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With Apologies To Stuart Smalley

With Apologies To Stuart Smalley

MAY 18, 2023

/ Articles / With Apologies To Stuart Smalley

Are you a “glass half-full” or “glass half-empty” kind of person, and what might your answer say about the Christian life?

Whether you’re drawn more toward cheery bible verses (I’m more than a conqueror in Christ!), or the black cloud verses (the good that I would, I do not), and whether you see life through “rose colored glasses,” or seem to always have a dark cloud hanging over you, you’re engaging in anthropology.

Before the social studies speak drives you to your next click, just know that your anthropology affects everything about your self-understanding, your relationships, and where you’re headed in life.

In short, theological anthropology is asking the simple question “who am I before the face of God”? Yes, very existential, isn’t it? Well, don’t feel obligated to put on a beret or grow a goatee just yet, Pierre.

Yes. Interesting. Who am I?

Well, from a standard American view of self, of course you’re a special human being. One of a kind. A snowflake. Or in the words of the Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me!” You know, from the pop-psych world, people are innately good but have the misfortune of living in troubled times and that in turn informs an individual’s poor decision making. What the world really needs is a self-esteem booster shot so individuals can lead fulfilling, productive lives.

This common outlook is, in effect, a high view of self or to put it into our context, a “high anthropology.”

Sorry Stuart Smalley. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the bible’s depiction of humanity is much darker (e.g., Rom 3). We are spiritual failures unable to improve ourselves before the face of God. Insert sad trombone sound here.

So why the depressing talk?  There are a couple reasons. One, understanding human frailty clears the theoretical clutter, gets our feet back on the ground where we actually live (and our heads out of conceptual clouds) and two, beginning a theology of real life with human failing is simply a more humane approach.

That’s right. Humane.

The shared experience of all human beings is failure, pain and death. When we embrace this universal malady, we can begin to have empathy for others because we all will be there at one time or another. Before you start disagreeing with this, ask yourself this simple question. What is a more common human experience? 1.) Pain and failure or 2.) happiness and fulfillment?

I hate to admit it as much as you, but entropy is a scientific fact. 

Some criticize this low-anthropological approach because it begins somewhere in brokenness and depravity rather than where the bible begins in Imago Dei and God’s pronouncement that his creation is “good.” That’s fair enough, and I’d be the first to agree. But if our theology is of any practical use in the entropy-is-a-rule sense, the phrase “and it was good” has to include Genesis 3 in the same breath because it explains our true, present day situation.

To be abundantly clear, Orthodox, theological categories of God’s glorious creation are crucial to affirm, uphold and proclaim. But for everyday life, a low human anthropology of sin, suffering and general entropy, levels the playing field. Pain and failure is no respecter of persons and affects every single person and culture across the board without exception. Once we understand this, we’re humbled enough to recognize that we all belong to the “pain club” as Bill Clem puts it.  

Common human experience is not lived atop spiritual mountaintops but on the dirty ground, when the IRS is breathing down your neck, speaking sense into your teenager’s life is an exercise in futility or when you get bad news from your doctor about that irregular mole you had to get checked. Good theology always accounts for the broken condition of man. Theology of the spiritual mountaintops (i.e., a theology of glory) can only reveal a crushing, abstract God indifferent to life in the real world.

But instead of having to strive toward an unattainable spiritual mountaintop, God descends to us, in Christ. Jesus, the God-Man entered into space and time, he suffered with us, and for us, and did away with glass half-empty or half-full categories once and for all not through improving us, or shooing away the black clouds so we could see the silver lining, but through something deeper: death and resurrection. As Gerhard Forde has said:

“The theology of the cross is the true and ultimate source of human optimism because it always presupposes the resurrection.”

A high anthropological view (or a theology of glory) always grasps for self-exaltation. You hear it in phrases like “the self-made man,” “I’m captain of my own destiny,” “God helps those who help themselves” and the like. And that kind of worldview is great. That is, until you need it to work for you. 

On the other hand, a low theological anthropology is realistic, and it’s humane. We human beings are not fit to carry the freight of being our own meaning makers. We’ll leave that to God, the one who saw fit to show his glory most profoundly by dying for his enemies on a cross, the one who shows his strength through weakness.  

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson

Matt is a husband, father to two little girls, and is an armchair student of theology. He is a freelance writer and editor with a penchant for redemptive snark. Until […]

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