God’s Memory

What does it mean that we are defined by memories?

We’ve all had that feeling at some point. Perhaps you are staying at a friend’s house, and in the middle of the night you wake up not knowing where you are. The room is unfamiliar and you feel lost. Why is the door there? Then, suddenly, clarity! You remember where you are; you can locate yourself in time and space. Your unease dissolves.

I had a peculiar experience along these lines. One night some months ago I awoke after midnight and walked down the stairs of our home. As I did so I couldn’t think of who I was and also had a sense that someone was missing from the house. The person that I thought was missing was “dad” (though I didn’t know exactly who “dad” was). As I came into the dining room (where my wife was up late working) I asked: “Where’s dad?” She looked at me in great confusion, not knowing what to say. Then, after just a few brief moments, there was clarity for me: “Ah, it’s ok. I know, I’m dad.” Somehow, I was looking for myself?

There are different possible responses to such an experience. Some would laugh it off: “Wow, that was weird.” Others might worry: “Do I have dementia? Am I ok?” Still others might take the experience as an opportunity for armchair psychoanalysis: “Who is ‘dad’ anyway?” My initial response was to worry, though within a very short time I had moved on to the phase of “Wow, that was weird.” But since then I have also taken the experience as an invitation to think about my life and identity.

Some very deep questions arise here. What does it mean that we are defined by memories? And who are we when those memories don’t tell us who we are? In the context of faith: What does it mean that I belong to Christ when the “I” is so dramatically altered or diminished through loss of memory? These are complex questions, of course, both theologically and biologically speaking. 


John Swinton (in his book Dementia: Living in the Memories of God) suggests that we should hesitate over the idea that the self is somehow lost with a person’s loss of memory. While there is great fear of memory loss in our culture, and while there is real anxiety experienced by some with dementia, Swinton suggests that it is most faithful to see dementia as a journey toward a different way of being a self. Rather than as a loss of self.

Closely related to this, Swinton suggests that in the face of human memory loss, the decisive variable is God’s remembrance of us, now and in every moment. Swinton’s own words are helpful.

“[T]o suggest that God remembers persons with advanced dementia is not a palliative avoidance of the real truth that they have lost their identity. Neither is it an abandonment of these people by God in the present [as if God will only remember them in some future moment]. Quite the opposite. It is a firm statement that God is with and for them and that God is acting with and for them in the present as they move toward God’s future.”

And: “We are who we are because God remembers us and holds us in who we are. We are who we are now and will be who we will be in the future because God continues to remember us.”
When it comes to our identity, our memory, and our possible loss of memory, perhaps the Psalmist’s prayer can help us: “You hedge me before and behind; you lay your hand upon me. It is beyond my knowledge; it is a mystery; I cannot fathom it. Where can I escape from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I descend to Sheol, you are there too” (Ps.139).

If I forget, you hold me in your memory.


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