Nostalgia and Faith: Can They Coexist?

No one needs faith for something that has already happened. Faith, by its nature, requires a future component, a measure of uncertainty. In situations where there is no uncertainty – the package has already arrived, as promised, the test has been scored – faith is superfluous.

Does this imply that people of faith, like myself, will not be nostalgic, since nostalgia is about the settled past and faith is about the unsettled future? I hope not, because I sometimes wax nostalgic, particularly around the holidays. I remember winter mornings when my brother and I would run out on the front porch in our bare feet to retrieve the foil-topped bottles the milkman had left. We’d pour ourselves a glass, then chew the frozen milk crystals that collected on the top.

Such memories are pleasant to me. Nostalgia is not about times of loneliness and sorrow, but about times of peace and camaraderie. The past I remember seems simpler, gentler, and more manageable. Unlike the future, the past never incites fear.

When the term “nostalgia” first came into use in the 17th century, it denoted a kind of mental illness. The doctor who coined the term described it as a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.” It was thought to be a type of home-sickness – the term coming from the Greek roots for “returning home” and for “pain.”

In recent years, however, social scientists have discovered various benefits that accompany nostalgia. John Tierney lists some of them in his New York Times piece, What Is Nostalgia Good For? He writes that couples who engage in nostalgia feel closer to each other. Nostalgia seems to counteract loneliness, boredom, and anxiety. On cold days, people who engage in nostalgia actually feel warmer. “The net effect,” Tierney writes, “is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening.”

According to Tierney, researchers have found a kind of cycle to nostalgia. While it has been found to occur in children as young as seven, it generally surfaces among people in their twenties. It fades in middle age, then returns strongly among seniors.

Whatever one’s age, nostalgia need not diminish faith. It may, in fact, encourage it. Research has shown that people generally have more confidence about the future after engaging in nostalgia.

This alteration between past and future fits quite nicely in a Christian framework. The Church, having learned from their Jewish forebears to honor the past while anticipating the future, has developed a kind of choreography which includes both. They celebrate the past, grounded in God’s historical revelation through Christ, with feast days and remembrances. At the same time they set their “hope fully on the grace to be given … when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:13).

The best example of this is the Church’s repeated practice of taking Holy Communion. Each time she does so, it is with the instruction to “remember” and with the knowledge that this truncated meal foretells a joyful future day when “its meaning is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” This back and forth dance, with both past and future steps, has the effect of strengthening one’s faith, not weakening it.

Nostalgia will, however, weaken faith if it becomes an addiction. Like other addictions, nostalgia can be used as a temporary escape from present pains or a bulwark against future fears. Advertisers play on nostalgia to sell their product. Politicians evoke nostalgia – with its feeling that the past was simpler, gentler, and more manageable – as they promise a return to past glory and warn against an apocalyptic future.

Like everyone else, the followers of Jesus live on the razor’s edge that separates the past from the future. But they are learning to do more than live there: they are learning to dance there. They plant their feet firmly on the events of the past but continually stretch – and sometimes leap – toward the future.

It is a difficult dance to learn and there are plenty of ways to stumble. The past is the ground on which we stand yet it must not become the box in which we’re stuck. The future is to be embraced but we must renounce the desire to grasp and conquer it.

First published by Gatehouse Media

This entry was posted in Faith, Lifestyle, Spiritual life, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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