I would say my interest in Rene Girard’s theories regarding mimetic desire and human culture (and how they intersect Christian theology) is approaching intoxication. I’ve been enjoying Creative Mimesis, a compilation of contributions whose authors reflect upon Girard’s thought in light of questions regarding the possibility of ‘positive mimesis’.
Mimesis refers to the intrinsically imitative nature of human desire. Because Girard brought the question of the mimetic nature of desire to bear upon the role of violence in the formation of human culture, some believe he held imitation as such to be violent. There is thus no intrinsically good (positive, creative) imitation because desire as such is conflictual and rivalrous. Contrary to to this view, the chapters of this volume explore the intrinsic goodness of mimetic desire. Some do so by extending Girard’s insights in new ways, others show that Girard himself did not in fact hold desire or mimesis to be intrinsically violent, and that taking mimesis to be essentially good makes better sense of his thought.
My interests are primarily theological, so Ch 4 peaked my interests. Robert Doran’s “Lonergan on Imitating the Divine Relations” and Petra Steinmair-Pösel’s “Original Sin, Grace, and Positive Mimesis” were wonderful contributions. Because Girard wasn’t a trained theologian and didn’t always connect the relevant dots, it’s helpful to see his insights unpacked theologically by those able to do so. The fit is there and it’s exposed nicely by Doran and Steinmair-Pösel. Thomas Reynolds’ “The Creative Desire for God: Mimesis Beyond Violence in Monotheistic Religions?” was also very good. In the section dealing with scientific issues, (fellow open theist) Robin Collins’ “Nature as a Source of Non-Conflictual Desire” was excellent. The question of the essential goodness of the created order poses a challenge for those (like me) who assume God created us mortal and the world subject to decay. But it was Steinmair-Pösel’s contribution that especially grabbed my interest. It got to thinking: What kind of desiring must God’s desiring be if God is to be a healing, non-conflictual, non-rivalrous object of desire?
If you aren’t familiar with Girard yet, David Cayley’s 5-Part Interview/Documentary is a wonderful way to get to know him. (Speaking of Girard, my pre-ordered Evolution of Desire: A Life of Rene Girard by Cynthia Haven is in the mail. Can’t wait!)
Back to Steinmair-Pösel. She studied philosophy and theology in Innsbruck and Dublin (Dr. theol., 2005) and is currently university assistant at the Institute for Social Ethics (Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Vienna). You can read and download a slightly edited version of her chapter here. She writes:
Grace and Positive Mimesis
Let us for the last time turn to the theological level. We have seen how the perverse imitation of God is closely connected to the violent history of antagonistic mimesis. But alongside this history and closely interwoven with it, there is another history: the history of grace, which time and again renders possible moments of positive and loving mimesis. This history also starts—like the history of negative mimesis and even before that history—at the very beginning of creation. The theological concept of creation has shown that the capacity of human beings for transcendence is already a bestowed gift—creational grace. And since every human being is an image of God—even if the likeness is distorted by sin—it is also true that the mutual imitation of human beings doesn’t necessarily lead to perdition. In this context, the relevance of law, especially the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, also has to be taken into account: The Old Testament Law provides a framework within which positive mimesis can be realized. Moreover, there have always been people who have represented this image and likeness of God in an especially lucid way: Such ﬁgures included the prophets of the Old Testament and particularly the Servant of the Lord. In its purest and most unaltered way (at least for Christians), this image and likeness of God appears in Jesus Christ. He is—as the Second Vatican Council professes—the homo perfectus, the perfect man, who is at the same time the undisguised image of God.
Like Adam in the garden story, Jesus is also led into temptation; the Tempter also wants him to adopt a counterfeit image of God. But Jesus “does not in any way let himself be drawn into the deceptive world of the enemy.” His signiﬁcance can—as Nikolaus Wandinger shows—be found in breaking through the vicious circle of counterfeit imitation and the distorted image of God. This breaking through happens on several levels and affects the distorted image of God as well as the quality of imitation. On the level of his preaching, Jesus communicates the undisguised image of God: God is the loving and merciful Father, whose unconditional forgiveness is offered to everybody and who wants to give us everything—even Godself—as a present. However, the drama of Jesus’s life and death reveals that under the precondition of original sin, under the precondition of the ensnarement of humanity in antagonistic mimesis, the mere message of the merciful Father is not enough to correct the distorted image of God. Rather, people drag Jesus into their own, perverted notions of God; they consequently accuse him of blasphemy and ﬁnally kill him. In this situation of intensifying conﬂict, a correction of the image of God is only made possible by Jesus’s own way of acting. Confronted with human violence, Jesus renounces counterviolence and ﬁnally even gives his own life for his opponents. After all of this, the risen Christ returns to guilty humankind with words of peace and forgiveness. Thus he allows for a new experience of God: an experience of a God who reacts to human failure and sin not with revenge but with loving forgiveness.
How can Jesus act like that? Is it mere ascetic self-decoration? Jesus says about himself that he imitates his heavenly Father. Yet he doesn’t imitate him in a rivalrous way, but in a positive, nonviolent way. How is such a positive mimesis possible?
Jesus’s imitation of the Father doesn’t end in the blind alley of rivalry, because—as Girard says—it is not based on a greedy and egoistic form of desire. Rather, Jesus’s way of imitation is in itself an unmerited gift. Christian theology locates the fundamental reason for this fact in Trinitarian theology, in the passionate relations of the divine Persons with each other. In Extra Media Nulla Salus? Attempt at a Theological Synthesis, Jozef Niewiadomski pointed out that Jesus “became independent of mimetic projections” because his “relation to his God had become the innermost core of his own self-experience and of his own person.” The concrete man Jesus of Nazareth is stamped by his passion for the communicating God, a passion that arises from participation. Thus Jesus’s image of the Father is not that of a rivalrous God who wants to withhold something from God’s creatures, but that of a loving Father who wants to give Godself as a present. Moreover, Jesus is not an autonomous subject imitating the Father by virtue of his own efforts; he is imitating the Father by virtue of the Holy Spirit that has been given to him. According to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in baptism. Thereby Jesus is designated as the beloved son of God and the bearer of the divine Spirit. This experience in baptism might play an essential role in making positive mimesis become possible. By virtue of the Spirit bestowed on him by the Father, Jesus imitates the Father in a consummate way. Thus, Schwager argues that during his life and death, Jesus perfectly represents his heavenly Father.
By means of his life and death and the sending of the divine Spirit after his ascension, Jesus, the homo perfectus, the undistorted image of God, makes possible a new, undisguised experience of God and consequently also new interhuman relationships, relationships that don’t follow the structure of antagonistic mimesis. This new form of relationship—I want to call it positive mimesis—becomes possible because of the new image or rather the new experience of God, which Jesus communicates by means of his own life and behavior.
God isn’t the rival of humanity; God respects human freedom and wants salvation for all human beings. On the other side, there is also the need for a new quality of imitation, a quality that does not lead into mimetic conﬂicts, because it arises not from an attitude of scarcity but from the experience of gratuitous forgiveness and from newly bestowed possibilities for life. This form of positive mimesis, given by this new experience of God and the new quality of imitation, doesn’t aim at taking the place of the model and ﬁnally of God. Positive mimesis doesn’t aim at replacement but at gratuitous participation—ultimately participation in the divine life.
The experience of having gratuitously received something forms the foundation of positive mimesis. It is cultivated wherever human beings experience themselves as having received a gratuitous gift and consequently are willing to pass on what they have received, freely and without calculation.
I don’t know if anyone has yet connected Girard’s insights regarding mimetic desire to the belief in divine apatheia. It would make a great dissertation topic. Divine apatheia, as we promote it here at least, is the notion not that God is apathetic, not the subject of something like an emotional life, but rather that God is the infinite plenitude of desire and its fulfillment (viz., unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction). As such he does not compete with us and is not a source of rivalry. The possibilities of expounding human participation in this in Girardian terms as the heart of salvation would make a wonderful book.
What must God be if he is the healing source of desire who fulfills all desire without generating rivalry and conflict between those who share God as the object of desire? It seems to me that that it must be the case at least that the drama of human desire does not falsify the plenitude of divine desire, that God not be thought of as entering into or affected by the conflict and rivalries to which our desires and imitating are enslaved. This doesn’t mean that in Christ God is not truly incarnate in our world; it only means God never surrenders himself to the fragmented, egoistic forms of mimesis and human desiring which are the condition he heals us from.
Hence, what heals warring desire is peaceful desire, what heals conflictual desiring is pacific, rivalry-free desiring. Christians don’t usually speak of salvation in terms the healing of human desire, much less in terms of experiencing divine desire, but it is precisely participation in God’s desire that heals us. How would one articulate that? This is where passibilist vs impassibilist understandings of God’s desiring become relevant.
How does one participate (by which I mean the integration of some reality into every dimension of one’s life) in the desires of another? First of all, I suggest, by experiencing oneself as the object of divine desire, a desire that is not competitive or conflictual but free and fulfilled, unconditioned by all other forms of desire familiar to us, and which is also a desire that is the very creative force that gives us our existence. Here we experience ourselves most fundamentally as a “being desired by” One whose existence and desires, unlike ours, never enter into the competitive rise and fall of frustrated and unfulfilled desire. We thus have a non-violent way to self-relate outside the drama of negative mimesis that defines human culture. As we are loved by undiminished (divine) desire, the truest thing about us is that which is not of this world’s making or wanting. Thus our being given existence and our being loved are an indivisible act not of this world. There is no greater healing force.
In a wonderfully lengthy essay on Girard, Thomas Bertonneau writes:
Girard writes how the modern consciousness “renounces the divine mediator only to fall back on the human mediator.” In another formula, Girard asserts that, “Denial of God does not eliminate transcendency but diverts it from the au-delà to the en-deçà.” Christianity cannot exclude mimesis, but it can channel mimesis by directing the subject to imitate the maximally distant model, the Second Person of the Trinity, who in turn desires only to imitate the First Person of the Trinity. To direct one’s attention to God through the Son opens the way to the liberation of the soul from its enslavement to men. The modern consciousness, which has been in rivalry with God since the time of Friedrich Nietzsche at least, exalts the divinity of its own ego, and then wonders why, despite the rhetorical glamour of its syllogisms, it nevertheless fails actually to feel as its own the Being of God. A whole degraded politics of endless complaint has grown out of this failure, attributing what is often called privilege to its targeted malefactors. The subject cannot maintain the illusion of having acquired Being from its dispossessed monopolist and invariably collapses into panic.
Secondly, participating in God’s desires would involve construing our existence – on the whole and in all its particular acts – as a response to the divine desire that creates us. How is this done? St. Paul captures it in several passages. Rom 8.15 comes to mind: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship, and by him we cry, ‘Abba’, Father.” Even my desiring God is a participating in the Son’s response to the Father, “Abba, Father.” Consider the logic of Paul’s “I, not I, but Christ” in Gal 2:20. This “I, not I, but Christ” constitutes a single substantive, so close is his act of self-perception with the reality of Christ’s presence. They comprise a single world – the giver and the gift. This brings human response (and human desiring), even in its free determination, full circle, from realizing ourselves as both gift and object of desire to realizing the nature of our response as equally that of a gift.
What is made of all this if salvation is understood in terms of divine passibilism, viz., in terms of the rise and fall of divine desire? If the fulfillment of God’s own desires (even God’s desire for himself, as is seen in passibilist construals of the Cross) is diminished or improved upon by the world, does this not reduce the divine desire that heals all human desiring to the drama of conflictual desire? It is difficult to relate to God in ways that heal negative mimesis if God’s own desires are believed to compete with our desires as a rival within all all-embracing conflict.
Lastly, I suggest that salvation – as our participating in God’s own desires – means never having to turn from desiring God to desiring anything else we desire, where we can (as Paul describes in Col 3.23) intend every act, however mundane or menial, “as to/for the Lord rather than men.” Not only is the act of self-perception described in Gal 2.20 (“I, not I, but Christ”) made radically one with Christ, so also is my perception of every other person transformed into a perception of Christ. Our desires, and with them ourselves – experienced at the most intimate level of self-reflection as well as in every perception of the world outside ourselves – are truly and finally saved when God is seen and desired in all our seeing and desiring. Perceptive readers will notice the connection between what I’m saying here and my 5-part response to Roberto Sirvent’s Embracing Vulnerability Human and Divine. Sivent argues that imitating God entails passibilism. I argue that the imitation of God entails impassibilism. The same point encouraged this insight as well:
And yet, for our desires to possess God as end without possibility of rivalry, not only must God be infinite, he must also be rivalry-free. To say this brings us round to the question of the antecedent fullness of God’s own desires and to the crucial difference between our desiring God and God’s desiring us, a distinction that is at the heart of our articulation of divine apatheia. Only an infinitely fulfilled desire can be a rivalry-free source and object of desire. Though our desiring finite ends spawns rivalry in us, God’s desire for us finite creatures is not a finite desire, because — here’s the controversial part my passibilist friends will balk at — in desiring us, God is not desiring some finite end, but himself in us. We simply cannot be the end of God’s desiring us in the same way God is the end of our desiring him. Said more provocatively — not only is God’s desire for us ultimately an expression of God’s desire for Godself, but so also is our desire for God an expression of God’s desire for Godself, for from him, and through him, and to/for him are all things.
In these ways I think Girard’s own insights about human desire assume something very like divine apatheia, that is, a plenitude of desire undiminished and unimproved by the world and unrelentless in its desire for the world.