God’s Humility/Our Humility
I confess I have succumbed to the magic, convenience and speed with which the internet can bring my need to consume right to my doorstep almost instantly. As soon as the algorithm suggests “Something you may be interested in,” just a few clicks and the book or CDs and just about anything else appears. Yet, when I look back over the years of my life, it his most often been those times when I take the time to wander in a bookstore or a record store, finding, picking up, reading a few lines, reading a few liner notes, that has propelled me to purchase a book or some music that has had a lasting impact on my life. Record stores have all but disappeared, and book stores, especially local bookstores, are few and far between. And yet, they are essential to my life, essential to our life, essential to our life together, a life “together” that in part, due to the same internet that has all but obliterated delayed gratification, is also devolving us into further and further isolation and fragmentation from one another and living in community.
Enter The Humility of God by Ilia Delio: a Franciscan Perspective. Just as I found myself pondering for the incalculable umpteenth time these words of Saint Paul in chapter 2 to the Philippians, I came across her book on God’s humility and ours while wandering around St. Bede’s Bookstore: “4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
A God who humbles himself. A God who empties himself. This is the mind we are to have among ourselves. Not individually, but among ourselves: humble and self-emptying. Look not only to our own interests, but those of others. Then these words in the introduction caught my eye and led me to purchase the book: “The humility of God is really about God’s relationship to the world and God’s fidelity to the world even when everything in the world seems to fail.”p 1
In our present circumstances we don’t need to sketch out the myriad ways in which everything in the world seems to be failing: society, politics, the eco-crisis, even the world of sports. All seem to be in free-fall at the same time. We used to turn to ancient wisdom to bear upon our present circumstances and to help us to lean into a better future. Now, however, we are urged by all sorts of cultural messages to abandon the wisdom of God, and now we are even urged to abandon the wisdom of Science as well. An “ethic,” if we can call it that, of individualized go-it-on-your-own “morality” in which your own happiness and achievement is all that matters urges us to look only at the present. This is characterized by fetishizing selfish desires, the need to control and manipulate, and an obsession with knowledge. What the Bible traditionally calls idolatry. Worse still, we have replaced God and Science with political ideologies. If it’s not the apocalyptic violence of Isis it is the Randian Objectivism of unfettered greed, consumption and acquisition of consumer capitalism. There is little or no down-time to browse for books or to simply listen to the universe that lies within.
As the Exodus saga continues to unfold [Exodus 17:1-7], the people who have escaped the Empire of death in Egypt first complain about the food situation and the God of the Exodus provides Manna – note, the economic distribution plan stipulates that each day everyone is to get enough, no one can gather too much, and if you try to gather more than your family needs it rots and putrefies. This is why Jesus teaches to pray for bread that is given daily. Still not trusting that the God who liberated them from slavery AND provided food, it seems, they begin to complain about needing more water. Granted, we should feel some sympathy for them as water is essential to human life, especially in the Sinai wilderness. Yet, the story means to hold a mirror up to us as a nation obsessed with more. This poem from Mary Oliver holds up the same mirror:
This morning the redbird’s eggs
have hatched and already the chicks
are chirping for food. They don’t
know where it’s coming from, they
just keep shouting, “More! More!”
As to anything else, they haven’t
had a single thought. Their eyes
haven’t yet opened, they know nothing
about the sky that’s waiting. Or
the thousands, the millions of trees.
They don’t even know they have wings.
Our insatiable appetites for More! More! have pushed God, Religion and now Science away from the table. The ideologies of More! More! make it impossible to “have this mind among ourselves,” a mind of self-emptying humility that cares for the needs of others, for the neighbor, the stranger, the immigrant, the hungry, the poor, and all those who seem to live their lives on the cross with our Christ.
Then there is the story of two brothers [Matthew 21:23-32]. The father asks the first to go and work in the vineyard today. He says, “I will not.” But later changes his mind and goes. The father asks the second the same. He says, “I go, sir.” But he does not go. Asks Jesus, “Which one does the will of the father?” The chief priests and elders who have tried to trap him with questions about authority answer, “The first!” So proud of themselves! He then tells them that tax collectors and prostitutes who listened to John the Baptist and believed him will go into the kingdom of God “ahead of you” – for “even after you saw [him] you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Evidently, it’s about changing our minds. The one thing we just hate to do. It’s about having minds of self-emptying humility as exampled in the God who bends down to dwell among us – Emmanuel, God with us. A God who empties himself, taking the form of a servant; the God who humbles himself unto death, even death upon a cross so as to stand with the most broken, most isolated, most lost among us. We are mistaken if we think for one moment that Jesus came to save us from the world, for he comes even now to save us for the world and to save the very world itself from us.
Delio asserts that the primacy of such a God of humble self-emptying “did not come because of human sin; rather, from all eternity God willed to love a finite other as a more perfect expression of his love. Jesus would have come, therefore, even if there had been no sin. The meaning of the Incarnation is not about sin, but about the love of God.” p 3
We are meant to realize that God comes among us to heal us and make us healers and peacemakers “for humankind and the earth itself.” To become healers and peacemakers we need to welcome the God of self-emptying humility and science back to the table, back into our everyday lives. Abandoning all futile attempts to get More! More! we can embody such self-emptying humility among ourselves so there will be enough for everyone, not too much for anyone, and the Earth itself shall spring forth in bountiful bread and water to sustain us and renew itself. Science and Religion will be our partners into further uncovering the mysteries of life and how to sustain it while leaning into the future with hope and trust.
Near the end of her book Delio issues a sort of invitation:
When our inner world can welcome a God of humble love, when we can believe that God loves us in our brokenness and incompleteness, our weaknesses, our failings, then we can realize that “that which sustains the universe beyond thought and language and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression is the same thing.” * The source of the universe and the source of our lives is the same source: the unconditional, surrendered free love of a humble God. When we find this source in our own lives then we can find this source at the heart of the universe.
-Ilia Delio, OSF, The Humility of God – p 163
*Yann Martel, The Life of Pi, p 48