The inadequacy of a “Christian” Anthropology (Acton 1)

The first four seminars at the Acton conference serve to lay out the basic framework that the rest of the seminars will build upon. They focus in turn one:

  1. Christian anthropology
  2. Limited government and the rule of law
  3. Developing an economic way of thinking
  4. The foundations of a free society

Together, these are supposed to provide a fundamental framework for developing a Christian view of human flourishing that can then drive our view of government, law, economics, and society. In other words, if we properly understand what a human person is and what makes for human flourishing in the world, we can strive to orient our governments, markets, and societies around that vision.

Such a project has two fundamental tasks to perform before it can even get off the ground. First, it has to present a compelling vision of what it means to be human and what makes for human flourishing in the world. And, second, it must explain how we move from that vision to specific proposals and actions in the world. I want to deal with how the conference has addressed the first of those in this post.

So, taking up the first of these two tasks, the opening seminar was on developing this foundational anthropology. The speaker began by saying that his intention was to explain how a Christian anthropology is fundamentally different from a “secularist” anthropology, and that he would be doing this primarily by offering a philosophical analysis, rather than a biblical/theological one. His reason for doing so is that it would be “too easy” to identify the differences between these two anthropologies through biblical/theological categories. The differences would be more stark and compelling, he indicated, if we established on the basis of philosophical reasoning (more on this later).

He then went on to argue for five areas of emphasis in a Christian anthropology that demonstrate how it is different from a secularist anthropology:

  1. We are embodied beings, which means that they are neither souls inhabiting bodies (Cartesian dualism) or merely material things (physical reductionism).
  2. We are volitional beings with a will that is both free and determined, rather than being completely autonomous (nominalism) or physically deterministic (hard and soft determinism).
  3. We are creative beings, which means that although we are fully a part of the created order, we are unique within creation in having dominion over creation (understood primarily as the right and responsibility to creatively bring out the full potential of creation).
  4. We are fallen beings, and as such, we can not simply follow our own passions (hedonism) nor place all our faith in the ability of humanity to perfect itself (utopianism).
  5. We are individual/social beings and thus we cannot see ourselves as exclusively individual (anarchy) or social (collectivism).

Although I have some questions/observations about how the speaker unpacked each of these in the seminar, I’ll restrict myself to offering three fundamental concerns about the overall project.

First, there is nothing uniquely Christian about this anthropology. Although the word “Christian” was used quite a bit, there is very little in here that many Jews, Muslims, or even atheists would disagree with. (Indeed, even the argument against the “secularist” in the lecture only works by focusing on the secularist’s weakest arguments – e.g. hard determinism.) Of course, they wouldn’t use words like “soul” or “sin”, instead preferring terms like “transcendent mental capabilities” and “brokenness,” but the fact remains that the basic shape of this anthropology can be found in many belief systems. None of what makes an anthropology uniquely Christian (Trinity, Christology, image of God, the Gospel, etc.) factored into the discussion at all.

That observation in itself would raise some questions, but as I indicated earlier, the speaker did indicate that his intention was to offer a philosophical rather than a biblical/theological presentation. Apparently that means you get an anthropology that is less obviously Christian. The more fundamental problem, though, is that this seminar was supposed to serve as the foundational seminar for the other three. Indeed, all of the other speakers referred to this one as though it had provided that basic Christian view of the human person and human flourishing that could ground subsequent discussions about government, economics, and society. It didn’t.

That lack grows in significance when you remember that many of the people here have no formal Bible/theology training. At dinner last night, I set with a nice young man who is a medical student in Texas. (By the way, during the opening dinner, the Republic of Texas was counted as one of the represented countries.) He thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and had no idea that there was more to a Christian anthropology than he had heard. How is he supposed to engage some of the challenging issues addressed later in the conference with no more than a generic understanding of what a human person is or what constitutes human flourishing.

All of this leads to my third concern. Although it was never said explicitly, I’m fairly certain that the lack of robust theological reflection stems from the presumption that such would hinder, or even preclude, meaningful dialog with non-Christians. That would undercut the idea of social engagement from the very beginning. So, instead of offering us a distinctively Christian anthropology, they gave us an anthropology that they would say is grounded in a Christian “worldview,” but one that can also be communicated to non-Christians and used to ground economic/political/cultural discourse in the public realm. If I am correct, this raises a whole new set of issues that I’ll address when we get to the fourth lecture on the role of the Bible and natural law in public discourse. For now I’ll simply observe that such an anthropology would seem to be “Christian” in a secondary sense (at best), since it is an anthropology with much of its Christian distinctiveness stripped out. And, that seems an unfortunate foundation on which to build an understanding of human flourishing (which they still haven’t defined).

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 17, 2010, in Anthropology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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