January 30, 2007


I have been using some of my summer vacation (remember, this is South American summer) to read Miroslav Volf's The End of Memory. Volf is a distinguished evangelical theologian who holds a professorship at Yale. I have enjoyed and been challenged by a few of his earlier writings, and have been looking forward to taking on his latest book. His topic is an interesting one: What does it mean to remember. Or, to put the issue more in Volf's terms, what does it mean for a person who has suffered wrongs to remember those wrongs if that person desires neither to hate nore to disregard but to love the wrongdoer. As can already be seen, Volf sets out on an important road. Here I'm going to try to digest a few of his insights, because I believe they are vital for a fuller understanding of what it means to live out our faith in Jesus Christ, and because I believe they are highly relevant for living in the world today.

The firs theme Volf sets out upon in his book is simply to "Remember!" This is a call that has become commonplace in our world today, in the wake of a number of high-profile atrocities in the twentieth century (two world wars, numerous attempts at genocide) and one very American atrocity at the dawning of the twenty-first (the 9-11 terrorist attacks). It's easy to hear ringing in our ears the call to remember. Remember the lost, remember the pain, remember the injustice. You can't turn a corner in Washington D.C. without coming upon a memorial meant to call to memory some event, either an atrocity or a triumph. Clearly, this is a good thing, right?

In this first section of his book, Volf alerts us to the moral ambiguity of memories of past wrongs. Clearly, these memories can be used for good, and that is probably the primary intention of those who call for us to remember. But memories can be used in so many ways. They can overwhelm the opressed with the feeling of victimzation. Remembering victimization can in fact help us to prevent others from suffering a similar wrong, but it could also cause us to act in whatever way possible to avoid suffering a similar pain again ourselves, no matter what the expense. Focusing on our vicitmization also means we will in some senses revel in our victimhood, and define ourselves by our own memories and impressions of the events. Those who victimized us will be forever in our minds as wrongdoers. Our view of the world becomes intrenched in our minds, no matter how flawed.

Clearly memory has some important—even essentail—value to our lives as human beings. As the aphorism goes, if we don't remember the past we are doomed to repeat it. But we must also realize that just the act of memory alone is full of moral ambiguity.

In his book, Volf moves on from this foundation to look at how we should in fact remember, and then moves even further to the point of when we should forget.

I think it is clear from the outset in reading Volf's book that, though at first the topic might seem rather random or "untheological" in some strange sense, Volf has elegantly found a way to enter into a valuable discussion of how a Christian is to deal with sin, both as perpetrator and as victim. What does it mean to live in a sinful world, among sinful people? And what does Jesus' death and resurrection, and the unmerited favor that is extended to us from God, mean for how we live? Important issues to which we shall turn as we continue.

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