Memory, monuments and faith

  • August 19, 2013
Memory, monuments and faith

When I mention that I study memory in theology, the most common response is for my interlocutors to ask about the things they routinely forget – from quotidian activities to birthdays. And at this point, I have to clarify a bit. The Abrahamic religions use frequently the verb “to remember” originating from the same Semitic root. This is a non-standard usage of the word; one recalls or commemorates the actions of sacred history not simply as events of the past, but in order to participate in the encounters with God that those events narrate. For instance, the recollection of the Passover for many religious practitioners is their very spiritual participation in the one Exodus to freedom. Similarly, Eucharistic rites are not historical re-enactments of the last supper of Jesus with his apostles, but, for many Christians, these rites are a way of participating in that very event. “To remember” in this sense, is to experience as present again, and in an ongoing manner, some aspect of God. Remembering a scriptural text, for instance, is less an exercise of citing chapter and verse than one of participation. The literary scholar Erich Auerbach, in Mimesis, makes this point famously by comparing Scripture to Homer: “Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, [Scripture] seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.” This understanding of memory helps to open up religious practice, particularly to non-practitioners.

I encountered this most recently with a group of North American theologians in Israel and Palestine. In the course of one day, this group of academics was able to visit three seemingly ordinary sets of stones which comprise some of the most fraught real estate in all of the world: the Foundation Stone in the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, and Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Each of these stones, in its own way important to one or more of the Abrahamic faiths, might simply be considered a monument or a marker. Yet, to encounter those who pray in each of those places is to realise that the stone is far less important than the reality in which the ones praying are participating. The monument itself is a contested marker of history – guidebooks spill extra ink deliberating whether or not a location might be the precise spot of a long-ago historical reality. But the monument is also a place where religious memory is lived. Prayer at the base of the Foundation Stone is appropriately directional, interestingly away from the rock itself and toward Mecca. At the Western Wall, men and women unroll and recite the words of Scripture, living themselves the reality of the desert, the liberation, the tribes, and the kingdoms. And, at Golgotha, the six earliest sectors of Christianity, each in its own way, relive the self-sacrifice of one man who promises them mercy and eternal life. Each prayer is an exercise of memory, not for the purpose of living in another time, but in order to relate to God in the present once again.

Memory, as it turns out, links together physical sites, religious texts, and the practices that form and shape both individuals and collectives in the present. These ongoing commemorations comprise the broadest and most enduring practices of believers. They provide a hermeneutic that resists reducing religion to violence, power, or conquest, and instead open up the most foundational aspect of the Abrahamic religions that undergirds not only conflict and violence, but forgiveness, community, and the disposition of hope. A phenomenology of the religious life accounts for how it is that one prays. In three major faith traditions of our world, that action of prayer involves a powerful movement to memory.

*Kevin Grove [2011] is doing a PhD in Divinity.

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