This article investigates the possible contours and promise of a theology of future-oriented memory as part of the search for a responsible and constructive engagement with the past. The argument is put forward that an in-depth and critical engagement with the concept of memory holds much promise for the discussion about the search for a responsible historical hermeneutic. This argument is discussed in two parts. The first part of the article engages with the changing attitude towards time and temporality during the past few centuries. In this regard the article enters into conversation with the discourse on what Aleida Assmann calls “the modern time regime”. Assmann identifies five aspects which, according to her, characterise the modern time regime. In order to obtain greater clarity on the transformation in the experience of time in our time, this article briefly discusses Assmann’s informative analysis. In addition, the increasing uneasiness in recent decades with this cultural time regime – and its way of configuring the relationship between past, present and future – is considered.
The second part of the article points points out the fact that a theology of memory can draw on deep sources within the Christian tradition, and that religions such as Christianity and Judaism are rightly described as “memory religions” bound by rituals of memory and commemorative festivals. However, the call to remember the past also goes beyond religious traditions, although religious dimensions are usually also present in the fibre of more secular discourses on memory. In light of, for example, the mass extinction of people and injustices of the 20th century, the imperative not to forget the past has often been emphasised powerfully in public discourse. After the transition to democracy in South Africa the discussion on remembering the past acquired greater prominence as a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings. Although the commission’s work has officially ended, it is clear that the question about the past is part of a continuing conversation. The question of how we should remember the past and incorporate it still awakens emotions amidst the reality of new forms of injustice and economic inequality, and therefore, too, the urgency of questions such as: “Whose past receives priority?”; “How do we find a way among conflicting constructions of the past”; and “What do we do with the symbols, monuments and statues that reflect the history of apartheid, colonialism and imperialism?” The past is, therefore, present in a profound and radical way in the South African public discourse.
Within the context of these and other questions linked to the presence of the past, the rest of the article addresses a number of key aspects in the search for a responsible theology of memory – amidst a shifting understanding of time in our time. A first remark in this regard links with the fact that the plea for the power and importance of an ethics or theology of memory is confronted from the very beginning with the vulnerability of memory. We remember selectively and when we recall events from the past and recount them, they are often historically inaccurate and distorted. Moreover: processes of remembering are often embedded in an interplay of conscious and unconscious ideological powers. The article argues, secondly, that our attitude towards the past has to reflect a commitment to what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls “the reality of the historical past”. In our engagement with the past, a certain respect for the past is therefore needed, reflecting a certain debt towards the dead. Without this commitment, a historical hermeneutic loses its significance and power. Thirdly, the article emphasises the fact that although we as individuals remember the past, these processes of remembering occur within broader social and cultural frameworks. This idea confronts us with the interwovenness of our memory with the memories of others. This emphasis requires a sensitivity to the fact that the same figures or events may function differently in our collective memories. What one person or group remembers or commemorates as a high point may be experienced by another as a scar or wound. In view of this, there is a challenge for communities and societies to recall the past in proximity to and with a consciousness of our interwovenness. Not a security mentality and isolation, but hospitality and connectedness then become the hermeneutical keys to deal with the past – as a past of interwoven pasts. The article also highlights, fourthly, the potential subversive nature of memory. In the aftermath of the modernist time regime, which brought along a renewed focus on the past, it could happen that memory gets reduced to a type of nostalgic and romanticised longing for the past. Drawing in part on the work of J.B. Metz reference is made to the statement that the foundation of the Christian tradition in the dangerous memory of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ points in the direction of a certain experience of “non-contemporaneousness” – to be not totally in step with the times. Hence the challenge to preserve that which is non-contemporaneous, i.e. that which is untimely or out of step with the times, precisely for the sake of the times. The fifth feature of an adequate theology of memory highlighted in the article can be encapsulated under the broader denominator of a future-oriented memory. It is argued that in the current South African context, the discourse about engaging with the past, will derail without a sensitivity to a future-oriented memory, since concepts such asreconciliation, forgiveness and justice do not derive their meaning and longevity only from a truthful engagement with the pain of the past, but also in view of a hopeful vision of a shared and healed future. Such an expectation of the future is exactly that which makes it possible to talk about costly reconciliation, difficult (but not impossible) forgiveness and restorative or transformative justice. In theological terms, this means that the eschatological horizon of memory has to be accounted for.
Keywords: future-orientedness; historicity; memory; theology; time