The moment of revelation came over a meal of polenta and chicken. I was in my third year of theological study at a residential college where we all not only ate the same meals but also studied the same subjects, shared the same friends, and lived in the same building.
It hit me as I sat there, idly contemplating whether I even liked polenta: After three years living the same life as everyone else, I was convinced my peers were all doing it much more successfully than I was.
The opening pages of David Zahl’s Low Anthropology: The Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others (and Yourself) instantly transported me back to that moment. Zahl, founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries, readily acknowledges that we all-too-frequently feel that “everyone else is happy and not struggling.” The solution, he contends, lies in readjusting our anthropology.
Before that impressive-sounding word puts off his readers, he quickly explains that anthropology simply means understanding what it is to be human. “Whether we realize it or not,” he writes, “our personal anthropology funds expectations in our relationships, jobs, marriages, and politics. Its bearing on our worldview—and therefore our happiness—cannot be overstated.”
Zahl plots anthropologies on a linear spectrum. Up one end is a “high anthropology,” characterized by optimistic—in fact, perfectionistic—assumptions about human nature. Down the other end is a “low anthropology,” which represents a far more modest—though not hopelessly pessimistic—alternative.
In the first part of his argument, Zahl analyzes what he calls the three pillars of low anthropology. In the second, he investigates the mechanics of why we avoid low anthropology and what fruit it can bear when we embrace it. And in his final part, Zahl explores practical applications of low anthropology in the realms of self, relationship (read: marriage), politics, and religion.
Zahl’s analysis of the three pillars is a compelling read, especially for any sufferers of chronic impostor syndrome (ahem). First, he confronts his readers with their inevitable limitations, arguing that high anthropology’s goal of “full optimization” is nonsensical because humans are “bound by time and biology and history and all sorts of other factors.” In embracing the reality “that we are creatures with limited capacities,” low anthropology provides a strange but welcome liberation.
Second is what Zahl terms “doubleness,” meaning “the complicated nature of human motivation” and “the baffling divergence between what we think we want and what we actually do.” Low anthropology, he argues, meets these internally confounding and often conflicting compulsions with acknowledgment, patience, and compassion—both for ourselves and for others.
Finally, Zahl turns to the pillar that barely needs extrapolation—our self-centeredness. He contends that low anthropology “proceeds from the foundational insight that human beings are egocentric.” As a result, it can equip us to confront and counterbalance our own biases while making patient allowances for those of others.
This first part of Zahl’s book resonated with deep and disquieting discernment. I found myself reflected in his remarks far too often for comfort. The same section also lays the groundwork for some pertinent and constructive considerations. These include the way low anthropology critiques cancel culture by discouraging “pigeonholing [of] the bad actor as an inhuman villain,” pushes against ideological tribalism, and critiques the modern idol of the authentic self by recognizing that, “to the extent it exists at any given moment, [it] may not be our best self.”
In all these ways (and more), Zahl demonstrates that his low anthropological finger is firmly on the pulse of human experience in our Western cultural moment. And yet, this strong resonance with collective human experience led me to question the methodological consistency of the book’s argument. Zahl urges us to adopt low anthropology because it allows us to see “people as they truly are.” And yet our capacity to do that is undoubtedly compromised by the very things he identifies as anthropologically problematic—our inherent limitations, our tendency toward doubleness, and our tragic self-centeredness.
Put another way, if low anthropologists extrapolate “from what they see inside themselves,” on what basis can we really trust their insight?
I found myself hungering, then, for a more objective grounding of low anthropology. Specifically, I was waiting for sustained theological reflection. My margins are filled with hopeful questions: “Is he going to explore how our knowledge is limited and corrupted due to sin making our thinking futile?” “Will he relate ‘doubleness’ with our refusal to submit to God and draw near him?” “Does he frame our selfishness as a work of the flesh rather than merely a regrettable human weakness?”
For sure, Zahl provides glimpses of these things. There are brief moments in which Bible verses (not always in context) are co-opted to sustain a point. We see limited insights offered through the lens of Augustine or other theologians, along with some acknowledgment of how a faith perspective might frame the discussion, and so on. But it isn’t until the final chapter (more on that in a moment) that Zahl engages in any substantial theological or biblical argument.
As a result, most of Low Anthropology reads as broadly sociological rather than specifically Christian. Yes, it has hints of Christian flavor. However, before the final chapter, these moments tend to frame Christianity as one particular way of understanding what it is to be human, and not necessarily the most perceptive or truthful one.
This comes across most clearly in Zahl’s presentation of sin. He first introduces “The S-Word” as the Judeo-Christian way to speak about self-centeredness (as opposed to the more theological picture of self-centeredness as one manifestation of sin). Elsewhere, he writes, “As I see it, sin is a word for describing the predisposition against flourishing that appears to be encoded in human DNA.”
Astute Christian readers will have (at least) two critical reservations about this definition. First, sin is not a hardwired component of our DNA. After all, our DNA is God’s handiwork, and God is not the author of sin. Instead, sin is the horrific condition we have inherited from our fallen forebear, Adam, and have each tragically gone on to embrace for ourselves. Second, sin’s poor implications for human flourishing are secondary to its primary essence: the suppression of the truth of who God is and who we are in relationship to him, each other, and the world.
Zahl’s anemic definition of sin results in underdeveloped proposals for how low anthropology can address it. He acknowledges that “sin cries out for reconciliation and forgiveness,” that “perhaps faith, then, is the ultimate fruit” of low anthropology, and that mercy is required “in the midst of mutually failed expectations.” But for most of the book, readers are left to determine the meaning of these foundational concepts for themselves.
The true gateway to God
But then, finally, comes the last chapter (“Low Anthropology in Religion”) and with it a clear, compelling, and glorious presentation of the gospel. At last, the reader receives meaningful insight into a specifically Christian understanding of forgiveness, hope, mercy, grace, faith, and what it is to be human. Yet regrettably, this chapter proves problematic for two reasons—one functional and the other theological.
Functionally, Zahl’s relation of low anthropology to the gospel simply comes too late. The chapter seems intended as a big reveal—Ta-da! The answer was Jesus all along! However, this last-minute shift is jarring after spending the previous nine chapters reading as many appeals, if not more, to secular sociology than to the Bible or Christian theology. As such, the Christian reader is likely to experience a case of whiplash, while the non-Christian reader must feel like the victim of a bait and switch.
The final chapter is also theologically problematic. While Zahl wonderfully expounds the gospel in its pages, the book’s broader argument doesn’t prepare the ground adequately for revealing Jesus as the ultimate answer. To observe why, consider two quotes, one from the beginning of the book and one from the end.
In his first chapter, Zahl asserts that “any discussion of theology, who or what God is, must begin with an accurate appreciation of who we are—in other words, an accurate anthropology.” That is to say, Zahl argues that we must understand and know ourselves before we can hope to understand and know God. But Scripture tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10) and that from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding (Prov. 2:6). That is, God’s Word says we can only hope to know ourselves if we first know him. After all, he is the creator of humanity, the author of anthropology.
Zahl’s topsy-turvy starting premise is carried right through to the other bookend. “This is ultimately why a low anthropology carries such unparalleled urgency,” he concludes. “Because it forms the gateway to God, the source of love and life.”
But this conclusion is deeply dissatisfying! Anthropology—whether low or high—is not the gateway to God. Access to the source of love and life does not come through self-understanding. Instead, as Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Though Zahl’s account of low anthropology has much to recommend itself, it is not, as he suggests, the unlikely key to a gracious view of ourselves (and others). Such an accolade belongs to Jesus alone. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ carries unparalleled urgency. Because it forms the gateway to God, the source of love and life.
Danielle (Dani) Treweek is an author, a theological researcher, and a deacon within the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, Australia. She is the founding director of Single Minded, which promotes a biblical vision of singleness, marriage, and relationships.
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