The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the oldest continuously-used church building in the world. It dates from the fourth century, when Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother visited the Holy Lands to identify locations from the life of Jesus for pilgrimage destinations and church sites. From a distance, the point of entry to the church is not obvious, particularly when the area is crowded with pilgrims and tourists, as Manger Square often is.
In Crusader times, the large church door was lowered to reduce the risks of attack, particularly from marauders on horseback, then lowered again to its present dimensions. The outlines of the former doorways remain visible in the perpetually makeshift stonework above. Currently only able to admit one person at a time and the top of the doorway only reaching chest height, it is known as the “door of humility” as everyone entering the church must bow simply to get through the door.
In a sense, this is what we do whenever we engage with a formulation or tradition of faith. We submit ourselves to a selection of understandings and practices, history and community, and some kind of Higher Power, Purpose or Personality.
These function as a “door of humility”, offering us the opportunity to bow to something larger than ourselves, recognising that we are not the centre of the story. The practices and disciplines of faith are calling us to a humbler way of living.
This is important because humility itself is a slippery kind of virtue. Trying to conjure humility for its own sake is a frustrating quest. Whenever we notice progress toward humility, we are tempted to be proud of that achievement—and that progress evaporates, possibly even leaving us less humble than where we began.
Christian author C S Lewis pointed out that we often get humility the wrong way around, thinking “that humility means pretty women trying to believe that they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools.” Of course, this kind of self-talk fails the test of basic truthfulness, but, more significantly, the focus remains on ourselves. Thus, the need for a “door of humility”—something beyond ourselves, perhaps even beyond our culture, that causes us to bow by way of entry.
While often felt and held personally, faith engages us with ideas, beliefs and practices that are outside ourselves. Most faiths are founded in old stories or revered scriptures that usually stand in contrast with and critique of much of our contemporary lives and cultures.
Such strangeness challenges the assumptions we have grown up with and unconsciously imbibed from the voices that surround us. These ancient but enduring ideas offer a different lens through which to see our world and question what we would otherwise automatically accept as most valuable, good and true.
Belying our hyper-individualism and sense of self-sufficiency in the West, faith also pushes us into community, necessarily engaging fellow seekers and believers as well as the generations of the faithful who have believed before us. We realise that we are by no means the first to ask the big questions about life and death, meaning and purpose.
And for all our supposed sophistication and technology, it is unlikely that we will discover answers that are dramatically different from faith that has been held in diverse places and times in the past or in many other places around us today. Indeed, we might well have lost some of the vital elements of historic faith and can learn from our fellow faithful in different contexts today.
By definition, faith also (and always) invites—or compels—us to encounter a Higher Power, Purpose or Personality, something so wholly other as to transcend our grasp, understanding or control. This reality dwarfs our individual lives and helps us recognise our common lot with our fellow human beings. It also asks us to acknowledge the limits of our knowledge.
Faith offers a glimpse of a reality in which we might play a small part, but which will always be so much larger than us. The best of our faith is an admission that, as the apostle Paul confessed, “we know only in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9). Our faith is both the bridge that spans our unknowing, and the motivation for the journey toward greater knowledge of the ultimate Reality we seek, that we might even have heard calling to us.
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Too often in our world, in history and even in churches and other venues in which faith is practised, faith has been contorted to make us proud. When this is the case, we are no longer talking about faith, but a kind of religious-cloaked power that too easily paves the way for oppression, exploitation and abuse.
Entering into the project of faith requires a posture of humility and, even as the space opens out much larger on the other side of the door, we cannot afford to forget that we begin—and we continue—by submitting ourselves and our lives to an idea, a story, a purpose and perhaps a Personality that is so much larger than we are. The authentic practice and progress of faith must always bring us back to that small doorway into this larger reality.
Humility is not about trying to believe things that we know to be untrue, it is being truthful about what we don’t know. True humility comes with looking away from and outside of ourselves. As such, humility is the doorway to faith. And if faith is not humble, it is not faith.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.