Preamble: What follows is not an argument for the truth of religion. It is an exercise in the phenomenology of religion—that is, a description of what the phenomenon of religion is all about. It is not an exercise in theology—that would be a reasoned proposition that the phenomenon is true. Anyone, atheists included, could engage in the former exercise. Only a believer would be motivated to undertake the latter. As I have admitted before, I am a believer (in the event, a Christian one—of sorts). But I do not consider this blog a platform to propagate my religious (or for that matter my political) beliefs.As readers of my blog will have discovered, my cognitive style tends toward free association. In this instance, the associations were triggered by a brief piece in the current issue of First Things, the publication (founded by the late Richard John Neuhaus) of the Institute of Religion and Public Life in New York. It appears in the section “While we’re at it”, at the end of every issue, where the editor comments on texts from miscellaneous sources. This one is taken from the Portland Monthly (a publication hitherto unknown to me).It is from a story by a nurse about names given to infants who die a few hours after birth. If no name is given, such infants are listed as “Baby A”, “Baby B”, and so on. The names are usually given by nurses, because the parents are too exhausted or grief-stricken. Many of the names are haunting—like “Once”, “Lost”, “Wonderful.” This is how the nurse explains what she and other nurses have been doing:
I think that when you are formed in your mother’s womb you have a name that is part of every cell in your body. Your name isn’t a word or even a sound, it’s the you of you [my italics]. . . . I go write it down so it isn’t lost. . . . Somehow that’s what I am supposed to do. There are a lot of things we are supposed to do that are really important in ways we will never understand but we do them anyway, right?
Association: Some years ago a group of Catholic nuns in Berlin started the practice (once a year, as I recall) to read out aloud at a public event the names of all Berlin Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Over time others joined in this ceremony. I heard about it from a Protestant minister who had also joined. This obligation to remember the names is at the core of the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, the Yad Vashem—“a memorial [literally, “a hand”] and a name.” The phrase is taken from Deuteronomy 25, where a man whose brother has died without offspring is ordered to marry the widow and with her to produce offspring in the brother’s name—“And to them I will give in my house and within my walls [that is, within the house of Israel] a hand and a name that shall not be cut off.” [I think that the word “hand”, much stronger than its rendering as “memorial”, indicates that the deceased continues to be an active reality in the world.] Yad Vashem has been seeking to record every name of individual victims of the Holocaust. It has by now collected about four million names, accessible online.Memorial monuments in America have come to express the same desire to name individuals, rather than just subsuming them in a collective commemoration. I think the Vietnam Memorial in Washington was the first to do this. The memorial of victims of September 11 at Ground Zero in New York has followed the practice. Invariably, it seems, visitors to these sites look for the names of their relatives or friends. Apparently they find comfort from finding the names and being able to pass their hands over the places where the names appear.Association: Richard John Neuhaus once told me the story of a time when, for some reason, he was asked to conduct funeral services for paupers while he was a pastor in New York. Apparently the city has a location where it buries unclaimed bodies (I believe in the Bronx or on one of the islands in the East River—in any case, in a dismal place). Very often Neuhaus was the only person at the grave site, apart from the diggers who were waiting for him to finish. He said how important it was for him to speak the names aloud, even if no one was hearing it and no one was mourning.Many years ago I read Dale Carnegie’s advice book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. It is hardly a book of profound reflections about the human condition. I have forgotten everything about the book, except for one passage where Carnegie advises the reader always to remember the names of people—because his own name is everyone’s favorite word in the English language. I have often been impressed by the fact that individuals with exotic names that are extremely difficult to pronounce will carefully spell them out: They want to make sure that you get it right, and they will feel offended if you don’t.Why is this? There may be archaic residues here. In many ancient cultures there are magical notions associated with names. Knowing a person’s name gives one some power over the person. But the strong feelings about one’s own name persist today quite apart from these mythological residues. Of course individuals may change their names, for quite different reasons—because of marriage (many if not most American women still take on their husband’s family name), because of naturalization (Jews moving to Israel very commonly adopt Hebrew names; in America immigrants are more likely to change their name because nobody can pronounce it), upon embarking on a new religious vocation (Mary O’Brien becomes Sister Mary of the Annunciation and, who knows, a cousin of hers, a convert to Islam, is now called Muhammad). But the new names are, precisely, intended to convey a strong and distinctive identity that wants to be remembered as such—as it were, a new “you of you.”Every identity seeks recognition and remembrance. It is as if every human being says to the universe: Remember me! The core of religion is the belief that the universe recognizes and will forever remember every unique identity. This may not be so in all religious traditions. It is definitely so in the three great Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Interestingly, in all three the mainstream belief was in physical resurrection—not in the immortality of a non-material soul, but in the restoration to life of the unique individual in a bodily form (though of course not as the vulnerable body we experience in this life). In empirical reality oblivion is our destiny. We know empirically that we ourselves and everyone we care about will perish and before long will be forgotten. Belief in the resurrection is a refusal to accept the destiny of oblivion. There is an Islamic text (I have lost the reference and I cannot find it) that describes God as “He who Remembers.” Believing Jews and Christians should have no difficulty in agreeing with this description.Postscript: To reiterate, to say that the refusal of oblivion is at the core of the three Abrahamic traditions is not necessarily to say that it is true. It is a magnificent assertion, but some assertions can be both magnificent and false. There can be something admirable, even heroic, in an attitude of stoic resignation by a non-believer, but that attitude is not necessarily true either just because it is admirable. At the core of religious faith is the belief (if you will, the bet) that oblivion is not the last word about human existence. But I have not been propagating this belief here. I have only been saying that the desire to be remembered, and to be remembered beyond death, is deeply rooted in human beings. True or not, this fact helps explain why religion has persisted through the ages, and persists today.