The Gospel and Collective Memory

Russell Mormon 4 Comments

While I hardly want to be schmaltzy, I had a powerful experience this evening involving memory… this governing variable of my mind.

I have often noted to my acquaintances that the genius of the gospel is its ability to co-opt and integrate.  Let’s say I’ve been staring down a rather vexing personal conundrum for several years.  It’s one that has, quite honestly, taken a toll on my testimony.  Strangely enough, it has almost no relationship to the great ambiguities of our age:  not Joseph Smith, not Brigham Young, not terminal illness or the priesthood ban, not even crass local leaders or uncomfortable political positions.  But it did erode my faith just the same, and all the more because it rubs me right where it hurts.

So I’m sitting in my car tonight eating my beef baja chalupa and feeling annoyed at planet earth for no particularly good reason. I begin to listening to an old song that I heard often during a difficult period of my mission, and it struck a resonant chord with me then.  The song is not impressive by any traditional standards.  Its lyrics were cliche and well-worn. But its content appealed to the emotions of my mission.  In some ways, I felt as though I was on my mission again.  And suddenly, I felt as if I were facing the same problems I had faced on my mission, only in a different form.

The result? I stare at myself in the mirror, look myself in the eye and honestly believe that I can handle this.  My painful conundrum was suddenly recast in terms I had once known and loved.  It’s become sadly cliche to speak of how “remember” is one of the most commonly used words in scriptures.  Memory can be so personal.  Is there a place in the gospel for a recognition of both memory’s power and its vulnerability?

In the world of academia, memory is, at best, smiled condescendingly upon as an interesting element of identity-formation in some developing nation. It’s fallible and fickle, malleable and manipulatable.  It can be deconstructed and re-trained to comply with the tenets of the academy.   The popular conclusion often drawn from these realizations is essentially a nihlistic agnosticism.

Dabble in the esoteric with me for a moment. Compare memory a bit to Platonic thought.  In Plato’s Tmaneus, he spoke of a concept called khora, an utterly abstract reeptacle of sorts through which the divine virtue was transmitted into material being.  Most significantly, according to Derrida, khora must be by its very nature formless and without definition.  Timaneus tells us that if we were to look at khora, we look at like we would a dream.  Essentially (barring some serious divine intervention), no one can see khora or know its nature.  It only functions as a governing regulator between the ideal and the real.  I submit to you that in a gospel context, the memory serves a similar function–with the significant qualification that the holder of the memory can access it much fuller ways than Plato could access the khora. I would suggest that our memory and our testimony are intricately related and almost synonymous.

Where is testimony equated with memory in scripture?  Where is it not?  How often do we hear the newly-converted speak of how they suddenly “see” God’s hand working in their lives even when they didn’t recognize it?  How about where Christ tells us that the Holy Ghost will “bring all things to your remembrance”?  Must these things correspond with an empirical reality to be “true”?  I’m not suggesting that these memories are factually incorrect, but just not scientifically falsifiable.

Yet scholarship would tell me that since memory can be so manipulated, how could I ever seriously let such nostalgia influence me in any meaningful way?  If state-makers can create a common identity with monuments, marching bands, and banners, why can’t my own mind be fooling me into making sense out of an irrational situation?  Indeed, Maurice Halbwachs, the patron saint on the sociological study of collective (and by extension) individual memory, noted that collective and even individual memory derives from the social sphere.

How do we protect our memory from these polarized pollutions of both misinformation and information overload?  Perhaps we can suppose that memory, as the mind’s most fragile instrument can also be its most beautiful work of art.  Perhaps memory’s beauty, as God would have it, is as at least as much in what it ignores as what it remembers.  A perfect awareness of the thoughts, words, and actions alone of every man, woman, and child would not effectively give one a perfect understanding of one’s place in the cosmos.  Love just might.

Comments

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Comments 4

  1. Russell,

    Interesting. Developing nations aren’t the only ones with memories. Developed nations have collective memories too. Some things fit, other things don’t, and the way events are remembered is important too.

  2. How do we protect our memory from these polarized pollutions of both misinformation and information overload? Perhaps we can suppose that memory, as the mind’s most fragile instrument can also be its most beautiful work of art. Perhaps memory’s beauty, as God would have it, is as at least as much in what it ignores as what it remembers.

    Interesting. Perhaps the shaping of memory is a finding of a deeper truth. Interesting thought.

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