Cultivate Humility

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. James 3:13

lab-1The second section of A Little Book for New Scientists: Why and How to Study Science by Josh Reeves and Steve Donaldson looks at characteristics of a faithful scientist. Faithful is a two-pronged concept in this context. We should be faithful as Christians and as scientists – (1) faithful to live as Christians in this world with all that entails and (2) faithful to science as professionals in a discipline. The section is divided into three chapters. The third, The Known Unknowns, will be discussed at length below. The first two, Hope in the Face of Adversity and Life Together, provide some important insights that many prospective scientists will find useful, and the pastors or other advisors might find enlightening. A couple of the issues that Reeves and Donaldson raise are worth highlighting – but there is much more in the chapters.

Adversity takes many forms. Life as a successful scientist – especially at the highest levels – is a demanding vocation. There are definite rewards, but one is expected contribute in a number of ways. “Depending on place and type of employment, those demands could involve any or all of the following: research, teaching, administration, reading, writing, presentations and travel.” p. 58 To this list you can eventually add mentoring both students and junior colleagues, pursuit of funding to support a research program, leadership in a variety of professional roles (professional societies, journals and conferences), and reviewing the funding proposals and papers submitted by others. The time commitment can be overwhelming at times – and they are all (most of the time) intellectually challenging and rewarding activities. The time demands are not unique to scientists – but found in many competitive professions.

Christians are called to all kinds of vocational pursuits. It is important to approach any career with both a sense of calling and a sense of restraint. A career is not an end in and of itself. The goal isn’t simply the pursuit of knowledge, success, prestige, or acclaim. (I would recommend Tim Keller’s book with Katherine Leary Alsdorf Every Good Endeavor as a source to dig deeper into the relationship between vocation and Christian life. The focus is more toward business than science or academia, but it is still useful.)

lab-2Standing on the shoulders of giants. Reeves and Donaldson also dig into the importance of community in science. Reeves and Donaldson point out that productivity in the sciences is always a community endeavor. New ideas and insights seldom, if ever, arise in isolation. Solo papers are relatively rare. Many projects require dozens of participants. Any idea or result, even those that may come from an individual, must be defended to the full community.

It can also be important to make connections with fellow Christians in the sciences (something I have often found easier said than done). The internet helps, but can’t completely replace the importance of face-to-face interactions.

Celtic Cross Crop2Cultivate Humility. The last chapter of this section The Known Unknowns is worth digging into in more depth. This section isn’t (or shouldn’t be) directed solely at scientists. Scholars of all sorts, including theologians and pastors or any Christian teacher, would benefit. This post led off with a text from James on humility. Many other passages come to mind as well.

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:5

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:3-4

And several from Proverbs.

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. 11:2

Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility comes before honor. 15:33

Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life. 22:4

What is humility? The most common definition I’ve found is “the quality or condition of being humble,” not a particularly useful definition. Somewhat better is the definition from the Cambridge Dictionary “the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others; lack of pride.“This is a little better, but doesn’t quite get it. Humility brings wisdom and comes from wisdom when it is an intellectual humility, a humility that realizes that we are finite in our understanding. In the context of science, or theology for that matter, intellectual humility is the realization that one almost certainly has some misconceptions and wrong ideas and should be open-minded enough to accept input and consider new ideas. This doesn’t mean lack of confidence or a wishy-washy uncertainty, but a willingness to be continually learning. Intellectual humility is generally thought to be a virtue in scholarship and in science – although it far too often isn’t. Scientists regularly over step reasonable bounds, and sometimes defend a view with the same kind of dogmatic certainty found in other arenas.

Intellectual humility should also be a virtue in the church – although far too often it isn’t.

The air of finality that accompanies so much religious posturing, for example, is based on the faulty (but prevalent) notion that everything of importance one needs to know is already known. … This is something of a paradox, for one would think that religious people who believe in a transcendent deity would have the most expansive outlook of all. But strangely the notion of an infinitely capable God, rather than exposing one’s rational frailties, often manifests itself in a parochial notion of infallibility of personal discernment. Somehow the facts that God’s chosen people (Israel in the Old Testament) were regularly mistaken (e.g., “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Hos 6:6) and that Jesus’ own disciples frequently got it wrong (“Are you still so dull?” Mt 15:16) seems to be lost on each new generation, which acts as though it has finally reached an indisputable answer.” (pp. 82-83)

Intellectual humility does not prevent one from coming to conclusions and arguing for a specific view. Intellectual humility requires a willingness to listen and to learn. I’ve listened to a number of talks by N.T. Wright and he will sometimes make a comment such as: 20% (or some other percentage higher or lower) of what I’m about to tell you is wrong; the problem is, I don’t know what 20% it is. This certainly doesn’t keep him from making the argument or teaching the class, but it does cultivate intellectual humility to keep it in mind, both in the speaker and in the listener. This is what makes us teachable and allows us to grow.

Reeves and Donaldson have more to say on the topic of intellectual humility and the potential pitfalls for the Christian and for the scientist. But perhaps it is best to wrap up with their conclusion.

As the Apostle Paul put it, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”‘ (Romans 11:33-34). To acknowledge that one might be wrong, and to admit it when one is wrong, is the gateway to greater discovery. Thus the route to deeper insight – be it scientific, theological, or the intersection of the two – begins with intellectual humility. p. 89

What is intellectually humility?

Is this a virtue we should cultivate?

What role might it play in the church?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

You may also comment on Cultivate Humility at Jesus Creed.

This entry was posted in Christianity, Science, Science and Faith and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.