Unification News For April 1996


On Moral and Intellectual Humility

by Haven Bradford Gow

Confucius and Christ agree on one very important thing: humility-moral and intellectual-is indispensable to leading a virtuous life and becoming a good human being.

I think, for example, of the late Dr. Russell Kirk, the eminent conservative Christian man of letters who was well-known and respected throughout the Western world for his essays and books such as The Conservative Mind, Eliot and His Age and Enemies of the Permanent Things. During the later part of his long and distinguished life and career as a writer/scholar, Dr. Kirk was the president of the Wilbur Foundation.

In 1983 Dr. Kirk honored me by selecting me to become one of his Wilbur Foundation Literary Fellows, and I got to study, do research and write under his guidance and supervision at his home in Mecosta, Michigan. On the first day of my literary fellowship, Dr. Kirk said to me, "Thank you for coming to us; please consider me your humble servant."

It was clear from Dr. Kirk's words, actions and demeanor that he was a man of moral and intellectual humility, which was a major reason why he was such an outstanding scholar, teacher, lecturer and writer. Dr. Kirk was humble enough to acknowledge his debt to the wisdom of our ancestors-people such as Confucius, Christ, Socrates, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Edmund Burke, the founding fathers of this country, Abraham Lincoln. Because he possessed moral and intellectual humility, Dr. Kirk was able to communicate the immense wisdom of the past to his contemporaries.

We can also see humility in the example of Christ. Christ could have come to this world as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords; he had the power to command the greatest military might in the world to wage war on behalf of the forces of light against the forces of darkness. Yet Christ came to us as a poor, helpless, defenseless, innocent baby born in a manger; he was so cold that he had to depend on the breath of animals to keep him warm. And to save us from our sins and provide us with the hope of salvation and eternal life, Christ humbly accepted unmerited persecution, suffering and death on the cross.

Socrates also taught us about moral and intellectual humility. Despite being the outstanding teacher of his time, Socrates preached and practiced humility; his attitude was: "The older I become and the more I learn, the more I realize how little I do know and how much more I need to learn. So, I will proceed to go to others, ask them questions about the important issues of life, and let them teach me about God, happiness, right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice."

We find contemporary examples of good men who practice the virtue of humility. One thinks, for example, of Rev. Herman Otten, editor of The Christian News (RR1, Box 309A, New Haven, MO 63068), who has for several years as a minister and editor/writer taken noble and courageous stands on explosive issues like abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, "gay" rights, pornography, the importance of good family life, and religious faith versus secular humanism. Despite Rev. Otten's moral and religious certitude about such issues, however, he is humble enough to remain open to criticism and is willing to consider views contrary to his own. In each issue of The Christian News, therefore, we find letters to the editor critical of Rev. Otten's positions, which lead to a lively debate in the pages of his weekly publication.

Still another example of moral and intellectual humility can be found in the life and work of Dr. G. H. Wang, an eminent scholar and president of an educational/cultural affairs foundation in Chicago, as well as a selfless contributor to various charitable causes. Throughout his long and prestigious life and career, Dr. Wang has dedicated himself to showing that the wisdom and insights of ancient Chinese philosophers can be blended with the insights and wisdom of Christianity. Despite his charitable activities and scholarly work of enormous magnitude, though, Dr. Wang prefers to give others the credit and spotlight.

Today, prominent scholars and writers are engaged in the kind of scholarship fostered by Dr. Wang. For example, historian Roxann Prazniak's Dialogues Across Civilizations (Harper/Collins/Westview Press) is a splendid example of how we can benefit from comparing the experience, wisdom and insights of Chinese civilization with those of European civilization.

According to Dr. Wang, educators teach best through personal example; educators can best teach young people the meaning and significance of virtue by displaying in their personal and professional lives such qualities as moral and intellectual integrity and humility.

Dr. Wang's words of wisdom are echoed by Dartmouth College president Dr. James Freedman in his new work, Idealism and Liberal Education (University of Michigan Press). Dr. Freedman explains: "Colleges do inevitably teach values, and they do so by example. Students learn values by observing how professors perform in and outside of the classroom-professors who are dispassionate in their search for truth, careful in their weighing of evidence, respectful in their toleration of disagreement, candid in their confession of error, and considerate and decent in their treatment of other human beings." He adds, "The morality of a professor's example is perhaps the most powerful force in the teaching of values. By the power of their example, professors engaged in liberal education convey the humane significance of such values as inquiry, integrity, empathy, self-discipline and craftsmanship. These are values that inform the academic process."

Download entire page and pages related to it in ZIP format
Table of Contents
Copyright Information