Saturday, 12 May 2007

Miroslav Volf: The End of Memory

Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 244 pp. (review copy courtesy of Eerdmans)

It’s a piece of conventional wisdom that we should never forget the wrongs of the past. In this delightful new work of theological psychology, Miroslav Volf offers a patient and probing critique of such conventional wisdom. On the one hand, he argues that we should remember past wrongs not only for the sake of the victims, but also for the sake of the perpetrators; and on the other hand, he argues that the proper goal of such remembering is in fact non-remembrance.

Volf weaves his theological and psychological analysis around an unsettling set of memories from his own past. In the communist Yugoslavia of the early 1980s, Volf’s theological studies were interrupted by a summons to compulsory military service. As a Christian married to an American, an advocate of non-violence, and an expert on Marxist socialism, Volf was perceived to be an opponent of the Yugoslavian communist regime. He was thus forced to endure a protracted period of interrogation under the military police (his interrogator is described throughout the book as “Captain G.”).

Long after these events, Volf has remained haunted by the memories of his interrogation. Thus the central question of this book: how do we “remember rightly”? This was a question of great importance for Volf himself, since “My soul was at stake in the way I remembered Captain G.” (p. 17). So what does it mean to remember rightly? If we are followers of Jesus Christ, we must be committed to remembrance as reconciliation – to memory as “a bridge between adversaries instead of a deep and dark ravine that separates them” (p. 35).

As Christians, we have received a “framework for remembering.” The pivotal events of Israel’s exodus and Christ’s death and resurrection are “meta-memories”: they provide a broad framework which “regulates how we remember wrongs suffered in our everyday lives” (p. 94). These framing memories, moreover, are fundamentally “memories of God” (p. 101); in bringing them to mind, we are also recalling God’s promise as the reality of our own future. To remember rightly, therefore, is to remember past wrongs through the interpretive lens of these meta-memories from salvation-history. When, for instance, Volf remembers Captain G. through the lens of Christ’s passion, he is remembering a wrongdoing that is “already forgiven,” and indeed already “overcome” (p. 123).

But is such remembering a transgression against the wrongdoing itself? Does it take sin too lightly? Volf’s reply is that such remembering in fact demands the greatest possible recognition of the seriousness of wrongdoing – for to remember in this way is to perceive that the wrongdoing has been “borne by God” (p. 123). This is not, therefore, simply a matter of interpreting and integrating the past, but it also involves the “driving out” and “overcoming” and “healing” of the darkness of the past (p. 188).

Having addressed the question of how to remember, Volf turns next to the question of how long we should remember. Here, he argues against the widespread assumption that wrongdoings should be remembered forever. He is not advocating a mere “forgetting” of past wrongs; rather, he believes that the forgiveness of sins issues finally in “non-remembrance” or “not-coming-to-mind” (p. 145). The argument here draws on Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Freud, all of whom believed that a certain kind of “forgetting” is an essential aspect of human wholeness. In Nietzsche’s words, if the past is not properly forgotten, it becomes “the gravedigger of the present” (p. 161).

While it is often said that we would lose our identities if we ceased to remember, Volf draws on Luther’s anthropology to present an alternative construal of personal identity. We receive our identity from “outside ourselves”; we are located in God, and our identity is found in him. Thus the non-remembrance of past wrongs does not violate our identity. On the contrary, “being in God” sets us free from “the tyranny [of] the unalterable past.” The God who redeems the past does not take anything away from us – “God does not take away our past; God gives it back to us” (p. 201). In this way, we are truly redeemed, truly reconciled.

Perhaps the most controversial proposal of the book is the argument that even the death of Jesus will eventually fall into the oblivion of non-remembrance. Against the view that the cross of Jesus is “an eternal event in God” (a view that he had advocated in his 1996 book on Exclusion and Embrace), Volf argues that the cross is in fact merely “a stage on the road to resurrection and exaltation” – and, as such, it is “a stage that can be left in the past even if its effects last for eternity” (p. 201). Sin-bearing does not “exhaust the identity of Christ” (pp. 190-91). My own suspicion is that this proposal fails to take seriously enough the character of Jesus’ death as an event of God’s own self-giving, and thus as an event that belongs to (or even constitutes) God’s identity; nevertheless, Volf is right to underscore the sheer eschatological triumph of God’s reconciling work.

Indeed, Volf’s greatest concern is to articulate an eschatological form of non-remembrance. If we did not believe in the Last Judgment, we would surely want to remember wrongs forever. But because we believe that the end of history belongs to God, we’re able to let go of the past, to allow memories of wrongdoings to “slip into oblivion.” Indeed, such “oblivion” will be an essential aspect of God’s new world, as both the wronged and the wrongdoers are brought together and reconciled in “a dance of love in the embrace of the Triune God” (p. 181).

Volf thus offers a major new interpretation of the concept of memory. His style is crisp and accessible, and the book is both remarkably insightful and often deeply moving. Volf’s aim, in a nutshell, is to present a new understanding of the function and significance of memory. By remembering rightly, we follow “the enemy-loving God” (p. 9) on his path of forgiveness and reconciliation. And the goal or “end” of all such remembering is love – a love that, in the end, remembers no wrongs.

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