What's Tony Thinking

The High Value of a Low Anthropology


What is your “anthropology”? No, I’m not talking about people studying lost tribes in the Amazon or cannibals in New Guinea.

“Anthropology” as I am using it here is simply your view, or doctrine, of human nature. Are human beings intrinsically and/or basically good and destined to achieve amazing things, including the eradication of hunger, poverty, racism and greed? That would be a “high” anthropology. We are amazing! You are amazing! You can accomplish anything! You can be whoever you want to be!

“High anthropology” is exclamation point territory! It is what you get in graduation speeches, earnest parental advice and a million advertisements that tout your infinite possibilities (provided you buy this car or utilize this investing firm).

The trouble with a high anthropology is that when you don’t achieve the extraordinary, and your life isn’t totally amazing, you may feel as if you’ve failed. “I got a B.A. from _______, one of the very best colleges in America. They told me I was special and that I, and my classmates, were the hope of the future. But now I’m working as a barista and wondering if I can pay my part of the rent. How pathetic is that?”

A “low anthropology” says “Sorry, you ain’t all that great (but neither is anyone else).” You are a flawed person, who is about as likely — maybe more likely — to do what it idiotic and bad for you as you are to make a perfectly rational, wise and mature choice or decision.

In Christian language this gets us into the area of “sin,” as in “original sin,” though there is nothing at all ‘original’ about it. Should you wish to get roughly the same content without the religious language, let me recommend the distilled essence of the wisdom of philosopher Alain de Botton’s “School of Life,” which states quite plainly we are all idiots . . . but that this is the basis of compassion for our foolish fellows, of whom we are hardly the least.

Dave Zahl, who runs the religious not-for-profit, Mockingbird Ministries, is out with a new book, Low Anthropology: The Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others (and Yourself). 

The idea is to lower your expectations of other people and yourself as “the unlikely key to a gracious view of others, and of yourself.” The truth about us isn’t in our resumes. It is in our weaknesses and moments of desperation.

There’s a fundamental divide in Christian thought between the high anthropology folks and the low ones.

Pelagius, a fourth century British monk, was all in on “high anthropology,” believing that we humans, with sufficient effort, can save ourselves by ourselves. We could work our way into God’s or our parents or society’s good graces, if we but tried hard enough. Augustine argued the low anthropology position describing Pelagius’s approach as “cruel optimism.” That is, it set us up for believing that if we tried hard enough, were good enough, are were smart enough, we could achieve perfection.

“Fat chance.” said Augustine. “We are a mess.” A combination, as Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “of marble and mud,” of greatness and fuck-ups. We need help. We need saving. We cry out for mercy. This is not flattering to our self-esteem, not the stuff of college commencement speeches, or political “morning in America” rallies. But it is true.

Americans are particularly susceptible to the seductions of a “high anthropology.” We are “exceptional.” We are “# 1.” “There’s nothing we can’t do,” etc. But it’s a set-up. One that sets us up for disappointment with ourselves and a lack of compassion toward others who don’t measure up to our expectations and standards.

“The only way to be perfect in this life,” said Augustine, “is to know that you cannot be perfect in this life.”

Some years ago the Transactional Analysis Movement was all the rage. Their pithy wisdom was, “I’m Okay, You’re Okay.” Some wag said the Christian version was a little different. “I’m not okay, you’re not okay — but that’s okay.”

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