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.


Anonymous said...

I sense literary influences here - Hugo, Dostoevsky, and, of course, Kafka - the menacing figure of Captain G. - as well as a play on Fukuyama's famous, best-forgotten (or non-remembered!) book in the title.

It sounds like a richly textured essay - with, however, some loose threads. For example, you mention Volf's new take on the atonement (while exploiting Luther's extra nos, he evidently jettisons his theologia crucis). But if slain Lamb imagery is, presumably, not regulative in his eschatological thought, does Volf also revisit his views in Exclusion and Embrace on divine violence and vengeance in Revelation? And has he become a fan of Gregory of Nyssa'a theology of the last things?

Halden said...

Great review. I too tend to balk at his position about the death of Christ being forgotten.

Also, while it is certainly right to say that our identity lies outside of ourselves, I don't know how specific such a statement is. Surely, we must have to recognize that our identity in some sense exists within the dialectical movement of relations between that which is extra nos and that which is en nobis.

And it's also not clear to me how memory as such necessarily belongs to the "inside ourselves" of personhood. Memory involves the reality of the person being positioned within a network of relations through history. If knoweldge of one's history so indelibly constitutes one's relationship with another, I don't see how memory is just some interior aspect of our selves that can be pruned aside and us still remain ourselves. Rather, it seems to me that memory is the medium of relation between the self and the other, or at least the preservation of that relation. To my mind that would make memory, or at least a great many memories essential to our particular identities and persons. After all, persons are histories!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review Ben. I have been curious about Volf, and actually have almost picked this book up on one occasion. I'll definitely be checking it out.

Does he go into non-rememberance as a way to deal with guilt over one's own past sins? I would like to hear what his thoughts are on this one.

Finally Ben, what is your overall opinion of Volf? I am curious to see what you think about him.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book, but I'm intrested in the comments that have been made about evil and remembering. Wouldn't it be better to say that some evil events in our lives will result in a groaning for justice that may very well continue to be "remembered" (at least) until Christ's return... groaning for divine justice that, in the end, won't mercifully pass over all evil, but a divine justice that is also filling up with wrath in God. The summary of Volf above may undercut the rightful Christian longing for evil (when it is unrelenting) to be destroyed.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Clearly another book of Volf's to be on the must-read list. I also do not think we can forget the cross in the light of the resurrection. As Moltmann (Volf's teacher) has shown that is the way of triumphalism. We must always remember that the Risen Christ is the Crucified One.

But this does seem to build on some of the many strengths of Exclusion and Embrace while also offering at least some ways past the weaknesses that I, along with many others, found there. There are no perfect theologians or perfect works of theology.
What we need, rather, are challenging, creative, and sensitive theologians like Volf who seek to help the whole church be more faithful to the gospel.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, I appreciate these interesting comments and criticisms.

Derek, you ask about my overall opinion of Volf's work. Basically, I like him, and I think he's a very creative thinker who has an admirable ability to communicate theological ideas to a general audience. There are several things I disagree with, of course: in particular, I don't buy into the whole approach of social trinitarianism. But I always enjoy reading Volf, and I've often recommended his books to others -- I think he has a superb ability to communicate the Christian gospel in a compelling contemporary form.

Incidentally, I also have a strong personal sympathy for Volf, since my own mother's family came to Australia from communist Yugoslavia.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply Ben. I went and got the book today and have started it. I appreciate his willingness to divulge the personal rationale he has for this project because someone who does theology that isn't first and foremost for him/herself is probably going to find their work be devoid of practicality. My (very) early impression is that he is indeed very creative, which, due to my evnagelical upbringing, i am only recently valuing in theological work. I'm hopeful that he explores the possible connections between his ideas and spiritual formation (eg Rom 12:1-2).

Thanks again for the review Ben.

βασίλης ψύλλης said...

thanks for the review

i would like to add a bit on Volf's ideas:

1-as St Silouan the Athonite and Volf's compatriot Nicolas Velimirovic have shown--in words and deeds--the prayer for our enemy is the only token for Holy Spirit's presence in us. that is something active and not just forgeting--in other words the fulfilment of Law (Mark 12:31-34)

2-in that fashion Volf is right about cross. redemption's peak moment was Gesthemane--the absolute act of God's remembering

peace and inspiration with you


Anonymous said...

Not a social Trinitarian, Ben? Hmm. That may be the first major point of disagreement that I have noticed with you--at least of what you have posted. I think the East is right and that perichoresis is the most neglected key to Trinitarian thought in the West.

My problem with Volf in Exclusion and Embrace was that his nonviolence seemed predicated on God being eternally violent. Your review seems to indicate that this has changed, but seems to have been substituted for a new problem. But I need to read the book first.

What I admire about Volf is not only his autobiographical connections to his theology (from Yugoslavia to the Los Angeles race riots of the early '90s), but also that he is the first theologian I have known from a Pentecostal background (he became Presbyterian and I think he is now Anglican) to wade into mainstream theology without losing appreciation for his roots (which comes out clearly in his Work in the Spirit.

MM said...

Volf's newest book, like all of his work, is simply beautiful. I was in his graduate seminar that reviewed the book before its publication, and watching the development of these ideas- and conversing about the implications of the book's various weaknesses- was a treat.

... I think it is especially significant that Volf gained the endorsement of several highly significant Jewish rabbis who have worked in the theology of memory themselves.

Alex said...

Ben, you are a very good reviewer. i've had this book on my wish list for a while and I'd also recommend Bold Love by Dan Allender & Tremper Longman. It's message is identical but breaks it down practically by examining personal relationships, specifically those who hurt us, whether through sexual, verbal, physical or other kinds of abuse. It is possibly the most influential book in my life.

If you are a victim of abuse (and statistics show that most of us are) then read both of these books.

miafrate said...

Thanks for this review. I picked up this book when it came out because I had just completed a paper on Johann Baptist Metz, memory, and 9/11. I read about a chapter of it, and liked it, but became distracted by other books. Your review made me want to pick it up again. Thanks.

Chris E W Green said...

Thanks for the review. I've read Volf's Exclusion & Embrace and Free of Charge. I hope to read this book on memory soon. At first blush, I disagree with Volf's contention that the death of Jesus shall fade from memory. According to the 4th Gospel, the resurrected Jesus still bears the wounds of the Cross, though they are not bleeding wounds. I think this shall be true of all wounds. It is not that they shall disappear into "oblivion" but they shall be transformed into signs of life and grace and redemption. It is not so much that we shall "forget" the horror of Jesus' death, or the atrocities that have happened to us or by us. We shall re-vise them in light of God's triumph over sin and death. Our wounds will not be bleeding wounds, either. We shall be able to look on those whom we've pierced, and those who've pierced us, without malice or pity. We shall know them as they are know by Christ, the one pierced for them.

Juergen Rose said...

Many years later...
Does this mean that memorials like Yad Vashem and all other massacre and war memorials should eventually be dismantled, lest they perpetuate the wrong memories? All past feuds forgotten? Liberating for victims as well as perpetrators.

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