Feral Children and Divinity

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?


Filed under Marginalia, Speculation

18 responses to “Feral Children and Divinity

  1. kwk

    Who else read the title and thought this post was going to be about Sis. Beck’s infamous talk?

  2. Proud Daughter of Eve

    Kwk: not me. 🙂

    TT: I see your point about socialization but God is in our lives, through prayer and the scriptures. It’s not the same as being raised with Him and imprinting on Him but we’re already done that. All animals have a point where the young must leave the home and survive without the support of the parent. The Pre-Existance was the “nest.” Earth is the “rest of the world.”

  3. TT

    kwk- sorry to disappoint!

    PDoE- Let’s grant for a moment that God is involved in our lives through scriptures and prayer. Isn’t this only for a very small percentage of human beings who have lived on the earth? Further, how exactly do we describe this involvement? It is certainly different from the kind of inculturation we receive from human interactions.
    As for the pre-existence, I think you make an intersting point, but I don’t think that the analogy holds. Animals don’t forget everything the learned growing up once they leave the “nest.” For our relationship to God, it seems the exact opposite. We learn what we are supposed to know while outside of the nest before we can actually return to it. The end state for us is actually divine sociality, not independence.

  4. Howard

    Elder Legrand Richards spoke of the great progress in the world since the gospel was restored; it was because the Father and the Son had come and broken the darkness, just as the scriptures say. Isaiah said, “The darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people.” During that time the world made no progress. Year after year, century after century, they lived in the same kind of houses and traveled in the same crude manner and lived in the same crude homes with no modern conveniences. Then all at once the light broke forth. The Lord said: I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. (Joel 2:28.) When the Lord poured out His spirit things began to happen, until we can hardly keep track of them.

    When I think about this in the context of your last paragraph I get the sense that in addition to our individual progress we are being evolved as a group. During the darkness the world made no progress but when the time was right the spirit was poured out upon all flesh and man’s creativity took off. Eventually we will do the temple work for those who lived in the darkness allowing them to rejoin us in the light.

  5. hawkgrrrl

    I tend to think of the plight of feral children being similiar to those with mental disability. The cause comes through nurture (lack of) vs. nature, perhaps, but in the plan of salvation, I assume they are in the same position.

  6. TT

    I wonder if Richard’s enthusiasm for the “progress” of the world would have changed had he seen the rest of the 20th century, by far the most horrific century in recorded history.

    I’m sure your right, but I am also wondering how our own lack of divine socialization situates us in this plan.

  7. Howard

    Horrific is one way to look at it TT, but horrific side steps Richard’s point and mine as well.

  8. Mogget

    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.

    What strikes me about this is that it suggests that the parent-child relationship is not adequate to fully articulate the nature of our relationship with God. When it pops up in the NT, it’s expressing God’s providential care, not carrying the weight of an extremely poorly understood concept like divinization. I don’t think the father-child metaphor can handle the Problem of Evil, either.

    So I agree: good question. But I sense that your feral child example probably radicalizes the matter unduly. Whatever God is, and however he interacts, we do appear to be able to communicate with him at some level and to follow some elements of his logic, which suggests that we are not as feral as we might be.

    Happy thought, that…

  9. I’m just happy Mogget’s back! Speak on, O Mogget.

  10. TrevorM


    While I think this is a beautifully poetic point, and I agree, at least on the level of technology permitting worldwide church organization, I also find this point to be disturbing, I wonder if it isn’t dangerous to assert any form of cultural superiority.

    This post brings to my mind the subject of accountability. We are accountable according to the measure of God’s light we receive, it is a very comforting principle (albeit chilling at other times).

    In response to the last paragraph:

    We can only obtain as much divinity as we endeavor to obtain. While we naturally inherit many cultural traits (or feral traits i suppose) base on our surroundings, obtaining traits of divinity must be a pursuit, it will not happen naturally precisely because God is not among us. He has revealed how we can go about doing it and then left us to decide if we want to. I think this is exactly as it ought to be. We are not left to our own, unlike feral children, but divinization will not be forced on us, the way is open and we must pursue it.

  11. Mogget

    Hi, Steve. I’m only back for the day, while I think of a clever way to say that the characters in Revelation aren’t as human-like as they might be, and what ramifications this has for a reading of the text.

    I think that I will have to express some discomfort with the repeated assertions that God is not among us. My sense of the [a] role of the Spirit, no doubt unduly influenced by my obsession with the NT, is that it is precisely to make God present among us. When it’s not busy doing that, it can find our car keys, tell us what exit to take, remind us to buckle our seatbelts just before we crash so we can tell good stories in testimony meeting, etc., etc.

    That said, Trevor’s point about our volition in this change of state is interesting. But once again, I find myself wanting to know a bit more a divinization before getting too wrapped up in the matter. The longer I work with eschatology, the more I like President Hinckley’s “We really don’t know too much about that” approach to this stuff.

  12. Howard

    Richards suggests that progress is the result of the spirit acting on man.

    I agree that we are accountable according to the measure of God’s light we receive and we can only obtain as much divinity as we endeavor to obtain. But, the pursuit of divinity is much more productive for those living in the light than those in the darkness. Why would God bias one person’s opportunity over another? Some had to go first and some last. The cavemen were necessary for us to be able to sit in Sacrament meeting. Imagine the courage of the spirits that entered those caveman bodies! We are all part of a great plan and it is a group effort.

    Feral children and “disadvantaged” people in all dispensations have a part to play.

    The Lord shines light where and when it is important to further his work. We happen standing in that light because of all those who went before, lucky us.

  13. TT

    Hi all,
    Just to clarify, I am not necessarily interested in the question of the salvation of feral children, or a theodicy to account for their existence. Rather, I am interested in the process by which humanization occurs, and how divine absence affects divinization.

    If I understand your point, you are suggesting that God is not absent at all, at least not since the Restoration. As evidence of the Spirit being poured out, you point to “modern conveniences.” Through technological advance (but not an increase of peace on earth), the Lord advances human development towards divinization.

    I understand your point about divine presence, and perhaps my explanation here is not fully worked out. I am trying to draw on the insights of psychoanalysis (with an admittedly partial comprehension of this field) to understand how the self is constituted by the other in time. Certainly it is incorrect to say that God is absent in some absolute sense, but it is equally incorrect to say that God is present in some absolute sense. Indeed, one cannot even say that the self or the other is present or absent in an unambiguous sense, because they are mutually constituting. What I am trying to understand is precisely how to articulate God’s absence (or presence) and how it affects our divinization. How do the circumstances of our separation from God, however we might characterize it, allow us to possibly acquire his attributes? I think that even if I were to grant a maximalist view of God’s involvement with humanity, as LDS we must concede that we are at a significant distance from God relative to either the pre-mortal existence or post-mortal salvation.

    I think you make a really interesting point here by invoking a different model of development altogether, one that involves volition rather than inculturation. The notion of developing the self through practice is incredibly persuasive to me. Yet at the same time, I am concerned that such a model overvalues volition in the process of subject formation. I would suggest that the very concept of the “will” is produced through inculturation, a habit that we acquire. In my understanding, when even the very process of actively seeking to change oneself is produced through a particular kind of socialization, I am still left with the question of how the lack of divine socialization can possibly affect us.

    I think that my very last question in the original post might be suggestive here, and your model might help in bridging the gap. If “divinization” is not some process essentially different from “humanization,” that is, to be fully human is in some sense to be fully divine, then the process of humanization, of acquiring the constructed values which exemplify humanity, is no different from being divine. God’s presence, as another human, would not alter this process.

  14. Howard

    Nice summary TT.

    I would also like to point out the example of feral children demonstrates that we still have much in common with cavemen.

  15. TrevorM

    TT I think this does link to Howard’s point. In general volition develops as a human cultural norm. Thus (If I understand you) The (divine?) trait of “will” is naturally developed via human interaction, opening the door to the choice of pursuing a divine nature. God provides basic manuals and examples and encourages us to start down the path if we so desire.

    Perhaps if we link humanization and divinization then we could say that The divinity within us only goes so far, giving us a just a piece of the divinity God has planned for us, and that the spark within us requires a sociality to develop at all. This makes the case of the necessity of Adam and Eve’s fall childbearing all the more interesting.

  16. TrevorM

    *fall and childbearing

  17. Carlos U.

    A beautiful and insightfull posting.

  18. John Swenson Harvey

    I’ve found this thread very interesting. What struck me when reading the original post was the how the concept of “natural man” mentioned in the BoM would relate to feral people.

    I think Satan tries to influence all people, so in some sense the natural man is one who has been subject to the temptations of Satan. By yielding to the Spirit one can put off the natural man and become Christ like.

    I would be very interested to see some information about how feral children relate to, and interact with, others; what concepts of ownership they might have, and if they had a developed sense of empathy.

    I’m just very curious how much of what we tend to identify as Christ like behaviors exist in the feral people, both at the time of first contact with humans, and after they have lived in human society for some time.

    With respect to the divinity/process comments I tend to think that since humans and God are the same “species” that the progression from whatever we are to the divine is always possible. People choose by their actions and priorities how far along that path they will travel, if at all. Without help from God (i.e., a change of heart) few – maybe none – could progress very far. Many seem to reject the help that is offered and hence tend to travel in the wrong direction.