Christology and Human Distinctiveness

When one academic discipline brings its own perspectives to another’s work, it can sometimes result in apparently strange areas of focus that does’t always make sense to those on the outside. One such example is the importance of Christology for theologians interested in our relationship with our hominin ancestors. If you are not a theologian, you might be forgiven for wondering why one might see these two things as related. But in fact, the connection between the two goes right to the heart of one of the oldest ideas in theology.

Good Mammoths and Good Art

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I recently saw a comedy show which included a sketch called “The Origins of Art Criticism.” Two cavemen come across a basic stone carving of a mammoth. One complains that the art is terrible. It looks more like a big rabbit, or “a squirrel with horns.” The other, disgusted by this philistine, insists that it doesn’t matter if the carving looks like a mammoth. What is important is that it “feels like a mammoth.”

Some of my colleagues at the CTSHF spend a lot of time looking at early examples of art, but not to find out whether it is good art. They are interested because the presence of art tells us that its creator had the capacity for symbolic thought. That our ancestors were artists tells us much more about them than any analysis of the particular merits of that art could. For our purposes, whether a prehistoric carving of a mammoth is a good carving of a mammoth might seem to miss the point.

There is a sense, though, in which it seems we do need to know whether the art our ancestors did is good art. Take the mammoth. The cavemen in the sketch could only call it a mammoth because it was close enough to a true mammoth to be recognizable as such. If it had been better proportioned, with more features characteristic of a mammoth, then the first caveman would have been surer that it was a mammoth, and not a big rabbit. On the other hand, remove enough of its features – the tusks, the trunk, the legs – and eventually it wouldn’t be a mammoth at all. To recognize a mammoth, in other words, we have to have an idea of a good mammoth to compare it to. The same goes for more abstract concepts like art. Without having at least some (perhaps rather loose) idea of what art ought to be, we won’t be able to recognize art at all. Having an idea of the characteristics of art is how we differentiate it from anything else.

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Goodness and Being

Observations like these are at the root of the idea that goodness and existence (or “being”) are somehow related. The better an example of its kind something is, the more real an example of that thing it is. The poorer an example it is, the less it actually exists as that thing. At some point, a really bad mammoth stops being a mammoth at all.[1] This idea is central to much of ancient and medieval philosophy and theology. It is related to Plato’s theory of the forms, where the Good is the foundation for all that exists. It is behind Augustine’s view that evil is the absence of good (because evil, as total non-good, cannot have its own existence). It forms part of Anselm’s ontological argument by allowing his observation that necessary existence must be more perfect than contingent existence.

A Good Human?

For Christian theologians continuing in this tradition, it will have a significant impact on the way they think about human nature and our relationship with our ancestors. It means that modern humans are not the ultimate standard for human nature. Theologically speaking, it would be a mistake to take ourselves as the best example of human nature, because we are not perfect. Again, in ancient thought we find philosophical and theological agreement that both our circumstances and our own failures—in theological terms, sin—conspire to make us less than we could be. This is something that profoundly affects us individually and as a species. Augustine thinks that it means we “corrupt and pervert our own nature.”[2]  Because of it, we are diminished, which for many theologians generates a deep sense of loss. Here is Anselm’s lament at the start of the Proslogion: “How wretched man’s lot is when he has lost that for which he was made!”[3] Thomas Aquinas also thought that parts of our nature are eroded or reduced by sin. The starkest example of this damage is our mortality; even death, which shapes us so profoundly, is in a sense not truly part of our nature.[4]

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This does not deny that there are important reasons to study humans as we currently are. Even if death is not part of our nature, it is certainly part of our experience. But it means that any effort to understand our nature by only looking at us as we are, and not also as we could be, will be incomplete. We need to think about what a good human really is; and this process will help us to clarify just what it is we mean by “human” and what we say about our ancestors when we identify them as such. For Christians, this process does not take place via abstract consideration of the ideal. Instead it is rooted in Christology, because Christ is the template or “exemplar” for humans. The best way to get an understanding of true human nature is by looking at the ideal human, and this means looking at Christ.

So although they might appear unrelated at first glance, for theologians, investigation of our species and origins is essentially bound up with the attempt to understand who Christ is and the things that he did. Without such an effort, we will not understand ourselves, and we will not be able to understand our relatives, either.

[1] Wittgenstein’s work on familial resemblance forms an important challenge to this view.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: OUP, 1991), III. Viii (16).

[3] Anselm of Canterbury, “Proslogion,” in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. by Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, Oxford World Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 85.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Notre Dame: Christian Classics, 1948), I-II, q. 85, a.6.