Does it really matter if your ancestors came over on the Mayflower and mine were probably cattle thieves?
Genealogy is a huge business in the United States, and some estimates have it at the billion dollar mark. There's a fascination to see whether we're descended from the rich and famous, and there are lots of companies that sell research tools to help people trace their ancestry.
I was interested for years in proving whether the family legend about being descended from a Cherokee princess was true, but I got lost in the confusing thicket of marriages and offspring.
So my attention was arrested by a recent article in the Smithsonian Magazine ("The Family Tree, Pruned," July) by a splendid writer, Richard Conniff. Genealogy, in his view, is fascinating, but ultimately meaningless.
Wait a minute, I thought. What about my grandfather who came to the United States at 14, all alone and not speaking a word of English? And what about that Cherokee princess? "Conjuring up a family tree and figuring out where we sit in it gives us back a sense of place, of connectedness," says Conniff. He points out, though, that going back 10 generations, to about 1700 – when that Cherokee princess would have been living – would give me in theory 1,000 other direct ancestors, and going back another 10, the number swells to a million.
He notes that because of intermarriage and the difficulty of travel, when one traces back about 5,000 years, "all our ancestors are the same." Rich and famous or an unknown peasant; slave or Nobel winning laureate; of African, Asian, or Caucasian descent, at one point we find we all have an identical genealogy.
The biblical prophet Malachi rejected the concept of genealogy, recognizing God as the ultimate Father of all, when he wrote, "Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?" (Mal. 2:10).
A New Testament writer evidently felt his young friend Timothy was spending too much time in tracing his lineage, and wrote to him, "Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith" (I Tim. 1:4).
It seems that one message from the Bible – which does spend a lot of time on genealogical narratives – is that we should both honor our forebears and also turn our thought to God as our ultimate source.
Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, was justifiably proud of her family, sturdy pioneer folk who cleared the rocky ground of New England and made a living for themselves. But she also counseled people to look beyond human affairs to find the one Father-Mother God, divine Principle, who was the good and only Power.
In her autobiography, "Retrospection and Introspection," she wrote, "It is well to know, dear reader, that our material, mortal history is but the record of dreams, not of man's real existence, and the dream has no place in the Science of being.… The heavenly intent of earth's shadows is to chasten the affections, to rebuke human consciousness and turn it gladly from a material, false sense of life and happiness, to spiritual joy and true estimate of being" (p. 21).
Seeing that God is my source means that I express His good qualities undiluted by transmission through human generations. If I can learn my forebears' stories, I can see how they, too, expressed God through faith and perseverance. But I also can recognize that the brotherhood of man is an inescapable spiritual fact, and that we are all derived equally from our one Parent, the ever-present Father-Mother God.