Higher Living Through Lower Expectations

Low Anthropology:
The Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others (and Yourself)

By David Zahl
Brazos, pp. 208, $26.99

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Review by Mac Stewart

One of the gifts of Dave Zahl’s work has been the way he persistently sings the song of grace for souls languishing under a weight of perceived expectations. His new book sings this song in a new key, sensitively attuned, as always, to the cultural indications that people are yearning for such a song.

Its basic premise is that many of the neuroses of our time — tribalization, anxiety, loneliness, burnout — can be traced to a falsely inflated anthropology, a mostly tacit and unexamined belief that humans are highly capable beings, endowed with a possibility for achievement that requires only sufficient effort and the appropriate strategy. He calls this faulty philosophy “high anthropology,” and finds it lurking behind everything from graduation speeches to social media to a judgmental attitude toward others.

Zahl’s concern is eminently pastoral, as he sees in the souls he has shepherded over decades of church work, especially with young adults, the “fallout” of a “tireless perfectionism” that is “killing us” (23). Beyond the clear and statistically verifiable destructiveness of the impossibly high expectations people now set for themselves — anxiety meds among college students, Zahl notes, doubled between 2007 and 2019 (before the pandemic) — he makes the compelling case that even the heightened societal divisiveness we have seen in recent years is traceable to this “high anthropology.”

If we assume that people are essentially reasonable, in control of themselves, motivated by an uncomplicated desire for peace and the common good, and perfectly free to do the right thing (according to our own sense of what is right, good, and reasonable), then we are setting ourselves up to be sorely disappointed. When someone’s behavior falls well short of our expectations, we will inevitably conclude the person must be different from us. Such expectations, therefore, create divisions.

When, on the other hand, we embrace what Zahl calls a “low anthropology,” it leads not only to a more gracious view of ourselves, but also to a solidarity with others that is grounded in our common weakness rather than in impossibly high standards.

Such an anthropology has three basic “pillars.” First, it embraces limitation, rejecting the fantasy that “full optimization” of our powers is within reach (48). Second, it acknowledges the conflicted nature of our willing, a phenomenon that Zahl calls “doubleness.” Here he has in mind Romans 7 and Confessions 8: so often we find our will for the good outmaneuvered by irrational impulse or constricted by bad habits. Third, a low anthropology recognizes our inveterate self-centeredness, Zahl’s less heavily freighted term for sin, understood, via Augustine, as being “curved in on the self.”

Together, these pillars can produce a healthier approach to our relationships with others and with ourselves, revealing to us the way we try to avoid our native weaknesses by fantasy and projection, and making us humbler, more courteous, and compassionate, and equipped with good humor as we broach inevitably contentious matters (including politics and religion).

Zahl has a gentle and affable way in this book of inviting a nevertheless incisive and therefore ultimately healing self-examination, for which the reader will be grateful. I worry sometimes that Zahl is inclined to conflate holiness with achievement — and, in (rightly) rejecting the soteriological significance of the latter, also minimizes the importance of the former. But he also makes it clear that the view he proposes in no way means to reject the real place of sanctification in the Christian life; he only rejects (again, rightly) that it is something we can effect by ourselves apart from the work of grace.

Still, I do wonder whether a full picture of Christian anthropology does not include a picture of the human that is, in fact, sky high. God became human so that humans could become gods, says the old patristic axiom, and the Fathers weren’t pulling that from nowhere: “he has granted to us his precious and very great promises,” that we might “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

True, we can only attain to these heights by first embracing our lowliness; indeed, nothing short of death will free us from our limitation, doubleness, and self-centeredness. But the low anthropology that such a death requires leads, in the end, to the highest anthropology imaginable: to the divinized human nature that already sits, in its Source and Exemplar, at the right hand of the Father.

The Rev. Mac Stewart is priest associate at All Saints’, Chevy Chase, Maryland.


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