Book Review: The End of Memory

I have heard Miroslav Volf’s name several time and have seen his books at the bookstore, but this was my first attempt at one of his works. To say that I was impressed with this book would be an understatement. He is a very talented and gifted theologian who has much to offer our world and whose background is unique enough to ensure him a listening audience.

In The End of Memory, Volf intertwines theological and philosophical reflection on violence, memory, and reconciliation with his own personal struggles through the same in the former Yugoslavia. His book treats subjects which will become more and more significant as the voice of the oppressed become vocalized. He doesn’t wrestle so much with the forgiveness aspect (something that has probably been dealt with more frequently), but instead deals with what may be even more complicated – do we forget?

Philosophically he deals much with Nietzsche and Freud, theologically he is refers Kierkegaard and Dante, and personally he has much interaction with the Czech soldiers who submitted him to hours and hours of interrogations and psychological torture.

How are we to remember those who have wronged us? It is this biting question that Volf comes at head on. With his own personal experience lingering over the entire volume, he resists the urge to de-humanize the discussion. No, suffering and wrongdoing necessitate suffered and those wronged. Feelings of confusion, revenge, and hate are always only a breath away. How do we treat these feelings? What are there place in God’s kingdom?

While drawing much from Freud and Nietzsche, Volf is also quick to point out there shortcomings (Nietzsche’s fatalism and Freud’s narcissism), though, Volf takes the good with the bad (something many other theologians could learn from) and uses them as jumping off points.

Having had some time to reflect upon this really unique work, I would best describe it as a theological extrapolation of St. John of the Cross’ “Dark Night of the Soul.” Volf wrestles with many of the same kinds of emotions and struggles, and ends up at the same beginning place that St. John does – suffering wrongdoing forces us to wrestle with our own frailty and sin. It is quite the uncomfortable place to be.

His study culminates in reflecting upon the place of memory considered eschatologically – how will God remember the wrongs done to us? For to remove the memory of wrongs done, is to remove the ills suffered by the those afflicted. He finds the answer in Dante’s take on the place of memory in Paradiso.

In the highlight chapter of his work, chapter nine fleshes out Dante’s understanding of the place of memories of wrongs in the afterlife. His take: “We must reconcile – we must name the wrongdoings that were committed, we must agree about their nature, we must forgive and receive forgiveness, and we must affirm to each other the goodness of our being there together.” (p. 181)

This was one of the better books I have read this year. It is a challenging read, don’t get me wrong, but he succeeds at making this subject accessible to the non-academic (as opposed to Exclusion and Embrace, which I am reading now, not nearly as accessible). There are many side discussions and stories that keep one’s interest, in addition to being unique and dynamic in its presentation.

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