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.