Category Archives: Anthropology

What a Wonderful World

(“What a Wonderful World”: what whimsical words to write while waging war with influenza! Would that I win!)

I’m guessing most of you, if not all of you, have at least heard Louis Armstrong’s classic recording of the song, “What a Wonderful World.” Upon preliminary reflection, it seems to me that the song is, among other possibilities, a song about perspective: namely, the perspective we choose to take on our daily lives, and the attitude that accompanies that perspective. Will we perceive life as a gift with many goods, or as something always falling short? Perhaps choosing to see the world as wonderful can transform us.

Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World” (from Wikipedia)

Last night, propped up in a spare bed, battling flu symptoms and desperately hoping not to infect my wife and daughter, I watched a documentary (Take that, you stupid, vaccine-evading strain of flu!). It was a science documentary about …

Influenza Virus (from Wikipedia)

… fossils. It was a 2016 National Geographic documentary about recent discoveries of human fossil remains.

Get this: A scientist (Lee Berger) in South Africa hired a fossil hunter (Pedro Boshoff) to explore their area for possible fossil-rich sites.  (Africa has numerous sites where human fossils have been found.) Boshoff found an underground cave that he got two cave divers (Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker) to explore  more thoroughly. Deep inside the cave, Hunter and Tucker found a large chamber with numerous fossils buried in sediment. They took pictures, which they shared with Boshoff. Boshoff, in turn, shared them with Berger.

Berger immediately began organizing a multi-week, multi-person (including multi-scientist) exploration of the site. To make a long story short, fossils of several (about 15) individuals were found, all judged to be members of the same species, and all belonging to our genus Homo, but of an extinct species. The discoverers named the species Homo naledi. You can read the Wikipedia article about Homo naledi here. You can read the first scientific report here.

Homo naledi Skeletal Specimens. From the Lee Roger Berger Research Team (, which does not necessarily endorse my article or my use of this photo.

At this point, rather than focus on the fossils themselves, I want to say that I found myself struck by how excited the participating scientists were about their work. They were filled with wonder before, during, and after the fieldwork, lab work, and reporting. The documentary’s first-hand footage of the expedition helps us viewers see the role of emotions in science. Scientists are human. In the documentary, you see smiles, laughter, tears, shouts, and hugs.

To be sure, there are other emotions to behold in the documentary — and in science as a whole, as evidenced by pushback against the discovery from several prominent scientists, reported in the March 2016 issue of Scientific American magazine (article “Mystery Human” by Kate Wong). From the article, I sense anger and irritation, for instance. But here I wish to focus on the wonder and joy.

To watch these scientists, you could tell that, in powerful ways and at least for significant moments, they loved what they were doing. The world was wonderful to them. Their work was wonderful. The fossils they found were wonderful. So much wonder. So much awe. So much appreciation for life, for curiosity, for unexpected discoveries, for shared (and sharing) experiences.

An Old Testament scholar, Bill Brown, has written about the experience of wonder that frequents, not only the work of scientists, but also the Old Testament Scriptures. In 2010, he had a book published entitled The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.  In short, throughout this 240-page, Oxford-published book, Brown argues that Old Testament authors and modern scientists alike see the world as wonderful.

William Brown’s The Seven Pillars of Creation (from Amazon)

In Brown’s view, the concept of wonder provides common ground on which Bible readers and scientists can meet to talk about each others’ views, beliefs, and work. That is, Brown is trying to promote peace, and he believes that our wonderful world itself has a role to play in bringing about that peace. Picture a scientist scraping away sediment from a fossil, revealing it more clearly, and smilingly exclaiming, This is wonderful! Now picture a Bible-believer reading a nature-psalm (e.g., Psalm 104), which exclaims, This world is wonderful! Thirdly, now picture a Bible-believer alongside a scientist exploring the world and together exclaiming, This is wonderful!

Brown does not think that wonder is a magical concept. Just getting two people alongside each other and saying that the world is wonderful will not automatically bring about peace between science and Christian faith. But if scientists and Christians alike — and I should note that there are many scientists who are Christians — can posture their relationship with each other based on their agreement that the world is wonderful to them both, then perhaps they will lower their guard enough to listen and share their wonder. Perhaps understanding will emerge, even if some disagreements persist.

As a Bible, theology, and ministry guy, I’ve seen (but also often missed) the nature-wonder throughout the Bible. Even so, I have experienced wonder in the natural world. And I have also shared time with a scientist (a paleontologist) who wonders at the fossils he finds and shares with others. In fact, I’m cleaning some fossil sea shells for him now. He puzzled excitedly over something I found, and his joy at my discovery made me happy — a contagion much more welcome than this flu virus. And that’s Brown’s point: wonder is a healthy contagion for Bible readers and scientists alike.

So then, what if we gave the song “What a Wonderful World” new lyrics for the science / faith relationship? How might they read? Could they, like Armstrong’s singing of the song, gently invite us to look at the world with resolve and intentionality? And do our own habits of talking about the world posture us to spread the contagion of wonder so that more and more fighters in the science / faith battle lay down their weapons and enjoy the world together? Perhaps choosing to see the world as wonderful can transform us.

Adventures in Thinking about What’s Wrong with Us (Part 3)

Is my series title a little too cheery (“Adventures”!) for such a seemingly grim topic? If so, then maybe it is meaningful for us to remember not to take ourselves too seriously! (Especially if taking ourselves too seriously is part of what’s wrong with us.)

I would not be surprised if human cultures had long believed that something is wrong with humanity, and if they had tried to explain why that is the case. As for the Judeo-Christian tradition, some postbiblical Jews wrote reflections on Adam and Eve that extended that story further than the biblical story itself. The Christian apostle Paul did a similar thing in some of his letters (Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15). Then in turn, postbiblical Christian thinkers wrote extensively on human nature and the human condition.

After reading James Smith’s essay, “What Stands on the Fall?” — including his discussion of Augustine and the Reformed tradition of Christianity — I was compelled to revisit some of these strands of thought that have had such significant influence on Christian beliefs over the centuries. I love chasing these rabbits!

One other quick note before proceeding. In this discussion of the Fall, we might also use another expression that frequently occurs alongside of “the Fall,” and that expression is “original sin.” Part and parcel of much Christian thinking about what is wrong with humans is discussion not only of how sin originated in humanity, but also whether or not sin is something that can be passed from one generation to the next, from parents to their children. Christian traditions have answered this question differently.

Church Fathers on What’s Wrong with Us

If you like history and/or are interested in the history of Christian beliefs, I recommend a book to which I was introduced in graduate school: Donald McKim, Theological Turning Points: Major Issues in Christian Thought (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988). McKim’s discussion of the Fall and original sin occurs in chapter 4, “Anthropological Controversy: What Is Humanity?”

Theological Turning Points (from Amazon)

Justin Martyr (ca. AD 100-165) was a man from Samaria who studied philosophy and later converted to Christianity. He would travel to Rome to teach, and would be opposed, tried, and beheaded there. He was one of the earliest Christian “apologists”: thinker-writers who defended the Christian faith against social and political charges frequently made against the Christians.

Justin Martyr (from Wikipedia)

In Justin’s setting, there were various explanations on offer for what is wrong with us humans. Several thinkers concluded that humans are powerless over their own lives because of either the world’s basic structure (Stoicism), or the arrangement of the stars and other celestial bodies (astrology), or having to live a physical existence (Gnosticism). Against all of these beliefs, Justin argued that spiritual forces of evil lured Adam and subsequent humans into sinful actions, but that humans retained free will, as well as their capacity to choose and do good things. Moreover, Justin did not believe that Adam’s sinful nature was inherited by subsequent generations of humans. Each individual of each generation is responsible for his or her choices, for good or evil (McKim, 1988, pp. 65-66).

McKim goes on to discuss several other early Church Fathers on the topics of the Fall, human nature, and original sin. Several Eastern Fathers believed and taught that humans after Adam tended to lean more toward sin than good, but that they had the capacity to will and choose and do good: into this category fits thinkers like Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 130-202), Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), Origen of Alexandria (AD 185-254), Athanasius of Alexandria (AD 296-373), the Cappadocian Fathers (ca. AD 330s-380s/390s), and John Chrysostom (ca. AD 349-407) (pp. 66-69).

Into this category also fits someone we will treat more extensively next time: Pelagius (AD 360-420). This Christian monk believed strongly enough in the human capacity to do good that he found himself the target of someone who would turn out to become one of Christianity’s most influential thinkers: Augustine of Hippo.

In contrast to the thinking that seems to have typified the Fathers of the Eastern Church — the Greek-speaking churches that predominated the Eastern portions of the Roman Empire — there seems to have emerged a gradual-but-influential strand of thinking in the Western Church — the Latin-speaking churches that predominated in the Western Empire. From this region came the reflections of Tertullian, Ambrose, and Augustine.

(Note: This difference between East and West is consequential, because Protestants will emerge from the Western Church and its habits of thought pertaining to the Fall, human nature, and original sin. So please keep this fundamental East / West difference in mind.)

Tertullian of Carthage (AD 160-220) taught that humans inherit a sinful nature from Adam, but do not inherit his guilt. Despite their sinful nature, humans are still capable of doing good (McKim, pp. 66-67). Ambrose of Milan (AD 337-397) shared Tertullian’s views about humans inheriting a sinful nature from Adam, and about humans still being capable of doing good. In contrast from Tertullian, however, Ambrose taught that humans inherited Adam’s guilt. That is, we are born guilty of sin (McKim, pp. 69-70).

Ambrose of Milan (from Wikipedia)

Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) shared Tertullian’s belief that humans inherit Adam’s sinful nature, and he shared Ambrose’s belief that humans inherit Adam’s guilt. In contrast to both of these predecessors, however, Augustine taught that humans are incapable of doing good: their nature is so altered by Adam’s choice and action that their free will no longer wills to do good, let alone carry it out (McKim, pp. 70-73). For Augustine, what’s wrong with us is that we are born with a sinful nature, guilty of sin that occurred before us, and incapable of doing good and improving our condition.

This is not the last word from Augustine, however. He develops his doctrine of grace to explain how God goes about responding to the human predicament and giving humans the opportunity to have fixed what is so horribly wrong with them. In the next post, we will look more closely at Augustine’s dispute with Pelagius over what is wrong with us and what we can (or can’t) do about it.

Core Questions

I hope you find this brief survey of early Church Fathers helpful. Specifically, I hope you let them push you to do your own thinking about what is wrong with us humans.

To promote this thinking, let me ask the core questions that I have after revisiting these Church Fathers. First, do people inherit their moral nature from their parents and other ancestors? What arguments can you devise for and against such a view? Second, do people inherit the guilt of what others do, and, especially in this case, what others did before they came along? Again, what evidence do you find for thinking that people do or do not inherit guilt from their ancestors? Third, are people capable of wanting to do good, choosing to do good, and successfully carrying out the good? What evidence suggests that people do possess this capacity? Is there evidence suggesting that people are not capable of good?

Thanks for journeying with me!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Adventures in Thinking about What’s Wrong with Us (Part 2)

The Christian doctrine of the Fall is many things: it incorporates interpretations of biblical texts, whole traditions of thinking in Christian history, and the first-hand experiences of people in every age. In short, the Fall is the Christian description of how humanity went from the state in which they were originally created by God to a state of sin and rebellion against God — that is, a description of how humans fell from God’s created intent. Or, to say it differently, the Fall is the Christian description of what’s wrong with us.

Since scientific investigations of humans include claims about the origins, history, and nature of humans, Christians frequently respond to the science in order to stake their own claims about the meanings (or not) of the science for Christian understandings of the Fall. They are trying to answer a question like this one: What bearings, if any, do scientific claims about humans have on Christian understandings of what is wrong with us humans, and of how we humans came to have these things wrong with us?

James Smith’s “What Stands on the Fall?”

Just this year (2017), a group of Christian authors collaborated to give their answers to these questions in the book Evolution and the Fall (Eerdmans, 2017). James K. A. Smith, a Christian philosopher from Calvin College, contributed a philosophical analysis of the issues in an essay entitled “What Stands on the Fall? A Philosophical Exploration.” This 17-page chapter is divided mostly into two parts: the first part elucidates the core claims of the Fall, and the second part evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Christian efforts to relate these core claims to scientific claims about humans.

In my estimation, Smith’s essay has several strengths. First, it pushes readers to clarify what the Fall really is and is not about. Second, it bears the marks of humility, taking a tone that is more along the lines of thoughtful suggesting than dogmatic insisting. Smith is seeking to stir readers’ “theological imagination” (p. 56), their abilities to imagine a God that is bigger than their preconceived ideas. A third major strength of the essay is its clear and explicit desire to honor God and to be faithful to the gospel entrusted to Christians. Fourth, Smith is humble enough to take science seriously.

Despite the value I place on this essay and its potential for helping Christians, I also find two significant weaknesses in the essay. First, there is a lack of clarity as to the meaning of the words good and goodness. Second, there is a lack of attention to free will. Let me explain these weaknesses in context.

A Good God Created Good Humans

Smith’s central thesis is that any faithful Christian response to scientific claims about humans will insist on the goodness of God and the original goodness of humans. In short, a good God created good humans. There was nothing wrong with us when God created us. Something later went wrong with us, but it was not God’s fault that things went wrong and when things went wrong.

I will set aside the goodness of God as a given. Instead, what I want to ask is, What does it mean to call humanity “good”? I submit to you that this question is harder than it seems. As I read Smith’s discussions of humanity’s original goodness — discussions that both summarize certain Christian traditions (e.g., Reformed) and present Smith’s own views — I find myself unclear about Smith’s own understandings of the words good and goodness.

For example, the Reformed Belgic Confession seems to have identified original goodness as original righteousness (p. 52). This is a moral meaning of the word good. In short, a good God created morally-good humans. Thus, even if humans weren’t morally perfect, and even if they had room to mature, they were still morally good in their first created state (pp. 56-57).

But is moral goodness the meaning of good in Genesis 1, where humans are part of the “very good” creation that God evaluates in 1:31? In the scheme of Genesis 1, humans are “good” before there is any discussion of whether they perform good or bad acts — that is, they are pronounced “good” before they make any moral choices. Perhaps good means that humans simply matter to God, before they make any choices. This is certainly a value meaning of good, but not necessarily a moral one. In short, a good God creates good humans — i.e., humans whose existence and life he values and delights in.

Perhaps we could imagine other nuances in the meaning of good as applied to humans as God created them, but Smith’s discussion of sin may clarify for you why I am confused. “Then whence sin? The Reformed confessions are unanimous in emphasizing that sin befalls a good creation — it is an irruption in the order of a good creation. Sin is not ‘natural’ or some natural outgrowth of creation” (p. 53).

I understand the claim that a good God did not create humans such that they had to sin. Christians do not believe that a good God created morally-bad humans. So yes, in this sense, “sin is not ‘natural’ ” (p. 53): God did not include sin as such as an ingredient in the nature that he gave to humans. But is it also true that “sin is not … some natural outgrowth of creation” (emphasis mine)?

This is precisely where Smith’s lack of attention to free will confuses me. (It also befuddles a philosopher-colleague of mine who read the essay.) I grant that God did not create sin within humans, but he did, on all accounts (biblical and confessional), give humans free will to choose sin. In this sense, is it not true that sin is “some natural outgrowth of creation”? If free will is natural to humans, and if it was originally the case that humans could use their freedom to sin, then how can we say that sin is not a natural outgrowth of creation? Does sin not grow out of the free natures that humans were given?

My response here is not an effort to find fault with God for giving humans free will. Nor am I faulting God for the human choice to sin. I believe that free will is from God, and that it is good. Nonetheless, if the human ability to choose was good, then it seems to me that the human capacity to sin was part and parcel of God’s good creation. In other words, part of what it means for humans to be “good” is that they had the capacity to do good or evil, to choose or reject God.

Now, to be fair to Smith, much of his essay presents the views of entire Christian traditions (Augustinian and Reformed), and so some of my confusions may have more to do with those traditions than with Smith’s own views. Even so, Smith himself works so hard to avoid “inscribing brokenness into the fabric of creation” (p. 63) that his relative silence on free will is rather deafening to me. Again, if free will is an intrinsic feature to God’s good creation, including God’s good humans, then the potential for brokenness is in fact inscribed in the fabric of creation.

So What’s Wrong with Us?

My confusions notwithstanding, I am grateful for Smith’s essay, and I think Christians will be well served by interacting thoughtfully with it. In fact, I have already been well served by it: the essay prompted me to dust off previous studies of Augustine and other Christians who have written influentially about the Fall. These renewed studies will surface in the next posts in this series.

For now, let’s return to our original question: What’s wrong with us? Christian doctrines of the Fall all more or less answer that we humans are born into a world that has a lengthy history of people doing bad things, with consequences that ripple well beyond the perpetrators, and outlive them as well, influencing more people than ever can be fully anticipated and calculated. The Fall is one way in which Christians assert that this human condition was not the only option available to us. God gave humans options.

What is more, once certain choices have been made and certain actions taken, the effects alter the character of human life (and the world) significantly enough that we can never go back to an earlier time when the better options were less cluttered by the tangled web of human actions and reactions. All of our choices take place in our cluttered setting. Rather than despair, though, I think the doctrine of the Fall can help us take both the impact and the limitations of our actions more realistically. Perhaps in its own way, the Fall can help us be better humans, and maybe think more carefully before we act.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Adventures in Thinking about What’s Wrong with Us (Part 1)

Three and a half years ago, my wife and I took a (nerdy) vacation that included a special program in Dayton, Tennessee, at the Rhea County Courthouse, site of the (in)famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Before returning home to Middle Tennessee, we stopped off at Tennessee’s Cherokee Removal Memorial Park at Historic Blythe Ferry. If you believe in the concept of holy ground — places where you take off your shoes and listen — this was one of those places.

Instead of a burning bush, what we saw was a body of water: a river across which large groupings of Native Americans were ferried for the rest of their (forced) journey westward to lands that were less in the way of white peoples’ ambitions — for the time being, that is, because the time would come when more populations of white people would want that western land, too. (I wonder why I never hear the language “Trail of Tears” used by certain Christians who try to argue for America being a Christian nation?)

At any rate, the holy ground that is Blythe Ferry is one of many places that will push people whose hearts are still pliable to ask themselves, What is wrong with us?

Recent political happenings in this country have given additional promptings to ask what’s wrong with us, but the main impetus for my current series stems from a book I just finished reading: Evolution and the Fall, just published this year (2017) and edited by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith. The book is a collection of essays by Christian authors who think carefully about the relationship between evolutionary theory in science and Christian beliefs about humanity — what we might call Christian anthropology.

Evolution and the Fall (from Eerdmans Publishing)

The first essay I read was in chapter 3: “What Stands on the Fall? A Philosophical Exploration,” by one of the book’s editors, James Smith. Suffice it to say that this essay took me down memory lane — to courses I have taken in church history and historical theology — and especially to those courses’ treatments of the doctrine of the Fall. My recollection of specifics was dustier than I care to admit, and so I found myself revisiting old texts and prying open other books on my shelves for the first time. What fun it has been!

Yes, I have found myself embarking on adventures in thinking about what’s wrong with us — and I say “us” because it is often enough that my choices and interactions with the world betray that something is wrong with me, too. So, no, I don’t embark on these adventures from some high tower looking down on the broken people below. Rather, I move from one setting to the next, keenly aware of the interwoven ways in which our shared brokenness ties us together in the same plight, from which we might all wish for rescue.

In the next post, I plan to engage some of the salient points from James Smith’s essay “What Stands on the Fall?,” and then invite you on my subsequent journey into Pelagius and Augustine, with intentions to stop off at later thinkers like John Calvin and understandings of the Fall in my own tradition, the Stone-Campbell Movement and the a cappella Churches of Christ. If you’re up for this journey with me, stay tuned. More is on the way.

For now, I close this post by inviting you to think about the question, Is humanity fundamentally good or bad? My series title and preceding comments betray my answer to this question, but I ask it nonetheless to get you thinking about the basic assessment of humanity you carry with you from day to day. When you go where you go and do what you do — and, most importantly, when you interact with other people — what is your basic assessment of them? And, of course, what is your basic assessment of yourself?

For my part, and despite the tone of my post thus far, I do posture myself toward my fellow humans in ways that allow for them to contribute to the picture I paint of them.  That is, I believe that there are things right with us, too. I may be a cynic in general, but I also believe in complexity and disbelieve in oversimplifying human nature and human character. Life’s just not that easy. We must face our daily interactions postured to receive what may occur, and not predetermine the outcomes based on attitudes that may turn out to be fallacious. So, for today at least, in the encounters with humans I have today, I will push myself to ask not just, What’s wrong with us?, but also, What might be right with us?

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4