The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World

Written by Miroslav Volf Reviewed By Joshua Kira

One might be called an ecumenical theologian because they draw on a multiplicity of theological traditions. They also might receive the designation related to seeking the reconciliation between various alienated parties. Miroslav Volf is an ecumenical theologian in both senses and in the best possible way. The breadth of his scholarship is contrasted starkly by the specificity of his scope. In an era of constant specialization, Volf displays boldness in drawing upon not only a diversity of theological sources, but philosophical, psychological, sociological, literary, and historical ones as well. Yet his goal for The End of Memory is narrow enough to allow him penetrating depth in his analysis. Volf broaches the question of how memory should be approached to facilitate reconciliation in light of suffered injustice, a theme he introduced in Exclusion and Embrace and which culminates in the present text.

Part 1 of The End of Memory, “Remember” (pp. 1–35), delves into the significance of memory to life, Christian and otherwise. Commentary is interspersed between biographical vignettes wherein Volf details the constant and unwarranted interrogations he faced from his superiors as a member of the Yugoslavian army whose religious and American ties made him suspect. Reflecting on his questioning, Volf recognizes the importance and dangers of one’s remembrance of wrongs suffered. Not only can memory be a “shield” for the oppressed against future injustice, but it can also become a “sword” (pp. 19–35) when the offended remembers incorrectly so as to make the offender appear more evil. It is this latter use that often justifies one reacting in revenge.

The danger of misremembering necessitates part 2, entitled “How Should We Remember?” (pp. 37–128). For the wronged to be brought in loving community with the wrongdoer, memory must have the right character and must be regulated within the proper framework. As to the prior, Volf argues that memories must be truthful and in love must be remembered with grace towards the offender. Such remembrance allows one to be just, by making explicit the wrongdoing, while allowing love to “cover” sins as one seeks reconciliation (p. 64). Volf then goes on to argue that memories will typically be shaped and used within a framework of interpretation that provides a more expanded view of reality. Thus, he claims that Christians have and should use “sacred memories” (p. 96–102) of the exodus and the passion as “regulative meta-memories” (p. 94), which offers identity to the believer, unity to the Christian community, and an understanding of God’s desire for justice and forgiveness.

The End of Memory concludes by asking the question “How Long Should We Remember?” (pp. 121–214). Pushing back against the theory that eternal memory is central to salvation, Volf paints an eschatological picture whereby forgetting may, at times, be significant. Agreeing with Ricoeur that some disremembering is necessary for identity (p. 195) and building upon earlier argument that forgetting may be significant in forgiveness, the author attempts to show that a community of love in heaven will involve the “not coming to mind” (p. 148) of wrongs suffered. Some memories of “horrendous evils” will require a “driving out” (pp. 177–91), since they cannot be sensibly integrated into life’s narrative. Such an event can only occur as one’s singular focus is transfixed on Christ in glory (pp. 192–214). The context where judgment and the forgetting of wrongs can lead to the possibility of reconciliation between individuals is ultimately in the eschaton.

Volf has risen to prominence by deftly synthesizing difficult ideas and disparate theological positions, while presenting them in a way that is useful to the Christian community. Like those theologians who influenced him, Volf is theologically and philosophically rigorous, historically informed, and constructive. However, unlike most students who radicalize their teachers’ works in order to make a name in an academic world that seeks novelty, Volf’s usefulness to the evangelical community lies in his moderation and clarity. He recognizes the political implications of the cross, like Moltmann, but believes that Scripture focuses more on Christ’s “substitute for offenders” (p. 115). Where his 20th century predecessors often moved into historically atypical views of God and truth when speaking of Christ’s suffering, he claims to adhere to a “nearly classical notion of the divine being” and views post-modern understandings of truth as “incoherent” (p. 49–50). Furthermore, he refrains from the type of impenetrable prose often found in high academia, even incorporating biographical elements to illustrate his argumentation.

Not only is Volf’s style refreshing, but his boldness is as well. Not only does he research widely, but he also makes claims that are difficult to voice in Western culture today. He is one of a shrinking number of Christian scholars who uses his platform to make statements that must be said, but that many would not want to hear. For example, he is willing to entertain the idea that even those who are wronged are sinners, which might be seen as victim-blaming. Furthermore, he holds that forgiveness and reconciliation are more important than remembrance and retribution.

There are three main difficulties with The End of Memory. First, Volf spends the bulk of his words attempting to explicate how the wronged should remember, but interacts less with the issue of how the wrongdoer should do so. Thus, his inclusion of “On Memories of Victims and Perpetrators” in the 2nd edition of the book is a welcome addition. Second, Volf refrains from taking a stand on the issue of universalism, which could call into question some of his conclusions from part 3. He believes it is sufficient that he knows that God’s judgment “both exposes sin and transforms the sinner” (p. 180). Yet, this may be too thin to undergird his ideas of forgiveness which clearly tend towards universal reconciliation. Third, by subscribing to a “post-modern” view of the ambiguous “self” (197–98), the issue of the relationship between identity and memory becomes more complicated. Thus, how much a reader is convinced of his eschatological conclusions in part 3 will likely be correlated to their acceptance of a decentered self.

Short criticisms aside, The End of Memory is a worthy read, not only for the student and professor, but also for the pastor. Volf has done much to take the theme of memory that is biblically represented and set it forth in theological formulation and philosophical elucidation. Thus, his writing makes both memory and forgetting more recognizable as practically significant to the everyday life of the Christian and even to society at large.

Joshua Kira

Joshua Kira
Cedarville University
Cedarville, Ohio, USA

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