In the last post I laid out a longing for a Unified Theory of Everything – a theological “big picture” that makes sense of the parts.
I would like to suggest that we find the starting point for this unified field theory in philosophical anthropology. Or, in case you don’t like big words: in the question of human personhood. What does it mean to be human?
Theologians have often avoided starting with this question, because after all, humans are not ultimate in the universe. God is. And so theologians often prefer to start with God. The classic Systematic Theology texts all begin with Theology Proper – who is God in his glorious Triune being? Then they move on to describe God’s work in creation and providence, and they eventually get to man.
This “from above” approach is reverent and reasonable. But it might not be the most helpful. Because in ministry, we’re always starting “from below”. Refer back to the list of questions I mentioned in the first post:
- Worship: What should we do in our corporate gatherings?
- Preaching: How should we communicate God’s word effectively?
- Counseling: How do we help people change, heal, and grow?
- Leadership Development: How do we train and release leaders?
- Mission: What is the mission of God and how do we participate in it?
- Community: How do we connect people to one another in redemptive, life-giving, disciple-making communities?
- Cultural Renewal: How do we help people glorify God in their everyday vocations?
- Children’s Ministry: How do we help parents disciple the next generation?
These questions are all about what we (fallen-and-redeemed humans) should do to glorify God among people (other fallen-and-redeemed-or-not-yet-redeemed humans) living in a fallen world. Our starting point is unavoidably human. And starting from humanity does not avoid the question of God – it merely delays it a few steps. As John Calvin observed, knowledge of ourselves is bound up with knowledge of God, and vice versa.
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern… no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God. (Institutes I.1.1)
So, I conclude, it is not ignorant or irreverent to start with the question of anthropology. If we can answer the question “What is a human person?” we are well on our way to contemplating God, and to arriving at a coherent theology of everything.
As an added bonus, this starting point gives us massive common ground with the culture around us. If we start with the question “Who is God?” – as important as that question is – our pluralistic culture immediately wants to beat us with the exclusivist stick. But if we start with the question “What is a human person?” we are asking a question that matters deeply for everyone who wants to help people. And we will tend to get a slightly longer leash from our pluralist friends (though their eventual response may be the same).
Make no mistake – anthropology is at the heart of every cultural and theological debate in our modern day. Are children innocent angels or fallen sinners? Are humans highly evolved primates or unique and special creations? Are we responsible for our actions, or are they someone else’s fault? Can we change, or do biology and psychology lock us into certain patterns of living? These questions underlie every issue from contraception to capital punishment.
So then: what does it mean to be human? This is the question we must answer in search of a unified theory of everything. More in the next post.