False Humility


About a year ago some friends and I were in a book group reading through Simone Weil’s excellent work Waiting on God. As I often do, I found myself going off on tangents and talking theology. I tried to make a point about postmodernism and its connection to our knowledge of the resurrection. After the large speech, one of the girls in the group complimented me for being smart. Immediately, I found myself pulling one of those, “Oh, I’m not really smart I just have no life and read a lot of books to compensate for the lack of social engagement I have in real life.” Of course, she and others responded assuring me I was really, really smart. I persisted again, saying, “Thanks, but really I’m just passing off other people’s ideas as my own.” Then the conversation ended.

Being the obsessional neurotic that I am, afterward I tried to process what had occurred during the reading group. I must confess that I’m a sucker for verbal affirmation. I know, it’s pathetic. As I began analyzing the interaction, I was initially proud at my deflection of the praise, patting myself on the back for my apparent humility. However, as I began assessing more I became less and less certain of this analysis. Effectively by denying the compliment two things happened. First off, by minimizing the praise, I unconsciously demanded that they up the ante on the compliments. This deferral demanded that they move from saying that I was intelligent to affirming that I was really, really intelligent. Secondly, by refusing to accept the compliment I also increased the time on which everyone thought about the compliment. If I had been a humble person I would’ve thanked her for the nice words and shut my mouth. However, by denying the compliment, everyone had to dwell on the statement and its truth-value for even longer than was necessary. In summary: by appearing I humble I actually demanded not only that everyone think about how intelligent I was for a longer period of time, but that they elevate their appraisals of my intelligence and thus satisfy my narcissistic wishes

Another example of this happened today that got me thinking of this story. Currently, I’m listening to Caputo’s lectures on Derrida and religion off his website. It’s very good. He begins the class by working through Of Grammatology. Anyway, he recounts a story where he met with radical orthodox theologians like Blond and company. They ask him if God is deconstructible. Of course, he responds that the name of God was constructed in some contingent circumstances, so of course the name is deconstructible. But, then he says, “What do I know? Who am I to speak for God?”

I hate this sort of false humility. I’ll tell you who Caputo is to speak for God. He’s a first-rate academic hovering in the borders between philosophy and theology. He’s trained in continental thought along with a solid grounding in negative theology and Aquinas. If anyone can tell us something about man’s understanding of God, it’s him. I know he was meaning to say, “I’m just one man. I have no privileged vantage point to speculate about the knowledge of God”. This sort of humility is worthless. My only thought is this: “If you’re not an expert on God, then why are you lecturing about God?” I wish he would go ahead and list out his credentials and speak without all of this ironic rhetorical humility.


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