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Department of Theology and Religion

Profiles

Revd Paul Witts

(email at p.m.witts@durham.ac.uk)

Abstract

Nostalgia used to be regarded as 'bad memory.' More recently nostalgia has been rehabilitated within the social sciences and literary studies. However, nostalgia still has a bad reputation within theology being described by some as idolatrous and fetishistic. Psychologists point out that nostalgia fulfills an important role in 'terror management' when individuals face life-threatening events. Sociologists have discovered that nostalgia gives individuals a sense of self-continuance and supports self-identity in times of change and upheaval. Historians have found that nostalgia can provide 'alternative histories' especially for those groups who would otherwise be ignored and pushed to the margins. Nostalgic memories are, for some, an 'alternative optic' through which the world is 'made sacred' once again.

For the minister of religion nostalgia can seem like a nuisance that is mobilized whenever change is mentioned. Ministers tend to be trained in and operate according to a progress model of church life. Congregations often have a different perspective on change. Change can threaten a way of life and worship that they see and understand through a nostalgic gaze. What, for the minister, is outdated, is, for the congregation, sacred and links them with a vision of church life as it used to be and as they would like it to be once again. This vision evokes memories of departed friends and loved ones and a way of life that seems better than the one lived today.

It is easy to dismiss such congregational nostalgia on the basis of the past being unreachable and of no relevance today. Such an approach tends to ignore the loss that nostalgia represents and sees nostalgia as an organizational problem stemming from faulty memory resulting, in some cases, in resistance to change. At the very least, nostalgia represents a pastoral issue that has not always been taken seriously. But could nostalgia represent a resource for church development if valued more positively and listened to more carefully? If so, what might this mean for the ongoing education of ministers and the current push for innovation in church life and organization that is taking place across all the main denominations with the UK? What might a more positive view of nostalgia mean for pastoral care of congregations?

This project aims to come to a more detailed understanding of nostalgia within church congregations by utilizing an anthropological, qualitative methodology.  A range of theological perspectives and resources are utilized within the project to see if a more positive theology of nostalgia might be possible for pastoral care and church development. 

Is supervised by