The "problem" of Anthropology

“What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” This question-prayer echoes through the Psalms (see. Ps. 8, Ps. 144, etc.) of the Old Testament. I think this may well be one of the most important questions that gets right to the heart of the intellectual and philosophical crisis that has engulfed our civilization: What is Man? What is a human being? What makes him special; is he special?

A few days ago I commented about the Pope’s book Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures and suggested (in agreement with him) that post-Enlightenment modernity, which confuses “facts” with knowledge and truth itself, and thus reduces and flattens out “knowledge” into only what can be known as factual by empirical or scientific or rationalistic methods, that this philosophy is incapable of sustaining a civilization because of it’s incompleteness, its inability to address metaphysical questions, chief among them are questions about what it means to be human. It simply dismisses the very questions that make a difference in our lives and our world. As I reflected and discussed this with my father and some of my loyal commentators, it occurred to me that ultimately our problem is Anthropology: because we separate religion from the public sphere, we in the West today don’t really have a coherent account of human nature, but we act (and legislate) as if we did.

C. John Sommerville, in his book The Decline of the Secular University takes up exactly this question. (once again I came up with a really good idea, only to find 2 days later at the bookstore, that someone had already written a book about it…) He argues that the secular university has become a “credential-factory” and has lost any real intellectual influence in our culture, which is by-and-large “post-secular.” In the second chapter he argues that one of the chief weaknesses of the secular academia is that it cannot even offer an account or definition of what a human being is. If we accept a purely naturalistic worldview (which universities do in some ways implicitly, but often not on this issue), then the human being is nothing more than (perhaps) the most evolved animal on this particular planet, but just another animal, not morally different than all of the other animals (who themselves are not having such a discussion or bothering much about “animal rights” for that matter). Certainly, Man is not a being endowed with “unalienable rights.” Indeed, the academic discipline that we (perhaps erroneously) call “Anthropology” is not really the study of what Man is, since a secular worldview cannot address that question, only of what Man does.

This inability to address and articulate a full anthropology – since to do so is essentially a religious function – means that secular academia cannot provide sustenance for a political system like ours, as Sommerville points out:
When Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, he could still assume creation and purpose. Darwin changed all that. But we cannot say that all men have evolved equally. So we have had to proceed with our analysis of politics, society, and economics without agreement on final principles.”

This is why I have argued that a democracy like ours cannot be a pluralistic “secular democracy” in which there are no “final principles” (and in which this pluralism is in fact dogmatically asserted). It is a sham. Democracy itself assumes certain things about the nature of human beings: that all are created equal and by virtue of that equality should have an equal say in the government. Thus the political system of democracy (or democratic republic in our case) assumes a previous position on the question of anthropology which is, by its very nature, a religious question (though some religions, such as Marxism, would never apply that word to themselves, but in fact use that word to dismiss other religions in order to give themselves and edge in competing – or actually to avoid competing - with the other religious views).

All political or communal arrangements make certain assumptions about the nature of Man, about anthropology and are arranged accordingly. Ours is democratic because we assume that humans are equal, yet imposes checks and balances because we assume that humans are not trustworthy for some reason. Think of the Hindu caste system. Certain people have certain positions in society because of their nature as determined by the religious ideology of Hinduism. Society is officially (or more recently, unofficially) organized accordingly. The same was true of the good regime of the Philosopher king offered by Socrates/Plato in Republic. The reason that was the best form of government was directly related to the nature of Man: he is reason at war with passions. Since the philosopher was led by reason and not his passions, he was most fit to govern. Likewise those who were “slaves by nature” – who were only ruled by passions and not reason (there are probably lots of these people)– were only fit to do slave-type work and wield no political power (this is also why he says democracy is the 2nd-to-worst form of government). The ordering of the society is based upon the anthropology, the previous assumptions about human nature.

A system of thought, such as post-Enlightenment Modernism/Secularism, that assumes an epistemology (a theory of what “knowledge” is) that rules out metaphysical questions (because they cannot be addressed “scientifically”) cannot therefore answer the question of the Psalmist: “What is Man?”

Think of the political ramifications of this deficiency: how shall we address whether keeping Muslims imprisoned in Cuba is a violation of their rights or not? How shall we address whether abortion should be legal or not? Is the fetus a human?? Does the woman have any “rights” in this matter at all? Why, or why not? Upon what basis? When is it acceptable to invade another country? What constitutes a just war if there is such a thing? Is our system of international trade inherently exploitative? If so, is that even a “bad” thing? What makes a thing “bad”? What constitutes a “marriage” and why? Where are the “lines” in bio-ethics or genetics? If we are able to create human hybrids to use for medical spare parts should we do so; would they be human; would they have rights?

And these are the questions that our intellectual leaders must address and these are all finally religious in nature (something that “values-voters” seem to understand better than scholars). These are the very same questions that post-Enlightenment/Secular Modernity is just incapable of addressing. This deficiency is also one reason why a dissatisfied “Post-modernity” has attacked and “deconstructed” Modernism. The problem with Post-modernity is that it destroys but does not create: it gives us no viable alternative upon which to build a civilization, only cynicism and suspicion and ambiguous relativism. Certainly it does not solve the problem of how we as a political community shall address these very concrete issues (and in many ways, Post-modernity further complicates matters).

Only Religion can really address our needs as a political community and as individuals. The question becomes which religion. There is a very real possibility that vigorous Islam could displace Secularism (which in turn has displaced Christianity) to become the new foundation of Western Civilization, especially in Europe. In Europe, Christianity is virtually dead and new waves of Muslim immigrants arrive every year – and this time Charles Martel will not come out to meet them, for he has no reason or resolve to do so. Islam has a very strong anthropology-derived political order that is enshrined in Sharia law and its long interpretive tradition. It asserts what man is, and how he should live before God, and arranges society accordingly.

Personally, I would like very much to not see Islam emerge as the new Western worldview. Rather, the Christian intellectual tradition, that helped build the West, is able to address the issues of the day in a persuasive way, if only secular Academia will allow it to have a voice in the dialogue. This is how we can begin to recover the intellectual rigor of Western Civilization that serves as the basis for our political community. (I might also point out that by-and-large, Roman Catholicism currently seems better suited to this task than does confused Protestantism, I can only hope we might catch up – and do my homework).

I think that there ought to be a conscious inclusion of religious perspectives within academic discourse, something at which Secular Modernity would have gawked. Universities like Duke, or Notre Dame, or Southern Methodist University, or Baylor – which are known as fine academic institutions and have clear religious roots and affiliations (even divinity schools!), should be on the forefront in encouraging sustained dialogue of a uniquely Christian perspective with traditional secular academia on these issues.

Last year, for instance, SMU’s Political Science symposium had a debate on stem cells and invited Roman Catholic priest and scholar Father Tadeusz Pacholcyzk (who has 9 stinkin’ degrees including a PH.D. from Yale and a post-doctorate degree from Harvard!) to debate a proponent of Embryonic Stem-Cell research, Eve Herold. The debate in fact re-enforces Sommerville’s (and my) point: Herold conceded that science was unable to answer the question of when an embryo becomes human – thus has nothing useful to say on the most critical hinge of this debate.

This sort of discussion needs to be fostered and sustained (more than just a one-time debate) within the academic world if it is to truly address the needs of our society. I think the traditionally Christian private schools are a great place for this to happen – so long as they are not afraid of sounding too religious! This is how we might begin to re-invigorate Western Civilization, the Lord God being our helper.

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Blogger Stephen said...


I read somewhere in my last year there at Perkins for some Ethics class that there is a movement in the scientific community to bring in the religious voice. They said it may not be very loud yet, but it is building. With events like the one you describe it is building. It is important that the church is heard in a knowledgable and critical way. It is not simply enough to have John Hagee yelling about the evils of abortion. I believe that you have to have a real systematic ongoing discussion about these ethical issues with the best of the religious academia able to participate. As long as the loudest voices from the Christian response is the Robertsons and the Hagees the church is never going to be taken seriously. I told someone the other day we need a good Niebhur! :)

You will also find that you have some suprising allies for this situation there at Perkins. The class I took with Joerg Rieger about modernism, postmodernism, anthropology, and theology was very much in line with this way of thinking. The general discussion was around the fact that science has failed and scientific knowledge has left us with an incomplete understanding to which there needs to be a religious response.

4:17 PM, August 22, 2006  

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