Church and Community 4: Anthropology

weca canal‘The Human Propensity to F**k Things Up’ (otherwise known as THPTFTU) is Francis Spufford’s memorable definition of what sin is. I think it’s a great description. I know it applies to me.

Another way of looking at it is the platitude beloved of preaching about church: ‘if you think you’ve found the perfect church, don’t join it.’

One of the foundations of the Christian faith is a pretty robust assessment of human beings, both positively and negatively.

We can be the most amazing of creatures, able to reach beyond ourselves and carry out wonderful acts of bravery, generosity and sacrifice. We all know ‘big’ stories of that. One of my favourite ‘little’ stories though happened in one of the roads on our estate – actually the road historically considered to be one of the worst in Chichester and a dumping ground for people who are evicted from elsewhere.

One of my friends from the community association lives there and has been doing things to change that road and create a sense of neighbourliness and community. A couple of Christmases ago, one lady fell down the stairs, carrying her newborn baby. Both ended up in hospital, the baby tragically now severely disabled. The residents on that road clubbed together and (thinking sensitively that a financial gift might look patronising) bought a load of Tesco vouchers for her to spend that Christmas. Maybe that doesn’t sound much, but actually it was huge.

We are made in the image of God, and as such we mirror God’s qualities.

And yet, we also know that we can be the most awful of creatures, capable of carrying out acts of atrocity and destruction that most of us find hard to comprehend and stomach. And on the small, we think and do harmful, hurtful and selfish things throughout our days.

We may be made in the image of God, but we also know that we are fallen creatures, capable of doing wrong as easily as doing right.

We are looking in this little series at what Christian faith foundations can offer into the mix of people trying to building sustainable local communities, and I think this double understanding of humanity gives us one such thing.

On the one hand, recognising the image of God in all people, we will not automatically judge and criticise but will give people the benefit of the doubt; will welcome all types of people into our communities, and will celebrate the goodness and generosity that so often is seen. On the other hand, recognising that no one yet is perfect, we won’t be surprised when THPTFTU rears its ugly head and people mess up and things go wrong. And when that happens we’ll be ready to offer hands of forgiveness.

I think this wonderful combination of realistic expectation will serve us well. Do you agree?

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9 thoughts on “Church and Community 4: Anthropology

  1. Pingback: Does the Church have ANYTHING to offer local community? | Ruth Valerio

  2. I absolutely agree. I am doing a lot of thinking about what the unique Christian contribution to action for justice is and I am sure this is one of the main things: to hold these two aspects of being human in balance. I have tended to be in churches that put enormous emphasis on THPTFTU and downplay the fact that EVERYONE (not just those in the Church!!) is made in God’s image. It’s damaging for all sorts of reasons, and one of them is that it can discourage Christians from getting involved in justice work. I really like the way you express it all here.

  3. Reblogged this on and commented:
    The tricky business of being human!…In part 4 here Ruth Valerio continues her series of reflections from the recent conference at Redcliffe College, which looked at sustainable communities and the engagement of the church. Andy

  4. I see sin everywhere… some of it in me, and through me. Of all places!
    And yet—
    I see grace everywhere… some of it in me, and through me. Of all places!

    If I apply that to others too, how’s that for an anthropology?

  5. I cannot deny the dual aspect on human nature is necessary and fruitful but I can’t help but feel there is a pleasant trap here. We can decide what good and bad is ourselves to suit ourselves and then we can see good and bad everywhere as we please. Im afraid I have not been folowing all of your series so I apologise if I’m missing something but perhaps there is value in a more robust view of human nature.

    I don’t need to remind you or any of your readers of the immanent and devastating consequences of the urbanised, industrialised lives our churches seem to have no credible opinion on. The child mentioned in your story may well live to see things I will gladly not live to see. These things are a result of THPTFTU but unfortunately they are also the result of most of the happy stories we tell ourselves as well.

    When I first saw you were doing this series I thought you might have quite a job on your hands. It seems that if the Church has something to offer our communities it will have to step out of the space afforded it by the system of death which it has made peace with. It seems most of our happy stories seem to also sit nicely within this space, afforded to us as long as we behave ourselves.

    As you know we live in a country that grows half its own food, imports half it’s water and has almost unprecedented levels of debt. Biodiversity you know about. Climate change you know about. This does not end well. We may not look back at stories of Tesco vouchers with much warmth in the future. I realise I am being unfair about this act of kindness but since alot of Churches think running a foodbank has somethign to do with justice or charity or solidarity when foodbanks are the box we have been given to operate in by an unjust oppressive and deadly food system there is cause for pause.

    I wonder if perhaps the Church might be able to offer something to our communities if it can lay gentle hands upon it’s folk memory which knows happy tales that predate globalisation, the industrial revolution, or the empire or perhaps some other time which may not have been a golden age but where our current potent norms were considered undesirable.

    I think the Church gets to affirm our human role as namers of things. We are not just consumers of narratives. We do not need to approach our lives as multiple choice problems set by a system with no regard for our welfare. We can co-create and re-create our world with life and love in mind. I think this might also be a matter of anthropology but I am no anthropologist.

    This is overly long and sounds a little negative I think. I’m sorry. You’re quite wonderful.

    • Hi Westley, thanks for this, gosh what a good and thoughtful reply. It makes me realise that I’m probably just too nice in what I write – maybe I need to be more hard hitting?! There’s so much to think about here, and I know you’re right in what you say about Tesco vouchers and Food Banks, whilst still holding that in tension with people’s good hearts. Keep the good thoughts coming, I love it!

  6. Pingback: Church and Community 5: The Cross | Ruth Valerio

  7. I like Westley’s hard hitting comments. The church is uniquely placed to step out of the system of death which humans (including of course the church ) have co created over the past few centuries. It is has in its hands an alternative to the multiple test paper offered by the present age. And he is right, happy stories can be enough to keep you going in the wrong direction, as indeed can unhappy stories. But what ever the church does it can hardly remove the unhappy story of Christ killed for stepping out of the system of death, so that he could lead us to the way of life that the world ( including of course the church) is dying to find.

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