Skip to content
Home > Blog > Yes, Theology is Anthropology But . . .

Yes, Theology is Anthropology But . . .

  • by

Most definitions of “self” that I have seen define the term as something about “essential being.” What we call the self is a human being’s essence.

That is, I think, the popularly understood definition.

The challenge with that definition is that we are always putting some sort of description in front of “self.” Terms such as “real” self. “True” self. “Social” self. “Spiritual” self. Yes, we can even say, “essential” self. Which indicates a certain circularity to our definitions.

The mere fact that we can and do put all these descriptive qualifiers in front of the term “self” indicates a challenge beyond the problem of circular definition. For example, I’ve come to the conclusion that the “social” self and the — let’s say “religious” or “spiritual” self — are at cross-purposes.

Or at the least can quickly become so.

How can it be that one “self” may be at cross-purposes with another “self” within a single . . . self? Are we different selves in various circumstances or is the “self” so large that it bears partitioning off and naming the various sections very different names?

Reflect a moment on something the mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal wrote:

All of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit alone in a room for any length of time.

Or, in gender-neutral terms:

All human problems stem from our inability to sit alone in a room for any length of time.

That may be a bit of an overstatement, but it’s clearly true that we humans don’t sit alone very well. Then reflect on something Audre Lorde wrote:

If you don’t define yourself for yourself then you will be crushed into the other’s fantasies of you and eaten alive.

When Pascal claims that one of the problems with humanity is that we can’t sit in a room alone for any length of time, he’s talking about the spiritual or religious self, perhaps more clearly termed the “contemplative” self. The self that meditates, prays, does yoga, journals, is mindful. That sort of self.

The goal of most contemplative practices is to weaken — ideally to destroy — the ego and get at the “absolute” self, whatever that means. An entire loss of self is often part of a mystical experience. Audre Lorde, however, is talking about a self that is resilient in the hurly-burley of the social world.

Can Audre Lorde’s concept of self also be considered contemplative? Or is it that the doing, out-in-the-world self and the contemplative self are at loggerheads?

This apparent conundrum leads me to think that the nineteenth century German theologian Ludwig Feuerbach was onto something when he said, “Theology is anthropology.”

The work of theology is the work of studying the human animal. In contemplation and in action. That rings true to me. Yet it is also true that theology is sociology. And psychology. And I’m sure a bunch of other “ologies.”

So, back to the contradiction. The removal of ego — or at least the diminution of ego on our thinking and actions — is what classic religion and spirituality have been about, at least in the claims for religion and spirituality.

Remember: Pascal didn’t have a smartphone! Or a laptop or a computer or streaming. Pascal meant being actually alone with your self. He thought that most human problems arise because most humans can’t stand to face our true, absolute selves.

Which leads me to ask: Do the majority of people find their “true selves” so terrible, so frightening, so boring — or whatever— so something that we would really rather shop on eBay than face it?

We leave meditation and contemplation of our higher selves and higher values, and off we go out into the world. The social world.

What then?

Then we have to get to the dangerous business that Audre Lorde describes: retaining a self in the face of others who wish to Other us.

That’s tough. And many of us don’t bother to even try to tie the self we know in contemplation and the self who acts in the world. Yet, isn’t that a loss to both our own integrity and a loss to the communal whole?

Perhaps Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius gets close to an answer:

Many seek retreats for themselves. Places in the country, by the sea, in the mountains. I think of these too. But this is a common mistake.

In truth, you can retreat into yourself anytime. There is nowhere quieter. Nowhere are you more free.

Tranquility is nothing more than the good ordering of the mind.

(Meditations 4.3.1)

Share this...