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Kendrick Lamar, the Los Angeles based rapper, achieved a feat toward which many artists strive: a #1 Billboard charting hit. What made this hit unique was its subject matter—Humility—a subject not typically associated with rap music. In this song K-Dot (as Kendrick is affectionately known) enjoins other rappers to “sit down, be humble,” all while he raps about the greatness of his own skills. In doing so Kendrick raps humbly.
As a reader, you might be confused why I would say that Kendrick is being humble in this song. In fact, it sounds like he is being prideful! Under one common definition of what humility is, however, such an act would in fact be considered humble. This is the view often called: The Proper Self-Assessment view. According to this view, what it means to be humble is to have proper self-assessment, including proper assessment of one’s strengths and limitations. When it comes to rap, the subject of the song, Kendrick Lamar properly assesses himself as the best rapper currently in the rap scene, and he recognizes the very few rap limitations he has. Thus, if he’s correct in his self-assessment, he can be completely humble even while bragging about his skills. There are, however, other accounts of humility under which such bravado would not count as a humble act. For example, the dependence account of humility, this is the account in which one recognizes oneself as dependent upon others. Or, the limitations owning account, in which one has a willingness to attend to the fact that one is unable to do certain things.
In a recent lecture, Dr. Josh Blander (The Kings College, New York) argued that the standard accounts of humility, like those I just described, are problematic because they may not be compatible with the claim that humility is a divine characteristic. So what is humility in Blander’s view?
HumilityB = A disposition to give little or no regard to perceived status or position for the sake of some good, particularly the highest good, of another.
Blander’s account of humility emphasizes that humility involves a willingness to serve others, especially if they lack or are perceived to lack status or position or some good with which they can reciprocate the act of service that was directed towards them. This account has the benefit, unlike the limitations owning account or the dependence account, that one can ascribe humility to God. (It seems to me that one could ascribe the proper self-assessment view to God, but for some people that might generate some unhappy consequences.)
Setting aside the fact that one might be able to say that God is humble in the traditional account of humility—the proper self-assessment view—Blander highlights an important issue: Divine Humility. Blander’s view, however, is not without some difficulties.
One such worry was raised by a number of seminar participants: Is this view exegetically sound? Blander derives his view primarily from Philippians 2, which the NRSV subtitles “Imitating Christ’s Humility.” So, in one sense, Blander is correct to highlight this passage for his purposes. However, an issue that needs more careful attention is the history of exegesis of this passage. Is this passage’s subject primarily about the Logos asarkos or ensarkos? For Blander’s argument to work, Philippians 2 needs to be about the Logos asarkos, not even the Logos incarnandus. These are issues that need to worked through carefully in order for Blander’s account to be a purely divine virtue.
Another issue that could be raised is that HumilityB is not actually humility; it is just a species of love. In fact, HumilityB nearly perfectly fits two classic texts dealing with God’s love.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
Both of these texts are primarily about God’s love. Both texts highlight God’s willingness to send the Son to die for the good of those who have nothing to offer God, namely sinners. In these two verses, we see that God has the “disposition to give little or no regard to perceived status or position for the sake of some good, particularly the highest good, of another.” What needs to be clarified, in Blander’s account of humility, is why such passages should be seen as exemplifications of humility, rather than love, despite the fact that these passages explicitly state that God’s actions here spring primarily from love.
Despite these two hurdles that Blander’s view faces, the presentation has prompted me to think more carefully about the nature of humility and whether or not we can genuinely speak of God’s humility. For what it’s worth, I am still attracted to the proper self-assessment view. Under this view, Kendrick Lamar, the greatest rapper today, and God, the greatest possible being, can both be humble in recognizing their greatness.
Christopher Woznicki is a PhD student in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He received a MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and a BA in Philosophy from UCLA. Christopher has written several journal and encyclopedia articles on Jonathan Edwards.