Striving to live into unity in the love of God is best done with a spirit of humility. An easy pitfall for any of us is to become so dogmatic in our assertions that love and openness to the Spirit of God and to one another becomes displaced by certitude and arrogance. The manifestations of such pitfalls are many. We can sometimes try to force our viewpoints upon others. Or, our convictions can even lead us to believe that we need to sacrifice the unique perspective God imparts to us. The Spirit of God is working in us all; and our discerning in the midst of life together needs us to be both good listeners and articulate representatives of the insights that come to us in our own hearts and minds.
We need to be on our guard for any effort, however obvious or subtle, to overpower one another, silence one another, or neglect to welcome one another into the conversation and fellowship. We are making common ground for each other; not taking territory (like warriors) from each other. God has invited us together. It is God who is our host. It is God who should be respected as the head of all that we do — and God is not a captive to our particular perspectives and agendas.
Most of the time, I see my fellow Christians who come together in ecumenical gatherings making heartfelt efforts to be humble. Often they, in fact, are. But I highlight humility as a thing to consider because it is so important; and sometimes I think it is misunderstood. Reflecting upon its meaning and keeping it fresh in our minds will, I think, do much to help us as we strive to live faithful lives with each other.
Humility is not simply about deferring to others. Some Christians take scripture’s teachings that they regard others more highly than themselves to mean that they should concede nearly every point in a conversation and keep mostly silent. This is not helpful. I also think it is not respectful of the other with whom we are in relationship. The other has come to engage us; not simply to be affirmed in who they are. They have come to discover something of who we are, what we think, and what hopes lay upon our hearts and minds. If we hide ourselves from them, or only attempt to become a mirror for them, we have done them a disservice. Humility in such a situation is to present one’s own perspective, one’s ideas and hopes, honestly and clearly. Humility is lived out in speaking with integrity — but without trying to force a viewpoint upon another. If God respects our free will, as I believe God does, we need to do no less with each other.
Likewise, humility needs to be practiced when encountering and listening to the other. To as great an extent as we can manage, we need to try not to force another’s words and ideas into our own frame of understanding. We need to try to hear them clearly and without coloring their words so that they fit into our picture of reality. This is no small task; and, I am not sure anyone ever succeeds completely. But, when we work at our listening with humility, we develop, over time, a greater ability to gain a sense of the frame within which another builds their understanding. Words and ideas always have context. Those words are born out of the context of the speaker or writer. If we simply take words from one person’s context and insert them into our own, misunderstanding is almost guaranteed. We need to strive for a deeper understanding of each other; learning to acquire some sense of what words and ideas mean from the other’s point of view.
This poses a real challenge for the present-day ecumenical movement. When I look at the statements and consensus documents of the 20th and early 21st centuries, I am struck by how they are often words to which people have agreed — but not carriers of meanings that the various parties share. I have seen such selections of acceptable words — while dodging the harder task of coming to accord on meanings — many times during my time of service in the ecumenical and interreligious ministries of my church. Sometimes we even say in these groups that this word or phrase means something different to us than it does to you; but the words are acceptable. One wonders what effect building upon surface understandings of words will have over time. Is the selection of mutually acceptable words (bearing for each of us different meanings) a way of building bridges between us (as some assert)? Do they really become words into which we can grow? Or do these words prove themselves over time to be like unbaked bricks that are bound to crumble and endanger the solidity of our efforts at being one with each other in the love of God? Part of the task of humility, I think, is to say that agreeing with one another is actually more difficult than we wish that it were. It might be better if we made sure that when we agree to mutual understandings that it is more about sharing meaning than simply agreeing to words. That would likely mean we would agree to less; but it would be a firmer foundation for subsequent work.
Part of practicing humility also involves being willing to work alongside one another in the ministries of mercy and compassion taught to us by the example of the earthly life and ministry of Christ Jesus — without the necessity of having a clear and shared understanding of theological and ecclesiological points. Love has meanings that often confound expression in clear ideas and their derivative words anyway. When we look at the example of Jesus’s disciples during his earthly ministry, we do not see a group of people who had a clear understanding of who Jesus was, what he was about, or much else, for that matter. His disciples seem not to have been given either an entrance exam at the commencement of their time with him, nor a acquired competency exam before he ascended to heaven and entrusted them with the continuation of his ministry. Yet, they had worked side-by-side for years — and they continued to do so after his death and resurrection — with incomplete understandings . . . and, sometimes, downright erroneous ones. So much energy has been placed by the present-day ecumenical movement into theological and ecclesiological reconciliations and agreements. While these subjects are not unimportant — and I personally enjoy them a great deal — what I see Jesus doing in scripture is not dependent on any of these things. He loves, he heals, he forgives, he teaches his disciples and the crowds to do likewise. Should this not be the first thing we are about as Christians? Our unity must be found here first, I think. Our thoughtful deliberations, like those of the disciples on the Way with Jesus, can be what fills our time when we are not busy feeding people, healing people, forgiving people, loving people, and teaching others to do likewise.
Part of our practice of humility means thinking less about ourselves as Christians than we do about the whole of humanity and creation. In the Great Commission, in which Jesus instructs his disciples go to the whole of creation to proclaim the gospel and make disciples, Jesus tells them to go to the whole of creation. He does not tell his disciples to build a perfect Christian community that will draw people in. The emphasis is upon Christians as itinerants for the sake of love — not upon getting people to come to us.
One of the complaints against Christians that I have heard countless times is well represented by the words of a young man I met many years ago outside the Harvard Square train station in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was perhaps nineteen years old and he was living on the street in the company of about a dozen other young people. I was walking home late at night from a day of research across the river in Boston. He came up to me and said hello. I returned his greeting. Then, he looked at the silver celtic cross hanging on a chain around my neck. “I like your cross, man.” I thanked him and told him it had been a gift from a dear friend. He asked if he could touch it. I said yes. He reached and held it in his hand for a moment. Then he let it fall gently to my chest again. “I like Jesus,” he said. He then went on to talk about how he’d always liked how Jesus loved people and cared for them. He went on saying, “You know, if there were people who loved people the way he did, life would be beautiful — here and wherever we go after.” He smiled at me with an angelic look on his face. Then he gave me a hug and went on his way. He didn’t say anything against Christians; but it was clear that he didn’t think he’d ever seen or met one. He was looking for people who loved and did as Jesus loved and did in his earthly ministry. He never asked me about the 1961 New Delhi Statement of the World Council of Churches. He never asked me my position on the sacraments or orders of ministry. He never asked me anything, in fact. He just said he’d like to see people who loved like Jesus.
Maybe part of our practice of humility will be to recognize that we, as Christians, are not putting first things first. Do we really need to understand each other before we share Christ’s love with the world and each other? Do we really need to reconcile concepts of ministry, understandings of the sacraments, or anything else before we walk side-by-side to those who need healing, who need peace where they are afflicted by violence, who need life instead of death? Is salvation found in right understanding or in right living?
Or are my questions and suggestions about practicing humility simply drawn from my own pietistic tendencies? I ask that because what I am seeking is for us to struggle together — struggle together to be perfected in love.
One of the great virtues of Christianity is that it calls us to be self-reflective. It is a faith that benefits from moments of self-doubt and sober reassessment. It is good, I think, to sometimes wonder if we have missed the mark — or even failed. It is at such times (and I think it is good for those times to come often) that we can open our hearts to ourselves, to one another, and to God in Christ Jesus, and pour out our shame, our fear, our joy, and our hope. It is during our self-reflection that we can be healed and strengthened; that we may be inspired anew to continue our walk with Jesus. May we be blessed to be humble — and in so being, to become confident to live Christ’s love and share it with the whole of creation.