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Memory and Heaven

Some thoughts arising from my thesis research this week…

Reading people like Dawkins and Dennett, with their heavy emphasis on evolutionary theory and our obligation to dispense with religion now that we have “arrived” at our current levels of knowledge and understanding leads, at least for me, to the question of how we are to think about the past. The sense I get from these guys is that the past is to be seen as little more than a tragic curiosity from which we ought to be grateful to be liberated from. Human history is portrayed as a sequence of unrelenting progression, and the sooner we realize this, the sooner we can rid ourselves of relics of the past (like religion) that stand in our way. The blood-soaked and tear-stained path that led to the present can be nothing but a lamentable footnote in a curious tale that is going nowhere.

The Christian tradition does not accept this view of history. The past is not reduced to something like “what was necessary to get us where we are now,” and the goal of history, we claim, will be worth the pain that preceded it. This is the Christian hope. Evils suffered by those in the past, however horrific, can be—indeed, must be—located within a broad framework of meaning. Again, I find Miroslav Volf, in dialogue with Nietzsche, extremely insightful here. Both thinkers agree that the past must be redeemed, but where Nietzsche claimed that this could be done only by an exertion of the human will—learning to “will” the past with all of its evils—Volf appeals to the forgiveness and grace of God in Jesus Christ:

Since no final redemption is possible without the redemption of the past, and since every attempt to redeem the past through reflection must fail because no theodicy can succeed, the final redemption is unthinkable without a certain kind of forgetting. Put starkly, the alternative is: either heaven or the memory of horror. Either heaven will have no monuments to keep the memory of the horrors alive, or it will be closer to hell than we would like to think. For if heaven cannot rectify Auschwitz then the memory of Auschwitz must undo the experience of heaven. Redemption will be complete only when the creation of “all things new” is coupled with the passage of “all things old” into the the double nihil of nonexistence and nonremembrance.

Whatever heaven is, it can’t just be a place where we escape the world of history and all of its evils. The question will always be, “well what was all that for?” History will forever cast its shadow over our experience of what is to come. This is not to suggest that all evils are for something here and now—far from it. But even if the only meaning of something like Auschwitz will be revealed in its destruction and nonremembrance, it will ultimately have been fit into a coherent narrative of some kind.

Part of me resists evil even being “for” this much. But I find it better than the alternative—a worldview with no hope of ultimate justice, no hope of forgiveness, and no hope of proper nonremembrance.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    To paraphrase a 60’s song…

    what is it good for
    absolutely nothin’
    say it again…

    Ah, but there goes that glorious, transcendant God of ours again, taking the consequences of evil, namely sufferings, and bestowing upon them redemptive powers and graces beyond our comprehension. Beyond our very imagination.

    In the end, through Jesus Christ, even the forces of darkness are made to work for the common good.

    ….for He descended into hell
    and on the third day he rose again
    He ascended into Heaven…

    June 1, 2007
  2. Dave Chow #

    Hey again. Great thoughts on a very tough subject. Volf’s words are legitimated through some of the life experiences he’s had – and yet I wonder how he answers the question, “Why?” during some of the horrors his families must have experienced while in the Bosnian / Croatian conflict (did I get that right?)

    I’m not critiquing – I’m actually wondering. It’s always a lot easier to come to an understanding “why”? something happened after one has had a chance to reflect or ponder. But during the moment of crisis, during the apex of pain and loss – one sometimes can’t help but cry out, “Why?!” (even though the cry may be painfully rhetorical)

    Forgive the lack of intellectual observation – at the moment it seems to be stuck in “pathos” to quote a past comment.


    June 1, 2007
  3. Dave Chow #

    I just remembered something else…isn’t our memory part of who we are? Part of what shapes us?

    How does heaven work when it has no monuments to the past horrors? Does that mean our memories will be ‘redeemed’ (read: erased?), or will the joy that we experience overcome us to the point of forgetfulness? I wonder if I should be reading Volf’s End of Memory?!


    June 1, 2007
  4. Thanks for the creedal reminder Paul!

    Of course some will agree that God is able to bring good out of evil, yet persist in asking what it’s doing in God’s good world in the first place…

    Elsewhere, Volf makes some intriguing references to Jewish thinkers who have suggested that God had to forgive the world before he made it – an idea which is interesting, but has implications that I’m not terribly comfortable with…

    Another angle could come from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who refers to those who endlessly speculate about the origins of evil as being “unable to forgive God his creation.” Is he suggesting that human beings have to “forgive God” in some sense? Hmmm….

    Whichever way we’re inclined, it seems that forgiveness and reconciliation are crucial components in how human beings relate to God (and vice versa) given the state of the world.

    June 1, 2007
  5. Dave, I think Volf would locate the evils that he and his family have suffered as being of the kind that are best simply consigned to the category of “properly forgotten.” He is quite clear that some evils serve no purpose whatsoever, and their only ultimate destination is non-existence.

    Re: memory and identity

    Volf does get into this more in The End of Memory. He argues (if I remember correctly) that memory is an important part of identity but it is not the whole story. None of us walks around with an encyclopedic memory of every past event that has influenced the person we have become, yet we do not sense that our identity is threatened by this. All of us have been influenced (sometimes profoundly) by positive and negative events which we do not remember, yet we retain our convictions that we are the same person we were in the past. There seems to be no reason why I wouldn’t be the same person in the new creation as I was in the old even if I didn’t remember those elements of my identity that were shaped by a fallen world.

    I think you’re right – our memories of evil (personal and collective) do need to be redeemed. Volf sees both forgiveness, nonremembrance, and reconciliation as being part of what heaven will mean. How exactly it works – whether memory is overcome by joy, or we are somehow freed from memory of evil – Volf is clear that evil will no longer define and limit us in the way that it does at the present.

    June 1, 2007
  6. Ryan,

    I followed the links back to your page, and I’m quite glad I did. Thank you for your thoughts.

    The myth of progress really is all pervasive in our society. The common-sense assumption is that we are much smarter, much better attuned to our surroundings, much better at relating to one another than anyone who lived in the distant past. When we stop to think about it, there is no good reason to continue in this prejudice.

    I wonder if it doesn’t come from a simple preference for what we find comprehensible. I’m able to understand C.S. Lewis in ways that I simply don’t understand Augustine, and for that reason, I tend to think that Lewis is smarter, more careful, or more trustworthy than the old Bishop of Hippo. In reality, I’m more familiar with Lewis’ context and can make more sense out of his words, but this doesn’t make him any more intelligent, just more intelligible. We get the two confused, and then forget to do the hard work required to understand the depth and riches that are preserved in our tradition. Thanks for calling us on it.

    History is a gift of God, and we never meet God outside of history – the past is one of the “ten thousand places” we might expect to see a divine footprint or two (even and especially amidst the chaos).

    Thanks for your thoughts…
    Peace brother,

    June 3, 2007
  7. “History is a gift of God, and we never meet God outside of history – the past is one of the “ten thousand places” we might expect to see a divine footprint or two (even and especially amidst the chaos).”

    I like that – well said Eric.

    Thank you.

    June 4, 2007
  8. Hey Ryan,

    Just came back from holidays and trying to catch up on the blogs I read. I’m gonna try to be brief, with the least argumentative tone I can come up with. So – I’ll just say that I’m surprised to hear from you an appreciation of ignorance. Even if the ignorance of historical good is mixed with the bad.

    You may say that I’m characaturing (sp?) heaven in the following question but – has Volf’s understanding of heaven made the saying “ignorance is bliss” one its fundamental principles?

    In peaceful opposition,

    June 19, 2007
  9. Hi Jerry – good to hear from you again. I hope you had a good holiday.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, I don’t think that what you heard from me was an “appreciation of ignorance.” Not remembering evil in a redeemed world is not the same thing as ignorance. The ability to selectively forget is an important part of all knowledge and action– it helps us direct our attention towards the ends that we deem important (I came across similar themes drawn from the world of neuroscience in this article last week, if you’re interested…).

    Re: “ignorance is bliss?” Volf is asking the question of how God’s redeemed world is going to avoid being scarred by the historical evils that preceded it. Again, forgetting is not the same thing as ignorance – sometimes the ability to forget horrific evils suffered is a great blessing and a step toward healing and reconciliation.

    Presumably, if the redeemed creation is going to be one of peace, harmony, and wholeness, evil will no longer be able to exert the crippling influence that it currently does upon human beings; Volf sees the forgetting of evils suffered (or perpetrated) as one of the gifts God gives in the new world.

    June 19, 2007
  10. Does this mean that God’s goodness doesn’t have the power to rectify evil when directly faced with it? Because, if God did have this power, I don’t see why he wouldn’t rectify evil instead of erase it from our memories.

    June 20, 2007
  11. Well this is the age-old issue of why God allowed and continues to allow evil to exist in his good world. Alas, I have no new insight to offer here. I wish God would directly intervene to prevent horrific evils, and wonder often why he doesn’t – to me it can only speak of the incredible value God places on human freedom, but that’s another issue…

    I simply find the Christian account of the reality of evil and the hope of its eventual defeat more persuasive than the alternatives. There are no perfect options which nicely resolve the issue of evil available, so at the end of the day all we can do is decide what (or who) seems to most plausibly account for our experience of evil and our sense that it doesn’t belong.

    June 20, 2007

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