"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Catching Up On My 2011 Reading (Pt I): Volf, "The End of Memory"

I feel like my journey can partially be indicated by the books I read. Often what I’m reading reflects what is important to me, what spiritual, philosophical, theological, and personal reflection is happening, maybe even what is happening in my relationships with others.

Because of the possibility of doctoral work in the near future, I try to be constantly studying, seeking both breadth and depth in my understanding of all things religion. It's also a kind of soul-searching: trying to discover what I’d want to focus on if I were to spend several years with a dissertation topic. What do I most care about?

I thought I'd do some recapping of what I’ve read thus far this year. I haven’t yet read a book I didn’t enjoy, so I recommend them all! Here's the first, from way back in January...

Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co., 2006)

The thrust of Volf’s argument can be summed up in a well-worn adage: “forgive and forget.” I think I have probably uttered that phrase a few times, while not fully believing in its value. Sure, we shouldn’t hold grudges, and being unforgiving can be harmful both to you and the one you haven’t yet forgiven. But we might not tell a victim of, as an example, childhood sexual abuse to “just forget it ever happened.”

In some ways it seems like that’s the more provocative kind of “forgetting” that Volf is talking about. And he has some right to talk: he was himself violently interrogated in his native Yugoslavia years ago and wrestles in this book with how to rightly remember these events and his oppressors.

I think Volf’s concern is with how we can often remember events in a way that, rather than subduing or ending violence, perpetuates it. Evil and pain are a part of our stories, yes; but those events can have such a stronghold on us that they inhibit our ability to live peacefully with others. And often times, rather than really seeing the truth of what happened clearly, we become more interested in how we want to remember what happened, how we want to see the truth.

Volf on seeing the truth rightly: “Claims to posses the uncontestable truth aren’t always wrong, but they are always dangerous—especially dangerous when a person’s claim to possess the truth matters more to her than the truth itself. But this takes us straight back to the moral obligation to remember truthfully. The obligation to remember truthfully, and therefore seek the truth, counters the dangers involved in claims to possess the truth. Seekers of truth, as distinct from possessors of truth, will employ “double vision”—they will give others the benefit of the doubt, they will inhabit imaginatively the world of others, and they will endeavor to view events in question from the perspective of others, not just their own.” (57)

Volf says he has sought to challenge two “cherished notions.” (231). He challenges the notion that we should remember wrongs for the sake of those victims wronged, suggesting that we should also remember out of generosity toward those perpetrators of wrongs (231). He also challenges the notion that we should “remember forever” wrongs that have been suffered so as not to “betray victims” or “endanger the wider community,” instead suggesting that “under carefully defined conditions it may be salutary to release memories of wrongs” (231).

I think it is helpful to remember that his primary goal and motivation is one of reconciliation. Volf, as is expressed in much of his work, believes the mission of reconciliation to be central to the Church; he also looks forward with hope, believing that the work of Christ assures us that humankind is ultimately headed toward a reconciled future, one in which the oppressor and the oppressed are united, and all is forgiven.

It’s a pretty profound book, one that I’m sure can cause some discomfort, because of how radical and counterintuitive it feels at times. For example, forgetting something horrific like the Holocaust (not Volf's suggestion) just seems grossly wrong, doesn’t it? Part of honoring those who have suffered and not making the same mistakes twice means that we should hold those horrors in the front of our minds. Yet I think of a more recent example like 9/11. What happened that day was awful, and we were and are right to mourn this as a nation. Yet has our memory of this event brought about more good or harm?

I’m genuinely asking this question. And what first comes to mind is the way this event fostered a desire for revenge (or “justice” as some see/saw it) for nations or peoples we sensed to be threats, and the way it has caused suspicion, fear, or even at times hatred of innocent Arab men and women. I don’t sense 9/11 launched a powerful peace movement as much as a sense of nationalism and a quest for vindication. But then, I might just be expressing my strong bias toward non-violent solutions for peace. I know not everyone agrees with that, and I don’t mean to discount any good that the American government and military have done or any peace they’ve brought about, even if many are uncomfortable with the methods.

What Volf is not advocating is being dismissive or not taking evil seriously. What I think he is suggesting is that we seriously consider what actions will make the greatest headway toward peace and reconciliation, what will allow us to function as people who are truly free, not bound to the evils of our past in a way that prevents us from fully enjoying life and fully enjoying community with others. We also look forward with hope in this way, anticipating a healed community with God, who we could probably say with some confidence “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor 13:5).

It’s an interesting conversation Volf encourages in this book. He doesn’t make blanket statements that suggest one course of action in every situation. He does take seriously the danger of things like repression and foolish forgetfulness. But he also suggests that in some cases individuals and communities are better off not allowing atrocities and past harms to “come to mind” (a more accurate way of putting what he’s really suggesting than “forgetting”) (145).

This is so that people who have been harmed do not continue the cycle of violence but instead become agents of peace, doing good for others and living more freely and happily themselves. I also think Volf believes that those memories have a way of being a barrier to truly loving our enemies...perhaps the greatest challenge Jesus ever posed to his hearers.

Great book, and great challenges posed: what does true forgiveness require? What actions best encourage peace? Why are we resistant to letting things go, and are they good, healthy reasons? How do we be truthful in how we remember what really happened rather than creating our own “versions” of events to satisfy some need we have? What should our goals be as Christians seeking to be a light and source of hope?

His chapter on eschatology is interesting too, which deals with what we will remember about this life in the next. I should also say this book—in content and in style—is relevant to anyone, regardless of religious belief. The desire for peace and unity is a hunger that transcends any one religion or worldview.

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