Based on Biblical scripture, theology (what we think about God) and anthropology (what we think about humanity) can be thought of as two sides of the same coin. They are intimately related, but how? I’ve thought about this off and on since I was exposed some time ago to the concept that “anthropology precedes theology.” It seems to me, however, that many folks would claim the opposite is true, namely that our beliefs about God underpin how we think about ourselves and about the rest of humanity. So, which one is it, and does it make any difference?
You and I were probably all exposed to thoughts about humanity from our earliest days. At our parents’ knee, from our religious leaders and in school, we were surrounded by spoken and unspoken messages about the way human beings are or should be. For Christians in our culture, some of us were taught that at our core we humans are fallen and sinful, and individually we are in need of saving. Others of us were taught that we humans are beloved of God and, in Christ, have been given the image of who we were created to be and how we might live so as to participate more fully in that divine image.
For some of us, what we experienced about people came from the sandbox of our childhoods or the larger, adult neighborhoods of life where we encountered a humanity that was hurtful or damaging. Others of us saw or searched out a different face of humankind where compassion, kindness, justice and love were the dominate features.
Trying to reconcile these learned and experiential ways of knowing about our fellow human beings can, in time, lead to strain or discord. When that happens we can respond in one of several ways. We can deny the inherent conflict and simply live with the tension. We can turn our backs on what we have been taught, throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water, or simply dismiss our experiences.
Or there is a third option. We can let our experience inform what we have learned and perhaps be led to a depth of understanding and belief about our fellow human beings that would not have been available to us without reflection.
In the same way, for many of us our earliest thoughts and beliefs about God have come from what we were taught. When those thoughts and beliefs come into tension with our lived experience, we have a choice about how to deal with them. Letting our lived experience speak to our learned beliefs with honesty and with integrity can lead us to a depth of theology and relationship with God we would not realize without that reflection.
There are few Christians who would not agree that God desires a more intimate relationship with us humans. Most would say that God is guiding us in that direction, and somewhere in that mix will be how we relate to our fellow humans. I wonder if that change will not happen most readily when we are able to hold gently those concepts and beliefs that have first made sense to us. Call it growth, evolution, education, or, to use the “churchy’ word, “transformation,” we may find that we see with new eyes what before had seemed to be cast-in-stone truth for us about humanity and about God.
For those among us who cannot fathom a change in our anthropology or our theology, all we have to do is grasp them tightly. We are told God allows us our free will and will honor our faithfulness. For the rest of us, standing equally faithfully before God and our fellow humans with open hands and open hearts, we risk being changed.
So — when there is change, is it our anthropology that God uses to transform our theology ... or is it the other way around? Perhaps the answer is, “yes.” So long as we do not gravitate toward a way of conceiving the Inconceivable that gives some divine imprimatur to what we think about people, or vice a versa, I see little need for an answer.
Some will disagree with me, saying such matters hold eternal weight and that any talk of change is outside the bounds of orthodoxy. So, I have to ask, “Is their theology speaking or their anthropology?”
Lee Waggoner is rector of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church.