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On Hubris and Humility

Political conventions are seldom venues for honest acknowledgment of complexity, limit, or ambiguity.  While outgoing and former leaders are allowed some honest acknowledgment of limits, certainty and confidence are the order of the day for the candidates of the hour.  Rarely will you hear a speaker admit this truth:  “The problems we face are complicated and incredibly difficult to solve.  We will make progress, but we will not fix everything.  We know some of what the future holds, but there will be surprises. Some of them will be very unpleasant.  Firm convictions today will shift dramatically in the face of unforeseen realities tomorrow.  Not everything is in our control.  We will do the best we can, but we will make mistakes.”  Uh, no.

Those with great ambition, of course, are rarely burdened with self-doubt.  This allows them to accomplish big things.  It also leads to enormous catastrophe born of hubris.  I thought of this during a recent vacation in Quebec, Canada.  At the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula on the mouth of the St. Lawrence River is the place where the French explorer Jacques Cartier planted a cross to claim the new land for France in 1534.  Today a moving monument stands near that place testifying to both the enormous daring and courage involved in such a voyage of discovery, as well as to the human and cultural destruction that ensued.  The powerful piece of sculpture does not turn from the profound ambiguity of this historical event.  Confidence not only in his navigational and seafaring abilities, but also in the absolute superiority of the European race and the Christian faith led to centuries of devastation of First Nations people. 

Cartier, of course, did not set out to destroy the first inhabitants of North America.  He set out to improve them.  Unexamined was the inherent racism involved in that project, not to mention the dangers of diseases brought across the ocean and the rapaciousness of traders intent on controlling the rich resources of the continent for themselves and their patrons.  The unintended consequences of unbridled self-confidence were enormous.

Standing near the Gulf of St. Lawrence he explored and in the shadow of the sculpture that bore witness to the inauguration of this painful history, I thought of another monument near where I live and work in Chicago.  This sculpture, “Nuclear Energy,” created by the artist Henry Moore in 1967, stands over the spot on the campus of the University of Chicago where, in 1942, Enrico Fermi and his team conducted the first controlled nuclear reaction.

This successful experiment represented an unparalleled intellectual and organizational achievement.  But even on the day of the successful reaction, the scientists who had worked so hard to achieve this breakthrough wondered as they celebrated over the bottle of Chianti Fermi had brought for the occasion:  “Even though our hearts were by no means light when we sipped our wine around Fermi’s pile, our fears were undefined, like the vague apprehension of a man who has done something bigger than he had ever expected to do.”

To ponder Moore’s sculpture, of course, is not only to remember scientific achievement.  It is to remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Cold War, and the continued presence in our world of enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and Chernobyl and Fukushima.  Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler reminded us years ago that “annihilating power is in nervous and passionate hands.  The stuff is really there to incinerate the earth – and the certainty that it will not be used is not there.”  What was true when he wrote these words remains true today.

Writing in the context of the Cold War and the struggle between democracy and the totalizing ideology of the Soviet system, Reinhold Niebuhr warned against leadership that fails to recognize the ambiguities of history:

“There is. . . , even in a conflict with a foe with whom we have little in common the possibility and necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of the awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities; to a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities; and to a sense of gratitude for the divine mercies which are promised to those who humble themselves.”  (The Irony of American History, 1952)

The projection of one’s face in enormous proportions before an adoring crowd inevitably invites hubris.  Let’s hope that when the conventions and the rallies are over the winning candidate will be able to see in the private mirror the face of one who can still recognize human limits and humbly acknowledge the inevitability of unintended consequences that flow from even the most noble sounding endeavor.

                                                                                                John H. Thomas

                                                                                                July 28, 2016

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