Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Virtue of Memory

I recently was involved in a FB discussion regarding the significance of "memory" for historical Jesus studies in particular, and biblical studies more generally. The background for this is the epochal shift in HJ studies that occurred with Dunn's 2003 Jesus Remembered. This led to a surge of interest in the question of memory within the study of the historical Jesus. I should say "renewed interest," because memory had been addressed at various times throughout the two centuries of modern historical study of Jesus' life, but never in as sophisticated a fashion as it has been addressed since 2003. In the work of most notably Chris Keith, Anthony Le Donne, and Rafael Rodriguez there has emerged a focus, borne under the general rubric of "social memory theory," upon the concrete operations of memory. Such focus is virtually unparalleled in the history of historical Jesus scholarship (perhaps only Birger Gerhardsson's work in Memory and Manuscript comes close to evincing such a concerted focus). This should all be celebrated, and the genuine insights found within this work integrated into a more robust understanding of Christian origins.

Nonetheless, I have three concerns, for want of a better term, each of which came out in that FB discussion, and which I would like to give more systematic form here. First, much of what the memory theorists within HJ studies have done is already found in earlier scholarship. In Dunn, for instance, in Jesus Remembered explicitly invokes Meyer as the basis for his hermeneutical approach to the historical Jesus. The question: what does it bring that wasn't there before? Chris Keith, who graciously participated in the discussion mentioned above, provided a quite legitimate answer: it provides a more intelligible framework with which to integrate the insights and concerns of that earlier scholarship (my paraphrase of his statement, but one that I believe to be a fair representation). Insofar as the work of discovery entails the movement from lesser to greater intelligibility, that is a quite compelling answer.

That answer leads to the next concern: how does one integrate the framework of "social memory" into a yet broader framework, one that includes a more comprehensive view in which memory is relativized in the literal and non-pejorative sense of being placed in relationship with other aspects of our human existence? Here let us distinguish between personal, cultural, and social dimensions of human existence (the former more or less corresponding to what we often mean when we use the term "individual"). I would suggest that social memory, as it has been worked out in historical Jesus studies, probably most fully pertains to what we might describe as the cultural dimension, in that it has to do with our collective work of making sense of the world and our place in it. That has entailments for both the social and the personal, but the cultural becomes the locus for its work.

That suggestion leads to a third concern, one that in fact has nothing to do with the work as carried out by such persons as Keith, Le Donne, and Rodriguez. There has I think emerged a tendency to suppose that when these scholars talk about memory they are talking about personal (or individual) memory. We might describe this as a psychological reductionism, wherein properly anthropological (in the sense of the discipline that historically focuses upon culture) and sociological insights are treated as if they were psychological ones. And like most reductionisms, it tends rather to miss the mark, for the simple fact that it is studying the wrong set of relationships: not that between memory and culture or society, which what is what is actually in question when social memory theory is utilized in HJ studies, but rather that between memory and the person. It must again be emphasized however that this reductionism is not present in the work of Keith, Le Donne, and Rodriguez, but in fact precisely the opposite: an effort to overcome a tendency to reduce all memory to that of the individual. And it seems to me that that anti-reductionist spirit is perhaps the single most significant contribution that this work has made.

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