January 26, 2004

Time, memory, and eucharist

Part of Milbank's discussion of forgiveness hinges on his account of time and memory, based on Augustine and drawing particularly upon Confessions and De Musica. It seems to me that this is a place in which Milbank's comments easily intersect with some of Margaret's gestures towards confession, eucharist, and the like.

In Milbank's words, Augustine suggests that "the past only occurs initially through the supplement of the trace it leaves in the future," which though registered most intensely and reflexively in the psyche, nonetheless remains ontological (53). The past only is what it is in relation to the present and future, through memory, experience, and anticipation, in the way a musical note only "is" within a sequence where the end may change the nature of what has gone before (cf. De Musica) or in the way the final pages of a book may determine the reality of earlier chapters.

Thus, while thinkers such as Jankélévitch are correct to emphasize the "pastness" of the past (and thus its irreversibility), a Christian ontology of time and forgiveness allows that the past "in its very originality is open to alteration and mutation" through re-narration and remembrance (53).

This, of course, is the dynamic of confession, Augstine's own coming to mind here, against the backdrop of his understanding of evil as a privation and misordering of goods within a creation that, in light of God and eternity, must be understood as absolute gift without remainder. In writing the Confessions, then, Augustine is revising ontology (including moral psychology) in light of the Christian experience and practice of forgiveness (53-54). The Christian vision, thus, asserts itself over against a view of time and memory that is non-participatory, in which the reality of the past and the good that remains from it is not supsended upon the eternal and transcendent God.

In this context I am reminded of some of Jean-Luc Marion's reflections upon the eucharist, reflections that can be extended, I think, to practices of confession, absolution, and reconciliation since, it is from the context of eucharist as a concrete instantiation of the Gospel of forgiveness that such practices ultimately flow.

Marion conceives eucharist primarily through the temporal category of the "present," rather than a spatial "presence": as "the present which must be understood first as a gift that is given" (God Without Being, 171). For Marion the eucharist disrupts and subverts time since, in the eucharist, the present moment is no long privileged as determinative of time's significance, but revealed the giftedness and redemption of all time.

The "present" in the eucharist is determined by the past of which it is a memorial and that memorial, in turn, is a pledge "of an advent completed from the future" (135). Christ subverted the notion of the past as something dead and gone, unchanging and inviolable, by his rising from death and thereby becoming for us also our future. The eucharist, therefore, "anticipates what we will be, will see, will love" (174). And this, Marion insists, must inform our understanding of all of time, every present moment as a gift of grace.

Thus Christian eucharistic practices disclose the ontological reflections Milbank provides. In particular, the eucharist is an event in which we, by our participation in it, confess that the past is not over and done with, but extends into the present and can be redeemed. And so, perhaps it is not merely our ritual actions that proclaim the Lord's death, but our very "eating and drinking" together as a community of reconciled and reconciling people by which the death of Christ is made present in the power of his resurrection. As Marion writes,

The Son took on the body of humanity only in order to play humanly the Trinitarian game of love; for this reason also, he loved 'to the end,' that is, to the Cross; in order that the irrefutable demonstration of the death and resurrection not cease to provoke us, he gives himself with insistence in a body and a blood that persist in each day that time imparts to us. (177)
The sacramental body of Jesus shared among his gathered Body, thereby, completes this Trinitarian game lived out humanly, as Marion writes, "The sacramental body completes the oblation of the body, oblation that incarnates the Trinitarian oblation" (178).

And eucharist is given first and foremost for consumption, but an eating in which, as Augustine saw, we do not assimilate the food into ourselves, but this food assimilates us into it, transforming us into the one whom we eat. Thus, when the Corinthian Christians gathered as a divided people, each looking to his or her own selfish desires, St Paul commented that their gathering was not the Supper of the Lord, but a betrayal of it in its refusal to incarnate the Trinitarian oblation of which Marion speaks. The eucharist, then, is expressed in the subjunctive, denoting how the Spirit would have it be among us.

In this light, Jesus' teaching is all the more pressing, "if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Mt 5:23-24). Without such practiced reconciliation, how can we extend our hands in the eucharistic prayer and say, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"?

Well, writing fails me here, becoming more a source of conviction than explanation. It seems to me, in any case, that in embodying the Gospel sacramentally our liturgy not only manifests the ontology Milbank suggests, but also calls upon us to live it out by faith as those who already participate, through the Spirit and in Christ, within the very life of our eternally (for)giving God.

Posted by joel garver at January 26, 2004 10:35 AM


as I read your comments here, I'm thinking about large scale, long-standing greivances such as the Nazi holocaust, or, closer to home, the american settlers displacement and sometimes slaughter of the existing inhabitants. My reflection seems to run this way--if we start by thinking about guilt, we'll never find an acceptable way out. We cannot amend for earlier and greivous sins.

In Orson Scott Card's novel _Red Prophet_, a community which causes the mass slaughter of an Indian tribe is cursed from that time on so that each person has to tell the story of the slaughter to any stranger they meet. While have sympathy for this notion of perpetual confession, it fails to either restore those who have sinned or to right the wrong that was done.

However, in the forgiveness Jesus and Paul taught, it is the responsibility of the wronged paries to forgive. This seems to fit in with your notion of alteration of the past. Those who forgive within the church, it would seem, are able by God's grace to re-interpret the past, and so are those who are forgiven.

To go back a bit to the earlier discussion, I have no earthly idea of how a nation could obtain forgiveness from a wronged group, but at least I can picture how this might look within a congregation of believers.

Posted by: Paul Baxter at January 26, 2004 02:42 PM

Hello, my name is Dwight Scull and I have a Bachelors degree in Biblical Studies. I live in Colorado and have a wife and a son, no pets. I have been attending a Evangelical Quaker church for over two years.

I wanted to comment on two things in a very practical manner: 1)Psychology and the Church, and 2)reshaping the past through re-narration and remembrance.

I have noticed that the churches that I have attended have held to a forgiveness=forgeting model. I feel that this has led to many Christians to psychology because the church is asking them to do the impossible by forgetting trama, and sometimes very severe and deep trama in order to forgive that person. I will be interested to see how Radical Orthodoxy processes trama and how it recommends to churches how to help people actually forgive their abusers.

The second point actually builds off of the first. Some trama (here I am speaking specifically of abuse in all forms) become repressed, either totally blocked from memory or many of the details are blocked from one's memory. Because of these abuses the person's way of relating to others, self and God have been influenced in a negative way. Therapy has been used in order to help one remember and heal their interpretations of the past abuse. Thus allowing the person to change their relationship with others, self and God for the better. I firmly believe that the past can be changed by re-narrating it, although this will take time. I wonder if the Church is ready and willing to take the high road and enter into the pain of another to help him/her re-narrate their past and help him/her become closer to Christ?

I also do not see psychology as necessarily against Christianity. Partly because churches have abdicated the real needs of their people, so the people turned somewhere else to meet those needs. Granted, I also think that the church would be the best place for this need to be met.

I am open to any feedback or questions.

Posted by: Dwight Scull at January 26, 2004 03:52 PM

Thanks to both of you for your comments. They are helpful. I'll comment further perhaps as I some thoughts come together.

Posted by: garver at January 27, 2004 05:52 PM

Hello, my name is Patrick Coleman. I'm a professor of French at UCLA (specializing in the Enlightenment and thus often irritated by facile dismissals of "modernity" in many theological books) and an Episcopalian (of an Affirming Anglican Catholicism type).
First, an quick comment on reconciliation and Eucharist: Rowan Williams has a good essay on the older pre-eucharistic injunction to mutual forgiveness in the book "The Future of Anglican Worship" (IIRC)

Posted by: Patrick Coleman at January 30, 2004 11:17 PM

This may be to introduce another topic, but my problem with Milbank's brilliant book has to do with whether his "privative" view of evil is fully compatible with Scripture, where, it seems, evil (or at least resistance to good) is part of the landscape very early on--see the comments in e.g. John Goldingay's recent OT Theology. I understand that other people have questioned the relation of RO to the Bible, and perhaps he has responded to it. Milbank also says somewhere that we already live in Paradise, we just don't know it. Maybe I'm not eschatologically-minded enough, but this sounds a bit fanciful to me.

Posted by: Patrick Coleman at January 30, 2004 11:25 PM

The privative view of evil is one that grows out of reflection upon creational trinitarianism. If God is goodness and love and the creator of all things, then all things insofar as they exist must be good. Thus, evil must be a privation and without ontological purchase. Milbank assumes, rather than argues for, Augustine's perspective and reasoning here, reasoning which grew out of, it seems to me, Augustine's encounter with Scripture.

Much of RadOx's relationship with Scripture is mediated through the assumption that such reflections as already settled, though Milbank does engage Scripture much more directly in Being Reconciled than previously (though still not unproblematically, in my opinion).

As for the remark about living in Paradise now (but not realizing it), isn't that a paraphrase from Elder Zosima in Brothers Karamazov?

Posted by: garver at January 31, 2004 12:58 PM

I’m probably all over the map here, but I deeply appreciate your openness and receptiveness, so here goes.

When speaking of Christian notions of reconciliation and forgiveness, I wonder if it would be useful to contrast two distinct but intertwined orders of reality: the supernatural and the natural. If so, I think that it is notable that, with the exception of the saints, one does not hear of forgiveness and reconciliation among the denizens of the supernatural order. One does not generally talk about forgiveness among the persons of the Trinity, for instance.

And in the demonic sphere of the supernatural order, forgiveness is a vanished possibility. Evil, which is the state of affairs in this domain, is experienced as an absence, a state of exile, partly, I suspect, because it is a state of permanent rebellion against reconciliation and, thus, forgiveness.

But evil appears to be experienced differently in the natural order, where it is a tormenting presence. Here, I think, the Gospel of Mark gives some interesting cues. A culture obsessed with purity is besieged by the visitation of demons. These visitants appear to see with a preternatural clarity, a clarity denied Jesus’s followers and human enemies; but this clarity, curiously enough, begins and ends with recognition. It understands nothing else, and submits peremptorily to Jesus’s power and authority. Perhaps there is a form of ontological self mutilation bound up in their self circumscription. For them, perhaps, the narrative is closed, complete. It can only be repeated, not continued.

In Mark 1:24 the man with the unclean spirit suddenly speaks not in a single but in a plural voice. This is a person under siege and his power to speak is also claimed by his usurper. “[H]e cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’” Jesus commands him to be quiet and orders him to leave the man. Going out of the man with a loud cry, he is reduced to inarticulateness the moment he is banished from the natural order. His departure is disruptive and is signified by convulsions. It is a moment of tumult in both the supernatural and natural orders, a parodic repetition, it seems to me, of Mark 1: 11-12. Evil spirits, I suppose, are restive in the natural world. They may occupy the natural order but they are not at peace here. Their presence is phenomenologically unstable, a kind of ontological estrangement in the natural order.

This unsettledness makes me wonder whether the Christian vision of forgiveness and reconciliation extend throughout all of creation –a seed, as it were, germinating at the moment of its coming-into-being – or whether it is a privilege, located specifically in the human sphere of the natural order. My response is to suggest that it is a gift for humanity. Furthermore, when we practice it, we participate in the form of Divine love “reserved,” as it were, for humanity. And we thereby participate in the work of salvation. Finally, I suspect that if the Eucharist is not the sacramental expression of forgiveness per se, it is, at some level, the sign of our intimate union with transformative agency available only to us through the sacrifice of Christ.

Posted by: John Koontz at January 31, 2004 09:10 PM