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The

Temporal Dimension of Discernment: History and Memory


(V.Rev.) John H. Erickson

History and memory: Over the past half century anthropologists and psychologists,
social theorists and philosophers have reflected on the relationship of these paired
terms. A plethora of books, articles, and scholarly journals include one or both in
their titles. When reflecting on these terms, scholars often draw attention to an
additional element: forgetting. Here Paul Ricoeur’s magnum opus, Memory, History,
Forgetting, immediately springs to mind, but many more works on the subject could
be mentioned.1 We have a moral duty to remember, we frequently are told,
especially victims of atrocities like the Holocaust. But we also may have a duty to
forget – and not simply for utilitarian reasons, not simply to provide some breathing
space in the wake of one or another social trauma.2 We may remember too much
and for too long. As an Irish saying puts it, “Long after the quarrel has stopped
making any sense, the memory of the grudge endures.”3

The construction of history inevitably is a selective process that involves elements
of both remembering and forgetting. It doesn’t consist simply in establishing “the
facts.” Facts have to be organized in some way; relationships between them have to
be plotted out. Some facts (or “alternative facts”) may be instrumentalized or even
weaponized. Others may be forgotten, relegated to a footnote, or simply excised.
Similar considerations apply to memory. While some memories may be singled out
as representative of collective memory, others may be suppressed. In memorials
and memorialization, in celebrations and commemorations, who or what gets
remembered? Who or what gets forgotten, whether by inadvertence or by design?
What vestiges of the past are diligently preserved? What gets bulldozed?

Before considering such questions, it may be helpful to consider the function of
memory and history in human society from the perspective cultural anthropology, if
only to supplement the phenomenological approach of Ricoeur and other
philosophers. Ricoeur was fond of reminding us that memory is the birthplace of
history, the womb of history, and he lamented memory’s reduction to one of
history’s provinces, one of the objects it studies.4 For the ancient Greeks memory
was indeed the mother of Clio, the muse of history. But memory also was the
mother of Terpsichore, Melpomene, Thalia, Calliope and the other muses – all of

1
Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris: Seuil, 2000), English translation by Kathleen Blamey and David
Pellauer (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004). Recent popularizing books on
forgetting include David Rieff, Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (New Haven and
London: Yale University Press, 2016), and Francis O’Gorman, Forgetfulness: Making the Modern
Culture of Amnesia (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2017). For a theologian’s personal account
of remembering, forgetting and forgiving in the former Yugoslavia, see Miroslav Volf, The End of
Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids MI and Cambridge UK: Eerdmans,
2006).
2
See the judicious study by Ziya Meral, “A Duty to Remember? Politics and Morality of Remembering
Past Atrocities,” in International Political Anthropology 5.1 (2012), 29-50.
3
Rieff, Praise of Forgetting, p. 144
4 Memory, History, Forgetting, pp. 95-96, 147, 95-96, 498.

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whom were associated one way or another with performance and the performing
arts.5 Like others who invoked the muses, the historian was expected to be a
virtuoso performer, a master of recounting past deeds. So too was the king, the
chieftain, the head man, the respected elder, who gained and maintained authority
among his fellows not only by prowess in battle but also by judicious speech,
grounded in memory.

In the ancient Greek world, and – I believe – in pre-modern societies more widely,
memory and history were inseparable. They served much the same function, and
that was to maintain social order. Both were at once descriptive and prescriptive of
how things are supposed to be. Both offered a template for living. Such societies
often are referred to as traditional, but that is not because tradition was a subject for
discussion. It was lived and relived. Its rhythms and rituals provided a measure of
security against the threat of unwanted change.

Today no one lives in a society of this sort, whether in the economically advanced
nations of Western Europe and North America, or in the traditionally Orthodox
lands of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, or in rapidly developing Asia,
South America and Africa. The modern world as it developed in the 19th and 20th
century and the post-modern world in which we live today are different from the
pre-modern world in many ways. In practically every area of life, change rather
than no change has come to be taken for granted.

Simply consider the nature and speed of locomotion.6 Dependence on foot power,
horse power and sail gives way to rail and steam, the internal combustion engine
and the jet airplane, dramatically reducing the time required for travel and
transport from one place to another. Even more dramatic have been changes in
communication. The transmission of orders, messages and news now is practically
instantaneous. This has changed our experience of place and time. The distance
between “here” and “there,” between “us” and “them” has shrunk.

Consider also demographics. From the time of Christ until well into the second
millennium, global population was virtually static. Exponential growth in
population began in the 19th century, made possible in large part because of
scientific and technological advances in production, transport, therapies for disease,
and public health infrastructure. This was accompanied by urbanization, as the
factory economy created some very large and densely populated cities. This also
was accompanied by movement of populations, from countryside to city and from
continent to continent. The “Other” moved into our neighborhood.


5 This is true even of Urania, the muse of astronomy: The first Greek book on the subject, by Thales of

Miletus, was composed in dactylic hexameter.


6 See Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s classic study of The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and

Space in the 19th Century (1977, English translation Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1986).

2
For much of the 19th and 20th century, there was an overwhelming impulse to
embrace change, to embrace the modern enterprise. The progress of civilization,
the advance even of God's kingdom, seemed to go hand in hand with the progress
of science and improvements in sanitary plumbing. Behind the changes of the
times lay confidence in the power of reason, confidence in human capacity -
individual and collective - to overcome any obstacle whether social, political,
personal, or ethical. If we harness the explanatory and predictive power of science
and discover and utilize the unchanging laws of nature (including the “invisible
hand” of the market place), progress in all areas of life will follow, with increasing
agreement in matters relating to culture and behavior, and a better, richer and
longer life for all.

There were, of course, other responses to change. In rapidly industrializing Europe,
Romantic poets and other literati experienced a sense of loss when they considered
what was happening to the natural world, now overwhelmed with factories and
smoke. Along with preservationists, they looked back with nostalgia to a past that
was rapidly disappearing, and they began to meditate in new ways on temporality,
the idea of being situated between a vanishing past and an alluring but evasive
future.7 This sense of historical distance marks a significant shift in mentality.
Whether glorious or tragic, the past now is simply that: past.

Soon meditation on the ruins of time was accompanied by grief and mourning –
literal grief and mourning, not just figurative. The unprecedented destruction and
bloodshed of World War I and its chaotic aftermath shook the European political
establishment to its foundations. This was certainly true for traditionally Orthodox
lands, most notably Russia, where two revolutions were followed by civil war, the
murder the czar and his family and the establishment of a new political, economic
and social order radically different from anything that had gone before. Within a
few brief years, the map and the mind and the mores of Europe had changed
dramatically. Wars and revolutions, prison camps and refugee camps, immigration
to new lands and expulsion from old lands had rudely swept away traditional
patterns of life and thought. The past - even the relatively recent past – now
suddenly seemed distant and alien.

World War I brought an end to what has been called “the long 19th century.” The
century that followed, “the short 20th century” or “the American century,” was
marked by the clash of ideologies and economic systems, the global competition of
superpowers for hegemony, a second world war followed by lesser wars both hot
and cold, and finally the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. In just a few
short decades, the map of Europe was being transformed yet again, for the third
time in less than a century.


7 O’Gorman, Forgetfulness, p. 64.

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At the time, far-reaching institutional and economic transformation was anticipated
in the former Soviet bloc. In a much-discussed 1989 essay, Francis Fukayama
predicted The End of History. He writes:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing
of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that
is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization
of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.8

When speaking of the end of history, Fukayama did not mean an end to the passage
of time. That is the past, not history. What he envisioned was “the end of history as
such”: the point at which there would be no further need or overwhelming desire to
pick through the past in order construct a new historical narrative pointed towards
a significantly different and presumably better future.

But in fact the end of the cold war did not mark the end of history. The
“universalization of Western liberal democracy” that was supposed to have brought
stability, prosperity, integration, and peace to Eastern Europe and Russia – and
indeed the whole world - never took hold. The new democracies set up in the 1990s
have proven fragile. The adoption of neoliberal economic policies has resulted in
some painful inequalities as well as systemic corruption. In Russia the giddy
optimism of the 1990s ended with the financial collapse of 1998 and, two years
later, with the election of Vladimir Putin to his first term as president. Meanwhile in
the United States, the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, followed by the protracted
wars in the Middle East and the financial crisis of 2007-2008, suggested to many
that the “short American century” had run its course. As for Western Europe, this is
what journalist Jamie Kirchick has to say his 2017 book, The End of Europe:
Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age:

What once appeared irreversible—ever-greater political and economic
integration on a continent where armed conflict had been banished to the
dustbin of history along with totalitarian ideologies like communism and
fascism—today seems a transient historical phase.… Discouraged by their
governments’ inability to handle a slew of problems, Europeans are
questioning the very legitimacy of liberal democracy.9

Now, in our present moment, in a century as yet nameless, we face questions similar
to those that our forebears faced in the wake of World War I and again in the wake
of World War II. How do you find a usable past in the wake of massive upheaval?
And how do you deal with an unwanted past or a contested past? Such questions


8 "The End of History?" in The National Interest 16 (1989) 3–18. This was expanded into book form as

The End of History and the Last Man (New York: The Free Press, Simon & Schuster, 1992). More
pessimistic but equally ambitious is Fukayama’s most recent book, Political Order and Political Decay:
From the Industrial Revolution to the Present Day (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).
9 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

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arise when states construct official histories, which they then articulate by
establishing holidays, erecting monuments, naming boulevards, choreographing
celebrations, and supervising textbook publication. This can be challenging,
especially when the construction of history follows significant social trauma (war,
civil strife, political instability, violence, forced displacement of populations, system-
fostered degradation...). This was the situation through much of Eastern Europe in
the wake of World War I and World War II. It has become so again in the wake of
the fall of communism in the late 20th century. These are not just questions for
specialists in geopolitics. Such questions impinge on the life and thought of
churches and other religious bodies, especially when – as is the case with most
Orthodox Christians - religious identity is closely linked with national, ethnic and
cultural identity.

At this point I would like to focus on efforts in Russia to identify a usable past and to
develop from it a history comprehensive enough to elicit wide popular acceptance
but at the same time allusive enough to advance an ambitious political agenda. I do
so not because Russia is exceptional but rather because developments in Russia are
symptomatic of what is happening in much of the world today, particularly in lands
we so often call “traditionally Orthodox.”

In 2005 a new holiday was introduced into the Russian calendar: National Unity
Day, celebrated on November 4. It replaced a holiday celebrated during Soviet times
on November 7 as the Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution: an occasion
sacralized through ritual celebrations, museum exhibitions, and programs of public
indoctrination. The day continued to be celebrated in post-Soviet times as the Day
of Accord and Conciliation until it was replaced by the new November 4 holiday,
which commemorates the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow in 1612. Annual
observances of the holiday have again been sacralized through a variety of patriotic
activities: monument dedications, free concerts, and wreath-laying ceremonies
often featuring the Patriarch and the Russian President.10

The year 2012 – the 400th anniversary of the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow,
the 200th anniversary of expulsion of Napoleon – was officially proclaimed the Year
of History in Russia. Patriarch and President used the occasion to expound their
understanding of Russian history. Patriarch Kirill drew parallels between the
events of 1612 and the present situation in Russia. Like the treacherous boyars who
opened up Russia to the Poles in expectation of modernization, present-day elites
want to “borrow alien models of socio-political development, repudiating their own
nation’s originality and faith.”11 In his state-of-the-state address a few weeks later,
President Putin expounded his own synthetic understanding of Russian history: “To

10 On the broader context of this new national day, see Eve Levin, “Muscovy and Its Mythologies: Pre-

Petrine History in the Past Decade,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 12.4
(September 2011), 773-788.
11 Quoted by Igor Torbakov, “The Russian Orthodox Church and Contestations Over History in

Contemporary Russia,” in Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 22.1 (Winter


2014), 145-170, at 146-147.

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revive national consciousness, we have to bind together [all] historical epochs and
come to understand a simple truth - that [the history of] Russia began not in 1917
and not even in 1991, that we have a single continuous thousand-year history, in
which we find the inner strength and meaning of our national development.”12

As Igor Torbakov (Uppsala University) has observed, “Putin’s turning to history ... is
highly instrumental. The Kremlin ideologues’ task is to conceptualize Russia’s
historical path in such a way so as to demonstrate that Russia’s trajectory differed
markedly from that of the West and that the values and principles underlying the
‘Russian civilization’ are home-grown values formed and shaped by centuries of
Russia’s history.”13 The same can fairly be said of Patriarch Kirill’s approach to
Russian history. Indeed, in developing and promoting the elusive but potent
concept of “Russian civilization,” the Russian Orthodox Church may have preceded
the Russian government rather than vice versa.14 What the Church developed, the
government adopted as a way of shoring up its legitimacy – not simply its political
legitimacy but, more importantly, its historical legitimacy, its claims to historical
continuity as a state and people going all the way back to the baptism of St. Prince
Vladimir in 988 AD.15

Nothing is especially new about current Russian assertions of historical legitimacy.


Preoccupation with national identity - with discovering it, molding it, and in fact
creating it – was a common pastime during the “long 19th century.” Throughout the
western world, intellectuals, artists and political elites were striving to identify and
promote their nation’s cultural patrimony, real or imagined, and they were asserting
its historical legitimacy - that is, its legitimacy precisely as a nation, as a single
people, rather than simply an adventitious collection of groups and individuals or an
errant branch of the nation lacking a true history and proper language of its own.
Typically this involved identifying what made their nation special, exceptional
among the nations. What made Balkan and Russian foundational myths and

12 Quoted by Torbakov, 157.
13 Torbakov, 152.
14 So argues Cyril Hovorun, “Political religion and crises of legitimacy,” posted on the The Immanent

Frame blog, August 10, 2017, based on the author’s presentation at the Colloquium on Postsecular
Conflicts, University of Innsbruck, January 24, 2017. At this point, with its network of “Russia: My
History” multimedia exhibitions, the Russian Orthodox Church appears to be in the forefront of
efforts to create an historical narrative emphasizing the continuity of Russia (and the Russian state),
the distinctiveness of its civilization (especially vis-à-vis the West), and its politics (heroically
authoritarian). See Marlene Laruelle, “The Russian Orthodox Church’s Conquest of the History
Market,” PONARSEurasia Point & Counterpoint, June 7, 2018, http://ponarseurasia.org/point-
counter/article/russian-orthodox-churchs-conquest-history-market and Ivan Kurilla, Sergey Ivanov
and Adrian Selin, “’Russia, My History’: History as an Ideological Tool,” PONARSEurasia Point &
Counterpoint, August 7, 2018, http://ponarseurasia.org/point-counter/russia-my-history-as-
ideological-tool
15 Or should I say Volodymyr? Or perhaps out of loyalty to my Scandinavian ancestors, Valdemar?

Claims to the saint are now being contested by Ukraine and the Russia. Outside the Moscow Kremlin
on National Unity Day 2016, President Putin unveiled a 16-meter high statue of the saint, to compete
with Kiev’s monumental statue of the same. Variations on the “statues war” have continued since
then.

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narratives different was not idealization of the nation and its past, but the extent to
which and the diverse ways in which national identity comes to be linked with
Orthodox religious identity.

It should be no surprise that such narratives are again entering into the politics and
rhetoric of Russia and several other East European and Balkan countries. What is
noteworthy in the case of Russia is how many contradictory and discordant
elements are being woven into these narratives. Frederick C. Corney, professor of
history at the College of William and Mary, explains Putin’s approach to history in
the following way: “Putin was offering a narrative of modern Russian history in
which the turbulences of Russia’s past served merely as a backdrop to recent
progress, an offer of reconciliation without truth.” In order to appeal to as wide a
support base as possible, the regime has fashioned an eclectic fusion from the
disparate elements of Russia’s past. “It attempts to yoke, if uncomfortably, various
idealized aspects of the tsarist, soviet and émigré pasts” and present this concoction
as “history without guilt or pain.”16 Georgetown University historian Harley Baltzer
offers a similar observation. The Kremlin leadership and the Moscow Patriarchate
have “embraced all of Russian and Soviet history, refusing to judge any of it.” But as
Baltzer notes, “Embracing everything creates a moral vacuum.”17 What do you do
with the pogroms? What do you do with the mass executions, the enforced
starvations, the prison camps? And what do you do with sites of contested memory,
like Katyn Forest? A lot of the past gets buried, both literally and figuratively.

Consider the case of the Perm-36 prison labor camp – the sole surviving facility of
its kind in Russia. It remained in use until 1987, so physically it has changed very
little. In addition to ordinary criminals, its inmates over the decades included many
dissidents, including Ukrainian poet and translator Vasyl Stus, who died there in
1985 after declaring a hunger strike. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union,
Perm-36 was preserved as a museum. Operated by “Memorial,” the premier civil
society and human rights organization in post-Soviet Russia, it served as a
documentation center for gulag history. But following Russian engagement in the
Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, the government effectively shut down
“Memorial,” and the Perm-36 museum was closed. When it did eventually reopen, it
was under new management and with a new focus: the contribution of the camp’s
timber production to Russia’s victory over the Germans in World War II. According
to the guides, its inmates were common petty criminals; the presence of political
prisoners goes unmentioned.

The church’s telling of the history of Russia in the Soviet period is somewhat more
inclusive. Impressive churches are being built as memorials to victims of state
terror, filling and dominating public space. Most recent is an oversized cathedral

16 “What Is to Be Done with Soviet Russia? The Politics of Proscription and Possibility,” Journal of

Political History 21.3 (2009), p. 276. See also Corney’s Telling October: Memory and the Making of the
Bolshevik Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).
17 “An Acceptable Past: Memory in the Russian Extrication from Communism,” Ab Imperio no. 4

(2004), p. 466.

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dedicated to the New Martyrs and Confessors at the Sretensky Monastery, adjacent
to what was once the notorious Lubyanka prison, in the historic center of Moscow.
But as Russian journalist Veronika Dorman notes, memorialization has become
quite selective. There has been has been “a progressive and discreet transfer of
responsibility for commemorative affairs from the state to the Orthodox Church.
This has led to the dominance of a particular kind of memory of the repressions, one
that singles out, among the millions of victims, those who died for their Orthodox
faith. At ‘mixed’ sites, the new martyrs are usually overrepresented, and religious
commemoration tends to take pride of place” – to the chagrin of an older generation
of dissidents who still have a living memory of the repressions, prison camps and
executions of the Soviet era.18

Discernment in such situations is difficult. In our ways of memorializing martyrs, do
we tacitly consign countless other victims of terror and violence to oblivion? This is
not an exclusively Russian problem. Both individually and collectively, we over-
remember some aspects of the past and under-remember others. As Tzvetan
Todorov observes, we “hold onto the memory of the harm we have endured” but
“forget the harm we have inflicted.” Worse, we may try to build an impassible wall
between ourselves and others that allows us to imagine ourselves in the appealing
role of hero and victim and confines others to the role of villain and criminal.19

Certainly this is a temptation for Orthodox Christians. We “remember” the Frankish
sack of Constantinople in 1204 and many other events of the past very vividly. We
celebrate the heroic virtues of our forebears; we excoriate the low cunning of our
ancient adversaries; and we project those mythic memories onto our present
situation as a way of explaining our present actions and passions. At the same time
we are inclined to forget atrocities in which we ourselves have been complicit, such
as the forced suppression of the Eastern Catholic Churches during the communist
period in Russia and Eastern Europe.20

When considering discordant versions of the past, the historian might once have
appealed in a superior way to “the facts,” claiming for his profession the kind of
objectivity that supposedly characterized the natural sciences. He might have
echoed the words of Adolf von Harnack: “The historian above all else has to deal
with the establishing of the facts. It is his sacred duty to ascertain the truth of the

18 “From the Solovki to Butovo: How the Russian Orthodox Church Appropriates the Memory of the

Repressions,” in Laboratorium 2.3 (2010), 431-436, at 434-435 – a summary of the author’s longer
work on the subject. See also her recent book, Amnésie Russe 1917-2017 (Paris: Cerf, 2017). See also
Arseny Borisovich Roginsky, who with Andrei Sakharov was one of the founders of “Memorial” and
later its president, “The Embrace of Stalinism,” http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles-
2009/Roginsky-The-Embrace-Of-Stalinism.php
19 “Memory as Remedy for Evil,” Journal of International Criminal Justice 7.3 (2009), pp. 447-462,

initial abstract. Both abstract and article are available at https://ssrn.com/abstract=1448465


20 See Fr. Robert Taft’s characteristically acerbic presentation of this problem in “Anamnesis, Not

Amnesia: The ‘Healing Memories’ and the Problem of ‘Uniatism’,” 21st Kelly Lecture, University of St.
Michael's College, Toronto, Canada (December 1, 2000), available most conveniently at
https://www.americancatholicpress.org/Father_Taft_Anamnesis_Not_Amnesia.html

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facts.”21 From his omniscient and dispassionate perch, the modern historian
believed he could establish or at least to work toward a true account of the past, one
on which reasonable men of good will could agree, and that this true account could
be instrumental in the creation of a better future.22 Over the past several decades,
however, such pretensions have been challenged. Postmodern critiques have called
attention to the temporality of both the historian and the past that he attempts to
capture. Historians today question their sources relentlessly. They are uneasy with
efforts to distinguish the essential from the accidental, the permanent from the
occasional, the natural from the culturally conditioned. Above all, they are
suspicious of the metanarrative, the “grand narrative,” the totalizing “master story”
that claims to present transcendent and universal truth.

This poses some challenges for scholars today, and certainly for Christian scholars.
Even in its most secularized expressions, the modern approach to historiography
assumed, with Christianity, that history has meaning; that it has a beginning and an
end which give it direction and purpose; that it is marked not just by the steady
passage of time in its quantitative aspect (not just by chronos - just one thing after
another) but also by time in its qualitative aspect (by kairos), by events that are
truly eventful, by moments that are truly momentous.23 Modern historians, even the
most secular, were on the lookout for such events, such moments – turning points in
history, as they were called. Which events and moments historians seized upon
depended not only on their reading of the past but also on their perception of the
present and their hopes and expectations for the future. For Christians, the “big
story” was - and remains - centered on the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified and
risen, the Alpha and the Omega who gives not only shape but also meaning to
history and to our own historical existence, by entering into history, not as an
interloper, not as an alien from outer space, but as fully human. Modernity offered
several alternatives, most of them centered on the idea of progress. Communism
was one. It explained the past and offered a promise for the future. It included no
supernatural actors other than the proletariat, but believing in it certainly required
an act of faith. Marxism now may be passé, but some rival modern economic
theories have offered metanarratives demanding every bit as much faith, and with
no guarantee of being less oppressive than communism was.

In any case, today all metanarratives are suspect, whether religious or secular.
Exuberant modern optimism – expressed as recently as Fukayama’s End of History -
has given way to uncertainty and anxiety. Are there meaningful connections

21 Quoted by Jaroslav Pelikan, in his Historical Theology: Continuity and Change in Christian Doctrine

(New York: Corpus, and Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 129.


22 This also was the very modern conviction of patristic and liturgical scholars like Jean Daniélou,

Louis Bouyer, Henri de Lubac, Georges Florovsky, John Meyendorff, Alexander Schmemann, among
many others, who believed that resourcement - return to the sources, rediscovery of scripture and the
fathers of the early church - would lead to renewal of church life in the present and, on the
ecumenical level, to convergence and ultimate unity in matters of faith and order.
23 See the very pertinent reflections of Georges Florovsky, “The Predicament of the Christian

Historian,” in volume 2 of his collected works (Belmont MA: Nordland Publishing Company), 31-65.

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between past, present and future that might allow us - as individuals, as
communities, as societies - to learn from the past as we organize our lives and make
plans for the future? Moderns thought so. Today we have more difficulty believing
this. And here we come to the novelty of our present situation, of our time for
discernment. Through most of human history, connections between past, present
and future were taken for granted. They were expressed in the form of stories - not
just overarching big stories, but also little stories, whether “true” or fictional.
Hitherto, narrative has been fundamental to the way that human beings organize
their experience. In the words of historian William Cronon: “We narrate the
triumphs and failures of our pasts. We tell stories to explore the alternative choices
that might lead to feared or hoped-for futures. Our very habit of partitioning the
flow of time into ‘events,’ with their implied beginnings, middles, and ends, suggests
how deeply the narrative structure inheres in our experience of the world.”24 Note
that Cronon here is using the present tense, to describe something that he considers
fundamental to the human condition. But does this accurately describe our present
condition, as distinct from the way things have been in the past?

Commenting on our information age, Norwegian cultural anthropologist Thomas
Hylland Eriksen argues that “the unhindered and massive flow of information in our
time” is leading “to a situation where everything threatens to become a hysterical
series of saturated moments, without a ‘before’ and ‘after’, a ‘here’ and ‘there’ to
separate them. Indeed, even the ‘here and now’ is threatened since the next moment
comes so quickly that it becomes difficult to live in the present.... Both the past and
the future as mental categories are threatened by the tyranny of the moment.”25
American media theorist Douglas Rushkoff comes to much the same conclusion in
his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.26 Enabled by various real-
time technologies, we live “in an inescapable now.” Gone is the traditional story, with
its coherent plot and conventional cast of characters. In the world of now, the
random images and bits of information that vie for our attention on social media
don’t tell a linear story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Rather, they “capture
moments in lives freed from the context of temporality.”27

Eriksen and Rushkoff are not alone in sensing that we have lost touch with reality as
earlier generations perceived it. Many social commentators, columnists and
bloggers have offered similar observations.28 We have lost touch with the physical


24 “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” The Journal of American History, March 1992,

pp. 1347-1376 at p. 1368. Cf. the important studies of narrative by Ricoeur, Tzvetan Todorov, and
the seminal work of Hayden White.
25 The Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age (ET Pluto Press, London and

Sterling VA: 2001) intro.


26 (New York: Current, 2013). See also Marc Augé’s Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity

(1992, ET 1995).
27 Chris Lites, reviewing Rushkoff for The Rumpus, April 30, 1913,

http://therumpus.net/2013/04/present-shock-by-douglas-rushkoff/
28 For example, Carina Chocano, “The All-Important Present Moment,” in The New York Times

Magazine for June 30, 2013, pp. 44-45. The article’s extended subtitle captures the author’s message:

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world around us.29 Once school children enjoyed going on nature walks and
exploring the hidden secrets of trees and ponds. Now – more accustomed to the
fast-paced animal intensity of video programming - they complain of being bored.
So too, we have lost touch with the past. The past has become a foreign country, as it
were - distant and strange.30 Its denizens no longer speak to us across the centuries
as they once did, but only to each other, in languages harder and harder for us to
understand. They have become nearly as remote and exotic as the Amazonian tribes
that sometimes appear on broadcast specials.

In the world of now, we suffer from an attenuated sense of both time and place. We
lack the easy familiarity with the past, its places and its ways that persisted even
into modern times. But this does not mean that we have no interest in the past.
Discomfort with the rush of the present moment and uncertainties about the future
may lead us to seize on anything that promises to give us a sense of permanence, of
stability, of belonging. It is hardly surprising that many in Russia today are happy to
accept a highly selective historical narrative that embraces the whole of Russia’s past
in a “reconciliation without truth,” a “history without guilt or pain,” even if this
“creates a moral vacuum.” Neither is it surprising that similar narratives are being
developed and promoted more widely. Adjectives used to describe these narratives
vary. Political commentators tend to use words like populist, nationalist, and
authoritarian. Seldom absent are appeals to traditional moral, cultural and
civilizational values. Often these appeals are accompanied by demonization of the
Other, whatever that Other may be. In the world of now, it is easy throw together an
eclectic mix of affirmations and slogans – shiny scraps from the past – without
thinking through the moral implications of what we are doing. We construct visions
for the future and programs for present action on the basis of one or another
idealized or imagined traditional past.

How, in the world of now, can Christians remain true to the faith once delivered to
the saints – literally, the faith once traditioned to the saints? Here it may be
instructive to recall the ways in which émigré Russian theologians - Vladimir
Lossky, Fr. Georges Florovsky, Fr. John Meyendorff among others - addressed the
subject of tradition in their own troubled times, in the wake of the Russian
Revolution. As they emphasized, if tradition is to be a living and creative force, it
cannot look simply to the past. That, as Fr. Meyendorff put it, would be “nothing but
antiquarianism, conservatism, reaction, rejection of history, escapism.” Rather,
authentic Christian tradition “remembers and maintains the past, not because it is

“In movies, time is routinely collapsed, compressed, chopped and scrambled. Now, thanks to
technology, so is our experience of life itself.”
29 On the disastrous consequences this loss of familiarity can have, see John Edward Huth, “Losing

Our Way in the World,” op ed in The New York Times for July 21, 2013,
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/opinion/sunday/losing-our-way-in-the-
world.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 - last accessed August 1, 2018. As a sidebar states, “Technology
has obscured a more primal sense of relating to our surroundings.”
30
Cf. the oft-quoted first lines of L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign
country: they do things differently there.”

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past, but because it is the only way to meet the future.” Christian tradition has an
eschatological dimension, which is expressed in the church’s sacramental ethos and
– with particular clarity - in the eucharist. The eucharist is indeed “a memorial of
what Jesus did in the past, but it is also performed ‘until He comes’.”31 As those
familiar with the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom have heard many times,
immediately after the words of institution the great eucharistic prayer goes on to
remember “all those things that have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the
Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right
hand, and the second and glorious Coming.” The end of history is already the
subject of anamnesis. Through the ascetical labor of recollection, the Church recalls
the past, but it also prepares, awaits and anticipates the eschaton, the ultimate
fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation.32

Often this eschatological dimension has been obscured or distorted. The modern
post-Enlightenment view of history as inevitable progress; the expectation that the
future will be substantially better than the present; the secularized eschatology,
held even by many Christians, that identified the kingdom of God with human
achievements - all this now seems hopelessly dated and implausible. Yesterday’s
stories have lost their persuasive power. The utopianism of this eschatology ignores
some basic realities of the human experience: sin, death, oppression. It also
destroys the main content of Christian hope: that the Christ event has liberated men
and women from dependence on the “powers and principalities” of this fallen world,
freeing them from what otherwise would be the prison of their historical
circumstances and empowering them even in the face of death.

Today, however, eschatology seems to have swung in a very different direction. It
has turned apocalyptic. Consider the apocalyptic fears that haunt popular culture.
Besides the prospect of a zombie takeover or invasion by extraterrestrials, we must
now be on the lookout for the Rapture.33 Consider also some expressions of
Christian traditionalism. Since the End is coming soon, we can expect nothing new
or spiritually significant from history. The only task of the remnant church is to
preserve itself unspotted from the world. In such a situation, no real mission or
responsibility for society or culture is possible or even desirable.

Our world today is marked simultaneously by gullibility and skepticism. Ours is a
world in which the tension between reality and illusion has dissipated to the point
that ostensibly reasonable people can question the reality of the Holocaust; a world
in which the past has become simply a resource bank of images for clever

31 “Does Christian Tradition Have a Future?” in Catholicity and the Church (Crestwood NY: St.

Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), 83-101 at p. 85.


32 Cf. Ricoeur’s discussion of ana-mnesis, Memory, History, Forgetting pp. 26-28.
33 For an overview of “apocalyptica” in film, see Chris Wallace, “These Days, the End Is Always Near:

Disaster Films Plague the Box Office,” in The New York Times for July 19, 2013,
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/movies/disaster-films-plague-the-box-
office.html?pagewanted=all

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rearrangement as a new-but-old pastiche; a world in which it also is meaningless to
speak of the future since history itself has lost its goal, its telos, thereby leaving the
world pointless. In such a world, held fast by the tyranny of the moment, what word
of hope does the Christian tradition have to offer?

This question has taken on new urgency in recent decades, certainly for Orthodox
Christians but for many others as well. Too often in the past, we have been heedless
of how we have hurt others, whether intentionally or unintentionally. At the same
time, we have allowed old grievances to become markers of our identity. We have
turned wounds real or perceived into weapons for revenge.34 Needed now, in a
world that has lost its sense of direction, is discernment of ways that lead towards
forgiveness and reconciliation.

To his study of Memory, History, Forgetting, Paul Ricoeur adds an epilogue devoted
to the spirit of forgiveness, as he puts it “a sort of eschatology of memory and, in its
wake, of history and of forgetting.” He does so because “forgiveness – if it has a
sense, and if it exists – constitutes the horizon common to memory, history, and
forgetting. Always in retreat, this horizon slips away from any grasp. It makes
forgiving difficult: not easy but not impossible.”35

According to Ricoeur, to this ultimate horizon of forgiveness belong elements of
anticipation and projection which make the most appropriate grammatical mood for
it the optative of hope and desire.36 This is a very helpful suggestion. Even in
modern languages lacking an optative morphologically distinct from other moods,
its sense is conveyed clearly enough in other ways: in invocations (“God save the
queen”), in imprecations (“to hell with him”), in formulaic expressions (“so be it”).
Here, liturgical expressions merit special mention. Besides common blessings like
“peace be unto all” and “the Lord be with you,” these include the deprecative
prayers of absolution used in the Christian East, which entreat God to forgive and
pardon both in this age and in the age to come. Forgiveness is thus situated at the
liminal horizon between now and forever.

Though not impossible, forgiving is difficult, as Ricoeur observes, and the possibility
of forgiving – and being forgiven – is made more difficult in the wake of social
trauma, systemic violence and state terror. People disappear, leaving loved ones
with scant possibility for closure. In the absence of sepulcher, Ricoeur might say,
mourning becomes unassuaged grief rather than fruitful work. When case files,
gulag registration cards and similar tokens suggestive of life are shredded, the
desaparecido risks being consigned to utter oblivion, stripped even of the quality of
“having been” – the quality of “having been present, living, alive.”37 How is
forgiveness – much less reconciliation - possible in such a situation?


34
Rieff, p. 134.
35
Memory, History, Forgetting, 459, 457.
36
Memory, History, Forgetting, 494.
37
Memory, History, Forgetting, 364.

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Remembering may offer a step forward – but only a step. We have a moral duty to
remember past atrocities and their victims. We dutifully collect names and stories.
We install Stolpersteinen. But we still remain in the realm of compensatory justice.
The operative grammatical mood is the imperative of command: Remember this!
Do not forget that! Such commands are difficult if not impossible to fulfill in the
proper spirit. The obligated memory easily lends itself to abuses of memory: to rote
memorization of official history and dutiful observance of memorial rituals; or to
“memory fatigue,” as we remember Shoah but barely recall the Rwanda genocide.

Sometimes forgetting may appear to be a more prudent course of action, whether
this is an obligatory forgetting such as that decreed by the Edict of Nantes, or a Pacto
del olvido in Spain, or an expedient amnesty almost anywhere. But untold stories of
Vichy France, of the Greek civil war, of the Franco regime in Spain, or of Soviet-
dominated in Eastern Europe: eventually such stories have a way of coming out
even if they have been suppressed for decades in official history and public memory.
I imagine this will be the case one day in Russia, notwithstanding official efforts to
substitute phony history for real memory.

Yet neither remembering however faithful nor forgetting however prudent will gain
for us the eschatological horizon of forgiveness and reconciliation. Even the noblest
human projects for truth and reconciliation will fall short, though they may point in
the right direction. Here one may speak only of grace, of gifts of the Holy Spirit that
every human being needs in order to be truly human, created in the image and
likeness of God in order participate in God’s own life. Along with humility, patience,
fortitude and the other virtues, one must be graced with an honest and unflinching
willingness to engage with the past, including one’s own past, without anger,
without despair. Shifting now from the imperative mood of command to the
optative mood of hope and desire, we should all say: May this be so!

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