Humility seems to rank fairly low among the secular virtues, but it's at the core of what it means to be religious.
"Believe in God," advises King Benjamin. "Believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend" (Mosiah 4:9).
"Hubris," extreme pride or arrogance, was a major theme in ancient Greek myth and literature, causing the failure of great heroes, and it plays a central role in the biblical story of the tower of Babel.
The early Arab essayist al-Jahiz (d. ca. A.D. 868) tells of a judge who took undue pride in sitting motionless and dignified through legal proceedings. One day, though, pestered beyond endurance by a mere fly, he lost all self-control — and was forced to admit his humble humanity — as he swatted madly at the insect.
But we moderns also need humility.
Back in 1982, my wife's extended family gathered at her parents' home in Denver for a Christmas-season trip to Florida. We participated in a "Messiah" sing-along on Christmas Eve, and I recall laughing, when a few snowflakes began to fall, that we would soon be among Orlando's palm trees.
However, the Christmas Eve Blizzard, as it's known, closed Denver's airport, freeways, non-essential offices, and ordinary daily life for most of a week. We ultimately got out, but later and much chastened. It was humbling to witness a relatively large modern city brought to an utter standstill by snowflakes.
This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic. Some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world were aboard for the maiden voyage of that largest ship ever built; Titanic had been pronounced "practically unsinkable" — yet 1,514 of its passengers died.
Slightly more than two years later, World War I erupted, discrediting widespread 19th-century notions of the inevitability of human progress. Known optimistically for two decades as "The Great War" and even "The War to End All Wars," it would be followed by the Great Depression, and then by the Second World War and the Holocaust.
Ah, but Titanic, for all its sophistication, was still, by 21st century standards, a rather primitive boat. Today, such a disaster is practically unthinkable. Think, then, back to January and the ultramodern Costa Concordia.
The American space program mobilized human ingenuity and technology on an unprecedented scale, with stunning overall success. But many of us remember all too well the sudden deaths of those three astronauts aboard Apollo 1 (1967), and the shock of the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) disasters.
"A greater power than we can contradict hath thwarted our intents," says Shakespeare's Friar Lawrence, when his well-intended plan to help Romeo and Juliet goes disastrously wrong.
But this is the human condition, too common for surprise. In a Brigham Young University lecture last week, Gen. John Abizaid, retired commander of U.S. Central Command, observed that, notwithstanding the best plans, intentions, and technology, there will always be "unforeseen consequences" in any serious military undertaking, some catastrophic. "There is no such thing as a 'surgical strike.'" Moreover, despite the best efforts of the finest medical professionals, we still die. Death isn't an embarrassing occasional failure. It's the universal rule.
As the Apostle Paul acknowledged, even prophets "see through a glass, darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
In 1833, John Henry Newman, a young Anglican priest (and future Catholic cardinal), wrote a poem that we now sing as "Lead, Kindly Light."
In it, Newman acknowledges that, in past years, "pride ruled my will." Now, though, he wishes to place himself humbly in the hands of God:
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.13 comments on this story
Curiously, "Lead, Kindly Light" was sung by a soloist on the Titanic shortly before the ship hit that fatal iceberg.
Faith summons us to be humble, even childlike, and trusting. Indeed, that's what faith is.
"Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord?" asks an angel in Moses 5:6. "I know not," replies Adam, "save the Lord commanded me."
"I know that he loveth his children," Nephi answers another angel (1 Nephi 11:17). "Nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things."
Given our human limitations, this attitude seems simple realism.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at dcpsicetnon.blogspot.com.