Book Review: “Low Anthropology”

Low Anthropology: The Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others (and Yourself). By David Zahl. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022. 208 pp. $16.38 (cloth), $20.99 (paper).

We all have an anthropology (i.e., the study of what it means to be human). But do we have an anthropology that keeps us exhausted, overworked, anxious, and constantly burned out or do we have an anthropology that energizes and motivates us to experience joy and goodness in all aspects of life as gifts from God’s hand?

I often tell my wife: “You married the wrong kind of doctor.” We joke that “I got into theology for the money.” And, of course, I’ll apologize that I can’t quite keep up with the Joneses. I don’t really mean it. She knows that all too well.

Any couple familiar with a humanities doctorate knows what we are describing. And, those who have gone into theology know all too well that theology is not the business of moneymaking—at least most of them apart from those exceptions that become pastors of megachurches.

And, as humorous as it is, there are underlying truths that hit close to home. In many cases, there are expectations that we really should be making more. We haven’t quite earned what we’ve put in. So injecting a bit of humor helps to face the reality of unmet expectations.

And, yet, there is another side to this. Even if it were possible to occupy this particular job that met the expectations of husbands or wives, it’s not always under our control. It’s not, as they say, in the cards. Sure, it might exist in the realm of possibility, but let’s be honest there are other complex factors in the works. Sometimes it just means being in the right place, at the right time with the right person who happens to like you. And, it doesn’t always have to do with being the best or having some specific skill set or even charm (although charm can get you far).

David Zahl articulates our approach in life as a difference in anthropology, what he calls low anthropology and high anthropology in his recent publication, Low Anthropology: the Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others published by Brazos Press. Low anthropology you might think of as a chastened view of humanity, i.e., realism. A realism of humans takes seriously the nature of sin, fallibility, and weaknesses even after conversion. In traditional categories, humans are creatures (even if special creatures in the image of God) and they are not God or gods, despite what the Greeks and Romans thought. Neither can we become gods no matter how hard we try. We have weaknesses and in the right place, at the moment of weakness, when our guard is down, those weaknesses might just shine through as they have before and probably will again at some point.

We are fragile beings and even our virtue and character (things we often think of as stable and nearly always reliable) can prove to be not so stable if the right conditions present themselves. Zahl describes low anthropology as a corrective to the overly optimistic views of humanity due to limitations, doubleness, and selfishness. Contrast this with a high anthropology, one that highlights unlimited possibility, the marks of a hero. Of course, we need heroes, and, no doubt, humans, both collectively and individually, have done great things. But, let’s also be honest that we prefer our idealized and exalted views of humans, even if those perceptions can and often are dashed in varying ways and to varying degrees.

Optimism isn’t infinite, however, especially when we are dealing with humans. And while we will often highlight our strengths in public, our weaknesses are often not on display for the world to see. No, instead, we often hide those weaknesses out of shame and disappointment. Disappointment in ourselves and disappointment in our families.

At its heart, Zahl’s Low Anthropology is a corrective to an overly high view of humans. You know the one that sets us up for failure when we apply the logic of “You can do anything if you just put your mind to it.” Although it may have a grain of truth, it can be premature. Some things require years of training and no short burst of willpower is going to do the trick. This too applies to the high anthropology that sets us up for unnecessary devastation. As when we place our favorite pastor or politician on a pedestal and attribute god-like qualities to them only to condition them to isolate and one day fall and fall hard. Or, more common still, when we perceive our parents in a certain invincible light, and, yet, when the circumstances become unbearable and we don’t quite see it coming, after repeated disappointment over many years, they end their marriage. This isn’t an excuse for divorce or remarriage. The dynamics of each relationship and their individual limitations, doubleness, and selfishness make for complicated conditions that create deep discontent and patterns of withdrawal not easily fixed by a commanding officer preaching a message of: “stick to your commitments” or “get it together”. Such messages undermine the message of the gospel that was present in the first place only to be replaced by a new form of Pelagian anthropology (remember Pelagius was a teacher in Christian history that taught that humans could do spiritual works all by their own efforts and willing—something Augustine criticized with most Christian theologians following Augustine), which treats you as if you must function as your best self now.

Zahl describes the benefits of low anthropology as such: “The better you expect yourself to be, the more crushed you will be when you fall short—and the more fuel you’ll have for negative self-regard. A low anthropology gives us permission to look at ourselves clearly without hiding behind a scaffolding of self-flattery. It frees us from the tyranny of expectation, which fuels resentment of others” (21). The danger of a low anthropology is that it can be perceived as providing a crutch or an excuse for not growing or doing what you’re supposed to but don’t want to do. But, for anyone who has experienced grace, forgiveness when it wasn’t expected and, certainly, not required, there we find a place of growth and energy to move beyond our inadequacies. Zahl’s point isn’t really to help us find balance between what theologians call antinomianism (i.e., no law) and legalism or ongoing salvation by working harder (there’s something about our humanity in which this doesn’t always work, ironically), but to change our perspective on how we approach humans not just in the beginning of their walk with Christ but in their ongoing walk with Christ.

We are all anthropologists at the end of the day and what we believe about humans matters to how we look at life in general. Zahl invites us to consider a grace-rich conception of humanity in light of our inflated anthropologies.


Joshua R. Farris

Joshua Ryan Farris, Rev, Ph.D, He is Humboldt Experienced Researcher Fellow at the University of Bochum, Germany, 2022-2023; Mundelein Seminary Chester and Margaret Paluch Professor, 2020-2021, March 2020 Center of Theological Inquiry; Director of Trinity School of Theology; International Advisor, Perichoresis, The Theological Journal of Emanuel University; Associate Editor, Philosophical and Theological Studies for the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies; Associate Editor, European Journal of Philosophy of Religion.


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