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CHAPTER 9:  Anthropology: The Human Problem

Part One: Stoicism and Christianity

In the study of religion, anthropology refers to an analysis of human nature. Most people who reflect on the human condition sense that something is wrong not just in the world, but within us.  What is wrong is sometimes described as a weakness, sense of alienation,  a tragic flaw, a feeling of unrest and unhappiness. At best the human problem is expressed in anxiety and disquiet:  the life of “quiet desperation” that Thoreau described. At worst the human problem manifests itself in horrible deeds of destruction directed at self, others and the world. The major religious traditions of the world agree that something is wrong within human beings. As one might expect, however, they disagree with what exactly is wrong and what must be done about it. In this unit we will look at four understandings the human problem.

Stoicism:

While not strictly a religion, Stoicism certainly had the overtones of religion in the ancient world, and its impact on Western thought and religion were profound.

Starting Point:  According to the stoics, the world is a living organism, ordered according to Logos or Divine Reason. Moreover, this world is unfolding or evolving according to Divine Reason.  Each being has a place and purpose within this greater plan, even though we may not see the plan or purpose
The human problem is ignorance:  Because we don't understand the starting point (above), we fail to discern that we cannot change certain things.  In other words, we remain ignorant of the fact that the Logos is ordering everything that happens. We worry about death, poverty, riches, health, sickness when in fact all these things have a place and purpose within the great plan. 
View of humanity:  The Stoics seem to have a positive view of humanity. Since we have a spark of the divine logos within us, we participate in the Divine. In addition, because we possess divine reason we have the ability to “cure ourselves.”

The Cure: For the stoics, the way to overcome the human dilemma is a two step process.  The first step is to realize that that you cannot change the world.  Consequently, you must attempt to cultivate an  indifference (apatheia) to all those things you cannot change.  The second step is to play the part the you are assigned in life. The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus likened the Stoic’s understanding of the human situation to that of a drama: 

  • Life is a drama
  • People are the actors
  • Divine Reason is the playwright

Happiness is to be found in playing the unique role assigned to us and ignoring all the externals that are beyond your control. The cure to the human problem is to acknowledge this reality and to embrace the role that Nature has given to you.

 

Christianity

The Staring Point:  The starting point for a Christian consideration of human nature, is the belief that the world and humankind are “fallen.” Humanity was created with the ability to obey or disobey God’s will. We chose the path of disobedience and in so doing corrupted or wounded our nature which was created in the image of God and was originally “good.”

The Human Problem is that human nature is wounded or corrupt. Roman Catholic theology teaches that our nature is “wounded” so that we are susceptible to sin or disobedience; however, humans can choose not to sin.  Protestant theology followed the early theologian Saint Augustine who believed that human nature has lost the freedom of will: it can only choose disobedience to God’s will. Sin is a prideful selfishness that is like a disease. It is so pervasive that it can be described as original sin: prideful selfishness is an inevitable human defect from which no one is immune.

View of humanity:  If one follows Augustinian theology, the assessment of human nature is very negative. Human beings could only choose to sin, but were incapable of choosing not to sin. In Roman Catholic theology, a less negative view of humanity was set forth: human nature was wounded, but our power of reason and free will are not destroyed.

The cure: It takes an act of God to free humanity from sin and its consequences. Since according to Augustine, humans can only choose to sin, they cannot really choose to free themselves from sin. Thus, it requires “God’s grace, freely bestowed” to “redeem and liberate the self from sin.”