Religion and memory

Memorizing religion

Having discussed the entanglement of urbanization and religious change, we can now turn our attention from the material and spatial back to the immaterial. How do the experiences that are invested in and triggered by material objects and urban spaces become retrievable knowledge? How are such pasts represented in the short or long term and in what form are they accessible to historical research into religion? The following chapters will engage with these questions in three steps. 1 will start by critically evaluating the concept of memory and the role that it plays in my reconstruction of ‘religion in the making’. 1 will then analyse how such memories are translated into narratives that can be handed down and written up. In the final step, 1 will formulate a critique of a historiography that constructs its own questions and frameworks on the basis of such narratives.

Memory has served as a central concept in a wide range of discourses in recent times, particularly from the 1980s onwards. It competes with a concept of ‘history’ that reduces the latter to past narratives, or even to academic historiography (Cubitt 2007; Le Golf 1992). The focus on the social character of memory, which can be traced back to Maurice Halbwachs (1925), and the originally rhetorical concept of places of memory (loci) as ‘places of remembrance’ (Nora and Ageron 1984; see also Francois 2009), rewritten by Pierre Nora, has played an important role in these discussions. At the same time, psychological and neurological memory research has provided a new basis for the modelling of retention and (re-)remembering or forgetting, thus revealing the constructive character of memory for the individual (Welzer 2002, developed in cultural studies in Berek 2009). Accordingly, memory presents itself as a complex process of perception, associations, temporal marking of such memory contents, individual appropriation of narratives or data related to content and circumstances, and conscious evocation of memories. This suggests that memory should be understood as a form of knowledge that includes a self-reflexive knowledge of the past temporal circumstances of the ‘sedimentation’ of this knowledge (ibid., 70). This concept of memory, which will also be used in the following, is based on the combination of two elements: the transfer of content into memory and active self-remembrance (according to Aristotle, De memoria et reminiscentia: mneme and anamnesis).

Religion has played a limited but important role in these discourses. Above all. with its mimetic or numerically interpreted rituals, it has offered a prime example of ‘collective memory’ and its cultural sedimentation, including in the form of ritual scripts and written narratives. Aleida and Jan Assmann have systematized such changes of media under the concept of the transition from ‘communicative’ to ‘cultural memory’ (A. Assmann 1999; J. Assmann 1999). This analysis has also made it possible to connect a cultural-scientific concept to a rhetorical notion concerned with the memorization of speech content for the purpose of performance (Haverkamp and Lachmann 1993). A number of central Jewish and Christian rituals offer starting points for understanding ritual memory (or remembrance). Of particular note are the Passover, which transmitted the memory of the sufferings in and the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:14), and the Christian Eucharistic celebration, which recalls the memory of the suffering and the resurrection of Jesus through a ritual performance of the ‘Lord’s Supper' (Luke 22; 19: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’). This anamnetic function of ritual (or in Jewish-Christian terminology, liturgy) continues to determine important areas of research into historical rituals as well as the discussion of current commemorations and jubilees. In Germany, for instance, we see this in the ongoing discourse surrounding the commemoration of the Holocaust or, in 2017, that concerning the anniversary of the Reformation (Riipke 2015b). The increasing complexity of research into ritual brings together various research traditions; image, text, and performance are treated together as mutually constitutive. The power of images of gods - as found, for example, in the architectural contribution to the sacralization of spaces - is closely linked to their role in memory practices and the provocation of memories. Texts within the ritual - spoken prayers and sung hymns - can focus and shape memories. The history of, and the dispute over, the formulation of central Jewish and Christian prayers (Eighteen Prayers/ Amida. the Birkat ha-Minim and the Good Friday Prayer for the Apostate Jews’) provide impressive examples of the potential of such texts to strengthen denominational or regional identities through memories.

The biblical passages cited above also have a further dimension. They not only yield up secondary ritual interpretations (cf. Friihwald 2008; Kranemann and Riipke 2003) but they are, in fact, themselves part of a practice of memory in which they play a central role: their recitation, reading, and the tradition of commentary upon them turns such texts into places of memory. Brian Stock has deepened this insight by deploying the concept of textual communities, although his work has tended to bring shared interpretation practices rather than shared memory to the fore (Stock 1983, 1990). The fundamental revelation here is that literature is a central medium of religion and not simply a reflection of or on religion. To put it another way, the notion of textual communities helps us to see that literature is a context of religion, just as religion is a context of literature.

In present-day Europe, the French sociologist of religion Danièle Hervieu-Léger has generalized the memory-related character of religion in a way that goes beyond its textual and ritual elements. Her approach understands religion under the conditions of modernity (which she uses in the singular) as a collective memory of a distant founding event which is constructed as unlimitedly meaningful. What is important is the resulting paradox that religiousness is thus, on the one hand, extremely oriented towards the past and, on the other, constructed as ahistorical and timeless (Hervieu-Léger 2008). Contingency can also be reduced by such a temporal framing.

As 1 will show in Chapter 7, narratives based on, but going beyond, memories take the form of an emic historiography, which is of utmost importance for any academic reconstruction of religious change. From the point of view of religious agency, producers of such narratives tend to create religious collective subjects which are attributed a collective agency that polemically denies agency to any individual person. These narratives claim religion to be a ready-made belief system rather than religion in the making. This conception of religion as a fixed system of beliefs and ritual practices has not come out of the blue. Rather, it is based on certain religious practices of memorizing, which it will be useful to review briefly before moving on. 1 will focus on three examples.

Following on from the memory of suffering and memories of the exemplary nature of individual people, the concept of memoria as memory of the dead, first of martyrs, then of other types of saints and deserving people according to the ancient Roman pattern, gained a central place in Christianity. Since the 1980s, the importance of this concept has become paradigmatic in research into the medieval period (Schmid and Wollasch 1984). In addition to the practices of monastic remembrance - for example, on the basis of memorials to or books about the dead - the foundational system that accounts for this remembrance has moved increasingly to the forefront of research. The combination of pictorial memory - for example, in grave reliefs and the grave sculptures which dominate the interior of churches - is combined here with family self-representation as well as with the economic facilitation of a ritual practice of remembrance.

Oral tradition and its preservation and transmission through individual memory and remembrance is often an important characteristic of the selfdescription of religious traditions. This applies to the mastery of the oral tradition attributed to the druids and to the Indian distinction of the quality of written sacred texts. To dwell briefly on the latter: from the unadulterated oral tradition of revealed wordings, which has been preserved in sruti (and is concretely present in the Vedas), can be distinguished the merely approximate memory of those subjects which were (later) written down as smrti and among which were ritual regulations such as Sütras or Purânas.

To take another example from Indian thought, smrti can also serve in a Buddhist context as a synonym for sati (Sanskrit) and thus point to another aspect of active memory: self-reflection or self-observation. Augustine uses the term memoria in his Confessions (Aug. conf. 10.6-27). Here, memory becomes a technique through which to measure one’s own life against religious standards. Yet memory is not restricted to individuals or to serving as a tool of their religious agency. It is, as the preceding remarks on memorization in rituals have illustrated, a mighty tool for processes of institutionalization too. These are typically given priority for the mapping of change. Why?