The Immanent Frame offers a welcome reflection on humility at a time when passionate arrogance rules so much of political life in the United States. Yet the series’ focus on religious conviction may seem odd when religious intolerance has eroded trust in traditional religion to such a degree that some scholars have attributed to it the historic increase in “religious nones.” How might we think about political passion and religious conviction in ways that can foster healthy humility and thus democratic renewal? Paradoxically, in answering this question about humility, “confidence” will be a central concept.
I do not argue that anything inherent in religious belief—in any tradition—predisposes believers toward authentic humility in their personal or public lives. We have plenty of evidence against that—as well as contemporary evidence that nonbelievers are equally capable of sheer public arrogance. However, I argue here that when it is embodied in particular kinds of spiritual practices, religious conviction can foster the intellectual humility appropriate for public life. My case will rely on ideas about religious practices, religious conversion, and the nature of human passion drawn from philosophy, theology, and social theory.
Because the very foundations of democracy face such risks today, humility alone is an inadequate focus. So I write here not only about humility but also about confidence: the conviction, audacity, and courage required for deep democratic reform. When does religious commitment shape believers toward the balance of confidence and intellectual humility required for vigorous engagement in democratic public life?
My answer begins in an observation from my work in universities and faith-based community organizing settings in the United States and, previously, in grassroots movements struggling for social justice in Latin America: Such a balance does not arise from spiritual caution. Caution seems only to lead to bloodless intellectualism. Those who most embody conviction and humility live given over to passionate engagement with ideas and with ending real-world suffering, fused at a profound level such that ideas and society, thinking and compassion, intellectual work and the spiritual life, have achieved a dynamic balance. In such a life, conviction, humility, and confidence feed one another and drive public involvement.
In Passion: An Essay on Personality, the Brazilian humanist and social theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger helps us think about passion. Unger operates within the modernist and Christian/Romantic fonts of Western thought, both of which are skeptical regarding passion, but he nonetheless argues that only full engagement with the deep emotional drives of the human person—anger, desire, fear, hatred, despair, and ultimately love—allows our lives and theoretical frameworks to encompass the fullness of human aspirations. Without those passions, our lives and our intellectual analysis fall victim to the extant institutions that are too inflexible to undergird our aspirations. In this view, the passions are not—or at least not simply, or only—a constraint on our ability to think rationally or a threat to our capacity for a moral view. The passions also undergird our capacity for engagement with the world, our compassion for those not like us, and our ability to act to change the institutional contexts of our lives.
Of course, the passions untamed may indeed impose the kind of constraint on rationality and the threat to morality that are feared by more rationalist understandings of the human person. Our passions can be manipulated with extraordinary success for anti-democratic ends, including by “nudges” from subtly coercive advertising driven by consumer sales, data analytics, or hostile political interests.
Among the better firewalls against such manipulation are what the philosopher Albert Borgmann has termed “focal practices” (1984, 1992). By focal practices, Borgmann means practices that focus the self but are “socially embedded” and characterized by the active interplay of means and ends. Focal practices—such as “the culture of the table,” i.e., food preparation linked to shared dining; fly-fishing and other deep encounters with nature; reading; and live music—occur within the context of broader relationships (either social relationships or ecological relationships with the natural world), yet focus the self in ways that ground a person and protect against manipulation by technology. In a sense, focal practices reprise or even ritualize the self-society relationship.
Note an irony embedded in all such focal practices. In one sense, the self who engages in shared food, the beauty of nature, or compelling music is made larger by the experience: the self is transcended, a person connected to something beyond the self. Yet that very transcendence also implies a certain submission of the self. As one participant in a table conversation in which all have voice; as one part of an ecology more complex than we are; as yearning toward yet never quite glimpsing the beauty expressed in music—all these require the practitioner to submit to something greater than the self. This transcendence-and-yet-submission will be important for my argument regarding the confidence and humility required in democratic public life.
Religious belief alone does not shape this kind of transcendence-and-submission, but religious practices can. In asserting religious disciplines as focal practices, I follow Borgmann himself, who included the Christian practice of communion among his examples. But surely Buddhist meditation, Catholic contemplative prayer or Eucharistic spirituality, Jewish Torah study, Hindu yogic practices, and the ritual submission to Allah within Islam can all constitute religiously-grounded focal practices (as might myriad examples from other traditions).
The theology of conversion developed by Jesuit theologian Donald Gelpi (1976, 1982, 2009) provides a framework for understanding how religious disciplines as focal practices may shape transcendence-and-submission. Gelpi sought to shed all foundations for theology in previous philosophical systems, and to re-ground Christian theology in the American Pragmatist thinking of Josiah Royce and C. S. Pierce. The Dominican John Markey (2014) has recently popularized Gelpi’s pragmatist model of conversion. In Gelpi’s model, conversion is not a one-time event whereby one’s soul is saved, as in some versions of evangelical Christianity. Rather, the religious believer is called to an ongoing, indeed probably lifelong, process of deepening conversion across four realms of personhood: the religious, affective, intellectual, and moral spheres. Development into full human maturity involves the cross-fertilization of deepening responsibility for the self in each of those spheres, as the person embraces adult responsibility for belief, feelings, truth, and right behavior. Over time, that deepening conversion gradually bears fruit in the virtues of faith, hope, commitment to truth, and love.
Crucially for thinking about humility in public life, Gelpi later modified this model of conversion in response to liberation theology: Human persons only experience full conversion if the whole subject undergoing conversion in religious, affective, intellectual, and moral spheres is simultaneously decentered away from a focus on the self. Only such decentering can pull the self beyond narcissism, a kind of false holiness that takes glory in its own spiritual advancement and falls into idolatry of the self. Such decentering, which Gelpi calls “socio-political conversion,” can be articulated (in the liberationist tradition) as a move toward a standpoint that privileges the “marginalized” who live on “the underside of history” (Gutierrez 1973, Sobrino & Ellacuria 1993, Tamez 2006); it can be articulated in the sociological tradition as recognizing that society transcends the individual—and thus conversion involves taking responsibility to work for cultural, institutional, and structural change in society.
This theology of conversion allows me to round out my argument: I suggest that devotion to spiritual disciplines (as focal practices) can generate in the religiously convicted an ongoing process of deepening conversion that tends to shape a particular kind of person. If those practices are linked to religious teachings that embrace democratic norms and institutions and call the individual to public responsibility, the converting self may be driven ever more deeply toward a dynamic balance required for thriving democratic life. On one hand, the spiritual disciplines provide habitual exposure to transcendence; this gives rise to a habitus embodying what I have called. The Western tradition might identify this as trust in the self; some Eastern traditions as a sense of peace with the non-self. Amidst the swirl of public conflict, this self-trust and equanimity produce a kind of centeredness that is read as political confidence.
On the other hand, those same spiritual practices also provide habitual submission to something beyond and greater than the self; this gives rise to a habitus embodying reduced need to stand at the center, and thus openness to other persons and to competing ideas. Such a stance is read politically as humility, and allows one to learn even from political opponents. When mobilized into the public arena via an embrace of the passionate underpinnings of human connection, that stance can drive projects to reimagine and reform our institutional contexts.
In the right political incarnation—in figures such as Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Monsenor Oscar Romero—such projects embody what John Paul II identified as a new religious virtue, especially demanded in the contemporary world: solidarity. John Paul defined solidarity as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good . . . because we are all really responsible for all” (op cit., #38). I offer the phrase “political holiness” as a concept to capture this combination of religiously-grounded humility and confidence, enacted passionately in the public arena, and oriented toward solidarity. Like any pure virtue, political holiness represents an end-point most valuable as an ideal. Today, one might think of the Dalai Lama or Gro Harlem Brundtland (climate change diplomat and the first female prime minister of Norway) as partial embodiments of such political holiness.