There are several different terms that use the concept of humility that are somewhat popular in many circles: intellectual humility and cultural humility, just to name a couple. The fact that these two ideas have some applications outside of religious contexts suggests many people see humility as an important component of numerous facets of life.
While cultural and intellectual humility are important, they simply point to humility applied in differing contexts. Therefore, I would like to suggest that since humility is applicable in all contexts of life, including professional endeavors, a faithful librarian should strive for humility. The faithful librarian striving for humility could see both intellectual humility and cultural humility as fruitions of a life built on a framework of humility.
Humility is hard. However, I believe it is a core component of life. In John 15, Jesus states, very bluntly: “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (v. 5, ESV), an idea that runs counter to an individualistic, task-oriented mindset that, in my opinion, dominates much of how people look at life in the twenty-first century. However, in challenging a task-oriented mindset, I am not suggesting doing nothing is a suitable alternative. Instead, I believe John 15:5 implies that one must acknowledge that every task completed, any skill mastered, and all issues resolved are ultimately the results of God-given strengths and abilities. Such acknowledgment both requires and fosters humility. Regarding John 15:5, Maximus the Confessor, a late sixth/early seventh century Christian monk and theologian, states that faithful Christians can do nothing outside of God:
…because our weakness, when moved to do good things, is unable to bring anything to completion without the giver of good things. The one who has come to understand the weakness of human nature has had experience of the divine power. And such a person who because of divine power has succeeded in some things and is eager to succeed in others never looks down on anyone. For he knows that in the same way that God has helped him and freed him from many passions and hardships, so can he help everyone when he wishes, especially those striving for his sake.1
Upon understanding that we can do nothing apart from God who strengthens us, a somewhat natural response would be to, well, do nothing. However, this is clearly not God’s intent. God created us to do good things: to assist in the discovery of content, to educate individuals on how to use databases, to teach research so students and patrons can become more apt at discovering truth, and much, much more.
One of the challenges, however, is that pride develops easily. We can easily be arrogant about the work that we do, subsequently generating a critical spirit prone to criticizing others. As a librarian, I will be the first to admit that critique has its place, but I also think many of us are aware of just how rare truly constructive criticism is, as critique is often extended with a judgmental spirit. So, all the more, faithful librarians must exercise humility which has the potential to counter such critical tendencies.
In his article in Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Patrick Lynch suggests that our culture often embraces intellectual arrogance.2 The twenty-first century, Patrick argues, has brewed a context in which intellectual humility, a critical counter to intellectual arrogance, is becoming difficult to attain. While many would agree that humility does not come easily, it becomes even more difficult to attain in a culture where it is not fostered. Lynch argues that balancing humility and conviction is critical in order to truly overcome what he calls “toxic arrogance.”
Perhaps the fact that Christianity fosters humility makes toxic arrogance out of place, an oddity, in Christian higher education. A culture where humility is fostered can break down what may be seen as barriers. For example, to be a student in a classroom where the instructor is younger than oneself may not seem to fit many cultural norms. It takes a certain amount of humility to do this, and humility is hard; it by no means comes easily or naturally.
Secondly, humility can be incredibly challenging because it counters so much of our culture. As I go up the professional ranks (from librarian, to associate dean, to dean – or whatever the ranking may be) can I become humbler? I do think that good leadership (and good librarianship) requires growth and development in humility. Why? Because librarians tend to learn and grow as they develop in their jobs. If one lacks the development of humility alongside other areas of growth, they often lack, in my opinion, the ability to connect because arrogance can often accompany growth. They also tend to lack a generous heart that is passionate about sharing what they know with others. This is a key component to many professions, but particularly librarianship. In my opinion, faithful librarianship requires humility development.
Humility development is difficult, but also incredibly enriching. For me, my epilepsy has played a critical role in this. While I have been seizure free for quite some time (due to some medical procedures I went through), I have had incidences where my seizures have recurred. In the midst of many seizures (including mine), the individual going through the seizure has very little to no control over what they say or what they do. This can be terrifying for all parties involved, and incredibly humbling for the individual going through the seizure.
Many of us are in contexts where we have a certain level of control in our lives, or at least we assume that we do: we choose where and what to eat, what to wear, and to a certain extent, we can choose where we live and work. I am not aiming to infer that it is bad to have a certain amount of control over some aspects of life. However, epilepsy often counters the (false) security we may have due to this.
My first grand mal seizure took place fifteen years after I had gone through my medical procedures. Up until that point, my life had been seizure free for fifteen years. My wife and I had two kids at the time (our youngest was only six weeks old, our daughter had not been born yet). To think that I might not be able to hold my six-week-old son (for fear of having another grand mal seizure and dropping him) was terrifying. Along with that, the possibility of having my driver’s license revoked (and the critical role that a driver’s license plays in mobility and pre-COVID employment) and my job being our sole source of income at that time, was, again, terrifying. In that time, I understood what humility looked like. I could do nothing, other than pray, trusting in God’s providential nature.
In that time, I also saw how fragile so many components of life truly are. It simply took one grand mal seizure for so many facets of my life to fall apart. I noted above that humility development is incredibly difficult, but at the same time incredibly enriching. I am certain that many can understand how the scenario which I described is difficult, but how can it be enriching? I would like to suggest that the enrichment came because it has provided me warrant for humility: I have been forced to acknowledge that life is fragile, but I am able to live and work with that understanding because I worship a sovereign and loving God.
However, epilepsy does not provide any warrant for belittling oneself or questioning one’s worth. Scripture is very clear that God uses our weaknesses and difficulties (2 Corithians 12:10). In finishing the idea of this passage, Paul makes an oxymoronic statement: “For, when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinithans 12:10, ESV). This idea of being strong in weaknesses aligns well with my experiences of epilepsy. My epilepsy (what some might consider a weakness) has given me a clear picture that many (if not all) facets of life are beyond my control. For some, this may provide warrant for passivity. However, this is not an appropriate response. Active and aggressive humility development is an appropriate response.
In the context of librarianship, humility development fostered by the gospel can lead Christian librarians further than ever imagined. Why? Because in their weakness, Christ is working through their reference interviews, their cataloging, their instruction sessions, their leadership, and through all facets of their life and profession. Without a recognition of weaknesses, individuals are left to their own abilities, which will fail. Humility plays a critical role in fostering a faithful librarian.
- Maximus the Confessor: Selected Writings, trans. George C. Berthold with Jaroslav Pelikan and Irenee-Henri Dalmais. Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 52, quoted in Elowsky, Joel C., ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: John 11-21 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 16.
- M. P. Lynch, “Teaching Humility in an Age of Arrogance,” Chronicle of Higher Education 64, no. 1 (2017), https://www.chronicle.com/article/teaching-humility-in-an-age-of-arrogance/?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in.
Thank you for this reflection, Garrett. I found your use of your epilepsy particularly compelling. I was drawn to your thoughts because I have a special interest in humility, and have written on intellectual humility: Rationality, Humility, and Spirituality in Christian Life (Cascade Books, 2020). I thought you might be interested in my interdisciplinary treatise, and I would be happy to send you the publisher’s flyer and the Introduction if you would like to sample it. I was also wondering if you as a librarian could help me publicize it to all librarians in Christian colleges and universities. Any suggestions or help you could provide would be appreciated. Thank you, and please continue your good work.
Dennis Hiebert, PhD
Professor of Sociology
Providence University College
Garrett, I echo Dennis Hiebert’s praise for your candid reflection on personal weaknesses and the way that they compel humility. I have thought and written on this topic, but I have not outgrown the need to remember my own frailty and confess my dependence on God. No matter how much experience and education I may gain, “apart from me you can do nothing” remains a sobering reality. On the other hand, the Apostle Paul’s testimony that “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13 ESV) offers continual reassurance.
Gregory A. Smith, MLS, MBA, EdD candidate
Associate Dean, Library Technologies & Collection Services