January 31, 2004

(More) Memory, RadOx Agency, Scripture and the Sciences

It does indeed seem as if a richer and more nuanced understanding of memory goes a long way toward making room for constructive theological engagement with forgiveness, for figuring out nitty-gritty hands-on aspects of forgiveness, as well as living sacramentally throughout our lives.

Of course, memory is not just a tool for forgiveness (or the eucharist, or anything else); memory and forgiveness are interrelated in a number of ways. Hauerwas talks about the importance of forgiveness for memory:

To be capable of remembering we must be able to forgive, for without forgiveness we can only forget or repress those histories that prove to be destructive or at least unfruitful. But Christians and Jews are commanded not to forget, since the very character of their community depends on their accepting God’s forgiveness and thus learning how to remember, even if what they must remember is their sin and unrighteousness. (Stanley Hauewas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981], 69.)

Avishai Margalit, in The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), helpfully complicates the matter by appreciating the importance of some forgetting, while describe forgiveness as more than simply erasure. This is how I drew on Margalit in my thesis--using him in a way which reflects my sense of RadOx participation, I think:

This is not to say that there is no place for forgetting within forgiveness, but that forgiveness does include remembrance and does not call simply for forgetfulness. The relation of forgetting to forgiveness is far more complicated. It is impossible to will oneself to forget; calling attention to the need to forget something tends to underscore that something in our memory. [Margalit, 201-2. Margalit offers a detailed explanation of this idea and notes that a judge can ask that the jury disregard a piece of information (for their decision-making) rather than forget that information.] However it is possible involuntarily to forget something, provided that we have focused enough energy and attention elsewhere that the original concern no longer drives our imagination. Avishai Margalit explains that forgiveness involves first remembering--actively engaging with pain, anger, fear, hope, and faith--and then forgetting--after having restored the relationship to its prior wholeness in such a way that it is not perpetually altered by the initial offense. [Margalit, 203-4] This forgetting, which is an indirect result of remembering and reforming one’s imagination and relationship, covers up offenses, but does not blot them out. God alone can blot out our offenses [Margalit, 206]; God alone has blotted out, erased, and ultimately forgotten our offenses already; but only God can eternally forget in a way which also eternally remembers. When we come to live in God’s kingdom, we will learn how to live in God’s complete forgiveness. Meanwhile, we can learn to participate in that forgiveness, partially, and through hope, by means of intentional remembering which might, sometimes, lead to unintentional forgetting. We can cover over our wounding and woundedness with the remembering of our forgiven-ness. [Margalit, 197-200] Such remembering calls us to re-member ourselves as the body of Christ, thereby reordering woundedness and love, reinterpreting offenses in the light of God’s grace and love, and forgiving each other as witnesses to the forgiveness of Christ which constitutes our membership in Christ’s body.

RadOx Agency--A Reminder
Margalit is not a member or representative of Radical Orthodoxy, nor am I. In fact, of course, there is no organization or doctrine of RadOx. I hope that in this forum I can manage to come across as pointing to some connections I find interesting, rather than perpetuating the (mistaken but prevalent) notion that RadOx is a party, with a platform and policy statements. If anyone is going to answer questions about what RadOx might say about this or that, if anyone is going to claim agency to propose what a RadOx approach might be to any of the myriad of issues those publishing under the RadOx publication series having yet addressed, it’s going to be people like us, in conversations like this one. And then, other members of such conversations can weigh in and agree or disagree with how much our propositions seem recognizably Radical Orthodox, recognizably helpful, and recognizably whatever other priorities we are bringing to bear.

This is, in part, a very initial response to Dwight, whose comment wonders what RadOx does with trauma, and to Patrick’s comment which raises the question about Milbank’s (inadequate?) connections to Scripture. I’d like to make a distinction between, on the one hand, a bibliographic and and critical interest in what RadOx authors may or may not have said about particular issues and how they may have made explicit scriptural connections to those arguments, and, on the other hand, a constructive and and engaging interest on our part, which investigates how what strikes us about RadOx might color, challenge, alter, or enhance our most pressing theological concerns and practices.

Scripture and the Sciences
Short answers:
Trauma. I’m not sure if any RadOx authors have written on trauma in the way you are asking, Dwight. I might look at some of Milbank’s recent musings about the impossibility of pacifism and the participatory role we play when we observe violence (see “Violence: Double Passivity” in Being Reconciled; and “Christian Peace: A Conversation Between Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank” in Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology, eds, Kenneth R. Chase & Allan Jacobs, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003.)

Milbank and Scripture: I guess I’m most interested in questions about how Milbank and others are scriptural, rather than whether. He certainly knows Scripture (can and does cite extensively from memory). Might we want him to be more explicit about this more often? Probably so. Certainly it would be easier to agree and disagree with him on some points if he were. Is the privative view of evil (along with the Trinity, and creation ex-nihilo) “fully compatible with Scripture”? Well, much of the church has thought so, but then, much of the church has held different (richer?) views of scriptural interpretation than what gets the most press today. I’m certainly open to a conversation thread that draws RadOx into the topic of scriptural interpretation and authority, if anyone else is.

The Other Sciences: Patrick and John M. begin discussions about the relationship between theology and the other sciences. Patrick talks about possible intersections between psychology and the work of the church (in addressing trauma); John speaks of a “metrics of charity” model for discerning such intersections. Milbank has recently been heard to comment, somewhat defensively and frustratedly, that he didn’t mean for Theology and Social Theory to rule out theology’s engagement with the other sciences, and I gather some of his current interests include anthropology and politics. If discernment is the way to go, then I wonder if we are back to earlier (and ongoing) questions about the relationship/tension between Hauerwas and Milbank (on the role of the church in concert with and/or as distinct from other communities) and the particulars of living out eucharistic participation.

Posted by Margaret at January 31, 2004 09:55 PM

Regarding memory and forgiveness,

this seems to be complicated (to say the least) in biblical theology. If God can say to us that our sins will be cast away and remembered no more, then what is the point of something like Psalm 78, a lengthy and not too pleasant look at Israel's history focussing on her sins. Or, perhaps even more difficult, Jesus statement to the pharisees that all the blood of the martyred prophets would fall on them.

I don't know if I'm bold enough to ask questions about how God remembers and what He remembers, but I think the question of what we, as Christians in our own day, should remember is one we try to avoid as much as possible. What should we, in the US, be saying about slavery and the church, or do we need to have something to say? What about more recent immigrants?

Given the essentially unrooted character of life in the US, just trying to figure out what "our" history is seems baffling. Are we free to define history individually?

(These questions are really just occuring to me now, so I apologize if they seem scattered/unformed/uninformed)

Posted by: Paul Baxter at February 1, 2004 03:38 PM