(Neil, again). Well, at least for my posts, shall we say that today is Miroslav Volf Day? The Christian Century has an excerpt of the Yale theologian’s new book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. Professor Volf asks us if we imagine that we will continue to remember all the wrongs that we have committed and suffered in the world to come. He answers that we should not. Does that seem unjust? Volf says that evil is nothing – just nothing – and evil is only overcome when it is returned to the position of nothingness. Evil, then, must be ultimately forgotten. Volf quotes Kierkegaard: “To forget is to take back into nothing.” And Volf paraphrases the great Karl Barth, “‘To the past and to oblivion‘ is where God’s word consigns das Nichtige, that great destructive ’something’ that is also properly nothing.”
I’ve already posted from Volf’s earlier book, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a World Stripped of Grace. There we learned that God does not “reckon sin” (Rom 4:8; Ps 32:1-2), he “covers” it (Ps 32:1; Rom 4:7), placing our wrongdoing “behind his back” (Is 38:17), removing our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps 103:12), “blotting” it out (Is 43:25), “sweeping it away … like mist” (Is 44:22), and refusing to even remember our faults (Is 43:25; Jer 31:34; Heb 8:12, 10:17). This is not the painless and cheap result of divine insouciance, but, rather, “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10).
But still, does the nonremembrance of sin seem unjust?
Here is Volf discussing this difficult question in his latest book (towards the end, Volf, a Protestant, might also give us a more ecumenical way to imagine purgation after death):
But, some may protest, justice demands that we remember eternally, and that is reason enough to remember. “Forget the past and it will be as if it never happened,” is the advice of the evil Mephistopheles to Faust after he has abandoned Marguerite, or, as he often calls her, Gretchen. Even if Gretchen and Faust were to reconcile and to inhabit a world of love, would it not be in some deep sense unjust toward both of them for nonremembrance to make Faust’s abandonment “never to have happened”? He, the wrongdoer, would be thought of as though he were innocent, and she, the wronged, would be thought of as though she had not been harmed. The offense would have then been completely dissociated from the offender, and its harm would have been completely dissociated from the one who was offended. Would this not falsify their relationship? Would not this falsification be unjust—unjust to Faust and distressingly unjust to Gretchen? By what right would we detach the wrongdoing even from a judged, repentant and transformed wrongdoer?
But that is exactly what forgiveness does! For herein lies the essence of Christian forgiveness: On account of his divinity, Christ could and did shoulder the consequences of human sin; so the penalty for wrongdoing can be detached from wrongdoers. And since on account of his humanity Christ could and did die on behalf of sinners, they, in effect, died when he died; so guilt can be detached from wrongdoers.
When we forgive those who have wronged us, we make God’s miracle of forgiveness our own. Echoing God’s unfathomable graciousness, we decouple the deed from the doer, the offense from the offender. We blot out the offense so it no longer mars the offender. That is why the nonremembrance of wrongs suffered crowns forgiveness.
It is important to get right the process by which we let go of memories of wrongs suffered. Such letting go is an act of grace, and it must be governed by the logic of grace. Faust the wrongdoer could never step into the paradise of nonremembrance on his own. Neither could he demand of Gretchen free passage. He can only beg to be admitted to the paradise from which the affliction of memory has been removed, can only cast himself completely on her mercy.
But Gretchen could give Faust the gift of admittance—and thereby translate both him and herself out of the world marked by transgression and into a world of love and felicity. What’s more, it is my hope that she will give this gift to Faust, if they both find each other in the forecourt of that world of love.
Will someone force her not to remember? If she gives that gift, she will give it as all good gifts are given—voluntarily and joyfully. God will give her a new self made into a perfect dwelling place for the gift-giving and sin-bearing God—and it is through the power of that God that she will joyfully pass on to Faust God’s gift of forgiveness and nonremembrance. Having found her proper self in God, who is love, she will flourish by doing what God’s love does through her—forgive, reconcile, and no longer think of the injury.
Will there be monuments to Hiroshima in the world to come? To the rape of Nanking and to Mao’s brutalities? To Stalin’s purges and the ravings of the Khmer Rouge? To the slaughter of indigenous populations by European colonialists? Will both victims and perpetrators gather around these monuments to commemorate this bloody history, while thanking God for delivering them from it? Maybe. But if so, would the world to come still be the world of perfect love and undiluted joy?
If we should remember wrongs suffered, then we must remember all wrongs—each misdeed of every person, not only notorious atrocities and public crimes but also all the private misdeeds committed under the protection of impenetrable darkness and hidden behind the veil of silence, not only egregious private offenses but also all the trifling and infuriating nastiness—gossip, half-truths, slights and more—that pervades every interaction. It would be hypocritical and unfair to remember the wrongs of great public offenders but not the wrongs the rest of us perpetrated.
So if in the world to come we will remember wrongs suffered, then, given that by definition all will be fair there, we will remember every evil deed and thought that at the Last Judgment was recorded, brought to light, condemned and then forgiven!
With the whole history of each inhabitant of the world to come—small and great sinners alike—permanently bathed “in the field of total visibility,” would we not wish for some shadows and hiding places to which to retreat from the unbearable assault that our own and others’ memory of our wrongdoings would represent? Would we not exclaim, “If this supposed world of perfect love and felicity is such a horrid place of unceasing exposure of all forgiven sins, then I prefer a modest lifespan in our world as it is, where, for all of its grave problems, I can at least enjoy the blessing of knowing that not all of my sins are universally known and perpetually exposed.” Indeed, with this kind of world to come as a prospect, one can understand why Gilles Deleuze, a fierce critic of Christianity who operated with some such vision of heaven, would rather burn in the lake of sulfur than stroll along the golden streets.
Do we not long to be accepted as we are, warts and all, someone may protest? Could not the world of perfect love be just such a world in which we are loved notwithstanding all of our imperfections? We do long to be accepted unconditionally. But we also want others to see past our warts and to concentrate on what is beautiful about who we are. I hope that both of these longings will be satisfied. At the transition from the world as it is to the world to come, all of our imperfections will be known, and we will be loved nonetheless—and therefore forgiven, reconciled, transformed. And then in the world of perfect love we will shine in all of our beauty, our warts completely cured.