadequate unless empowered by a transcendent mind-shift, cultivating the “…same mind…that was in Christ-Jesus…”  (Philippians 2:5). 

As Michael Gorman has pointed out, this cruciform mind-shift is radically, divinely, comprehensively, participatory. For as Paul calls us to cultivate the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, Paul is calling us to cultivate a missional vocation:
“…[a] way of thinking, acting, and feeling – in [our] community, which is in fact a community in Messiah Jesus…” (Michael Gorman. Apostle of the Crucified Lord. Grand Rapids:  Wm Eerdmans, 2017, p. 504.).
Such an outward focus, in Christ, is transformational, as it underscores a key theme in Philippians, that: “….the Philippians [are not to] merely to believe this gospel,” as Michael Gorman stresses “…but to become that gospel, and thereby to ‘shine like stars in the world’ (2:15), and advance the gospel…”  (Michael Gorman. Apostle of the Crucified Lord. Grand Rapids:  Wm Eerdmans, 2017, p. 488.).

Such a missional vocation can indeed give us the ability to become unselved, as it calls the individual back to the community, to celebrate the whole. Rather than accenting triumphalism and independence, it underscores servanthood and interdependence – elevating not ‘Rome’ and dominant culture – but -- Jesus and contrast culture.

As I was completing this blog entry, I took a Facebook break, and 'coincidentally' (perhaps, 'providentially') a contrast culture quote appeared in my newsfeed; it's from Stephen Mattson:
"Sometimes, being a good Christian meant being a bad Roman.  So before you accuse people of being unpatriotic, ask yourself which empire they're actually serving."
Ouch!  But, wow!! -- what a prophetic, accurate word, of what it truly means to be humble, before not only each other but God. For at the heart of Christian obedience is radical surrender and enslavement to the only One, truly worthy, to lord-over life; the One we give-over, our very selves.  

Again, the Jesus of Philippians 2:5-11, models for us, the way forward; a Jesus who...
“…did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…[humbling]…himself…[becoming] obedient to the point of death…” (Philippians 2:6-8).
One of the most triumphal human achievements, was the first summitting of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzin Norgay, in 1953. An unreported aspect of their trek, however, was the symbol Hillary took with him and buried on Everest’s summit:  a small crucifix. 

As John Dickson reflects, the reason is unclear; Hillary was not an overtly religious man. But “…perhaps it was a token of his own humility, trying to honor a "higher power" at the moment of his greatest triumph…”

Sir Edmund Hillary’s tokenism is our tokenism. For, we do keep striving, climbing. 

But as we do, humility beckons and intrigues. 

For, perhaps, the ultimate summit, the ultimate triumph -- is found not on the heights -- but in the depths of human need -- in community -- in contrast -- in Christ

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