Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Earthly Compassion is the New Immortality

If mimesis changes the conversation, compassion is the elephant in the room. It's been there all the time and we've hardly talked about it; or even known how to talk about it.

Compassion is a taken-for-granted neural ability placing us in unity with our world, especially with feeling creatures like ourselves if they are young, vulnerable or suffering. It is especially lively among children, and in mothers.

In its widest, fullest sense compassion is the nil state of hostility to our surroundings. In a "state of compassion" we wonder why we could have nourished any animosity or resentment to particular individuals, or why we should desire that particular object or person, rather than being at peace with them. There is a physical warmth and vitality to it, the feeling of a deeply shared life.

Yet in terms of Christian preaching or teaching compassion is a poor relation. It doesn't have the theological centrality of "love." It is usually mentioned vaguely and in passing as a human emotion, losing out to moralizing "good works;" or , in comparison to faith, is more or less ignored.

But, now, with the entry of mimesis into our language and thoughtworld the relevance and importance of compassion has increased hugely. If the thought of mimesis is so big--for our constitution as humans, and as part of scriptural revelation--then the status of its neural twin must grow correspondingly.

For compassion can be seen as exactly the same preconscious imitative state (as mimesis), but without the competition. It is essentially the same mirroring, but without the imitation of grasping that sets off rivalry. It allows us be in exactly the same feeling space as the other but without the conflict of desire. In positive terms, compassion is a humility and nonviolence toward the other that allows us to be for them and with them in the exact human event where they are.

As such it emerges as an absolutely critical anthropology.

New Testament love is of course something decisively new in the world, brought to us by the Crucified. Because Christ was abused and did not abuse in return, and forgave his tormentors, even to the point of death, there is a standard of self-giving erupting into history that exceeds anything known of compassion. Love is higher and stronger than compassion. It is the Holy Spirit. But love understood without compassion becomes dogmatic, false spiritual and priggish. Compassion is what gives love its work and its world, and because of love Christian compassion becomes radical, even to showing solidarity with our enemy.

Love puts its roots down in compassion, into the hundred-thousand-year-old sentient world of shared humanity, and little by little draws it up into all the cultural situations of anger, hostility, and violence. In this way it creates forgiveness and peace in real organic political terms, making a tree of life for all.

The gospels show this radical meaning of compassion is already the meaning of God. The word "compassion" is only used of Jesus or in parables where divine forgiveness is shown, including the most powerful, the Prodigal Son or Two Brothers. By some marvelous identity of frequency God resonates most truly with human beings at the level of nonviolent, forgiving mimesis, i.e. compassion.

As Christianity grows to understand all this then compassion will become progressively pivotal to its meaning and program. Radical compassion will become the framework of discourse and understanding of 21st century Christianity, its evangelizing lifeworld, just as much as death, the soul and heaven were to the first centuries; or guilt, death and hell were to the Middle Ages.

Earthly compassion is the new "immortality," the core salvific construct.in which contemporary Christianity moves to speak, convert and operate.

As it does so it will inevitably teach a better way than morally indifferent capitalism as the necessary model of human business. Maggie Thatcher famously argued the Good Samaritan could not have helped the victim on the wayside unless he had industriously made his pile of cash first. Whatever the value of her historical-critical reading, her remark showed how in her classic Protestant worldview there was a hierarchy of two orders: first business, then compassion. We all know the disastrous results produced by that grim hierarchy. What would the world be like if Christianity could teach, all over again, that compassion in and throughout all human affairs is the core and complete meaning of God in Christ?

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mimesis Changes the Conversation


How do you even say the word? First syllable with the vowel sound as in "miss," second as in "say," or first as in "mice," second as in "cheese?" And where does the accent go? Small wonder when you introduce it people look like you've started speaking Greek, which in fact you have.

It has a long history all the way from Plato and Aristotle. But Rene Girard reintroduced it in a dramatic new sense, to indicate an absolutely primary human function. More primary than sex or even, in some cases, than fear.

"Mimesis" refers to our ability to imitate at a level much more basic than external mimicry or learning. It means preconscious imitation of someone else's desire. Cognitive science has confirmed this. There is an immediate repetition within myself of another's goal-directed gesture. Neural pathways in my brain and body which are activated in my own goal-directed movements are also activated simply by watching others perform the selfsame actions. They are called "mirror neurons."

We are cross-wired to each other. By seeing someone else want something, we want it ourselves, in exactly the same emotional, neural, virtual space.

This helplessly shared space of human desire obviously gives birth at lightning speed to competition, rivalry and violence, and again all of the process is preconscious. When we desire and when we fight, we don't realize we're really imitating the rival "other," intimately, immediately, profoundly

We are not just walking mirrors of each other. We are the same emotional happening. The same spiritual space and event.

And that's not the half of it.

Girard demonstrated that the ability to see all this clearly came in fact from the bible. As he has said, this is "a science arising in and from the bible." Girard gave birth to his systematic understanding of mimetic desire more than twenty years before the laboratory evidence of mirror neurons. He did it following a trail of stories in literature and the bible. In the works of literature where mimetic desire was displayed he argued the writer had invariably undergone a form of personal conversion. In his reading of the text of holy scripture he demonstrated a pathway of consistent and penetrating analysis of human mimesis, from Cain and Abel through to the teaching and story of Jesus.

In other words there is a decisive dimension of scriptural revelation to this. The bible has become the vehicle of a scientific understanding of humanity. Christian Revelation is now as much anthropology as it is theology.

The consequences for theology are nothing short of earth-shattering.

Here are a few of them. I give them only in a list, without development, because that's the point. We are only at the beginning of grasping and unpacking these consequences.

1. Mimesis challenges and displaces the traditional concept of an isolate and ethereal soul. 

2. It changes the concept of sin from private transgression to a mutual condition of rivalry and violence. 

3. It makes love understandable as a transformation of desire through the modeling of Christ and the Christ-loved community. 

4. It changes soteriology ("salvation") and eschatology (the "Second Coming" and "heaven") from legal and other-worldly goals to a radical change in human self-concept and behavior through the divine humanity of Christ. 

5. It explains the incarnation as a"one nerve cell at a time" shift in human possibility in a thousand year cultural process, until a single human related fully and truly without rivalry or violence to the core human concept of God. In and through Jesus the realization of God becomes the Father who is entirely without violence.

My personal impression is that these changes are so dramatic for our traditional Christian worldview many people, including theologians and pastors, prefer to leave them unexplored. But the moment the concept of mimesis is introduced the conversation changes one way or the other, anyway.

The thought of mimesis is like looking through a biblical microscope expecting to find spirits and ghosts and glimpses of heaven, and finding instead a complex human organization that is both deadly, and yet open to an absolute historical transformation.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Monday, July 2, 2012

Hope, That Thing From God

I'm sometimes accused, in one forum or another, of naive optimism.

How can I hold out the prospect of a world guided radically by the compassion of Jesus, and of an earth and time to come filled with peace and forgiveness? The overwhelming evidence is to the contrary.

Especially as a Girardian, surely I should accept the final word is "Battling To The End," not the end of battling.

Allow me, therefore, to bring a word in defense of my Pollyannaish viewpoint. The recent Theology and Peace conference underlined the need. You can't continue to do public theology without hope at its core. If we continue to expand the T&P community, reaching out to new constituencies and demographics, the more it will be the message of hope that keeps people coming back.

Apart from René Girard there has been one other major living influence in my life. It was Carlo Carretto of the Little Brothers of the Gospel, with whom I spent a deeply formative year in community. He used to say, with his usual passionate panache, "Optimism is not the same as hope. The former is a human condition of mind, the other is a gift from God."

Emily Dickinson famously said "Hope is the thing with feathers." I am tempted to think she got the word "thing" from the version of Corinthians: "Three things remain, faith, hope and love..."

In Hebrews faith is described as the underlying reality or substance of things hoped for (11:1).

In other words faith reaches out in relationship to something real that is absent to sight, while hope acts on that reality in the present, effectively bringing it into the present.

Hope is a relationship to the unseen in the here and now. Traditionally it is called a virtue, which means something like a personal strength. Certainly it gives strength, but it is much more a relationship. Even less is it an intellectual vision, something seen by the mind. Our standard Christian epistemologies (rooted in the individual, intellectual soul) have skewed the sense of a living relationship experienced in the body.

Hope is feminine whole-body relationship, a being in-touch with the future thing of Christ. That is why it was women who first "got" the resurrection, and they did so by touching the Risen One.

A hope-filled person changes the world constructed around her because she feels and knows it as already changed.

The cosmos is changed because of the resurrection. Perhaps the standard pop male version of resurrection relationship is science fiction. Science fiction channels the resurrection but at the same time gives lots of toys for the boys. Essentially sci-fi is brought to birth by the story of resurrection, given its plotline to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. Perhaps one reason why resurrection hope is displaced in sci-fi is that the church has been so bad at proclaiming the concrete reality of resurrection.

The resurrection is a concrete reality discovered not by a spacecraft, but by a whole-body relationship with the Risen One. It is cosmic metamorphosis right in our backyard, right in our kitchen, because the New Testament narrative makes it clear that the conditions of physical life have not been abolished but transformed in Christ. 

So here then is the thing (really). Because of this astonishing cosmological shift the actual conditions of the world are already changed into peace and forgiveness. Hope is the link to this change and it is experienced as a "thing," as real and substantive, because that is the way we experience our bodily reality. It is not a ghostly world or intellectual idea because these are constructs and displacements made out of death and rejection of the body, while hope is an actual thing that remains.

Which means that no matter how hard the violence of the world presses, no matter how the armies and weapons accumulate, no matter how our system of crisis doubles down on itself, and even if the very bombs themselves are dropped, the concrete physical reality of the Risen One remains. In him the new earth already exists. In him, as he said, paradise is today.

But if we also add in the underlying leavening effect of the gospel in the contemporary world--which I have constantly argued, in Virtually Christian and elsewhere--it means the rest of the world is also picking up this concrete hope. Despite the world, against the grain, in a masked and often contorted form, all the same, this hope is showing itself in the concrete, practical affairs of humanity, in the political, the social, the legal, the medical, and the media. And of course in popular entertainment and culture.

So none of us should be scared off by the threat of doom. Or, place our faith in some beam-me-up-Jesus of a "spiritual" other world, or indeed in a me-alone-with-my-loved-ones brute survival possibility. The victory is already won in the here and now, in all its immense and mysterious human complexity.

We do not know of course how exactly it will work out, and against what catastrophes and reversals it still has to contend. But the feathered thing from God says it will work out. "Do not fear, I have overcome the world."

The Christian call then is to affirm this concrete hope in all things, not mimetically to doubt it. The so-called "realists" really are not real enough.

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian