Every society has an anthropology, by which I mean a cultural understanding of what it is to be human and what the implications of human nature are upon our moral obligations. There is currently in post-industrial Western countries a crisis of anthropology as the traditional anthropology tries to survive the arrival of the contemporary anthropology. I know this all too well as someone who previously held to a juvenile anthropology.
In these countries, the traditional anthropology is the Christian anthropology. In the Christian anthropology, we are children of God, inherently worthwhile as persons. In the Christian anthropology, human life is a precious gift to be preserved and the natural world is a gift to cherish as careful stewards of it. In the Christian anthropology, sex is a gift to be used wisely and carefully. In the Christian anthropology, suffering is informative and educative, a process that tells us what is causing us harm and showing us where we need to grow. In the Christian anthropology, men and women are complementary to one another and a mutual gift to one another. In the Christian anthropology, our highest purpose is altruistic. In the Christian anthropology, human being are frail-minded and foolish, a view supported by modern cognitive science that has found us making myriad cognitive errors in the normal course of daily life. In the Christian anthropology, we are unable to perceive many important things about our world, a view compatible with what science has revealed about the limitations of our perceptual mechanisms.
In the juvenile anthropology, we are inherently worthwhile as persons...just because. Except in cases in which we don't feel pain. Or aren't sufficiently cognitively developed. Or in cases in which we feel lots of pain and little pleasure, so why bother living? In the juvenile anthropology, human life is an accident to be enjoyed while it lasts with what pleasures are available to us and the natural world is either a resource to be exploited while it lasts or a source of beauty to be preserved as it was when we found it. In the juvenile anthropology, sex is a right to be enjoyed liberally and in whatever way we prefer to have it. In the juvenile anthropology, suffering is immoral because we don't like it, and we should make it stop. In the juvenile anthropology, men and women are enjoyable to each other as bodies to delight in, a source of an emotional and physiological high until the next body is found. In the juvenile anthropology, our highest purpose is hedonistic (and of the Cyrenaic variety). In the juvenile anthropology, human beings are strong-minded and rational, but only if they agree with us. The rest of them are idiots. In the juvenile anthropology, what we perceive is all there is and it is deeply important, though not quite as important as our opinions.
The Christian anthropology may have problems for those who don't accept its particular theology or cosmology, but when the label of Christian is taken away and the historical baggage of the behavior of Christians is dropped, it is still a mature anthropology that understands human weakness and calls us to lives of deeper happiness. It's an anthropology developed by adults who have a depth of human experience.
Contemporary anthropology by and large sounds like the viewpoint of a spoiled adolescent. It is cynical, selfish in the most unhealthy ways, and deeply incoherent. It is juvenile, exemplary of the worst of youthful behavior and tendencies with none of the positive qualities of youth. Ironically in light of its obsession with youth, our culture has adopted a juvenile anthropology that is quite ancient. It is the same juvenile anthropology that lead to the widespread practice of infanticide in ancient Rome. After all, sex is a right to be enjoyed liberally, but the juvenile don't need to deal with those pesky natural consequences of their behavior.
The mature Christian anthropology of our mystics and ascetics and Saints is under fire from an anthropology that takes the view of a teenager who just doesn't understand why he can't do just anything his whims would lead him to do because he sees himself as his own final authority. This juvenile anthropology ignores the scientific understanding of our cognitive and perceptual limitations just as strongly as it denies the understanding gained through mature sacrifice and self-denial. It will cause a grave failure in human progress if we adopt this juvenile anthropology because it will prevent us from understanding ourselves well enough to grow and adapt in the face of new problems.
In an increasingly globalized and densely populated world, we need altruistic and mature individuals who understand their own limitations in such a way that they can empathize with the weakness of others and solve problem cooperatively rather than refusing to work with others because they aren't smart enough or strong enough or likable enough. Those who hold to a juvenile understanding of their own human nature will not be able to help us move into a future in which those qualities are need because they will be stuck in adolescent mentalities, stagnating in the worst nonsense of youth while not utilizing the great passion of youth to drive us into a brighter future.
The future created by eternal whiny teenagers will be a future full of the silliest schoolyard antics and egoism, a future in which children die because the parents miss their fun times, a future which is now. By killing those who could make that future better and raising children who do not understand how to respect the appropriate boundaries of human society, we create a future impoverished of virtue, lacking in empathy, and bereft of the great depths of love we can reach through self-denial. The juvenile anthropology, for all of its youthful qualities, will terminate a worthwhile future of love and compassion before it begins in favor of an ephemeral present feeling which always fails to satisfy our deepest longings.
It will do this because those who have a juvenile anthropology have never known the deeper substantial joy that comes from a life guided by a mature love and compassion. They may never be able to experience a future they have been told is a myth as they wallow in a present reality shaped by the myth of the triumph of human reason, the myth of the ascendancy of fleeting feelings as the measure of a good life, and the myth of the self as the final arbiter of truth. If we want to reach a worthwhile future, we will need to abandon the myths of an anthropology of the youthful dead disengaged from the world and build up an anthropology of the grateful, joyous living people who light up the future of the world before us.
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