Culture Runs Thicker Than Blood
Dan Brown’s bestseller ‘The Da Vinci Code’ suggests that the Holy Grail of Christianity is in fact not an object, but a person. Or, rather, the Holy Grail is a family tree, consisting of all direct descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Of course this is fiction, and numerous criticisms have been raised about the factual accuracy of Dan Brown’s work in general. But this idea in particular is an interesting one, precisely because of the nature of its flaw.
The idea that a direct line of descendance of Jesus would be devastating for the Roman Catholic Church (which therefore would try to exterminate Jesus’s children, his grandchildren, etc.) presupposes that genetic inheritance is primordial for the human species. Of course it isn’t. What matters, is cultural inheritance (without implying a complete separation between the biological and the cultural). Christians have known this - or at least acted on this - since the early days of Christianity. To be a descendant of Christ means foremost to be a member of the cultural, religious tradition that sees itself rooted in His life, death, and resurrection. What matters is not your DNA, but what you believe.
But this criticism on Dan Brown's gene-centered (or at least 'blood-centered') perspective does not imply that the human foundations of the Church are unshakable. The very phenomenon of a cultural tradition is quite fragile, having evolved - as far as we currently know - only in our species. It is a particularity about human cultural traditions that we not only remember what we - as a species - have come to know before, and that we transmit that to our kin, but that we also enhance what we have come to know. We change what we learn from our parents, our peers, or other influential figures in our environment, we build on it, we improve it, up to the point "that cultural traits become too complex for a single individual to invent in their lifetime.” This clearly suggests that cultural inheritance is not merely a matter of copy-pasting from one generation to the next, but rather an active, creative process. One could argue that Homo sapiens is the “wise man"(sic) precisely because of our species’ ability to critically and creatively remember.
Remembering To Be Human
It is notable that theologians, in emphasizing the importance of creative appropriation in the development of tradition, parallel the evolutionary perspective just scetched. Lieven Boeve’s concept of recontextualisation (which in turn builds on e.g. Schillebeeckx’s work, thus in itself being an example of how a cultural tradition ‘works’), is an example in point:
"For sure, faith cannot be reduced to context, nor can tradition development to mere adaptation to the context. Nevertheless, there is an intrinsic bond between faith and tradition, on the one hand, and context, on the other. Hence, contextual novelty puts pressure on historically conditioned expressions of faith and their theological understanding, and drives towards recontextualization. In both taking part in, and confronting itself with this changed context, Christian communities may find new ways to express their faith, in fidelity to the tradition as well as to the context in which they are situated – balancing between continuity and discontinuity.”
During the month of November, marked by All Souls Day, All Saints, and Armistice Day (Veteran’s Day in the US), it seems appropriate to reflect on our species’s ability to remember, and on what it means to remember in the light of our evolutionary history. The importance of remembering, as part of recontextualisation, is often underestimated. A Belgian newspaper - publishing mainly economic news - featured a cartoon about All Shouls Day, which suggests that only the here and now matters.
The cartoon shows a (grand)son offering flowers to his aged (grand)mother, saying: “At least now you can still enjoy them”. This suggests that putting flowers on our deceased’s graves is futile. This is an example of the vulnerability of cultural traditions in two ways: first, it shows we risk losing part of our cultural inheritance, since the cartoonist clearly has forgotten why we visit the graves of our lost ones, and second, the cartoon itself promotes ‘forgetting’, focussing on the ‘here and now’ as the only context that matters, as a context that reduces meaning and makes remembering impossible. Of course, from a materialist perspective, visiting graves, asking for the intercession of Saints (the very concept of sainthood even!) or rituals such as the Last Post, are useless. At the same time, if we really are to be ‘Homo sapiens’, if we really are to become Imago Dei, one could wonder whether these are not precisely the things that matter most. In this November month, dedicated to remembering as it is, one might experience that it is only by remembering the way we were, that human becoming can continue.