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The end of memory

The End of Memory, Remembering Rightly in a Violent World interweaves personal experience and enlightened theological reflection to create a compelling study of the problems and possibilities that come with memories of violence loss and other wrongs.In the opening chapters Miroslav Volf takes three current ‘rules’ about how we should remember: ‘remember truthfully’, ‘remember therapeutically’ and ‘learn from the past’ and uses them as lenses to explore the moral fickleness of memory and its indeterminacy as a force for good in the world. He engages not only with other Christian views but also with the writings of philosophers, Freud, and contemporary secular authorities on memory and traumatic memory.

Miroslav Volf’s approaches to the theoretical aspects of the problems that the memory of wrongs suffered causes is characterised by the great care he takes to carefully expand each position he adopts, something which makes the considerable originality of his thought approachable.

The theoretical writing however is interspersed with his descriptions of his personal struggle to overcome the effects of prolonged mistreatment while carrying out his National Service in the Yugoslav Army. As the son of a pastor, and because of his time spent studying theology abroad he was singled out for prolonged interrogation. The honesty and transparency of his writing about his struggle with the dark and troublesome memories of the actions of his chief interrogator Captain G ensure that the reader is continually confronted with the necessity for the theological arguments advanced by the author.

Volf, after considering the problem principally in secular terms turns his attention to the events of the Exodus and Passion, and the memories of those events which are kept alive in, and in turn keep alive communities of faith and worship. With respect to the Passion he embraces both the strands of theology that focus on substitution for wrongdoers and solidarity with those who suffer.

In the universal applicability of Christ’s death Volf affirms that in the Passion wrongdoers are remembered as forgiven and freed from the hold of evil on their lives and from the guilt of their sin (he notes that refusal to accept forgiveness results in the forgiveness being suspended in some way). Conversely the core of a sufferer’s life is shielded by God and they receive the promise of wholeness together with the ability, by the Spirit, to love wrongdoers and struggle to overcome wrongdoing.

The fact that wrongdoers are bound together with those who they have caused to suffer Volf insists that victims can only be truly liberated if the perpetrator and victim accept the reconciliation that ‘Christ [who] has reconciled both the wronged as wrongdoers to God, to themselves, and to each other’ offers. The argument then extends to consider the implications for the wronged when a communion where deadly enemies are reconciled comes to exist.

Here typically, lest the problem seem impossible or simply theoretical, Volf injects a deeply personal account:

“When a victim remembers a suffered wrong at the foot of the cross, he does not remember it as a righteous person but as a person who has been embraced by God, his own unrighteousness notwithstanding. In my relationship with Captain G. in those military interrogations of some twenty years ago, I was certainly on the receiving end of most of the wrongdoing. But I, too, am a wrongdoer. I have wronged the Captain – not in any outward way, for that was nearly impossible and to the extend it was possible it would have been counterproductive. But I’ve wronged him in my imagination, which, nourished by the feeling of humiliation and impotence, has, on occasion, given in to the desire for revengeā€¦ We stand together as sinners before the righteous God, and my sin, precisely to the extent that it is sin, is totally inexcusable. Granted my being counted among sinners together with him takes nothing away from his wrongdoing. It simply places truthfully the story of my own sin alongside his.”

Passion and Exodus together allow Volf to construct a biblically coherent framework for remembering ‘rightly’, a task which he acknowledges takes much work. In fact he implies that it is impossible for this right remembrance to occur outside a community that can support the victim in remembering the suffered wrongs through the lens of the Exodus and Passion. Here as throughout the book he is alive to the failings of the humans who make up Christ’s church on earth, and touches on some of the principal reasons why remembering through the lens of the Passion can fail or falter.

In the final section of the book Miroslav Volf approaches the question “how long shall we remember”, and sets himself to worrying at Scripture and secular reason to determine whether we should always remember wrongs suffered or whether, it is ever right to cease to remember them. His arguments range in a mind expanding way between the temporal bounds of this world and the Kingdom of Heaven and as tumbling cascade of sources, a feature of the entire book, continues he pits post-modern philosophy against the writings of the early Church Fathers, and holds the teachings of psychoanalysts against that of Christ.

In his arguments about the persistence of the memory of wrongs in the Kingdom of Heaven he looks at whether the persistence of the memory of wrongs suffered into Heaven would imply a perverse victory for Evil. He ends with the hope that each ‘wrong suffered will be exposed in its full horror’ and after evil has been overcome and condemned’ our minds will be rapt in the goodness of God and in the goodness of God’s new world, and the memories of wrongs will wither away like plants without water’

‘The End of Memory’ is a rich text in which the interplay of ideas, Scripture and experience twist themselves into a strong rope upon which one may rely for inspiration and challenge whether one approaches the book as a disciple, sceptic or from a purely academic point of view.

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University Divinity School and Director of the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture. He was born in Osijek what was then Yugoslavia and is now Croatia.