Foreigners and Strangers

statueoflibertyI’m not going to brag about how great a country the United States of America is, but I’m not going to condemn it either. The lections assigned for this celebration tell us how to celebrate this day and that is how I’m going to do it.

In Deuteronomy (10:17-21), Yahweh claims to be the God of Gods. That is God is God of all nations, not just Israel and certainly not just of the United States. Yahweh goes on to remind the Israelites of their humble origins as escaped slaves and commands them to lend the same compassion to other foreigners. It is easy for us to forget that all of us here are descended from foreigners, even the Native Americans, although they go way back. Yahweh, who defends the poor and the fatherless, embraces the tired, the poor, the teeming masses yearning to breathe free. As descendants of tired and poor teeming masses yearning to breathe free, we should open this country to those whom Yahweh loves and not just to the energetic, rich people who breathe easily. In order for a country to practice such radical hospitality, it is necessary to practice the same hospitality to all who already live here so that others may wish to come.

When we gather in any way, whether as a family, a community, or a nation, we need to be sure that our bonding is not at the expense of others. That is, we should not need enemies to know who we are or who we think we are. In Matthew 5:43-48, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, which amounts to not considering anyone our enemies, even if they think that of us. Jesus says that pagans greet those who are of “their sort.” Jesus asks much more of us than that. If God gives rain to all, then we should give peace to all. That is, we should treat those of other countries the way we treat our own, provided we treat our own as the passage from Deuteronomy teaches us.

The author of Hebrews (11:816) reminds us that our country, any country, is not ultimate, is not our final dwelling place. Even the most supposedly settled of us were nomads once and fundamentally we still are. We all should be looking for a “better country—a heavenly one” while we live as foreigners and strangers here. If we all live as foreigners, we will not be strangers to each other and we will be surprised at how pleasant our stopping place is on the Way to the better Home.

Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyWe are so used to passing the collection plate in church that we easily overlook the importance of the collection Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15 and elsewhere. The emotion and enthusiasm that gushes from Paul’s pen tells us that the collection was of the upmost importance to him. It behooves us to consider how important it was.

Many times, Paul speaks about the joy of giving, not only with money (which Paul had in short supply) but in time and energy and concern for others. It is Paul who passed on Jesus’ words: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) while exhorting the Ephesians to help the weak through hard work. This concern for the weak in Jerusalem is one of the factors that inspired the collection. The joy Paul would have us take in giving is accentuated when we consider that Paul’s word for giving generously and joyfully is hilaritas. That is, we should give with hilarity.

Paul shamelessly spurs the Corinthians on to a bit of competitive generosity by boasting of how the Macedonians gave even beyond their means while urgently pleading “for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people” (1 Cor. 8:5). Competition has its problems but I don’t think Paul is holding a contest for who could give the most to the collection. Rather, Paul is holding up the Macedonians as an example to follow, hoping that their enthusiasm will inspire a like enthusiasm in Corinth.  What Paul is urging is a chain reaction of generosity that will spread throughout the churches.

Paul emphasizes the importance of sharing out of abundance, or at least having enough for sustenance, with the hope that such generosity might be reciprocated if the roles were reversed. This is what Paul is getting at in advocating “equality.” In a helpful online article, Sam Marsh suggests that the reason this equality is important to Paul is because he does not want to set up anything resembling a patron-client relationship between the Gentile churches and Jerusalem. The Roman institution of patronage is one of many ways power remained entrenched with those who already had it. Paul is envisioning something very different: a matrix of mutual giving where there is need where everybody takes turns in giving and receiving.

The unity of the church also emerges as a principal motivation for the collection. When Paul met with the elders in Jerusalem, as reported in Galatians 2, Paul said he was admonished to remember their poor, which he very much wanted to do. The debate over admitting Gentiles without circumcision was decided Paul’s favor but later correspondence shows much lingering tension over the issue. If the Gentiles of Macedonia, Ephesus and Corinth should send what money they can spare to Jerusalem, it would be a powerful sign of fellowship uniting one church in Christ.  Paul’s making sure that representatives other churches accompany him to Jerusalem is another indications of mistrust of Paul in the church of Jerusalem.

Most important is the Christological dimension to the collection. Contributing with enthusiastic hilarity is modeled on Jesus who though he was rich, for our sakes became poor that we through his poverty could become rich (1 Cor. 8: 9). This verse has been enshrined in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in one of the collects for saints who followed the religious life. We can’t help but recall the famous verse in Philippians where Christ humbled himself to enter the human condition and suffer the same vulnerabilities, including death, which humans suffer from. This is a far cry from the billionaire who writes a few tax-deductible charity donations from the comfort of his or her mansion. We can’t compete with Christ in generosity but we can at least empty ourselves of what we do have for the sake of others.

Given the eschatological overtones of Paul’s hope for union of Jew and Gentile, this collection may well have had eschatological significance for Paul, not in an otherworldly way, but as a seismic shift in human culture. The Jewish prophets exhorted the rich to give alms to the poor, but this is the first instance in human history that I can think of where a collection of money was taken up for the relief of those in need. Paul started something momentous. It is up for us to finish the job.

Mimetic Resonance

Xenia1If we desire through the desires of other people, do we have any freedom in our desires, or are our desires determined by the desires of others? And then are other people’s desires determined by ours? This starts to look like a vicious circle, similar to the vicious circle of mimetic rivalry where nobody started the fight; it seems that it had no beginning and maybe will have no end. Actually, this vicious circle of determining each other’s desires undergirds the vicious circle of mimetic rivalry. Nobody starts a cycle of desire; it was already there before it started, or so it seems. (See Human See, Human Want.)

Questions of free will and determinism are the staple of philosophy, often starting with Philosophy 101. Most of us are humiliated at any notion of not being totally free in our desires and our actions. After all, many of our ancestors fought for freedom and many of us are still fighting for it. Besides, if we are not free in our actions, we are not responsible for what we do and we can’t hold anybody accountable for anything. On the other hand, we there are well-known factors that seem to compromise freedom. Psychoanalysis often suggests we are determined by our subconscious, at least until we become more conscious of what is there. Social and environmental forces can greatly shrink options for many. St. Paul writes about how we are slaves to sin unless freed by Christ. What about mimetic desire?

Mimetic desire is often presented in small scenarios such as two people in a bookstore converging on the same book on the sale table. Were both determined by mimetic desire beyond any free will? In the broader scheme of things, many people model many desires to us to the extent that we simply cannot imitate all of them all of the time. That is, there is a lot more going on than two people converging on the sale table. Do we choose what model to follow when there are many of them? It seems likely that in such cases we do make choices, or at least we can and do make them some of the time. To the degree that mimetic desire is deterministic (if it is at all), the desire modeled by the most people will likely win out, or the desire modeled by the person with the greatest impact, such as a parent or best friend will have the strongest effect, maybe even a determinative one. If most of my friends like Mozart, chances increase that I will like Mozart. But then why do I hang out with a Mozart crowd instead of a Led Zeppelin crowd? Of course, this question only applies if both crowds are moving about in my environment.

One can speculate endlessly about such questions but I am going to cut to the chase with a suggestion that gives us a sense of direction for approaching them. The way mirror neurons seem to work is that they resonate with the visible intentions of others. (See Mirroring Desires) These intentions are fueled by desires. This resonance happens on a pre-conscious level. That is, we resonate with the desires of others before we know it is happening, and maybe we never realize it is happening. Our environments are complex and that means that we are resonating with many desires. Many of us working with Girard’s thought call this a field of desires, using an analogy with the gravitational field in Einstein’s physics. Just as moving objects exert a force on other moving objects, desires in a field move other desires in that field.   At this level, I wonder if “mimetic desire” is actually the best term for this phenomenon. Are we necessarily desiring what others are desiring at this stage? Maybe, at least in some cases. But maybe not. I suggest that we use the term “mimetic resonance” for this stage of interacting with the desires and intentions of others. This pinpoints the reality that all of these desires are exerting an influence on us while our desires are influencing them in return.

This mimetic resonance tends to be pre-conscious but it is possible to cultivate a greater awareness of this resonant mimetic field through self-discipline. Of course, the more people who model this self-discipline, the better the chances that I might. These resonances may pull us primarily in one direction or they might pull us in many, depending on how homogeneous or heterogeneous the environment. Sooner or later, usually sooner, we have to act on some of these ambient desires and that is where it is more meaningful to speak of “mimetic desire,” even if this mimesis is still not conscious. So when one person reaches for the book on the sale table that another had just looked, and the first person becomes more interested in the book than before, we are seeing mimetic desire in action, even if neither believe they area imitating the other.

So let’s consider introducing “mimetic resonance” into our vocabulary?

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut

JerusalemIn Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem, Bradley Jersak has given us an insightful study on the destiny of humans after death. For the most part, he examines scriptural categories associated with heaven and hell to glean their most likely meanings, and this is the most helpful part of the book. His overviews theological positions in the church from the Church Fathers to contemporary evangelicals does not give much depth but it does make sure the reader is at least basically informed on the major strands of thought.

He discusses briefly several relevant New Testament words such aionos but what was really new and revelatory to me was the distinction between kolasis and timoria. They both refer to punishment but although timoria could be unrelenting, kolasis is always remedial, and that is the word Jesus always used for punishment.

The extended discussion of Gehenna is particularly valuable. It is fairly well-known that Gehenna was the massive garbage dumb just outside Jerusalem where indeed the flames were never extinguished, as Jesus said. Jersak explores the use of the image in Jeremiah, noting that Jesus often imitated Jeremiah as a suffering prophet and was influenced by his prophecies. It is Jeremiah who denounced the Valley of Hinnom for the child sacrifices committed there. It is this valley that was used for the garbage dump in later generations, making it a shadow side of Jerusalem. Jeremiah announced that Jerusalem was subject to the same destruction as the Valley of Hinnom for the sins of Israel BUT when Jeremiah proclaims the new covenant in chapter 32, he declares that God will make this unholy valley holy again. That is, God will redeem Gehenna!

Jersak also has an extended discussion of the “lake of fire” which he correlates with the Dead Sea and finds in scripture the same redemptive thrust for this place of horror as well.

By following through on the redemptive passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Gospels and Revelation, Jersak makes a strong case for the eternal, irrevocable offer of salivation and healing for all comers. That is, those cast outside the city in Revelation are still invited in at the end of the book.

Trinity as Story and Song

eucharist1When we talk about the Trinity as a doctrine consisting of three Persons in one Deity, we tend to feel that we have grasped it to some degree. That is the way it is with concepts and doctrines. But the Trinity is a story much more than it is a doctrine. (See The Infinite round Dance.) As a story, the Trinity is no more graspable than the wind as Nicodemus found out. That is the nature of stories: to be ungraspable. Try to grasp anything in a story and you lose everything but the fragment you grasp. Might as well grasp at a note or two of a song and try to get a hold of the song. The story of the Trinity is the story of the Paschal Mystery, told succinctly in the famous verse, Jn :17, that God sent God’s only Son out of love for the world so that the world would not be judged but saved. In the sending, the Spirit acted out the bond of love between the Father and the Son. The Trinity also enters into the stories of each and every one of us as, through the Spirit, we cry “Abba! Father!” So it is that the Spirit makes us joint heirs with Christ. Paul tells us that as the Spirit enters our stories, we participate in Christ’s suffering and glory so that our own sufferings are shared by Christ and Christ’s glory becomes ours. After the threefold cry of “Holy!” in the temple, the Spirit sends the prophet Isaiah as the Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit. Like Isaiah, we are sent by the Son and the Spirit to each other.

The Trinity as story shows us that a person is not a rugged individualist but is, in its very essence, a person is relationship. No relationship, no person. Our analogies with stories and music help us again here. The words of a story or a poem have very limited meaning individually but they take on much meaning in relationship to one another. The same is true with individual notes becoming a song when joined one to another. A triad is made up of three notes but it is one chord. The Persons of the Trinity hold nothing back from one another and ideally neither should we with one another. Trying to grasp our non-existent individuality is like trying to grasp a story or a song or the wind. If we are to be ourselves, we must let go as the Persons of the Trinity are always letting go so that we always go where we are sent whether it is halfway around the world or—as is most often the case—to the person next to us.

Mirror Neurons Revisited

Xenia1Although the title The Myth of Mirror Neurons make cause one to think it, this book does NOT deny the existence of mirror neurons. (See Mirroring Desires.) The myth the author talks about is a serious overrating of what mirror neurons can do in human beings. The discovery that the same neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys fire when they do an action or see the action done, such as grabbing a banana remains intact. It is the extension of the motor simulation to explaining human language and imitation that Hickock contests. Two historical points: 1) Up to the discovery of mirror neurons, the computational system of the brain was somewhat overrated; 2) the discovery of mirror neurons triggered a revival of the highly discredited motor theory of language skills in humans. Hickock explains at length how the same problems that discredited the motor theory of language remain in force, notwithstanding the difficulty of killing zombies. He discusses the evidence for high-level computational processing in the human brain in language use and in imitation. What mirror neurons do is ground the computational work in the brain in the motor areas of the brain. Hickock suggestss that mirror neurons seem to be about the same in macaques and humans but macaques do not talk and they do not imitate very much–certainly not anywhere near on a human skill. Hickock discusses autism and the theory that it is caused by a deprivation of mirror neuron activity. Hickock gives reasons why this does not work as part of a broader questioning of all deprivation theories of autism. In its place, Hickock cites evidence that autism is caused by overload in many areas. It is well-known that autistic persons are hypersensitive to sound and other sensory inputs such as certain colors. There is also growing evidence that autistic persons are hyper-sensitive to the other people; that is, they have an overload of empathy that is overwhelming rather than a lack. Where we seem to end up, for the time being anyway, is a mirror neuron system that grounds a complex computational cognitive set up apps (to use the computer analogy). For those interested in René Girard’s thought who see the discovery of mirror neurons as explaining Girard’s notions of mimetic desire: mirror neurons don’t do as much as the hype has suggested but they are very much in our bodies and they do play a role. The instinctive reaction to stimuli still seems to point to the preconscious element of mimetic desire, or at least part of it. The paradigm that Hickock is moving us toward suggests that it is not mirror neurons but the explosion of cognitive skills in the brain that takes humans out of instinct into learning by experience. Imitation, so fundamental to those exploring Girard’s thought, takes over from what instinct did in animals. Those skilled in neurology and related issues might found it useful to follow up this notion to see if it holds significant explanatory value. In any case, everyone who has been excited about mirror neurons and especially those who have cited the discovery as helpful to understanding humans should read this book to see where at least some scientists are now taking it. Hickock hasn’t just razed the barn; he has also called in the carpenters.

Will and God’s Desire Revisited

AndrewPalmSunday2

Some time in the past I published a post called “Will and God’s Desire.” I have just thoroughly revised this post so as to use it for a brief introduction to a book I am writing that will explore various ways that Girard’s insights into mimetic desire can help us understand and live the Christian life. Several other blog posts will also provide matter for this book. Since a pair of introductory pages are of crucial importance for making the rest of the book work, I am posting it here and asking for any suggestions I might consider to make it clearer and stronger. Here is the introduction as I have it currently:

Spiritual writing often place much emphasis on obeying God’s will. That is good, but I think we can deepen our relationship with God by shifting the emphasis from trying to do God’s will to sharing God’s Desire. The two seem to amount to the same thing: if God desires something, then God wills it. But the differing connotations of these two words have a big effect. The words “obey God’s will” suggest that God’s will is something we should allow God to impose God’s on us. The phrase “share God’s Desire” has a much gentler connotation. It suggests that God has a certain Desire that God wishes to share. Sharing a desire is a very different thing than giving us marching orders. God’s Desire extends an invitation to us to enter into a great mystery. I purposely use the singular form of desire for God because, although God could be said to desire many things, they all converge into one all-encompassing Desire for the well-being of all creation.
Thinking and praying in terms of God’s Desire is attractive in the sense that it opens up a collaborative relationship with God, such as what Abraham and Moses showed when they bargained with God on behalf of God’s people. But our desires are complex, stimulating, and troubling. This problematic aspect of our desires makes us want to exert our own wills against them and then ask God to take the same dictatorial approach on them as well. But if God shares God’s Desire with us instead, then trying to do to ourselves with our own will what God does not do to us is not likely to work. That Desire is something God shares with us rather than imposes on us tells us something important about desire: desire is shared.
Here we come up against the biggest problem we have with our desires. We think they originate within ourselves and so belong to us. This causes us to treat them in a proprietary manner through exerting our wills on them. The French polymath thinker René Girard has suggested that the desires within us are not exclusively our own. They do not originate within ourselves but they originate from the desires of others. That is, our desires are shared. Not only are they shared, they are contagious like an epidemic. We see this when rage flares up throughout a social network like a firestorm. Shared desire can also be as contagious as a gentle smile that floats through people like a soft breeze. Girard calls this shared desire mimetic desire. That is, desire that imitates the desires of others. Actually, as I shall show when I explore this trait in the course of this book, it is important not to think of imitation as an external copying like mimicking the actions of others. Rather, our desires our shared through a deep resonance that connects us with other people and with God. When we think of desires as our own, we are likely to treat them like weapons in battles with other people with the will acting as the general aspiring to be a war god. But the more we try to assert our desires as our own, the more they are governed by the desires of others. The more we rebel against the desires of others, the more subject we are to them. If we try to control the desires of others by trying to make them imitate us, we are still organizing our lives around their desires all the more. Meanwhile, the people who have us trapped into imitating their desires are just as trapped into imitating ours.
This phenomenon of shared desire is like a dizzying labyrinthine worm that boars to the depths of our personhood. This is why trying to control our own desires as if they were strictly our own is beating the air. (1 Cor. 9:26) On a broad social scale, this labyrinth of mimetic desire can lead to meltdowns that lead to collective violence such as the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. For his part, as I will explain at length, Jesus nailed this persecutory meltdown to the cross, to quote Paul creatively (Col. 2:14).
God’s Desire enters into this dizzying matrix of human mimetic desire more deeply than the devouring worm ever could, probing far more deeply than the desires of other people so as to saves us from being overrun by these desires. The amazing thing about God’s Desire is its spaciousness, quite a contrast with the cramped nexus of human mimetic desire. In God’s Desire, there is all the room in the world. That is not surprising since God created all of the room in the world. While human mimetic desire creates scarcity through conflict, God’s Desire provides abundance such as the abundance Jesus that flowed from five barley loaves and two fishes in the wilderness. The gentleness of sharing God’s Desire might make it look like an easy option, but I find it highly challenging. Sharing God’s Desire asks of us nothing short of a total transformation of ourselves as we open our hearts to embrace the expansive Desire of God.
In bringing the shared aspect of desire to our attention, Girard and his many colleagues have opened up a powerful avenue for spiritual and social renewal. This small insight may not look like much but it has the power to help us understand how violence, especially violence connected with religion, occurs. This is especially true with the Paschal Mystery of Christ. More important, this small insight can help us learn how we can become living stones in the temple of God that explode into God’s Kingdom. In the pages that follow, I will explore these ideas as means of hearing God’s Word and making it flesh in our acts of service and prayer.