Nostalgia’s Deliberate Forgetting

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I’m reading James K. A. Smith’s latest book, How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now. It is a meditation intended to clarify what was, what is, and what is to come, and how we can better understand our existence as temporal creatures.

I’m only partway through the book. I’m enjoying it so far. One of my favorite passages concerns nostalgia. Smith writes:

The question isn’t just whether we have a history and a future, or even whether we recognize this; the question is how we relate to our past and history.

There is a sort of fascination with the past that is an act of deliberate forgetting: it’s called “nostalgia.” Religious communities are particularly prone to this. Faith is “handed down,” a matter of traditio, and hence faithfulness can be confused with preserving the past rather than having gratitude for a legacy meant to propel us forward. The most significant problem with nostalgia is not that it remembers but what it forgets.

James K. A. Smith, How to Inhabit Time, p. 38

This is precisely correct. Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” This is a very different question than, “What were the old days like?” When we search for why the old days were better, we’ll paint an incomplete picture. We’ll remember in part. We’ll forget in part, too, and often by design. We are glad to put aside the ugly stuff. The result is a distortion. What we’ve laid aside ends up causing us more trouble than the supposed benefits we gain from what we take up, because nostalgia hides from us the complexities of our past.

Nostalgia differs from an accurate historical memory. I take issue with Smith’s either/or regarding the preservation of tradition, his assertion that faithfulness can “be confused with preserving the past rather than having gratitude for a legacy meant to propel us forward.” Can’t faithfulness be a commitment to preserving the past while having gratitude for a legacy that does propel us forward? Furthermore, religious traditions aren’t more prone to nostalgia than are traditions of all kinds, national, political, or otherwise.

I don’t think it has to be either/or. Smith states that it isn’t of question of if we have a past and a future, but how we relate to our past and our future. There is a difference between preservation of the past and attempting to return to a golden age. The former is the work of those stewarding a living tradition. The latter is a fool’s errand.