Humus and Humility

By John Buckwalter, a member of UUC who preaches from time to time.

Scripture: Philippians 2:1-11

Those who know the Buckwalters well know that we love gardening. I focus on vegetables and trees; Laurel does the flowers. This week I planted garlic and wrapped some young tree trunks to prevent winter damage, and she pulled out dying annuals and trimmed exhausted perennial stalks.

We love the rewards of cooperating with nature, working within its limits to nurture plants to produce beauty and food. We can’t control the seasons, length of day, temperature, rainfall, but we can modify one important factor: the soil. Gardeners learn to get their hands and fingernails dirty and how to work to improve the soil. So, bear with me while I digress a bit into soil science, then connect it to the theme for today!

If you dig a deep hole in the soil, you’ll find that color and texture change with depth. Soil scientists speak of horizons: A, B, and C top down. (Topsoil, Subsoil, Substratum). The action for gardeners, of course, is in the topsoil layer, and is largely due to its inclusion of decaying organic material – in nature, leaves and other dead plant material. In topsoil this material is called humus, and helps the soil stay soft and moist by absorbing and holding water. This makes ideal conditions for seed germination and root penetration.

As humus slowly breaks down it releases many important nutrients needed by plants as they grow, improves drainage (from Alfred clay-based soils), and buffers soil pH, so its presence is a good indicator of soil quality. A good soil is rich in humus. That humus layer is self-perpetuating and even increases in natural systems, as plants die, and their organic material contributes to replacement of the humus that is used by growing plants. Our harvest of plants in agriculture and gardening means that organic material is removed from the cycle and humus is not replaced, and the humus content of the soil slowly decreases, leading to hard, infertile soils.

As gardeners we can make humus by composting – we put kitchen scraps and garden and leaf waste in a pile, keep it moist, and wait. Microbial action breaks it down to a spongy, dark, moisture-retentive crumbly material that is a wonderful soil additive. Animal wastes (manure) from herbivores – like cows, horses, sheep – will also compost into valuable soil additives with time and moisture. Addition of this compost to soil will increase the humus content of the topsoil. Some organic mulches, like chopped leaves and wood chips, in addition to suppressing weed growth, also break down slowly, become part of the humus and so enrich the soil.

I’ve always been fascinated by word origins, especially technical terms that come from non-English sources. I taught biology, a field rich in scientific jargon, and found it helpful for students to know some Greek and Latin roots that are the basis for scientific vocabulary. So, here’s the connection to today’s scripture: humus is the Latin word for rich, fertile soil, and also the root word for human (the creation story tells us that humans were created from the dust of the earth). Our theme word for today, humility, shares the same origin. Humility describes one who is grounded or near to the earth.

We might define humility as freedom from pride or arrogance. I think humility is a neglected Christian virtue, but it should be a defining one. Jesus is our model, and according to today’s scripture, he emptied himself of his divinity, took on the form of a servant and was made in human likeness. His obedient, voluntary death on the cross was the ultimate humility. Another example of his humility at work was washing his disciples’ feet. In his beatitudes he pronounced a special blessing on the poor in spirit and on the meek.

But humility is far from a hallmark of American Christianity. I cringe when I hear some of the public utterances of those who call themselves Christians, especially many in the political realm. Words like arrogant, haughty, and proud come to mind.

What are the characteristics of true humility? In a NY Times Op-Ed piece 4 years ago called The Quiet Power of Humility Peter Wehner, a writer who deals with Christian ethics, mentioned two aspects: moral humility and epistemic humility (epistemic refers to knowledge – how we know).

Moral humility refers to a self-awareness of our shortcomings. We are imperfect persons, with wayward hearts and actions that are tainted by selfish motives. I struggle with brokenness in my life, and I suspect everyone else does, as well. This realization is at the core of Christian doctrine: we have all fallen short, our lives are sometimes a mess, and we are all in need of grace – from God and from each other. This kind of awareness leads to gentleness and empathy, which are marks of a humble spirit.

Epistemic humility is a recognition that our world is tremendously complex, and we can never understand all aspects of how it works. Apostle Paul was showing epistemic humility when he wrote “We see through a glass darkly.” Our comprehension of politics, philosophy, theology, and other areas of knowledge is always subject to further correction and depth of understanding. What we know is always incomplete. If we believe we have all the answers, there’s no point in searching out further information or making an effort to understand those we disagree with. Epistemic humility is marked by tolerance for other points of view and the willingness to alter our own views based on new information and circumstances. It believes in collective wisdom and seeks to learn from others who see the world differently than we do. In the words of a biblical proverb, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

Trying to become humble people, however, is tricky business. Someone said “The proud man can learn humility, but he will be proud of it.” There’s a paradox in trying to avoid pride: we run the risk of being proud of our humility. Trying to be humble keeps the focus on ourselves. Perhaps the key to developing a humble spirit is to focus elsewhere. Author Madelaine L’Engle said, “One cannot be humble and aware of oneself at the same time. Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.”

There another problem with trying to be humble – intentionally putting myself down. This leads to false humility: low self-esteem, inferiority complex, poor self-image, timidity, being overly dependent on others. As CS Lewis said, “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”  (Repeat carefully). True humility is other-focused and is willing to put aside personal preferences.

So how can we “walk humbly with our God” (in the words of Micah 6:8, along with “act justly and love mercy)? I believe the key is to shift our life focus to service: to God and his creation, to the church, and to the needs of others. We can actively look around us and ask: “How can I help in this situation?” I’m reminded of an example of humble service that I saw early in my time at Alfred State – (my department chair and acting dean during time of budgetary cutbacks, no daytime janitor in building. Someone threw up in the stairwell. He went to the janitor’s closet, got the mop and bucket, and went to work cleaning up the stairwell).

Jesus said, “The greatest among you shall be a servant, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Humility is a perpetual goal but can be somewhat elusive – always a little bit out of reach. As we gain the wisdom of experience, we see how much we don’t know and how much we need others to help us. That is also part of humility – accepting the help of others, learning by their example, and allowing them to serve us.

As we come in contact with others in our community, whether they are rich or poor, refugees or immigrants, people of different races, classes, or political persuasions, persons of different faiths, let us remember that we all come from the same soil. We are all made in God’s image and are of equal worth. We are called to recognize this with humility and to be the servant of all in our community.

Let’s bring this back around to our discussion of garden soil:

Wendell Berry had this to say about topsoil: “It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peacableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise.”

A good soil is rich in humus just as a good heart is abundant in humility. Soil without humus is sterile and cannot support life. Without humility, our hearts are hard with pride, dry without love, and lacking the joy that is the reward of a life of service. Humility enriches our collective life for God’s purposes.

How can we practice humility today in our relationship with humanity and with the earth that supports us all?