I recently reintroduced myself to the study of feral children, children who have been abandoned for whatever reason at a very young age without any human contact, sometimes being raised by animals, for a number of years. I stumbled across the study of these children in some footnotes and was fascinated as I read around online about them. These children are critically important because their existence and behaviors challenge some of the most fundamental concepts of what it means to be human, showing that the line between human and animal is dangerously thin. Here, I am interested in how the case of feral children impacts LDS notions of divinization.
I say “reintroduced” because I remember thinking about this issue after watching the 1974 German film about one such child Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (English title: The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser) about 5 years ago. I hadn’t realized that there was a 1969 French film that dealt with the same topic, but different child, called L’Enfant sauvage (Englist title: The Wild Child), so I ordered it on Netflx and it should arrive in the next few days. According to wikipedia, there are just over a hundred cases known in English of such children, but no doubt there have been many more.
These children have been of scientific interest to psychologists and sociologists as a way of understanding how “humanness” is acquired and transmitted. What is most fascinating about these various cases is that language acquisition is essentially impossible for these children. If language acquisition does not occur before a certain age, it seems that it cannot be learned. Instead, these children mimic the animals that they were raised by, such as howling like wolves or whistling and flapping their arms as in the case of the “bird boy” discovered a view months ago in Russia. Socialization in the animal world is so powerful for some of these children that they are unable to physically walk upright, they cannot stand the feel of clothing, they cannot eat cooked food, and in some cases it is reported that their sight, hearing, and smell exceed those of regular human beings. Exactly how are our own bodies produced by socialization?
Despite some of its obvious limitations, I take the basic insights of the psychoanalytic tradition of Freud (as mediated by French psychoanalysis in the 60’s and 70’s) that the very notion of the self is produced at certain stages of development in relation to others. For instance, if I understand it correctly, in Lacan’s fictionalized account of the “mirror stage,” the subject is constituted in relation to a perceived image of itself. The self is other to itself and only gradually incorporates (literally) that self. In this instance, feral children acquire the subjectivity of that which is around them in particular moments. This account of subject formation as only occurring in relationship to others raises for me some interesting theological questions.
First, when we attempt to strain this problem through the lens of the nature/nurture dichotomy, we are likely to come up short. Nature is often thought of everything which is not nurture. If we can just strip away the nurture, we will be able to find nature. Instead, these things are completely inseparable. One cannot be subtracted from the other because they are mutually constituting. What it does challenge, however, is the idea that such things as taste, body formation, language, rationality, etc, are somehow “naturally” human. Far from it.
Second, if the very possibility of acquiring “humanity” is formed through the other, what does this say about the possibility of acquiring “divinity”? It seems that cultivating a relationship with God is the only way to learn to become divine. Divine sociality, like human sociality, would be the easiest path for learning to be divine.
But, what does it mean for the process of divinization that God is largely absent from our lives? Whatever the nature of our relationship with God, it is certainly of a different kind than human relationships. God is a different type of “other” altogether. In God’s absence, are we simply feral children, spending key moments in our eternal development apart from God, potentially losing forever the possibility of acquiring divinity, in the same way that feral children are unable to acquire humanity? Or, is divinity just a particular kind of humanity?