by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
14 January 2024
In 1984 Miroslav Volf, the Croatian theologian and now professor at Yale, was interrogated by the Yugoslavian secret police. The previous fall he had been summoned to compulsory military service, having to leave his family and the writing of his dissertation. And immediately he realized that he’d been drawn into the military so that he could be spied upon. Volf was suspect by the Communist authorities for a variety of reasons—he was married to an American woman, he was a Christian theologian in an officially atheist country, he had studied in the democratic West, and his own father, a pastor, had almost been killed once by the Communists on suspicion of sedition.
And so the interrogations went on for months. They never involved torture, but they did include threats, so much so that the interrogator colonized his interior life, as Volf describes it. He wrote, “Even afterward, my mind was enslaved by the abuse I had suffered.”
Decades later, still haunted by these memories, and particularly his interrogator Captain G, Volf began to wonder “How should I remember him and what he had done to me?” Eventually the question prompted a book entitled The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.
Volf has spent much of his academic career as a theologian writing and teaching about forgiveness. His work in that area is profound, ground-breaking, and deeply influential. And that led him to think even more deeply and theologically about memory, and particularly his memories of this wrongdoing. How should he remember those events and the perpetrators in a way that is faithful to his commitment to Christian love and forgiveness? How to remember truthfully, in a way that condemns injustice and abuse but doesn’t heighten the trauma? How to remember in such a way that the memories don’t overtake his identity and everything else about his past? He was even worried about what he called “this dangerous moral fickleness of memory.”
These questions prompted deep thinking. Volf wrote, “How much of my projected future would Captain G. colonize, given that the memory of abuse kept projecting itself into my anticipated future? Would he define the horizon of my possibilities, or would he and his dirty work shrink to just one dark dot on that horizon and possibly even disappear from it entirely?”
He worried that if he focused on this memory too much, it would forever alter him. Volf wrote, “Would I have remembered wrongly by first focusing on the negative and then allowing it to color the whole surrounding landscape? Would I be allowing the abuse to whirl me down into the dark netherworld?”
As he grappled with his personal stories, Miroslav Volf identifies for us how memory is connected to identity, forgiveness, justice, truthfulness, well-being, and our hopes for the future. Remembering well and rightly, then, has a rich spiritual meaning for us.
And it is that theme to which we will turn our worship focus in this season of Epiphany.
Remembering, itself, fits within a bigger and broader spiritual practice of timekeeping. How we mark time spiritually and theologically has long been of interest to me and a staple in my preaching. A couple of years ago we had an Easter season worship series on how we mark time. That series was guided by the teachings of Princeton professor Andrew Root, and I’ve often since drawn us back to this quote from him:
We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future, but more deeply into time itself. We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity. We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!
And, yes, that quote ends with an exclamation mark.
The theologian Kathryn Tanner approaches the spirituality of timekeeping and remembering our past from a different angle—that of her Christian critique of contemporary finance-based capitalism, which she argues tries to malform us with its false and destructive models of time-keeping. One of the worst ways that the past enslaves us in contemporary capitalism is through debt, which limits our future horizons and binds us in the present.
Instead, Tanner wants humanity to live into the fulsomeness of God’s grace, understanding that “one has all one needs now to meet the present challenge,” whatever that challenge is. She encourages that “there is no point in harping on the past or worrying about the future” because “no failings in the past or present can disrupt the efficacy” of God’s saving grace.
Tanner’s thoughts resonate with those of the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, the most philosophical of biblical writers. Ecclesiastes teaches that we have all we need. That God desires of us not toil but living in harmony—to eat, drink, and find fulfilment in what we do. Ecclesiastes encourages us not to dwell upon the past or worry about the future. What has been, has been, and what will be, will be. We should enjoy the life that God has given to us.
The best book I’ve read recently about the spiritual practice of time-keeping is James K. A. Smith’s How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now. We’ll be using Smith’s book to prompt our Wednesday night family night discussions this month.
Smith reminds us that we are temporal beings, and to be temporal, he writes, “is to be indebted to a past and oriented toward a future.” But how to inhabit this well, truthfully, faithfully?
We are shaped by our pasts, our history, and the larger histories we are embedded in. Right now in the United States, how we remember our history and tell our stories has gotten caught up in the culture wars and partisan political battles. Reminding us how significant the past itself is in shaping our identity, our sense of what is possible now, and our visions for the future.
On this point, Smith writes, “Sometimes the most faithful act of remembering requires a destruction of our nostalgias; sometimes the most creative act of remembering is to ruin the illusions we’ve learned to live with.”
Which resonates with Miroslav Volf’s contention that we shouldn’t only remember truthfully, but also rightly, faithfully, lovingly. Some memories are best forgotten.
James K. A. Smith describes “four fundamental convictions” of “the art of spiritual timekeeping.” The first is that we are finite, temporal creatures. He writes, “For every creature, to be is to become; to exist is to change; to have and to hold is to lose and to mourn; to awake is to hope.”
I know we often struggle with this reality. That we must live with constant change, learning how to let go, to grieve, to move nimbly into the future. At the conference I attended in Florida this week, one of my colleagues reminded us that Darwin taught that adaptability is the most important asset in the evolutionary struggle. In our personal and our collective lives we must hone our adaptative skills, responding to constant change with flexibility and grace.
Smith’s second conviction of the art of spiritual time-keeping is our belief that time is shaped by covenant. Our time is shaped by the promises God has made to God’s people. The history of God with God’s people matters in forming who we are. We must live faithfully those promises through the reality of constant change.
The third conviction is somewhat in tension with the second. It is our belief that God’s Spirit is still guiding us and speaking to us, leading us into new directions. I like this sentence of Smith’s—“Listening to the Spirit is not an archaeological dig for some original deposit but rather an attunement to a God with us, still speaking, still surprising, still revealing.”
Hopefully you’ve been reading my columns in the church newsletter about the State of the Church in 2024, where I’m writing about the era of deep change we are living in, and what those changes mean for Christianity writ large and for us as one congregation adapting and responding faithfully. Our task is to discern where the Spirit is leading us in our time, and our time is one of radical and deep change.
Smith’s fourth and final fundamental conviction about the art of spiritual timekeeping is that we Christians are “animated by the future.” Hope is central to who we are.
Central to my own spirituality, and my preaching, has been the teaching of the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann that we Christians are the “eternal beginners.” The life of hope is one in which we live into the resurrection promise that at every moment there is an indefinite set of possible futures, that no matter how our past shapes us, there is no set, inevitable future. We can begin anew every moment of our lives.
I like the way Smith then describes our spiritual discernment. He writes, “Keeping time with the Spirit is less a regimental march and more like a subtle dance, a responsive feel for what comes next.”
So, our remembering is situated as a spiritual practice within this deeper spiritual practice of timekeeping. To remember rightly, faithfully, truthfully, and lovingly is part of our rich spiritual life of dancing with God’s Spirit in attunement and discernment, embracing the fulsomeness of God’s grace, and practicing resurrection hope.
Let’s return now to Miroslav Volf and what conclusions he came to about remembering rightly. He writes:
To return to my own experience in the Yugoslavian army, I can view myself primarily as a person who was terrorized by powerful people against whom I was helpless and whose intentions I could not discern. Or I can see myself primarily as a person who, after some suffering, has been delivered by God and given a new life . . . . I can be angry about suffering. I can be thankful for deliverance. I can be both. I can also let that year of suffering recede somewhere into a distant background and stretch myself toward the future.
A future which, for him, included his work at Yale and the lives of his two sons.
What Volf came to realize is that “we are not just shaped by memories; we ourselves shape the memories that shape us.”
Yes, our self-image is largely made up of what we remember about ourselves. And, of course, what we remember about ourselves isn’t always exactly what happened. I loved, for example, when the great Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote early in his memoir that the stories he was telling about his childhood were the stories he remembered, and he was making no claim as to whether they actually occurred that way or not. For it was how he remembered them that had shaped him, whether or not they actually occurred that way.
Volf contends that a healthy person is not inevitably shaped by their memories of the past. A healthy person is able to freely respond to memories and, therefore, shape how they form the sense of self. He writes, “A person with a healthy sense of identity living in freedom and security will let the future draw her out of the past and the present and will play with new possibilities and embark on new paths.”
That should be our goal. A rich, healthy, flourishing human life, playing with new possibilities.
Memory, then, is a component of our well-being. And Volf contends that there are four distinct ways that memory contributes to well-being.
First is that remembering rightly plays a role in personal healing. All of the literature on trauma, for instance, teaches us that the trauma must be interpreted and integrated in ways that cease to dominate our psyches but instead become part of a larger sense of self and meaning. If you’ve read The Body Keeps the Score, or any other of the bestsellers in this vein, then you know how this works.
The second way that remembering rightly contributes to well-being is through acknowledging our past. This is particularly relevant to memories of wrong-doing and injustice. And not just our personal remembering, but social remembering. Such remembering of past wrongs was part of what Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel emphasized throughout his life’s work.
Acknowledging then leads to solidarity, as community forms among those who remember rightly. And finally, the fourth way remembering rightly leads to well-being, is that a people who remember rightly should then protect past victims from future harm. Again, this is part of Elie Wiesel’s teaching. I’d encourage you to read or listen to his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. In that speech he declares,
What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.
Remembering, then, is part of our well-being. But not ours only. The well-being of our families and society. How we remember shapes our vision of justice, our hopes for the future, the values of the communities we form, and our spiritual vitality.
We must learn to remember well as part of the broader spiritual practice of time-keeping. Entering into that subtle dance with the Holy Spirit as she guides us through the present and into the vast open possibilities of the future. That way we can live into the fulsomeness of God’s grace, the fullness of time, and the feeling of being fully alive.
To remember rightly, then, frees us to live as God intended, as the author of Ecclesiastes teaches us:
What I do know is that what is best for us is to be happy and enjoy life as long as we live. And God’s gift to us is to eat and drink and find fulfillment in our work.