Remembering Evils Rightly
I suppose at some point every student of theology has their own “pet theologian”—someone who they think just “gets it” in such a profound way, and who has such a knack for explaining things in a coherent, cogent, and compelling manner. Usually, of course, they also happen to share one’s own theological outlook, or to have proven instrumental in shaping it. While I typically find this kind of “groupie” mentality a little distasteful (“I’m a Barthian,” “I’m an Augustinian,” “I’m with N.T. Wright…”), I’m starting to think that if I were to pick one theologian who is currently exerting considerable influence upon the way that I think, it would be Miroslav Volf.
Volf is the Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School. I was first introduced to him at the Laing Lectures at Regent College last year. He was the guest speaker, and delivered several compelling lectures on the public nature of faith in a pluralistic world. I picked up his new book, The End of Memory, last Thursday and subsequently devoured it over the course of the weekend (Naomi was in Alberta, so I had plenty of time at home on my hands…). I reread Free of Charge in the first part of this week, and tomorrow I will likely embark on his most famous work, Exclusion and Embrace. I’m getting a heavy dose of Miroslav at the moment, and, from my perspective, that’s a very good thing.
There are many things that I find beautiful and compelling about Volf’s theology, primarily his vision of a redeemed creation, characterized by human beings no longer weighed down and embittered by the evils—interpersonal and global—that are such prominent features of our current experience and have the capacity to so profoundly and so tragically shape our identities. Volf’s own experience as a Croatian who was involved in War in (the former) Yugoslavia in the 1990’s has made themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, proper remembering, and human identity more than mere academic abstractions. He has had to forgive. His family has had to forgive. Volf has had the courage and the integrity to at least attempt to live out his theology.
One of the themes that I found most challenging in his latest book was his view of the role of memory and its relation to the redemption of specific evils suffered. We hear frequently, when discussing horrific evils, that we “must never forget.” To forget would be to allow evil to have the last word, to allow it to double the offense against the victim in that the injustice of evil is allowed to fade from memory.
Volf argues that, from a Christian perspective, the past must also be redeemed. And this involves proper forgetting. Not all evils can be rendered meaningful, and they certainly do not need to permanently mark the identities of those who suffer them. In naming and acknowledging evil for what it is, forgiving it, and at least moving toward proper forgetting and reconciliation, evil is, ironically, denied a “second victory.” It’s hold is severed, and it is refused a central place in the lives of both the victim and the perpetrator of evil.
Ultimately, of course, evils will be forgotten entirely. The eschatological future will be the place where we will most fully reflect what we were created to be—where evils suffered and evils committed no longer poison our experience and define who we are. In the mean time, we live according to what we believe will characterize our future reality—a redeemed and reconciled community, where evils are forgiven and no longer remembered. Forgiveness and reconciliation, not evil, will have the last word.
I’ll conclude with a quote (from The End of Memory) that I’m still mulling over:
We do not need for all of our lived life to be gathered and rendered meaningful in order to be truly and fully redeemed…. no need to take all of our experiences, distinct in time, and bind them together in a single volume so that each experience draws meaning from the whole as well as contributes meaning to the whole. It suffices to leave some experiences untouched…, treat others with the care of a healing hand and then abandon them to the darkness of non-remembrance…, and reframe the rest…. The way in which we are redeemed must fit the way we are made up as human beings, and both our redemption and our human makeup must fit the moral obligations we bear; otherwise, our redemption would (at least partly) undo our identity as human beings – as redeemed persons who acted in a morally responsible manner, we would work against our own humanity and well-being.
“Ultimately, of course, evils will be forgotten entirely.”
Unless you end up in Hell.
I suppose that would depend on your view of the end times. Both in The End of Memory and Exclusion and Embrace, Volf seems to leave the door open to universalism. At the very least, he’s extremely reluctant to make definitive pronouncements upon the matter. He is content to observe “that God’s is a judgment that both exposes sin and transforms the sinner.”