Why a Christian Anthropology Makes a Difference

by Peter Kreeft –
It is simply impossible to agree on ethics, on how to act, on what is good and what is not, if you disagree about metaphysics or anthropology. And since ethics is unavoidable, so is anthropology.

Of the two words in the term “Christian anthropology,” I assume that I don’t need to define the word Christian because the Church has been doing that for two thousand years – they’re called creeds. But what about anthropology?

By anthropology I mean simply a logos about anthropos, a theory or philosophy about mankind or human nature. I don’t mean the empirical science of anthropology. Everyone, absolutely everyone, needs a philosophical anthropology, especially everyone in the medical profession. But not everyone needs to be a scientific anthropologist, or to have an anthropologist, as everyone does need to have a physician. Everyone needs a physician, but not everyone needs a physicist.

On the other hand, everyone needs not to have a philosopher, but to be a philosopher, though not everyone needs to be a professional philosopher. I think Socrates, the archetype and model for all philosophers, would say that a professional philosopher is a contradiction in terms, because philosopher means literally a lover of wisdom, so professional philosopher means a professional lover, and we all know what that means. Socrates would call people like me intellectual prostitutes. I sell not my body but my mind for money. And today the Catholic Medical Association is my pimp.

You can avoid being a professional philosopher, but you can’t avoid being a philosopher, a lover of wisdom. To love wisdom is simply to be human, just as to love beauty and goodness is simply to be human. The hunger for wisdom is an innate and universal hunger. No-one wants to be a fool. We have innate hungers not only in our bodies, but also in our souls. We have not only physical hungers for food and drink and sleep and sex, but also spiritual hungers for spiritual foods, such as duty and truth and goodness and joy and wisdom and friendship.

One of our spiritual hungers is for truth. Truth comes in at least two different kinds: scientific facts and philosophical wisdom. We get the first kind from sense experience and quantitative calculation. We get the second kind from understanding. The scientific method refines and amplifies our senses by inventing instruments like microscopes and cameras, and refines our quantitative reasoning by instruments like computers. But none of this can give us wisdom and understanding.

The author of Job understood this point over twenty-five centuries ago, when he put these words into the mouth of Job:

“Surely there is a mine for silver and a place for gold which they refine. Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from the ore. Men put an end to darkness and search out to the farthest limit the ore, in gloom and deep darkness. . . . Man puts his hand to the flinty rock, and overturns mountains by the roots. He cuts out channels in the rocks and his eye sees every precious thing. . . . He dams up streams, so they do not trickle, and things that are hidden he brings forth to light. But where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding? Man does not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living. The deep says, ‘It is not in me,’ and the sea says ‘It is not with me.’ It cannot be bought for gold, and silver cannot be weighed as its price. . . . It is hidden from the eyes of all the living, and concealed from the birds of the air. . . . God alone understands the way to it, and He knows its place. . . . He established it, and searched it out. And He said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil, that is understanding.’” Job 28:1 ff.

The difference between science and philosophy, between knowledge and wisdom, is not a difference in degree but in kind. No refinement or amplification of factual knowledge will bring us one step closer to wisdom and understanding, just as no refinement of special effects will give a movie a profound theme, an engaging plot, or believable characters.

By the way, I think that’s the typical difference between the old and new movies and books and philosophical systems and works of art. That’s why in all these fields the crude and primitive often seems more profound than the modern and sophisticated. There are a number of distinctions between knowledge and wisdom, science and philosophy. For instance, science is content with immediate proximate explanations and causes, while philosophy seeks ultimate explanations and causes. But I think the most important difference is that wisdom always has a values dimension. Science is, or tries to be, values neutral. Its demand is that of Sergeant Joe Friday on the old Dragnet TV series: Just the facts, ma’am.

For instance, science tells you whether you can clone or abort or clone or heal an organism, and how to do it, if you can, but it doesn’t tell you whether you should do it, whether it’s good. Many contemporary philosophers believe that philosophy can’t tell you that, either. They are the moral sceptics, or moral relativists, or moral subjectivists. But philosophy at least raises such questions, tries to give you the answers, where science doesn’t. In that way, philosophy is like religion. Philosophy and religion have different methods: reason versus faith. But they ask many of the same questions. Science has not only a different method, but different questions. One of the questions both philosophy and religion ask is the question of philosophical anthropology. What is man? Know thyself, as Socrates famously said, echoing the Delphic oracle.

Another aside here. At the risk of offending many people in any typical modern audience, I shall use standard English rather than politically correct feminist English, and I shall interpret the word man inclusively, as referring equally to males and females, as all books did until the 1960s and 70s, when the linguistic puritans decreed that the word man meant only males, and excluded females, so that when all the authors of all the great books said Man is mortal, or Man is wicked, they really meant to exclude females, since they were of course male chauvinists like everyone else in that horrible oppressive system called western civilization, until the recent sudden enlightenment that went along with the recent glorious sexual revolution. Now, I really don’t enjoy offending people especially female people, since I regard them with awe and love and wonder. But honesty compels me to demur from jumping through the new linguistic hoops, because I cannot help suspecting that to tell Shakespeare and Milton and the translators of the King James Bible what they really meant to say seems to me just a wee bit arrogant. When the psalmist prayed “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” I cannot bring myself to believe that he was thinking of the awesomeness only of males. Or that he should be censured for not having said instead, “What are males, females, the transgendered, the hermaphroditic, and any other possible or actual arrangement of sexual identity and orientation, that thou art mindful of him, her, them or it?” I don’t think we have enough time or enough paper today to write like that, so doing that is not responsibly modern or up-to-date, for if we do it, we will require an ecological disaster in decimating all of our forests to make all the paper, and we will not have enough time left in our days to serve our slavemasters, our email screens.

The four most important questions philosophy asks are the following: First, what is real? That is the question of metaphysics. Metaphysics goes beyond physics not by focusing on the spiritual instead of the physical, but by asking the most universal questions, questions that pertain to everything real. Second, what are we who ask such questions? That is the question of philosophical anthropology. Third, what should we be and do? That is the question of ethics. Fourth, how do we know such things? How do we know anything? That is the question of epistemology, or theory of knowing.

The questions of ethics are obviously the most interesting, and the most important, and the most necessary, and the most unavoidable. But your ethics is always dependent on your anthropology, and on your metaphysics. For you can’t know what is good for man until you know what man is. And metaphysics always comes in, because what man is depends on what is.

For instance, if souls, spirits, gods, and heavens are all unreal, then you will have a very different ethics, and a very different anthropology than you will have if you believe that they are real. You will have a materialistic one. And if you believe that matter and bodies are unreal, as some philosophies and religions do, then again you will have a very different ethics and a very different anthropology. If spirit is only a myth, then the only real goods are material goods, and virtue is only the habit of giving material things and pleasures to others. If matter is only a dream, then you physicians are only playing with dreams when you heal bodies. If souls are illusions, man is only an animal with an attitude. If bodies are illusions, man is only a god with a disguise. It is simply impossible to agree on ethics, on how to act, on what is good and what is not, if you disagree about metaphysics or anthropology. And since ethics is unavoidable, so is anthropology. But my topic is not why we need a philosophical anthropology, but why we need a Christian anthropology.

Christianity is not a man-made rational philosophy. It is the God-made revealed religion. Christianity does not contradict reason; nothing true does. But its central claims are not provable by reason alone. That God is a trinity, that God loves us, that God sent his son to die to save us from sin, that Christ is both fully God and fully man, that we will rise from death because He did. To believe these things is to be a Christian, and to disbelieve them is to be a non-Christian. They are the articles of faith. Why are some people Christians? The only honest reason to be a Christian is that you believe these things are true.

Two other reasons often given for being a Christian are to be good and to be happy. Being good and being happy are indeed two very important things. They are both ends rather than means. No one ever wants to be happy only as a means to something else, like getting rich. No one says, “What good is happiness? It can’t buy money.” And – well, maybe some people do – and no-one ever should be good only as a means to something else, like getting rich or getting elected. No comment there. So happiness and goodness are both ends rather than means.

But truth is also an end, and an absolute. And I think truth even has to trump goodness and happiness, if necessary. And I don’t think that’s my private opinion, or some controversial philosophical theory. I think that is what you all believe and practice. And I think I can prove it. Is there anyone here who still literally believes in Santa Claus? No. But do you remember how good you were and how happy you were when you were three years old, especially in December, because you did believe that? See how honest you are? You can’t sacrifice truth either for goodness or happiness. The only honest reason why anyone should ever believe anything is that it’s true. Other motives can count too – that it makes you good and that it makes you happy are valid selling points; but truth has to come first as the foundation for absolutely everything else.

The fundamental reason we need a Christian anthropology, then, is that a Christian anthroplogy is true. Not, first of all, because it is a means to some other end, however important that other end may be, such as being wise, and being able to intelligently discriminate between good and evil medical practices. Yes, if we are Christians we will be wiser, because we will know extremely important truths and values that we would not know otherwise, so that we will be able to act more wisely and morally in medicine and in life generally. But truth has to come first; we need to know the truth just to know the truth. Truth is first of all an end, before it can be a means to any other ends. So I will try to list a few things that a Christian anthropology teaches us. Things that we probably would not know, or not fully know, or not certainly know, or not fully appreciate, or not fully understand, without Christianity. All these things also make us and our lives more happy and more good. But the first reason for believing them is that they’re true. If they’re not true, we shouldn’t believe them, even if they make us happy or good.

One thing that a Christian anthropology teaches us is a corollary of my point about the absolute value of truth: we must respect the honest motives of our non-Christian friends when they disagree with us about what is truly good. If, for instance, there is no God, no heaven, and no soul, and if there is no absolute moral law, and if earthly pleasure is the highest end, then suicide and euthanasia appear as quite logical options. Whose life is it, anyway? If it’s not God’s, it’s mine. If God is not my god, I am my own god. As a Southern Baptist preacher once said, “I can summarize the whole Bible in four words. God’s trying to get across just two things to us: Number 1 – I’m God. Number 2 – You’re not.” We keep forgetting that second part, don’t we?

Or, alternatively, if matter is a dream, as many Hindus and Buddhists believe, then it logically follows that medical services are optional and dispensable. And compassion and charity to the suffering and dying are not absolute moral obligations. It’s quite logical to believe that a dying derelict is working out his karma, the karma of his dream life, and that therefore we shouldn’t interfere. Now it may well be true that the motives of the non-Christian are dishonest motives. He may only be trying to weasel out of uncomfortably difficult moral obligations. But that may not be true. He may simply be being honest, like Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’s The Plague, who cannot bring himself to believe in God, even though he knows that the meaning of life is to be a saint, and you can’t be a saint without God.

I’m not saying that we should not try to persuade unbelievers to act otherwise. Nor am I saying that the only way to do that is first convert them to Christianity. Often, we can appeal to reason, common sense, or the shards and relics of Christianity that they still have rattling around in their heads without their knowing that they came from Christianity in the first place. Notions like the intrinsic dignity of all men, or inherent and inalienable rights. Many unbelievers will admit such rights. And this admission can logically lead them to God as the necessary foundation of these rights. Just as belief in God logically lead to formulating these rights, historically. Both of those two kinds of argument are possible because you can reason back from the effect to the cause or forward from the cause to the effect. But it makes an enormous difference. If there are such inherent rights, they cannot be abrogated by other people, or by the state, because they were not given by other people, or by the state. If all men have inherent dignity and are to be treated as ends rather than means, then it is reasonable to argue that the only adequate metaphysical basis for this dignity is the existence of God, and the fact that he gave us this dignity by creating us in his image, as persons, as subjects, rather than mere objects. As things that can say I and freely choose.

But people don’t have to follow that argument all the way up to God in order to know that we do have inherent rights. Just as they don’t have to believe in the Creator in order to know a lot about the creation. For God has left in man’s conscience a much more clear and powerful witness about his will than the witness that he has left in man’s mind about his nature. The different religions of the world have radically different ideas of God, or the nature of ultimate reality, but they all teach a remarkably similar and remarkably high morality. And even atheists and agnostics often believe this high morality without believing in its metaphysical basis. Religion gives you a much stronger reason, a much stronger foundation, for those moral beliefs. And among religions, Christianity gives the strongest foundation of all.

I will now offer you a short list of some of the central truths about man that are indispensable for a Christian anthropology. They are indispensable because they make a radical difference. They have a radical impact on our lives, and our practice, and our choices, especially medical practice and choices. I divide the list into four groups, of four points each.

The first group is four truths that even intelligent, honest atheists and agnostics can know, and often do know, if they’re wise enough. The second is four truths that all the great religions of the world teach. The third is four distinctively Christian revelations, and the fourth is four distinctively Catholic ones. When I say distinctively Catholic, I don’t deny that many non-Catholics also often agree with the Church about these things, like contraception, for instance. …

Full article available here: Catholic Education