Mimetic Desire and Truth (5)

???????????????????????????????????????????In my last post, I showed how the premiere place for perceiving truth, the place of the victim, has been distorted. The problem is, if a person in in the place of the victim deals with it by making victims of others, as so many abused people have done, then that person is no longer in the place of the victim and has lost “the intelligence of the victim.” Unfortunately, such people are so caught up in feeling entitled to make victims of others and with the mimetic rivalry I mentioned as to who is the greatest victim, that do not know that they do not have the victim’s “intelligence.”

The revelation of the true victim in the Gospels is very different. Jesus was not only the innocent victim; Jesus was the forgiving victim. No wishing for the limbs of his enemies to tremble or shake or that they be swept away, greenwood or dry, as the Psalmist wished for him! It is Jesus’ forgiveness which gives him a true view of humanity so that he saw the potential for Matthew and Zacchaeus and, after his Resurrection, of Paul when nobody else did. The place of the victim, then, is the place of truth when the victim is forgiving.

When the victim is forgiving, as Jesus was, is, and will be forever, then mimetic desire takes a sharp turn away from rivalry and moves again in the expansive direction of sharing. The forgiving victim does not pose as the greatest of victims; the forgiving victim only wants healing for everybody, including and, especially for the victimizers. The desire that the forgiving victim shares is a desire for the well-being of all, a desire that does not allow for rivalry as rivalry would undermine this desire of universal healing.

In a sense, we have come full circle from where I started with expansive mimetic desire that initiates young people into food and games and art and many other things that are good and desirable. This original mimetic desire, if we wish to call it that, is akin to the good of creation. We were created with mimetic desire for precisely this purpose. The universal fall into mimetic rivalry and its ensuing social crises is Original Sin. (Note the mimetic rivalry between Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and humanity’s rivalry with God by building the Tower of Babel.) The recovery of expansive mimetic desire through Jesus the forgiving victim is restorative and redemptive. St. Paul said repeatedly the Christ’s redemption did not return us to original good creation; it brought us to a whole higher level of well-being that is grounded in forgiveness.

Since truth is grounded in creation, it follows, as Thomas Aquinas demonstrated, that the truth of things resides in the mind of God. That is, God sees what God has made and knows the depths of all that God has made in all truth. Insofar as we humans see things as God sees them, we see them truly. Our growing awareness of mimetic desire, however, shows us that seeing the truth is not a solitary endeavor; it is a corporate matter. Only through the expansive mimetic desire of sharing what is desirable can we, together, have a reasonably accurate apprehension of truth. Since truth is grounded in God, God becomes a partner in this corporate effort. Given the fallenness of humanity through rivalrous mimetic desire, it is through the forgiving victim that we can recover a vision of the world as God sees it in all its profound desirability.

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Mimetic Desire and Truth (4)

crucifix1In my last post in this series, I noted that mimetic rivalry inevitably distorts truth and that it creates victims. The mutual involvement of rivals with each other precludes their seeing each other truly and it makes them oblivious to the people who are affected by their rivalry. René Girard has demonstrated about as well as it is possible when examining the human behavior at the dawn of civilization that social meltdowns were resolved by collective violence that were covered up by myths that obscured the reality of what had happened. When Jesus said that the devil is a murderer and a liar from the beginning (John 8:44) he was not talking about a supernatural figure who was doing the damage; he was making an anthropological statement about human responsibility. That is, the violence of mimetic rivalry inexorably leads to mendacity. Philosophers might quibble with each other about where the limitations of the human intellect are for perceiving truth, but the real problem with perceiving the truth is rooted in the human will. The more involved we are in mimetic rivalry, the less truth we can see.

These considerations lead to the conclusion that truth is found, not in some fancy theory of human knowledge, but in the reality of the victim. It is this reality that is revealed in the numerous psalms of lament where the psalmist is constantly surrounded by enemies who blame him or her for all of the calamities inflicted upon the people. This truth is definitively revealed in the Passion narratives of the Gospels where Jesus is revealed as the innocent and forgiving victim vindicated by God. Andrew McKenna called it “the epistemological privilege of the victim.” Some privilege! James Alison coined the term “the intelligence of the victim.” René Girard consistently deflects postmodernists who insist there is no center of truth anymore by pointing to the reality of the victim as the starting point for perceiving truth.

This sounds simple but mimetic rivalry has twisted this truth in some subtle ways. In a way, the Gospels did the job of revealing the truth of the victim too well. As far as I can tell, nobody, not even Socrates, cared to be in the place of the victim before the Gospels were written. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the most intense mimetic rivalry is precisely over who is the greatest victim. Everybody, every social group wants to be the most victimized victim and to hold that position at the expense of all other victims. CEO’s who rake in millions of dollars in bonuses while they ruin the finances of thousands of people claim to be victims when they become objects of opprobrium. Well, objects of opprobrium are victims, but they don’t know what they are doing. In every conflict between social groups or between individuals, each side, each person is very much aware of the truth of their own victimhood. What none of these people see at all is the truth of the victimhood of their enemies. Least of all do rivals over victimhood see the victims that their rivalry is creating.

The key to truth, then, has become violently distorted in our time. Fortunately, there is more to this key than what we humans have done to it and we will revisit this key in the final post of this series.

Continue on to Mimetic Desire and Truth (5)

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The Good Shepherd in the Desert

goodShepherdIf Jesus is the “living interpretive principle of scriptures, as James Alison says, then the Parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to search out the one lost sheep should be a powerful and accurate interpretive lens for other passages in scripture.

In the RoCa lectionary, this Gospel is coupled with a tense episode in Exodus 32. As he comes down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, he finds that Aaron has set up a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. God tells Moses to get out of the way so that his wrath can “burn hot against them.” Doesn’t sound like a good shepherd.  Instead, it is Moses who acts out the part of the good shepherd by interceding with God, as Abraham did earlier to avert the divine wrath from the people. At the end of this same chapter, there is another narration of Moses coming down the mountain. This time, he is so furious he breaks the tablets and then rallies the Levites to his side to slay thee thousand people who were worshipping the golden calf. Although Moses claims to be doing God’s work, what we have is a narrative of human rather than divine violence. Moses doesn’t look like a good shepherd this time, but the morning after this monstrous slaughter, Moses intercedes with God to forgive the people although it is a bit late for the three thousand who were slain. This strange doubling of narrations seems to point to a debate in the Jewish tradition moving in the direction of unveiling God’s love for God’s people.

In 1 Corinthians 10, St. Paul refers to this incident by saying “we must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” (He ups the death toll.) In isolation, this is about the chilliest verse in the Pauline epistles but in its sacramental context, it is much more in keeping with Jesus the Good Shepherd. Leading into this verse, Paul says that “we were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink.” This, in turn, recalls the reinterpretation of the Flood in 1 Peter where the water corresponds to the baptism that delivered Noah and his family and delivers us now. The Genesis story clearly indicates a social meltdown with a few, probably the intended victims, escaping. The Exodus story refers to the social meltdown in Egypt that lead to the expulsion of the Israelites. In the desert, the Israelites had their own social meltdown centered around rivalry between Moses and Aaron. (Arnold Schönberg’s opera Moses and Aron portrays this rivalry with great insight.) For both Peter and Paul, baptism is the deliverance from the surrounding sacrificial society into the Kingdom centered on the Eucharist, the new way of gathering without need of victims and certainly not needed the slaughter of three thousand. Paul is not, then, warning his readers against a wrathful deity but against a wrathful society that will engulf them if they return to its sacrificial ways, just as a relapse into the wrathful society of Egypt lead to a meltdown in the camp and the deaths of thousands.

Jesus the Good Shepherd does not strike dead those who re-enter a sacrificial society that today manifests hardness of heart to the extent of trying to prevent fundamental ministries such as feeding the hungry. Instead, Jesus enters into the heart of the society to bring back all who are lost. Rather than starting a bloodbath, we should intercede for all such people as Moses did and follow Jesus in searching for the lost.

See also: The Communal Good Shepherd

The Communal Good Shepherd

goodShepherdThe parable of the lost sheep crystallizes the Gospel as only a few others do.  It reverses our usual outlook that naturally tends to think along utilitarian lines where, as Caiaphas suggested, it is better for one person to die than the whole nation should perish. From the dawn of time, sacrificial logic has worked the same way: one person dies so that the community can be at peace, at least for a time. Jesus coyly asks the question: “which of you, having a hundred sheep, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine to look after the lost one?” The honest answer would be: Nobody. A lone shepherd couldn’t leave the ninety-nine without losing them and probably failing finding the lost one as well. And yet Jesus asks the question in such a way as to ridicule our normal way of thinking and then goes on to rhapsodize about the extravagant joy and celebration at finding the one lost sheep. It’s the same with the woman finding her lost coin. She throws a party that probably cost all ten of her coins.

This rejoicing over the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost sinner shakes us up into realizing that it is not enough to renounce the sacrificial logic of Caiaphas. If we stop sacrificing people we think are expendable that is something but much more is asked of us. We are to actively and sacrificially care for the ones who are lost, who are considered expendable by society. In his Rule, Benedict writes powerfully about this parable in the context of a community dealing with a delinquent member. As I say in my book Tools for Peace, “Benedict captures the inner spirit of the Gospel by picturing the abbot throwing off any sense of abbatial dignity in much the same way the father of the prodigal son throws off his dignity by running out to greet the son he sees from afar.”

One might think that the good shepherd is sacrificing the ninety-nine sheep for the sake of the one. Maybe. But what really needs to happen is for the shepherd plus the ninety-nine to go after the lost sheep. In his chapters on dealing with a delinquent member of the community, Benedict turns the whole community into shepherds. Paradoxically, one of the ways (and a problematic one) is excommunication where all members must cooperate. It is important to realize this is intended as a means to reconciliation; sort of like a time out in a family which gives a trouble child an opportunity to reflect on his or her behavior. Moreover, the whole community shares the pain of the alienation. Benedict doesn’t leave it at that. He suggests that the abbot send wise monastics to comfort the excommunicated member and reason with him. Benedict then encourages the best remedy of all: prayer. This is a communal effort with the whole community praying for the one who is temporarily lost in the hope that this member will soon be found again. Reconciliation takes place in the monastic church, making this also a communal event.

Benedict gives us one example of living out a difficult scenario. In each instance, we have to find different means to the same end although Benedict’s techniques give us a sense of direction. In the Body of Christ, all of us are called upon to act the part of the good shepherd.

Mimetic Desire and Truth (3)

Xenia1In my last post in this series, I noted the example of Polixenes in The Winter’s Tale who showed a reasonably accurate view of reality by praising the qualities of Hermione, but that the jealous rage of her husband Leontes distorted the reality deeply. It is the same distortion that happens in the nursery when children fight over one toy as if it were the only one when the reality is that there are many toys to play with. Mimetic rivalry over romantic partners will likewise distort the human reality in a school or other social setting. In a non-rivalrous situation, girls can imitate each other in finding various boys desirable and, like Polixenes, can admire the choices their friends make. But if two or more girls are in rivalry with each other, perhaps over something such as the position of captain on the girls’ field hockey team, then they will cease to see the qualities of the boys more or less for what they are. It is often said that love, especially infatuations, is blind, but conflicted mimetic desire is much more blind than that.

It is important to distinguish honest disagreement from rivalry. In both cases, there is mimetic desire but in the former case, it is a shared desire to arrive at truth or discernment of right action. In the latter case, the two people are trying to outdo each other for the sake of outdoing each other. The shared mimetic desire is a victory over the other and truth and right action fall by the wayside.

The movie “Doubt” is an excellent illustration of this kind of situation. With Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius are permanently locked in mimetic rivalry, it is not possible that the truth of whether or not the priest has abused Donald Miller, the Afro-American boy in the parish school, can be known and that is why the movie never resolves the question. Donald Miler, of course, is clearly a victim of this strife regardless of what has or has not really happened.

There is a qualitative difference between honest disagreement and rivalry but it is also a fine line between them.  We can easily start with honest disagreement and fall into rivalry if we allow ourselves to become more obsessed with the person we disagree with than with trying to see what is true and what should be done. This matter calls for constant self-examination where we continually ask ourselves as honestly as we can: What side of this line am I on? How far on that side am I? We also have to keep alert to whether we are actually listening to what the other is saying or if we are only thinking about what we want to say. If we neglect this self-examination, we are pretty certain to fall over into the wrong side of this divide and become lost in mimetic entanglements.

A shared mimetic desire for truth does not guarantee that truth will be reached since our viewpoints cannot encompass all relevant realty but it is a sine qua non for reaching some semblance of the truth. On the other hand, when we are locked in mimetic rivalry with others, it is not just some abstract principle of what is true that is a casualty, but real human beings will suffer as victims, like Donald Miller in “Doubt.”

Continue on to Mimetic Desire and Truth (4)

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