A Feature Review of
Learning Humility: A Year of Searching for a Vanishing Virtue
Richard J. Foster
Reviewed by Stephen R. Clark
If you run Richard Foster’s name through a search engine, nearly every bio you surface will include some variation of the phrase, “best known for Celebration of Discipline.” Published in 1978, the book was not an instant bestseller. Through organic word-of-mouth, it crept onto bestseller lists and into the awareness of nearly every Christian then and now. Today, it’s considered a classic, and Christianity Today even included it as one of the top ten books of the century. It’s sold in the millions of copies. Something to be proud of, right?
Richard Foster, a Quaker pastor and founder of Renovaré, a spiritual formation ministry, was 36 when Celebration of Discipline was published. He’s written a few more books since, his most recent being Learning Humility: A Year of Searching for a Vanishing Virtue. He’s now 80.
His new book is a meandering journal sharing Foster’s thoughts and impressions as he considers what humility is in the context of the Christian life. In an interview, he shares that this was actually a three-year mulling process that has been distilled down for the book.
The motivation to create this study in humility came from seeing “narcissism and greed and selfishness dominating the mood of our culture. It just seemed that people everywhere were at each other’s throats,” he writes.
You could say self-centered pride rules. The antidote? Humility! Why? Because, as Foster shares in his book, humility is a primary characteristic of the life of Christ that we should emulate, and it is born from sacrificial service to others. It should be noted that service is one of the key disciplines he addressed in his first book.
Foster explains that “humility comes from the Latin humilitas, meaning ‘grounded’ or ‘from the earth.’ Think of our word humus (earth, soil).” He continues, “Hence with humility we are brought back to earth. We don’t think of ourselves higher than we should.” This idea of being grounded as a key element of humility recurs throughout the book.
We can achieve humility, in part, he says, “by cooperating with the grace of God.” We can discern if we are progressing in humility by reflecting on these four questions:
- Am I genuinely happy when someone else succeeds?
2. Do I have less need to talk about my own accomplishments?
3. Is the inner urge to control or manage others growing less and less in me?
4. Can I genuinely enjoy a conversation without any need or even any desire to dominate what is being said?
He concludes his book with encouragement, ensuring us that growing in humility is a worthy endeavor, and that God is “eager to grow the grace of humility” in us.
Those familiar with Foster’s books may be a little startled by the structure and tone of this one. While there are parts and chapters as usual, the chapters do not embrace specific topics in a linear way. Rather, they weave in and out of the general topic as Foster shares what’s happening in his world as he’s writing. It is a journal. He shares his hiking experiences, encounters with friends, the weather, thoughts on what he’s reading, some history of the Lakotas (a Native American tribe), his skill for building fires, and more, as well as how these influence his meditations on humility.
If you’re looking for a straightforward, step-by-step process for becoming humble, this is not the book for you. In fact, Foster uses the Lakota Moon Calendar to organize his musings, because, he explains, its “intentional rootedness in the natural world is a welcome departure from the scattered patchwork nature of today’s social rhythms.” The structure works well, but may be off-putting to some readers.
He couples the calendar with twelve Lakota virtues, using one virtue as a springboard for each new section, quoting from Lakota resources. However, he is careful to “take issue with the pantheistic strands that can be found in the Lakota teaching,” putting everything solidly in the context of orthodox Christian faith.
The idea of using a journaling process to craft a book on humility developed over time. He muses early on, “I realize these journals could one day become public. Writing on a particular topic while knowing that others might someday read it carries with it an inherent danger…perhaps an inherent contradiction.” He then concludes, “I think I’ll just hold the matter before the Lord for now.”
Frequently throughout the book, Foster includes these “notes to self” kind of statements. It can be a little distracting since he doesn’t always come back later and share a resolution or further insight.
Foster is clear that “Humility as a virtue is a grace that is given by God.” He explains, “We do not come by humility on our own.” Rather, God initiates the process in us, yet “we can prepare for the grace of humility by orienting our will toward God.” And we must do this, he says, “smack in the middle of appointments and phone calls and the multiplied demands of daily life.”
At 80, instead of writing a “how-to” on humility, Foster has given us, a “look-see” example of wrestling with the idea of humility and doing one’s best to live it out in the mundane nitty grittiness of routine existence. This is a book that’s best read slowly, perhaps over the course of a year, to allow the insights shared time to soak in and develop roots.
Stephen R. Clark
Stephen R. Clark is a writer who lives in Lansdale, PA with his wife, BethAnn, where they attend Immanuel Church. His website is www.StephenRayClark.com. He is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and a regular contributor to the Christian Freelance WritersNetwork blog. He has published three volumes of poetry and his writing has appeared in American Bible Society blogs, The Christian Century, Christianity & Literature, and more.
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