Book Review: Reclaiming Humility

RH

Foulcher, Jane. Reclaiming Humility: Four Studies in the Monastic Tradition
Athens, Ohio: Cistercian Publications, 2015. 330p.

Jane Foulcher’s work examines humility in the literature of the Desert Fathers, Benedict of Nursia, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Christian de Chergé. If you have not heard of the last one, he was a French Cistercian in Algeria who along with the 6 other members of the monastery in Tibhirine was kidnapped and martyred in 1993.

The first three studies are what one would expect in such a book—thorough and academically sound. They examine questions like: is humility properly considered a virtue? In her introduction, Foulcher gives a fair overview of the development of humility in both Scripture and Greco-Roman thought. Unfortunately, she omits the intertestamental period and the development of humility in the deuterocanonical books. There is a fair degree of development of the concept of humility to be found—especially in Ecclesiasticus—that she omits.

Foulcher’s examination of the development of humility in relation to Aristotle’s concept of magnanimity provides a counterpoint to those who may be too willing to integrate the Nicomachean Ethics into their thought. Humility was not a virtue for Aristotle. It seems to be antithetical to his idea of greatness.

The book then moves to the Desert Fathers, examining their practice of humility. Through the development of the concept by the fathers, she declares that humility is the foundation of monastic (and indeed all Christian) life and practice.

Foulcher’s treatment of Benedict and his Rule were adequate but lacked the warmth and devotional imperative of Michael Casey’s works.¹ However, the present volume is by an academic and seeks to be an academic treatment, so this is not unexpected.

I found the study on Bernard of Clairvaux illuminating. This may be because of my lack of knowledge about his work in comparison with the Desert Fathers and Benedict. Bernard was the primary leader of the Cistercian reform movement with Benedictine monasticism in the 11th century.

The fourth study on Christian de Chargé feels out of place with the rest of the book. If the author’s goal was to trace the development of humility through Cistercian streams, other exemplars may have served better. The shift in tone in this final study indicates an interest by the author and that perhaps this was the story she really wanted to tell. It could be that the other three studies serve as a prequel and a method of making the treatment a book instead of merely a long article.

While de Chargé and his fellow monks explored and sought to live out humility in a challenging setting, his teaching and actions veer perilously close to syncretism or universalism in relating to their Muslim neighbors. Foulcher seems to be quite taken with this approach, however. I found it reminiscent of Thomas Merton’s later explorations into Buddhism—an unfortunate diversion from Christian faith and practice.

The conclusion of the book further reveals a liberal bias by holding up Barack Obama as an example of humility. To hold up a president who has been one of the most hostile in history to the church and her faith as an example of her crowning virtue is ludicrous. This is an example that is not only untenable, but objectionable. It seems particularly odd that an Australian writer would grasp at such an example.

Overall, Reclaiming Humility raises some important questions for the study of humility and points to valuable source material. However, it falls short of the grand synthesis I had hoped for, and the book is seriously marred by the last 90 pages which take a jarringly liberal turn and cast a shadow over the preceding work.


¹ A Guide to Living in the Truth: St. Benedict’s Teaching on Humility is particularly recommended on this subject. It is a thorough and formative look at the seventh chapter of the Rule of Benedict.

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