What has Blombos to do with Jerusalem?

When I began working on the Evolution of Wisdom project at the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing at the University of Notre Dame, I didn’t know squat about human evolution.

Cave Sky

Despite the fact that I would have referred to myself as a scholar who specializes in theological anthropology, I couldn’t tell you how humans came to be who they are today from the perspective of deep history. Now, nearly 17 months later, I know a little more about how evolutionary anthropologists understand human beings and their history, but even more than that I have become convinced about a methodological point: theologians and anthropologists should be in conversation about what it means to be human.

In particular, I see great potential for existing conversations in the field of evolutionary anthropology to deepen and give weight to ongoing theological discussions about the relational nature of humanity. Humans are biologically and culturally adapted for emotional and material forms of interdependence. For example, humans have an extended childhood that allows for the possibility of gradual transfer of complex forms of learning and opportunities for apprenticeship from elders. Large social networks are required to nurture and educate human children and to pass along cumulatively acquired cultural knowledge. So as to facilitate these cooperative forms of breeding and apprenticeship, humans have developed finely sharpened abilities to make guesses about what others know and want. These make us inclined to enter into and sustain complex cooperative enterprises. In other words, complex bonds of interconnection provide the conditions for the possibility of humans becoming who they are.

Symbol

One of the ways humans participate collaboratively in shared goals and intentions is through the creation and use of social symbols. Indeed, some anthropologists have argued that humans tend to think symbolically even when symbols are not at play. Terrence Deacon explains, “Even when we don’t believe in it, we find ourselves captivated by the lure of numerology, astrology, or the global intrigue of conspiracy theories. This is the characteristic expression of a uniquely human cognitive style; the make of a thoroughly symbolic species” (The Symbolic Species, 436). Yet, anthropologists are largely unaware of the ongoing rich discussion of “symbol” in theology, especially Catholic theology (e.g., in the work of Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Louis-Marie Chauvet). Conversation between the two disciplines can foster a more complex understanding of the nature of human thinking, behavior, and relationality. Human symbolic cognition is the condition for the possibility of human relationality (including relationality to God). Uniquely human forms of social organization, fueled by symbolic imagination, are the foundation for human compassion and care (e.g., care of elders and disabled members of one’s community), but are also the foundation for systematic forms of oppression (i.e., systems of rewards and punishments for membership in various imagined communities—sexual, racial, economic, religious, etc.). Furthermore, the ingenuity and behavior coordination that symbolic cognition affords human beings can be utilized to promote either flourishing or suffering (e.g., chimps are not capable of genocide; only human beings have the vision and coordination to carry out the systematic annihilation of a people). As Deacon writes, “The best and worst of what it means to be human arose with the dawn of symbolic abilities” (The Symbolic Species, 430). Thus, both sin (characterized by disordered relationship) and salvation (characterized by right relationship) are structured by the human capacity for shared symbolic meaning.

Tertullian

Theology has long debated whether it should borrow insights from other types of discourse, as the title of this post suggests. When Tertullian asked in the 3rd century what Jerusalem has to do with Athens, he argued that heresy emerges when Christians are seduced by too much philosophizing (i.e., thinking outside of theology properly speaking). He is weighing in on a live debate in his time (for alternative, pro-dialogue positions in early Christianity see, e.g., the writings of Clement of Alexandria and Origen) and one that continues today. What do the anthropological discoveries into human origins brought to light at Blombos Cave (and other sites) have to do with theology? At the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing, we think that when dialogue between theology and science can be constructed in a mutually critical fashion, the result can be a richer and deeper human wisdom.

On this blog we will be posting some of the insights and questions that emerge from mutually critical conversations of this sort. If you are interested in transdisciplinary thinking, please keep us on your radar and share our writing with like-minded friends.