Anthropology – A Vital Question for the Church

Photo by J W on Unsplash

Consider these words from Carl Trueman’s recent essay at Public Discourse:

The breakdown of political discourse and the crisis of legitimacy that traditional democratic institutions now face is therefore apocalyptic, in that it has unveiled this underlying, technologically fueled anthropological chaos. The “who are we?” question—always important, given that we are intentional, not merely instinctive creatures—has become the only question, no longer anchored in commitment to a notion of universal human nature, with limitations, a moral structure, and some common goal or range of common goals. Without such a foundation, without answering the “what are we” question, how can we answer the “who” question in any stable or meaningful way? How can we build any stable or coherent society?

Covid restrictions highlighted this in a painful way. Virtual Man, who works through his laptop and can thus work anywhere in general and nowhere in particular, found such restrictions to be far more reasonable than Real Man, who has to go to work in a particular time and particular place because he works with material, not virtual, reality. That is not simply a vocational divide. I would suggest it is an anthropological divide. Real Man experiences the world—and his own sense of self—in a fundamentally different way from Virtual Man. This is reflected in so many of the conflicts now straining western democracy, from the French Yellow Jackets to the rise of working-class nationalism to the Canadian truck protests. In each case, we see what Mary Harrington has dubbed the clash of the Virtuals versus the Reals. Underneath that divide lies a conflict of anthropologies between a technologically liberated view of human beings as disembodied wills who can transcend the limitations of the materiality of the world and a belief that embodiment and place are critical to survival.

This line of thinking has been explored also by online writer N.S. Lyons in his viral piece on the Canadian Trucker protests.

For the Virtual elite, the most unforgiveable thing about the Physicals, and the physical world in general, is that they stubbornly refuse to yield to full, frictionless control. There is a reason the dominant informational class is today most comfortable in a purely virtual environment – it’s one where they can have direct, instantaneous control over (virtual) matter. Real matter is stubbornly resistant, a reminder that the self doesn’t control the universe. It’s dirty, polluting, a reminder of one’s vulnerability, even mortality. And the need to rely on other humans to deal with it is super awkward.

So expect the Virtuals of the ruling class to double down on trying to exert control, moving with all haste to develop new and innovative methods of information management and coercion to try to eliminate every human vulnerability from the machine. Self-driving truck startups are about to have an excellent next funding round.

Finally, I wrote along similar lines a little while back, arguing that Farmers Make the Best Intellectuals.

So the farmer and the trucker get discipled into a kind of humility with regard to nature. Their relationship to the nature of the cosmos and of human behavior is such that they must adjust themselves, like a partner in a waltz, to the larger forces they reckon with and harness. The best farmers, or plumbers, or electricians, or woodworkers — all those hands-on trades — are those who best discern and adjust themselves to the raw material they handle, and the natural forces which act on that material. This willingness and ability to adjust to nature as we find it is a kind of humility which is absent from those who aim to remake the world.

Trueman’s piece is important and helpful because he focuses in on anthropology. Anthropology is the study of man – what is man? What is human nature? He traces the loss of broad agreement on the answer to those questions from the Reformation to today. He makes an important point that I am not at all convinced most Christians are clear on:

Christianity takes the material world very seriously and sees it as having an authoritative moral structure that limits how we should act. Most obviously, it sees human nature as a real, universal thing, inextricably connected to our embodiment. From identity and sex to family and community, from the private sphere to the public square, this is foundational to Christian thinking. And in a world that wishes to assert the opposite, this means that the emerging terms of membership in civil society are increasingly those that will deny Christianity and Christians the possibility of full membership.

When I was growing up, I saw the conflict between orthodox belief and the unbelieving culture in the issues of exclusivity (Jesus as the only way to salvation) and sexual morality. But then over the course of my 20’s and early 30’s it dawned on me that a more fundamental divide was emerging, that of anthropology. Trueman does a good job making that divide clear in his piece.

What first alerted me to the deep significance of one’s anthropology was the difference I observed between the ‘Christian counseling’ content I read in popular books and through some teachers at my Bible College and the ‘Biblical counseling’ content I was starting to come across from David Powlison, Paul Tripp and others at CCEF. Much of that difference boiled down to two very different ways of seeing the human person. The former approach adopted rather uncritically the concepts of secular psychology and tweaked the therapeutic advice to accord with Biblical statements. But the latter approach questioned the premises of secular psychology and sought to arrive at an understanding of human nature that was deeply informed by the Scriptures. This approach led to a deeper appreciation of the multifaceted effects of indwelling sin and of life lived in a broken world.

The writing and teaching of the folks at CCEF struck me as qualitatively different from what I had encountered in the popular Christian psychologists like Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. Larry Crabb, though their work was still very helpful in some ways. Nevertheless, this experience settled a conviction for me that a thoroughly Biblical anthropology was crucial for building on. Simply put, it serves as the substructure for your view of sanctification and human flourishing. This experience also convinced me that this was one of the areas where regular church folks and ministry leaders had imbibed an awful lot of unbiblical assumptions from the world around them.

Fast forward to today and we find that many of the most pressing moral issues of our time are directly related to the question of human nature: transgender ideology, the dystopian dreams of the transhumanists, and the advances of AI.

Now, more than ever, the church needs to search the Scriptures diligently and gain a new level of clarity and conviction on what human nature is, what God’s intent for humanity is, and how this informs our response to the challenges that are coming at us with increasing complexity and velocity day by day.

While Trueman closes his piece with a glimmer of hope, his overall analysis is very sobering. I encourage you to read the whole thing. Here is how he wraps it up:

Yet here, perhaps, is a glimmer of hope. The reason for this is something we all intuitively know: we human beings are not simply whoever we wish to be; we are not simply disembodied wills; on the contrary, we do have a nature—a “whatness”—that cannot be indefinitely denied with impunity. We are embodied, and those bodies involve biological limits (we all die, even if we choose to self-identify as immortal) and a moral framework—we never exist in isolation but always within a network of dependence and obligation. If the time of Covid revealed anything, it revealed that most human beings still have some intuition that embodiment, and the communities of obligation and dependence that are intrinsic to our embodiment, are of critical importance to what it means to be human.

The challenge for the church, embedded as she is in this technological age, is to embody that reality in her life. The path forward is to take our coming marginalization seriously, as an opportunity, not merely a setback: an opportunity to embody in our own lives and congregations what it means to be truly human.

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