Most of us don’t really think of ourselves as anthropologists, but we all are. And our anthropology controls much of what we believe about ourselves, each other, and life.
On Sunday night, I heard David Zahl speak. Zahl is the director of Mockingbird Ministries and editor-in-chief of the Mockingbird website. He is the author of Low Anthropology: The Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Yourself (and Others). You may remember from school that anthropology is the systematic study of humanity, focusing on our origins, what makes us distinctly human, and the diversity of our species over time and place. It’s really those ideas of our origin and nature that impact us all in similar ways (although diversity plays an important part, as well).
If anthropology seems like a dry, irrelevant subject, having little connection to how you live your life, then ask yourself these questions? Why do so many people (maybe you included) struggle with burnout? Why is it that no matter how hard you try, you just don’t seem to meet the standard you’ve set for yourself, or you feel others have set for you, as a mother, wife, husband, or father? Why are kids all over the country at private high schools considered at-risk kids for depression and anxiety? And, why, despite the fact that we live in what is the most prosperous culture across the board in the history of humanity, is there as much or more discontent and hopelessness with our plight than ever before?
The answer to all these questions lies in anthropology, what we believe about ourselves as humans.
God’s Word is the basis of all truth, and last week I said that it told a fundamental story. We’re a people of story, a people of that story. That story, the Great Metanarrative of Scripture, tells us that we were made in God’s image, perfectly formed, to live in full community of God and to be aligned with his heart, his mind, and his will. We disobeyed God, fell into rebellion from him, and the result is that a fundamental propensity toward brokenness and sin entered our hearts.
Paul tells us in Romans 1 that God’s wrath is revealed on all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people, that all suppress the truth. God has shown us what is true, through nature and the world around us. Yet, we deny and suppress that truth. Instead of living in keeping with what God calls true, we live according to lies, the lies of our new father, God’s enemy and ours, the devil. And, we live lives that are in rebellion to God.
This is our basic human nature after the fall. Theologians call this view of humans in light of sin total depravity, and it means we’re completely and relationally separated from God by sin. It doesn’t mean we’re as evil as we could possibly be, because we still bear the image of God. Even babies are born innocent in a sense, and can choose good. But, as G.K. Chesterton humorously said, the doctrine of total depravity is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically proven, simply by looking at the world around us. Although babies can choose to do good, two-year-olds are routinely selfish, inherently making choices in their best interests at the expense of those around them.
And, we don’t really grow out of it much, do we? Even though most of us develop a veneer of respectability and courtesy, we’re still self-focused. The great Reformer John Calvin famously said that the heart and mind of man is a perpetual forge of idols, and the greatest idol is ourselves. We are constantly working through our human nature to elevate ourselves.
This means that, even though we may be Christians, redeemed by the blood of Christ and given a new heart and mind, we still struggle with the old self. We’re still capable of being deceived by the father of lies. And, one of these ways we’re most often deceived is by getting our anthropology, our sense of who we are, our nature, wrong. And, it leads to burnout, and being incredibly and unnecessarily hard on ourselves and others, all to our great harm.
Here’s how this works: a “high” anthropology is an elevated view of humans. We are the center of our universe, with the ability to be perfect, or much closer to perfect than we currently are, if we will just try harder, work more, do better, or if we were just smarter, prettier, wealthier, or better-connected. A high anthropology tells us that we are not limited by time, or age, or gifts, or abilities, or where or how we were born, or physical constraints, or our place in history. Even if we believe in total depravity, a high anthropology tells us we’re functionally basically good.
A high anthropology is responsible for all kinds of religious, political, and social movements in human history. Most religious movements, except Christianity, are rooted in the concept that humans are basically good, and if they can just do these five things, or reach this level of consciousness, or care for other people better, they’ll kill the evil within them and rise above to that state of goodness within them.
Marxism is based on the idea that humans are basically good, and would be free to exercise the fullness of their goodness but for the oppression of others over them, and that if they can just throw off the oppression of those over them, they can be free to establish a system consistent with their inner goodness. Likewise, the Sexual Revolution was rooted in the idea that the full expression of our sexuality was good, that this goodness was repressed by old Victorian social mores, and that if we set those aside, we could release the goodness within us.
A high anthropology plays out in subtler ways in our lives. Through social media- that wife or mom seems perfect- perfect house, perfect kids, perfect cook– and I’m so much “less than.” If I could just try harder, I would have those things, too. Or, I’m a failure because I’m not trying hard enough or I don’t have enough of what it takes to attain those things. That same mindset plays out in the workplace, or in the classroom–if you don’t have the value you want, the problem is you’re not trying hard enough or arrived there yet, or your resources are limited.
This mindset has societal implications, too. When I look around and see what others around me have, my neighbors, we all seem to be in the same station, I’m relatively content. But, when I have visions of such fabulous wealth as Solomon could never have imagined piped onto my phone via social media and other forms constantly, my standard is some level of perfection I’ll never attain, no matter how I try. And, this constant striving, this constant trying and failing, this constant falling short of perfection is a tremendous source of anxiety, and depression, and a lack of compassion and empathy for others (because they’re not meeting that standard, either), and of lack of contentment and joy.
David Zahl says low anthropology, by contrast, is rooted in Scripture, and has three basic tenets:
- We are subject to all kinds of limits: time, physical limits, history, talents and gifts. Limits are good things, given by the Lord. No matter how hard we work, some boundaries just can’t be transcended, aren’t intended to be. There’s always something to learn, and knowing anything wholly is an illusion. Far from being bad news, this is good. Our Western cultural progress is built on low anthropology.
- “Double-mindedness”- we have less power over our lives than we think. The issue is not that we don’t know what to do, but that we often do what we know is wrong. Our life is an internal power struggle against competing forces. A low anthropology understands that the only way to change us is to change our desires. I wrote a whole blog on this a couple weeks ago (“Rightly-Ordered Loves”) We only change when our desires do, when our loves are ordered differently.
- Self-centeredness. The issue is our desires veer so often towards ourselves. We are not just human. We are broken, flawed people who don’t want to do what’s right. We are in profound need of help, in profound need of God.
The good news behind low anthropology is that we have a good God who loves us so dearly. God is in the business of doing what we cannot do for ourselves- He forgives, saves, and resurrects. The pressure is off of us to do these things, because He does them for us.
The paradox of all this is how freeing it is. Instead of “freedom” being defined as, “I just work harder and I reach perfection” which is actually captivity because you’ll never attain it, freedom is found in realizing, as Anne Lamott says, that “We are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.”
So, the mom or dad who seems to have it all together is just as messed up and flawed as you, and if they’re better at anything, it’s photoshopping, and what’s up with the inherent insecurity of needing to post something that you need others to affirm, anyway? (Realizing of course, my “need” sometimes for you to affirm me as I write and post this blog- that’s the great thing about low anthropology- you’re broken and I’m broken, but God loves us and we’re saved, so we can be empathetic, and love and be patient with each other’s limitations and failings).
Think about how low anthropology, which is really just believing what God’s Word says about who we are, mean for how you view your marriage and the person you married? How you view your kids and the expectations you place on them? How you view yourself, those with whom you work, and how you lead them?
The fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, and all that– is virtually impossible with a high anthropology. With a low anthropology, it’s a game-changer.