The problem of coming to terms with the past

Since only a handful of people are likely to read my dissertation, and since it might be somewhat therapeutic for me to write about what I have already written, I’m planning to blog through my dissertation (and this will be the last time that I use the word dissertation) over the next couple of weeks, giving you a sort of crash course on my reading of Whitehead, historical materialism, and Christian theology as it relates to Judaism and the Holocaust. My focus in these blogs is to articulate a post-Holocaust theology of remembrance that refuses to forget even the most tragic, harmful, and frightening aspects of the past. This theology is not one that tries to explain away the bad events of history, nor is it one that attempts to distill some positive lesson out of every event with the idea that we are moving onward and upward toward an ultimate culmination to world history. Instead, this theology recognizes that horrific events have occurred in the past, and it seeks to remember these events, insofar as doing so might help us first uncover some possible causes for such events and, second, guard against allowing similarly awful actions to be repeated. In this sense, I am against the idea that we can somehow come to terms with those baleful past events, and in fact I think that the project of trying to “come to terms with” the past is the wrong sort of project altogether, since doing so generally implies that there will be a point in the future in which you no longer have to worry or think about the past because you have (conveniently) already dealt with it–already come to terms with it. Instead, I’m suggesting that in many instances, and including our memories of and our thinking about the Holocaust, it is far better to continue wrestling with, considering, and theologizing about the past.

The latest gaffe by Gunter Grass, the German novelist and poet, demonstrates the fact that the problem of coming to terms with the past is still a problem. Grass’s poem denouncing Israel’s strong stance toward Iran, released to the public this past April, has reignited discussion regarding Germany’s past, present, and future relation to Israel and to Jews (both inside Israel and out). Questions regarding how best to remember the past, or questions about whether or not the past should be remembered, have long been considered in post-World War II Germany. Grass’s poem caused these questions to be raised once more, and it also demonstrated how some wish to remove themselves from the “burden” of remembering. While these issues arose prominently in Germany in the wake of the Second World War, they certainly are not foreign issues to those of us in other parts of the world. Some of these questions that emerged first out of the particularity of the post-Holocaust situation in Germany now take on universal appeal: How can we rightly remember the harmful aspects of the past without imprisoning ourselves within the dark shadow of bygone tragedy? How can we examine the past without assuming that there will always (or will ever) be some sense of meaning or some lesson to be learned, to be squeezed out of history?

I think some significant thinkers of the twentieth century–Alfred North Whitehead, Theodor Adorno, Eric Voegelin, and Walter Benjamin–can lead us in the right direction as we attempt to remember harmful aspects of the past and as we guard against letting the past be swept under the rug of history. Their philosophical and theological remarks help us understand why memory and remembrance are important and even necessary, and they help point out why projects that attempt to explain away tragedy (whether past or present) may be grossly ill-conceived.

I’ll discuss the work of each of these key thinkers in turn over the course of my next few blogs, giving a full post to each. In the end I hope to provide what I call a Christian theology of remembrance, and I hope to point toward some future directions for the types of theology I find most interesting–namely, those involving the relation between process theology and historical materialism.


Author: Jeremy

I am happiest outside, surrounded by trees or water. I rarely go anywhere without my camera, and I actively seek ways to connect my work as a philosopher and theologian with regular people who are trying to make sense of this world.

4 thoughts on “The problem of coming to terms with the past”

  1. Here are 2 Questions that I’m hoping future blog posts might address or that you might want to think about:

    1. What factors need to go into an act of rememberance to help the act of remembering bring about meaningful discoveries that can guard against future repetition of the same act?

    2. What/Who defines and who needs to be the one using this christian theology of rememberance? This question comes out of a place of feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of horrible attrocities in human history.

  2. I’m curious to see what you might be able to say about the privilege that even talking about ‘forgetting’ as a possibility reveals. In other words, aren’t there some individuals for whom ‘forgetting’ the past is impossible given its recurrence? I’m thinking here specifically of the situation resulting from attitudes of anti-blackness and anti-black racism.

    P.S. I’m excited to read this!

    1. Megan – good questions, and I do hope to get to those.

      Todd – thanks!

      Kirsten – yes, definitely. It is the privileged who need to remember all the more in order to self-critically remove themselves (ourselves) from the role of oppressor in many situations. I will talk about this more when I get to Christianity’s theological response to the Holocaust.

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