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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).

Desiring the Kingdom 3

We are continuing our review series on James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. In chapter one, Smith lays out his argument for the idea that humans are essentially “liturgical animals” – i.e. beings fundamentally determined by desires shaped by habit-forming practices.

He begins with a brief critique of anthropologies focused on the human mind. He briefly discusses the idea that we are “thinking animals” (Greek philosophers, Descartes) or “believing animals” (reformers, world view proponents), and argues that both are essentially rationalistic. Even though the latter critiques the former for an overemphasis on rationality, he thinks it makes precisely the same mistake – grounding human identity in an essentially intellectual activity.

Rejecting these intellectualist anthropology, he argues that we are lovers before we are thinkers:

The point is to emphasize that the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it….One might say that in our everyday, mundane being-in-the world, we don’t lead with our head, so to speak; we lead with our heart and hands. (p. 47)

He then unpacks the significance by arguing that love is “intentional” – i.e. it is always directed toward some object. The task of Christian formation, then, is to identify and explain loves proper object, God and his kingdom, while forming Christians into the kind of people whose desires are properly oriented toward this object.

Having established all of this, Smith is ready to deal with his primary concern. How do you shape/change a person’s desires? What makes it the case that a person’s love is directed toward one object rather than another? And, he argues that this is done through “habits” that can be formed through particular “practices.” Thus “habits are inscribed in our heart through bodily practices and rituals that train the heart, as it were, to desire certain ends” (p. 58). Unpacking and defending the idea of habit-forming practices will be the task of the next several chapters.

He concludes by arguing that  we tend to overemphasize worldviews today. Although he recognizes that worldviews are important, he thinks that we should be more concerned with “social imaginaries,” the ways that the practices in our society shape our pre-theoretical vision of the world, which he thinks are more influential in what we actually love than our worldviews. In other words, we can claim to have a Christian worldview, but if our habits are actually being shaped by cultural practices that are antithetical to that worldview, we will actually have loves and desires that are shaped by the cultural practices, not the worldview.

I suggest that instead of thinking about worlview as a distinctly Christian “knowledge,” we should talk about a Christian “social imaginary” that constitutes a distinctly Christian understanding of the world that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship. Disicipleship and formation are less about erecting an edifice of Christian knowledge than they are a matter of developing a Christian know-how that intuitively “understands” the world in the light of the fullness of the gospel. (p. 68)

His critique of worldview-thinking was probably the most interesting part of this chapter for me. Although I have long been attracted to a more Augustinian model of the human person, I had not considered the ways in which an emphasis on worldview might sit awkwardly within that model.