I’ve been at Calvin College for the last few days, participating in a conference called “Teaching, Learning, and Christian Practices.” Like many such gatherings, it’s been a time to reconnect with old friends and to make new ones. The plenary sessions and paper presentations have been stimulating, especially the keynote talk by Paul Griffiths called “From Curiosity to Studiousness: Catechizing the Appetite for Knowledge.” (Griffiths has a marvelous essay in the current print edition of The Christian Century, the first in a renewed series called “How My Mind Has Changed”).

I presented a paper yesterday entitled “Friendship, Humility, and Fidelity to Place: Community Gardening as Moral Formation.” Here’s an excerpt:

If our media-driven, technology-obsessed culture does not encourage friendship with the earth, neither does it foster humility. We may say that we admire those who display the virtue of humility but we are more inclined to respect and reward gross assertiveness, even full-on braggadocio. These are the qualities we associate with “winners” – whether they be American Idol contestants or the superstar pastor/preacher who will bring the church growth and success we desperately desire. Humility, in our contemporary culture’s lexicon, has come to denote passivity and to mean something like low self-esteem, even self-abnegation. Humble people are often doormats, we think, and we don’t want to be – nor do we want our children to become – doormats.

 But humility, of course, is something else altogether. For Aquinas, humility is that virtue (along with magnanimity) which helps persons to negotiate the extremes of hope and despair in pursuit of a difficult good. It is a practice of discernment that avoids overestimation, allowing one to know who she is before the sovereignty of God . . .  Aquinas and others have much to say about the virtue of humility, but for our purposes we can take Aquinas’ insights and carry them back to the linguistic origins of the word itself: Humility, from humus or soil, is down-to-earth wisdom. It is that low-to-the-ground vantage point which allows for self-knowledge, for revelation, for the possibility that the truth will make itself known.   

For gardeners, humility is a bodily practice conferring knowledge of our deep and abiding connection to the soil from which we came and to which we will return. Orthodox theologian and gardener, Vigen Guroian, describes this kind of humility:

When I garden, earth and earthworm pass between my fingers and I realize that I am made of the same stuff. When I pinch the cucumber vine and the water drips from capillaries to soil, I can feel the blood coursing through my body. [The human being] is a microcosm in whose flesh resonates and reverberates the pulse of the whole creation . . .[1]

 When we live low to the ground in this way, we are able to ask questions like: “Can great power or great wealth be kind to small places?”[2] Or “how much, in this culture of obscene excess, is enough?” Practicing humility is a form of bearing witness against all forms of cultural arrogance and against the seductions that continually tempt churches toward bigger, better, faster: bigger membership rolls, better programs to attract newcomers, faster forms of initiating and habituating persons into the life of Christian community.

Humility – especially the humility learned and practiced in a garden – knows that the harvest of seeds planted in the spring is a long time coming; that there are no shortcuts (and no guarantees); that discipleship is for the long haul.  

[1] Vigen Guroian, Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening (William B. Eerdmans, 1999), 7.

[2] Wendell Berry, The Way of Ignorance (Counterpoint, 2006), 70.