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.

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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

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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.

A Church of Living Stones

altarWhite 1When we celebrate an event like the anniversary of the consecration of the Abbey church, we are brought up short by the many negative things scripture says about temples and church buildings. Solomon humbly notes that not “even Heaven or the highest Heaven” can contain God, let alone a dinky temple in a backwater of civilization. Many of the prophets expressed discomfort or worse over the idea. David had wanted to build a temple but Nathan said God nixed it because David had fought too many battles that had made him impure for the task. A big part of the problem was that God wanted more elbow room than a temple would give. One of the more dramatic denunciations was Jeremiah’s admonition not to put any trust in stammering: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Fast forward to Jesus and we have him throwing the money changers and animals out of the temple.

What’s wrong with having a temple or a church building? Although Christians can and have worshiped in private houses, there are many practical reasons for having a building dedicated to worship, among them the problem of a host and hostess or their servants having to clean house before and after the service. Mircea Eliade famously pointed out humanity’s need of sacred space to draw attention to the Divine. St. Benedict affirmed the importance of the oratory in the monastery when he said that nothing else should be done there and nothing should be stored there so that there would be no mistaking this being the place for prayer and nothing but prayer. In throwing out the money changers, Jesus said that temple should not be a marketplace but a place of prayer.

There is an interesting detail in Matthew’s account of the cleansing of the temple that helps us understand Jesus’ actions in the temple. Jesus healed the blind and the lame who came to him there. We easily skip over this detail because Jesus was healing the blind and the lame all the time so yet another healing session doesn’t seem worthy of note. An obscure verse in Second Samuel sheds some light on this. When David brought his troops into Jerusalem, the Jebusites insulted David by saying that even the lame and the blind would turn him back. David reacts to the insult by heaping scorn on all lame and blind persons and barring them from the “house,” presumably once it was built. This was hardly fair to handicapped persons.

Jesus, by healing the lame and the blind was giving a strong signal that maybe he was the Messiah but if so, he was not a Davidic Messiah who would conquer by military might. More important, Jesus is giving us a positive teaching rather than simply denouncing the sacrificial cult. In short, Jesus was demonstrating, in action, the word of Hosea that God prefers mercy rather than sacrifice, a verse Jesus quoted more than once. In his first Epistle, Peter says we should rid ourselves of malice and all guile, insincerity, all slander and envy” so that we can become “living stones” “built into a spiritual house.” We are the ones who are called to be the temple of God, the Church grounded in Jesus who is the true temple. Being living stones that prefer mercy to sacrifice is how we do it. If we so allow ourselves by the grace of God to become such living stones, then having a place dedicated to precisely that is more than just fine.