5 min read

Humility is just plain weird

Can leaders be humble?

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

The Pope, wearing white, kneels, crades a bare foot, and kisses it.
Pope Francis kisses the foot of a woman inmate of the Rebibbia prison.
Vatican Media.

Last week I met the Pope. You don’t often get to write a sentence like that but despite the shameless name-dropping, I mention it because it got me thinking about something that shed light on our political and social life.  

It wasn’t just me and him. I was with a group of Anglican bishops and Archbishops and we had an hour with Pope Francis in one of the grand reception rooms in the Vatican. When you enter the Vatican, you can’t but be impressed by the sheer grandeur and size of the place. Long corridors with statues and huge windows, large reception rooms with elaborate frescoes of biblical scenes, Swiss guards with their brightly coloured uniforms saluting as you walk past.  

The grandeur is perhaps not surprising, and perhaps even modest for an institution that that has 1.4 billion followers – that’s about the population of China – and one of the greatest patrons of the arts in western history.  

We filed into a long elaborately painted room with marble floor, and decorated ceiling, took our seats and waited. Finally, a frail, white-robed figure hobbled in, aided by attendants in suits and white bowties. Pope Francis was a bit unsteady on his legs, but sharp, mentally alert, and with a smile that broke out over his face from time to time. 

If the Vatican felt like the palace of an ancient city state, the headquarters of a global network, like the Kremlin or the headquarters of Google, something else felt very different. The difference was brought to mind by a picture I saw a few weeks ago. 

... but Rishi Sunak or Donald Trump kissing blistered, calloused, guilty feet? Hardly. This was a display of humility that stood out as plainly weird. 

Just before Easter, the Pope went to prison. In case you are wondering how you missed this extraordinary story, it wasn't of course that he had been convicted of some terrible crime, but on this occasion, he went to visit the Rebibbia prison in Rome. While there, the 87-year-old, increasingly frail pontiff, stepped out of his wheelchair, and bent down to wash the bare feet of twelve women prisoners, many of whom were in tears as he did so. There is an extraordinary picture of him with his eyes closed, kissing the right foot of one of the women, clothed in her grey prison tracksuit trousers, as if it was him who had the privilege in the encounter and not her.  

When I saw this picture, it struck me how truly extraordinary this action was.  Here is the leader of the world’s 1.4 billion Catholics, performing an act of such staggering…. well, meekness, is the only word I can find for it - kissing the sweaty feet of criminal women, feet that had presumably led them into decidedly questionable places in the past, while doing so not reluctantly but gladly, thinking this was the most wonderful thing he could ever do.  

I tried to imagine the residents of other grand buildings - the American president, the UK's Prime Minister, the leader of the European Union, the President of China, or the CEO of Google doing something similar. And couldn't. I could imagine politicians visiting a homeless centre to dole out food for the social media coverage, but Rishi Sunak or Donald Trump kissing blistered, calloused, guilty feet? Hardly. This was a display of humility that stood out as plainly weird.  

If I had been the Creator of all that exists, I would have made sure that the credit went where it deserved. Yet the world around us has precious few explicit reminders of God.

Yet was not entirely surprising, because humility is a distinctly Christian virtue. The Greeks were decidedly lukewarm about it. Aristotle wrote: “With regard to honour and dishonour the mean is proper pride, the excess is known as a sort of ‘empty vanity’, and the deficiency is undue humility…” Humility was appropriate for slaves but not for noble-born people, certainly not for political leaders, leaders of multinational giants – or popes for that matter.  

Yet Christians have always valued humility. One of the New Testament writers says: “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” So why does God show favour to the humble? 

The answer is, I think, surprising. It is not that God is majestic and demands humility from us measly creatures. It is that, in the Christian understanding, God is humble. Even though he appears to have not that much to be humble about. If the phrase that captures the understanding of Allah in Islam is ‘God is Great’, the main claim of Christianity is that ’God is Love’. And love cannot be proud or arrogant. It has to be humble. 

The God Christians believe in doesn’t draw attention to himself, and doesn’t shout about his own qualities. Instead, he leaves it to others to do that for him. That fits with the way the world is made. If I had been the Creator of all that exists, I would have made sure that the credit went where it deserved. Yet the world around us has precious few explicit reminders of God. There is no signature written in the sky, billboards or flashing neon lights saying ‘Made by God, just for YOU!’. In fact it is quite possible to go through life and completely miss God altogether.  

If there is a God, he seems oddly reticent, unwilling to advertise his existence, or as the prophet Isaiah put it, perhaps in a moment of frustration many centuries ago, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” This theme, of the ‘hidden God’ has fascinated theologians and philosophers from St Paul to Martin Luther, from Blaise Pascal to Søren Kierkegaard.  

Even when God does reveal himself, in the arrival on the human scene of Jesus Christ, even then he is oddly hidden. Jesus was perplexingly reluctant to identify himself as God. He didn’t by and large go around saying “Look at me, I am divine!” It was possible to meet Jesus of Nazareth face to face and go away thinking he was just another Jewish rabbi or teacher. In fact, he was more likely to be found acting out the role of a servant, washing the feet of his friends, providing them with food, living a wandering homeless existence, dying on a criminal’s cross, than doing important things like wearing robes, exerting political power or living in palaces.  Nowhere does God appear to us unmistakably. He is not an in-your-face kind of God. He seems, odd though it is to say it, quite shy. Or perhaps the best word is simply: humble.   

So what the Pope did in that Italian prison may have been unlike any other ruler. Yet on another level it was just like the ultimate ruler of all things.  

7 min read

The difference between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali 

How we decide what is true rests on where we start from.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A man and woman speaker on a stage greet and embrace each other.
Friends reunited.

If you want a deep dive into some of the big questions of our time, and a fascinating clash of minds, just listen to the recent conversation between Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  

In case you haven’t heard the story, as a young Somali-Dutch woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was drawn into Islamist militancy, then moved out of those circles to become a poster-child of the New Atheist movement, often mentioned in the same breath as the famous ‘four horsemen’ of the movement – Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. When she announced she had become a Christian (or, as she described herself, a ‘lapsed atheist’) in November 2023, it sent shock waves through atheist ranks. A public meeting with her old friend Richard Dawkins was therefore eagerly anticipated. 

As the conversation began, Ali described a period in the recent past when she experienced severe and prolonged depression, which led her even to the point of contemplating suicide. No amount of scientific-based reasoning or psychological treatment was able to help, until she went to see a therapist who diagnosed her problem as not so much mental or physical but spiritual - it was what she called a ‘spiritual bankruptcy’. She recommended that Hirsi Ali might as well try prayer. And so began her conversion. 

Of course, Dawkins was incredulous. He started out assuming that she had only had a conversion to a ‘political Christianity’, seeing the usefulness of her new faith as a bulwark against Islam, or as a comforting myth in tough times, because, surely, an intelligent person like her could not possibly believe all the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that vicars preach from the pulpit. 

He was then somewhat taken aback by Ali’s confession that she did choose to believe the reality of the incarnation, that Jesus was the divine Son of God born of a virgin and that for a God who created the world, resurrecting his Son Jesus was no big deal. With a rueful shake of the head, Dawkins had to admit she was, to his great disappointment, a proper Christian.  

Yet he was insistent he didn’t believe a word of it. The nub of the issue for Dawkins seemed to be his objection to the idea of ‘sin’. For him, all this is “obvious nonsense, theological bullshit… the idea that humanity is born in sin, and has to be cured of sin by Jesus being crucified… is a morally very unpleasant idea.”  

Of course it’s unpleasant. Crucifixions generally were. It’s where we get our word excruciating from. And from the perspective of someone who has no sense whatsoever that they need saving, it is distasteful, embarrassing, not the kind of thing that you bring up in Oxford Senior Common Rooms, precisely because it is just that – unpleasant. I too find the notion that I am sinful, stubborn, deeply flawed, in desperate need of forgiveness and change unpleasant. I would much rather think I am fine as I am. Yet there are many things that are unpleasant but necessary - like surgery. Or changing dirty nappies. Or having to admit you are addicted to something. 

And that is ultimately the difference between Dawkins and Ali. They are both as clever as each other; they have both read the same books; they both live similar lives; they know the same people. Yet Ayaan has been to a place where she knew she needed help, a help that no human being can provide, whereas Richard, it seems, has not.  

It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature. 

Dawkins responded to Ali’s story by insisting that the vital question was whether Christianity was true, not whether it was consoling, pointing out that just because something is comforting does not mean it is true. True enough, but then it doesn’t mean it is not true either. The problem is, however, how we decide whether it is true. Dawkins seems to continue to think that science - test tubes, experiments and the rest - can tell one way or the other. Yet as the great Blaise Pascal put it: 

If there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, being invisible and without limits he bears no relation to us. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is or whether he is. 

Science can’t really help us here. It is like trying to measure the temperature of a summer’s day with a spanner. Spanners are useful, but not for measuring temperature.  

Whether Christianity makes sense or not cannot be determined by asking whether it is scientifically plausible or logically coherent – because that all depends on which scientific or logical scheme you are using to analyse it. It is all to do with the place from which you look at it, your ‘epistemic perspective’ to give it a fancy name. From the perspective of the strong, the super-confident, the sure-of-themselves, Christianity has never made much sense. When St Paul tried to explain it to the sophisticated first century pagans of Corinth – he concluded the same - it was ‘foolishness to the Greeks’.  

Christianity makes no sense to someone who has not the slightest sense of their own need for something beyond themselves, someone who has not yet reached the end of their own resources, someone who has never experienced that frustrating tug in the other direction, that barrier which stands in the way when trying and failing to be a better version of themselves – that thing Christians call ‘sin’.  

Why would you need a saviour if you don’t need saving? Would you even be able to recognise one when they came along? No amount of brilliant argument can convince the self-satisfied that a message centred on a man who is supposed to be God at the same, time, much less that same man hanging on a cross, is the most important news in the world. It is why Christianity continues to flourish in poorer than more affluent parts of the world, or at least in places where human need is closer to the surface. 

She found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her.

The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn described what he called ‘paradigm shifts’. They happen when a big scientific theory of the way things are gets stretched to breaking point, and people increasingly feel it no longer functions adequately as an explanation of the evidence at hand. It creaks at the seams, until an entirely new paradigm comes along that better explains the phenomena you are studying. The classic example was the shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, which was not a small shift within an existing paradigm, but a wholesale change to a completely new way of looking at the world.  

That is what Christians call conversion. This is what seems to have happened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. What marks her out from Dawkins is not that she has found a crutch to lean on, whereas he is mentally stronger, so doesn’t need one. It is that she found the atheist paradigm that she used to believe, and that Dawkins still does, was no longer adequate for her – it no longer could offer the kind of framework of mind and heart that could support her in moments of despair as well as in joy. It no longer made sense of her experience of life. It could no longer offer the kind of framework that can resist some of the great cultural challenges of the day. This was not the addition of a belief in God to an existing rationalist mindset. It was adopting a whole new starting point for looking at the world. When she first announced her conversion she wrote: “I ultimately found life without any spiritual solace unendurable — indeed very nearly self-destructive. Atheism failed to answer a simple question: what is the meaning and purpose of life?” This is a classic paradigm shift.  

Of course, Dawkins can’t see this. He is still in the old paradigm, one that still makes perfect sense to him. It’s just that he thinks it must make sense to everyone. It is surely the one that all right-thinking people should take.  

As the conversation continued, Ayaan Hirsi Ali often seemed like someone trying to describe the smell of coffee to someone without a sense of smell. Dawkins in turn was like a colourblind person deriding someone for trying to describe the difference between turquoise and pink, because of course, anyone with any sense knows there is no real difference between them.  

No amount of proof or evidence will ever convince either that the other is wrong. They are using different methods to discover the truth, one more analytical and scientific, the other more personal and instinctive. The question is: which one gets you to the heart of things? It’s decision every one of us has to make.