Never have Saint Paul’s words repeated themselves so much in my mind as during these last days watching the long-promised and much hoped-for Great and Holy Council (GHC) of the Eastern Orthodox churches start to come apart even before it began. The apostle rightly insists “that there be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together” (I Cor 12: 25-26).
As a Catholic—perhaps especially as an Eastern Catholic—I have been greatly saddened at the suffering, rancor, and discord in the body so evident as the Bulgarians, Antiochians, Georgians, Serbians, and the Russians have said they will not take part in the gathering on Crete. Though such developments are not surprising, there is genuine grief at seeing these struggles, and not for reasons of piety or ecumenical sensitivity so much as basic fraternity: my brothers in the body are experiencing discord, and so, therefore, am I.
In watching the plight of the GHC and in trying to figure out how things developed as they now have, there is no ground for Catholic smugness or triumphalism here; no room for any “apologetics” that asserts “This is what they get for not having a pope.” Such sentiments are not just bad manners or violations of Pauline ecclesiology: they also lack any useful explanatory power.
How, then, might we begin to understand what is going on in contemporary Orthodoxy that has led to this present unhappy mess? Are there explanations for the refusal of several local churches to come to Crete, and for the other manifold divisions in Orthodoxy that have not emerged but simply been intensified in some cases during this ante-conciliar period?
There are good explanations for what is going on, and none of them are new. We are seeing play out, again and again, a long history of nationalism that has been profoundly corrosive of Orthodoxy’s desire to manifest full ecclesial unity to the world. Orthodox apologists will insist, of course, that nationalism does not impair doctrinal unity nor prevent them from celebrating the one Eucharist, but it is hard to take this seriously when people refuse to get together in the same room at the same time for simple conversation about mundane problems.
We are, moreover, seeing play out a long history of rivalry between patriarchates—not just the well-known conflict between Constantinople and Moscow, but a lesser known—and perhaps more absurd—conflict between Jerusalem and Antioch over who has jurisdiction over a tiny community in Qatar. This, too, is not new as anyone with a glancing familiarity with the first four ecumenical councils will know, when questions of patriarchal status—especially between Rome, Constantinople, and Antioch—played themselves out in a way just as unedifying as we are seeing today.
It is possible, then, to think (to borrow a phrase from the Anglo-Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan) that Orthodoxy has more history than it can consume, more historical conflict than it is able to work through, leading to the present unhappy but by no means unexpected impasse. What is to be done?
As it happens, I started reading a new book sent to me by the publisher just at the moment last week when it looked like at least two churches were not going to Crete, and others might follow suit, putting the gathering in crisis. The book is by a contemporary Spanish philosopher, Manuel Cruz, and was translated into English just this spring: On the Difficulty of Living Together: Memory, Politics, and History (Columbia University Press, 2016). Cruz’s book is one of several recent publications treating the topic of historical memory, especially memories of conflict (e.g., the Crusades, the Holocaust) and the increasing recognition scholars are devoting to the salutary importance of forgetting. Drawing on earlier works by such as Paul Ricoeur, Cruz’s work joins more recent publications, including Bradford Vivian’s Public Forgetting: The Rhetoric and Politics of Beginning Again (Penn State University Press, 2010), and David Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and its Ironies (Yale University Press, 2016).
None of these recent studies treats Christianity in any real way, but I have been engaged for some time in thinking with these authors and pondering how the notion of forgetting might be useful to Christians—not just in resolving disputes between each other, but also in dealing with troubling, traumatic, and painful aspects of our own traditions and pasts. This brings me back to work I published more than a decade ago on the “healing of memories,” a concept the late Pope John Paul II so often promoted.
This time around, I am wondering whether, in the case of some especially intractable “memories” of conflict, division, and rivalry—memories that are partly imagined, and partly bound up with present images of one’s identity—the only possible route for healing is by simply, deliberately forgetting them. This may seem too facile to some people, and it is certainly contrary to how most people view forgetting, which is most often reprobated as a moral failure: foolish husband, you forgot your wife’s birthday yesterday! Overbooked mom, you forgot Sally’s dental appointment this morning!
Scripture, too, generally regards forgetting—especially of the relationship to God, and His commands—as unacceptable behavior.
But Scripture also positively and forcefully enjoins forgetting upon people in cases of discord, division, or suffering. Thus Joseph’s exclamation, before the year of famine and after the birth of his son, whom he called “Manas’seh, for, he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house’.” (Gen 41:51). Later on, Job will make a similar exclamation, noting God’s power such that if you are suffering you “will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away” (Job 11:16). The prophets speak similarly, Isaiah noting (54:4) that “you will forget the shame of your youth” while Ezekiel (Ez 39:25-26) has God exclaiming that “I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy upon the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for my holy name. They shall forget their shame, and all the treachery they have practiced against me.”
Mentions of salutary forgetting occur rarely in the New Testament, but St. Paul does note, in his letter to the Philippians (3:14) that he is engaged in a process of “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” in order to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” And Paul brings us back to Cruz who, more than the other recent authors I mentioned, similarly strains forward toward the future, calling us not to ignore the past, but to deliberately forget it insofar as it holds us back from a better future and a better world.
Cruz would thus seem to side with Paul and against Freud and the therapeutic tradition following in his wake that advocated for remembering conflicts in order to work them through and come to some kind of resolution. The Spanish philosopher diverges from the Viennese psychoanalyst to suggest that instead of working through past conflicts or traumas, one must, undertake deliberate forgetting as “a way of draining history” and its enslaving power. Cruz is not advocating ignoring history, but a moving to the far side of knowing: “to know in order to forget, then, but to forget in order to be able to pursue. History has not ended. History has simply been blocked.”
One could say the same thing about the great and holy council of Orthodoxy: it is not ended or even begun as envisaged, but instead its full promise has been blocked because of an inability to overcome longstanding conflicts and largely invented memories by which some Orthodox construct present identities to gain advantage over others. Is it too much to pray that instead of anamnesis God will instead grant a certain healthful and helpful degree of amnesia to Orthodox Christians, allowing them to forget past and present conflicts so that they—and we with them in due course—may all strain toward the great prize of Christ’s call to unity so that the world might believe?
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