Christ and the Cavemen

By H. Boone Porter

Because of the great affluence of North American culture, it has been easy for many of us to grow up with the assumption that indulgence and heavy consumption are natural, but that self-denial, discipline, and restraint are unnatural. Fasting, sexual continence, and an austere way of life are thus seen by our culture as abnormal, sick, neurotic. The observance of Lent is thus unnatural and suspect.

This is but one of many examples of the problem of “what is natural?” Wild animals live, in most cases, very austere lives, surviving for the most part on a narrow margin of food, enduring harsh competition for their very existence. Earlier human cultures were likewise maintained by men, women, and children whose lives were marked by endurance, extremes of heat and cold, and frequent hunger. During midwinter in southern Wisconsin, one can only think with admiration of the Indian people who have in past centuries endured these icy days and nights. It obviously required great determination and bravery, as well as great skill and knowledge of woodcraft. What is “natural”?

Every winter I wonder even more about our remote ancestors, during those eons of time when winters were far colder. Turn back the clock twenty or thirty thousand years, and imagine yourself and a pack of two dozen or more human creatures trudging through the snow, desperately looking for food— a sick deer, a half-eaten dead bison from which you could drive off the wolves, a duck or goose surprised on the ice at night, a rabbit caught in the deeper snow …

Humans survived only because men were willing to share their few tatters of meat with their women and children. The band moved slowly enough for women and nursing mothers to keep up. Food was only obtained because commands of the most skillful and habitually fortunate hunters were carefully obeyed. Human life, at the most primitive levels we can imagine it, was still human and it made very severe human demands on the character, conviction, and commitment of persons. For mankind this was “natural” life. Perhaps this is the only “nature” we humans have ever experienced.

But let us not stop here. There were also those great moments in the life of primeval man, those moments for which we may still have a deep atavistic yearning. These were the times when a group of deer, antelope, or wild cattle could be frightened by screaming men waving boughs of trees, and driven to the edge of a cliff, and finally stampeded so that many perished by falling over the edge. These were moments to live for … not merely because there would be a plentitude of meat and skins, and the adulation and admiration of the women and children, but because a man really has to be a man when, with no defense except a leafy branch, he walks into the face of a snorting wild bull, with the courage to confuse that powerful animal and send it plunging to its death.

Or there was the cave bear, defending itself at the mouth of its home, or a mammoth or woolly rhinoceros cornered on a spit of land by a lake or at the edge of a swamp. There, with no weapons but sticks, stones, and patience, a band of naked men and boys ultimately would bring the great beast down. Every time one went on such a hunt, one risked one’s life. It was precisely the decision of human beings to risk themselves on behalf of their clan, and to trust the others who were doing the same, that was man’s invincible weapon enabling him to survive in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming competition.

Then as now, human beings were not born automatically knowing how to do such things. It is not pleasant to jog through snow for hours on an empty stomach, or to be wounded, or to take commands from a chief who, when all is over, will claim credit for the successful hunt — as well as taking the best meat to the part of the cave inhabited by himself and his immediate family. It takes long practice and discipline to outrun an animal (whichever is chasing the other!), or to make bird or animal calls that will deceive wild creatures, or to throw a rock which will wound a moving prey. And what happens when one misses? It is little wonder that primitive peoples traditionally subjected their sons to demanding and dangerous initiatory rites before admitting them to the hunting party, just as daughters were made to endure painful ceremonies before undertaking the dangers and responsibilities of becoming wives and mothers.

Such was the stuff of neolithic life. Yet in many ways it is still the stuff of life. Whether it be the horns of a wild bull on the primeval plains, or a wicked giant in a medieval castle, or a white whale beyond the blue horizons of the New England coast, or the snowcapped peaks of Mt. Everest, or the cringing yet boastful figure who urges leaping from the tower of the temple, human beings are called upon to cope with formidable adversaries. We cannot win the external battle until the internal battle is settled, until we ourselves have the character, the courage, and the convictions necessary to risk ourselves for the goal to be achieved, to jeopardize our life on behalf of the tribe.

In Lent each year, as I try to make the pilgrimage from the lost paradise of Eden, to the regained paradise of the garden where the sepulcher was outside of Jerusalem, I find my own knowledge of myself and others, my own perceptions of the underlying truths of existence, to be strangely illuminated by that bygone era. For what was the longest but most unknown period of human history, for hundreds of unchronicled centuries, cold, frightened, hungry human creatures carried on an endless battle for survival. They were your ancestors and mind, and also the ancestors of Jesus.

With suitable restraint, we can apply to them in part the words which the Epistle to the Hebrews applies to the Jewish saints (Chapter 11:37-21:2).

They went about destitute, afflicted, ill-treated … wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these … did not receive what was promised … that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore … let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Can Jesus Christ have anything to do with cavemen? Yes. He is the most important person in history, the central figure of the human race. He is the one in whom their lives and ours find fulfillment and perfection, the one whose death has indeed brought salvation to the whole tribe.

The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was published in our February 19, 1978 issue.

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