Sunday 23 April 2017

Who was the genius behind the Hunter Gatherer concept? Implications for Christian 'traditionalists'

Sometime in - perhaps - the middle 1960s, some genius, somewhere came up with the concept of hunter-gatherers (aka nomadic foragers) as a way of distinguishing the original type of human society and its more recent homologues.

Before that time; all the non-literate, tribal, simple or primitive societies were jumbled together - including herders, gardeners, sedentary gatherers (like the Pacific Northwest Amerindians) and small-scale mobile agriculturalists.

But once that genius - whoever it was - had drawn a line around the hunter gatherers - all sorts of important aspects about human nature and prehistory became much clearer.

Since I discovered this distinction in the middle 1990s, I have been fascinated by the perspective it brings to the human condition. An early paper looked at economics and the sense of 'justice':

But later I became focused on the spiritual side:

I have since been aware that many or most people's ideas of 'traditional' human life refer to the agricultural and settled existence which emerged only from about 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, and much more recently in other parts of the world.

The implications for Christianity are particularly relevant - since Christianity only emerged after the development of agriculture - and indeed in the context of the Roman Empire. Many of the features of Christian churches have reflected these 'middling' type, complex agriculturally-based societies; yet Christianity is a universal religion.

Many Christians have assumed that organisational and social aspects of complex agricultural societies are intrinsic and necessary to Christianity - and indeed that Christian eternity is to be spent in some Heavenly version of a Roman city... but it seems implausible.

I think it is valuable to do the thought experiment of imagining Christianity in the context of a simple, nomadic, illiterate hunter gatherer society without economic specialisation. And since this was how humans began, it could be that it will also be how will humans end - and there seems to be an important sense that the hunter gatherer life is the one most people feel is the most natural and spontaneous way of living.

This idea seems more and more convincing to me at present - that human history (perhaps extending into life beyond biological death) will describe a vast circle from then back-to the hunter gatherer way of life; but that our return will be qualitatively different in a spiritual and psychological sense; because Men have evolved in their consciousness, and Mankind has evolved in its cumulative experience.

In the meantime, and in a world where all major institutions - including nearly all major churches (including those with roots in the Roman Empire and its descendents) - are subverted, inverted, and corrupting to the point that they are anti-Christian and pro-materialist in net efffect; I find it inspiring to suppose that Christianity's future may be in a form that would be possible and powerful for any kind of human grouping: even the smallest scale, illiterate, simple band of nomadic foragers...


TheDoctorofOdoIsland said...

I'm personally holding out for holy city the prophets and Revelation described in so much detail, but I might be biased.

I suppose an immortal being who no longer depends on food or shelter or the other fruits of civilized society would be more like a nomadic hunter than anything else.
- Carter Craft

Bruce Charlton said...

@Carter - Yes - The question is how literally 'city' is intended when used in this way. Charles Williams took it very literally. But on consideration I don't believe it was meant as a universal statement - but more to communicate an aspect, an idea, a quality. (Imagine trying to preach about Heavenly cities in a world of hunter gatherers - for whom the entire human population numbered about 1000, spread over thrice as many square miles.) But the truth is that concepts can seldom be translated between eras - because concepts in earlier stages of human society were much wider and deeper, and included much more, than they do now. (This was Owen Barfield's insight.)

John Fitzgerald said...

Perhaps the religion which lies implicit throughout The Lord of the Rings points the way? A world suffused with the Divine but yet with very little in the way of organised worship. I have always been greatly struck by Faramir's three bows to the West in the chapter set in the tower. Simple, profound and moving.

Bruce Charlton said...

@John. I too am moved by the descriptions of Numenorean religion - which Tolkien expanded on in the posthumously published material (especially the account of Numenor in Unfinished Tales).

This material was synthesised into a really wonderful Numenoran Fan Fiction which I excerpted here:

Having said that - Tolkien described (somewhere!) the exiled religion of Gondor as a kind of vestigial remnant after 'the temple' of the sacred mountain had been destroyed - rather like the modern Jewish religion after the temple was destroyed in AD 70 and never rebuilt. So, he perhaps did not see it as a whole or satisfying thing; but the best that could be managed...

William Wildblood said...

This makes a lot of sense to me in that all symbolic journeys end up where they started but with an entirely different perspective. See T.S.Eliot "We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." And then there's the prodigal son.

It also implies that all our complicated systems and ways of being and mechanistic constructions will be outgrown and we will return to purity and simplicity. Count me in!