The legacy of Cain: faith and technology in the 21st century

The early chapters of Genesis establish the essential way-points of the biblical worldview. Through the stories of the Fall and the ensuing struggle between the two races of men, we learn the rudiments of how to navigate a sinful world as loyal followers of God: temptation, sin, redemption, causality, the will, and lifestyle--these values get mapped out in Genesis through the medium of Hebrew narrative. However, in a postmodern society prone to regarding stories as expressive merely of cultural or ideological boundaries, the Genesis narrative has lost much of its authority. Secular Christians do not expect a Hebrew narrative of the late Bronze Age to offer much more than a primitive and culturally bound perspective on the human condition. This essay works from a perspective hostile to such assumptions: as a Biblical Christian, I both reject the postmodern premise that Truth is relative to time and place, and I also posit Scripture as the only reliable  benchmark available to contemporary society.

What follows eschews the enlightened bigotry of the cultural and historical critic with his premise of the innate superiority of the modern culture. Culture matters, to be sure, but God cannot be held hostage to time and place even when He does choose to inhabit it. To think otherwise, amounts to colonizing God in the name of sinful history and the sinning habitus of human thought. Thus, to think 'Christianly' about the place of technology in the Christian life-style, means that we look not to the spirit of our own age, but, rather, to the inspired patterns of the Biblical past. Cain does two seminal things in human history: he murders and he invents. It may be significant that the murder follows closely upon God's attempt to get Cain to recognize the limits to human initiative. We usually identify Cain as rebellious and disobedient, and that he is, but we do not often consider that his rebellion, and his murder of Abel, represent a daring enterprise inspired by his parents' sin in eating the forbidden fruit.  Cain's vegetative sacrifice, that God cannot recognize, should not be reduced to an isolated or impulsive gesture, since we can see from Cain's later life trajectory that Cain rebelled not just against the letter of the law regarding sacrifices, he also, more importantly, rebelled against the way of life imposed by God upon mankind after the Fall.  The narrative logic of the Genesis account never makes explicit Cain's programmatic attempt to 'change the world, but it is all there. Cain longed for a return to Eden. He regarded God's law regarding the manner in which mankind must regain his Paradisal home too difficult; far too drawn out; perhaps even degrading (all that blood!).

Cain murders for a cause and an idea. The kind of anger that could invent and then execute the first murder, required considerable energy and a determination to stop at nothing to achieve one's goals. We can see this in the story. God restates the rules that govern human redemption: If you do well your offering will be accepted, if you do not, it will be rejected.  Note that 'doing well' in this context actually amounts to the opposite of 'doing well' as defined by a secular world.  Cain must admit to having not 'done well' (repentance) before God can accept him. This painful truth  confronts Cain's belief in the power of the human race to solve the problems of existence without blood.  Ironically, in shedding the blood of his brother, Cain proves that humanity, without the substitutionary blood of a Redeemer, will shed ever more blood in the attempt to deny or drown out the fact of human depravity. The paradox is clear: to deny sin in one's own nature is to empower it. Cain expresses rage at God and justifiable hatred towards any person who would endanger Cain's grand program for human improvement; a program contingent upon human progress, human strength, and human initiative--not human penitence, humility, or trust in God.

God's punishment of Cain takes a risk. When God sterilizes the soil that Cain needs to grow food, He emasculates Cain by removing the grounds for Cain's life success and by rendering useless Cain's accumulated skill as a provider of food. Cain must now depend wholly upon others for his survival. He must beg, as it were, for food.  But will Cain submit to this redemptive punishment? Or will he use his human intelligence to find a way around God's punishment and forge a better way of life that does not leave him destitute and dependent upon the good will of his fellow man (and God)? Will Cain submit to the limitations that God places upon him, or will he surmount these obstacles in order to regain his freedom and his pride? 

When Cain leaves the presence of God, we understand that he departs from God not only in a personal sense, but also ideologically. We know this because the first thing Cain does, after getting married and having a son, is to build a city and name it after his son, Enoch.  God promised that Eve's seed would one day crush the head of the Serpent. That is, evil would be vanquished and a return to Eden would be enjoyed once more. A son or 'seed' held the promise of that return. We catch a sense of this in Eve's statement upon the birth of Cain: "I have got a son with the help of the Lord"--she hopes the Divinely empowered promise will find fulfillment in her first son.

Ironically, Cain too, expresses hopes for a utopian future when he names his city after his first-born. But this naming of the city also represents a profound departure from God's original intent. Now, instead of Cain placing all of his hopes in his seed or on the God-Man engendered through divine help, Cain hazards the human future on his new invention--the city, or perhaps I should say that he now looks to his cultural legacy as it shapes the values and world-view of his descendants as the saving mechanism for the race. Cain rejects the premise of the guilt and penalty of sin, but he embraces a belief in a human destiny that conquers the results of sin through the exercise of human genius.  This becomes the paradigm, the seminal concept for all future secular utopian dreams.

Cain invents the city as a way to circumvent God's punishment. If he can't grow food, Cain can invent a way of life in which he won't have to grow food. Cities pool talent; they organize skills in ways that allow for the production of goods and services that farmers cannot make themselves.  The city makes possible the rise of culture as a means to freedom from the constant pressure of having to grow food in order to survive. Cain invents civilization.  He remains dependent upon others to grow his food, but he can pay for it now; he never has to beg. He can now employ farmers instead of having to be one.  Cain demonstrates a profound genius; indeed, his departure from God would seem to have released him into realizing his full potential. Cain's history seems to support the secular claim that man can only truly develop once free of religion's archaic strictures and rules.

Cain achieves his Eden to the extent that he can now live his life free of the pain of having to live under the rule of God's redemptive punishments. Unlike his father, Cain will never again have to live 'by the sweat of his brow.' In time and within the continuum of Cain's culture, other curses will be overcome: women will not have to endure the pain of child-birth, nor will they have to suffer the indignity of a ruling husband.  But, of course, nothing Cain can invent will ever remove the sting of death. For all of its undeniable immediate benefits, secular progress cannot bring back eternal life.  Sometimes we forget that salient truth as we embrace the empty promise of Eden now. What is a life of ease and luxury that ends? Well, it is not really a life at all, just a rather pleasant, if terminal, existence. 

Cain's legacy emerges in profound ways: his various descendants invent the nomadic lifestyle, they invent stringed instruments, they discover bigamy, and they invent metal tools (technology). Should we reject stringed instruments given their patrimony? Ought we to eschew tools or technology as the wicked products of Cain's disobedience? Well, no, at least not in principle. The truths here speak through concrete examples that force us to think even as they offer clear precedents. Cain's history emerges in ways that push us to reevaluate our deepest assumptions; the ones that we hardly notice.   

Clearly God made a world amenable to human invention and technology. But what do we do with the fact that the first humans to develop such things had departed from God? This question must not be pushed aside, since until we grapple with it, we will always be somewhat prone to admiring Cain's achievements while attempting to reject his ideology all at the same time. This paradox creates certain destructive tendencies within our Christian worldview, since to adopt the technology of Cain while rejecting his ideology ignores the possibility that his technology might not be entirely distinct from his philosophy. Could the very urge to invent when shaped by a life apart from God lead to certain kinds of inventions that, by their very nature, lead us away from God even as they make our lives easier and more pleasantly distracted? A line must be traced in each of our lives between invention as a way to make man both happier and straighter in his walk with God, and invention as the means to making God less and less needed or even wanted. I will not dictate that line for you, but I'm convinced of its existence.

We cannot fully evaluate Cain's legacy until we contrast it with the culture and life-style maintained by Seth and his descendants. The Genesis story avoids easy truths by offering us a rather stark contrast. Whereas Cain's legacy builds and establishes civilization as the great solution, Seth's descendants can only muster one single record worthy of fame: "Enoch walked with God" and, we may note, he did not die. Curiously, Seth's line also achieves fame for its longevity (a feature notably absent from the Cain chronicle). In this context, we recall that the most illustrative of all of Cain's descendants (a certain 'Lamech') gained notoriety not only for having invented bigamy, but also for having committed the second recorded murder in human history. The narrative allows for a simple probability: although Cain's legacy brought relief from the pain of life, we have reason to suspect that not many of them died peaceably. And although Seth's way of life did not bring immediate relief from the pain of hard toil, it did produce one instance of immortality and not a few very long lives.

Seth's descendants emerge as remarkable for their secular anonymity. They appear to achieve nothing worthy of secular comment. They invent nothing, they build no cities, and they contribute nothing to the temporal ease of mankind. Genesis refrains from either a wholesale condemnation of Cain and his legacy or an explicit endorsement of Seth's line.  We simply have the understated contrast. 

I will conclude my reading with this point: at the end of Genesis 5, we find another Lamech,  (in this case a descendant of Seth and Noah's father) expressing, like Eve, his hope that his son will finally give his people some relief from the pain of their cruel labor. In this brief line, we learn two vital things: Seth's descendants are still farmers, and Seth's descendants still look to the God-man for fine arts and culture.  Unlike Cain's privileged line, Seth's descendants cling to the Divine and delayed promise in full awareness of the immediate relief offered by Cain's city with its wonderful innovations. As Paul puts it, 'they wait for a city built by God.' They refuse the immediate solace of technology, culture, and urban ease for lives of hardship in the hope of a return to an eternal home without pain or death.  It would appear that, for a long time, they did not embrace Cain's ideas; we know that because they refused his inventions--they lived in the waste places of the earth; they clung to manual labor as a life-line to God.   

In practical terms what does this mean for us? Do we reject entirely the technological legacy of Cain in order to preserve our faith in God? Do we become like the Amish?  I would hazard only this warning: Seth's descendants appear to have maintained faith in God's promises largely because they did not choose to inhabit Cain's city. The narrative hardly allows for any other conclusion. They remained farmers. They lived physically hard lives. They refused the secular shortcut to a temporal utopia. And with the exception of a single man, they died without having seen the promise fulfilled. This Genesis paradigm should trouble us, since most of us have already traded heavily in the market place of maximum temporal ease, convenience, comfort, and progress. As Christians and Adventists, we profess to be looking for a New Earth, but in practice we have learned to luxuriate in the old one. We have entered the city; we have reaped its benefits.  And in the end, God will have to call us to "come out of Her...." But will we be able to leave? Can we really maintain allegiance to God's ideas when we have indentured ourselves so heavily to the legacy of Cain as manifested in our technological addictions? 

If nothing else, this narrative warns us against a blithe acceptance of gadgets as mere tools. Something deadly lurks within our naive love of toys, labor saving devices, and convenience for its own sake. Death still awaits--and a life of ease and immediate gratification hardly prepares us for that stark reality. Can you recall the last time you grew something that you could eat? Can many of us spend an evening without some form of media consolation or escape? Can we really pin all of our hopes on Jesus given our present level of physical comfort and mental and emotional distraction? I wonder. At the risk of alienating the constant champions of the status quo, I would suggest a considered and temperate embrace of some level of physical discomfort in your life. Perhaps a walk or two; a day without electronics. Why not a day in Nature (or two weeks)? After all, the real Eden was just trees, creatures, water, humanity and God. Do we still really want that kind of leafy home? Could you live in a Yurt?

Technology threatens (or promises?) to displace all God-ordained realities of human limitation. The godlike state promised by the Serpent seems, almost, to have been, finally, achieved and Cain's legacy of human progress fulfilled. Meanwhile, we push little buttons in order to get what we desire. No tilling, no sweat (at least not any necessary sweat), and certainly no famine. Cain had it right--man does not need to worship God in order to turn the world into a relatively comfortable place (at least for a privileged few for relatively short periods of time).