By Richard J. Foster. InterVarsity Press, 2022. 192 pages. $25/hardcover; $24.99/eBook.
Learning Humility: A Year of Searching for a Vanishing Virtue is the latest work by Quaker theologian and author Richard J. Foster. This project was Foster’s response to his New Year’s Eve reflection: “Should I give this next year to see what I can learn about humility by study and by experience?” Chapters are organized around the Lakota Moon Calendar, and each centers one of the 12 Lakota virtues: humility, perseverance, respect, honor, love, sacrifice, truth, compassion, bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom. Each chapter begins with spiritual quotes and includes sharings from readings, reflections, and life events, especially grounded in Foster’s engagement with Christianity and his experiences of nature. Foster writes that this year of study and reflection resulted in his deepening both his understanding of the Christian history of humility and his understanding of humility as a spiritual gift.
Foster explains that “[t]he word humility comes from the Latin humilitas, meaning ‘grounded’ or ‘from the earth,’” and he invites readers to connect that root to the idea of humility as a way we might reconnect with the earth and our sense of groundedness. Throughout the book, Foster reflects on the threads between humility and welcoming kindness; “freedom, joy, and holy hilarity”; holy leisure; patience; bravery; and truth. The book is particularly moving when Foster reflects on nature as a teacher of humility. At one point as he gazes upon wildflowers, Foster wonders:
Is the great humility that is in God in some way reflected back in these wonderful wildflowers? I watch as they show forth such brilliance and beauty without any strutting or puffing whatever. . . . In all the glory of these flowers I am taught a bit about the beauty of humility.
Foster’s core message seems to be that we can find inspiration for humility from diverse sources in our lives.
The theme that Foster returns to most frequently is how humility is an important expression of Christian faith. He quotes a good bit of Scripture throughout the book to prove this point. There are some new-to-me passages from Peter and Paul’s epistles that help define humility, as well as some familiar Scripture, including Micah 6:8, which calls us “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Foster also shares the myriad ways in which he is inspired by the acts of humility modeled through Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Specifically, he writes, “Jesus is indeed the divine paradigm for conjugating all the verbs of humility.” He encourages readers to turn to God to cultivate humility in their own lives, sharing: “Humility as a virtue is a grace that is given by God. We participate with God in this grace-filled work by taking up disciplines appropriate for the development of humility.”
As a Quaker, Foster considers both service and silence to be among those disciplines. He also points to the writings of Quakers Thomas Kelly and John Woolman as sources of wisdom in his study of humility. Through his spiritual exploration of humility, Foster agrees with Scottish preacher Andrew Murray that humility is “the best of all the graces and powers of the Spirit.”
Foster makes a strong case for “the enormous value of humility as a central virtue.” He urges readers to be brave, strong, and compassionate enough to learn humility. He believes we can cultivate our humility by nurturing our internal lives. Foster speaks to my condition when he states, “I need to be constantly tending the fire of my soul.” He makes clear that our journey to humility includes trusting that of God within us. He emphasizes that ultimately the best we can do is try, and his book reads as a warm invitation to learn to do just that.
Lauren Brownlee is a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, where she serves on the Ministry and Worship and Peace and Social Justice Committees.