Good Theology Requires Good Anthropology

Just a few thoughts that were bumping around in my head today. I figured I better write them down before they fade away. I may edit this post, or replace it with a new post later.

Good Theology Requires Good Anthropology (as it says above). I believe this statement is true for several reasons.

  1. All theology is contextual. If that statement is true, as I believe it is, then the context in which a theology is designed for must be understood. This requires cultural or social anthropology. Since I have talked about this one so much in the past, I feel that I don’t need to dwell on it further here.
  2. Our understanding of God is commonly based on an understanding of ourselves. Much of our understanding of God is ex negativo. We understand God by what He is not. Most commonly, this draws on our understanding of ourselves. When we say that God is omnipotent, some people like to say, “That means God can do everything and anything.” But that is not really what that means. A better understanding is more like, “So, you know how everything and everyone we know are limited in terms of power? Well, God is not like that.” An awful lot of the attributes of God are really just contrasts to ourselves and our perspectives. But since mankind is created in God’s image (imago Dei), an understanding of ourselves also is suggestive of God (creativity, imagination, humor, love of variety, desire for attachment and socialization). Finally, we also use metaphors to understand God and many of these are tied to humans or human qualities (like Shepherd or Heavenly Father). Since metaphors for God inform by the tension of the logical disconnect between God and Man, we understand God more by understanding who we are, and who we are not.
  3. God’s special revelation of His Word was created within human interaction to be understandable by humans. Humanity is part of God’s general revelation (as part of His creation, and part of history). Therefore, to understand these revelations in developing a theology takes a solid understanding of what it means to be human.
  4. Theology is an attempt to understand God’s mission regarding mankind and His creation. Soteriology and Hamartiology don’t make a whole lot of sense if we don’t have a healthy understanding of mankind as being both loved by God, and separated from God. We can’t really come to terms with our responsibility as witnesses of Christ, stewards of His creation, and servants of God, if we don’t come to terms with some way the challenges of individual free will, social responsibility, and the will of God.

I think I will stop here for now. But I definitely feel I have seen some pretty toxic theologies out there. Some make an honest attempt to be Biblical— at least if “biblical” means picking certain verses that support the narrative of choice. I believe, however, a clear understanding of who humans are (individually and corporately) would greatly reduce some of the problems that come up in theology (systematic and practical).

That Nagging Racism Problem

A friend of mine (who is not American, but who has lived in the US before) asked the following question on FB:

Aside from prayer, what is your specific solution or concrete and actual suggestions to end the racial problem in the US?

It is hard to give specific, concrete and actual “anything” on FB because of the limitations in that format. I guess I would like to give three modest suggestions.  All of them are targeting Christians in the United States. If Christians in the US were able to get past racism (and knowing that a nice majority of Americans at least describe themselves as Christians), the US would be on the right path.

Teach good Theological Anthropology in church. That is, “What is Mankind in terms of relationship to God, ourselves, and Creation?”  Some churches may teach the Falleness of Man, but to do this they must also emphasize the “Falleness from What?” Some churches speak of the Goodness (or potential goodness) of Man, but must also emphasize what fulfilled goodness would look like in society.

This is not to say that this will come easily.  The early chapters of Genesis undermine the foundations of racism, yet much of the Hebrew Bible points to the challenges the Israelites had with racism, nationalism, and exceptionalism. That disconnect between Israelite view of other peoples and God’s view is the theme of the book of Jonah. In the New Testament, the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles reemphasize God’s love for all peoples regardless of ethnicity, nationality, language, and tribe, and call on the church to break down these barriers. Revelation shows Paradise where all peoples dwell harmoniously, and in harmony with God and Creation. Yet racism has endured.

Still, I remember when I was young and would hear about how the “three races of man” came from the three sons of Noah, and that one of the three (Ham) became the father of “cursed races.” This and other “cursed race” beliefs may belong in Mormon theology, but certainly not Christian theology. Some of these beliefs I heard in church, although at least not preached in the pulpit. In other churches in the US, some learned of “British/American-Israelism” or “Lost Tribe Theology.” Some of these and other teachings actively support racism or national exceptionalism, while others may simply support the status quo.

Just as bad as bad theological anthropology is,  teaching NO theological anthropology may be worse. Some churches actively do NOT teach theology. For some it is seen as not important while for others it is seen as divisive. Unfortunately, if we don’t teach a theologically (Biblically) sound Doctrine of Man, Christians will be getting their beliefs on gender, race, national identity, and more from sensationalizing journalism and hatemongering politics.

Teach Cultural/Social Anthropology in Church. While some churches attempt to train their people in Theological Anthropology, few teach Cultural Anthropology. When I am speaking of cultural anthropology, I am speaking of this topic as seen through a Christian lens. This topic is taken very seriously as a topic of Missiology. It is, however, rarely brought into the church. It is the praxis side of Anthropology. If we are to love all people and share the message of Christ to all people, how do we do so in a way that is understandable to them. How can Christians honor their own birth culture, while being a good Christian, and challenging what is flawed in their own birth culture? How can churches be relevant to their culture— expressing the best of that culture while guiding people to live out that culture as God desires? How do we love all people when some people act and think very different from us?

Cultural Anthropology is not simply doctrinal— meaning in this case imparted to memory.  It must be taught and modeled.

A final suggestion would be to Separate Theology from National Identity. Churches in the US love traditionally to have patriotic songs in their hymnals, a national flag next to the “Christian flag,” behind the altar and pulpit. They love to have fervently patriotic sermons certain times of the year. Some preachers actively bring nationalistic themes into their sermons. I recall one pastor at a church I was attending at the time preaching on the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution. He said that as a Christian there are some beliefs one should be willing to die for— the inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity, Deity of Christ, the Blood Atonement, and the Right to Bear Arms. Some churches seem better at honoring those who have died for their country than at honoring those who have died for their faith.

But why would this help? Nationalism is not the same as Racism. Agreed, but I believe that mixing national and religious symbols creates a civil religion, and a civil religion, traditionally, supports the status quo. Christianity should be a faith WITHIN American culture, but it never should be seen as the faith OF American culture. In my mind, we have millennia of evidence in Church history and outside of Church history of problems associated with state-sponsored religion, “court prophets,” and religious movements joined uncritically to political movements. The church must have a clear understanding of what its boundaries are and challenge those both inside and outside of those boundaries. It is hard to be a light in darkness, when we find it politically expedient to call the darkness light.