Professor Judith Lieu
Have you finished packing? Or are you despairing before you have even started? Where in three short years did so much stuff come from? All of it recording the rich variety of your Cambridge years. How do you decide what to throw away; what to take back with you? What do you need for the next stage, or won’t you know until you take it?
In a year’s time I shall have to move out of my Faculty room, and I’ve begun to look in despair at the stuffed filing cabinets, the creaking shelves. Agendas and papers from long–forgotten committees are easily dealt with; so too are innumerable drafts of students’ dissertations; data protection and freedom of information legislation means I no longer have sheets of cryptic comments on assessed essays and examination scripts — although that does make writing references for almost-forgotten tutees a challenge. But what about this? An essay I wrote during my first year at University, neatly filed with the notes from lectures and reading that helped me write it or revise for exams that summer. One question mark, two grammar corrections and the comment, ‘Quite thoughtful and discerning in places, but too diffuse and too much irrelevant material’. It — with much more of the same —has accompanied me through countless moves, half way round the world and then back again. It hasn’t, I hasten to say, provided the script for the lectures I have given ever since.
Why kept? For fear of losing all this knowledge, acquired with such effort? Because, despite that two-edged comment it set me on a path to where I am now? A reminder of what I knew, if I discarded this would I be in some way diminished? Without it would I lose the anchor and reassurance of the building blocks of my identity?
I am not suggesting I have had such existential reflections every time I repacked my belongings – your visits to supervisors’ rooms probably demonstrated that for academics lethargy is always easier than sorting through the detritus from the past. And you have the advantage of being able to transfer to a memory stick —a wonderful term — the notes along with the photos and selfies, and to carry them around with you until the software fails, and memory is reduced to a complex piece of plastic and metal, which can’t even be recycled.
It is a matter of debate whether remembering is what distinguishes us from other forms of animal life, but it does certainly shape, make, us as individuals and as groups. It is a truism that the loss of photos and personal memorabilia in flood or fire can never be compensated by any form of insurance, any promise of cash ‘to help you get by and start again’.
Begin the sentence, ‘A people/a person without memory’, and you will provoke an avalanche of conclusions, all according to Google uttered by the great and the good: is a tree without roots; is a people without a future; is a people without a culture.
Such sentiments may reassure those of us who work in the Humanities; whereas it is often supposed that the sciences have no need to justify themselves and their consumption of national resources, the value of the Humanities is a topic of never satisfied anxiety, for parents as well as for politicians - and the punch-line that Mark Zuckerberg studied Classics at school and once quoted the Aeneid in a Facebook products Conference may have limited persuasive effect. More positively we appeal to the impoverishment of spirit, even the loss of identity, that results where the dialogue with the past, in history, arts, literature, is lost.
As a Theologian or Historian of Early Christianity most of my attention is directed to remembering. Religions, mostly, are in the business of creating, preserving and recreating memory. They perform acts of remembering, in words and texts, in argument and polemic, in ritual and practice, in liturgy, music and drama, in dress and story. Such acts of remembering create communities that survive through time in extraordinary ways, often against the odds. It is not just religions that perform remembering, as any member of this University knows, with all its reminders of 800 years, and as events such as today demonstrate. We also live in an age of fears that rapid change means we are loosing the memory that makes us, an age of rallying calls to ‘make Britain great again’, an age of turning the blame on new comers with different memories. As a specialist in religion I cannot afford to be dewy-eyed and naive about the power of remembering. A fixation on the past, a determination to preserve it and recreate it in defiance of the changing world about us swiftly becomes destructive of human flourishing. Many of the deepest and most vicious of divisions in the present claim as their authority conflicting narratives of the past, alternative modes of remembering. Remembering should not be an act of freezing the past and ourselves in it, but of providing a space for a critical dialogue that offers a direction for the future.
Our reading from Isaiah, written over 2 and a half millenia ago captures the challenge:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.
These words were addressed to people who had been forcibly migrated from their home country, hundreds of miles away; displaced by war and defeat, facing an uncertain future, with a new generation almost literally rootless. What gave them identity was remembering – the stories of rescue from Egypt, of miraculous defeat of enemy forces and successful journeying through the wilderness, of settling in a new land. Yet the prophet urges his audience to let go of the past, because only by letting go will they be free to face the future. The irony is that the future he promises them is not a denial of the past but a reconfiguration of it: wilderness and rivers, wild animals and sustenance will again be its markers, for him because there is a consistency in the God who remains constant even through the inevitable wildernesses ahead.
Returning to those defences of the Humanities. Too often it is said that the value of History is so that we might learn from it: as if we were not now different people and in a different place. Challenging those wise sayings about a people without a memory Nietzsche wrote an essay on the Uses and Disadvantages of history for life; evoking the terror of having total recall of all the chaotic impressions on our senses, he protested that it is possible, almost, to live without memory, but without forgetting it is impossible to live.
If I have made any progress in research and teaching it is because I have forgotten this essay and all the ‘knowledge’ fixed therein. I did wonder whether to burn it as a symbolic gesture of forgetting, but I feared that that might provoke the chaplain to perform some ritual act with the fire extinguisher whose deeper meaning I would then have to weave into this address.
Today will be a truly memorable occasion; you have been shaped as a community of shared memory, and the part you have played will be woven into the remembering which creates a College; the Alumni Office will do all they can to ensure you do not forget Robinson and your time here. More important, though, whatever you take, whatever you leave, remember, and forget, critically, creatively, for the future.