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.