There are questions and there are questions, different kinds of questions. There are questions about God but more significantly there are the questions of God. The grand narrative of the Fall, as we have seen, is about our questions of deceit and denial in contrast to God’s questions that call us to truth and awaken us to understanding. Thus, the questions of God actually teach us a lot about the idea of God and about the nature of learning.
This week in Chapel we have had a barrage of questions, first, in the classic and foundational story of Cain and Abel, and, secondly, in the powerful questions of God to Job (and to us) in The Book of Job. The questions of God open us out to wisdom and understanding about creation and about ourselves.
It is always a bit of fun with the Junior School Chapel to ask students and faculty if they have any brothers and sisters and then to ask them if they have ever said to their brother or sister (and with a certain intensity), ‘I hate you!’ or ‘I’ll kill you!’ A fair number are honest enough in their response! The point is that we are all in the story of Cain and Abel, the story of the first murder, at least in terms of our thoughts and words. We hope not in terms of our deeds!
The story is part of the fall-out from the Fall and belongs to the transition from the purely mythological and poetical to the beginnings of something like history and civilization. Abel is a keeper of sheep and Cain a tiller of the ground. There is just a hint of criticism about our assumptions in our mastery of nature by way of agriculture over and against the more nomadic qualities of shepherding. At issue, perhaps, is a deeper sense of dependence upon God as opposed to the illusions of our control and management that contribute to exploitation, violence, and abuse. The image of keeping the sheep is the classical image of care and in a way that is transcultural. Genesis, along with much else in the Hebrew Scriptures, is quite sceptical of human presumption.
It is not by accident that the overarching icon in the Chapel is the image of Christ the Good Shepherd whose care is sacrificial love. In the story of Cain and Abel, there are, as with the story of the Fall, five questions of which four are God’s and one is Cain’s. His question echoes the same kind of question of denial as the serpent’s question, “Did God say?” God asks Cain, “why are you angry?” and “why has your countenance fallen?” and challenges him about the necessary control of his emotions, the need to master our desires. The division between our knowing and our willing is often so deadly and destructive. We so easily take offense at a perceived slight or sense of being ignored and lash out in anger sometimes because of envy and jealousy.
Cain kills his brother and God asks, “where is Abel your brother?” It is the same question as God’s question to us in the garden, “Where are you?” It is not as if God doesn’t know. It is more about our response. Indeed, God’s questions awaken us to the truth of our actions and to an awareness of human agency. Cain’s response is denial. “I do not know,” he says, and then adds with cynical disdain and dismissal, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It is a bold-faced denial of what he knows but it also points to the deeper truth about our obligation and responsibilities towards one another which his action denies. He knows exactly where Abel is because he has killed him though one could argue that Abel as dead is not exactly anywhere but that is a subtlety that goes beyond the simple dynamic of the story.
This leads to the final question. “What have you done?” Like the other three questions of God, it calls us to account, to an awareness of what has been done. It is a form of self-consciousness in the concrete realization of the murder of another. The biblical, philosophical, and ethical teaching, as expressed by Socrates, for instance, is that it is far worse to do wrong than to suffer wrong. Cain’s question attempts to deny his action. God’s questions call him to account. More than merely judgement, it belongs to the awakening to ourselves as agents who as such are responsible for our actions. That is really the dignity of our humanity. It requires our respect for one another, even for that annoying sibling who seems to get all the attention that you think you deserve! This is what Cain has denied and in so doing exists now in contradiction with his own being. He has assumed a power over another whom he did not create and who is his brother and his equal. In his anger, he presumes to annihilate Abel from the horizons of his mind. It is a denial of our common humanity in terms of our relation to God in whose image we are made. This is made poignantly clear in the heart-rending statement by God. “Your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”
The story goes on to make it clear that this is the real lesson, namely, to confront the folly of our illusions and the evil of our actions. God out of the whirlwind asks Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” What follows is a long sequence of questions about the wisdom and power of God in nature that at once humbles Job and awakens him to the majesty and truth of God. In short, God’s questions awaken us to ourselves and to the real truth and dignity of our humanity in our knowledge of God and his works. That requires our patient respect, care and consideration of one another in complete contrast to the illusions of our destructive dominance of nature and of one another. We are not the center of the universe after all. It is wisdom to know this.
The knowledge of self and the knowledge of God are intimately connected as a number of philosophers and theologians have noted, from Augustine to Descartes, for instance. These scriptural stories all turn on the power of God’s questions that awaken us to ourselves and to our life together in care and respect. God questions us so that we might learn.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK teacher,
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy