I have posted on the “Articles” page an introductory article on René Girard called Violence and the Kingdom of God. Actually, Girard is sort of the catalyst for what is called “Mimetic Theory” as it is centered on the human tendency to imitate desires. (See Human See, Human Want) It is more accurate to say that there is a constellation of thinkers of whom René is one. It is my observation that Girard does not have followers; he has colleagues, of which I am one. Those wishing for a more in-depth discussion of the ideas I am working with on this blog may wish to read the article.
For many in North America, Halloween is a day for children to dress up, have fun, and get lots of candy from indulgent neighbors. Skeleton suits and witch’s makeup are all in fun. Not as fun is the background to Halloween that goes back to rites, such as the Celtic Samhain festival, designed to allay anxiety over blurring the distinction between the dead and the living and make sure the dead stay dead. This anxiety causes some people to try to suppress modern Halloween, although the people who sentenced witches to burning should be more horrifying than girls running about in black dresses with candy bags.
Blurring distinctions between the living and the dead raise horrifying issues. To begin with, it calls into question what life and death really are. Zombies and vampires are very popular today as creatures haunting us with this blurred distinction. The idea of being “undead” is a haunting but unattractive possibility.
Rites of and against the dead, encountered by anthropologists worldwide, express fear that the dead envy the living and, if they get a chance to break into the land of the living, they will destroy the life we cherish. That is, the dead are set up as rivals for life that has been made scarce. These anxieties project rivalry experienced with other living persons on those same persons when they are (hopefully) departed this life. Cf. “Human See, Human Want.”
The execution of Jesus followed by his Resurrection, where Jesus appeared not as a vengeful ghost but the forgiving victim, opened up a whole different paradigm of the dead. Christian martyrs who gave up their precious lives to witness to Christ were believed by the early church to be, not vengeful ghosts, but saints in Heaven actively seeking our good. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a particularly powerful vision of those living on earth and those living in Heaven supporting each other in prayer without resentment or rivalry. Cf. “Two Ways of Gathering.”
Many people like to have their spines titillated at Halloween. My stories “Ghost of Swiss Castle” and “The Dark Window” in Beyond to Here might chill the spine a little bit, but they also invite the reader to think of lending a ghost a helping hand and receiving some healing in this life as well.
The time of the World Serious, as Bullwinkle and others called it, is a good time to reflect on why someone like me who doesn’t like rivalry is a baseball fan. I was raised in the Detroit era when Al Kaline was a star, so maybe that has something to do with it. Obviously, I can’t expect God to favor one team or another. More obviously, we need to keep games in perspective. Winning the World Serious is not as important increasing social justice for economically challenged people I have come to see a distinction between rivalry and competition. Rivalry is centered on the rival, making the rival an idol, in an attempt to win at the rival’s (and other people’s) expense. Competition can be undergirded by a deeper cooperation. For example, competitors in a game collaborate to create a well-played game that is fun for the participants, such as playing tennis or golf with friends, or playing professional baseball games that give fans pleasure along with some agony when my team blows a big lead in the last inning. Perhaps this distinction is of some use in economic issues as well. Capitalist theory tends to encourage completion as beneficial to the public good because companies that try to have the best product at the best price will deliver quality to the consumer. It is hard to see how as many useful and fun innovations would have been created without the spur of competition. I am skeptical, though, about Adam Smith’s contention that an “invisible hand” makes selfish motifs contribute to a sound and fair economy. Divine Providence surely is about a benevolent God fostering divine benevolence in humanity. However, the line between constructive competition and destructive rivalry can be very thin. Baseball games sometimes descend into brawlgames where pitchers throwing at opposing batters tit-for-tat. Likewise, competition can be cutthroat when companies only want to destroy other companies. I could go on with quite a rant about the toxic atmosphere of American politics when politicians should be collaborating to discern how to work for the public good, but aren’t. If it is all about winning, then it is toxic rivalry. If it’s about having fun with others, then it is healthy competition. When we fall into the middle, we have some spiritual work to do. We need to remember the words of St. Paul that we don’t run for a wreathe that will wither, but for a prize that never fades.
In one charming story, a monastic who has shared his cave with another, notes that they have never had a quarrel and proposes that they try to have one, like all other people. The other monastic says he doesn’t know how to start a quarrel. The first monastic puts a block of wood on the ground between them and says” “This block is mine. Now you say the same thing.” The second monastic said, “This block is mine.” “No, this block is mine,” insists the first monastic. “Okay, it’s yours,” says the other. And so they failed to have a quarrel.
Would these monastics have quarreled if the first had put a gem between them instead of a block of wood? The story about the children and the balloons in “Human See, Human Want,” suggests that question is whether any article at all is given worth by the desire of the other. A block of wood can become as desirable as a gem if somebody else desires it and another person gets caught up in that desire.
If these two monastics were not quarreling, what were they doing? The desert literature tells us they would have spent large amounts of time in prayer, much of that in psalmody, and then the rest weaving baskets they would sell to give the money to the poor. That is, they were not focused on each other but were opening themselves to God’s Desire and to the needs of other people. Prayer and helping other people does not guarantee there will be no quarrelling, but the two combined surely help quite a lot.
My story “Haunted for a Time” in From Beyond to Here offers a counter-example to these two desert monastics. At the beginning of the story, Murray is so absorbed in his possessiveness of his comic books at the expense of others that he cannot see anything beyond that. Some unsettling apparitions from a ghostly figure challenge him to reconsider his ways.
My book Tools for Peace examines Benedict’s teachings on stewardship of material goods in the monastery that build on the insights of this simple story of the two desert monastics who failed to be movers and shakers in the world, but also failed to have a quarrel.
At a children’s party, the house was filled with balloons and the children were all happily playing with them until one child suddenly grabbed one balloon and yelled: “This balloon is mine!” Suddenly, all the children forsook the other balloons and fought over the one balloon. This story, told me by an eye witness, is a classic example of what René Girard calls “mimetic desire.” Just as we imitate each other in actions, dress, etc., at a deeper level, we imitate each other’s desires. That is, once one child voiced a desire for one particular balloon, all the other children instantly desired that one balloon and none other. Later in life, one youth’s desire for a certain girl triggers a desire for the same girl in another youth who had ignored her up to that point. So deep is mimetic desire that we often do not realize it is there and we claim our desires for ourselves alone.
This conflict, what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry,” might give the impression that mimetic desire is, in itself, a bad thing. That is not the case. Mimetic desire can easily be benign and non-conflictual. For example, my father shared his love of pizza and butterscotch sundaes with me and I desire them to this day. Likewise, a teacher who loves Shakespeare will try to instill the same desire for Shakespeare in his or her students.
In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis suggests that the mark of a friendship is that the two friends are focused on a common interest more than on each other. This is mimetic desire working in a positive way. On the contrary, when two or more people fall into a mimetic conflict, they are focused on each other to the exclusion of anything else, most of all whatever it is they think they are fighting about.
We cannot avoid mimetic desire. We are tied into a sea of mimetic desire as soon as we are born. Mimetic desire connects us with other people whether we like it or not. So much for individualism. The question is whether we will be connected through expansive sharing or connected through constrictive conflict. Most important, we are born into God’s mimetic desire for us and for all other people. We are constantly faced with the choice of which direction we are willing to go with the mimetic desire we share with all others. Do we make war or do we make peace?
Early in my monastic life, when I wanted to know everything, I read the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a thinker who knew everything, or seemed to. Many of Thomas’ insights and speculations continue to nourish me. The insight that I dwell upon and dwell in more than any other comes in Question 14, article 9.
Thomas has been enumerating what God knows, which, not surprisingly turns out to be everything. In article 9, however, Thomas poses the question of whether God knows everything that has never existed, does not presently exist, and never will exist. One might think that this, at least would stump God, but Thomas blithely insists that God knows these things as well. Huh?
Basically, Thomas says that God knows everything that could exist. That includes everything which God does bring into being as well as everything which God does not bring into being. This is an important point. We take our own existence and the existence of the things in the world for granted. God takes nothing for granted. God chooses some things to exist out of an infinitude of possibilities.
So what about unicorns and all else that allegedly do not exist? What does God have against them that God did not bring them into being? The answer is God has nothing against anything. The deeper answer is that God leaves many things to our imaginations. We can’t imagine horses; they are already here. But we can imagine unicorns and dragons and creatures from other planets that may or may not exist. What I find so awesome about Thomas’ insight is that God invites us to enter into God’s imagination to glimpse a few of the infinite number of beings that will never exist. God encourages us to welcome into this life many creatures we otherwise would never see and get to know. Not only do we get to pet the cats who live at our monastery, but we get to ride dragons through the air!
It is because God has invited me into small visions of the divine imagination that I can introduce you to Korniel, Pandara, Merendael, and many others. If you wish to meet them for yourself, you can read Creatures We Dream of Knowing and From Beyond to Here. Knowing them has enriched my life. I hope it will enrich yours as well.