November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
June 4, 2007
The Other Journal (TOJ): As you know, the theme we are discussing in this issue of TOJ is pop-revolutions—the use of revolutionary images, symbols, and rhetoric in popular culture. In our introduction to the issue, we suggested that before getting into the analysis of particular pop-revolutions or the phenomena of pop-revolutions in general, we would have to address the broader question of the relationship between Christianity and revolution. What is your understanding of the Christian account of revolution? And to what extent is Christianity revolutionary? That is to say, to what extent does it aim toward the disruption of the status quo and the radical transformation (of any and all, aspects and sectors) of society?
Miroslav Volf (MV): I think it really depends on what we understand by revolution. Your second sub-question is probably relevant here. My conception of revolution comes from intimate work with and study of Karl Marx. In this regard, I think that revolution ought not to be identified with something like a mere “disruption of the status quo” or “significant social change.” That would be, in my judgment, far from an adequate account of revolution. And if one has a more […] robust notion of revolution, then I think one might have to say that the Christian faith is in a profound sense rather revolutionary, but […] this revolution is an eschatological one. The Christian faith is certainly about the coming world of love, and for that a radical transformation of reality is necessary. No mere translation of souls into some heavenly bliss will suffice; transformation of all reality so as to become the world of perfect love is needed!
Now, whether and how eschatological transformation translates into historical transformation is a very important question. My sense is that disruption—a term not dissimilar to interruption, which the political-theologian Johann Baptist Metz has used—is not a truly Christian category. Rather, as Jürgen Moltmann noted in response to Metz, the proper Christian category is that of conversion. Disruption and interruption are merely negative categories. Conversion is a fundamentally positive category. Now, this means that this negative element of disturbing the status quo must be understood as fully in the direction and service of that toward which the conversion is happening. So transformation seems to me a much better term for this process as a whole. In that sense, does Christianity aim at converting the present reality into something akin with the coming revolution of God’s kingdom? I would say, very definitely so! And if it not, then it isn’t Christianity as it has originally been envisioned!
TOJ: You have spoken of the eschatological revolution, firstly, not in terms of the translation of souls into a heavenly bliss, but as a radical transformation of all reality into the world of love, and secondly, as a future transformation by God that is related to our transformative work in the present. Now, to those who might be skeptical of your understanding of the scope of the eschatological revolution and its relation to the transformation of reality within history, and who might therefore be suspicious of Christian efforts not explicitly concerned with the salvation of souls, what biblical or theological themes would you highlight in order to persuade them otherwise?
MV: Well, I think there is certainly a plethora of biblical resources from which one can draw. The prophetic tradition is a very significant resource, where the goal is not simply the salvation of souls but the transformation of society, the transformation of the entire way in which we together live as individuals and communities before God. The same I think is true of Jesus’s ministry. His healings and miracles, in the context of the announcement of the Kingdom of God, play such a significant role that I think it is appropriate to speak of the transformation of reality as salvation, which again, is a much broader notion of salvation than merely the salvation of souls. When we think about the Apostle Paul, it is often forgotten that he too displays a significant concern for the poor throughout his ministry. And then of course the vision in the book of Revelations is a fundamental resource, where the City of God (i.e., the New Jerusalem) comes down from heaven to this earth and transforms it. “Behold, I create every thing anew, a new heaven and a new earth.” So to me these are the lines I would work within—that God creates and therefore tends to creation and ultimately consummates it. We see this in the prophetic tradition, we see this in Jesus’s ministry, we see this in Paul’s ministry, and we see this in the expectation of the eschatological fulfillment in Revelations. All of this seems to me to speak robustly in favor of a very broad understanding of salvation, which certainly includes a salvation of souls—the relationship of the individual to God. The salvation of souls as the reconciliation of individuals to God is certainly fundamental, but it is a piece of a much larger account of salvation.
TOJ: That is very helpful. So helpful in fact, that I have to ask why North American Evangelical theology fails to operate with the broader understanding of salvation that, as you have shown, runs so deeply in the biblical tradition? Evangelical theology seems unable to get over the dualism that pits eschatological salvation against historical salvation, and personal salvation against social salvation. Why is this so?
MV: By the way, it is not just Evangelicals who hold to that kind of soteriological dualism. One can see this in Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine. Though he was very much opposed to abandoning the world to its own devices, as is the temptation of some forms of Evangelicalism, he nonetheless operated with a split between how God works in relationship to the soul and how God works in broader reality. I think Evangelicalism, especially older-style Evangelicalism, operates with a contrast between personal salvation and social change. To remedy this, it is essential for us to consider the unity of God’s work in the whole of humanity and creation, and that brings us to the all-important notion that God is a God of love. In regard to creation, God is a God of love. And therefore in regard to creation gone astray, the God of love is also the God of grace. And that applies to all realms of our lives: not just to our being in right standing personally with God, but also with our being in right standing with one another; not just for us loving God and being loved by God, but also for us loving one another and being in relationships of shalom, in relationships of peace with one another. God’s love and God’s grace ought to permeate all our lives in distinct ways. When this happens, then the Gospel is productive, I think, and it is furthering an integral transformation of reality.
TOJ: So if God’s love/grace is essential for overcoming the dualisms that plague not only Evangelicalism, but as you have suggested, many other theological traditions, how would you suggest that we begin to trace the ways this theme permeates and applies to all areas of life?
MV: Grace is not just for the life of the soul, whereas law is for the life of the body and society. Grace is for all reality. Now, of course, when we say that, we are required to make some very careful distinctions. Here, I think something like what Karl Barth has done with the notion of analogy is quite helpful. The pattern in which God relates to us as individuals has analogies in the way we should think of the relations between people in civic community, for instance. These two sets of relations are neither identical nor completely different; they are analogous. God’s relation to us in Christ cannot simply be transposed onto all spheres of life. But analogies can be drawn. These analogies can then provide helpful insight into the ways that God’s grace can be made fruitful for all areas of life.
TOJ: Judging from your example, is it fair to say that you see the Barthians in North America providing the most helpful resources for Evangelicals struggling with the question of how Christian faith relates to the life of society?
MV: Well, that depends upon what Barthians you are talking about and what particular Barthians do with Barth’s work. In my own work (say, Free of Charge), I have drawn heavily on Luther—a particular reading of the early Luther—even though I am critical of his two-kingdoms doctrine. I certainly see Barth’s legacy as one significant model within Protestantism of how to deal with issues of the common good, for instance, and not only that, but how to deal with issues of the common good from the heart of the Christian faith. In some sense, political theologians like Moltmann are also in that broad tradition, even though Moltmann understands his own work in part as providing an alternative to Barth.
TOJ: With each issue of TOJ we strive for contemporaneity, to have our finger on the pulse of what’s happening now culturally and politically, and to examine these events, issues, and trends from a theological point of view. This issue is no exception. Martin Heidegger famously said that each generation of philosophers is faced with one issue that they must think through for the benefit of future generations. If there is wisdom in this statement, then I assume that it applies to theologians as well. What would you consider the hinge issue of our time, that is, where do you believe we are most in need of theoretical and practical wisdom today? Or more personally, what issues or themes do you plan to deal with in your research and writing over the next few years?
MV: It’s very difficult to single out one particular issue. If I were to do it in a more personal way, rather than in a more objective and analytical way, I would probably say that the most significant challenge that we face today—a challenge with which there many other significant issues are connected, such as poverty, ecological degradation, runaway technological developments, et cetera—is the notion that human flourishing consists in experientially satisfying life. Put differently, one of our main challenges is that we live in a culture of the managed pursuit of pleasures, not of the sustained pursuit of the common good. To me, that is one of the fundamental issues of the day. My horror-image, so to speak, of where we might go as a culture is what I have called in one place, the Hiltonization of culture—Paris Hilton as a paradigm of what culture becomes.
TOJ: You should copyright that term [laughter]. Parenthetically, I heard on the radio the other day that Paris Hilton’s “Chihuahua as the hot new accessory” is raising concerns among true dog-lovers. Sadly, so many Chihuahuas are being returned to the pounds because they won’t stay put in purses that the Humane Society in Toronto is putting them to sleep in droves. I guess their owners felt that taking care of them was too much of a hassle.
MV: Hmm, I’ll think about that. More abstractly, by Hiltonization of culture I mean [that] kind of fleeting life of self-interest and the pursuit of pleasure. This seems to me to be the main malaise of contemporary society, which of course is led by very powerful cultural currents and institutional arrangements. So I think one of the key issues for us is to think anew about the nature and character of human flourishing within the context of larger creation. So the project in which I am involved right now is entitled “God and Human Flourishing.” What is the relationship between our overarching interpretation of life and our account of human flourishing? For Christians, that means what is the relationship between who God is and how God is related to creation and what it means for us to flourish?
TOJ: Your most recent book The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World delves further into a topic that seems to run throughout your work, including your previous award-winning books, Exclusion and Embrace and Free of Charge, namely, the relationship between memory and hope. How does your work with memory and hope connect with, and indeed flow out of, the larger picture of the relationship between God and human flourishing that you have just described?
MV: To me, the response is really related to what we were talking about earlier, namely, that God is the lover of creation! Creation comes to be because of the delight of God in there being creatures other than God and in their flourishing. And in that sense, I believe that reflection on the character of God and reflection on the character of human flourishing belong together. And holding those together results in a style of theologizing for which human flourishing stands in the center. Now, when I say human flourishing, I don’t mean [. . .] something merely secular. That’s exactly what we have to subvert, the opposition between sacred [as something] to be lodged in the soul or churches and secular [as something] that describes the rest of creation. I mean living as an integral person before God so that only in relationship to God in all spheres of our lives can we find full flourishing as human beings. And I suppose this moves us to the question of memory and hope.
TOJ: Sure, let’s go with it.
MV: I have written my most recent book on memory, but memory itself is part and parcel of a larger way of being situated in the world, of which hope is a part. The right remembering of wrongs which we have suffered is predicated on certain hopes of what will happen in the future. The title, The End of Memory, already contains within it a reference to the future, because the end means the purpose and goal of remembering as well as kind of a terminal point of memory. So hope is already present in remembering. How is it that we remember rightly? Well, we remember rightly when we remember in hope for the day in which all people will be reconciled before God. So relearning the forgotten language of hope for our lives and for the life of society is really an essential moment, or element, of being able to remember rightly.
TOJ: What would you say to Christians, including Christian theologians, who tend to minimize the significance of memory, particularly the memory of wrongs suffered?
MV: It is not hard to see how memory is significant for our personal and cultural lives. Without memory, our lives lose the richness and texture we are meant to enjoy as human beings. You know, sometimes I use the example of a stringed instrument. When you play a musical note, copresent in every tone are also subtones. The same is true also of our pasts. The past needs to resonate in the present in all its tonality. And when it does, the present then acquires a richer texture. No memory, no rich identity. Or think of our Christian rather than personal or social identity. Every time we confess our faith, we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in that sense we become identified with Christ as the people of the resurrection. So you can very well say, quite simply, “no memory, no identity,” and particularly “no Christian identity”! Hence, memory is absolutely fundamental for Christians, as fundamental for Christians as it is for the Jews.
TOJ: You mention that memory is as fundamental for Christians as it is for Jews. Yet it is primarily the Jewish writers that have championed the value of memory, particularly the relationship between the remembering of wrongs and the pursuit of justice. Why hasn’t this theme been as present in Christian rhetoric in the past fifty years or so?
MV: That’s a very difficult question. I am not fully sure why that is the case, but I think it may have something to do with the place of justice in both of these great faiths. The more there is emphasis on justice, the more emphasis there will be on memory, on remembering truthfully. It seems to me that for Christians, both justice and remembering truthfully is inserted into a larger whole—the reconciliation and creation of the world of love. Justice is certainly a part of this larger whole, but it is directed toward and serves the establishment of the world of love. And remembering, if I understand things rightly, is also directed toward a goal, and that goal is not simply protection (which is very significant), and it is not simply justice (which is also very significant), but it is reconciliation between those who are estranged on account of wrongdoing. Now, the goal of reconciliation may have certain relativizing effects upon remembering, and if it does, then that’s really troubling. That’s why it is important for Christians to emphasize that we need to go through remembering in order to get to reconciliation. However, Christians have, at least in the recent decades, oscillated between being sentimental and punitive. We need to overcome this oscillation between, on the one hand, “Oh, it doesn’t matter,” you know, “it’s OK,” and so forth, simply shrugging off what has happened, and on the other hand, kind of an implacable retributive stance. We need to find the road toward forgiveness, which entails firstly naming the wrongdoing that has happened and remembering that wrongdoing as it has happened, and secondly, not counting that wrongdoing against the wrongdoer and finding ways to live together. In my book, I have articulated the larger framework in which memory, particularly the memory of wrongs suffered, finds its true meaning. In this way, it should serve as corrective both to those Christians who fail to understand that memory should always serve the goal of reconciliation and to those Christians who fail to understand that without memory true reconciliation is impossible.
TOJ: In your book, The Future of Hope, you distinguished between “hot cultural memories,” which have the power to provide vision and direction for society, and “cool cultural memories,” which are fleeting and disposable. It seems difficult to maintain hot memories in the midst of a culture that has become Hiltonized. How can we be people of memory in a fast-paced, consumer-oriented society that encourages us to forget so that we can focus our attention on the next new thing?
MV: I think that’s right, in general we live in a very fast-paced, consumer-oriented culture in which we are always after the next thing. And I think what we need to do, and to learn how to do, is to practice—and maybe this is going to speak to your issue of contemporaneity—the virtue of non-contemporaneity. This can be expressed in many different ways. I have recently expressed this by noting that prophetic faiths, which I think Christianity is, contain two essential elements. One element is the ascent to God, and the other element is the return to the world. I think we need to make sure that we have time and space for ascents, and that we create environments in which we can immerse ourselves in tradition and in remembering, and climb regularly to the mountain of God. Otherwise we will end up just swimming in the stream of our fast-paced culture, simply echoing whatever the culture happens to be doing. It takes courage, it takes strength, it takes distance, in order to be able to speak meaningfully to the culture, and if we cultivate the time and space for ascent, then perhaps Christians can truly be that prophetic voice within culture today.
TOJ: One of the things that sets you apart from many contemporary theologians is that your writings clearly demonstrate that while theology is not reducible to autobiography, it is nevertheless always very personal. First, what does this say about your understanding of theology and your role as a theologian? And second, for those who have not yet read The End of Memory, would you be willing to share the ways in which this book, and the line of theological reflection it advances, grows out of the details of your own life, out of your own suffered wrongs and your struggle to love your wrongdoers?
MV: Right. You know, The End of Memory is probably the most autobiographical of all my books, in the sense that the narrative backbone for the entire book is the story of my interrogations at the hands of the military of then-communist Yugoslavia in the mid-1980s. I was conscripted to be a soldier as a conscientious objector, and then I was interrogated for months and threatened with years of imprisonment because suspicions were held that I was a subversive element—partly because I was a theologian, partly because I had traveled abroad, partly because my father was a pastor, and partly because my wife is American. In the book, I use that story of personal violation—which is still relatively mild compared to what happens to many people in the world today—as a window into issues that we face as we attempt to remember wrongs we have suffered. So my own personal story is an entry point into a topic that is, of course, universal, a topic that I describe in my book as the issue of “the memory of wrongdoing suffered by a person who desires neither to hate nor to disregard but to love the wrongdoer” (p. 9).
Now, the reason I use personal narrative as an entry point is because I think that theology is a way of life, and one way to enact how theology is a way of life and how theology serves a way of life is to write in an autobiographical mode. Of course, there are other ways to do this as well, like writing in a more biographical mode, for example, narrating the lives of saints or the lives of whole communities. Either way, I think it is a very important element in writing compelling and thoughtful theology, that is, if one understands theology as I do, as serving a way of life, indeed as being and presupposing a way of life.
TOJ: I don’t see many other theologians working with the understanding that theology should serve “a way of life.” In that sense, your transformative style of theologizing makes you something of a prophet among your peers.
MV: I don’t want to suggest that what I’m doing is the only way in which one can engage in transformative theologizing. By no means! What is essential for theology today, essential for doing theology well today, is explicit engagement with the great issues of the day, shining the light of faith on the great issues we are facing. I think way too much theology today is devoted to the project of analyzing aspects of third-rate contemporary thinkers rather than illuminating great issues with the light of faith and suggesting a way of dealing with them, a way of struggling faithfully before God with those issues. That’s risky, of course, because you are not just analyzing what others say, but offering concrete proposals. And it’s risky, especially if you interlay those proposals with your own personal story! However, I think this is the direction theology needs to go. I am afraid that theology is going to become irrelevant if we stick simply to the analysis of other theologians’ or other philosophers’ work.
TOJ: You are clearly a theologian who is willing to risk. And you have certainly done so in The End of Memory by being transparent about your abuse at the hands of your interrogators. Victims of abuse (of many forms) often report that writing their narrative is both particularly difficult and surprisingly healing. In what way did the practice of writing itself contribute to your own process of engaging the past in the service of love?
MV: Writing about my abuse has certainly been therapeutic in some sense, but I think in many ways one has to have done a work of therapy (properly understood), before writing can even start. But writing itself is a part of a process and it has provided me a way of thinking through and naming particular realities in my life, and challenging myself to live a particular kind of life. I have said a number of times that after I wrote Exclusion and Embrace I would sometimes find myself in a situation where I was being wronged and I would hear this small still voice saying, “But you argued in your book . . . ” and a certain action or a certain door was closed for me. So for me there was power in theological argument, which simply illustrates that theology does serve a way of life. Theology has a bite, and it ought to have a bite of that sort!
TOJ: So far we have talked a lot about a theme that pervades your work, the significance of memory for human life, for the life of society, and for vibrant Christian faith. However, in The End of Memory, you move beyond the argument for the significance of memory itself—or perhaps, it would be better to say that you assume it—by introducing the distinction between remembering rightly and remembering wrongly. What is at issue in this distinction, and what does it really mean to remember rightly?
MV: If it is true that we should remember, then the important question becomes how is it that we ought to remember? Memory doesn’t simply have a cognitive dimension, that is, it’s not simply a matter of whether I remember accurately or not. Memory also has a pragmatic dimension, that is, I always do something by remembering—I construct my own identity, I construct the way in which I relate to the world, and so on. As it turns out, we consistently put memory of wrongs we’ve suffered to destructive, even deadly, uses. That’s why remembering rightly is so significant! You can see this very well in the world today, how memories are invoked to justify particular social and individual projects, some for good and some for ill. This is why I have argued in my book that “the memory of wrongs from a moral standpoint is dangerously undetermined” (p. 34). Since memories have a significant role in shaping our individual and social lives and the decisions we make as individuals and societies, it is very important to ask the question, how should we remember? And what does it mean to remember rightly? To remember wrongly means to remember vindictively; it means to remember in ways that deepen the conflict and that are destructive for relationships. Remembering rightly, from my perspective, means remembering in a way that heals what has been broken, that reconciles people who have been estranged. For me, that kind of right remembering is guided by the great vision of reconciliation, which was realized in Jesus Christ and which will finally be completed in the world to come.
TOJ: Earlier, you suggested that contemporary Christianity oscillates between being sentimental and punitive. Sadly, these two options simply seem to mimic the conventional wisdom available in our culture today for dealing with injustice and wrongdoing—the weak-hearted forgive and forget and the hard-hearted never forgive. How does the notion of remembering rightly provide us with a third way?
MV: We need to find, if you want, a middle ground between the attitudes you are describing. For me, that middle ground is defined by what I consider to be one of the most striking features of early Christianity. It consists in holding two things together—naming evil as evil, and at the same time, trying to overcome evil by doing what is good, trying to condemn the evil deed and love the evildoer. There are many ways in which one can see this as a central feature of Christianity. This is involved for instance in any act of forgiveness. As I have mentioned earlier, when I forgive, I name the wrongdoing as wrongdoing, and yet at the same time, I do not let it count against the wrongdoer. What I have done in The End of Memory is to apply this basic stance toward wrongdoing and wrongdoer to the question of memory. I propose a way to practice remembering in such a way that memory serves to name the evil and is a means toward reconciliation!
TOJ: The notion of forgiveness you have just described (as including both the naming of evil as evil and the overcoming evil with good) seems to run parallel with your account of the relationship between judgment and reconciliation, which you suggest is most properly understood in terms of a judgment unto reconciliation. What has informed your view of judgment, and what is at issue for right remembering?
MV: The connection between judgment and reconciliation is fundamental. [This connection is] present both in the cross of Christ and in the final judgment. In the cross of Christ, there occurs a judgment against sin. At the same time, I think Barth was right when he spoke of Jesus Christ as “a judge who is judged in our place,” so that the judgment on the cross serves, and is understood precisely in terms of, reconciliation! Judgment is not some independent act standing on its own, rather it’s part and parcel with the process of reconciliation. The same holds true of the last judgment. Certainly, the last judgment includes the naming of sin and evil, but that naming itself is exercised in the context of grace and in the context of reconciliation. That’s why I think that the transition between the world as it is to the world that is to come has two significant components. One component is judgment, and the other component is grace, which includes the embrace of the former enemy. Only in this way can the last judgment, this transition from the world as it is to the world to come, be precisely that, a last andfinal judgment. If it were merely a judgment, but not a movement toward the other person in grace, then a world of love would not be able to emerge and judgments would continue. But the creation of the world of love is really the goal of God’s dealing with humanity in the Christian tradition. God is love. And the world to come, as Jonathan Edwards has so very eloquently said, is “the world of love.”
TOJ: OK. If I am following you correctly, your account of what transpires between perpetrator and victim in the last judgment—making way for the transition from the world as it is to the world of perfect love—has profound implications for what it means to remember rightly. Yet it also seems to have profound implications for the second major idea you advance in your book, the notion of non-remembrance, that is, that suffered wrongs will simply not come to mind after the process of reconciliation has taken place. Why does the notion of non-remembrance feature so strongly in your account of forgiveness and reconciliation?
MV: In terms of non-remembrance or wrongs suffered in the Christian tradition, I ask a very simple question, “How is it that for centuries, for millennia really, Christians have associated forgiveness with non-remembrance, but after the 1960s we find it difficult to do so?” Now, have we learned so much more in recent decades that we can discard what has been maintained in the Christian tradition for centuries (and indeed, in the Jewish tradition as well, as the theme of non-remembrance has roots in the imagery around atonement and God’s dealing with sins of the people within Judaism)? My answer is, well, let’s pause to think whether this long tradition ought to be simply discarded or whether it contains something that is fundamental, fundamental to the way that God relates to us and fundamental for the way in which we should relate to each other. That’s the question that I’ve posed for myself as I sought to think afresh about the possible role of the non-remembrance of wrongs in the process of reconciliation. Some ways in which I explore the plausibility of the notion non-remembrance in the book is by looking at the relationship between non-remembrance and salvation, human identity, and moral responsibility.
TOJ: Let’s pick up on moral responsibility, as it is perhaps the most controversial. You have already described the strong link between remembering wrongs and the pursuit of justice and reconciliation for victims. If there is a moral obligation to remember wrongs rightly, how does your notion of non-remembrance avoid the charge that it is morally irresponsible?
MV: If one thinks of non-remembrance as a way to deal with the problem of wrongdoing, then of course it will encourage moral irresponsibility. You’ll simply forget the wrong. It would be like an ostrich hiding its head in the sand assuming that everything is going to be OK. But the idea that I am advancing is that non-remembrance occurs as a consequence of the world-made-whole, of relationships in the world having been set aright. In this way, remembering is part and parcel of moral responsibility attending to the wrong. This is why I have stated very carefully that what I am proposing is “the not-coming-to-mind of wrongs suffered after justice has been served and after entrance into a secure world of perfect love” (p. 203). Once the world has been set aright, then the question becomes, why should we hold on to those memories. Or as I put it in the book, “What function would those memories serve in a secure world of perfect love?” (p. 207). So I would certainly not want to suggest that we should practice something like a Nietzschean form of non-remembrance, which is precisely an expression of unconcern for justice and [an] abdication of moral responsibility. Naming the wrong as wrong is an essential moment in the healing of the world; therefore, remembering wrongs is also an essential element of healing the world. Now, the question becomes, once that healing is achieved, must we go on remembering? Or can we give each other a gift of not having the wrongdoing inscribed on the forehead of the wrongdoer every time we see the wrongdoer? I would say that we can give this gift, because he is not simply the wrongdoer, but the forgiven wrongdoer. That is why, as I have said elsewhere, the non-remembrance of wrongs suffered “appropriately crowns forgiveness” (p. 208).
TOJ: You have also argued that the idea that we will remember wrongs eternally runs the risk of truncating redemption. In what way is the non-remembrance of suffered wrongs in the world to come consistent with the richest account of redemption that we can imagine?
MV: It would seem to me that if we remembered all the wrongs that have happened, then to be fair we would have to remember all of them to their full weight. And if we did, the consequence I think would be what I can describe only as a dark cloud of non-redemption hanging over the world of redemption. All evil would be remembered, from the smallest to the largest, eternally! The consequence would be, I think, a strange triumph of evil, in that the evil that has marked the world would continue marking the world eternally. Now, of course, different people have different sensibilities about this, but something very profound within me rebels against the notion that evil can have this glory of always being a feature of the remembered world, which is to say, always being part and parcel with the present of the world, because a remembered wrong is a present wrong. When we remember an evil we bring it into the present in the form of memory, which means that if we were to remember evil eternally then evil would qualify the world to come. And that seems to me to be a deficient account of the world to come, a truncated redemption, if you will, and something less than the world of perfect love in which perpetrators and victims are reconciled, and evil is overcome with good.
But let me clarify what specifically I mean by non-remembrance. One way to look at it is as a simple deletion of a wrongdoing from the hard-drive. In this way, the memory of wrongdoing is gone pure and simple, removed from operative memory and irretrievably deleted from the hard-drive. However, I tend not to think about non-remembrance in these terms. My sense is that if someone did want to remember wrongs that she or her loved ones suffered, she could go off into some corner of heaven and brood over things. But my question is why would one want to do that? Some people suggest that for full salvation to take place it might be enough to reframe the memories. That certainly might be an option. Some of them may be able to be reframed, memories of some events which can be rendered meaningful in a positive sense. But my suspicion is that it won’t be possible, that it won’t suffice, that it would indeed be abhorrent to try to reframe memories of some other events—memories of horrendous evils, for instance.
TOJ: In the case of horrendous evils, would reframing not be enough to really count as redemption, not enough to really make for a world of love?
MV: That’s what I am suggesting. Now, if all evil can be seen as instrumental in serving ultimate good, if it is essentially instrumental for the fact of good, then presumably we could live with the remembrance of all evil. Then we would see evil as this kind of bitter but necessary ingredient in the making of the delicious dish called world of love. Now, if I were able to say something like that, then I think I may have a different account of non-remembrance. But I am not quite able to say that.
TOJ: Any final words? We always provide space in our interviews for any final thoughts, comments, or anything our interlocutors would like to say that our questions did not provide the opportunity for.
MV: No, no final words. This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end.
TOJ: Dr. Volf, thank you very much for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us. It has really been an illuminating discussion. Thank you!
MV: You’re very welcome. And thank you.
Jon Stanley is pursuing a Ph.D. in Interdisciplanary Philosophy (emphasis: Theology) at the Institute for Christian Studies. Also a therapist, he is very interested in how the biblical tradition can be a resource for (sexual) healing in our time. Jon and his spouse, Julie, enjoy living in Toronto.