‘From Generation to Generation’: History in perspective from the Bible to Pope Francis

Jean-Pierre Sonnet, SJ

 Jean-Pierre Sonnet, SJ / Bible Studies / 23 February 2021

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Sit with me at one table / The same for ancestor and grandson / The future is being accomplished now [….] And even now, in these coming times / I stand up in the stirrups like a child.

(Arseny Tarkovsky, “Life Life”)

Biblical faith is based on experience of God in history, although biblical Hebrew, paradoxically, does not have a word to designate “history,” the course of events that is progressively studied and written down. The language of the Bible has two words that allow its readers to think of history from its innermost dynamism: tôledôt, “generations,” and dôr, “generation.” The following pages[1] will show how these two categories overlap in the Bible; however, they will do so after a digression through the humanities. With regard to the phenomena of generations and generation, in their recent developments, sociology, history and psychology have taken paths that the Bible had already set out. Here, for those who still doubt it, is confirmation of the perspicacity of the Bible in anthropological matters.

The double biblical category is also a vehicle for a particularly far-sighted theology of history, whose relevance has yet to be rediscovered. It underlies, in fact, the thought and teaching of Pope Francis, who is attentive to the generational dynamism that runs through history. For him, as for Arseny Tarkovsky in the poem cited, the table of the family and society brings together generations, all those that coexist at any given time; for him, the youngest are called to be visionaries, like the child in the poem, standing upright in the stirrups.

Generation and generation

First, it is important to consider the anthropological phenomenon associated with the word “generation.” A particularly suggestive essay by Astrid Erll, whose research is related to the phenomena of “cultural memory,” will guide this exploration.[2] The essay opens with the following words, “The concept of generation is like the air that we breathe: essential and largely unnoticed. It is constitutive of our understanding of family and society, of biological and historical processes; at the same time, it tends to remain invisible, a cluster of tacit assumptions underlying a ubiquitous formula.”[3]

To untangle the mesh, Erll explains, we need to take note of a fundamental distinction. The term “generation,” in fact, has a twofold semantic character: sometimes it refers to a diachronic axis (generation across time), sometimes to a synchronic axis (the generational group at one point in time). In their ancient and modern evolutions, cultures and humanities have in fact privileged the first of these axes, but recently they have also opened up to the importance of the second.

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