The biblical story of Cain and Abel is a lulu! It’s a poetic work of theological anthropology. The Genesis story invites us to ask again who we humans are, and what we are not, a question best addressed outside the bubble of species self-glorification. Climate change bursts that bubble. If living inside the bubble once seemed free of consequence, it is does no longer.
Theological anthropology was not a hot topic for Archie, Edith, Gloria, and ‘Meathead’ in the Bunker home, or so we thought. But writer and producer, Norman Lear, used the Bunker family dynamics as a means of raising public consciousness beyond the choice of arrogance or platitudes.
Norman’s Jewish heritage is a tradition of stories of divine-human encounter. Often these stories are humorous as well as serious. More often than not, the Hebrew Bible narratives carry meanings, sub-texts, mind-bending twists and turns, and nuances only available to those who have learned Hebrew. The story of Cain and Abel is one of those. I’d love to hear what Norman would make of the Hebrew tale of fraternal homicide.
Cain and Abel
The story comes on the heels of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Eve soon gives birth to her first-born son, Cain, and his brother Abel. The difference between the brothers is offered without further comment. Cain is a tiller of the soil (a farmer); Abel is a shepherd. Then the writer creates the scene in which the brothers are bring their offering to the YHWH (“I AM”).
No one hugs an asparagus
Abel offers “the choicest of the firstlings of his [sheep] flocks.” Cain offers “the fruit of the soil.” I hear Norman laughing. “A sheep is precious. It pulls on our heart strings. A vegetable? Not so much. You can hug a sheep. No one hugs an asparagus.”
Perhaps the Hebrew names — Kayin (Cain) and Hebel (Abel)—provide hints as to why YHWH (“I AM”) “pays heed to” Hebel’s offering, but “pays no heed to” Kayin’s. ‘Hebel’ (Abel) is a breath or puff. The root of Kayin (Cain) is “to get, to gain, to have gotten.” Kayin is a hustler, an egotist, who offers what will not die, i.e., vegetables, that will sprout again next season. Hebel offers a sheep, an offering close to the heart. Hebel offers what he knows himself to be — a precious mortal animal, a puff of the Breath, not the Breath itself on which all life depends. Hebel’s sheep is not perennial; when you sacrifice it, i.e. let it go, it does not sprout again. Hebel lets go of the myth that he is more than he is. He knows that, like the choicest sheep he offers, he is, at the same time, precious but passing — a puff, not the Breath itself.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, Author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 8, 2022.
We are in the midst a constitutional crisis in the U.S.A. that leads most of us scratching our heads. How did we get here? How will we get out of it? No one knows.
Part 1 of this three-post series suggested kinship with dogs who, by nature, live in packs led by Alpha Dogs. In Part 2, we turn to a time-honored voice from an earlier time.
AN OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVE
Karl Barth‘s way of seeing and hearing offers one such perspective. Barth was one of great theologians of the 20th Century, known for his brilliance, and for his early opposition to the rise and rule of Adolf Hitler and the nationalist ideology of the Third Reich.
Barth saw what those with “eye disease” did not. Idolatry, not atheism, is the issue for the human creature.
In Adolf Hitler and nationalist party that ended a constitutional republic, Barth saw what he called “the lordless powers” that have no Lord but themselves. They allow for no superiors. They submit to nothing and to no one. They are what Barth’s American friend William Stringfellow called “imposters of God” that prey on our anxiety, powers greater than ours, in effect a ‘lord’ — an Alpha Dog — to protect us and conquer what threatens us.
“DEUTSCHLAND UBER ALLES”
As a Christian theologian, Barth professed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. This Lord is no victor. For Barth, Jesus Christ was the man for others who stooped to wash others’ feet, a chore assigned to household slaves; unmasked the lordless powers of empire; wept over the city, and rode into it “humble and riding on an ass” in counterpoint to the emperor entering the city on his white stallion; proclaimed a kingdom of infinite compassion not built by ‘the lordless powers’; prayed on his knees to the Lord of lords and King of kings of all the lesser packs; and bent his back to the soldier’s whip and Roman execution, and reached out to the rebel on the cross next to his.
The Jesus of Nazareth who bowed his head to no other power than YHWH — the Ineffable One, the Eternal One, the Lord beyond the lordless that rise and fall and are forgotten — represents humankind in our proper relationship with God.
“The demonism of politics consists in the idea of ’empire’, which is always human as such.“
The Nazi Party and its Alpha Dog were ‘Lordless’ because they were accountable to no one and to nothing. Their authority and power were absolute. Everyone in the pack was ordered to yield to a headstrong man and a “headstrong dream.”
Barth’s theological anthropology offers insight into our vulnerability in an anxious world.
Man’s (sic.) alienation from God at once carries with it his self-alienation: the denaturalizing of the humanity and fellow humanity of is own existence, the contraction of the determination, inalienably given to him as God’s creature, that he should belong to God and have in God his Lord, the beginning of speech, action, and therefore existence, which are headstrong because they have no Lord.
Karl Barth, The Christian Life, 213-14.
Knowing that social control requires consent of the pack, Hitler and the Third Reich systematically transposed the prevailing religious belief system into the key of nationalist supremacy. The religion that proclaimed the elusive Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ as Lord was brought to Heel: Heel! Sit! Down! Off! Leave it it!
The church that prayed “Thy Kingdom come” bowed the knee to the nearer-to-hand kingdom, raising its arm to salute the national messiah. “Heil Hitler!” and Sieg Heil” replaced Handel’s ‘Messiah’.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5).
As for the Jews? It’s much harder to bring to heel a people whose faith looks to YHWH, the Holy One, and does not regard any human being as a divine incarnation. They would need to be removed from the fictional Aryan pack. They were stripped of every constitutional protection, herded onto trains, and delivered to concentration camps as people unfit for German society.
“MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”
Like the Germans in the lead up to 1933, we in America in 2019 are manipulated by well-calibrated propaganda and disinformation campaigns that ‘denaturalize’ and turn neighbors into enemies in the age of cyberspace.
Slogans are simply vents with whose help ideologies surface and in the form of loud whistles call for general applause and acknowledgment. Let us not be deceived: we all listen to the most varied catchwords, we all use them more or less merrily, and in so doing show that we ourselves are people who have been struck and stabbed and snared by systematized ideologies.
Propaganda is putting things in black and white. … What they have to push systematically is their own excellence and usefulness, and by way of background must show how utterly valueless and harmful their rivals and opponents are.
THE TRUMP PHENOMENON
Classical Christian theology is clear about the need for an Alpha Dog. Its understanding of human being is sometimes called theological anthropology. Our mortal human nature is best understood in light of our submission — witting or unwitting — to this, that, or another power. When an Alpha Dog rises to claim the allegiance of a pack, we are thrown back.
Most of us in Roman Catholicism and progressive protestant churches have moved beyond patriarchal metaphors and talk of kings, kingdoms, and lords. We speak instead of ‘kin-doms’ without kings — horizontal societies without authority, what Barth called “the Lordless powers.” The reign of compassion is upended and replaced by an Alpha Dog who reigns absolutely, using propaganda, fear, hate, and cruelty to bring the pack to Heel.
It took until a few days before my 75th birthday to become clear about my lifelong quest. Some would call it my “vocation” in life, my “calling” as we say. Others might call it an obsession. In either case, it’s taken this long to say a word about it.
In a nutshell, my life’s occupation has been, and still is — are you ready? — theological anthropology.
“Whoah! What’s that?” my 11-week-old grandson Elijah is asking.
Theological anthropology, like all anthropology, is the search for understanding of the human species. The term ‘anthropology’ is the combination of the Greek words anthropos (human) and logos (word). Anthropo-logy is ‘the word’ about ‘humankind’.
Theological anthropology is the study of humankind in the context of ‘theos’, i.e. ‘G-d’ — which Paul Tillich translated as Being-Itself, the Ground of Being, that which is ultimately Real.
Anthropos is contingent; Being-Itself is not. Like all species, ours has a very short lifespan in the aeons of eternity. We are a small part of the All or the Whole (Friedrich Schleiermacher), creatures of time with the rest of moral nature who can be understood, if at all, only in light of this larger timeless Whole.
The Psalmist question –“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4 KJV) — is my life-long question.
Who are we as a species? Who am I as a member of it? Who are the Andrews, the Tituses, the Campbells, the Stewarts among the vast assortment of homo sapiens? Who am I in relation to Barclay, my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel friend, the forests, the flowers, the birds, and the rest of the species of dust and ashes holding our breath before the majesty of life itself?
Why theological anthropology?
You can take the human species out of the universe and the universe will go on as it did aeons before anthropos came along. We can’t say the opposite. Essential to the human experience is the terror of contingency and the wonder of of it all, what Rudolf Otto called “mysterium tremendous et fascinans”.
The idea of “man (the human species) over nature” is a deadly illusion, a flight from reality itself, an escape from the trembling that comes with our vulnerability, our transience, our mortality, the final limit of all human creativity (the “image of God”).
After only one cup of coffee on my 75th birthday, that’s the best I can do.
Muriel Titus Stewart
This afternoon I’ll be in the Philosophy Lounge at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN at the invitation of a philosophy professor, a long way away from the delivery room and the loving, laboring mother who pushed me into the world (the philosopher’s lounge) back in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Thanks, Mom!