In one of the leadership training videos produced by the Church a woman talks about a particularly chaotic, frustrating day she had with her four year old. She told him she was at her wit’s end and didn’t know what do anymore. He suggested she sing “I am a Child of God,” which, of course, she then did. She said she was grateful for the opportunity to be reminded of who her child was.
There is a significant distinction between knowing (or understanding) and remembering in this little didactic story. It’s unlikely that this mother had stopped believing that her child was a child of God, and likewise it seems wrong to interpret her as becoming uncertain about her child’s eternal identity, whereas once she had been much more confident.* She said that she needed to be reminded of this. What she had known was never in doubt; it would be wrong to say that her knowledge about this thing was incomplete or had broken down. She had forgotten and needed to remember.
Remembering has a crucial religious function, distinct from though related to knowing. Perhaps the most significant example of remembering as a divine injunction is found in the Sacrament prayers, where we are enjoined to eat and drink in remembrance of the Son giving his body for/to us. Remembering implies once having experienced something, forgetting it, and re-membering or reconstituting it anew. Yet we are told that we eat and drink in remembrance of a physical body we have no memory of because we have had no experience with it. We have not seen it, felt it, heard it, etc. What, then, are we re-membering, re-constituting?
It is significant that the Sacrament is, ideally, administered to the community as a whole and not individuals (though as with all things there are necessary exceptions). Thus, sacramental memory is collective in nature. Collective memory sometimes functions in an additive way, combining individual memories of particular events in order to more accurately reconstruct the events after they have happened. But collective memory can also serve a community that seeks to memorialize events long past, events of which individual members have had no personal cognitive experience. Collective memory is at work when we memorialize, re-present, and re-frame significant past events that none of us have personally experienced. Because the Sacrament symbolizes the event that is most important for us as Christians and Latter-day Saints, the collective memory at work in administering and partaking of the Sacrament is particularly important to us.
In this way, as important as tying our own subjective feelings, experiences, and repentance to partaking of the Sacrament is, these become much more powerful and transformative when embedded in the experience of partaking of the Sacrament as a whole community. Personal witness then becomes communal witness; personal repentance becomes communal repentance, for the sins we might have committed or omitted as a group; personal reception of the Spirit becomes the collective reception of the Spirit, working through the various members of the one body of Christ. Collectively we remember the Atonement and seek at-one-ment with God and with one another. Together we ritually reconstruct, re-member, re-constitute, re-tell the event/person that saved us all from sin and death.
In Kierkegaard’s writings, re-collection is an even stronger enabling of remembering. He says that in recollection we consciously re-collect the fragments of memory, re-assembling those fragments into a unified person we recall inwardly in love. The same might be applied to our own approach to the Sacrament, as we ritually reassemble Christ/the Body of Christ as a unified person who blesses us with his Spirit. In this way it might be said that the community always has his Spirit, though we as individuals might separate ourselves from it from time to time. It is also noteworthy, I think, that what we remember is the materiality of Christ and his atonement, his very flesh and blood, and not merely a metaphysical principle (The Catholic transubstantiation of Christ’s flesh and blood in the Communion meal also points to this). We remember, repent, and witness in and through bodies, and our remembrance and recollection of Christ’s body makes the entire process of atonement and transformation a material, embodied experience, or better yet, it indicates the earthy, temporal materiality of spiritual experiences.
Conceptually, we might always be able to assent to knowing something, to having a sure knowledge, yet forget those significant, formative experiences by which our knowledge was gifted to us in the first place. Thus, the work of collectively remembering, perhaps most importantly symbolized in the Sacrament, becomes absolutely crucial to our identities as members of the one body of Christ, an act that cannot be fully accomplished individually, but finds full expression when enacted as a community.
In this way, affirming, “We remember” becomes as vitally important as testifying, “I know.”
*Though we shouldn’t discount those times when we become convinced that our children have been created by demons meant to torment our existence. But that’s another post.