Monday, March 17, 2008

Foolish Genealogies (Thinking about Entropy)

Titus 3:9
But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.

In preparation for St. Patrick's Day, I did a bit of digging into my Irish ancestry. I knew about my great-great-grandmother Sarah Jane O'Neal, but I found at least one other ancestor of Irish descent: Daniel Malone, purportedly of County Westmeath, but more probably born to parents of Irish ancestry in Yorkshire or thereabouts. Oh, and his son might have been married to Scottish royalty in hiding (don't you love crazy family legends that can never be proved or disproved?).

I also found a couple of lines of descent from Irish Quakers, who probably shouldn't really count as Irish, since they were really English folks who moved to Ireland for about a generation to avoid persecution while they made arrangements to get over to Pennsylvania. The Irish Quaker names ended in my line when my 5x-g-grandfather James Lindley was hanged as a British loyalist in Georgia, which seems like a hard end for a guy whose dad Thomas had died as a pacifist helping to tend the wounded of both sides in the "Battle of Lindley's Mill." Being a Quaker, Thomas couldn't rightly pick a side among the guys who were firing guns on account of his mill being a good location for ambuscade, so he tried to ameliorate the misery created by the situation and got shot for his trouble. James's daughter Mary ended up marrying a Scotsman named Abercrombie (alas, not a royal in hiding this time, though his ancestor was a royal falconer). They seemed to have done well for themselves, although after the tragic end of her father and grandfather, most anything would have been a step up. Mary's daughter married another hard luck case, an orphan raised by a kindly aunt and uncle, but misery seems to have bypassed the family after that.

To explain why this hasn't just been an excuse to tell family stories, this inquiry got me thinking about what it is that fascinates us about genealogy and how it pertains to St. Paul's warning against stupid genealogies. From a metaphysical standpoint, the problem of genealogies goes straight back to Adam. Since Adam, we have had human souls from a multiplicity of people, not just one or two. These lives are therefore fragmented, the human nature being scattered in time and space into all of these individual people in their limited historical circumstances and individual biographies. The quest for genealogy is really a quest to gather up the pieces of this smashed picture and to collect them into something recognizable. It is trying to rebuild a human nature that we recognize is somehow broken in this vast separation between people, trying to recapitulate all that brokenness in ourselves.

But we can't do that. There is only one person in history who was capable of doing that, and it was Jesus Christ. His particular genealogy also matters in that regard, because His recapitulation of the human nature also recapitulates the whole biography of Israel. Attempting to find that sort of wholeness outside of Him is doomed to be a futile exercise. Only in Him does all of humanity with the biographies of every one of us make sense. This is not to say that natural genealogies are somehow a bad aspect of humanity, as if the command to be fruitful and multiply were a curse. Our families, our parents, and our culture are all blessings from God in their own limited way. It is only when we attempt to stretch, when we attempt to procure immortality through our offspring (as St. Maximus the Confessor warned) or otherwise attempt to extend these natural blessings beyond what they can bear that we fall into the trap of "stupid genealogies" that St. Paul disdains. The rabbis of his time were trying to find an answer that in their personal descendancy that could only be found in Christ, and we should beware of doing the same.


CrimsonCatholic said...

Just Thomism beats me by a day with an excellent post on the same theme.

Anonymous said...

Just Thomism is always an excellent read, as is Crimson Catholic. Hopefully someday I'll be able to think as systematically as you two.

Levi said...

I was reading Wisdom of Sirach(Ecclesiasticus) today, and thought this summed up the subject of your last few posts nicely:

"Think about what is commanded you,
For you do not need what the Lord keeps hidden.

Do not meddle in what is none of your business,
For things beyond human insight have been shown to you.

Speculation has led many astray,
And evil suppositions have caused their minds to slip and fall."
-Wisdom of Sirach 3:21-23