The readings today are about humility, and I think it’s true to say that if the Daily Mail were reporting on today’s events at the Senate House and colleges, humility would not be the first word to make it into a headline.
Most of us know what humility is – particularly Christian humility. And many of us might imagine that if the perfect embodiment of Christian humility were to come to – say - a May Ball at Cambridge – he would be so humble, so modest and meek and self-deprecating – in order to convince someone to accompany him, he would need his mother to advertise on Gumtree.
Humility is the most threatening, aggressive, confrontational of Christian virtues – one that tradition has interpreted into its exact opposite. For some, humility is precisely the same as modesty – the refusal to take pride in your own achievements, or the readiness to allow others to walk all over you. For others, humility is the willingness to accept our place within the natural hierarchy of the universe – perfectly expressed by the omitted verse of the hymn, All things bright and beautiful:
The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate.
From the Christendom perspective, humility is the willingness to be content, passive, and not rock the boat. Actually, this is not a long way from the Delphic Maxim, Know Thyself: of course, the phrase, taken from an inscription on Apollo’s temple, is usually taken to refer to some kind of philosophical self-awareness. But this is misleading – and a more sensitive translation that know thyself would be ‘know thy place’ – don’t get too big for your boots – know your limits. Don’t raise yourself to the status of a god, and don’t degenerate into something sub-human. Know your place within the order and economy of the gods.
Seeking to reinterpret humility from a secular humanist perspective, Erik Wielenberg maintains precisely the same logic again by casting humility as the admission since we are who we are only by remarkable cosmological, biological and sociological accident, we should recognise our proper place in the universe. Again, we should know our place.
This is a long way from biblical notions of humility, which are neither passive nor static, but active and presuppose confrontation. Throughout scripture, humility is the capacity to be transformed by one’s encounter with otherness. It presupposes that a person or a situation con-fronts us (comes together to stand over against us), and describes the openness of character that such a confrontation may forge.
Humility in the end, is the confidence, the capacity, to engage genuinely with someone who is genuinely other. If we live in a social or cultural order that requires us to think and act and behave in predetermined ways, humility the ability, and the readiness to subvert that order – it is the capacity to imagine an alternative world, the confidence to
Without a context of dynamic encounter, humility is impossible. It is no abstract character trait or state of being – it is the dynamic, forceful struggle of relating well to otherness, and requires enormous confidence.
That, we would hope, is what the Cambridge MA signifies: that the confidence that many people learn here, academically, socially, personally – is a confidence, a pride that enables us to be ge nuinely open and to engage with the world around us in ways that are fruitful and life-affirming.
Today is a celebration, and a commitment to embody in the world at large, the openness, the confidence, the readiness to engage with otherness that Cambridge as a whole, and that Robinson in particular seeks to encourage.
MA Graduation Thanksgiving Prayers
Loving God, we thank you for all that we celebrate today,
Memories that shape us, make us smile or laugh, or cringe or weep – but that make us who we are.
We thank you for those whose friendship has been formative but whose company we miss.
We thank you for those who have taught us and inspired us and cared for us – those whose influence upon us and commitment to us, we have only come to appreciate after the passing of time.
Opportunities that have opened up and will open up in the future, because of the place where we have studied, the people from whom we have learned, the work we have invested and the work others have invested in us.
For all your blessings, we thank you, Lord.