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Memory and Imagination

A key concept in Deuteronomy 8 is memory. In v2, Moses challenges his hearers to remember God’s past activity, especially how he guided (and also provided for) them during the wilderness years. Again, in v18, Moses explicitly calls the people to remember YHWH himself as the one “who gives you power to get wealth” (ESV). Negatively, Moses warns the people not to forget the Lord, and he appeals to their collective memory of God’s activity for them to bring them out of Egypt, to guide them through the wilderness, and to provide what they needed, especially water, until he brought them safely to the edge of the promised land (cf. v15). Beyond these specific exhortations related to memory, there is no doubt that Moses wanted his hearers to remember the whole of this exhortation, for it made connections between the past, the present, and the future. The memory of the past was to have an impact in the present, and the memory of this speech was meant to have an impact for the future. Moreover, their collective memory of the good life was meant to be employed as a tool for imagining the blessings of a covenant relationship with God. Thus, memory is a key concept in this text.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, little was understood with respect to the physiological processes of memory formation, retention, and recall. Certainly, theories existed, and Herman Bavinck viewed especially materialistic theories skeptically. He once wrote, “Materialism explains all psychic life in terms of metabolism in the brain, and supposes that representations leave traces behind in the brain, which traces they later, through one or another cause, induce to surface again in the consciousness.”[1] Subsequent scientific study of the brain and its relationship to memory formation has actually supported the materialistic theory as an explanation of the physiological process itself. In response to a given stimulus, neurons are activated throughout the brain, depending on the specific type of stimulus, which eventually gives rise to a strengthening of the connections between neurons.[2] This brain activity translates into memory formation, which for many memories continues on to consolidation or retention for future recall. In a sense, we can say that representations do, in fact, leave traces behind in the brain.

But to reduce memory to its physiological description is to miss the forest for the trees. As a description, it is fine as far as it goes, but as John Lennox, an Oxford mathematics professor and committed Christian, has said at various times, there is no conflict between describing the physical process of a tea kettle boiling and the deeper explanation for that whistling kettle—Dr. Lennox wants a cup of tea! Indeed, even the scientific literature acknowledges that memory is more than a physiological process. Memories “shape our identity: we are who we are because of our memories, which guide our thoughts and decisions, and influence our emotional reactions.”[3] Extending this idea spiritually, Bavinck writes, “Memory is, after all, the foundation of our spiritual development, connects the present with the past, and maintains the unity and continuity of our living and thinking.”[4] Moses knew this, and so he called his hearers to use their memory to spiritually mature in the faith.

But Moses also encouraged his hearers to mature by actively using their memory through imagination. Bavinck differentiates memory and imagination like this: “While memory faithfully gives back unchanged representations, imagination is the activity of the soul whereby it reproduces altered representations.”[5] Imagination is powerful in that it takes the raw materials of memory and forms them into something worth living for.[6] This is what Moses wanted his hearers to do with his description of the promised land in Deut 8:7-10. He wanted them to imagine the good life, and then use that as a source of strength to be whole-heartedly devoted to the Lord in the present. And this is something that we, too, must do today. We must use our sanctified imaginations in order to sustain us and even strengthen us to be faithful until Christ calls us home or he comes again.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Foundations of Psychology, ed. Bolt John, trans. Jack Vanden Born, Nelson D. Kloosterman, and John Bolt, Bavinck Review 9, 2018, 138.

[3] Reto Bisaz, Alessio Travaglia, and Cristinia M. Alberini, “The Neurobiological Bases of Memory Formation: From Physiological Conditions to Psychopathology,” Psychopathology 47, no. 6 (2014): 347–56.

[4] Bavinck, Foundations of Psychology, 141.

[5] Bavinck, 143.

[6] Bavinck writes that imagination “is the mother of art; it plays a role in the greatest discoveries of science; it is the source of legend and saga, of myth and symbol; it awakens feeling and sympathy; and it spurs us to great deeds.” Foundations of Psychology, 144.

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