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

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