An Introduction to Mimetic Theory

•March 12, 2011 • 10 Comments

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I compiled the following documentary film on the origin of cultures, in three parts, introducing some major topics of mimetic theory and René Girard’s thinking. Transcription of the videos (in English & Dutch) is available below, beneath PART III.

PART I of the film explores the fundamental role of mimesis (imitation) in human development on several levels (biological, psychological, sociological, cultural). René Girard’s originality lies in his  introduction of a connection between this old philosophical concept and human desire. He speaks of a certain mimetic desire and ascribes to it a vital role in our social interaction. It explains our often competitive and envious tendencies. More specifically, Girard considers mimetic desire as the source for a type of conflict that is foundational to the way human culture originates and develops. In his view the primal cultural institutions are religious. Following a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, Girard first considers religion as a means to organize our social fabric, and to manage violence within communities.

The more specific question the first part of this documentary tries to answer is the following: where do sacrifices, as rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture, originally come from? How can they be explained? Click to watch:

PART II starts off with a summary and then further insists on the fundamental role of the so-called scapegoat mechanism in the origin of religious and cultural phenomena.

PART III explores the world of mythology and human storytelling in the light of Girard’s theory on certain types of culture founding conflicts and scapegoat mechanisms. Girard comes to surprising conclusions regarding storytelling in Judeo-Christian Scripture. 

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Eminem reads the Bible

•April 14, 2014 • Leave a Comment

This post follows a previous thread on suggestions for the development of a high school curriculum on Mimetic Theory. Click the following titles to see what I’ve done on this so far (be sure to check out the pdf-files!):

  1. Mimetic Theory in High School (click to read)
  2. Types of the Scapegoat Mechanism (click to read)
  3. Scapegoating in American Beauty (click to read)
  4. Philosophy in American Beauty (click to read)
  5. Real Life Cases of Ressentiment (click to read)

Eminem (Horns)The story of Cain and Abel (in the book of Genesis) is compared to the story of Stan (by Eminem) to illustrate what I’ve called types 1 and 2 of the scapegoat mechanism. Cain and Abel is an example of the second type of scapegoat mechanism, namely hetero-aggression. Stan is an example of the first type of scapegoat mechanism, namely auto-aggression. By the way, the comparison between Cain and Stan is a translation of a text that first appeared in Dutch in my book Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-’n-roll (Averbode, 2009).

CLICK TO READ PDF-VERSION OF A COMPARISON BETWEEN CAIN AND STAN

CLICK TO READ PDF-VERSION SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM 1 & 2 (EXAMPLES)

[As an aside, it is possible to critique Nietzsche's concept of Judeo-Christian tradition as a product of ressentiment by comparing the third type of the scapegoat mechanism (ressentiment, indeed) with the story of Cain and Abel as an example of the second type. It is clear that, in the biblical story, the Lord condemns the actions of Cain. This implies that the Lord would condemn the actions of persons that are consumed by ressentiment as they take the parallel position of person A (Cain's position). Thus the god born out of the ressentiment of the so-called slaves (a god who recognizes the slaves while condemning the so-called masters) is not the God of Judeo-Christian tradition.]

[As a second aside, click here for more on hip-hop and theology.]

In short, what the following comparison is all about: mimetically ignited love – eros – for the imagined situation of the other leads to hate towards one’s own life and the life of the other (or, which is the same, love for a so-called acceptable self-image) – a crisis of identity and social order. Person A (CAIN or STAN) tries to resolve the crisis that arises out of a comparison with person B (ABEL or SLIM) by sacrificing the other or by sacrificing him/herself – thanatos!

PDF-text of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-18)

PDF-text of Stan (by Eminem)

CAIN AND ABEL COMPARED TO STAN AND SLIM

  • IDENTIFICATION (THROUGH MIMESIS)

Cain and Abel develop similar activities:
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions.

Stan and Slim have similar experiences:
“See I’m just like you in a way… I never knew my father neither – he used to always cheat on my mom and beat her. I can relate to what you’re saying in your songs…”

  • ANGER BECAUSE OF A – FELT, THOUGH NOT NECESSARILY REAL – LACK OF RECOGNITION

Cain becomes angry because Abel gets attention from the Lord while he himself doesn’t seem to get any attention at all:
And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell.

Stan becomes angry because Slim does get recognition from his fans – Stan being one of them – while Stan seems to find no recognition at all:
“Dear Mister-I’m-Too-Good-To-Call-Or-Write-My-Fans, this’ll be the last package I ever send your ass! It’s been six months and still no word – I don’t deserve it?”

  • RECOGNITION NONETHELESS FOR THE PERSON WHO FEELS UNRECOGNIZED

The Lord worries about Cain:
The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen?”

Slim worries about Stan:
“… why are you so mad?”

  • A WARNING FOR THE POSSIBLE EVIL CONSEQUENCES OF FRUSTRATION, ANGER AND STUBBORN PRIDE

The Lord advises Cain to do well:
“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you…”

Slim advises Stan to calm down and to do well:
“I really think you and your girlfriend need each other or maybe you just need to treat her better. […] I think that you’ll be doin’ just fine if you relax a little…”

  • A FINAL WARNING 

The First Mourning (Adam and Eve mourn the death of Abel) by Bouguereau 1888“… but you must rule over it…”

“I just don’t want you to do some crazy shit.”

  • WARNING GOES IN VAIN – MURDER ON A DESOLATE PLACE

Cain kills Abel:
Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.

Stan kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend:
“Some dude was drunk and drove his car over a bridge and had his girlfriend in the trunk, and she was pregnant with his kid…”

Mimetic World Wars

•April 11, 2014 • 2 Comments

MAY 20th, 1910 – The royal and political heads of Europe are (still peacefully) gathered for the funeral of Edward VII, king of Great Britain and Ireland, of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, and Emperor of India. Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, is also present at the funeral of his uncle. Once again, Wilhelm is confronted with the grandeur of his British relatives.

George V and members of WAFFIt is no secret that Wilhelm II was extremely jealous of his British uncle first and then of his cousin, king George V, because of the many colonies they owned (picture on the left, king George and members of the WAFF). This kind of envy can only exist towards people one feels closely related to. It’s easier to keep on admiring those who do not belong to our own social environment than those who are close to us. The great William Shakespeare constantly shows the paradoxical nature of human relationships, where contagious conflicts precisely arise between people who often admire each other first. Already in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare sets the stage for an escalation of a conflict between families “both alike in dignity” – a conflict that only comes to an end when Romeo and Juliet sacrifice themselves:

“Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”

So it’s not the difference or inequality as such that potentially creates enmity but our tendency to imitate those we somehow identify with. It’s – as René Girard would have it – a mimetic (i.e. imitative) law of human conflict, which Plato already refers to in his dialogue Lysis (215d) when Socrates says:

“By a universal and infallible law the nearer any two things resemble each other, the fuller do they become of envy, strife and hatred…”

These universal truths are repeated throughout history, time and again, as in a never ending circle. If we would ever experience a global war because of a lack of natural resources, then the origins of such a war would lie in the mimetic nature of human desire. We are not simply happy with the things we physically need. We want what others have, we imitate the desires of our fellow men, even if we don’t necessarily need what they have. That’s why our ecological footprint is too big. And that’s why we could create scarcities of natural resources. We’re not just happy with the satisfaction of our hunger. We want the grape instead of the cucumber if our neighbor is eating grapes, and this tendency is already present in our ape cousins (for more on this click here to see one of Frans de Waal’s experiments).

Both the origins of World War I and World War II have to do with people wanting grapes although they already had cucumber. The death of millions of Europe’s children eventually ended the first orgy of violence, but – to quote Shakespeare on this – “the parents’ strife” only momentarily came to a halt. World War II indeed meant that “from ancient grudge came new mutiny”, violence spreading itself like a contagious disease…

SPRING 1914 - Germany is one of the wealthiest and most dynamic countries in the world, having the highest material prosperity in the world. In 40 years time the population has increased by 65 % to 68 million inhabitants. Germany is also an industrial giant. Essen has the biggest steel and weapon factory in the world with 81000 people working there. Daimler, Benz, Siemens, AEG, BASF and Bayer are leading companies.

Hamburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II. im Tierpark HagenbeckDuring that time Kaiser Wilhelm II had the biggest land army in the world and he invested some of his private money to buy and develop cannons.  Growing up he had seen the richness of the British Empire and he tried to emulate this for his own country. Therefore he supported Germany’s naval expansion and eventually did obtain an empire in Africa and the western Pacific, although not as large as he wanted (on the right, Wilhelm II visiting the African Colonies). The so-called Great Naval Race of the early 1900′s was an extension of his need to do better than his relatives by trying to build more battleships than the British Royal Navy had.

JUNE 28th, 1914 – Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated by nationalists in Sarajevo. Kaiser Wilhelm II encourages the Austrians to adopt an uncompromising line against Serbia, effectively promising them German support in the event of war.

alliance_ententeThis move of Wilhelm II caused a chain reaction he did not foresee. Russia and her allies France and Britain entered the war against Germany and Austria. At first, Wilhelm did try to scale back the mobilization of Germany’s armed forces, but he was overruled by the grandiose war aims of certain generals and politicians. Germany went into war, not because of a lack of resources or poverty, but because of an excess of (mimetically enhanced) pride. The rest of Europe and the world would follow. The war and its aftermath would mean the end of German royalty.

NOVEMBER 11th, 1918 - Armistice is signed between an exhausted Germany and the Allies in the French Forêt de Compiègne. The event takes place in the railway car of French commander-in-chief Marshal Foch. The Germans feel humiliated.

Armistice (the Germans surrender at the end of World War I)

JUNE 22nd, 1940 – Adolf Hitler meticulously imitates what Marshal Ferdinand Foch had done 22 years earlier. Hitler orders to get Foch’s railway car out of Compiègne’s museum and forces the French to surrender in the same way and on the same spot as the Germans in 1918. This vengeance – a mimetic mechanism – announces a second wave of global war, terror and horrific sacrifice, ending in 1945.

mpaa328808

Commemorating the wars and its victims, we can only hope for a European Union that deserves its Nobel Peace Prize.

European Union Nobel Peace Prize

A Woman’s Uncanny Valley

•February 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

1. MIMETIC THEORY ON “THE UNCANNY VALLEY”

Originally I just wanted to write a post on the uncanny valley, a phenomenon first described by Masahiro Mori (former robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology) in an essay for Japanese magazine Energy (vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 33–35, 1970) – READ THE ARTICLE ON THE UNCANNY VALLEY BY MASAHIRO MORI IN ENGLISH BY CLICKING HERE (OR PDF VERSION HERE). But as you will notice, dear reader, it made me think about some other stuff as well :)

Mori predicted that we would respond with a heightened sense of affinity to robots that act or look like humans until a certain threshold of similarity is reached. Apparently, when it becomes too difficult to make a direct and clear distinction between humans and robots, humanoid robots become uncanny and we experience an eerie sensation. In the words of Mori, we indeed come to an uncanny valley.

The Uncanny Valley 2

Mori ended his article by raising a few questions: “Why were we equipped with this eerie sensation? Is it essential for human beings? I have not yet considered these questions deeply, but I have no doubt it is an integral part of our instinct for self-preservation.”

The Uncanny Valley 1

Mori also provides a preliminary answer to these questions in a footnote:

“The sense of eeriness is probably a form of instinct that protects us from proximal, rather than distal, sources of danger. Proximal sources of danger are corpses, members of different species, and other entities we can closely approach. Distal sources of danger include windstorms and floods.”

This is all very interesting from the perspective of René Girard’s mimetic theory. It helps in providing an answer to Mori’s questions.

René Girard considers man’s increased mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability as a source of empathy as well as enmity, as a force responsible for order as well as disorder. For instance, children tend to take older people as their example. By imitating elders (and others in general) young people not only learn how to live in a certain culture, but they also learn what to desire. Others also function as models for desires and ambitions.

initiation ritual Xhosa manhood circumcisionOf course, when the gap between an imitator and a model is big enough, there won’t be any problem between them. The relationship between a mentor and a pupil will then be one of admiration from the part of the pupil. However, when an imitator’s skills increase he might become a threat to the position of his model. As he has learned to desire the same objects as his model, his model might become an obstacle to his ambitions. Adolescents indeed often show a tendency to no longer respect a former hierarchy. They tend to become rivals to adults whose authority they no longer automatically accept. They as well as the adults thus experience an identity crisis. In other words, the gap between youngsters and adults threatens to disappear and this potentially destabilizes human communities. Following Mori’s terminology we can call this gap where the distinction between young and old seems to disappear an uncanny valley. Girard observes that, in order to avoid a crisis resulting from this kind of intra-group rivalry, cultures have developed initiation rituals. These rituals often allow for types of violence against “new adults” in a controlled, structured way (for instance in a certain time frame) in order to give them “a proper place” and to avoid destructive rivalries and violence. It is no coincidence that student sororities and fraternities to this day make use of initiation ceremonies. Like many rituals in many cultures they paradoxically create an order by “organized disorder”. Sometimes these rituals are very violent, however, with girls being gang raped – to name but one of the terrors. That’s why some students are committed to end “frat-related violence”.end frat related violence

So to answer Mori’s questions already from the point of view of Girard’s mimetic theory: we have learned, in the course of our evolution as human species, to fear the disappearance of differences because we have learned to associate it with destructive types of rivalry and violence. That’s why, as Mori observes, “corpses, members of different species and other entities we can closely approach” (and identify with) are experienced as “sources of danger”. Youngsters can take the place of adults, robots of humans… and rotting corpses (similar to but not quite the same as living human beings) can generate diseases and death where once there was life. Indeed violence itself is like a disease, contagious.

Apart from the potential rivalry between and among youngsters and adults there’s another type of rivalry that has been experienced as a fundamental threat to the survival and stability of human communities: the rivalry between men to obtain “the best females” of a group. No wonder then that sexuality, and in particular female sexuality, has been perceived as a potential destructive force across different cultures. Because of its association with rivalry and violence, sexuality could easily become a taboo. On the other hand however, sexuality is also needed to guarantee a community’s survival. As is the case with adolescence, sexuality became a ritualized cultural phenomenon in human life (from courtship dances to temple prostitution to marriage). Rituals in general allow for a transgression of that which is taboo in everyday life.

Female Genital MutilationTraditionally, a collection of taboos and rituals in a particular culture is justified by referring to a sacred realm (with supernatural deities, ghosts or magic forces). Mimetic theory explains how violence became associated with “invisible persons” through the scapegoat mechanism (READ MORE ON THE ORIGIN OF RELIGION BY CLICKING HERE). Hence everything that can be associated with violence had the potential to become associated with “invisible persons” or “gods” as well. Sadly the sacralization of sexuality often meant that women became scapegoats, unjustly held responsible for a potential crisis in the life of their respective communities. Women had (or have) to prevent men from desiring them, thereby preventing rivalries between men. In some cultures they had (or have) to wear a veil in public, in others they were (or are) circumcized. The reasons to this day given for female genital mutilation indeed hardly conceal the underlying sexism – taken from the European Campaign to end FGM: “FGM, in particular infibulation, is defended in this context as it is assumed to reduce a woman’s sexual desire and lessen temptations to have extramarital sex thereby preserving a girl’s virginity.” Extramarital sex is considered taboo in this context since it could stir rivalry between men, destabilize family life and hence destabilize community life as a whole. Female sexuality, taboo because it is perceived as a potential violent force, thus is highly ritualized: female circumcision is a form of sacrificial violence to prevent destructive violence (perceived as “the wrath of the gods”) from happening.

stand against FGMIn short, human history shows that women all over the world, in different times and in different cultures, have been perceived as “dangerous life-bringers”. They are feared and adored at the same time (read more on this by clicking here – post on TEMPTRESSES). Important and well-known myths from all over the world have transmitted the perception of women as potential troublemakers. I’d like to dedicate the second part of this post to a presentation of three versions of this perception of women. The message concerning Pandora, Eve and “uncircumcized women” should be clear. These women are considered to bring about “the uncanny valley”, the loss of differences that marks the breakdown of the normal social order. Indeed, chaos and disorder in communities is often perceived as a curse brought about by “bewitched women”. However, if the situation of women is read as a particular form of the scapegoat mechanism, the (whether or not ritualized) violence against women can be considered a curse or a “burden” women have to bear unjustly. Although the Bible is not without sexist tendencies, René Girard and others have argued that Judeo-Christian Scripture eventually reveals the truth of the scapegoating impulse behind our cultural institutions. In other words, according to Girard our ability to consider certain texts and habits as, for instance, “sexist” is a consequence of a knowledge gradually given to us through the biblical writings. But that’s another story… Let’s take a closer look at the women who are blamed for “the evils mankind has to endure…”

2. THE UNCANNY VALLEY – A WOMAN’S CURSE 

Prometheus, Thief of Fire and God Challenger in Greek Mythology

The Myth

Pandora (Jane Ray)After Zeus hid fire from humans, Prometheus stole it from the gods to give it back to mankind. Prometheus did not respect the hierarchical distinction between the human and the divine and was therefore banned to a rock in the Caucasus. Chained, Prometheus was visited daily by an eagle who ate out his liver. It is said that his liver regenerated each night because of his immortality. Prometheus was eventually freed from his eternal punishment by the hero Heracles. At the same time, Zeus had also punished mankind with Pandora, the first woman. She became the wife of Epimetheus who could not resist her, although his brother Prometheus had warned him not to accept her gift. Pandora unleashed all the evils in the world by opening a box that should have remained closed. The Greek epic poet Hesiod (between 750-650 BC) writes of Pandora: “From her is the race of women and female kind, of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmeets in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.”

Eve, Thief of Forbidden Fruit and God Challenger in Hebrew Mythology

The Myth

The Fall of Man and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Michelangelo)After God had forbidden man to eat from the tree of knowledge, the woman who was eventually named Eve nevertheless took some of its fruit and also gave some of it to Adam, the first man. Eve did not respect the hierarchical distinction between the human and the divine and was therefore banished from the Garden of Eden, to earth, together with Adam. Eve is considered to have cursed mankind with death, suffering and all kinds of evils and troubles. Genesis 3:16-19: “The Lord God said to the woman, ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ To Adam God said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, You must not eat from it, cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.’”

The Thief of Women’s Clitoris and Preserver of Sacred Order in African Ritual

The Myth

Bruce Parry visited the Dassanech tribe in Ethiopia. Women of this tribe are circumcised. One of the women who circumcises the girls told Parry the story that justifies this type of ritualistic violence concerning female sexuality:

“Circumcision is our culture. If we stop our culture, we will all die. If a woman with a clitoris gives birth, she, her child, everyone will die. Her clitoris will come up to her head. It’ll come out of her nose, and back into her head. It’ll kill her, she’ll die. Her father will die, her mother will die. That’s why we cannot stop circumcising girls.”

Bruce Parry:

“I’m told if she doesn’t get circumcised, she won’t get married, and she’ll be cast out from the tribe.”

WATCH THE VIDEO FROM 1:38 HERE:

THE (SEXIST) MESSAGE, TIME AND AGAIN

  • There is a hierarchy in society, establishing order by making clear distinctions.
  • This hierarchy is to be respected; we shouldn’t compare ourselves to higher ups or compete with them. In other words, mimetic rivalry is taboo in everyday life. We should respect distinctions and differences. No hubris!
  • If a person does not respect a society’s prohibitions and customs, he or she is cast out from society as he or she is considered to potentially bring a crisis (or chaos) to life. A new order is established by sacrificing an outcast (found at the margins of society – high or low) ritualistically, again and again in an unescapable cycle of events. More generally speaking, rituals allow for so-called “good” controlled violence in order to avoid “bad” uncontrollable violence from happening.
  • Women are to be suspected as potential troublemakers, maybe even warmongers. A crisis is never far away when women are around!
  • Order in society, established by maintaining certain taboos and (sacrificial) rituals, is considered sacred, as a divine commandment.

René Girard 1985

•February 1, 2014 • 4 Comments

In 1985, René Girard received his first honorary doctorate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. More followed at various universities throughout the world. In December 2006, he was installed as a member immortel of the Académie Française, the highest honor a French intellectual can achieve in his home country.

A month after René Girard received his first honorary doctorate an interview with him appeared for Dutch television (IKON). The interview is in English with Dutch subtitles.

CLICK TO WATCH IT HERE:

There is also footage from the ceremony for the honorary doctorate at VU Amsterdam.

CLICK TO WATCH IT HERE:

Jesus Christ, Realist

•January 19, 2014 • 4 Comments

OUR WORLD, A WORLD OF CHILD NEGLECT?

Basically, there are three types of child neglect:

  1. Indifference (rarely if ever paying attention to a child)
  2. Denigration (paying attention in an all too negative way)
  3. Adoration (paying attention in an all too positive way)

A child who grew up in an indifferent environment is prone to seek attention from people just for the sake of getting attention. Needless to say, they can easily fall into the hands of malicious manipulators (from gurus to pedophiles) who meet the child’s need “to feel special” and “to be saved and taken care of”.

forgetting children

A child who is denigrated time and again if he does not live up to the expectations of his educators will develop a sense of unworthiness. He will feel ashamed of himself or will even learn to hate himself. Later on in life, he will do anything in his power not to fail in the eyes of others. He might even develop a perverted sense of pride, hiding his sense of unworthiness behind a supposedly socially acceptable self-image. Fear of failure (atychiphobia) then reveals itself as a built-in desire for perfection.

A child who is constantly adored will develop a false sense of superiority. If he fails, he will sometimes feel ashamed of himself or hate himself, but most of the time he will blame others for his failure. In other words, he will create scapegoats because he is not able to take responsibility for his own mistakes. His educators made him believe that he is perfect, and of course he tries to satisfy this built-in desire for perfection.

Indifference, denigration and/or adoration: in all three cases the difference between the wishes of the child’s environment and the child himself are eradicated. The child is forced to adapt to the unrealistic wishes of his environment and therefore is not able to accept himself as he actually is. In other words, because the child has learned to be guided by his desire for recognition, he is not able to love himself (he subjects himself to an unrealistic but supposedly socially acceptable self-image) and he is not able to love others (he only approaches others to satisfy his need for recognition, and not as ends in themselves). The child will fear saying “sorry” because he has learned that the world does not allow for failure…

Ever met those parents who said to their child “You can be a doctor” or “You can be a sports champion” when in fact their child had other talents? Ever met those parents who convinced themselves, their child and part of their environment that “The teacher” or “The coach” was to blame for whatever went wrong when the child did not live up to the parents’ expectations?

OUR ATHEIST WORLD, A WORLD OF GODS AND FAIRY TALES?

Pinocchio seducedYep, it seems the more atheist we become, the more we lose touch with reality, beginning with the reality of ourselves. We bow to the idols we have made from ourselves, the false “monstrous” or “divine” images about ourselves we have learned to love, instead of accepting ourselves and our limits as human beings. If religion is defined as “opium of the masses” (Karl Marx, 1818-1883), then our atheist world is full of it. We have replaced a perverted version of Christianity, one that made us believe we could enter “paradise” if we were willing to make sacrifices, with “secular” dreams of paradise and perfection.

However, the so-called “Christian” attitude to merely confess our sins to God and pay for them by denigrating ourselves (physically and/or mentally) as a “sacrifice to God” in order to become “perfect” and to get God’s recognition, is really a betrayal of the Gospel and of Christianity. Jesus makes it clear: “No one is good – except God alone.” (Mark 10:18). In other words, we should not want to be someone we are not. Indeed, we are not perfect. Jesus also makes clear that prayers and sacrifices should not be used to escape moral responsibilities. If you go to confession and use God’s forgiveness to recreate a so-called acceptable self-image, without actually doing something about the evil you’ve committed, you’re perverting the nature of confession. Confession should serve love for one’s neighbor, and not one’s need for recognition. That’s why Jesus says (Matthew 5:23-24): “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” In other words, sacrifice not as a “do ut des” or “quid pro quo”, but as a free gift of gratitude for what’s already established. Jesus transforms laws and legislations, bringing them back to their true goal against possible perversions (That’s why he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” – Matthew 5:17). The law should serve man and enable love for one’s neighbor, it should not be used against man and love (see Matthew 22:34-40 and Matthew 12:1-14).

JESUS CHRIST, BACK TO LIFE, BACK TO REALITY?

????????????????????????The realization that you’re not perfect (and that you don’t have to be) will help you to deal with the imperfections of others as well. That’s why Jesus constantly asks people to realize their own shortcomings. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”, he says to the crowd that wants to stone a woman accused of adultery (John 8:7). And in the Lord’s prayer he asks us to think of our own trespasses, in order to be able to forgive others (Matthew 6:12): “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The sooner you are able to admit some minor mistakes, the better you will avoid scapegoat mechanisms. On the other hand, if you want to protect an unrealistic yet so-called admirable self-image, you will use one lie after the other and blame others for what’s bad and for what goes wrong, instead of taking responsibility yourself.

forgiveness saves from harmPeople hurt each other. We’re not perfect in our love. We even hurt those we love the most. Every week we say stuff we probably mean less offensive because we’re too easily irritated by each other. Jesus thus is more realist than ever when Peter asks him a question about forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22): “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Of course, truth hurts. So more often than not, we flee from the truth about ourselves. We rather think about ourselves in a heroic fashion. We identify with “good” characters in Hollywood movies. The apostle Peter also thinks of himself as a hero during the last supper before Jesus is arrested, while Jesus – that hyper-realistic “Christ” man – tries to bring him down to earth (Matthew 26:33-35): Peter said, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.

The Denial of St Peter by Gerrit Van Honthorst 1622-1624The Gospel eventually shows man as he is, and not as he romantically dreams himself to be. It is easy to be morally indignant about reports of child abuse in the newspaper. It turns out to be much more difficult to handle such delicate matters when we’re directly confronted with them. Maybe then we’re not as heroic as we thought we’d be. The apostle Peter discovers the not so heroic truth about himself after Jesus is arrested (Matthew 26:69-75): Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Ah, the things we do for our reputation, for power, for survival… Jesus warns us not to enslave ourselves to so-called socially acceptable self-images (“idols”) in order to gain recognition. When you force yourself to be someone you are not because certain people made you believe that this is your “ticket to paradise”, your life will become a living hell of frustration, jealousy and hypocrisy. Indeed Jesus is right when he says, “whoever wants to save their life will lose it” (Matthew 16:25). And when he says (Matthew 6:1-2): “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

If you want success because of success itself, you will never find love and joy for what you’re doing. If a student wants good grades and academic recognition more than an understanding of his courses, he will never find joy in what he’s actually studying (for more on this, click here or click here). The scientist whose goal it is to win the Nobel Prize won’t get it. It’s the scientist who has learned to be passionate [yep, we have to learn to love - because love is relating to what's other than ourselves, and therefore goes beyond our needs] about his topic who might eventually get the Nobel Prize as a consequence of his actions – and not as an ultimate goal. So we should not force ourselves to be someone we are not in order to get into heaven. We shouldn’t be like the workaholic who becomes a slave of a “high society lifestyle”. We shouldn’t be like the drug addict who believes that he should flee from himself in a frenzy to be in paradise. We shouldn’t believe that “doing what we please” is the highest form of freedom – the drug dealer wants nothing more than to become the false messiah who satisfies the supposedly very own needs he has inflicted upon his clients.

We should try to find ourselves. We should try to respect ourselves and accept our limitations in this atheist world full of unrealistic idols. We should try to discover our calling. Jesus teaches that we find ourselves if we dare associate ourselves with the social outcasts. Indeed, if Peter would have defended Jesus after the latter’s arrest, Peter wouldn’t have lost himself to a so-called socially acceptable image. Jesus rightly says, “whoever loses their life for me [meaning the Victim of people who look for social recognition and who tend to blame others for their own failures] will find it” (Matthew 16:25). If Peter would have imitated Jesus (who constantly took sides with social outcasts and scapegoats), he wouldn’t have participated in the death of Jesus. Then Peter would have discovered that he’s not merely a child of his social environment and a slave to a socially acceptable self-image (or idol), but also a child of God.

for whoever wants to save their life

As intrinsically relational beings, our identities are given to us in relationships to others. Since no human being is able to love us completely for who we are, only a creature that is “also other than human” is able to truly give us to ourselves. If we believe that this man-made world is the only possible world, we will do everything to gain recognition in this world, force ourselves to be who we are not, and be dead before we have lived – unable to truly love the social outcast. To discover God is to discover Love (see 1 John 4: “God is Love”). It is to discover ourselves as well as our neighbors. 1 John 3,14: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” The choice is ours: whether we believe we’re merely children of man-made idols, guided by our desire for recognition, or we believe we’re also children of Love… Max Scheler (1874-1928), once again:

Man believes either in a God or in an idol…

If we learn to love ourselves and be genuinely interested in the things we do, we will be rewarded eventually – the joy of doing those things will be a reward in itself. Success or “heaven” will be the consequence of love for ourselves and others and not an end in itself. In the words of Jesus, we should find God’s kingdom and righteousness first, and everything else will come…

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:31-34)

A Mimesis of Nelson Mandela

•December 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Incensum, a vocal ensemble I am part of, was very honored and grateful to sing at a memorial service for Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013), organized by the Embassy of South Africa in Belgium, on 12 December 2013. The service was held at the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula in Brussels. For more information and some tributes:

Saint Michaels Cathedral Brussels interior choirCLICK HERE TO READ THE PROGRAM (PDF)

CLICK HERE TO WATCH A REPORT ON THE EVENT (hear us sing at the end)

Click here to read a welcome by Ambassador Mxolisi Nkosi (PDF)

Click here to read a tribute by Mr P. Ustubs of the EEAS (PDF)

Click here to read a tribute by Sec. General Dirk Achten (PDF)

It is clear from testimonies all over the world that Mandela is an inspiring example of forgiveness. The man himself made a spiritual journey from the prison of bitterness to the liberation of pardon. His life took part in a dynamic of Love that is also characteristic of Christ’s life. To imitate these examples is not merely to copy them but to challenge ourselves to continue the creativity of Love in our own circumstances. It is trying to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39 – click here to read more) without losing our self-respect. A mimesis (i.e. imitation) of Nelson Mandela can become an example of what René Girard would call “good mimesis”. It seems that African culture itself has its own resources for this type of imitation. African American writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960):

Zora Neale HurstonThe Negro, the world over, is famous as a mimic. But this in no way damages his standing as an original. Mimicry is an art in itself [and] he does it as the mocking-bird does it, for the love of it, and not because he wishes to be like the one imitated.

In other words, to imitate Nelson Mandela or the Christ figure is the exact opposite of an idolization of those figures. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) warned for this (read more by clicking here):

Christ comes to the world as the example, constantly enjoining: Imitate me. We humans prefer to adore him instead.

Joachim Duyndam, Socrates Professor of Philosophy and also a member of the Dutch Girard Society, discusses “good mimesis” and how we learn from inspiring examples in this interview fragment. He also mentions Mandela – CLICK TO WATCH:

Of course, the road that Nelson Mandela traveled is perhaps best described by Madiba himself. These quotes, also from the Gospel, should be self-explanatory:Mandela Quote No one is born hating another personBe Imitators of GodMandela Quote As I walked out the door

Ephesians quote Be kind and compassionate

Confirmation Bias in Atheism

•December 13, 2013 • Leave a Comment

A most interesting article appeared in a special edition of EOS, a science magazine in Dutch. It was about the quest for the historical Jesus. For those familiar with the material it was not a very revealing article. Nonetheless, it provided a kind of summary, albeit sometimes in a tendentious manner (click here for a better article on the subject from skepp). Take, for instance, this statement at the end of the article: “The scepticism of Christian researchers turns out to be quite a bit more flexible than the scepticism of atheist researchers.” This is a poor statement because it is made without any arguments. The article itself even provides some counterarguments. Let’s have a closer look.

A Marginal Jew Volume 1 (John Meier)First of all, the information contained in the article primarily comes from Christian researchers, and some of them are briefly mentioned. John P. Meier is quoted with this claim: “Jesus was a marginal Jew leading a marginal movement in a marginal province of a vast Roman empire.” Whoever is familiar with research on the historical Jesus knows that John Meier, a Catholic priest, has written the contemporary standard for historical Jesus studies. Meier’s four part magnum opus, entitled A Marginal Jew – Rethinking the Historical Jesus, is an instant classic. The first volume appeared November first, 1991. The fourth and final volume appeared 18 years later, May 26th 2009, completing the series with a total of 3102 pages.

Jona Lendering, a well-known Dutch historian who also writes columns as a “mild atheist”, claims that “the most important book any historian of antiquity should read is, actually, John P. Meier’s brilliant series A Marginal Jew – Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Better still, the quest for the historical Jesus is the most innovative and methodically most advanced specialism in ancient history. A Marginal Jew simply is the best book in the best developed research on ancient history.” 

Martin Luther King quote on science and religionIt is strange that Marc Meuleman, author of the article on the historical Jesus in EOS magazine, makes a statement about the supposed confirmation bias of Christian researchers while he simultaneously refers to websites like The Jesus Puzzle and a podcast like The Bible Geek. These atheist sources deny that Jesus ever existed. Meuleman correctly mentions that this claim is not the scientific consensus. Christian and atheist historians alike, concerned with research on the historical Jesus, agree on the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth and certain facts about his life.

In short, Marc Meuleman gives evidence for all too flexible and exaggerated scepticism by atheist researchers regarding the historical Jesus in his article, while he does not give any evidence to support his claim on the so-called lack of scepticism by Christian researchers. On the contrary, by mentioning John Meier he gives an example of a Christian researcher who meticulously distinguishes what can be said “as a historian” and what can be said “as a believer or non-believer (interpreting from different ideological backgrounds)” on the figure of Jesus.

quote Martin Luther King on scienceAtheists with a strong emotional aversion towards the Christian faith, apparently suffer from a confirmation bias regarding ancient history similar to the confirmation bias of certain Christian fundamentalists regarding the theory of evolution. Seen from their respective scientific specialisms, the claim that Jesus never existed is as stupid as the claim that evolution never happened. Richard Dawkins used to make the former claim (click here), followed later on by a statement that “it doesn’t really matter whether or not Jesus existed.” Well, maybe it doesn’t matter to someone who is not interested in scientific research, although Dawkins claims to foster “science and rationality”. And now we’re at it, how “rational” is Dawkins if he continuously minimizes “positive” examples of faith and religion in order to confirm his conviction that faith and religion are, in most cases, a “bad, delusional thing”? Confirmation bias, anyone? For instance, Dawkins claims that Martin Luther King’s leadership of the civil rights movement did not arise from King’s Christian beliefs. Maybe he should read King’s work first before making such statements. That’s what a scientist should do…

confirmation biasPerhaps Marc Meuleman’s statement on Christian researchers in his article can be understood by taking into account the influence of the anti-theistic “new atheism” of people like Richard Dawkins on the minds of the average atheist. Many atheists hold a confirmation bias on the supposedly ever present confirmation bias of “believers”. That’s why Marc Meuleman fails to see that he somewhat contradicts himself in his article. Atheists often ask for the author of an article to judge whether or not they will read the article, or whether or not they can trust its “objectivity”. Actually, a scientific mindset should focus on “what is being said” and judge by rational and scientific criteria, and not judge on the basis of a preliminary argument from authority. Everyone who reads John Meier’s work on the historical Jesus can judge this work by rational and scientific criteria and will most likely agree with Jona Lendering’s appraisal of it.

Anyway, whether we’re believers or atheists, we’re all human :) and we often judge something by looking at others first – “Who said what?” Yep, we’re mimetic creatures, imitating the ones we’ve (again mimetically) learned to trust, even if this clouds our judgment…

 
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