Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Memory (Academic Stuff)

One of the last classes I took in seminary was a seminar on the work of Miroslav Volf, a theologian currently at Yale, whose experiences as a Croat in the Balkans have led him to a deep interest in a theology of reconciliation. His current focus is on relationship among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and I initially thought that that would be my focus as well for my paper in the class.

Instead, I became engaged by his work on memory, found largely in the book The End of Memory.  His thesis is that much of the emphasis we place on memory of wrongs is misguided; that while we need to "remember rightly" in order to effect restoration and reconciliation, the ultimate purpose of right memory is to forget the wrongs we have perpetrated and suffered.  Quite a controversial viewpoint, as you can imagine, and we had some lively discussions about it.  Here's something of the gist of what he has to say (I've left out my footnotes):

"Ultimately, he argues, the purpose of memory is reconciliation and its consequence is forgetting – not the creation of a self-sustaining narrative, not healing, and not justice or prevention of future harm. All of those are important objectives, but they are waystops on the road to reconciliation.  Volf does not at all diminish their importance; in fact, he puts considerable effort into articulating the conditions under which memory serves those purposes.  Rightful memory requires both effort and integrity: it demands that we identify and condemn wrongdoing, that we look at our own culpability as well as that of those who have wronged us, that we practice the double vision that will enable us to see things from their side, and that we not exaggerate the harm done to us any more than that we minimize it. Nonrightful memory produces truncated healing; healing based upon falsehood rather than upon naming and condemning wrongdoing is not healing.When acknowledgment does not take place and healing is incomplete, justice is not served.  In other words, a simple “forgive and forget” does not suffice.  However, the memory of harms suffered may cause harm, in the form of retaliatory violence or continued inward trauma,rather than promote good; the insistence upon remembering the Holocaust, or 9/11, or the Japanese occupation of Korea, or personal trauma, may foster justice but, quite possibly, or even likely in the short run, justice without reconciliation."

It got even more interesting when we reached Volf's argument that, in the world to come, we will forget even the crucifixion.  More from my paper:

"One of the most startling aspects of Volf’s argument with respect to forgetting is that we will forget even the crucifixion; that it will not come to mind.While this idea also meets with resistance, as many have been taught that it is by the cross and by his wounds that we shall know him, the evidence of that in the Bible is scant insofar as the eschaton is concerned.  The direct evidence, as Volf points out, is found in Isaiah 65:17-19  and in Revelation 21:1-4 :  in the new heaven and the new earth to come, there will be no more weeping, and every tear will be wiped away.  It seems unlikely that all tears could be dried if the memory of wrongs suffered were still present; in the latter situation, there would never be an end to tears.  If, however, we understand Jesus as the one who both forgives and restores, the one who acts on both sides of the reconciliation equation, forgiving those 'who know not what they do' and substituting himself for those who have done wrong and from whom restitution is required, then his work is to eradicate death and create a Kingdom of Life – identified as the new heaven and new earth.  We then, will know him in the eschaton as the giver of life rather than as the victor over death, suffering and death no longer being possibilities.  We ourselves will necessarily be transformed into new beings, beings who no longer remember the cross, because we will love God for who God is rather than for what God has done for us."

As I noted in my paper (more footnotes), nearly everyone with whom I discussed it as I was writing it was at least disturbed by what he has to say.  Most simply rejected it outright, whether with respect to themselves and identities formed, at least in part,  by much suffering, or with respect to the crucifixion.

I am quite taken by what he has to say, however:

"Perhaps it is a testimony both to how much we suffer and how outraged we are by our suffering that we are so resistant to his suggestion.
Or  perhaps our resistance is an indication of how little we understand about what God desires in offering us reconciliation through Jesus Christ, and of our inability to imagine, let alone accept, that reconciliation means transformation to an extent beyond our comprehension.  Even here, in this life, our identity is to be found in our baptism; as Volf says, 'we are not fundamentally the sum of our past experiences.'  With Luther, Volf says that to be only our past would be to be very small indeed.  That is an outrageous idea to the contemporary mind; we do not think of ourselves and our lives as small, and we are as a culture unaccustomed to thinking of God as vast.  However, Volf is suggesting that we have it backwards and that, if we could but understand the vast self-giving love into which we are invited, we would see that to leave our traumas behind would be not a sacrifice of self but a receiving of ourselves as the people we were originally intended to be."

Why am I inserting all this today?  (Be grateful that it's not the entire paper!)  Well, as you can imagine, I think and wonder about it all the time.  And I wanted to share some music, which is better understood in light of the above.  If there is an ordination service in my future, I hope to fit it in there somewhere:


  1. First, the music is glorious--and the lyrics are one of my most cherished passages of scripture. They define a true new kind of world. Is Volf right? Shall we forget everything that is contained in suffering, including the death of Christ to end it? Perhaps. Who knows how it will all shake down? No matter which way, with us remembering and being grateful for our redemption or being so healed that we forget completely, the new Heaven and the new Earth are the greatest hope this weary world has. For now, I am taken with the beauty of the "heavenly" music and the thought that the reality is ahead. Thank you for the glimpse into a new world.

  2. I'm glad you made it all the way through, Karen, and I love how you have expressed yourself here. Well, I always love how you express yourself. And it is an amazing piece of music, isn't it?

  3. I am truly glad that you find some hope and healing in Volf, Robin...And grateful that your sharing of that inspired me, on a hard night, to remember the ways God/dess has dried my tears and healed my memories...and hope that that will happen again with the losses I am grieving right now.

  4. This is over my head...so I think I will have to read it again. Loved the music. Glorious.

    Not to the point likely but it makes me wonder if I want to forget. Strange thought given how hard the grief and loss is to live with.

  5. That was definitely my quandary, Gabriele. And then our professor told a story about someone who had been overwhelmed, happily so, buy the thought that she might not have to remember past trauma into and for eternity, and I started thinking . . .

  6. I've started to post a comment 3 times already. I was not familiar with Volf and I am very moved by what he has to say. One of the consequences of the deep trauma our adopted daughter suffered in her infancy/early childhood is severe, very dangerous, episodes of rage. As her mother, I almost reached a breaking point after a time she almost killed me. By God's grace, we were able to put together a team of people who work with her and us almost daily to keep managing the rage. One of the things I have had to learn is that there are immediate consequences for her when she acts out, but that beyond that, we do not even talk about what's happened, we just move on. The acknowledgement of the violence/wrong doing lies in our responses to her, not in the endless reliving/remembering of the episode. I can honestly say that I love my daughter more each day, free or resentment and desire for retribution. It is hard work of the soul and worth every ounce of effort. Volf starts helping me put a theological framework around that experience in some very moving ways, if I am understanding correctly what he says about memory. Powerful stuff

  7. I am moved to say the least and will chew on these thoughts in the days to come. I too believe there is so much more to the "no more tears, death, sorrow" and that God has much more expansiveness than my limited mind can grasp. This journey of grief has knocked down walls of thought for me and some of my own mind journeys ponder so many things that have not found sentences to express themselves...and even in that said...have such huge hope in the song and tears did stream down my face in total belief of what is to come. love you sweet friend. thank you for sharing this with me on this day. I lost my little sister Nancy in 1972 to a drunk driver today---she was 11. I can't wait to see her again. What in the world has she been doing all these years since she slipped into heaven! I somehow love that Sarah and she have met. what wild thoughts this journey sends us on.

  8. Chris, my deepest condolences for the sad loss of your little sister. Such a hard day -- so she would be 49? Another big pile of "might have beens." Love to you prayers with you today.

  9. It's taken me this long to have real quiet time to do justice to this posting!
    I loved these ideas, and your writing about them. The music is sublime, though I couldn't get that version to play (went to UTUBE & found another). It sounds like something I think we might hear as we make the transition from this life to the next.
    What Volf is saying makes sense, to me. As a survivor of sexual abuse and a bereaved mother, such would be a true transformation, the way he describes it. To me, it assumes that we are indeed whole from the beginning, and meant to find that wholeness in God on our journey. I hope he is right. Thank you for sharing this with us non-seminarians!