I do not recall ever reading the same book twice in one year, but, in the case of Low Anthropology, I did. My reason for doing so, however, is not what you might suppose. David Zahl’s insights into human nature, while keen and brilliant, were not the reason. His style of writing, a delightful blend of wit and humor and cutting realism, was also not why.
I read this book, not once but twice, because between my first and second reading, I was strong-armed into the very reality of which Zahl’s book speaks so eloquently. Right after my first time through it, my twenty-one-year-old son, Luke, slipped off a cliff while hiking and fell to his death. Then, two and a half months later, my father, Carson, fell dead from a heart attack.
The frailty, weakness, limitation, and “out-of-controllness” of our human nature—some aspects of our low anthropology—fell upon my soul with a violence I have never before experienced.
If I knew the truth of the book intellectually during the first reading, then I knew it existentially the next time through. A book on human nature morphed into biography.
Zahl’s book puts into highly readable prose what is often chiseled into the hieroglyphic scars we bear from life’s disappointments, failures, abuses, addictions, betrayals, and wanton tragedies. He shows that we humans are, if anything, specimens of congenital imperfection. “We are not as strong as we think we are,” as Rich Mullins sang.
This message is hard to hear, of course, over the roars and shouts of humanity’s—your!—potential to do whatever you set your mind to do. Harness your inward strength. Believe in your limitless potential. Laugh in the face of boundaries that the small minded cower beneath. With enough knowledge, enough expertise, enough self-improvement, enough grit, you can Be Enough.
So go the hymns and creeds in the cathedral of High Anthropology. You do you. Then do an even better you next time. And the next time, still. Onward and upward.
The appeal of such sentiments is that they groom us into thinking that we are free agents in the world. Who doesn’t want that? Life becomes a series of challenges we can, in our self-declared freedom, overcome. Life also becomes a place with definable groups: the have-it-togethers and the messed up, the good and the bad, us and them.
All we have to do is think smart, remain positive, and stay on the right side of history.
These high-sounding, humanity-exalting sentiments lose much of their charm when there’s a knock on your door at 11:30 PM and two Navy officers are standing on your front porch. Or your mom calls, frantic as doctors try in vain to revive the heart of your already dead father. Or this, or that.
We are all one day, one event, one disappointment away from the burst of our high anthropology bubble. Blessed is the bursting of that bubble.
You know the “this” and the “that.” It need not be immediate and catastrophic to hammer home our human frailty and innate weakness. It could be a lifelong battle with clinical depression. PTSD. Our inability to carry through on our best intentions, leaving friends and family let down. Yet another stint in rehab. A co-worker promoted instead of us, with internal resentment clawing inside us. Racial bias. How we freak out when we are not in control.
We are all one day, one event, one disappointment away from the burst of our high anthropology bubble.
Blessed is the bursting of that bubble. Because, ironically, the more in tune we are with our human weakness, the more music we can make with our fellow weak and faltering participants in the choir of humanity.
That is the point of Zahl’s subtitle: The Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others (and Yourself). The adjective “gracious” is well chosen. Grace is a rare commodity in the make-believe world of human perfectibility. But it’s the bread-and-butter of the world where I admit that I, a CEO, a school teacher, a soldier, and a criminal are all made from the same stuff, shaped by our upbringings, shouldered with weaknesses, and plagued by demons probably known only to ourselves. No, it does not excuse our pettiness or horrific crimes, but it certainly aids in the growth of humility as I see others as mirrors of my own soul, and mine of theirs.
In my fifty-two years of life, I have had my moments of success, of reaching the zenith of emotion where I basked in the glory of the seeming impossible having been done. And that’s fine. It happened. I enjoyed it. And it passed. Like a Fourth of July firework, soon the colors faded and the night sky became as dark as it was before. I noticed, too, during those times, that I was isolated in my success. And, had I allowed it (and I did), the joy of accomplishment far too easily changed into the pride of my achievement. My season of high anthropology was a winter of the soul.
But I have also experienced a far different season. After July 16 of this year, I was embraced by a group that I never wanted to be part of: parents of dead children. I hate to call it that, but sometimes you just have to call a thing what it is. What I experienced—good Lord, I struggle even to read this computer screen through my tears—I say, what I experienced is a camaraderie of broken humanity such as I never imagined. At my very lowest, I found the most love. Family, friends, strangers, midshipmen, my fellow townspeople became comforters as they embraced me and my family, soul to broken soul, tears pooling with tears. We all found, not in our strength but in our common weakness, a bond that success could never have created.
Our esprit de corps was low anthropology.
Now this is where the best of the best news comes in: the more awareness we have that we are weak and low and frail and incapable of doing this thing called life, the more perfectly we are positioned to meet the God of grace who comes down to meet us in our weakness with the strength that he alone possesses. As it turns out, Martin Luther was right: the farther we are beneath God, the better he sees us, for the Lord delights in nothing more than descending into the depths of our suffering to bear us up by his grace.
A high anthropologist always flirts with the temptation to give Jesus a short holiday by filling in for him while he’s gone. A low anthropologist casts his eyes downward, beats his breast, and says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
I have said before, somewhere, that the discussion of theology would best be done while sitting around a freshly dug grave, our feet dangling over the sides. To hell (quite literally) with all human pride at that gaping hole of mortality. We are all democratized by sin, by our limited natures, our inner civil wars. There we can, man to man, woman to woman, talk frankly about how hard and brief this life is. Someone can crack a joke about our stupidity, at which we all can laugh because we know it to be true. And we can, over the grave, eye to eye, bear witness about the one man who was not stupid but wise, righteous not sinful, who stepped forth from his own grave, scarred but alive again, to give us all hope for a future without tears.
David Zahl is a dear friend of mine. I unreservedly urge you to read his book, to rejoice in our communion of lowliness, and to gaze in joy at the God with scars, Jesus Christ, who is the embodiment of hope for us all.