The theological anthropologies implicit in our politics

David Zahl maps the conservative/liberal binary according to distinctions between high and low anthropologies.

You might call me a low anthropologist. Steeped in a Lutheran theological heritage, I have been shaped by Martin Luther’s dictum that a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is. We Christians should not shy away from naming the fragility, finitude, and contingency of human life. We are broken, sinful creatures from beginning to end, completely unable to earn our way into God’s good graces, and it is only by divine grace, as God’s freely given gift, that we are finally saved from ourselves. This awareness led Luther to his depiction of the human subject as simultaneously saint and sinner. As a lifelong Lutheran, I have found that this insight holds explanatory power for making sense of the human situation. If nothing else, I have found it to be an accurate description of my own lived experience.

Perhaps this is why I find much to commend in David Zahl’s newest work. Zahl argues that we are limited, doubled, self-centered creatures who spend far too much of our lives trying to evade this reality. We ignore our limitations, pretending that we are capable of far more than the constraints of time, biology, and historical context will allow. We minimize our doubleness, failing to perceive that our lives are governed by a jumbled mix of motivations that leads to an impasse between what we say we want and what we actually do. We explain away our self-centeredness, failing to see our own shortcomings while being quick to point out other people’s flaws.

Of course, these are not just religious phenomena; these types of behaviors characterize all spheres of life. Surely it does not take much imagination to see these impulses at work in the political sphere, for example. But there is grace to be found through an honest acceptance of these realities. We discover new opportunities for humility, unity, community, courtesy, humor, and compassion when we view our lives and the lives of others through such an honest lens. At this moment of extreme polarization in the United States, such fruits are welcome.