Memory and Hope – An Initial Project Overview
Memory occupies an important part in the religious life, because it is an important aspect of our individual and collective selves. In some way, talking about memory is talking about what one considers most important in one’s tradition. For religions to share their view of memory and how it operates in their religious lives is a means of sharing fundamental views of the religious life and key strategies and approaches to the spiritual life. This is an important conversation and one that suggests mature sharing between practitioners and seekers of diverse religions.
There is a further dimension to memory. Memory is an asset, in that it recalls what is most important in our spiritual life, but in some contexts it is also a burden, or a problem, or a challenge one must contend with, precisely as one seeks to advance towards the goals of a religious tradition. Our religious traditions are complex entities. They include the highest spiritual and moral teachings; they are also the reservoirs of the memories and imprints of the entire range of human realities that religions, as social realities, have manifested in their histories. This includes, among other things, the history of tension between competing religious groups, the imprint of trauma inflicted in the name of religion and the recollection of the various ways in which religion and violence have been related to one another throughout human religious history.
The present project focuses on memory with awareness of the dual dimensions of memory, but what drives it is the recognition that problematic memory must be confronted in the framework of interreligious engagement. As heirs to traditions, we receive not only their finest spiritual teachings, but also the residue of resentment, hatred and negative view of the other, born of the religious hostility of yesteryear. This hostility still festers and to some degree or another, consciously or subconsciously, at surface level or at a deeper and more hidden level, impacts the views of one religious group towards the other today. We have witnessed enormous advances in interreligious relations over the past decades. Yet our traditions continue to bear witness to painful memories, at times kept alive by present-day hostility, and these must be dealt with, as we seek to advance relations between different religious communities. Not dealing with memories means we keep something poisonous in our system. Unchecked and untreated, it will either come to the fore at a later point in time or will impact other members of our faith community. Our painful and negative memories, born of situations of religious violence, require treatment, if we are to continue advancing along the path of interreligious friendship and harmony.
John Paul II has coined the term purification of memory. This term suggests that our memories need to be revisited and purified, so that their negative impact is removed. While this notion has broader application, it is particularly relevant to interreligious relations. Recognizing this need, our think tank has attempted to grapple with the problem of difficult memories in the framework of interreligious relations. The problem obviously looks different from the perspective of each religion. The specific memories that are carried, the particular wounds that have been inflicted by a religious other, will vary from one tradition and its particular history to another. But more fundamentally, each tradition configures memory differently. The sources of authority are different, the challenges are different and the tools that each tradition makes available for dealing with our problem are accordingly different as well. Recognizing a common need and common ground in dealing with these questions, we also recognize there is great diversity and complementarity in how we go about approaching our difficult memories. We need to acknowledge this diversity for two reasons. The first is because we need to consider what is required or possible for each tradition, as a way of gaining better understanding of one another. The second is that we may be able to share strategies, drawing from each other’s wisdom, despite differences in how our traditions are configured.
It may be that the two aspects of memory noted above are both relevant to healing or purifying memory. It may be that in order to purify historical memory each tradition must turn to the highest form of memory it recognizes, the memory of its highest values, as a way of balancing and reorienting perspectives that are informed by the vicissitudes and vagaries of politics, history and social realities. Most of our papers have suggested points of contact between these two dimensions of memory, though the exploration of the former dimension of memory has not been systematically undertaken in all papers. Strategies for purification of memory may be put forward even without appeal to what a tradition considers its highest memorial values.
In an important way this project is about sharing memory, following on the heels of earlier projects that focused on sharing wisdom and sharing friendship. By “sharing memory” I refer to the two senses above – sharing what memory is for each tradition and what obstacles to good interreligious relations memory presents. But there is a third sense as well. As several of our papers suggest, an important strategy for clearing through past and present tension is the sharing of memory itself, or simply put – dialogue. We are in the business of dialogue and we seek to provide theory for how the broader project of interfaith dialogue might advance in meaningful ways. The suggestion of several of our authors is that dialogue should include a dialogue over actual conflicting memories. This comes up in Rambachan’s paper, as well as those of Sendor, Keshkegian, Von Brueck and is implicit in the presentations of Umar and Gill. Religious communities will always understand their actions in light of what they consider to be noble principles. And yet, where there is religious violence, different communities may view the same events or circumstances in conflicting ways. Sharing each other’s perceptions of the same events or realities is itself a process of dialogue. The present project showcases moments of pain in inter-group relations. These moments of pain invite a sharing as part of their healing and as a strategy for addressing memory and the havoc it may continue to wreak in our lives.
Sharing memory itself raises an important issue – the status of truth in relation to memory. Does sharing memory open the way to a truthful retrieval of memory or is the importance of such sharing in making room for pain and trauma, without necessarily revising our view of memories and their truthfulness. This is a question to which we will have to pay attention on a case by case basis. It seems that our authors are not of one mind on this issue and the difference may be less a matter of principle than a function of the different situation that each one of them addresses. One thing is certain – sharing involves trust. Sincere dialogue involves trust. And sharing in trust can itself create positive dynamics that offset the negative impact of destructive memories.
Considering the question of truth leads to some fundamental discussions that relate to memory and truth. Several of our authors make us realize that it is wrong to think of memory as something fixed, given, static, that is simply passed on from generation to generation. There is no objective memory, and as one of our authors suggests, it may be better to speak of remembering as an active process, rather than of memory as something fixed and given. If so, past and present mingle in rich and complicated ways. The past is seen and appreciated in terms of the present and its needs. One of the primary needs that memory serves is identity construction. Indeed, memory conflicts often revolve around identitarian needs and sharing memory is therefore a strategy for affirming and legitimating the other in his or her particular identity.
What we remember involves some selection and what is selected and how it is remembered is in accordance with the perspective of the present. This is as much a part of the problem as it is a part of the solution. If we grant that it is impossible to simply speak of memory with full objectivity, this opens up for us the possibility of bringing the present to bear on memory. The various strategies offered in our papers may be seen as ways of doing so. Not least of these is the affirmation of dialogue and sharing of memory as a way of revisiting memory and offering it a new, present-based context. While this does not mean that we can never speak of truthful memory or seek to recapture some events or some historical moments as they were, it does call upon us to be considerate in our quest for truth. Not only may it not always be possible; in a certain sense it may not even be the most important thing we are after.
One of the upshots of this recognition of the fluidity of memory, its malleability in the history of a tradition, is that we may not need to limit reference to memory to past events, relying on their historical accuracy. If memory is important for the dynamic of remembering and for the impact this has on our lives, and if remembering can be subject to dynamic processes of revisiting in a movement of healing and transformation, we might be able to consider a broader range of phenomena as being remembered. What is the status of remembering imaginary realities, that is: realities that exist only by virtue of faith, but with no clear historical correspondent? Our discussion of Buddhism below will make the case that this is also to be included within the range of memory and its operations. Or consider the future. Moving on the axis of time from past to future, what does it mean to remember a future? If there is a promise, a hope, an eschatological expectation, how does it reframe our understanding of the present? In theory, eschatological expectation might heighten interreligious tension, as it affirms the supremacy of one tradition over another. But situating the present in light of the future can also open up resources that help revisit tensions of the present in view of a more harmonious future that is remembered in the present.
All this leads us to hope. Our project has two foci – memory and hope. Truth be told, when announcing the focus on hope we had not anticipated how closely related it could be to the challenges of memory in interreligious relations. As we at Elijah are working on the creation of an interreligious center called the Center of HOPE (acronym for House of Prayer and Education), we thought it would be useful to introduce the theme of hope into our discussions as an introduction to a contemporary project. It turns out that hope and memory are much more closely related. To begin, we note that our project takes us along the axis of past-present-future. If the past is represented by memory, the future is represented by hope. Between the two is the present moment, drawing on both balancing, competing and conflicting forces.
Hope has emerged as relevant to our concerns in other ways. If our goal is to liberate memory, to heal and purify it, we are in fact seeking to remove obstacles that exist along the path of interreligious relations. Every such liberation, every such opening, brings hope to situations that seemed to be hopeless. Hope is affirmed in our ability to move beyond trauma, past pain, beyond conflict. Hope is affirmed in the very recognition that our memories are not fixed, but always open to interpretation, to restatement, to new perspectives. Hope is not simply the passive waiting for circumstances to change from the outside, but the hard won efforts of bringing about transformation in our traditions and overcoming those places where they seem to be locked, beyond hope, into negative views of the other. Ultimately, hope is the fulfillment and realization of the higher goals of our tradition. If our collective memory brings to us the higher ideals of our tradition and the pained memories of our tradition’s interactions with others, hope lies in fulfilling the higher ideals of our tradition in the very arena that had been given to conflict and disharmony previously. Our higher ideals inspire us and give us hope that they may be realized even in the domain of conflicted memory.
Following this synthesis of what our project is about, I would like to offer a summary of each of the papers, representing six faith traditions. The composite picture above draws from all six papers and describes the project in its entirety, on a theoretical level. None of our papers covers all the aspects described above. All of them explore memory and the challenges of viewing memory in situations of conflict, in most cases – religious conflict. Some ground this in the higher memory that their tradition calls for; some leave the point implicit. Some ground it explicitly in a view of hope; others are implicit on the point. Some focus on the very problematic nature of memory itself; others seek to retrieve truth. In presenting the papers, I shall group them according to two key questions that enable clustering the papers around sub-themes. The first theme is the fluidity and malleability of memory – this subject is treated explicitly in the papers by Meir Sendor and Florea Keshgegian. A second cluster explores how a tradition’s higher spiritual memory can serve as a resource for revisiting painful and conflicting memories. Here we note the contributions by Anantand Rambachan and Rahuldeep Singh Gill. It is already noteworthy that the Jewish and Christian contributions approach memory from a theoretical and critical perspective that calls into question its stability, while the Hindu and Sikh contributions approach memory with an eye to concerns of metaphysics and spirituality. This may say something about the traditions, and not only about the authors’ preferences. Judaism and Christianity are strongly historical traditions, and therefore revisiting the very nature of memory in a critical way is a means of moving beyond the dead end of pained memories. Hinduism is much less historical in its consciousness (though the same may not hold true for its younger offshoot). Concerns of spirituality are prominent for both traditions. The papers by Muhamad Suheyl Umar and Michael von Brueck and Maria Reis-Habito occupy a middle ground. Umar combines a vision of memory and spirituality with an attempt to tackle problems of truthful memory. Because his paper assumes retrieval of truthful memory is possible, at least under the circumstances described in his paper, he can integrate concerns of spirituality with a view of addressing memory in one corrective move. Von Brueck too considers the higher functioning of memory, but does so in a theoretical framework that is aware of the fluidity of memory. Here, a theory of memory combines with a spiritual view of memory (Buddhist), that itself stretches memory beyond the range of conventional discussion. Moving then between the complementary foci of theoretical discussions and spiritual resources, I shall now offer summaries of the papers in the order just presented. After presenting the individual papers, I will not attempt to draw together insights from the papers suggesting common recognitions. The summary above already suggests a good measure of accord, while highlighting some fundamental differences as well. Rather, at the end of this collection I shall offer a common case study, that brings to bear assumptions and strategies that have been learned from the various traditions.
Meir Sendor’s The Malleability of Collective Memory in Jewish Tradition
The title of Meir Sendor’s article focuses our attention on the essential contribution of his paper. “The Malleability of Collective Memory in Jewish Tradition” takes for granted that memory is not fixed, nor is it factual in a fundamental positivist sense. Memory is malleable and is transformed in light of the present. If this is true for all memory, this is particularly so for collective memory, the subject of Sendor’s presentation, focusing on how Jewish collective memory addresses painful memories and its own view, from the victim’s side, of a history of oppression. Reference to “Jewish tradition” also suggests dynamism and the possibility of interpretation, as these take place within tradition. Reference to tradition implicitly points to the present as a link in the chain of tradition and to our task to craft memory in light of the present and its concerns and needs.
Sendor frames his discussion with reference to memory and interreligious hostility. Victimhood can fuel hostility. There is a need to advance interreligious relations. Perhaps more significantly, there is an internal need (which can be justified psychologically or even religiously) to be freed of attitudes of fixation on victimhood and the ensuing attitudes of resentment and exclusion. To attain these ends, Sendor walks us through theoretical discussions of memory and how these shed light on Jewish practices of remembering, which in turn can serve as contemporary resources. Given the centrality of memory in Jewish consciousness, and especially memory of suffering and victimhood ritualized in prayer and key festivals, how does one go about developing a theory of memory that does not keep a Jewish mentality fixed in a mental space of victimhood and isolation?
Sendor’s work relies on several theoreticians of memory. The first part of his presentation is a discussion of how collective memory works and the challenges and dynamics of transforming collective memory. Sendor relies on the work of Maurice Halbwachs who teaches us that all memory is a social act. “The past is not preserved but is reconstructed on the basis of the present”. This axis of past and present forms the backbone of Sendor’s presentation and lays the foundation for his constructive suggestions. The process of remembering is intrinsically related to the process of forgetting. Something is remembered, while something else is forgotten. Memory tells a story and the act of telling the story requires a selection, in light of criteria drawn from contemporary needs, concerns and values. The problem with constructing memory is that it can come at the expense of truthful remembering. Truthful remembering is needed for countering propaganda, but also for liberation from some of the negative consequences of fixation on negative memory, such as obsession and the desire for revenge.
Truthful remembering is itself a strategy, flagged here by Sendor, though not fully developed by him. He will return to it in his consideration of Israeli-Palestinian relations. This strategy also serves as the basis for Suheyl Umar’s presentation in the present collection. Sendor focuses his efforts more on dynamics of balancing memory and of balancing remembering and forgetting. Adjustment of religious collective memory involve authority, as it typically requires addressing the authority of scripture or tradition, that have carried forth memory up to the present. As Halbwachs suggests, authority must balance authority and therefore alternative religious authority from within tradition must be found in order to temper the negative impact of painful memories. Complementing Halbwachs’ discussion of transforming negative memory are theoretical discussions by Paul Ricoeur and others that teach us that remembering also involves forgetting and that therefore the “art of memory” is in some ways also the art of forgetting. The selectivity involved in constructing memory therefore of necessity also involves us in forgetting. Balancing memory within tradition and balancing remembering and forgetting are the two major strategies offered by Sendor. Whereas the former features multiple voices from the past, balanced in view of the present, the latter features the very juxtaposition of past and present and the attempt to endow the present with existential and spiritual weight equal to the burden of the past.
The first strategy is that of balancing memory. If memory is selective, we have the possibility of revisiting it with a view to establishing a new equilibrium, based on balancing alternative voices of tradition within our view of memory and its present command. The archetypal subjugation in Egypt is a case in point. Scripture, festivals and liturgy all impress upon us the memory of our subjugation in Egypt and ensuing liberation. However, the Torah’s view of the Egyptians is not exclusively as oppressors, but also as those who gave hospitality to Israel in the first place. Moving along the axis of time, Sendor notes that authoritative voices from later tradition can also temper unequivocal negative collective memories. Thus, Amalek, Israel’s biblical arch-enemy whose evil deeds we are commanded to remember, can be redeemed in some way, as we note in later tradition. The rabbis teach us that the grandchildren of Haman, of Amalekite descent, became converts and Torah scholars. Later authorities draw distinctions between individuals and the collective and above all – mystical resources affirming the power of love offer a vision that ultimately neutralizes the negativity of Amalek, urging those who can rise to such heights to engage in the work of its spiritual upliftment, seen in the light of divine love. Memory is transmuted, through authoritative practices of interpretation and the application of halachic and spiritual criteria that neutralize the negative view of the other or its practical consequences. Sendor refers to such mechanisms, following Halbwachs, as alternative memories that balance out that original negative memory. Perhaps it is better to term them “recollections”. These are in fact not competing memories of different historical moments or of complementary dimensions of the same moment, as in the case of slavery in Egypt, but the recollection of spiritual and legal principles that have their own authority and validation and that balance out the testimony of memory, carried through in history. If so, Sendor’s work opens us up to the possibility of memory operating in multiple dimensions. It operates in history – and this is the focus of his presentation. But it also operates in the spiritual domain, bringing to light essential principles that shape memory in the present. (For such applications of memory, see Sendor’s note no. 1, as well as the concluding discussion of the Rabbi of Gur). One might therefore consider some of the instances brought by Sendor as balancing memory of past with an alternative memory of past as further evidence for his second thesis of balancing past with present, when under present we consider the higher spiritual reality and not simply the testimony of the historical present moment.
Before moving on to detailing this strategy further, one notes an important move in Sendor’s presentation, that appeals to the eschatological dimension, the future. Part of the shift in how the past is viewed comes from the possibility of reading the past in light of the future. Biblical prophecies that downplay the memory of the past in light of what might be called a future memory allow us to contextualize and relativize the burden of past memory. In this way hope addresses memory. However, the significance of eschatological memory is only inasmuch as it is lived in the present, which brings us back to Sendor’s core strategy – confronting past memory with the present moment.
This strategy has in fact already been applied by some of the sources brought by Sendor, where Amalekites are judged by their present individual status, rather than by their collective affiliation, rooted in the past. The strategy is applied in individual relationships, where the prohibition of taking revenge is in fact an instruction to live in the present and forget the past. Such forgetting is understood by Maimonides as necessary for the well-being of society. Thus, the present and its needs mandate some forms of forgetting. Sendor develops this notion into a broader theory of the present. The idea is applied beyond the context of individual relations within the collective of Israel to inter-group relations, itself a significant move. He grounds it further in the example of Joseph, who deals with his brothers based on where they are “this day”. The present view is closely related to processes of repentance. Honest repentance allows one to live in the framework of the present, leading to forgiving. While forgiving may not be forgetting, it does provide the foundation for balancing present and past in a way that creates new balances also between remembering and forgetting. What is active and uppermost in our minds is the present, informed by repentance and redefined relations.
Sendor does not go as far as suggesting that the present and its social needs require letting go, in the name of a better future. Nor does he suggest that there are higher spiritual states that, when made present in our awareness, allow us to transcend all negativity engendered by painful memory. Such a view might arise from the wisdom of other traditions, as we shall shortly see. His view of the present balances the commanding force of memory with the power of transformation and redefining memory in light of the present, as this is mediated through movements of repentance and reconciliation. Repentance allows us to transform the painful memory of the past into a more harmonious present.
Sendor has offered us models for neutralizing what might be termed the tyranny of painful memory. Memory can be liberated because memory is malleable. His exercise allows us to take stock and then to apply those factors that have the power to transform memory and to which we might look as we seek to bring about such transformation. The factors are contained within tradition and its mechanisms, both in how the past is remembered and in how past is related to the present, in the life of the individual, and by extension in relations between collectives.
These foundations allow Sendor to explore how his understanding of memory might be applied to contemporary situations. He first looks at German-Israeli relations, post-holocaust. Normalization of relations is understood as consonant with the positive moderating role of the present and with the rabbinic principles of not over-generalizing past trauma and avoiding collective accusation. It is based on repentance and transformation of behavior, even if it does not assume forgiveness. Rather, normalization creates the space to acknowledge trauma and to work towards reconciliation.
The relationship of past and present is more complicated in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where roles of victim and perpetrator are not as well defined. The conflict is still ongoing, and therefore the tensions of present and past do not apply in the same way. There is a further significant complication here. Memory is a means of constructing identity. As Sendor teaches us, the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab conflict is not only about land or political rights; it is a struggle for identity. The stakes in memory relate directly to identity construction and recognition. Given the particularities of this situation, Sendor opts for another strategy, alluded to above – seeking truthful memory. This requires making room for one another’s narrative, rather than agreeing upon a joint narrative. Recognition that collective memory is never fixed provides the foundation for willingness to make room, and to a certain extent incorporate, the narrative of the other. However, Sendor notes asymmetry in the process, with most of the work along these lines having taken place on the Israeli side. Therefore, he proposes an alternative source of hope – common rituals of reconciliation. There may be enough common ground on other fronts to allow us to move forward by appeal to those rituals. Still, one wonders whether the application of such rituals can fully ignore the need to revisit memory on both sides. Put differently, Sendor considers the Israeli-Arab conflict essentially a political conflict and not a religious one. This is why he holds hope that religion can provide resources for reconcilliation.
Sendor hasn’t taken us this far, but we might offer the following insight in light of his work. Sendor lets us know how central memory is in the construction of identity, as witnessed in Jewish ritual and prayer. He also makes us aware of how the battle over memory between Israelis and Palestinians is, in fact, a battle over identity. Perhaps his strategy for shifting balances between past and present finds its greatest relevance precisely in the domain of identity. While appealing to memory is constitutive of identity, it is not the only means of establishing identity. Simply put, one may affirm the other’s identity simply because the other is, or the other requires one to recognize him or her in that particular identity. If so, shifting the emphasis from past to present strikes at the nexus of memory and violence precisely because it has the potential to liberate identity from its dependence on memory. Making room for the other in the deepest sense of affirming identity need not require buying into the other’s story or memory. If in the case of Israeli-German relations, processes of reconcilliation informed a present that provided a different context for viewing the past, in the case of Israeli-Palestinian relations, processes of peace-making might allow us to focus on the present and, in a different way, to make the memory of the past less relevant.
Let me conclude this summary of Sendor’s work by posing the question of where is hope found. We have already noted the eschatological dimension of hope, that reframes memory in light of the future. But it seems to me Sendor is making a more fundamental argument for hope. Hope lies in the liberation of memory. Hope lies in the capacity to reframe and revisit not only memory but our mechanisms of human behavior. Hope lies in our capacity to change. Hope lies in gestures, rituals and processes of transformation, repentance and reconciliation. Above all, hope lies in our recognition that we are never locked up in the memory of the past and the roles it casts us in. Rather, the past is always subject to the interpretation of the present and it is the present that opens up new possibilities. Whether we understand the present in mystical terms, in terms of improved human relations, or in terms of reformed human behavior – the present is different than the past. This present, understood in the fullness of its religious significance, is the source of our hope.
Flora Keshgegian’s Memory and Hope in Christianity
Flora Keshgegian’s “Memory and Hope in Christianity” shares many of the assumptions of Sendor’s paper, but she approaches the subject from a different methodological and ideological perspective. Her paper shares the assumption that memory is never fixed but something subject to transitions. This is why Keshgegian prefers to speak of “remembering”, rather than memory. Her analogy is to photographs. “Memory” assumes a photograph that is passed on in safety from one generation to the next. “Remembering” refers to a faded photograph, whose meaning is kept alive through the active process of remembering. Remembering is therefore active. Memory is always constituted in the present. Instability and change are fundamental to the process of remembering.
That remembering is an active process means there is no neutral or objective remembering. What is remembered is intrinsically related to the dynamics of the remembering community, and these in turn open up to political dimensions and perspectives of power. Remembering is, ultimately, a political action. Keshgegian offers a very helpful illustration for the changing dynamics of remembering and the significance of locating the perspective from which something is appreciated or remembered. A statue of the virgin Mary in New Mexico carries simultaneously the Spanish title “the Conqueror” and the English title “Our Lady of Peace”. The dual titles, clearly not translations of one another, present interesting challenges of how and what is remembered and who does the remembering. The dynamic nature of remembering, overlays, interpretation and shifting perspectives, all characterize and problematize the process of remembering and the content of memory. This corresponds, In a popular context, to the dynamics that Sendor describes in rabbinic interpretation.
Remembering provides Keshgegian with the opportunity to tell – to remember – the entire Christian story, from the very vantage point of memory and its relationship to shifting power dynamics. I note that this retelling takes on special meaning in the context of an interfaith conversation. It not only offers members of other faith traditions a condensed view of Christian history. That history is described in relation to some of the core concerns that have impacted Christianity’s relations with other religions, as these center on issues of power and its application, often involving abuse of power and inflicting of suffering to others.
Remembering the Christian story allows Keshgegian to revisit core tensions that touch upon Christianity’s positioning between Hebrew and Hellenic thought. The dynamic, narrative quality of Hebrew thought gives way to metaphysical thought, typical of Greek philosophy. How does this alter the content of memory? Memory largely gave way to the deposit of truth, the correct formulation of an eternal metaphysical reality. In the process, little remained of the historical Jesus, save for those points of contact with his person, required for the new metaphysical statement of truth.
Related to this new emphasis on what is remembered is also the question of who it is that does the remembering. Recognition that for most of its history the Church has been associated with empire is crucial to a recognition that the Church’s memory is largely that of the conqueror, the colonialist, the one who has power and who applies that power at the expense of others. In the process, other voices have been written out of history. This includes voices of forms of Christianity that did not conform to a “proper” theological or metaphysical view, as well as voices of various religious traditions that were taken over by conquering Christianity. Thus, Christian memory dominates the memory of others. Forms of Christianity that are dismissed as folk religion, or expressions of Christianity that relate to local cultures, should be re-owned as Christian remembering extends beyond the boundaries and control of power and authority structures. Recognizing power dynamics in the shaping of memory is an invitation to bring back to the theological table voices of the oppressed or powerless that may have previously not been given adequate hearing.
The work of purifying and retrieving memory is very particular in the case of Christianity. Keshgegian brings to our project the awareness that in considering dynamics of memory and their transitions, we cannot divorce these from issues of power and empowerment. Accordingly, the problem of dealing with painful memories will look very different from the side of the powerful or the disempowered, the conqueror and the conquered, and ultimately – from the side of the victim or the perpetrator. These dynamics must be owned if we are to consider memory a meaningful category and if we seek to apply it to inter-group relations. It is not simply that we must clear obstacles to contemporary relations that are posed by the accumulations of difficult memories. Rather, we must incorporate in our remembering an awareness of power considerations that allow both sides to acknowledge how power has been used. This reminder is especially necessary for Christianity, that for most of its history has been associated with power. Keshgegian does not hesitate to refer to the painful and bloody history of Christianity and to bring into the conversation the crusades, the inquisition and other aspects of Christian history that should be owned, especially in the framework of an interreligious conversation. Highlighting the relations of memory and power brings to our discussions an important dimension that invites all authors to take stock of how perspectives on memory in their tradition are impacted by considerations of power relations.
The dual themes of memory and hope come together in the second part of Keshgegian’s paper. Keshgegian invites us to consider what trauma is. For Christians, the archetypal trauma is the crucifixion. But the structure of her argument suggests that Christians too have inflicted trauma on others. How can trauma be incorporated within the framework of memory? The problem is that trauma takes us beyond the realm of a narrative we can make sense of. There is something inherently disruptive in trauma that cannot be accounted for in terms of meaning, logic and reasoning. Considering the fundamental Christian trauma, Keshgegian argues for the problematic attempt to simply make sense of the crucifixion in terms of a theory of sin and redemption. This scheme, all too often practiced in the history of Christianity and all too current in many forms of contemporary Christianity, domesticates the cross, and ultimately leads to a personalized and individualized form of salvation that is at great remove from the original collective vision of Christian redemption. Moreover, it obscures fundamental aspects of the life of Jesus and of his story – the incarnation, his mission and even the resurrection. These are often eclipsed by an exclusive focus on what is in and of itself beyond sense. Furthermore, this emphasis contributes to a view of reconciliation and forgiveness that often does injustice to the victim. Making sense of the trauma of the crucifixion has been coupled with an emphasis on sin. This emphasis ignores the difference between victim and perpetrator. All senseless and traumatic suffering has been seen through the dynamic of sin and forgiveness, creating unjustified pressure on the victim to offer forgiveness. One might add to Keshgegian’s presentation that also in interreligious situations, seeing the victimization of others as a consequence of sin can often provide a facile way out of deep acknowledgement of the pain inflicted on others.
Keshgegian offers an alternative approach. In part, it is an approach that, drawing on prior work of Metz and Moltmann, does not see Jesus on the cross as suffering for us, but rather as suffering with us. But in order to fully appreciate the dimension of suffering in the non-sensical situation of trauma, suffering and sin must be decoupled. Christians must find alternative ways of approaching suffering and trauma than through the paradigm of sin and forgiveness. Only thus can the difference between victim and perpetrator – taking us back to the earlier considerations of power relations – be respected.
Keshgegian points to ritual as the domain that will allow us to address painful memory, traumatic memory. But the rituals she recommends are not the conventional rituals of forgiveness, that place the burden on the victim. New rituals need to be developed. The practice of lament, an ancient biblical practice, is suggested as one possibility. Lament allows to name suffering, to cry out in anguish, even to express anger, without being forced into forgiveness. At the same time, the perpetrator, especially the institutional perpetrator, has to deeply own the violence committed. Mourning and acknowledgment lead to a process. They allow the pain and trauma to be held. Such holding opens up to the power of life and moving on. Herein lies hope. Hope is not the ultimate historical vindication described by the theologians she discusses. Rather, for Keshgegian hope consists in the capacity to resume life despite trauma. Going on with life (one assumes with a measure of meaning, even if meaning has not been given to the trauma itself) is Keshgegian’s definition of hope.
For Christianity this would be a humbling definition. It undercuts the kind of triumphalism associated with the cross and captured in formulae of truth that make Christianity more true, and more power-full than other religions. Instead, Christianity is viewed in light of its formative trauma, and it is a sign of hope (only) inasmuch as it has shown the ability to keep on going with life, despite the trauma it has endured. This view of Christianity forces it to humbly acknowledge the suffering and trauma it has wrought through its use of power. But, I may add, it might also provide a new witness to Christian reality, in that it points to a deeper spiritual power that allows it to function despite its own trauma. Properly understood, this trauma, rather than being a source of inflicting trauma upon others, is a witness to the depth of spiritual life that allows one to continue despite traumas that have been endured. It is a testimony of faith, humble faith. Christianity may not be unique in this respect, especially given that others have suffered traumas. Though, if one may speculate based upon Keshgegian’s foundations, it may be the only religion founded upon trauma, or for whom trauma plays such a central role in its fundamental story, in what it remembers. If so, Christianity, understood in this light, has a story to share, a memory that precisely because of the particularity of later Christian history and its relation to other religions can also offer a teaching or a testimony to others.
Anantand Rambachan’s “Hope is Greater than Memory”
Anant Rambachan begins his presentation of memory in Hinduism by introducing the broader context within which memory functions. Memory has a crucial role in Hinduism and many of its key practices hinge on memory. This includes recitation of scripture, personal piety revolving around chanting of a personalized mantra, a constant memorial of divine presence, the celebration of festivals and more. The outward expressions of practices of memory should be understood in light of the deeper meaning of memory and how it orients life in general and the spiritual life in particular.
Rambachan suggests that various practices of memorialization and especially five daily memorial obligations are centered around one core principal – recognizing our indebtedness to others and cultivating gratitude and generosity to share with others. This is true for the memory of the teacher and the fact that we have been recipients of wisdom as well as for attitudes in the family and for how the individual is positioned in relation to society and nature. Awareness of being receivers is the foundation for giving to others.
Memory also provides the deep logic for the spiritual quest itself. Memory of the Self and the lost truth of its unity with the Divine is the purpose of spiritual practice and the key to spiritual liberation. In this sense, then, the entire spiritual life, ranging from practices to the ultimate purpose of the spiritual life, may be presented in terms of memory.
If indeed the spiritual life is read through the prism of memory, this suggests that memory is also at the heart of the battle for spiritual evolution. Whereas for other traditions featured in our collection it was group memory of the enemy or of painful historical moments that had to be overcome for the sake of peace, reconciliation and group relations, in the case of Hinduism discourse begins with the individual and memory relates to subtle examinations of how the individual is metaphysically positioned. Memory lies at the root of one of the most fundamental spiritual challenges – going beyond likes and dislikes, and the negative attitudes, such as possessiveness, anger or jealousy, that they generate. Memory of things we like and dislike is at the source of loss of identity. The quest for ultimate identity, the identity of the Self and its union with the divine, informs the spiritual life as presented here.
If historical memory, in the case of other religions, was related to group identity, in the case of Hinduism, personal memory, viewed along the axis of attachment and liberation, is foundational to recovery of true and ultimate identity. It is worth pausing for a moment on this contrast. Let us compare this view with the reality brought about by Jewish memory-management, as described by Sendor, and shared by Singh Gill and other authors in our project. For Rambachan, instilled attitudes based on collective memories become fuel for our prejudice, stereotyping and demonizing of others. These get in the way of our true spiritual identity, which affirms unity of all. That these memories are spiritually unwanted is proven by the negative qualities they engender. Contrast this with the alternative view of identity, where memory of past injury sustains identity and generates hostile attitudes to others. With Rambachan’s shift in what constitutes identity, we also focus on alternative spiritual goals, leading to a consideration of harmful attitudes engendered by group memory. This perspective provides a serious critique for the alternative view. It challenges it to account for why particular identity is important, what attitudes it can or should sustain and what are the moral yardsticks by which it is maintained. The history of interpretation that Sendor shares with us suggests that these are issues that traditions struggle with from within, leading to transformed understanding. Nevertheless, an interreligious conversation allows us to highlight these questions, possibly pushing us to recover higher meanings and applications of memory within a tradition.
Returning to Rambachan, memory requires purification. Wisdom is the means of purification. Wisdom involves true cognition of reality. It provides a framework that allows us to loosen the grip of memory upon us, and in some cases even to liberate ourselves from it completely. The core of wisdom is recognition of a unitive view of life, affirming our unity with the divine and the ultimate unity of all. If one can see all as one, and see the Self in all, the negative qualities that are the outcome of negative memories are overcome. If one recognizes ignorance as the root cause of all problems, rather than malice and intentionality, then a compassionate and understanding view ensues, that helps us rise above the attitudes born of ignorance and attachment.
This world-view is grounded in a view of the individual in relation to God. However, it also provides the foundations for a view of society and for solving social issues. To begin, unity of existence is fundamental to this worldview. This can be readily translated to the social dimension. Rambachan makes the conscious effort of extending the teachings of the tradition concerning the individual to the realm of inter-group relations. The same factors that govern personal relations – the attitude generated will be mirrored back, the need for practice of compassion and a variety of other lessons that grow from this spiritual view, are relevant also to how one relates to larger social units. Consequently, dealing with painful memories in inter-group relations should also proceed in light of wisdom principles provided by the tradition, as suggested at the end of his presentation.
Moving from the individual to the collective domain is necessitated by an examination of the kinds of memories that form attitudes that require purification and liberation. Negative attitudes do not come to us simply as a consequence of our own doing. They are often inherited, transmitted across generations, part of our collective self. Recognition of the unity of life allows Rambachan to identify patterns of connectedness even where the tradition does not emphasize such patterns. Accordingly, Rambachan is able to relate to larger units than the individual, units that transmit attitudes, that carry memories and that struggle under the burden of such memories. It is important to recognize that this application is an important constructive step that Rambachan is taking in the context of the present group exercise. Rambachan applies the foundations of a unitive view of life, coupled with an extension of personal dynamics to larger group dynamics – across groups and across generations – to unpack the broader social implications of the religious worldview he expounds. We, the readers, are viewing a certain brand of Hindu theology in the making, as it seeks to address contemporary social challenges, within Hinduism (especially with reference to social problems related to the caste system) and potentially in the relationship between various groups beyond Hinduism. One of the expressions, in the social realm, of spiritual attainment, associated with recollection of true wisdom and going beyond limiting memories is the attitude to others. This is expressed in compassion. It also manifests in an attitude of benevolence and, more broadly speaking, in a disposition to reconciliation, which takes us again to the realm of group relations.
As observers, we might say this is all a sign of hope. Extending the tradition creatively to address novel challenges is a sign of hope. Moreover, the very message of the religious vision offered by Rambachan is one of hope – hope of liberation, of going beyond the negative imprint of harmful memories, of increasing wisdom, of growing reconciliation and social harmony. But before putting these to the test, Rambachan himself offers us one more important factor by means of which hope is made possible. Rambachan tackles a common view of Hindu tradition as locked into a passivity with reference to social action and transformation, on account of the doctrine of karma. Rambachan offers us an analysis of this doctrine, and suggests that the common passive sense is only one of its meanings. Another sense highlights the importance of constructive action and its capacity to bring about transformation. Such transformation pertains also to the realm of overcoming the imprint of memories and of advancing group relations constructively. One might say that the application of the traditional insights to the social realm actually require a theory of dynamic and positive transformation, which Rambachan identifies in the theory of karma.
With all these elements in place, we can now turn to the final part of his paper, where Rambachan devotes extensive attention to inter-group relations and to how conflicts over memory are a dividing point between different religious groups. This conflict is related to the deep and ongoing social problem of the caste system and touch upon contemporary India’s most burning interreligious problem – the problem of conversion. Hindus and Christians have radically different views of conversion. For Christians it is liberation from caste oppression. For Hindus, it is a form of religious violence, whose violent fruits can barely be contained. The views on the issue are completely polarized. Rambachan suggests dialogue as the way forward. Dialogue is memory shared. Rambachan offers us a strategy that seeks to implement the spiritual insights of the tradition, spelled out above, into a social program that can bring about healing in social relations. Dialogue is the method.
Dialogue revolves around listening, and listening involves the sharing of memory. Dialogue also challenges us to apply the wisdom of our tradition to the situation. Thus, we must see ourselves in the other and practice dialogue in that light. Dialogue must be informed by compassion and its purpose is ultimately similar to that of the spiritual life itself – going beyond painful memories to the higher spiritual vision of unity. Awareness of unity thus provides, from the Hindu perspective, the metaphysical ground for dialogue.
But dialogue also involves the quest for truthful memory and here Rambachan echoes concerns that appear in the papers by Umar and Sendor. Sharing must be done in a search for truthful memory, even if one recognizes that one may not reach an agreed upon memory. Nevertheless, the process of sharing requires trust and through trust a shared humanity is discovered. Thus, truthful memory is the goal that may never be reached, but one that opens us up to sharing memory, which in turn allows us to recover the highest of truths, our deeper unity, our common humanity.
Rahuldeep Singh Gill’s Memory as Benevolence: Toward a Sikh Ethic of Liberation
Rahuldeep Singh Gill’s essay offers what may be considered an integrated theory of memory, that provides a means of transcending the inbuilt limitations of memory, thereby holding the key to transformation and purification of memory. For Gill, memory operates on two planes or in two dimensions. This dual function of memory addresses two complementary dimensions of the religious life. One dimension concerns the memory of the community and its history. Memory has a role in constructing identity and it is particularly painful memory, the memory of martyrdom and persecutions, that helps a group solidify its memory. This is as true of Sikhs in their homeland of India as it is of Sikhs in the Diaspora. In fact, the memory of persecution and martyrdom functions for Sikhs in the Diaspora as a means of establishing deeper ties to the Sikh tradition as such. A second dimension of memory touches upon the recollection of fundamental truths of spiritual reality. Two aspects are noted here. The first is the memory of death, which conditions our awareness of life. The second is our memory of God, which is the focus of spiritual intention and of practice. The practice of simran focuses one’s awareness in God’s presence, and holding God’s name in one’s mind (nam simran) is a means for attuning the person into God’s presence.
The two dimensions of memory come together in a constitutive prayer, recited on various occasions, called the Ardas. The Ardas begins with a recollection of the various historical -identitarian dimensions of memory. After a long recitation it makes an interesting transition to a completely different aspect of memory, that shifts the focus of the praying community from its history to God Himself. The human act of remembering joins up with divine remembering, understood as caring. God’s caring for His creation is a constant form of remembering. Ultimately, in remembering God, we are called to join our own power of memory with that of the divine, transforming our attention from our community and its history to God and His provision for all of humanity and all of creation. This shift in awareness is ultimately founded upon the human capacity to unite or to find its common ground or foundation in the divine. By turning to God, one assumes divine qualities. Therefore, by recollecting God, one takes on God’s capacity of memory. Praying to God in the framework of memory ultimately involves a transcending of human or communal memory and an entry into the all-caring, beneficent divine memory.
The two aspects of memory point to two dimensions of our identity – a more limited particularistic view and a broader universal view. The two must be integrated and harmonized. The means for their harmonization is ultimately God Himself, who chooses a community for a purpose. The purpose of the Sikh community is understood through service, where it becomes an instrument for divine caring.
The same structure may be considered not only in terms of caring but also in terms of Justice. One form of caring is to seek justice. Seeking justice may be thought of as a means of legitimating or affirming a particular history. But seen from the higher divine perspective, seeking justice is a form of caring for all, for the perpetrator as well as for the victim. Justice is a concrete expression of caring.
The Sikh attitude of caring, made manifest through recollection of the divine, is a training and conditioning of hearts and attitudes. It is the source and strength of Sikh practice as this has come into expression in repeated situations of violence and persecution throughout history. Stretching from responses to the execution of the fifth Guru, Arjan, to contemporary Sikh responses to the shooting of Sikhs at the Wisconsin Gurudwara, Sikhs have shown themselves able to rise above instinctive responses, by successfully applying the ethos of service and caring at the very moment that might have otherwise occasioned the violent response grounded in concerns for identity and self.
And yet, Sikhs too are human and one cannot present all Sikhs as successfully implementing this complex transformative approach to memory and its transmutation. This is noted in particular with reference to the charged events of 1984, where the Sikh holy sites were stormed and where thousands lost their lives. It is clear that much work needs to be done to attune popular Sikh reaction to these traumatic events to the high ideals that the Sikh tradition offers. This is educational work, but it is also work that requires establishing a view of Sikh tradition in a broader framework.
Throughout the essay, Gill lets us know how deeply implicated Sikh tradition is with an interfaith perspective. We know that the Gurus and the Sikh Scripture itself are open in unique ways to the spiritual testimony of different traditions and spiritual sources. The ideals of the Sikh tradition are themselves best lived in an interfaith awareness. Caring for others can be practiced through the engagement with others and practical collaboration in service with members of other traditions. More fundamentally, it is by gaining a broader perspective, through interfaith engagement, that we can find the appropriate balance between our particularistic identity and the broader universal vision and mission that it is called to serve. But at the same time, Gill also makes us aware that not all Sikhs share this perspective, even if it is correct that there are fundamental ways in which the Sikh tradition is interreligious. Those Sikhs who find no value in appreciating their tradition within and through a broader spiritual context are also those who have the hardest time channeling their pain beyond the negativity engendered by painful memories. Put differently, interfaith engagement is itself a means of self-transformation and a way of helping Sikhs balance out complementary, and at times competing, aspects of their spiritual tradition. Perhaps one could add that it is often in the framework of interfaith engagement that one is invited to take up the higher aspects of one’s tradition, where remaining exclusively within one’s own tradition might cause one to lose sight of those aspects. Thus, if memory by rote is contrasted, as does Gill, with memory of the heart, interfaith engagement could ultimately be conducive to cultivating memory of the heart.
Gill suggests a method for transforming painful memory. Service is ultimately a means of purifying memory. Going beyond the memory of one’s wounds and persecution is made possible by service. This method is more than catharsis or channeling one’s negative emotions to a good end. It relies on a broader view of service as grounded in divine caring, and on the sharing of memory that brings humans and the divine into alignment. Therefore, in service we rise above all that is limited in our particularity, including our pain, and review the source of our pain from the perspective of the divine. Service, then, is the ultimate form of simran, remembrance of the Divine.
Herein lies hope as well. What keeps hope out of our horizons is the narrow perspective that we see through when we see only our own limited reality, nourished as it is by the pains inflicted by others. Hope is liberation. As Gill demonstrates, memory of God is a means of liberation. Carrying this core insight of Guru Nanak further, Gill suggests that not only the memory of God, but sharing in how God remembers us is also a means of hope and breaking past the confines of narrow memory. When our horizons open, in caring, in service, in the quest for justice, to God’s own view of reality, and as we are united to God and attuned to His being through higher spiritual memory, we are liberated from the pains of the past, and find hope in the one eternal reality and in its caring expressions towards humanity.
Muhammad Suheyl Umar’s Repairing Memories – Two Case Studies
Muhammad Suheyl Umar’s paper “Repairing Memory – Two Case Studies”, tackles the problems of memory and hope by reversing the order of discussion. Rather than laying the emphasis on theory and seeking to illustrate it with a case study, Umar examines in depth two case studies, and reflects on the principles that inform these case studies. For purposes of this summary, I shall reverse the emphasis and highlight the more theoretical dimensions of Umar’s paper. The problem tackled by Umar is the problem of corrupted memory. Memory occupies a high position in the framework of transmission of Islamic knowledge. Mechanisms of transmission suppose accuracy and truthfulness, as religious tradition is handed down. Nevertheless, tradition itself is aware of how it can become corrupted in the process of transmission. Theoretical high regard for memory is contrasted with how memory interacts with history, with politics and with the corrupting effect of a reception history that introduces change into what should be a stable and reliable body of knowledge. The recognition that informed Sendor and Keshgegian’s theoretical presentations is presented here in terms of the reality of Muslim memory-keeping.
Changed memory can be the source of religiously motivated violence. Facing the challenge of altered memory, Umar suggests there is a way of retrieving lost memory. Such retrieval can function as a means for reducing religious violence. While Sendor, Keshgegian and, as we shall see, Von Brueck would likely consider that retrieving an original memory may no longer be possible, with regard to Umar’s case studies there is ample evidence of a long-standing tradition that was altered at a given point in time (in one case, fairly recently). Recalling historical truth, despite contemporary political pressures, enables the retrieval of lost memory, leading to significant attitudinal changes between members of diverse religious communities.
The quest for correct memory is itself a religious quest. It is founded upon a spiritual vision and an eschatological perspective, wherein truth will ultimately reign, and that truth includes how we shall be judged for our own truthful practice. Retrieval of corrupted memory involves two stages. On the technical or outward level, it requires mastery of tradition and a constructive dialogue with it, in which forgotten sources are brought to light and a process of interpretation or reinterpretation takes place. This is the process of ijtihad. However, in order to apply such principles, there must be spiritual motivation. It is only when higher spiritual memory encounters concrete historical memory that such motivation is fully present. Higher memory is memory of God Himself, leading to reintegration of the soul in the divine, with peace as its fruit. It is only by attaining such inner peace that one can revisit the various outward points of tension that dot the landscape of lives of religious communities. Thus, inner peace ultimately leads to outer peace. However, the movement, in this construct, is not one of simple translation from one realm to the other. Rather, the inner dimension motivates a revisiting of tradition and a reestablishment of memory. One may say that parallel to the reestablishment of higher memory is the reestablishment of true historical memory, lost to contemporary sight but still available to those who study the tradition with honesty, free from political pressures and other corrupting influences. The ultimate impact of inner peace is the liberating knowledge of correct memory, which in turns has a calming effect on situations of tension, reducing the potential for religious violence. Umar thus ties together the two conceptual strands of our project – higher memory and historical memory and the critique of memory and its changes through time. His presentation supposes that the former issue provides the motivation and the religious framework within which the latter issue can be worked out.
With this theoretical framework in place, we are equipped to appreciate Umar’s presentation of two case studies, where he describes work that has taken place along these lines. One relates to internal Muslim relations, the other to Jewish-Muslim relations. The latter takes up the larger part of his presentation. The Jewish-Muslim issue concerns the status of the Temple Mount / Haram al Sharif and more broadly speaking the Holy Land. This has been the subject of a lively debate in the Pakistani context, from which he comes and which he reports. Suheyl Umar’s presentation is founded upon recognition of different geographical centers of one common religion (Islam) having diverse perspectives on common issues. Thus, how one is situated will impact one’s ability to perceive reality, and one may require the aid of a complementary perspective to balance one’s own position. Serious scholarly debate, which has had impact on public discourse, school curricula and media, has taken place in Pakistan. This debate has focused on Muslim claims for possession of the Haram al Sharif. A long-standing tradition of Muslim authorities, especially in the Indian subcontinent, affirmed the Muslims as temporary custodians of the Temple Mount, due to the sins of the Jewish people, until such time that the Jewish people are able to reclaim or re-own it. Thirteen century of custodianship have impacted the Muslim psyche so that a sense of rightful possession has settled in, leading not only to denial of the Jewish right to the Temple Mount, but even effacing the historical memory of Jewish presence on the Temple Mount. Umar’s paper points to the corrupting effects of power over memory. Thirteen centuries of empowerment have corrupted Muslim memory. The retrieval of memory is therefore linked to decoupling truthful memory from sources of power. One notes how contemporary tensions between Jews and Arabs have further impacted this view, leading to a change in what is considered a proper Muslim view even in countries not directly implicated by the political struggle, such as Pakistan or India.
Umar’s paper makes a fundamental claim concerning the diffusion of memory and the agents of its transmission. It suggests that public perception, propaganda and media can have a distorting effect on how we perceive our traditions and that it is the role of faithful scholarship to balance such public perception. The public debate that took place sought to reestablish truthful memory and to remind Muslim teachers, students and the broader public that Muslim claims are not claims to rightful possession, but are limited to temporary custody, all the while maintaining sight of the fundamental rights of the Jewish people. This debate, as Umar describes it, was largely successful in educational and religious terms, even though it did not translate into the diplomatic arena of Israeli-Pakistani relations. For Umar, and the recovered Muslim voices that emerged during this debate, the Israeli-Muslim problem is not beyond solution and this includes also the most contested of issues, the status of the Temple Mount. In an annex, Umar proposes a solution to the question of the Temple Mount that is very much at odds with contemporary Palestinian sensibilities, but which nevertheless draws out the implications of correctly reconstructed historical memory.
A second case study concerns internal relations between Shi’a and Sunna. Umar shares with us efforts that have taken place in Yemen, Iraq, Iran and India to revisit the relations between these two conflicted Muslim communities. At the core of their divide are divergent approaches to what counts most in the spiritual life – Truth (teaching, memory) or Presence (continuity of the Prophet’s presence). Putting the matter in these terms already suggests that what is required is a balance between two complementary, and legitimate, forms of the spiritual life, rather than choosing one over the other. Reaching such a balance requires dialogue, and the recovery of the truths of the tradition. The efforts described involved a give and take between both schools, in which the status of religious teaching was shifted, in order to make room for the other, based on the realization that both perspectives have validity. Mutual theological accommodation has led to significant improvement in relations on the ground between members of both communities. While here it is not a matter of recovering a lost historical truth, this case study is similar to the first one in that religious teachings need to be understood in terms of their broader context and the place of any given teaching or position within the broader economy of religious teaching. Muslims have a right to the Haram, but it must be appreciated within a broader view of history, or better yet – within a broader view of the religious history of humanity, in which Muslims are but a part. Similarly, both Sunni and Shi’i perspectives must be appreciated truthfully from a perspective that offers balance and a larger picture, allowing for mutual accommodations.
Returning to the core strategy suggested above, it seems that the work of retrieval of correct memory is ultimately a process of finding balance between conflicting realities. Umar does not suggest dialogue as a means of such retrieval, though the processes he describes by means of which these issues were worked out are indeed processes of dialogue, even if between competing groups of scholars, rather than between members of different religious groups. In any event, the balancing of conflicting realities ultimately relies on balancing the human perspective with the divine. Only with the recollection of higher truths, mystical, spiritual and eschatological, do we gain the needed perspective for revisiting statements of a historical nature, especially as these concern inter-group relations. From this higher vantage point, a harmonizing or balancing vision can be found that recognizes multiple and conflicting claims and finds truth or validity in multiple perspectives. It offers a vision of ultimate peace, grounded in the higher spiritual peace, translated into the traditional mechanisms that allow a shifting of perspective in concrete historical relationships.
Umar’s view is a religious view full of hope and the path he offers is one of regaining hope. True memory has become mired in human reality, but there is a way of reclaiming it. Whether it is regaining of the higher spiritual memory or the retrieval of lost historical memory, we need not be limited by contemporary political circumstances. There is a way forward, beyond present limitations. The liberation of memory and the liberating power of higher memory provide us with what is needed most in our complicated human reality – hope.
Michael von Brueck and Maria Reis Habito’s Memory in Buddhism
The final essay in our collection is Michael von Brueck and Maria Reis Habito’s “Memory in Buddhism”. I have left this essay for last because it ties together the two main strands of the project, but also because it introduces new ways of looking at things that in some way redefine our approach to the subject. The first part offers theoretical reflections on memory. Here the role of memory in constructing identities is stated most clearly. This function is true for both individuals and collectives. The identity-constructing function of memory is closely related to memory’s dynamism. Memory seems fixed, but in fact it is not. It is ever changing. This recognition has come up in Sendor and Keshgegian, but here it has a different valence, because it reflects not only a “neutral” descriptive view of memory but also carries forth a particular Buddhist sensibility of the impermanence and transience of all things. If all things are refracted through memory, then memory itself is a mirror of their impermanence.
This impermanence, however, is encountered, paradoxically, through moments of illusory fixity, required for the sake of stability of identity. Therefore, there is something inherently paradoxical about memory, that delivers to us stability and transience, folded into one complicated moment. Complicating that moment further and breaking beyond the illusory stability is the goal of Buddhist practice. Buddhism, thus understood, may be seen as in some way organized around dealing with memory. As a method of teaching, it requires stability of tradition, practice, ritual. It locates itself in the past, and carries forth a tradition – itself a time related construct – all of which requires faithful memorizing. But there is something fundamentally subversive about the Buddhist approach. All that is constructed in terms of stability of identity and religious institutions is, in fact, only the ground laid for undermining this very stability. A dynamic of constructing and destroying, forming identity and transcending it, characterizes the Buddhist approach to memory.
In order to understand this better, we must return to the time axis and how a tradition can be posited in terms of past, present and future. Our entire project is situated along this axis, and so how we negotiate both memory and hope is really how we negotiate time. Buddhist teachings offer us particular ways of doing so. From Von Brueck’s presentation we come to understand that the particularity of negotiating these time dimensions is closely linked to broader application of memory. If we had assumed that memory lies in the past and that memorizing is the process of making the past present, Von Brueck and Reis Habito’s presentation teaches us that memory should be understood in broader terms. Rather than memory, we might, in a manner analogous to Keshgegian, speak of memorizing. The distinction is in part due to the recognition, highlighted by Keshgegian, of the fluid nature of memory and the active role of the one engaged in remembering. But this article suggests a no less important distinction. By memory we refer not only to the recall of past events. Memory includes all things in relation to which we can apply processes of memorialization. Memorialization here is bringing to awareness, making present, cultivating mindfulness. Thus all that is recalled, taken in, integrated, by way of religious teaching, made present to our consciousness, is here treated as a form of memory. Memory, understood so broadly, is in fact a process of making present. In ways that are similar to Sendor’s emphasis on making present, the Buddhist tradition tackles the challenge of identity and transcending it, of the relative order of fixed and conventional meanings and going beyond it to discover the higher ground of nirvanic being, to a large extent by means of the present. Making something present to our awareness allows us to transcend the boundaries of identity that are ego-related and that require going beyond.
There are various expressions of this core strategy of mindfulness and presence as means of transcending constructed identity and its indebtedness to past memory, where conventional religious memory is a lead up to going beyond memory and uncovering an open present. The Buddha’s founding illumination is captured in terms of past experiences and past lives. However, the purpose of this realization is to appreciate the interdependence and the connections that exist between all that is. This realization referred to in terms of past is actually a realization of the present. Monastic rituals of memorizing, focusing as they do on faithful representation of the past, are in fact means of bringing attention to mindfulness. Zen tradition is an elaborate tradition that celebrates its authenticity by appeal to a chain of tradition, yet its core teaching cultivates an attitude of going beyond past and memory into an experience, grounded in the present. The past is viewed as limiting, the present as fully open. While memory provides psychological and social stability, the present must not be limited by the view of the past, but be open to an appreciation of its open ended perspectives, far broader than the constraints of the past.
Ultimately, the liberating memory is insight into the true nature of things. In this, the Buddhist tradition is very similar to the Hindu tradition. The liberating memory here is the recognition of the appropriate place of our relative nature and perception, and the concomitant realization that this limited nature is identical with ultimate reality, however it be understood. Wisdom is, once again, the key to liberation from memory.
Making the past present is particularly pronounced in Mahayana Buddhism, that enlarges the narrative of the Buddha’s tales. More is remembered, and I would add that it matters little what the historical status is of that which is remembered. It is memorizing as an act that counts, and the purpose of such memorizing is to make present that which is memorized. Memory is a dynamic that bridges past and present in faith. Faith in the validity of the content of memory not only gives it meaning for the present, but makes it effective for the present, allowing the individual to identify with the spiritual steps taken by the Buddha and to apply them in the aspirant’s life. Pure Land Buddhism makes this process even more obvious. Faith is required to believe in Amitabha’s vow. The content of the vow is Amitabha’s memory of us and our memory of his vow and their soteriological power. While driven by faith, memory provides the bridge. And yet, what counts most is the way memorizing makes this vow present in the life of the believer, opening her up to the saving presence of Buddha Amitabha. If the present requires relinquishing and letting go of the ego, then the test of memory well performed is its ego-releasing quality. Memory that focuses on identity, while hardening the boundaries of individual and collective ego, is memory performing poorly.
Because memorizing is so central to making the past present, a variety of means are invoked. Memory is ultimately instilled not only into our minds but into our entire beings. Memory is embodied. Memorizing scripture, seeing sacred images, absorbing a presence through pilgrimage, these and more are the strategies that tradition offers for assuming and integrating memory and making it fully present, even in our bodily existence. Because memory is understood as evoking deep awareness, memory well-practiced, through these means of recollection, reaches the entirety of our being. And because it does so, it also allows us to transcend the limitations of our ego, entering fully into trans-egoic presence.
The time axis is not limited to past becoming present. The future too is evoked and made present. In Mahayana we learn not only of predecessors to the Buddha but also of successors in time to come. The future Buddha too needs to be remembered, that is – brought into our present consciousness. This provides encouragement and the promise of progress. Memory opens the practitioner up to a grace, grounded in the future, made present through faith. Because time is ultimately an illusion, it can be employed in all its modes – past, present and future in order to bring about the deeper recognition of the Absolute Present. Thus, all possible worlds, all possible mental formations, can be used to realize the Oneness of Reality, beyond time and space.
What does all this say for a notion of hope? If we consider hope along the lines of past, present and future, we note that hope is not a central concept. Hope for Buddhists does not reside in a future. However, if we consider the process of transcending the negative impact of memory that is attached to ego and opening up to the Oneness of Reality and to the Absolute Present, this is itself a message of great hope, a hope of liberation from the fetters of memory and its limitations. It might be appropriate to refer to some views of Buddhism as a pessimistic religion. Seen in the present context, Buddhism is full of hope, a hope that one can go beyond the limitations of memory and open up to Absolute Present.
One notes that some forms of Buddhism do offer hope, grounded in the future. This is the case for the Pure Land tradition. This tradition is based on the promise of a future rebirth in the Pure Land and as such offers an eschatological view that is inherently hopeful. Similarly, the coming of the Buddha Maitreya can be appreciated in terms of hope for salvation.
The final part of the paper explores the application of these insights to a situation of conflict. The tensions between China and Tibet are viewed in terms of dynamics of memory. Von Brueck informs us of the complexity of memory and how partial and selective its application is. Accordingly, there is no correct way to tell the story and every telling is partial and offers some interested perspective. Resolution of the conflict must be informed by awareness of the problematic nature of claims based on memory. This in turn leads us to dialogue and to making room for the other. The strategy is the same as that proposed by Rambachan. In essence, appeal to memory gives way to appeal to the present. Both sides have legitimate interests. These are grounded on their being humans, who have the right to live in dignity, individually and collectively. Thus, a dialogue of mutual recognition must replace competing memory claims. This practical recommendation is based on Buddhist teaching. Von Brueck and Habito make explicit appeal to spiritual cognitions of the Buddhist tradition that provide value to all. Loving the enemy is a way of humanizing him. Remembering that in the cycle of rebirths all beings have been mothers and fathers to each other is a way of cultivating compassion, which is ultimately a way of humanizing and validating the other. But perhaps the thrust of Von Brueck’s argument in this paper is even more relevant. If the goal of Buddhist practice is to transform memory into openness to the present, this should impact how we dialogue in situations of conflict. Appeal to disputed memory may not hold the key to a breakthrough. Such a breakthrough must be founded on openness to the present, and therefore assumes the unconditional value and right of the other.
The Dalai Lama’s practice is offered as an exercise in cultivating this attitude. If the Dalai Lama is typically seen as a model for peacemaking, it may be because of the unique characteristics of the Buddhism he practices that provides him with key tools to engage in dialogue and in peacemaking. The stability of institutions and ensuing identity is ultimately transitory, leading to much greater flexibility and possibility of compromise. The insistence on being right is softened in a practice that seeks to overcome ego boundaries. And the impact of memories is much diluted in a practice that seeks to make the present and full awareness of it, in the effort of alleviating suffering, the core spiritual drive. While the dynamics of past, present and future may echo those found in other traditions, the key approach to memory and how it impacts identity-construction is different. If other traditions require an external critical view to relinquish some of the trappings of power, as Keshgegian has offered us, and if the practical applications of memory are subject to the hardening effects of political processes, as Umar teaches us, Buddhism may represent an alternative paradigm. Buddhism is a tradition that appeals to memory only to undo it, that constructs identity only to overcome it. It might therefore have built into it the internal spiritual resources that justify the common view of Buddhism as more favorable to causes of peacemaking and reconciliation.