Ever feel like people expect you to be perfect? Or maybe you expect others to be perfect? Or maybe you find yourself feeling shocked or taken aback or disappointed when your family or your friends or your congregation fall short of your expectations.
I’ve certainly been there. On both sides.
Those expectations are what we might call a “high anthropology.” Maybe what we need is a “low anthropology”? Here’s what I learned from David Zahl, both in his book, Low Anthropology: The Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others (and Yourself), and in our conversation in episode 165 of Spiritual Life and Leadership, “The Value of a Low Anthropology.”
What is a Low Anthropology?
When operating from a high anthropology, churches and pastors often suffer from disillusionment and expectations that are too high for people. A high anthropology is the belief that humans are inherently good, capable, and have the potential to transcend their limitations. This belief can lead to a sense of hubris, where individuals and organizations feel entitled to greatness, leading to disappointment in themselves and others when they inevitably fall short.
In contrast, a low anthropology acknowledges that humans are fundamentally flawed and broken, with limitations and weaknesses that cannot be overcome. This is the view that David Zahl, founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries, encourages pastors and churches to operate from. A low anthropology recognizes the reality that we are all far from perfect, that there will be times when we do not live up to our own expectations, and that we need help to get back on track. It provides churches with a framework that allows them to offer grace and compassion to individuals who are experiencing difficulties in their lives.
A low anthropology leads to a way of life for churches that is, well, kinda counter-cultural, emphasizing vulnerability, honesty, and authenticity. It creates a space where individuals can feel safe to express their fears, doubts, and questions, knowing that they won’t be judged. As a result, they can receive the help and support they need to move forward in their lives.
Low Anthropology Leadership
Many pastors and church leaders feel they are supposed to have all the answers and present themselves as perfect. This is especially true in the age of social media, where people only share the good things happening in their lives. But no one has all the answers, and no one is perfect. The expectation of perfection leads to a superficial understanding of one another, and it can leave individuals feeling isolated and ashamed of their own struggles.
By acknowledging our weaknesses, we can begin to work together to address them. A low anthropology shifts the focus away from personal achievement and instead emphasizes the importance of community, where we can learn from each other’s experiences and support one another. Churches that operate from a low anthropology can provide a space where people can feel supported and connected, even if they are struggling with personal challenges.
But Not Low Expectations
The idea of a low anthropology does not mean, however, that churches should have low expectations of their members. The belief in a low anthropology shouldn’t be used as an excuse for mediocrity or complacency. Instead, a low anthropology should serve as a reminder that everyone has limitations and that success may look different for everyone. It means setting realistic expectations of oneself and others and not being too hard on ourselves when we inevitably fall short.
A low anthropology offers a refreshing perspective in a society that values achievement and perfection. Churches and pastors who operate from a low anthropology can create a space where people can feel safe to express themselves without fear of judgment. It encourages vulnerability, honesty, and authenticity, which can lead to deeper connections and a sense of community. By acknowledging that we all have limitations and that we need help to overcome them, we can work together to build a more compassionate and understanding world.