When I first tell people that I study theological anthropology, they’re immediately fascinated, and they ask all kinds of interesting questions: What Amazonian tribes have I visited? What archeological digs have I gone on? What social experiments have I performed? Good stuff. And then I get to explain that they’re actually talking about cultural anthropology, archeology, and/or sociology. Theological anthropology is about exploring theological perspectives on what it means to be human.
The interest dries up pretty quickly after that.
As far as I can tell, there seem to be three reasons that, for the average Christian, studying theological anthropology just doesn’t sound terribly interesting.
- They think they already know what it means to be human. Why waste your time studying something you already understand? And people think they have a pretty good handle on what it means to be human. After all, they are one.
- They don’t think theology has much to offer. Of course, people know full well that humans are rather complex creatures. That’s why they’re initially fascinated when they think I’m talking about cultural anthropology or biology. Studying how humans differ in varying cultures or the complex physical and biological realities that comprise the human body, those seem like they’d have a lot to offer for understanding human persons. But theology? Not so much.
- They don’t think it matters for everyday life. Even if they’re curious enough to ask about some of the specific topics that theological anthropology addresses (e.g. the body/soul relationship, free will, gender/sexuality, etc.), it’s not immediately evident that such things have any real practical value for everyday life and ministry. They sound like things that people have been debating for millennia with no resolution, and, consequently, things that might be worth discussing over a cup of coffee, but not things with any real pressing relevance.
Obviously either I disagree or I enjoy spending my time on things that don’t really matter. And since life is short enough that I prefer not to do the latter, it’s probably the former. So let me explain.
3 Reasons We Need Theological Anthropology
1. We’re confused about what it means to be human.
We’ve actually been reflecting on and wrestling with what it means to be human for a very long time. Socrates said, “Know thyself.” But that is precisely what we have never been able to do. Are we rational animals, homo sapiens, small gods, biological machines, free individuals, producers/consumers, immaterial souls trapped in physical shells–some combination of the above or something else entirely? We’re not sure.
Modern science piles knowledge about humanity ever higher, and yet we remain a mystery to ourselves, uncertain of who we are, why we are, and how we should live in the world. As Jürgen Moltmann said, the human person
“keeps on slipping out of his own grasp, and becomes more of a puzzle to himself, the more possible solutions he has available in the form of outlines of what man is. The more possible answers he has, the more he feels he is in a hall of a thousand mirrors and masks, the more unintelligible he is to himself.” (Man: Christian Anthropology in the Conflicts of the Present (London: SPCK, 1974), 1)
Of all the things we think we know best, we remain our own greatest mystery.
2. Visions of humanity have pressing everyday implications.
The fact that we don’t really know what it means to be human wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t for the tremendous everyday implications that ride alongside every answer to an anthropological question. How should we address complex issues like genetic engineering, human cloning, artificial intelligence, and globalization, the challenges of racism, classism, and sexism, the painful life/death decisions surrounding things like abortion and whether humans have a “right to die,” and the ever-prevalent questions surrounding sexual ethics–marriage, homosexuality, gender identity, and the like.
Our response to each issue, whether we are aware of it or not, is driven by an anthropology, a vision of what it means to be human. And that means that anthropology, regardless of whether it is explicitly theological, is a discipline with pressing, practical implications, ones that shape our identities, our societies, our ways of life.
3. We need explicitly theological anthropologies.
The first two points explain the existence of anthropology in all of its different forms: cultural, archeological, biological, philosophical, etc. Each recognizes both why it’s important to understand what it means to be human and why that remains such an incredibly difficult task. And each of these voices brings something important to the anthropological table, valuable perspectives on a complex reality. But we need more.
Theological anthropology begins with the conviction that we cannot understand what it means to be human apart from the theological perspectives. As I’ve said elsewhere:
That theological anthropology is theological expresses one of its basic convictions—the human person can only be fully understood from a theological perspective. The creation of the human persons, their status as beings in the image of God, their fall into a sinful state, and their subsequent redemption and eschatological glorification, all of these are theological realities without which the human person is not fully comprehended. Indeed, from this perspective, the human person is always-already defined and determined by his relationship to God. (Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed (T. & T. Clark, 2010), 5)
Or, as G. C. Berkouwer said so well,
“The relation of man’s nature to God is not something which is added to an already complete, self-enclosed, isolated nature; it is essential and constitutive for man’s nature, and man cannot be understood apart from this relation.” (Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 23)
This does not mean that other anthropological perspectives are unimportant, far from it. But none of them says fundamentally what it means to be human. Each needs to be oriented, integrated, and often transformed by a theological perspective on what it means to be human. Apart from that, the human person truly is a mystery.
So why study theological anthropology? Because what we think it means to be human shapes almost every aspect of our everyday lives and because we cannot understand humanity adequately unless that vision is rooted in theology. Is that enough?
You should also check out:
- Stephen Wellum, “The Urgent Need for a Theological Anthropology Today,” SBJT 13.2 (2009): 2-3
- Kathryn Tanner, “The Difference Theological Anthropology Makes,” Theology Today 50.4 (1994): 567-580