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Anthropology, Theological


In its most generic sense, anthropology may be considered as man's explanation of himself. As an empirical science, anthropology is usually divided into cultural and physical: the study of human beings' social behavior, languages, world views, family life, and communal organizations as distinguished from the investigation into the physical evolution of human beings, the functional capacities of the human body, the development of races, etc. But anthropology may also be considered, especially in European terminology, as a sector of philosophy and theology. Man is the one being who is a problem to himself and philosophers have continually striven to explain the human situation. Within the theological enterprise, anthropology would be the study of human beings insofar as they are related to God. Christian anthropology seeks to explain man in the light of revelation, particularly the Christ event. It asks how man can relate to God's word, and hence inquires into his understanding of the world and himself. This aspect of theology has received considerable attention in recent times, and will constitute the basis for this article.

There are two significantly different approaches for constructing a theological anthropology. The first approach, which has been characteristic of Roman Catholic theology since the 17th century and theology's dependence upon philosophical idealism, would be an abstract anthropology of man's "essential" nature. The distinction between nature and grace, between an autonomous natural order and a more or less extrinsic supernatural vocation, would be sharply drawn. In this schema, human beings are regarded as having at most a passive obediential potencylittle more than a lack of intrinsic contradictionfor participation in the life of God. Contemporary theology, however, has generally followed a much more existential method. Rather than an abstract concept of man's nature as such, theologians have begun with the concrete unity of man as he appears within history, situated within the one, actual and supernatural existential order. In accepting this direction, theology has been clearly indebted to philosophical existentialism and phenomenology.

Contemporary Theology. In choosing the latter approach, theology must also accept the need to be in open dialogue with the social sciences and history as well as with the types of philosophy mentioned above. Although it is impossible to discuss or even fully list the contributions of these disciplines as they have had a bearing on a contemporary theological anthropology, some can be emphasized. (1) Man is a being-in-time in the sense that he experiences his own radical finitude; bounded by death, he perceives that he does not have any hold upon existence. He faces this realization with anxiety, and seeks to make sense of it in the light of his orientation toward the fullness of being or (within the category of time) eternity. (2) Man is historical or social. His awareness of reality is not achieved in isolation from the cultural forces that variously shape his perspectives. Language, even though culturally conditioned and limited, is the necessary embodiment of truth. (3) Freedom is an essential prerequisite for human fulfillment, without which cultural advance is an illusory veneer. (4) Man is future oriented. As Marxists stress, the future is the dominant mode of time and a vision of an authentic although yet-to-beachieved model supplies the hope out of which a nonalienated society can be achieved.

Thus influenced by the data of the phenomenologists and social scientists, theology reflects upon man within the ambit of revelation. In one sense, this reflection has always been the business of theology and anthropology may be said to be one with the whole of theology. What distinguishes the contemporary approach is that it is explicit and systematic, rather than fragmented into the broad spectrum of theological tracts or divisionseach one dealing with some aspect of manwhich characterized medieval theology. In addition, contemporary Christian anthropology perceives the need for a conscious principle or formal object according to which its study can proceed. Tentatively at least, such an organizing principle emerges as the dynamic orientation toward the Absolute as the term of all human tendency. In precise contradistinction to God as man's "over-against," the Absolute is perceived as the metaphysical ground of man's limitless receptivity toward being-itself. Man is a being of finite resources oriented to the infinite. The accepting acknowledgement of this tension and its implications for man as both limited and transcendent is the foundation for the open-ended anthropology without which religion and revelation become totally extrinsic to the human spirit. The final fulfillment of this tendency becomes explicit for the Christian in the mystery of the incarnate Word, the ultimate union of God and man who is the paradigm for all humankind. Christology becomes, therefore, the culmination of theological anthropology.

Other Components. In addition to this fundamental principle, three other significant components of a Christian anthropology can be identified. If man precisely in and through his finitude is ordered to the Absolute as the culmination of all human dynamism, then this Absolute will be manifest within the social-historical process and not centrally in some individualistic religious experience. Thus what Vatican Council II called the process of socialization (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 25) is not a "merely" secular, spiritually inconsequential development. Any dichotomy, either between soul and body or the material and spiritual realms, is regarded as a contradiction to the fundamental unity which is man. Secondly, man is radically free to respond to or reject God. The unique supernatural existential order wherein God draws all men to himself does not forestall the sin of unbelief or the acceptance of this divine self-communication as totally gratuitous. Indeed, only insofar as man's free response to God's word is recognized as self-realization can this response be fully human. Finally, an adequate Christian anthropology must also form the basis for a relevant eschatology according to which death (understood within the biblical message of resurrection) is an opening to the world rather than a flight from the prison of corporeality.

Bibliography: e. coreth, Metaphysics (New York 1968). j. metz, Theology of the World (New York 1971). o. muck, The Transcendental Method (New York 1968). p. mcshane, Foundations of Theology (Notre Dame 1972). k. rahner, "Man (Anthropology) III," Sacramentum Mundi 3.365370. r. shinn, Man: The New Humanism (Philadelphia 1968).

[t. m. mcfadden]

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