The School of Low Anthropology

The Class You Never Graduate From

Sam Guthrie / 5.25.21

I remember when I first cracked open Mockingbird’s Law and Gospel and heard the concept of low anthropology articulated for the first time. It was lines like this that leveled me: 

Regardless of how good we feel ourselves to be, how well we think we are doing, or how much better we think we’re becoming, there is no getting around the accusation, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). To hear those words clearly is to hear that we are significantly worse off than we imagined ourselves to be — and when it gets down to motivation, even the best things we do have something in them that needs to be forgiven.

It was like a light switch flicked on, a pair of glasses placed before blurry eyes to see what I now know to be at play everywhere, especially in my own life. Low anthropology has helped me uncover how my right living was a cover-up for judgment, approval, and pride. It has given me a new perspective on how I read and approach scripture; I now find low anthropology to be woven into the very fabric of God’s Word. It left me exposed and in need of some good news. 

In the school of low anthropology, the Holy Spirit will uncover the ulterior motives you have when you [fill in the blank with literally anything]. You’ll become more aware of the reasons you long for success or are devastated by failure. And in a backwards kind of way, faithfulness will spring from the ability to humbly accept the love showered on you despite your bent towards faithlessness.

God is in the business of renewing our minds and re-ordering our loves, but the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification grows best in a heart that’s humbled and made aware of a continual need for grace. I’ve also learned that the school of low anthropology is not something you graduate from. For every time low anthropology sobers me up, I also turn it into a ladder of enlightenment. Low anthropology’s desired end includes compassion towards others whose motivations are also out of whack. But I often use the gift of low anthropology as a measurement for how “right” or “wrong” I think others are.

There’s a story in John’s Gospel where the Pharisees are about to stone an adulterous woman. With her in their crosshairs, Jesus comes along and casually begins Low Anthropology 101 class by telling them that whoever among them is without sin can cast the first stone at the woman. The King James Version says the Pharisees left because they were “convicted by their own conscience.” With the blow of bad news, the Pharisees don’t stick around to hear the rest of the story, but the woman remains, her sin hanging in the balance without a verdict: condemn or absolve. And from the mouth of her Savior, class ends with good news: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” 

We are not so different from the Pharisees. In today’s culture, our stones are tweets we hurl at the neighbors we disagree with. They are the stones of political superiority, parent shaming, wokeness, and self-righteousness. For me, I’m the self-proclaimed heresy-hound whose low anthropology stones are ready to fly at any theology of glory, any arrogant attempt at piety, and all self-justification. I want Jesus to partner with me in my righteous anger, not nonchalantly draw pictures in the sand as I fume. I don’t know if I can take it if he lumps me in with those whom I believe to be in the wrong. I’ve graduated from that grade of low anthropology — don’t send me back, Jesus! Like the Pharisees, our rocks of truth we’re poised to wield at the sinful are also directed at us. When our vent is over, Jesus asks us to loosen our grip on our righteousness and stick around for the good news.   

In James Tissot’s painting, View From The Cross, we see what Jesus might have seen from his cross. Mary Magdalene, John, and the other women gather closest to him. The centurion looks on. What might be the Pharisees Jesus dismissed at the attempted stoning now watch satisfied. Some onlookers sit, others stand and jeer. The hillside is scattered with the usual crowd a crucifixion would draw. On her newest album, Julien Baker offers the background music for such a scene. She sings, “Oh, good God / When you going to call it off / Climb down off the cross / And change your mind.” It’s a dirge out of the low anthropology hymnal. Looking at Tissot’s painting, it’s hard for me not to sing along. Like the Pharisees, my conscience convicts me. I want to slink away. And on that day, everyone did after they witnessed what you come to expect at a crucifixion. Jesus peeled from the cross, another number added to the countless list of the crucified. The dark hole of a grave Jesus sees from his ungodly perch in Tissot’s painting will consume him and then that will be that.

But the Gospel is never what we expect. Where we see the dead-end grave, Jesus sees a door that needs to be kicked in. Where we see an exit sign, Jesus bulldozes a thruway. When we feel the pangs of accusation, and we turn to walk away, Jesus grabs our hand and asks for us to stay for the grand finale. When stones are ready to sling, Jesus reminds us that his reconciling power between us and God also mends the division between us and others. It’s a reconciling power that brushes shoulders with fellow sinners. It’s a power that transforms bumper-sticker low anthropology into a lived experience.

I shudder at the lessons I have yet to learn or the lessons I need to hear on repeat. Mainly, that God delights in bringing good news to those who desperately need it. And because of that, there is hope for the motley crew gathered at the foot of the cross.