It’s hard to know how to review John Dickson’s book, Humilitas. With humility I suppose, or at least without humiliating myself! It’s hard because I’m not much of an expert on the topic, and it’s doubly hard because the author is a good mate whom I greatly admire. I’ve always been stimulated through reading John’s books. I confess to having envied John’s capacity as a preacher, didgeridoo player, author, and general all round talent. But mostly I just like having the occasional catch up, coffee together, and being encouraged by an old friend.
Well, Humilitas is not what I expected! I’ve grown accustomed to John writing books on the life and teaching of Jesus, books that answer difficult questions, and books seeking to persuade others to follow Jesus. I quickly discovered that this is a different type of book, pitched at a different audience. This is not so much for the enquirer into Christianity, as the one who is seeking to grow as a leader and build stronger relationships with others. (Not to suggest these are mutually exclusive, by the way.) I’d expect to find this book sitting comfortably alongside books by Ken Blanchard or Max de Pree in the leadership section of your local bookshop… if there are any local bookshops still in existence!
I found Humilitas a good read and completed it in a couple of sittings. John is self-effacing as he writes, only too aware of the sitting duck he has become in presuming to teach on humility! He writes with grace and style, colouring his work with historical and contemporary examples of humble men and women. Indeed, I loved reading some of my favourite anecdotes from A Sneaking Suspicion now providing powerful illustrations of humility in action! But this is not a repackaged, ‘slap together’ paperback by a prolific author. It shows evidence of serious research over many years, much of it historical, laying a foundation for an academic and yet highly practical work. As I was reading this book, I also listened to James O’Loghlin interviewing John about the topic on ABC radio. It helped bring the book to life even more. You can listen to the interview online.
John writes of humilitas in the positive sense of humility, rather than its negative sense of humiliation. He provides his own working definition that he expounds throughout the book…
Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others. (p24)
Three thoughts are inherent in this definition of humility. Firstly, it presupposes your dignity. The humble person begins by being aware of their worth and abilities. Secondly, it is a choice. Otherwise it would simply be humiliation. And thirdly, it is social, as it’s shown in putting others before yourself.
John argues persuasively that humility is a necessary ingredient to truly successful leadership. He demonstrates that it’s common sense to cultivate humility in our personal and professional dealings with others. He highlights the aesthetics of humility, not as an ornament to be worn, but as an inner virtue that is attractive to others. The historian in John comes to the fore as he reveals how humility wasn’t always a prized virtue in the ancient world. In fact, self-congratulation and boasting (that would often be despised today) was much more common and accepted in the ancient world. However, something happened to change this perspective, such that humility is widely recognised as a beautiful and desirable virtue today.
John presents a strong case for the impact of Jesus changing people’s perspective on humility in the first century. Mind you, he argues as a historian, and not as a preacher, Christian apologist or evangelist. This is not to say that Christians have a monopoly on humility – they certainly don’t! He writes…
My point is not that Christians alone can be humble; rather, as a plain historical statement, humility came to be valued in Western culture as result of Christianity’s dismantling of the all-pervasive honour-shame paradigm of the ancient world.
Put another way, while we certainly don’t need to follow Christ to appreciate humility or to be humble, it is unlikely that any of us would aspire to this virtue were it not for the historical impact of his crucifixion on art, literature, ethics, law and philosophy. Our culture remains cruciform, long after it stopped being Christian. (p112)
The latter chapters of the book reveal the some of the practical benefits of humility for life, love and leadership. I will simply refer to the chapter headings to highlight the trajectory of his arguments:
Chapter 7 – Growth: Why humility generates abilities.
Chapter 8 – Persuasion: How character determines influence.
Chapter 9 – Inspiration: How humility lifts those around us.
Chapter 10 – Harmony: Why humility is better than “tolerance”.
Chapter 11 – Steps: How it’s possible to become (more) humble.
I was anxious to dip into the final chapter and come away with some tips on becoming (more) humble! Something I need, I’m afraid to say – in fact, we probably all do. John leaves us with six thoughts to consider. Firstly, we are shaped by what we love. If humility doesn’t appeal, then we are hardly likely to become very humble. Secondly, reflect on the lives of the humble. Jesus, is undisputedly humble and reading the New Testament Gospels offers an excellent insight into humility in action. And, John mentions other more recent examples, people such as Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, along with some notorious counter-examples! Thirdly, John suggests conducting thought experiments to enhance humility. Perhaps, another way to put this is, is to exercise our empathy muscles, so as to consider how we will relate with others in advance. Fourthy, act humbly. This doesn’t mean we should pretend. Faking it would hardly count as humility! Rather, humility becomes easier and a more natural response the more we put it into practice. Fifthly, he suggests we invite criticism. It’s not easy, and we won’t do it naturally, but seeking feedback from people you respect and trust is very worthwhile. And sixthly, forget about being humble. He quotes C.S. Lewis on this point:
If anyone would like to acquire humility… the first step is to realise that one is proud. (p183)
I found myself wanting to add another thought to this list. Pray. God wants to transform us into the likeness of his son, Jesus. The Bible teaches that to become more and more like Jesus involves becoming increasingly humble. So I recommend we ask God to grow an attitude of humility within us. In fact, I must confess to often praying something like: Dear God, please make me more humble, but without humiliating me. A dangerous prayer, perhaps!
This is a helpful book. It’s not a religious book, and it should appeal to people of many walks of life, cultural contexts, and different philosophical and religious persuasions. It’s a book I would recommend or offer to others, especially those in positions of leadership. As a Christian it whet my appetite to learn more of what God says about humility. To look more closely at the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, and what others have said about him, inside and outside the Bible (especially in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians). In fact, I would like to see a follow up or addendum to Humilitas. Perhaps John could produce a study guide, or discussion questions, or a specifically Christian booklet, that would take us deeper into the the Bible’s teaching on this important topic.