Humility in multi-faith engagement

In the Christian tradition, humility is an important virtue. St. Augustine famously said that, "Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance." It is mentioned in a number of Bible verses, including the one in the photo above taken from Proverbs 3:34 which is quoted in James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5-6. Given the significance of humility in the Christian life, we might expect it to have application to multi-faith engagement. It turns out that it does indeed connect, and scientific studies indicate that it helps improve Christian attitudes toward non-Christian religions.

In "Humility attenuates negative attitudes and behaviors toward religious out-group members" by Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Joshua Stafford, Joshua N. Hook, Jeffrey D. Green, Don E. Davis & Kathryn Johnson from The Journal of Positive Psychology 11, no. 2 (2016), the authors begin with a recognition of the difficulties that are inherent in listening to others with different ideas on important subjects like religion. Religious worldviews provide us with meaning, a sense of identity and community, tools to help us understand our place in the world, and ways to deal with our anxieties about death. When confronted with divergent religious ideas that contradict our own, we often use defensive strategies as a means of protection. This usually involves more bravado than humility. But religious rivalry can include humility. The authors state that "People are slow to change beliefs associated with core aspects of their identity, such as religious beliefs, but humility may help people openly consider and respect alternate perspectives." At this point the reader might think that the authors are advocating some kind of pluralism where humility and respect equate with a weak faith commitment to one's religious tradition in the face of irreconcilable differences. But this is not the case. They state, "We hasten to clarify one point: humility reflects a style of holding one's beliefs, rather than a specific content of one's beliefs...Thus, humility may allow committed individuals to hold their (strong) beliefs, but in ways that facilitate respect and empathy for others" (emphasis in original). 

Before engaging in three studies on humility and religious challengers, the authors "predicted that humility would be related to more positive attitudes and behaviors toward religiously dissimilar others." As a result of their studies, the prediction was confirmed, and while more work needs to be done, "the results presented here suggest humility encourages more harmonious interactions with members of other religions." The article concludes with suggestions on further research on the topic to explore unanswered questions, one of which is whether "there are situations in which humility would be more or less strongly associated with tolerance (e.g. regular, positive contact with individuals of other faith traditions)". 

I find this study very interesting for several reasons. First, it dovetails with a Christian virtue and provides some analytical support for the benefits in a specific application that is much-needed in our time. Second, exercising humility in regards to other religions doesn't mean that one has to have weak or compromising faith. Christians with strong faith commitments can still exercise humility, even while holding firmly to the truth claims they hold dear. One doesn't have to be a zealous, disrespectful apologist annihilating the beliefs of others in order to be a good Christian engaging other religious traditions. Third, this study raises a lot of interesting questions that need to be probed further in the future. The one I quoted above is of great interest to me in that I wonder whether positive contact with those in other religions through relationships, conversations, and acts of hospitality contribute to the development of humility in Christians. If so, could this be used in strategic fashion to cultivate humility in evangelicals in multi-faith engagement? And do we bring prior humility as a personality trait to multi-faith engagement or does the process of these experiences result in more humility?

I close by noting that this study was funded by grants from The John Templeton Foundation and the Fuller Theological Seminary/Thrive Center. Those interested in reading the article can find it here. In addition, there is a related piece on humility in relation to worldview defense reduction from 2014 that Van Tongeren also contributed to from the Journal of Psychology and Theology published by Biola University. That too was supported by a grant from Templeton. We need more of these kinds of studies, specifically aimed at aspects of evangelicals involved in multi-faith engagement.

John Morehead