This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in which dementia was one of the themes chosen by guest editor Carey Mulligan:

When I was a Vicar in Leicestershire I was constantly surprised by visits to elderly people who suffered from some form of dementia. Now usually silent, play a harvest hymn or sing a Christmas carol and they would join in. I well remember the agony of a wife no longer recognised by her husband, and her bemusement when he broke his silence and started singing.

With dementia it seems as if the person we love has entered a different world, and it is those who remember all too well who feel the deep sense of loss and bereavement.

Some things go very deep. And when all else has become submerged into a different sort of consciousness, a vestige of deeper identity sometimes survives. Is it just the poetry? Or the tune? Or what?
These are not insignificant questions for anyone coping consciously with the onset of their own dementia or the almost-disappearance of someone they have loved for decades. When our memory has gone, who are we? And, I might add, why do we still matter?

Memory is so important to our sense of who we are that the loss of it is always going to be grievous. So, there are two responses that I as a Christian would venture in the face of this experience.
First, the creation narratives in Genesis (which address ‘why’ questions and not ‘how’ questions) state simply that human beings are made in the image of God. All Christian ethics emerge from this. That is why every human being is ultimately valuable, worth loving and capable of redemption. So, losing my own sense of identity does not reduce my intrinsic worth. If I forget God, God does not forget me. Or, as the prophet Isaiah put it to a people who feared for their future, “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

Secondly, the liturgical shaping of the year by festivals like Christmas is designed to instil deep within us – from cradle to grave – a sense of individual and communal identity. The people of Israel entering the land of promise were required to tell stories that would be handed down the generations, accompanied by simple rituals involving stuff and action – no disembodied spirituality here. This ensured that the memory was formed and recalled. It was also so that people inhabited the memory of who they were and where they had come from; it wasn’t just that life rolled on in some formless way without the waymarkers of identity.

Dementia raises big questions. But, maybe the carols get sung by the silent because they grew up hearing, telling and living the narrative of God who never forgets his people. In an age when so many rituals and the repetition of stories are losing their grip, this faces us with the question of what will form our generation’s children and root their sense of meaning and value.

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This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

I have just got back from the reading of fat books on holiday. The one that grabbed me this time was Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar'. It all sounded so contemporary. The voice in my head kept repeating the plaintive phrase from the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Power, violence, subterfuge, ego, leadership struggles, populism and politics – it's all there. It always is.

I also kept hearing the line from Proverbs: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” The problem with vision is that it emerges from memory. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said this week that Judaism is a religion of memory. So, I would argue, is Christianity. Both remind us, for example, that empires come and go, that hubris is ultimately embarrassing, and that history sadly repeats itself. Christianity makes no sense at all without rituals that are there to compel compulsive amnesiacs to re-member their story: in this case that by recalling that we were once slaves, we will refrain from treating other people like slaves; that we are set free to serve; that we are to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (and one another). For Jews the Passover goes to the heart of this memory; for Christians the Eucharist re-tells the story into which we fit ourselves and shape our future.

We can only know who we are if we know from where and from whom we have come. The problems emerge when either we think we have been born into the ultimate 'now' – that nothing valuable went before us – or we choose the bits of memory that are convenient to our present or future self-justifications.

And that is as dangerous for nations, continents and communities as it is for individuals or religions.

With this in mind, and having read about the Caesars, I wonder if every government should appoint a Cabinet Historian to remind it of the past and challenge policy for the longer-term future in the light of experience.

Of course, all readings of history are partial, and memories are always susceptible to selectivity. But, some of the challenges we face (for example, in the light of Brexit) would be informed by a sober re-membering. Memories are short, but how will anyone born in this millennium understand Russia and Ukraine when they have no experience of the Cold War – and a world divided not just by affluence but by starkly competing ideologies? Memory is not quite the same as history, but both can become commodities in struggles for power, as the biblical narrative reminds us.

Well, I won't hold my breath, but without a memory the people cannot form a vision. And without a vision the people perish.

The Reimagining Europe blog continues to provide space for a different sort of conversation about the future of Europe ahead of the UK referendum in 2017.

2017 is, of course, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg). And, of course, you can't understand the shape of Europe or its history without understanding the Reformation.

So, I have posted a piece about the need to remember well, even when this might offend our prejudices or ideological interests. All in the interests of promoting the debate.

 

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (following last night's Sandford St Martin Awards ceremony at Lambeth Palace):

If truth be told, I'm a bit on the tired side this morning. Last night I was presenting awards for excellence in religious broadcasting and my head is full of great stories. We had some brilliant examples of radio and telly that got under the skin of how people live – and why they live the way they do. After all, religion is about life, not a niche for weirdos.

And perhaps that's why when we get to anniversaries of momentous events, some sort of religious celebration stands at the heart of the remembering. This week is particularly poignant as it ends on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day – a day of triumph, but a day of blood.

But, this week also sees a musical anniversary. Today is the thirtieth birthday of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA. I can't believe it is thirty years since the Boss attacked my ears and got me hooked on music that gave words to memories and took seriously the importance of place for human beings. We need to know where we belong – that we belong somewhere.

I wasn't born in the USA – surprisingly. I was born in Liverpool when the Beatles were getting together and Merseybeat ruled the airwaves. I know where my cultural roots are and they partly tell me who I am. And what Springsteen did was to open up to everyone – wherever they come from – the need to remember. As a rabbi once pointed out, when a generation dies out, memory becomes history – and when that happens – inevitably – history becomes a commodity over which people fight.

The point is we need to know who we are. Way back in the Old Testament the people had to divide the year into rituals that compelled them to remember where they had come from – that when they prospered, they recalled that once they were slaves and had nothing. This was supposed to root within their consciousness a sense of humility and generosity that shaped their politics and economics as well as their culture.

Anyway, Bruce Springsteen isn't that old. But, Born in the USA invited us to do the same task: to remember who we are and that all of us were born somewhere.

 

 

I remember reading a paper once in which the writer kept using the word 'insulation' when he meant 'isolation'. And now I wonder if I am seeing the same thing when I listen to Western political leaders claiming that Putin and Russia will be 'isolated' because of the annexation of Crimea.

Will western threats turn out to be, in fact, the very moves that insulate Putin within his own 'bloc' and cement his position? And will such insulation/isolation actually render any possible negotiation or policy amendment impossible?

These are questions more eloquently put by Dr Charles Reed in his good and clear post today.

They are also the sort of questions lurking behind my original post on Ukraine and subsequent linking in to this of reflections on the events behind the sleepwalking into World War One in 1914. Some intended actions turn out to have unintended consequences – but it is not the politicians who pay the price (unless in terms of the loss of a job later).

Running under all this stuff is also the question of memory – and whose narrative is allowed to become 'official'. As this article in today's Observer illustrates tragically and seriously, attempts to rewrite 1990s history in Serbia and Bosnia is not just of academic interest … especially to those who see the physical world around them being shaped to tell a lie.

And where did World War One begin…?

 

So, we read yesterday that the Israeli government has given permission for another thousand settlement homes to be built. And the outside observer might be forgiven for wondering if peaceful coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian can ever be more than wishful thinking.

Or, to put it differently, is it ever possible for one generation, haunted by nurtured histories of enmity and mutual injustices, to choose to create a memory for the next generation that breaks the cycle of hatred, suspicion, provocation and self-justifying violence?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, noting the death of the last person to fight on the First World War (I think) once spoke about “when memory becomes history”. His point was basically that once the bearers of memory have died, we are left with history as a commodity to be re-shaped, traded and totemised. When there is no living witness to refute the nonsense, it is left to the ideologues to shape the history narrative in such a way as to justify current preoccupations or priorities.

(As an aside: when clergy move to a new post I encourage them to learn the history of the new parish, but to recognise that people there will speak and act from the memory – the newly-appointed priest might learn the history, but an not share the memory.)

I guess this is on my mind today because I have just finished reading Tony Horwitz's excellent pursuit of the American Civil War, 'The Confederates in the Attic'. Funny it may be, but there is something disturbing about the way we – and not just the people we think are mad – appropriate 'memories' regardless of the accuracy or propriety of doing so. Horwitz illustrates well how the myths about the Civil War are more powerful than the facts or the reality. (You'll have to read the book to see what I mean.)

As always, the language tells its own story. The Civil War is known in the South variously as 'the War of Northern Aggression', 'the Lost Cause' and 'the Recent Unpleasantness'. We write the 'history' in order to create a 'memory' that justifies who and how we behave now – especially in relation to those who (inconveniently) share 'our space'. Closer to (my) home, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland view the Battle of the Boyne in 16XX differently.

Anyway, I am now on to Sylvie Simmons' 2012 biography of Leonard Cohen. And what raises its head at the beginning of Cohen's story in Montreal, Canada? The segregation of French and English in Quebec. However, she does also quote Canadian poet Irving Layton, speaking about Cohen and defining 'genius' in the same way I have previously described a prophet: “the ability – a very rare ability – to see things as they actually are. You are not fooled.” (p.51) If a genius is rarely appreciated in these terms, a prophet is rarely welcome in his/her own home.

There is no escape. This is how tribal human beings are. We don't have to be. We can choose not to be. But, this demands a self-sacrificial decision to prioritise the future over the past and to create a reality that will prove to be a more hopeful and positive 'memory' for those who will inherit the history we are making now.

 

This morning we went with the Meissen Commission to visit the Martin-Luther-Gymnasium in Eisenach. The building tells a story.

Originally a Dominican monastery, it has engaged in education for a thousand years. Apart from a guided tour in which we saw how the building itself has developed and incorporated the philosophies and cultures of its various epochs, we also sat in English and Religious Education lessons in order to get a feel for how these things are taught in a German church school.

The bit that grabbed me was the painting in the assembly hall. During the GDR the painting of Prometheus was underwritten by Karl Marx's ruminations on human value:

“Prometheus, the epitome of a fighter for the happiness of humankind.”

Well, make your own mind up about Marx's limited vision. What interested me was that the church school was not allowed to remove this piece of art on the grounds that it forms part of the 'story' that has formed the children who study here and must be somehow incorporated into their understanding of how they have come to be where they are. Clearly, even though it doesn't immediately strike one as the epitome of Christian iconography, it seems to me right that it has been retained.

I remember the first time I went into the Humboldt University in Berlin and was confronted by the staircase fronted with Marx and his statement from the Communist Manifesto: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.” A bit pointed, don't you think… in the entrance hall to a renowned university?

The lecture hall we went to was lined with busts of great Communist thinkers, writers or political leaders – or, at least, those thinkers of the past whom Honecker's boys wanted to retrospectively claim as proto-Marxist-Leninists. I wondered why, sixteen years after the GDR experiment had been discarded, they didn't take away the tacky cultural symbols that epitomised it. I am glad they didn't.

This then fed into the then raging debate in Berlin about whether or not to demolish the grotesque Palast der Republik – the brutalist cultural centre of Socialist Berlin, located opposite the Dom and close to the Museuminsel. In this case the argument was lost and the building came down.

What is going in here is how far we lose something which, however ugly or inconvenient, reminds us of our story. The built environment incorporates memory and ridding ourselves of it is not always the best course of action – even when it is entirely understandable.

I am familiar with two churches in south London which were seriously damaged by fires. In both cases fire-damaged stones and other elements were incorporated in the design of the new church – in order to let the building itself tell an honest story of a community living and worshiping at a particular time in history. I picked up this theme (badly and in a rather rambling way) in a sermon in Hull a few days ago: go around the church where I was a vicar in the 1990s (Rothley, Leicestershire) and the building itself tells a story of change, adaptation, development, suffering, celebration and all the stuff of life there during 1200 years. Baptise in a Norman font and you can't help but be caught up in the mystery of the people who, over a period of 1000 years, were baptised in or witnessed baptism in that same font in that same building.

'Stuff' matters. Christians who spiritualise or dematerialise faith have – literally – lost the plot. Christianity is always materialist – incarnation goes to the heart of it. In Genesis 3 it is God who comes to humanity, seeking him and her out in the Garden; in Jesus God comes to us as one of us; in the colourful and coded imagination of Revelation it is the heavenly city that comes down to earth and not the other way round. Christianity is rooted in stuff and memory and realism: it means not running away from the world or the inconvenient bits of the story that has formed us. It is never escapism, but engagement.

I think Marx actually had a limited view of human value – contrary to the humane passion that drove his economic thinking. Suspicious of fantasy or myth, he went for Prometheus. Maybe the students at the Martin-Luther-Gymnasium will learn to think deeply about an anthropology that does justice to the philosophies that have shaped the world they are growing into, giving them the critical competence to construct a world view that will hold water in a changing and challenging world.

Before spending this afternoon in the wonderful Bachhaus in Eisenach, I noticed this quotation on leaving the school: “Das Geheimnis der Versöhnung ist Erinnerung” (the secret of reconciliation is memory). Discuss…