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Archive for October, 2016

Memory and Identity

sacks“‘You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives.  Life without memory is no life at all…Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action.  Without it, we are nothing.’ [Luis Bunuel].  This moving and frightening segment in Bunuel’s recently translated memoirs raises fundamental questions—clinical, practical, existential, philosophical: what sort of a life (if any), what sort of a world, what sort of a self, can be preserved in a man who has lost the greater part of his memory and, with this, his past, and his moorings in time?…

[In the case of ‘memoryless Jimmie G.’, a patient of Oliver Sacks who had no ability to retain short-term memories], he was becoming fatigued, and somewhat irritable and anxious, under the continuing pressure of anomaly and contradiction, and their fearful implications, to which he could not be entirely oblivious…I found myself wrung with emotion—it was heartbreaking, it was absurd, it was deeply perplexing, to think of his life lost in limbo, dissolving.  ‘He is, as it were,’ I wrote in my notes, ‘isolated in a single moment of being, with a moat or lacuna of forgetting all round him…He is man without a past (or future), stuck in a constantly changing, meaningless moment’…My note was a strange mixture of facts and observations, carefully noted and itemized, with irrepressible meditations on what such problems might ‘mean,’ in regard to who and what and where this poor man was—whether, indeed, one could speak of an ‘existence,’ given so absolute a privation of memory or continuity. I kept wondering, in this and later notes—unscientifically—about a ‘lost soul,’ and how one might establish some continuity, some roots, for he was a man without roots…What was life without connection?…[He was now] a gruesome reduction of a man to mere disconnected, incoherent flux and change.” (Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, pp. 23, 29-30)

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Memory and Salvation

karamozov“Let us agree here, by Ilyusha’s stone, that we will never forget–first, Ilyushechka, and second, one another.  And whatever may happen later in life, even if we do not meet for twenty years afterwards, let us always remember how we buried the poor boy, whom we once threw stones at–remember, there by the little bridge?–and whom afterward we came to love so much…

My dear children, perhaps you will not understand what I am going to say to you, because I often speak very incomprehensibly, but still you will remember and some day agree with my words.  You must know that there is nothing higher, or stronger, or sounder, or more useful afterwards in life, than some good memory, especially a good memory from childhood, from the parental home.  You hear a lot said about your education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.  If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life.  And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation.” (From Alyosha’s final speech in the concluding chapter of The Brothers Karamozov by Fyodor Dostoevesky, p. 774)

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von-rad“Jahweh twice intervened in Israel’s history in a special way, to lay a basis of salvation for his people.  The first was in the complex of acts which are gathered together in the avowal made by the canonical saving history (that is, from Abraham to Joshua), the other was in the confirmation of David and his throne for all time…No doubt, according to Israel’s faith, Jahweh had also accompanied his people beyond these complexes at every hour and in every place, and had everywhere shown himself lord of her history.  But this was something different—it was going on with the building on a foundation already laid, not laying a foundation itself.  On these two saving data rested the whole of Israel’s existence before Jahweh.  Even the prophets in their proclamation of the new covenant of Israel cannot hark back to any other than them, the covenant at Sinai and the covenant with David.

When these saving acts had happened to her, Israel did not keep silent: not only did she repeatedly take up her pen to recall these acts of Jahweh to her mind in historical documents, but she also addressed Jahweh in a wholly personal way.  She offered praise to him, and asked him questions, and complained to him in all her sufferings, for Jahweh had not chosen his people as a mere dumb object of his will in history, but for converse with him.  This answer of Israel’s, which we gather for the most part from the Psalter, is theologically a subject in itself.  It shows us how these acts affected Israel, and how Israel on her side accepted and understood this existence in immediacy with Jahweh and in proximity to him, that is, the steps which, in this proximity to Jahweh, she took to justify or to be ashamed of herself, in her own eyes and before Jahweh.  But it also shows how in this intercourse with Jahweh Israel was revealed to herself and how she pictured herself when she came before Jahweh to speak to him.  Here then if anywhere can we hope that the basic features of a theological doctrine of man will become clear…The way in which [Israel] saw herself before God, and pictured herself before him, is worth the highest attention theologically.” (Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 355-56)

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lindbeck“Human experience is shaped, molded, and in a sense constituted by cultural and linguistic forms.  There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems.  It seems, as the cases of Helen Keller and of supposed wolf children vividly illustrate, that unless we acquire language of some kind, we cannot actualize our specifically human capacities for thought, action, and feeling.  Similarly, so the argument goes, to become religious involves becoming skilled in the language, the symbol system of a given religion.  To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.” (George A. LindbeckThe Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, p. 34)

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ellendavis“Like the laments, this psalm of praise ends with anticipation.  God’s praise is sung in the middle of history, by those who are still looking for God’s covenant love to be fully manifest in every aspect of their lives…The tension [is] present to some degree, at least, in all prayer.  For people who pray are people living in hope.  Biblical tradition associates prayer with hope more consistently than with satisfaction…From a biblical perspective, hope may be best imagined as a line suspended between past experience of God’s reliability and a future that is still open, a line stretched taut between the reliability and the freedom of Israel’s God.  That accounts for the note of keen anticipation so characteristic of the Psalms.  Yet even as Israel waits upon God, the psalmist urges the righteous to sing joyfully.  And in that call to rejoice lies a profound understanding of worship.  We cannot defer praising God until we are fully satisfied with our situation.” (Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, pp. 37-38)

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ellendavis“‘To the straightforward, praise is becoming’ (33:1)–this might be the core insight from which all the psalms of praise proceed.  Praise is more than something we do for God…Praise looks good on the straightforward, on those who aspire to look at the world realistically, unsentimentally–that is, those who aspire not to look at the world through the distorting lens of their own fantastic desires.  In other words, praise suits those who want to see the world as it really is.  This is a crucial insight about the essential function of praise.  Praising God is not concocted flattery, but the most earnest human business we can undertake.  Ultimately, it is for the sake of the world: we praise God in order to see the world as God does.” (Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 34)

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ellendavis“When you lament in good faith, opening yourself to God honestly and fully—no matter what you have to say—then you are beginning to clear the way for praise.  You are straining toward the time when God will turn your tears into laughter.  When you lament, you are asking God to create the conditions in which it will become possible for you to offer praise…Israel knows itself as a people that has been put on the planet—and much more than that, preserved alive and kept in faith against incredible odds—for the express purpose of praising God.  So even when Israel is lamenting, it is always looking for opportunities to praise. The lament psalms are prayers of anguish yearning to be anguished into praise..So lament is always hoping to grow into praise; when it does, it does not forget where it came from.” (Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, p. 15, 30)

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