Critique of Western Theological Anthropology: Understanding Human Beings in a Third World Context

Author: Seo, Bo-Myung
This study is an attempt to articulate some of the inadequacies of the 20th century Western theological anthropologies and pursue the possibility of one that is more attentive to the conditions of life that still dictate the non-Western world. After discussing the ideas of freedom and history, which are deeply embedded in what it means to be human in Western modernity, and their implications, the author argues for the anthropology of the othered-selves as one that better describes the condition of being human in the post colonial contexts. Understanding such a view of being human not in terms of lack of subjectivity but as a different form of subjectivity, the author undertakes to present different models of the Other: hermeneutical, dialogical, and biblical models. The author presents the biblical model to be the most challenging one, which Emmanuel Levinas incorporates into his philosophical discourse on otherness. After briefly discussing how some theologians made use of Levinas' work, the author argues for the positive contribution his work makes for theological anthropology, in lending support to the conception of the anthropology of the Other and how this anthropology is positive conception of what it is to be human in the world.


“One of the most remarkable features of this book is that it does not begin with a simple repudiation of the Western tradition, or in simple characterizations of that tradition, or indulge in caricature. The author is one who is deeply steeped in the philosophical and theological traditions of the West. Indeed the breadth and depth of his sympathetic reading of this tradition is evident on every page. Never resorting to simple dismissal of the multitude of thinkers who enter into his argument, Seo's discussions of thinkers as diverse as Hegel and Kant, Husserl and Heidegger, Sartre and Wittgenstein, Rahner and Pannenberg, Rosenzweig and Buber, reveals a generous and probing intelligence that goes to the heart of the positions and perspectives that are to be engaged. At the same time, positions with which he is deeply sympathetic like those of Anselm Min, Enrique Dussel, Walter Benjamin or, especially, Emmanuel Levinas, are not simply offered as models to be emulated but are carefully and critically engaged … Among its many virtues is the bringing together of philosophical and theological discourses, its attention not only to Christian but also especially Jewish religious and philosophical discourse. In fact it is the reflection that is positioned self-consciously after the holocaust that offers the most help in thinking about the situation of the other and of those who are constructed as other. Moreover Seo is unafraid to engage in the reading of biblical texts, not as an exegete but precisely as a thinker, as one who uses the texts to think with. It is the further merit of this book that it does not offer facile solutions to the questions it poses. Rather it stands in the best tradition of philosophical inquiry that is more concerned with the specification of profound questions rather than with the construction of impervious and imperious systems. Readers of this text will find Seo not only a sure-footed guide to some of the most important thinkers of Western modernity but also one who patiently and persistently opens up the horizon of the profound and provocative question of the other that is also the question from the other.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) Dr. TheodoreW. Jennings, Jr., Professor of Biblical and Constructive Theology The Chicago Theological Seminary author of more than a dozen books including Beyond Theism (Oxford University Press) and Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul (Stanford University Press)

“Plowing through an immense amount of material in the history of modern Western thought, the author unearths in a clear, though brief, line of argumentation the most constitutive features by which the West has constructed the unencumbered self-centered subject and reduced others to its own image. The work engages simultaneously two perspectives. In one, it takes on the deconstruction of the Western tradition insofar as Western thinkers themselves (Heidegger, Benjamin, Foucault, Buber, Rosenzweig, Levinas, among others) are employed effectively to bring to light the fundamental question of the Other as the obliterated issue and the blind spot of this tradition. Such questioning, the book suggests, became the unavoidable task that such thinkers had to engage in since the Holocaust and other tragedies that the Western world engendered in its own heart, particularly since the WW I. Apart from these self-critical Western voices, the question of the Other has been, when dealt with at all, reduced to a typical case of Narcissistic self-projection or else exiled to the heavens above, as in neo-orthodox theology. This has been the case since Descartes, the Enlightenment and Kant, in spite of dialectical attempts of transgressing the reductionism in the tradition of Hegel and Marx, which have been the inspiration, but also the limit of the theological anthropology in early liberation theology (the example given is Gutierrez). While this development is examined, the author creatively shifts viewpoints, and questions even this worthy deconstructive effort from a postcolonial perspective in which otherness gains more than the formal status it received in Western self-deconstruction (as in “every other is thoroughly the Other”) to assume the concreteness of the particularity of pain and suffering of those in the Third World, the ones who have been “othered,” falling outside of Buber’s I-Thou relationship and even finding themselves beyond—or beneath—the infinite and transcendent Other of Levinas. While this work is largely an examination of Western philosophical anthropology (although engaging the theological works of Augustine, Luther, Tillich, Niebuhr, Rahner, and Kasper among others), its purpose is to clear the terrain for a postcolonial theological anthropology in which the “othered-selves” can have a distinct claim to their otherness as emerging voices with their histories and geographies that the West with the aid of its philosophical and theological anthropology, with its knowledge and power, has conquered and colonized. This work is a readable, insightful work that while engaging successfully the Western anthropological tradition opens inspiring possibilities for renewed liberative perspectives for postcolonial theological anthropology.” – Vítor Westhelle, Ph.D., Professor of Systematic Theology, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

Table of Contents

1. The Project of Modern Theological Anthropology: The Question of Freedom
2. History and Theological Anthropology in Liberation Theology
3. The Task of a Liberative Theological Anthropology
4. Understandings of the Other
5. The Notion of The Other in Levinas
6. Emmanuel Levinas and Theological Anthropology
7. Concluding Reflections