The Spiritual Practice of Remembering (Margaret Bendroth) -- A Review
THE SPIRITUAL PRACTICE OF REMEMBERING. By Margaret Bendroth. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013. Ix + 132 pages.
What spiritual value is to be found in the past? Americans have a tendency to neglect history. We may at times remake it so it fits with our current perspectives on life, but finding spiritual value in remembering seems at odds with our age. There is a lot of talk these days about being “ancient/modern,” but the more that I read in that vein I’m not sure that history is being taken all that seriously. Ancient words and practices are pulled out of their context and re-utilized in ways that do not respect that context. The past be utilized, but will we truly find spiritual nourishment? Will we find ourselves in a conversation with our ancestors that will provide wisdom?
Margaret Bendroth is a historian and director of the Congregational Library in Boson. She cares deeply about history but she also cares deeply about the church and its future. Part of her job is to help congregations make sense of their past. What to keep and what to toss? What is mere nostalgia and what is deeply connected to the faith story of a congregation?
There is a cost, she suggests, to forgetting our past, but by doing so we cut ourselves off from the very sources of our faith. We cut ourselves from that network of persons and beliefs that have been present over two thousand years. She reminds us:
When twenty-first-century Christians gather to sing and pray, when they practice the sacraments of baptism and communion, they are not making up those forms on the spot. All of those are an inheritance from centuries of Christian belief and practice. (p. 9).
It is not that everything that has come before us is right and good, but the faith we hold today is rooted in a shared history. To understand the meaning of these practices requires a good bit of remembering. Of course, many have experienced badly taught history, focusing mere names and dates without any sense of relevance for our lives today. Bendroth seeks to correct this problem.
The author begins with exploring our current dilemma of living in an eternal present. We’re stuck in the now, not able to move forward because we do not understand from whence we came. Sometimes we do get caught up in nostalgia, a sense of homesickness for what we thought was, but to a place we can never return. Remembering, therefore, is not the same as being nostalgic. This is why liturgical time is so helpful. It brings us, as we journey through the seasons into conversation with those who have gone on this path before us, so that we might be enriched for the journey into the future.
As we look at history, it is wise to understand it in its own context. Historians, or at least many historians, practice something called historicism. That is, politics, culture, religion, have contexts that influence their development and practice. We dare not read our own value systems and conceits into their context, judging them for not being modern. Of course, the Bible is our spiritual inheritance that didn’t develop in a vacuum, so to understand it, we must read it historically – that is in terms of its own context (no modern science to be found in Genesis). The past has a certain strangeness that must be respected if we are to truly remember and be enriched spiritually. When we allow this to be true then we can learn from our ancestors. But righteous remembering requires of us a great deal of grace.
We are facing a problem of memory loss, losing our sense of connection with our ancestors. Too often we are content to commodify history, making it a business rather than letting it instruct us. But we face the problem of a certain amount of fear and loathing of history. There is the process of how history is taught (or not taught). But there is also the reality that history is complex and messy. Patriarchy dominates. Slavery is prominent. What we know of the past doesn’t necessarily fit with our understandings of God in the present. So, we find it difficult to participate in a fruitful conversation with the past, and yet by avoiding this conversation we are diminished as believers. We fall prey to restorationist ideas that reject the traditions that have been passed on in search of a perfection that never was (and I will agree with her as I come from one such tradition). As Americans we seem to face a choice – either tolerance or holding to a set of beliefs or traditions. You can’t have both, except that this is a false choice. That leads us to a contemporary problem. With the current interest in being spiritual without being religious, who or what we pass on the traditions? Who will carry the conversation from one generation to another? What we need is not a rejection of the past or of tradition, but a mature understanding.
Here is the key for experiencing memory as a spiritual practice. It is to understand that “a religious tradition is a long conversation.” Therefore, “it is not a set of beliefs or practices set in stone for all eternity, nor does it exist just to give our religious institutions a reason for continuing on” (pp. 93-94). Instead these are conversations about Jesus that include those living, but also those not living. You may wonder, and Bendroth addresses, who is invited into the conversation. We all know about the tendency of lifting up “dead white men” as if they are the only ones worthy to engage. But such is not the truth. The conversation ultimately is one that involves the Communion of Saints, present and past included. Protestants have had troubles with saints. As a result we’ve often cut ourselves off from important conversation partners. Our ancestors rejected masses for the dead, relics, and more. In the end we struggled with the nature of death and its relationship to life. The Puritans, for instance, buried without ceremony and outside church yards. Ironically by separating death from church, many people felt cast adrift and in the 19th century embraced spiritualism. But we are called to remember. And if we fail to remember evil can triumph, as was true when
the Armenian Genocide was forgotten, giving Hitler food for thought.
We do not have to give up our connections to the dead and their witness. We can share in the conversation that includes a communion far larger than merely those currently alive. This cloud of witnesses does not speak out of perfection, which might lead us into the death spiral of nostalgia. There is brokenness in the past just as there is today. We have the opportunity to remember. Indeed, as Christians we worship a remembering God. And what better place to remember than at the Table of the Lord.
It is a small book, but it is a powerful witness to the spiritual importance of remembering. Indeed, should we forget our past we will cease being human. Bendroth writes in the closing paragraphs of the book that “without our ancestors, we can’t really know what it is to be human.” She suggests that “it’s not a stretch to say that to be human is to bury our dead – and, even more important, to remember where they are.” Remembering allows us to be that bridge between what was and what will be.
Living as we do in a time when forgetting the past is rampant in our culture, we need to hear this word. It will help congregations discern what to toss and what to keep. This is a book to engage deeply, for it will help us develop wisdom we need to be true to our faith in the God who remembers us, and all who live and have lived. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in remembrance of me.” This is a command to find spiritual sustenance in the practice of remembering. Yes, I am a historian and I have a vested interest in the past. But this isn’t about protecting turf, it is about finding our place in the communion of the saints. And so with great joy, I recommend this book to all.