Category Archives: Mimetic Desire

What do we mean by the Kingdom of God?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life April 2002

Christian orthodoxy has always seen Christ as king as well as prophet and priest – a king who will personally and visibly reign some day, following the second coming. In the meantime there is ‘the kingdom of God’ which Vatican 2 identifies with the church, understood as ‘the people of God’.

When Jesus said ‘the kingdom of God is within’ and ‘at hand’ and that we should ‘seek’ it we can link this idea to the second birth that comes with baptism by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, a Christian spirituality can build a kingdom within us where Christ reigns as Lord, one that can gradually change also our outward cultural and social reality, moving the church and human society gradually towards a second visible coming of Christ.

But how do we envisage Christ reigning then? ‘Kingdom’ now seems a very archaic concept – especially in a context where the mystique of royalty has been totally destroyed by media intrusion into the all-too human frailties of the Windsors. No advanced country in the world is now ruled by a hereditary monarchy with real executive power – and this seems sensible. And so the ‘kingdom’ language of the Bible is one of those aspects of Christianity that make it seem fusty and culturally antiquated – the doomed intellectual property of a backward looking patriarchy. Must we Christians believe that God is stuck in an ancient and medieval mindset that will insist upon returning us some day to something like the kingdom of David or Solomon or Charlemagne, only more magnificent and triumphant, with Christ holding court in some fixed, earthly location and directing a centralised governmental system?

I believe not. I believe that if we read and ponder holistically the Biblical accounts of the kingdom of Israel, as well as the Gospel references to the kingdom of God, we find a dynamic that is actually predictive of a modern global egalitarian society – but one that lacks the imperfections of the most advanced we now have.

First, God did not impose an earthly kingdom upon Israel – but granted it reluctantly and apparently with the intention of letting Israel learn from the experience. The first book of Samuel tells us:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” 1 Sam 8:4,5

Notice ‘such as all the other nations have’. This tells us something of crucial importance – that the earthly kingdom of Israel arose out of mimetic desire, or covetousness – the desire to possess that which is possessed by others – because they possess it. The perceived greater power of the surrounding monarchical systems – especially that of the Philistines – led Israel to envy them, to suppose that it was these systems that gave them this greater power, and to undervalue the system they already had – one in which prophets and judges ruled in a relationship of equality and familiarity rather than hierarchy and splendour.

The text goes on to tell us that Samuel was displeased by that request, but that the Lord told him:

“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court. The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible connotation: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to conceptualise the kingdom of God, begin with, say, the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God.

The essence of that inferiority was their origin in an inferior spirituality – mimetic desire – and this is confirmed by the accounts of the central flaws of the three great kings – Saul, David and Solomon. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and he became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into mimetic rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with mimetic desire.

As for Solomon, he became renowned for his wisdom and, according to the text, ultimately preferred this renown to fidelity to the God who had given him this gift. Renown is simply wider esteem. The need of the man of eminence to be esteemed by other humans had again become his undoing. And this same weakness was the root source of the brutality of the Herods in Jesus’s time.

Sacred kingship essentially turned a mere human being into a mystical being upon whom an exaggerated dignity and military expectation was then conferred – with the consequence that the individual so honoured usually became virtually obsessed with his own reputation or ‘glory’. Another consequence was the inevitable withdrawal of dignity from those subjects who could never expect to come close to this semi-sacred being. Here again the book of Samuel is highly specific:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam 8:11-18

What is being described here is subjection: a loss of dignity and freedom. The sons who ran in front of the chariot would be the first to die in battle – for the glory of the person they served. Samuel’s critique of ancient kingship could have served perfectly the antimonarchist causes of revolutionary America and republican France nearly three millennia later.

If an inability to overcome the compulsion of mimetic desire was always associated with the visible kingdoms of Israel, then the original invisible kingdom had never been surpassed. It is against this background that we need to observe Jesus’ dealings with kingship – especially his rejection of the option of building such a visible kingdom in the only way that was feasible in the ancient world: by conquest.

This decision began with the second temptation in the desert, and was finally decisively rejected at Gethsemane. Jesus’ reply to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” can thus be interpreted as “That over which I rule is not one of those earthly kingdoms which arise out of mimetic desire and conflict”. And this means it cannot be like the kingdom of David either. It is the same ‘kingdom’ that Israel had abandoned in the time of Samuel, with Jesus in the Samuel, i.e. the prophetic, role. That is to say, it is really an anti-kingdom – one that contradicted the pattern whereby the subject would die for the glory of the king.

We must not make the mistake of supposing that an earthly kingdom ruled by a visible Jesus must necessarily be free of mimetic desire and envy – i.e. of imperfection – for the Gospel tells us otherwise. “Which of us is the greatest?” the apostles repeatedly ask of him, with the sons of Zebedee aiming at a heavenly elevation also. If the kingdom of God is to be free of mimetic desire, there simply cannot be a human pyramid of esteem with Jesus at its summit – for no matter how perfect the king, people would then jealously compete for closeness to him, supposing their own dignity rested upon that, as humans have throughout history. Earthly kingship creates inevitably a pyramid of dignity, in which a ‘wannabe’ fixation deprives everyone else of a sense of her/his own dignity (the source of all those English dreams of tea with the Queen).

The only ‘kingdom’ that can be free of mimetic desire is one in which all accept their own equal dignity. It will therefore be unlike any earthly kingdom of the past, and superior – in terms of egalitarianism – to the most advanced democratic societies today. It is a future society in which dignity is equally distributed – far superior to the ‘meritocracy’ aimed at by our current political elites, for mimetic desire is rampant there also. It follows that power also will be distributed rather than concentrated as in all absolute monarchies.

This is part of the meaning of the passion and death of Christ: he is bringing down the pyramid of esteem, establishing a relationship between humans that is based upon equal mutual respect – the meaning of the washing of the feet. The continual eucharistic division of the body of Christ means that wherever the ‘subject’ is, there is Jesus also. Each of us is equally close, so none lacks dignity.

With globalisation our perception of human space is shifting. In the ancient world people supposed they lived upon a planar disc with real physical boundaries. There had to be a boundary out there, an ‘edge’, encircling human space. This is why Alexander set out to travel to that boundary – the end of the earth – conquering as he went. The human idea of kingship was therefore linked to the notion of a bounded planar surface, over which human heroes fought for arch dominion. The notion that Jerusalem lay at the centre of that surface persisted into the late Middle Ages in Europe.

The idea of earthly kingship was also linked to that of a vertical hierarchy of heavenly dignity, in which the earthly king’s elevation ‘above’ his subjects reflected the even greater dignity of God in the perfection of heaven.

If we interpret the Genesis story of ‘the fall’ as related to human mimetic envy of God in Heaven (‘you shall be as Gods’), we can then interpret the story of Jesus as a revelation whose central teaching is that God is not to be envied – because he is prepared to accept the humiliation of the world. And this in turn means that our conception of Christ as King must be one that rejects the typical earthly kingly pyramid. Somehow he will always be equidistant from us all, so that all are equally honoured.

The Eucharist achieves this, of course, by allowing within sacred space a perfect equality of contact with the king. The Ascension we can see then not so much as a departure, but as a necessary step towards a sacramental banquet in which all Christians are equally admitted to the divine presence, which can also, through the Eucharist and the Spirit, reign within. In this way God raises all into his being equally – undermining the power of mimetic desire.

Now conscious human space has no fixed boundaries, for we know the surface upon which we live is spherical, always returning to meet itself. Thus, the surface of the earth can have no centre, so that no location upon it is more privileged and prestigious than any other.

Furthermore we now look out upon an enfolding heavenly space so vast that the notion of human dominion there is ludicrous. And so we can envisage also a global – and even extra-terrestrial – human society in which, with the continual breaking of bread and body, there is a perfect equality of dignity, and therefore no need for conflict or concentrations of military power.

It is profoundly mysterious that there should be in texts that were written in the ancient planar world a clear revelation of a divine preference for a ‘kingdom’ that would look beyond any existing in that world, to provide what the global human family now needs, and will always need. That is, a Lordship that claims authority first and last in the human heart, that excludes no-one, and that promises freedom and equal dignity to all.

In an earthly community of this kind, people would not notice someone who came by, gently, seeking their company rather than their obeisance, their freedom rather than their subjection. He would not be challenged – for all people would be in the habit of accepting strangers this way.

Here is an early Irish poem that dreams of the future kingdom of Heaven:

CREATION OF HEAVEN

King, you created heaven according to your delight,
a place that is safe and pure, its air filled with the songs of angels.
It is like a strong mighty city, which no enemy can invade,
with walls as high as mountains.
It is like an open window, in which all can move freely,
with people arriving from earth but never leaving.
It is huge, ten times the size of earth,
so that every creature ever born can find a place.
It is small, no bigger than a village,
where all are friends, and none is a stranger.
In the centre is a palace, its walls made of emerald
and its gates of amethyst; and on each gate is hung a golden cross.
The roof is ruby, and at each pinnacle stands an eagle
covered in gold, its eyes of sapphire.
Inside the palace it is always daylight, and the air cool, neither hot nor cold; and there is a perfect green lawn, with a blue stream running across it.
At the edge of this lawn are trees and shrubs, always in blossom,
white, pink and purple, spreading a sweet fragrance everywhere.
Round the lawn walks a King, not dressed in fine robes,
but in a simple white tunic, smiling, and embracing those he meets.
And people from outside are constantly entering the palace,
mingling one with another, and then leaving.
Everyone in heaven is free to come to the palace,
and then to take with them its perfect peaceful joy;
and in this way the whole of heaven is infused with the joy of the palace.

(Celtic Prayers, R Van de Weyer, Abingdon Press)

It’s clear that the unknown author of this poem was someone within whom the Lord reigned already spiritually, and who understood that a perfect equality and lack of rivalry would eventually characterise his people. The word ‘subjects’ is out of place to describe these, for there is no subjection, only liberation. With such a ‘kingdom’ the most radical egalitarian and democrat could find no fault.

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What underlies René Girard’s ‘Mimetic Desire’

The lowly character Pip in Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ – in his social encounter with the grand Miss Havisham and her haughty ward Estella in Satis House.

What underlies ‘mimetic’ desire – the desire that we unconsciously copy from someone else, and make our own?  This question was posed by myself to Duncan Morrow in a conference centred on the thought of René Girard in Corrymeela, Northern Ireland, in November 2017.

Necessarily confined by his need to deal also with other questions in a short time-frame in this seminar situation, Duncan’s response was concise in my memory of it. Arguing against the romantic Enlightenment conception of the individual person as a completely autonomous actor, he emphasised the necessarily relational development of the ‘self’. Referencing the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Duncan proposed (I believe) that the desiring ‘self’ is always participating and developing within a network of relationships in both time and space. He drew a simple lattice of intersecting lines to illustrate this. He then circled some of the nodes of this lattice as points of encounter with others that will necessarily impact upon us, and therefore upon what we will desire. (Figure 1)

Figure 1 – The social network

This was helpful to me, as I had already reached an understanding of mimetic desire as ‘socially mediated’.  However, I was struck by what seemed the ‘coolness’ or ‘lack of drama’ in this brief account of social interaction. I felt that I was being invited to believe that in these encounters there could be no question about the equality of dignity of the actors – that such events would always be as ‘comfortable’ as a conversation in Corrymeela.

Looking back I think this impression must have been partly a product of the two-dimensional illustration of that lattice. I wanted to go on to explore another interior dimension, that element of ‘drama’ – of ‘felt inadequacy and inequality’ – that is present in so many of our social interactions. I could not do that right then as other members of the group had other questions waiting.

And so I propose to explore it now, by introducing what I tend to call the universe of uncertainty, honour and shame in which we all emotionally dwell. I will begin with a very short story of my own early mimetic desire.

My issue with soap

Some years before my own arrival on this planet in 1943, as the son of a Dublin civil servant, my mother’s younger sister had taken the eye of a prominent Dublin obstetrician. I grew up some miles away from a slightly younger cousin, the son of this doctor. Occasionally I visited his home in a far more select Dublin neighbourhood.

To this day my use of a particular brand of soap was determined by my finding it, on one of those days, in the far more luxurious bathroom of that house. Its shape and colour and weight and scent lingered with me, at the age of about twelve I think, and gave birth to the desire that I was later able to satisfy.

‘We are afflicted with a congenital uncertainty as to our own value.’ So concluded the philosopher Alain de Botton in 20041Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton, Penguin, 2004, p. 15. I can think of no better short summary of my own considered view of our deepest human problem. As this chronic uncertainty tends to put us in flight from shame and in search of honour (both socially ‘mediated’) it lends itself to a perception of society as necessarily and righteously ‘judgmental’ – as having both the power and authority to determine our ‘worthiness’.

In that household of my cousin I had an acute sensitivity to my own social inequality, my lack of what is called ‘status’. I was not thinking in those terms at that time, but I was lacking in something important: this was painfully obvious to me. That I might make up at least part of the deficit by using that particular commodity seemed logical enough. No dramatic reverse had ever happened to me in that house – merely a condescension that was usually kindly. However, just that element of condescension, and my mother’s deferential yet slightly resentful behaviour towards my aunt and uncle, had been more than enough to make me want to ease the shame of my felt inferiority by that means.

Charles Dickens and Mimetic Desire

A far more dramatic story— also to do with a visit to a grander house – is told in Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861). Raised in a smithy by a tyrannical sister and her submissive husband Joe Gargery, the young Pip – just beginning his apprenticeship in the smithy – is brought one day to the decaying but still impressive Satis House, to play with the ward of the very strange Miss Havisham.

This well-dressed young lady, the ‘very pretty’ Estella, disdains to play cards with Pip at Miss Havisham’s request – although she is of the same age. She comments on his ‘coarse hands’ and ‘thick boots’. Later she leaves him alone in a courtyard in the dismal Satis House, and Pip recalls:

I took the opportunity of being alone in the courtyard to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. My opinion of those accessories was not favourable. They had never troubled me before, but they troubled me now, as vulgar appendages. I determined to ask Joe why he had ever taught me to call those picture-cards Jacks, which ought to be called knaves. I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.

When Estella returns to give him some food in that yard, without looking at him ‘as if I were a dog in disgrace’, Pip feels deep humiliation:

My sister’s bringing up had made me sensitive. In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.2Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, Chapter 8

Discerning on many subsequent similar visits to Satis House that the increasingly beautiful Estella is deliberately being schooled by Miss Havisham to attract and reject many suitors, Pip comes to desire not only Estella but the gentrified status that could allow him to court her. The novel pivots on that desire. Pip has become entrapped not only in the web spun by Miss Havisham but in the wider social web that had captured and unbalanced her.

Earlier, in Little Dorrit (1855), Dickens had made even more plain his understanding of this social conditioning. Briefly, the elderly William Dorrit has been locked up in the Marshalsea prison for so long, for debt, that he has become – at least hopefully in his own eyes – a worthy object of veneration. He deals with the shame of his indebtedness by affecting the role of monarch of the prison. He affects also the belief that visitors to the prison will feel privileged to pay tribute in small gifts of money for his upkeep. He converses with these as though bestowing honour upon respectful envoys from foreign lands.

His daughter Amy – Little Dorrit – had been born in and has grown up in the Marshalsea – and is stunned when an investigation reveals that, to a vast fortune trapped in legal confusion in the world outside, her own father, William Dorrit, is the true heir. Released from the Marshalsea in splendour, the family undertakes a European Grand Tour.

In Venice eventually, staying in a luxurious rented villa, Amy is troubled to observe that:

A perfect fury for making acquaintances on whom to impress their riches and importance has seized the House of Dorrit… It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they now lived greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea.3Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens, Book II, Chapter VII

In just these two sentences Dickens reveals that William Dorrit’s real prison had not been the Marshalsea, or even London. He had carried it with him to Venice in his own head. It was the prison of his own fixed conviction that his dignity and value were absolutely at the mercy of the judgement of others, of society. His suddenly acquired wealth could not in itself convince him of his own dignity: it needed to be observed, appreciated, recorded – at the summit of that Victorian social pyramid – for Dorrit himself to be convinced of his own value as a person.

It seems to me therefore that to illustrate the perceived judgemental authority of that social network, in time and space – the network that convinces us that honour is not a ‘given’, and that shame attaches to the nakedness of owning nothing – we need to add something to that lattice in Figure 1. That ‘something’ should convey this perception by our ‘little selves’ that ‘society’ regards us not with affection or even disinterest, but appraisingly and with imminent scorn.

Figure 2 – The appraising social eye

To try to convey this I did some searching among the images provided on the Internet for ‘scales of justice’ and ‘observing eye’ – and overlapped two of them, as follows (Figure 2):

What if we now zoom in on one of those ‘nodes’ of encounter in the experiential lattice in Figure 1 – to note that in critical social situations we are subjectively ‘under judgement’ as illustrated above?

It remains only to superimpose the second image upon the first to complete a rendering of the power of the social network to influence our mimeticism. (Figure 3)

Figure 3 – The appraising social network

From early experience of parental presentation to relatives (to warble agonisingly in an unreliable soprano in my case!) to the teacher’s assessment of our intellect in the classroom, to that first job interview and, in later years, to the end-of-year honours’ list, are our lives not always a series of ‘trials’? Always uncertain of the outcomes, is it not our fate to be poised always somewhere between the City of Shame and the City of Honour? And do we not typically seek to acquire whatever will ward off the disaster of social contempt – unless we can sometime find a means of ‘relativising’ society itself?

Somewhere in my encounters with Girardian literature I am sure I came across a quote from René that explicitly acknowledged that role of the fear of shame – in not only determining the object and intensity of our desire, but in explaining our reluctance to acknowledge that imitation has played a part in that. To my annoyance I cannot now locate that passage. I shall be indebted if anyone can help – and even more pleased with other references to this underlying dimension of honour and shame in choosing our models for us – and in determining the intensity of our desires – in the development of mimetic theory.

I strongly suspect that it is this same experiential dimension of judgement, honour and shame that for so long concealed the full meaning of the verb ‘to covet’ from Christian clergy – and that underlies much of the remaining resistance to mimetic theory in our own time. That a major ‘sin’ could have become obscured to the view of Christian moral theologians for so many centuries – to be uncovered by a lay student of secular literature in the late 1950s – is not something that those schooled entirely in theology and related religious disciplines would necessarily feel honoured to acknowledge.

Sean O’Conaill, Contagion, Feb. 2018

Notes

  1. Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton, Penguin, 2004, p. 15
  2. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, Chapter 8
  3. Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens, Book II, Chapter VII

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Mimetic Desire: The Importance of René Girard I

At the age of ten – c. 1953 – I threw an especially odious tantrum. Already an avid reader, I had the notion even then of becoming a writer of some kind. I had also decided that the first successful step of my ascent to literary grandeur must be the ownership of a very particular fountain pen, heavily advertised at that time. When my parents told me they couldn’t afford this I sulked hideously for a week over my blighted career.

I remember this now because my complaint had absolutely nothing to do with any ‘ism’ that I was aware of – least of all ‘materialism’. The plastic, rubber, metal and other constituent materials of that gleaming object were not of the slightest interest to me. I had instead, and not for the last time, fallen victim to magical thinking – the attribution to a cloned advertised object of the power to enhance my own personal ‘nobody’ status. That particular pen alone, I had convinced myself, would surely make me a famous writer. The very inferior pen I already owned, although made of the same materials, was surely the reason I hadn’t yet written a novel and wasn’t already a celebrity.

Reflection on this, on other similar episodes in later life – and on the way that advertising works generally – has convinced me that the church’s standard diagnosis of the global plague of material accumulation is hopelessly off centre and misdirected. The charge of materialism implies to me that the feverish purchasing of inessential objects is driven by a deep interest in matter per se, or maybe even by a belief that nothing but matter exists. Nothing could be further from the reality that I have observed. The diagnosis of ‘materialism’ is totally ineffectual because none of us can see that we are actually guilty of it.

What is fundamentally wrong with us has nothing to do with any materialist philosophy, or with entirely innocent matter. Our basic acquisitive complaint – and it seems to be almost congenital – is deep and recurrent doubt as to our own personal value, accompanied by a deep desire to enhance it. Reinforced by media, and too often by other aspects of our surrounding culture, it is this complaint above all that makes us vulnerable to ‘iconic’ advertised objects designed to ‘change your life’.

Brand Bullying

Ireland’s Breda O’Brien once told the story of a friend exasperated by a teenage son. This boy had rebelled when his mother had tried to persuade him that it would be foolish for her to spend an extra €50 simply to enable him to wear the logo of a more expensive branded jacket. When she asked him why on earth she should do that he said, instantly: “Because I’m worth it!” A clever slogan designed to enhance the pulling power of an entirely different class of branded goods had lodged fast in this boy’s consciousness – to be deployed later to bully his own poor mother!

Here again, obviously, this boy was totally uninterested in the constituent material of the jacket. The brand logo – a simple memorable image – had become ‘iconic’ for him, a mysterious guarantee of the personal value and status that an unbranded item of exactly the same material could not give its owner.

This is not simply undifferentiated ‘wanting’ or ‘desiring’ either. Simple lack of food causes an entirely specific kind of wanting and desire, for which we have the precise name ‘physical hunger’. The wanting that fixates upon a particular ‘iconic’ object also surely deserves a specific and descriptive name, a name that isn’t ‘materialism’ either. (Isn’t food, even the Eucharist, material, after all, and clothing also – and don’t we need both?)

Mysteriously we don’t have in common use today a precise name for this particular desire for ‘iconic’ objects.

René Girard and Mimetic Desire

Thankfully, however, this kind of wanting now has a fully descriptive name, learned gratefully by me from the work of the American-French Catholic academician René Girard. He uses the pinpoint term ‘mimetic desire’ for that specific kind of desire that unconsciously mimics the observed desire of someone else – someone we mistakenly believe to be more highly valuable than ourselves. The power of most of the world’s multinationals is based on a deep understanding of how our mimetic desire can be manipulated to buy ‘designer’ objects of every kind – from clothing to cars, from lipsticks to the very latest smartphone or tablet computer.

Despite our obvious need to understand and resist this phenomenon, I have yet to hear a Mass homily on this problem of truly contagious mimetic desire. How has it come about that our clergy do not notice or speak insightfully about a pervasive problem of modern culture – a problem that is obviously also moral and spiritual?

This question becomes even more interesting in light of René Girard’s compelling argument that mimetic desire is the very problem denoted by the biblical word covetousness. How come that no homilist in my experience has ever noted that in the decalogue the triple warning against coveting links this sin in every case to something possessed by a neighbour, i.e. by someone we know? Surely that ox of the decalogue was the sleekest and strongest one, the one that belonged to the richest farmer in the community. Proud possession by someone else is crucial to the transmission of mimetic desire. It is usually the higher perceived status of the owner that transfers addictive desirability to the desired object. This is why celebrities are paid millions to use and to be photographed in association with big brand logos.

There is a further reason our homilists need to notice this. Girard shows convincingly that when mimetic desire becomes focused by two or more people upon anything that cannot be shared, real violence looms.  For Girard the Bible is the world’s greatest literary source of illustrations of this. Cain killed Abel because he concluded that Abel’s animal sacrifice had won God’s preference before Cain’s own sacrifice of grain. Desiring the intangible divine preference that Abel apparently now possessed, and the unattainable status that went with it, Cain went mad with jealousy and killed his brother.

Similarly Saul hated the young David as soon as David had won the greater admiration of the women of Israel.  Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery out of mimetic desire for the ‘coat of many colours’ – the garment that marked him as his father, Jacob’s, favourite. Absalom rose in rebellion against his father David out of mimetic desire for the kingdom of Israel. And the land of Israel’s ‘milk and honey’ – the produce of its richest soil – made it mimetically desirable to its neighbours, such as the Babylonians and later the Romans. There was even a near outbreak of violence among the apostles themselves, when they visualised one of their number being granted the highest status in heaven, next to Jesus himself. This is a clear echo of the story of original violence between brothers.

The Bible even tells us that the desire of the people of Israel to have a king was a contagious borrowing of an institution that ‘all the other nations have’. (1 Sam 8: 4,5) Could the reason for that particular mimetic desire be that surrounding kings were apparently better at the high-prestige art of warfare?

Mimetic Desire in Irish History

As for violence and mimetic desire in Irish history, what about the extraordinary tale of the Cathach, the copy of the Psalter made by the young Colmcille from another copy owned by St Finnian?  It was this quarrel of two saints that reputedly led to the war that ended in Colmcille’s self-exile on Iona.

Centuries later it was rivalrous desire for the kingdom of Leinster that led to the conflict that brought the Normans to Ireland – and the competing desires of England, France and Spain led to many further troubles.  Far more recently, Charles J. Haughey’s absorption of the desires of 18th century Irish landlords led to the greatest scandal in living Irish political memory.

In the case of conflict in Northern Ireland, the legend of the red hand of Ulster is obviously also about mimetic desire.  What else do we need to explain the irreconcilability of the competing nationalisms that still plague the north-east?  Surely it is a mistake to point the finger exclusively at either of the competing traditions when essentially the same desire drives both – for possession of the security that goes with sovereign authority.

Mimetic Desire, Overconsumption and World Crisis

As for ‘consumerism’, today’s mass production of desirable objects has allowed the many rather than the few to possess apparently identical objects, hiding from us the full violent potential of mimetic desire in day-to-day life  (unless at end-of-year sales!). However, teenagers have been murdered in the US for possession of top-brand sneakers. And the sweat-house production of branded clothing in the developing world – an almost inevitable product of globalisation – has caused inexcusable violence to exploited workers, for example in the building of criminally unstable factories. Chinese factory workers have sometimes been driven to suicide by the terms of employment in factories that produce our highest status electronic goods.   Profit-driven multinationals, their managers dependent upon the favour of investors, seem too often indifferent to the pressures this creates for employees at the manufacturing base.  And those managers and investors too are likely to be mimetically driven – to afford higher-status homes, transport, personal technology and ‘bling’.  A world driven by unseen mimetic desire will necessarily be an abusive and unjust one.

René Girard has been writing about mimetic desire, and its connection with all kinds of violence, since the early 1970s. He has gathered around his mimetic theory a community of distinguished academics in the fields of sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, philosophy, literary criticism, history and theology.  Probably no other living intellectual has been so influential in so many fields.  Having delved as a historian into just a fraction of this work I am convinced that Girard’s insight is set to have profound consequences for the future of Christianity, as well as for the social sciences and the arts – and even the second level school curriculum.  It is not going too far to say that Girard has brought the secular Enlightenment back to its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that his work is set to transform the relationship between the churches and the secular world.

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The crisis in secular society offers an opportunity for the church

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Nov 2011

The recovery of the Catholic church in Ireland will occur just as soon as its leaders realise that they need to share responsibility with lay people for evangelising secular culture.

The summer months of 2011 saw an intensification of the crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  The Cloyne report showed how the powers exercised by Catholic bishops could be used to frustrate even the church’s own child protection guidelines as late as 2008.  Once again, despite the warning provided by previous scandals,  an Irish bishop had totally mishandled this issue – to the detriment of victims of abuse, and to the disgrace of his church.  With other dioceses now undergoing investigation, we wonder how Irish Catholic bishops can ever regain the trust and confidence of their people.

Soon after, something entirely different happened in a neighbouring society.  London, Birmingham and other major British cities were convulsed by terrifying riots that saw wide scale looting and destruction.  In the aftermath over 1,300 rioters were brought before emergency courts – and media commentators agonised over this unexpected event.  Many spoke of the alienation of too many young men from modern society, but none saw any easy solution.   The most honest pundits confessed to total bewilderment.

How would the Irish Catholic church react if similar events were to take place in Irish cities?  There is no precedent for the emergency that would then present itself, and no precedent for the calling together of the Irish faithful to respond to such a secular crisis.  And that encapsulates the problem of the Irish Catholic church today.  With no reason to believe that what happened in Britain could not happen here, our Irish church occupies itself entirely with internal diversionary matters – for example, ‘World Youth Day’ and the Eucharistic Congress scheduled for 2012.

It is a state of affairs that cannot continue.  Sometime soon Ireland will reach a tipping point – a severe and immediate crisis that will precipitate a realisation on the part of church leadership that the division of the church into clerical insiders and non-clerical outsiders simply cannot and must not be maintained.   We are sleepwalking at present on the edge of a cliff, maintaining a model of church that prevents us from doing something basic to the health of every social entity –  communicating with one another over a host of vital issues.

We obviously need to communicate, for example, about the desperation of so many young people, and about the vulnerability of the family – and the role of adult males in mentoring and providing role models for young men.  We need to acknowledge also that the fragile forces that prevent the collapse of any society into chaos are in need of support from every concerned citizen.  We need to talk about the relevance of Catholic social teaching to the vast disillusionment that has overtaken Irish society in recent years.  We need to discuss how we are to counter the dangerous negativity that threatens to overwhelm Irish life, and to replace it with a soundly-based optimism. In a climate of deep cynicism created by so many failures of leadership, we need to restore confidence in the possibility of unselfish public service.

We need to develop together also a deeper understanding of the perils of consumerism and the relevance of the Gospels.  It simply will not do to go on moralising about ‘materialism’ from the pulpit when it is absolutely clear that we humans are entirely uninterested in ‘matter’ for its own sake.  What drives consumerism is the search for social status, the status that is supposedly conferred by possession of advanced technology and expensively ‘styled’ possessions of all kinds.  Churchmen need to become aware that the search for status is a problem they also have – it is actually the root cause of their aloofness, their preference for the company of their peers and their distance from their people.

This ‘Status Anxiety’ is also the trigger for ‘contagious greed’ – the infectious manias that drove, for example, the Irish property bubble, and even, partially, the craze for ‘designer drugs’.  At a more benign level ‘contagious greed’ even maintains the higher consumer spending that economists tell us we need to revitalise the global economy.  We really need an opportunity to discuss all of this – because unbridled contagious greed is also obviously the trigger for looting.

How many Irish priests and bishops are able to connect in their homilies these obvious phenomena of Status Anxiety and infectious greed with Jesus warnings against seeking status and against coveting a neighbour’s possessions?

Is it too dangerous to ‘go there’, perhaps?   Is Status Anxiety also the root problem of the Irish church, the source of clerical aloofness – the basic reason that Catholic clergy – and especially Catholic bishops – are afraid to make open discussion the weekly diet of a church in deep crisis?  Was it also the underlying reason for the cover-up of clerical child abuse? Are clergy basically fearful of losing their status in the church if they lose control?  Is clerical Status Anxiety the root cause of the widespread weakness of preaching at Mass these times?

Preaching would be far stronger also if clergy could confidently assert that it is possible to overcome status anxiet’.  That is in essence what Jesus did – and what Francis of Assisi and every other great saint of the church did.  They lost the fear of descending to the base of society because they were already secure in the love of God.  When secular commentators ponder the nature of ‘strength of character’ we all need to be ready to point out, confidently, the source of the greatest strength. Spirituality is not just for monks – it is the soundest basis of moral character and of civic responsibility.

If the seeking of status is the root source of the growing secular crisis, how is the church to say so if it cannot criticise and dismantle its own status pyramid?  How many humiliations must the church experience before it chooses the path of humility willingly?

It will choose that path soon enough in any case – there will be no alternative.  With austerity set to intensify in Ireland in the months ahead the scene is set for a tipping point that will get us all talking at last – and using the Gospel as a source of salvation.

That cannot happen soon enough, but why do we need to wait?  The relevance of the Gospel to every major problem threatening us is clear enough.  It is only our absurd church structures that prevent us from sharing our understanding of that, and from bringing far better news to a secular society desperately in need of hope.

Views: 182

Of Good and Evil: IV – Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Jun 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we mistakenly suppose that it is the better possessions of others that make them seemingly more important than we are. And that if we can acquire those possessions we will magically become just as worthy.

I distinctly remember throwing a shameful tantrum at the age of about ten. Five years earlier I had learned to read well and began to devour print. I became fascinated by my favourite authors and took a strong notion to become a writer myself. I was certain I absolutely needed what I supposed successful writers used: a particular brand of fountain pen. My parents were watching every penny back then – and sensibly refused my request. I sulked for weeks – instead of writing just as well with a pencil.

I was suffering from a complaint that afflicts all of us, contagious desire – desire we acquire from others whom we mistakenly suppose to have greater value and importance than ourselves.

A similar thing happened to St Augustine of Hippo when he was about sixteen. He and some friends became fascinated by the ripe pears visible over the walls of the garden of a wealthy man of their town – and conspired to raid the orchard. Augustine remembered vividly afterwards that once he had stolen the pears he had no real interest in eating them. This disturbed him greatly. He became convinced that his moral lapse was the result of an irrational or ‘disordered’ desire – it made no sense.

He was right, of course. But he never quite put his finger on the cause of this lapse.

It was probably contagious desire, resulting from his mistaken young man’s fantasy of possessing something that symbolised the higher status of the owner of the orchard.

The Financial Crash

In Ireland these days people argue endlessly over the cause of the present global financial and economic crisis, and especially over the Irish version of it. The temptation to point the finger at individuals is overpowering. But the root cause was something we are all afflicted by.

It was contagious desire. The bible calls it covetousness. It can also be called mimetic desire – desire that unconsciously mimics the desire of someone else.

“Do not covet your neighbour’s ox … or his wife … or anything your neighbour owns!” This emphatic warning in the Ten Commandments of the Bible is there because that library of ancient books is centred largely on the afflictions that result from ignoring this warning.

For example, the unjust treatment of Joseph by his brothers, because of their contagious desire for the object that signified his father’s greater favour – his ‘many coloured coat’. Or King David’s disgrace over his desire for Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Or Absalom’s sad end as a result of his desire for the power and status of his father, King David.

The Bible is not the only ancient religious text to warn of this problem. “Why do we desire what others desire?” asks the Tao Te Ching, the Chinese classic. The unknown author was lamenting the greatest evil to flow from this affliction. When rulers coveted the lands and cities of other rulers, and could deploy armies to acquire them, thousands could die in the wars that followed.

In 2001 there came an early warning of the financial collapse that hit us all in 2009. To maximise their own income from bonuses, executives of the huge US corporation ENRON had dishonestly concealed the increasingly weak position of the firm and published false accounts showing false profits. This led to the collapse of the firm and the ruin of many investors and employees.

Analysing the causes afterwards, the financial wizard Alan Greenspan, head of the US central bank, the ‘Fed’, noticed that individual executives in ENRON had felt compelled to keep pace with one another in claiming these bonuses. He called the phenomenon ‘contagious greed’ – because the word covetousness had long seemed to be old fashioned, and its meaning had been almost lost. At least he had noticed how we ‘catch’ desire from one another.

We saw, and marvelled at, another example of essentially the same thing in Baghdad in 2003 – the looting of most of the priceless treasures from the Iraqi national museum. If we supposed then that we westerners were immune to such behaviour, we now need to think again. Irish bankers who just had to follow risky international lending practices were convinced that if they did not do so they would be seen as incompetent. Contagious desire can lead to a manic rush for treasure out of fear of being left behind and made to look foolish by those leading the charge. Our own greatest national financial treasure – our reputation for integrity and good judgement – has been almost lost in this manic rush.

This fear of being made to look foolish also clearly originates in the fact that we are chronically unsure of our own value.

It is high time we recovered the meaning of the words ‘covet’ and ‘covetousness’. Words such as ‘materialism’ and ‘consumerism’ are weak and misleading by comparison. They merely describe our behaviour without getting to its root and its cause – a desire for the status of another person, who is apparently ‘better’ than ourselves. A multinational cosmetics empire has been built on the assurance that in buying something as trivial as a hair dye its customers can automatically become ‘worth it’.

The Environmental Crisis

It is critically important for us to understand contagious desire and its spiritual root for another reason. It is contagious desire that lies at the root of the world’s environmental crisis. This was proven by the sudden fall in the world price of oil when demand suddenly collapsed in the western economies. Demand is artificially inflated when we become convinced our desires – all of our desires – are needs that must be met. With everyone bidding to surpass everyone else in terms of status, we were on a race to disaster.

The French Jesuit scientist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, was convinced that the life of Jesus of Nazareth was a crucial part of the story of all life on planet earth. He felt sure that learning what Jesus had to teach was crucial to the survival and protection of all life on earth. He was correct – and we are just beginning to understand why.

Unless we can learn, really learn, that our value does not depend upon the possession of material symbols of status, the near future of the planet will be dominated by environmental decay, the extinction of many living species, internal social conflict, and brutal warfare over increasingly scarce resources.

“See the lilies of the field – they do not toil or spin – yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!”

“Sell what you have and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven have no holes in them. Your treasure will be safe — no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it. Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be.”

“Impractical! Impossible!” we tend to cry. “If everyone is to become a pauper who will remain to support us?” We miss the point. Generosity removes the sense of inequality that status-seeking creates. The giver honours the recipient, restoring his sense of his own value and dignity. If everyone is generous everyone is also honoured. The root of all envy, covetousness and violence, is destroyed.

By ‘sell what you have’ Jesus meant ‘sell what you have over’. He made this clear in the instruction: “He that has two coats , let him give to him that has none; and he that has food, let him do likewise.”

At the height of the Irish boom, businessmen who possessed only a share in a helicopter felt inferior – not ‘worth it’ – in the presence of an acquaintance who owned a private jet. That was the craziness of the time. Yet all along both men were equally worthy, as were the mechanics who serviced these machines, and the begging homeless people they sometimes passed in central Dublin.

We can only return to reality when we realise that our value is something gifted us at birth, something that cannot be alienated from us by the entirely superficial differences we create among ourselves.

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The Story of the West: VI – Mastering Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2007

Why did a second-generation Irish nationalist leader set out to mimic in the late 1900s the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Irish ascendancy landlords, with disastrous and tragic consequences for his own reputation and his family? Why is the baseball cap worn around the world – even in cold weather? Why are people so fascinated by celebrity? Why do the youngest children so quickly learn to recognise corporate logos, and to desire what they decorate?

All of these questions were summed up in just one simple question that was asked in the Chinese spiritual classic, the Tao Te Ching, centuries before Christ:

“Why do we desire what others desire?”

To put it another way, why is desire so often contagious? A full answer to this question would give the human family a chance of overcoming, or at least containing, the crises of over-consumption and violence that now threaten the survival of our planet and our species. It is over-consumption that makes resources scarce, and it will be desire for the same scarce resources (e.g. oil) that is likely to fuel the worst violence of the near future.

No one has explored this question of contagious desire with greater energy or brilliance than the French Catholic academic, René Girard.

Beginning as a literary critic in the 1970s Girard noted that some of the West’s greatest modern writers, from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Gide were fascinated by our tendency to ‘catch’ desire from one another. He then noticed that the Bible had begun this western fascination (e.g. in the story of Solomon and the child claimed by two women). From there Girard branched out into anthropology and philosophy, developing a theory of religion that is now influencing academics throughout the world.*

Insisting that in the biblical warning not to covet ‘anything our neighbour owns’ there is a naming of this dangerous human tendency, Girard calls it by a more descriptive name – mimetic desire: a tendency to mimic, often unconsciously, the desire of someone else. Noting that a group of children presented with a choice of toys will almost inevitably begin squabbling over the possession of just one of them, Girard also locates our problem of violence in this tendency.

He also argues, however, that our tendency towards mimicry or imitation is also a gift that allows every new generation to ‘pick up’ everything learned by the preceding generation. The tendency of males to imitate older males, and of females to imitate older females, is an essential attribute that allows us to learn how to become self-supporting adults, mastering a huge range of complex tasks and bodies of knowledge.

But the huge danger of our habit of mimicry becomes obvious as soon as we enter the realm of appropriation – taking hold of something as our own. If the appropriated object is scarce or unique, in grasping it we will tend to confront one another – and violence can then follow. And when just one blow is struck to assert ownership of such an object, our gift for mimicry takes on an entirely different character – one that can destroy an entire community. This is the origin, Girard believes, of, for example, the blood feud that can still be found in many cultures.

This insight alone – that in speaking against covetousness the Bible is warning the human family against a pervasive tendency that now threatens our survival – is hugely important for Christianity – as well as for Judaism and Islam, which share the same text. The tendency for so many religious teachers in all three traditions to focus heavily upon sexual morality has helped the enemies of all religious faith to argue that religion is largely irrelevant to the problems of the moment – and even that the biblical injunctions to ‘increase and multiply’ and to dominate the earth are a source of the global environmental crisis.

On the other hand, if ‘covetousness’ identifies the human habit that betrays us into not only over-consumption but violence, the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian morality’ encompasses the only lifestyle that can take us past the problems of the moment – a lifestyle that is virtually forced upon us by our present crisis anyway.

But Girard’s understanding of covetousness does far more than this. It gives us a means of explaining, in terms that secularism can understand, the whole relevance of the orthodox Christian belief system that is summarised in the Nicene and ‘Apostles’ Creeds.

The Creeds, finally formulated by the fourth century, are centred on the story of Jesus, placing it in a cosmic salvational context. Because the ‘vertical’ picture of the universe depicted in the Creeds has been exploded by modern science, there has been a tendency in much recent theology to find those Creeds absurd and embarrassing.

But if Girard is right, the Creeds can be understood in an entirely different way: as relating a story intended to save us from ourselves – from this habit of manic and foolish imitation of lifestyles that now threaten to destroy us.

Almost all the ‘great men’ of history aspired to be ‘great’ – i.e. to acquire ‘renown’ by climbing to positions of dominance or influence, as Alexander did. Their life story begins with this ascent. Almost always, however, this rise is followed by a fall – through what the Greeks called hubris or arrogance.

Ireland has been riveted by just such a story over the past decade – the tragic story of Charles J Haughey. But in historical terms that story is mundane rather than sensational. From Alexander and Julius Caesar through Napoleon I to George W Bush and Tony Blair, the desire for ‘greatness’ has betrayed us humans into violence and excess. This has led in our own time to what The Economist now calls ‘an authority crisis’ – a growth of cynicism and disillusionment in relation to leaders and institutions in the West generally.

The story told in the creeds follows an entirely different arc – an inverted arc. It is, incredibly, a story of worldly failure rather than success – of someone who sought the company of the poor and the excluded rather than of the wealthy and powerful – and was crucified as a consequence. It defies logic that this story should ever have been told at all – especially as a story of eventual triumph.

The stories of good Christians throughout history explain why. Instead of setting out to win the favour of social elites they have done what Jesus did – they have sought out and served the poor. St Francis of Assisi is a typical example: so are Jean Vanier1This article  was written in 2007, thirteen years before the revelation in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, was also an abuser of the trust of some of the able-bodied women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Ireland’s Michael McGoldrick in our own time.

The story of the Creed is a story of both humility and triumph – and its message is that God loves and rewards humility.

That is exactly what the West needs to hear – because it has brought the world to a great crisis through its own vanity.

Vanity can be defined as a presumption of entitlement to superiority, priority or admiration. It is the attitude that then leads us into covetousness – a desire to possess whatever is possessed by those who dominate the ‘the world’. In our era it is TV that tells us who these people are, and what they possess – and so our world becomes a pyramid of desire also.

Those who can see those TV pictures, but are shut out of western prosperity – for example, educated young men in the impoverished parts of the Arab world – acquire other problematic attitudes: jealousy and envy – a feeling of resentment against those who possess what they cannot. Nothing else is needed to explain the anger that fuels the ‘War on Terror’.

Vanity, covetousness, jealousy, envy, anger – we still need these terms to explain human behaviour and to place the responsibility for dealing with these problems squarely where it belongs – upon ourselves. After almost three centuries of failure to build a perfect world without reference to sin, the most perceptive secular writers are rediscovering the attributes that are the opposite of sin: humility, frugality, mutual respect, simplicity, co-operation, peace. These are the characteristics of the Kingdom of God – preached most eloquently by the one who best exemplified them: Jesus of Nazareth.

The world is in crisis because the West above all has still to realise the full gift it received in the Christian tradition – a gift the whole world is now ready for. It is for western Christians of all traditions to realise the full scope of this gift, and to become adept at explaining the problems they see around them in terms of a truly holistic Christian morality.

This does not mean that we need to abandon our perception of the dangers of Christianity’s most consistent target: sexual indiscipline and infidelity. It means simply that we need to add to this perception an equally discerning analysis of vanity and covetousness. To be persuasive we will need to begin ourselves to see the dangers of imitating models of ostentatious consumption – and then to imitate in these matters also the one we say we love.

And when we read in Genesis that the temptation to Eve was to envy God himself, we will learn to associate Original Sin with vanity and covetousness rather than with the gift of sexuality.

As the global crisis deepens, so will the suffering of humanity – but so also will our perception of salvation. We will see that it is in one kind of imitation only that real global salvation will lie: not the imitation of the wealthy but the imitation of the one who was uniquely humble – the imitation of Christ.

* For a good introduction to Girard, as well as a good bibliography, read:Discovering Girard, Michael Kirwan; Darton, Longman and Todd 2004; ISBN 0-232-52526-9.

Views: 36

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: VI – The World and the Kingdom of God

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004 

Christians have always seen Christ as a king who will reign visibly some day, but what kind of ‘king’ would he be? How would his ‘kingdom’ differ from a modern state? And in the meantime, how should the idea of ‘the kingdom of God’ influence the way we think about the secular world?

These questions are particularly relevant at a time when western political life seems increasingly corrupt. Modern media place a searing spotlight on all prominent people, revealing their private as well as public weaknesses. The flaws of nearby royalty are now common knowledge, so that the whole idea of a ‘kingdom’ is also out of fashion. We associate it with snobbery and inequality, and we cling to the ideal of a truly equal society. Does this mean we should forget about the whole idea of a ‘Kingdom of God’?

The answer is a definite ‘no’ – because we need to understand Jesus’ ‘kingdom’ to have any hope of building a truly equal and just and peaceful society – especially here in Ireland.

The first thing to note about Jesus is that he differed in a quite remarkable way from the great kings of Israel: he never entered into rivalry with anyone, or sought to exercise an authority based upon force, or even the threat of force. Nor did he ever establish a court from which to overawe people and dominate politically. He had already acquired the only status that mattered to him: closeness to the Lord God of Israel.

The most interesting thing about the kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon is that it was seen by the God of Samuel as a rejection of his own kingdom. The Bible tells us:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” (1 Sam 8:4,5)

Notice that these elders wanted a kingdom such as all the other nations have. This tells us something of crucial importance – that the earthly kingdom of Israel arose out of covetousness – the desire to possess something possessed by others – because they possess it. The supposed greater power of the surrounding monarchical systems – especially that of the Philistines – led the Israelite elders to envy them, to suppose that it was these systems that gave them this greater power, and to undervalue the system they already had. This was one in which prophets and judges ruled in a relationship of equality and familiarity rather than hierarchy and splendour.

The text goes on to tell us that Samuel was displeased by that request, but that the Lord God told him:

“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court.

The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible meaning: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to understand Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’, begin with the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God. Nor should we suppose that the kingdom of God is incompatible with a modern democracy.

The Bible is also unsparing in its account of the flaws of the three great kings of Israel. Despite their anointing they all suffered from the very sin that lay at the root of the foundation of that kingdom – mimetic desire or covetousness. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and Saul became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with covetousness.

As for Solomon, he became renowned for his wisdom and, according to the text, ultimately preferred this renown to fidelity to the God who had given him this gift. ‘Renown’ is simply wider esteem. The need of the man of eminence to be esteemed by other humans had become his undoing also. And this same weakness was the root source of the brutality of the Herods in Jesus’ time.

The whole idea of sacred kingship essentially turned a mere human being into a mystical being – with the consequence that the individual so honoured usually became virtually obsessed with his own reputation or ‘glory’. Another consequence was the inevitable withdrawal of dignity from the people – those ‘subjects’ who could never expect to come close to this semi-sacred being. Here again the book of Samuel is highly specific:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam 8:11-18

This is a remarkable account of the consequences of earthly kingship – giving essentially the same reasons for the rejection of monarchy as the American subjects of George III were to use in 1776 – about three thousand years after the foundation of the kingdom of Israel. People eventually resent being treated as inferior by other people who are obviously as flawed as they are.

Here we find the essential difference between Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ and any state built originally in the world by force: it is built first of all within the person, by a spiritual process. Those who live in it are governed by their love of the king who placed it there, not by fear of the consequences of disobedience. Equality is part of its essence. As Thomas Merton observed, the Gospels lead us to a state of mind and heart in which ‘there are no strangers’.

We should remember this when trying to picture any future ‘kingdom of God’ – even one in which Christ visibly reigns. God does not desire our subjection. Indeed God will endure personal humiliation rather than reign through fear: why else would he have tolerated crucifixion in preference to the use of force?

It follows that we need to ponder on ‘the kingdom of God’ to understand the mysteries of our own time – especially the mystery of inequality. Why is it that almost three centuries after equality became the central goal of western political life our societies are still deeply flawed by snobbery and inequality?

Again the bible tells us clearly: we want to be ‘as Gods’ – that is, superior to one another. A perfect political illustration of this is the history of the British Labour party over the last century. Founded to achieve the socialist ideals of people like George Bernard Shaw it became ‘New Labour’ in the 1990s, bound to the ‘meritocratic’ ideals of Tony Blair.

A ‘meritocrat’ is someone very like the said Tony – a clever chap who has ‘risen to the top’ because he supposedly ‘merits’ it. It is clear that to rise to the top there must be a ‘top’ to begin with, so ‘meritocracy’ is based upon the acceptance of inequality. And so it is not essentially different from ‘aristocracy’, which means simply rule of the best.

Irish political life demonstrates the same paradox over the same period. In Ireland in 1922 a political elite emerged out of a violent revolution, promising to cherish all of the nation’s children equally. It now secures its own privileges by a taxation system that favours the wealthy. One of its most outstanding second generation products scandalised the country by aping the aristocratic lifestyle of a member of the 18th century Irish ascendancy, complete with country house and lavish entertainment – all financed by corruption.

If this could happen to the revolutionary parties that emerged out of the period 1916-22, there is absolutely no reason to believe it will not happen to parties emerging out of more recent violence. Today’s populist revolutionaries almost inevitably become tomorrow’s aristocratic elite.

The root of inequality lies in the very same ‘sin’ that founded the kingdom of Israel: covetousness, or mimetic desire – we choose our goals and objectives by imitation of those who seem superior. Which means in turn that deep down we are dissatisfied with ourselves, unsure of our own value. We are prisoners of ‘the world’, our own enveloping culture – nowadays represented by the media which tell us who the ‘superior’ people are, and what they own – so that we can know what we should desire.

And this is why ‘the kingdom of God’ is such a crucial concept – because in consciously seeking it we seek also a consciousness of our own value as Christians, followers of Christ. As a brother or sister of Christ we have a dignity that is greater than any honour ‘the world’ can confer – and a true equality also.

We acquire this title and this dignity through our baptism. The unfortunate tendency of our church leadership to confer other supposed honours upon themselves – honours accessible only through ordination – has undermined the dignity of Christian baptism. It has also deprived lay Catholics of the awareness that they are equally invited into the closest possible relationship with God through Jesus of Nazareth.

All Christians are now called to develop a ‘kingdom’ spirituality, and to explain to the secular world why inequality arises out of worldliness – the search for status.

If our Catholic leadership is to respond to that call it must begin by ending the radical inequality within the Church, and by honouring the dignity with which baptism endows every lay person.

That inequality represents not the will of God, but the corruption of our church by clericalism – the belief that ordination confers a higher status than baptism. It is also the root of all the problems that now beset us.

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The Search for Spiritual Intelligence

Sean O’Conaill  © Spirituality 2003

When I began my teaching career in 1966 human intelligence was still considered to be a single indivisible entity, easily measurable as  ‘IQ’.  Now the convention is to believe that there are at least eight, and possibly nine, different kinds of human intelligence.  The ninth, currently under consideration, is spiritual intelligence, labelled SQ for convenience.  A search of the Internet will discover at least four books on the subject.

A quick reading of these will discover tantalising glimpses of the phenomenon, but no clear delineation.  Other kinds of intelligence will either discover or discern something ( e.g. scientific and mathematical intelligence) or create something (e.g. artistic and musical intelligence.)  What specific work does spiritual intelligence actually do, or what does it create?  The existing literature is unhelpful here.  Richard Wolman* delineates eight ‘dimensions’ of SQ, but these are merely descriptive of the behaviours of those considered spiritually focused – such as religious observance or the reading of sacred texts.  There is a strong element of condescension here, a tendency to equate spiritual intelligence with mere awareness or activity rather than with any clear achievement.

Another peculiarity of this literature is its tendency to draw most of its inspiration either from oriental sources such as Buddhism, or from contemporary science – such as research into the human brain.  The foundational spiritual texts of the west, collectively known as the Bible, receive generally little more than a passing nod.  Does the biblical concept of wisdom relate to SQ, and if so how?  Nowhere so far is this question pursued in any systematic way.

One way of approaching this is through the fascinating story of Isaac Newton’s famous quarrel with the German intellectual Gottfried Leibniz.

By 1684 Newton’s greatest work had been completed, but not yet revealed to the European intelligentsia – including the discovery of the prismatic nature of white light, the universal principle of gravity and the laws of motion.  In that year  Leibniz published a paper on Calculus, a new branch of maths, which Newton had himself already developed, again without publishing.  Unable to believe that Leibniz might independently have made exactly the same discovery, Newton accused him, quite unreasonably, of plagiarism.  He pursued the matter even beyond Leibniz’ death, encouraging his own doctoral students to make overt attacks upon Leibniz in their theses, remaining fixated on the matter for the last twenty-five years of his life.

The point is, of course, that although there is no doubting Newton’s superb scientific and mathematical intelligence, we find him here gripped unknowingly by an overwhelming desire for the renown of primacy in this one discovery, even though it was far less significant than his other work, and even though this quarrel diminished his stature in European intellectual life during his own lifetime.  He was, in a word, unwise.  So are those now notorious scientists who have faked research or altered research data to prove their own already-published conclusions.

All competitive desire for renown is mimetic desire – an imitative desire acquired from the simple cultural fact that others possess the same desire.  The Newton-Leibniz story establishes both that there is a distinctive and important kind of intelligence different from the superb scientific intelligence that Newton undoubtedly possessed, and that its absence in matters of this kind is a serious and self-destructive human flaw.

The reason this story should arrest the attention of SQ theorists is that the Bible may easily be described as a text centred upon the human problem of mimetic desire.  To take an extreme example, the Herod who slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem could not tolerate the possibility that his own primacy might be challenged in his own lifetime by some upstart.  His problem was that his self-esteem had become indissolubly attached to his conscious possession of renown.  It was essentially the same fixation of another Herod that doomed John the Baptist a generation later.  And Newton’s fixation with Leibniz was the same problem.

Renown is an almost archaic term.  To distinguish it from self-esteem we might call it other-esteem – the esteem of others.  According to the biblical texts, its loss, or the possibility of its loss, can drive people to extremes.  For Saul the loss of the other-esteem of the women of Israel was the source of his vendetta against David.  For Solomon, the other-esteem his wisdom brought was also the source of his apostasy from the God who had answered his prayer for wisdom.

Solomon’s earlier resolution of the problem posed by the two women who claimed the same child is a fascinating example of biblical wisdom.  So familiar is it that we may miss its full significance.  We need to note not so much the innocent mother whose love for her child allowed her to give it up, but the guilty woman who was willing to allow it to be divided.  She had woken first, realising that she had rolled on her own infant in the night, smothering it.  Remembering that in that culture a woman’s status was tightly bound up with fertility, we need to empathise with her predicament:  soon the other woman would wake up, becoming the first to scorn her neighbour’s carelessness.  This day this useless mother would become identified as such – losing all other-esteem among her peers.  But the living infant was all that differentiated her from the successful mother still sleeping close by – hence the substitution.  Her ‘covetousness’ was irresistible, as her final shame was imminent.

Solomon’s wisdom penetrated to the heart of the crime, understanding the difference between love and desire, and understanding also the problem posed to the guilty woman by the threatened loss of other-esteem.   The living child could cover her shame – and so could a half child divided at the command of the king.  The real mother, on the other hand, was willing to accept shame to save the child.

No matter what else may have changed since Old Testament times, the fear of shame is a constant.  It lies at the root of much criminality and addiction – and especially at the root of many instances of outrageous violence in our own time.  David Copeland, the bomber of gay bars in England in 1999, insisted:  ‘If no-one knows who you were, you never existed.’  And Robert Steinhaeuser, who killed sixteen in a school in Bavaria in April 2002, was facing his parents’ imminent discovery that he had been prevented from sitting final exams by the school in question – for forging medical notes to explain his frequent absences.

Given the self-conscious anguish of adolescents over everything from acne to lack of the (media-defined) perfect body, it is a remarkable fact that Catholic education still lacks a proper appreciation of the significance of the spiritual intelligence of the Bible.  As a teacher for thirty years I can attest to its supreme relevance in the rough and tumble of a teenager’s life.

In one instance, two fifteen-year-old girls who had been close friends fell out bitterly over the leading role in a school musical.  Shiela (not her name) was originally chosen for the part, which she acted very proficiently.  Then it was discovered that her singing voice simply hadn’t the range for the music she was required to sing.  She was asked to relinquish the part, which was then given to her friend Patricia (another pseudonym), who had been learning the role while watching Shiela.  The two were irreconcilable, as Shiela insisted that Patricia had betrayed her.  Furthermore, Shiela insisted that she could not remain at the school, and had to be relocated.

Of course there was bad management here on the part of those producing the show – but the story illustrates the power of mimetic desire to cause conflict, and the connection of self-esteem with other-esteem in the minds of even the most intelligent young people these times.

In another case, more recently, a teenager entered a media competition for one of the singing ‘bands’ that now proliferate  – a competition for which she was ineligible as she was younger by two years than the required minimum age.  When she won a much-coveted place through sheer talent, she was interviewed live for a TV ‘profile’ – and inadvertently let slip her real age.  When this was noticed she was caught on camera in a series of increasingly embarrassing attempts to justify her original lie – until her family (very belatedly) decided to end her misery.

In both instances, the mimetic desire for other-esteem had profoundly affected the behaviour and self-esteem of young people whose Catholic education had no explicit relevance to this problem.

The phenomenon of bullying could on its own justify the teaching of spiritual intelligence in school.  Bullies are essentially mini-warlords making a bid for the bank of other esteem in their class or year group.  Very often they are themselves driven by fear of shame – perhaps over lesser academic ability.  By orchestrating contempt against an even more vulnerable member of the group they can deflect shame from themselves, and enjoy the eminence of power, as well as the certitude that they themselves will not suffer shame.  The fear they deploy – of being shamed –  will keep it at bay.

Does a fiercely competitive educational system inevitably deploy fear of shame as means of motivating children?  If so, is it spiritually intelligent?

And how many teachers of RE would be able to point to the treatment of the adulterous woman in St John’s gospel as an archetypal example of bullying?  Jesus’s riposte is far more than a brilliant stratagem.  It identifies the purpose behind all such violence – to relieve everyone’s fear of shame by depositing all shame on this one execrated individual.  Every stone thrown at her would be an unloading of the sin of the one who threw it, a statement of personal inculpability.

And this in turn allows us to see Jesus’ acceptance of crucifixion as a willingness to be the scapegoat for the sake of our enlightenment, our realisation of what lies behind all such scapegoating.  Indeed the entire life and mission of Jesus can be understood as an exposure of the cultural processes through which elites not only acquire power and other-esteem, but deploy shame to maintain their power.

How was Jesus able to plough this extraordinary furrow, facing the extremity of crucifixion – the instrument of ultimate shame – totally alone?  This is the central mystery of our faith, the question that faces us with a wondrous truth:  that he was in his deepest consciousness connected to a source of truth that allowed him to do without the other-esteem of his enveloping human culture.  No other explanation is possible for his unique achievement in ‘overcoming the world’.

Spiritual intelligence depends in the end upon spirituality – upon relationship with this extraordinary source of wisdom that allows love to overcome desire.  We need to see this as the central purpose and theme of biblical revelation – connecting this with the problems of shame as our culture defines them for individuals.  The teenagers who today live in fear of shame, and in constant search of media attention, need to understand that the Bible addresses their predicaments like no other book, and draws them to an alternative and unfailing source of self-esteem.

The West will understand spiritual intelligence fully only when it looks with unbiased interest at the resource that lies under its nose, separating it from the uncomprehending triumphalism of Christian fundamentalism.  For their own survival the mainstream churches need to discover this first – that the Bible is as rich a source for understanding ourselves, and modern culture, as for understanding God.

(*Richard N Wolman, Thinking With Your Soul:  Spiritual Intelligence and Why It Matters, Harmony Books)

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The Lost Sin

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2003

As part of his ‘progressive’ assault on the Old Testament, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, J S Spong, inquires scornfully “Who nowadays covets his neighbour’s ox or donkey?”

But if we are to believe the French Catholic anthropologist René Girard* the whole of Christian revelation pivots on covetousness, whose full meaning we have almost lost.

According to Girard covetousness is not simply what the Catechism describes as a disordered desire for possessions per se – the desire for more – but a desire acquired specifically from our neighbour, a desire to possess what he possesses because  he possesses it.  So, a covetable ox would be one that belonged to someone able to afford a better one than we could.  And the car we will covet is the one that belongs to the corporate high flyer who can afford the model that we cannot.  In this interpretation, covetousness is the root of the very modern vice described as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.

To re-establish this understanding of covetousness Girard gives it the more descriptive name mimetic desire – desire that unconsciously mimics that of someone else.   One of these days a new wave of adolescent mimetic desire will begin as streaming video cell phones make all previous models obsolete.

As the modern global economy is centred on this human weakness, this understanding of covetousness has radical implications for Christian thought on – for example – the future of the human environment.  The accepted Christian explanation for over-consumption is materialism – an intellectual bias.  But no car manufacturer makes a selling point of the chemical elements that constitute its products.  Instead we are invited to believe that the car will enhance our status or give us access to a more exclusive lifestyle – and this is what mimetic desire is all about.

Even more provocative, however, is Girard’s insistence that covetousness is the root source of all human violence, and that this is central to biblical revelation.  The archetypal biblical act of violence – that committed by Cain – had to do with Cain’s desire for the divine preference that had apparently been given to Abel.  Similarly, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because Jacob favoured Joseph above them.  Saul hated David because the women of Israel preferred the boy hero – dispossessing Saul of this privilege.  Absalom’s fate too had to do with rivalry – mimetic desire for the status that belonged to his father’s role as king.  And so on.

In the ancient world, Girard argues, the internal social tensions and resentments provoked by mimetic desire were the original source of sacrificial religion.   Not having the judicial and policing systems characteristic of modern societies, primitive societies were in real danger of collapsing into an orgy of reciprocal (i.e. mimetic) violence.  In such a crisis the universal cultural mechanism that came into play was scapegoating violence – the accusation that a given marginal individual, a stranger or cripple, say, was the source of the crisis or contagion.  Such an accusation would focus the aggression of all upon someone whose death or expulsion would end the cycle, because he or she had no connections who would retaliate.

This, Girard believes, was the real origin of human, and later animal, sacrifice – which was simply the ritualization of scapegoating murder as a means of containing violence.  He sees the four Gospels as texts that uniquely reveal the scapegoating process in all of its essential injustice.  Caiaphas’ assertion that the death of Jesus would ‘save the nation’ was the archetypal formula that justified the scapegoating of an individual to restore communal peace.

In this analysis, the episode of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ assumes a new significance.  In suggesting that the one without sin could cast the first stone Jesus was identifying and confronting the real purpose of the accusation – to make the woman bear the punishment due to all for their sins.  And this in turn makes perfectly comprehensible the traditional Christian understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion – as an acceptance by Jesus of the role of punishment-bearer for all humanity.

More important, it suggests a Christology centred upon Jesus’s freedom from – and exposure of – mimetic desire.  Far from coveting the role of High Priest, Jesus had stepped down into the Jordan with the sinners.  Then in the desert he had resisted the temptations to political and religious supremacy.  Afterwards he had scandalized the religious establishment by associating with the dregs of Galilean society, assaulted the ‘for show’ aspects of much religion, and then made an assault upon the Temple system by freely forgiving sins without sacrifice.  Supposing Jesus to be a rival, Caiaphas had focused the scapegoating mechanism on him.  Had covetousness been Jesus’s motivation, he would have attempted to reverse this process, focusing contempt upon Caiaphas.  The fact that he didn’t reveals instead not only Caiaphas’s hidden thoughts – but also ‘things hidden since the foundation of the world’ (Matt 13:35) – this for Girard is the scapegoating process itself.

It is the Bible’s stark revelation of the origins of violence in mimetic desire that makes it, for Girard, supreme in ancient literatures.  The Greeks, by contrast, could not confront the reality of scapegoating – in, for example, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia in the Greeks’ mimetic pursuit of Helen, or in the tale of Oedipus.  ‘Plague’ for Girard is the standard historical metaphor for contagious internal violence – used for example to justify Christian scapegoating pogroms of Jews in the middle ages – so the real reason for Oedipus’s expulsion from Thebes is revealed by the fact that Oedipus was both a cripple and a stranger.  He was the perfect victim of the scapegoating process intended to focus and expel that plague.  Even in the era of the great Greek playwrights, Greek religion included the ritual assassination of the pharmakos, a lowly victim selected for this precise purpose – but neither Greek drama nor classical Greek philosophy dared to confront this injustice directly.

And this understanding of the Christ event gives it the uniqueness that modern relativism threatens to strip away completely.  None of the other great religions both exposes mimetic desire as the major source of violence, and confronts its effects in the scapegoating process.

Even if we don’t swallow Girard whole, his exposure of the theme of mimetic desire in the Bible, and of the origins of much human conflict in competing mimetic desires, is extraordinarily suggestive in the context of our modern predicament about sin in general.  The Augustinian analysis of sin as centred upon concupiscence, inherited through sexual generation, is clearly a dead end that discredits orthodox Christianity – especially in the context of the current clerical sex abuse scandals.  Meanwhile all around us – and even in the church – we can see the appalling effects of human competitive self-advancement.  This fault alone threatens to make the planet uninhabitable.

So an understanding of Jesus as the one person who completely overcame covetousness, and exposed it as the source of social injustice and victimisation generally, is extraordinarily timely.  It suggests that Christian revelation is centrally about exposing the source of the greatest modern evils – runaway consumption,  environmental crisis, and violence – in a way that can be understood in completely secular terms.  Nothing could be more pervasive in modern society than mimetic desire, or more dangerous to humankind.

In the Jubilee year the ‘artist’ known as Madonna declared her intention to become better known than God.   Remembering that celebrity was indeed a distinctive possession of ancient Gods we can interpret even original sin in mimetic terms – the desire to possess what Gods possess  (‘You shall be as Gods’ – Gen 3:5) – and to see the mimetic pursuit of celebrity, now rampant globally, as evidence of this universal flaw.

But this in turn has radical implications for the role of the papacy – which went out of its way to create a global personality cult centred upon John Paul II.  The logic behind this seemed secure enough – that the better known the Pope became, the more pervasive would be Christian principles.  But Time magazine made John Paul II man of the year twice, while demolishing creedal Christianity in a series of feature articles.   And John Paul has himself recently wondered why the western church generally has rejected so much of the church’s official teaching on sexuality.   The pope’s failure to convert the west on the issue of abortion speaks for itself.  Celebrity as such is patently no guarantee of moral impact – while the pursuit of it is clearly a very modern pathology.

Moreover, it appears to be connected to some of the most outrageous acts of violence committed in the west in recent years.  David Copeland, the bomber who devastated gay bars in London in April 1999 declared:  “If no-one knows who you are, you never existed.”  Eric Harris, one of the duo responsible for the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, was fascinated by Hitler’s celebrity and complained about his own failure to climb the school pyramid of esteem (his family had to move home frequently to follow his serviceman father).  More recently Robert Steinhaeuser told a friend that he too would be famous some day – shortly before shooting sixteen in a school in Bavaria when he was prevented from sitting final exams.

All of this suggests that the contrast between rampant media celebrity and the lack of attention received by many young people today due to adult careerism is a deadly combination that is simply not addressed by any of the Church’s most cherished ethical causes.  Could the reason for this again be a Christian failure to perceive the lost sin of covetousness, and its impact upon modernity?

As someone who has lived through 32 years of violence in Northern Ireland I judge mimetic desire to be an essential component of that also.  It fuelled the initial civil rights movement by arguing, with much justice, that the Unionist political monopoly was the source of greater Protestant prosperity.  This meant that educated Catholic ambition came to have a political, and destabilising, focus.  Mimetic desire was always present in Irish separatist nationalism – a desire for exclusive ownership of the island.  (Just as it was always a component of the European imperialism that had brought English power to Ireland in the first place.)  It also explains the protestant paramilitary backlash – a bid to wrest media attention from the exclusive possession of the NI minority.  And nothing could be more mimetic than the stone and bomb throwing along Belfast interfaces these days.  To paraphrase Girard, nothing could be more like a Catholic republican youth throwing a stone than a Protestant loyalist youth picking up the same stone and throwing it back.

Mimetic desire is also clearly a component of the present global ‘war on terrorism’, as the Islamic world surveys the enormous economic and military supremacy of the west.  And the Kashmir issue is a classic instance of mimetic rivalry.

But all of this in turn raises the question of how such an obvious human flaw could ever have been overlooked by the Church’s episcopal magisterium.  Could the reason be simply its acceptance of social elevation in the period after Constantine the Great?  What bishop could then have described Constantine’s military ascent as driven by covetousness?  And bishops who now enjoyed the wealth and social eminence of the pagan priesthood  would scarcely want to be made aware of ecclesiastical ambition as a spiritual flaw.  Nor would the younger sons of the landed nobility of the ancien regime who dominated the episcopacy at the dawn of modernity.  Nor would those bishops whose careerism Cardinal Gantin deplored as recently as 1999.

Indeed the present humiliations of many western bishops suggests that we may now be close to the end of an arc of episcopal social ascent, then descent, stretching through the whole ‘Christendom’ era, and affecting the Catholic episcopacy generally.  Perhaps we must wait for the descent of all bishops to the ground the rest of us occupy before we can expect a Catholic revival.  Especially if we can then make our faith relevant to the aspirations, as well as the problems, of the young.

There is much to be said for the recovery of the full meaning of covetousness as mimetic desire – but how will the hierarchical church respond to the possibility that it has been editing the Decalogue, to the detriment of the faith, for over sixteen centuries?

(*René  Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books, NY, 2001)

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Christianity and the Environment

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The scientific and technological revolutions that have transformed the earth over the past three centuries began in western Europe and were spread quickly across the globe by European migration, colonisation, trade and imperialism.  They were accompanied by a secularisation of thought in reaction against a Christian clerical intellectual monopoly, and when the secular mind came to consider in the late twentieth century the origins of the environmental catastrophe then threatening, one available option was to scapegoat the Judeo-Christian tradition for the rapacious aspects of western expansion and power.

Had not Genesis exhorted humans to ‘increase, multiply and subdue the earth’ ?  Had not Christendom exterminated a European paganism more in harmony with nature?  Had not European capitalism been grounded in the Protestant work ethic?  Had not the industrial revolution been funded by the proceeds of Christian imperialist expansion, driven by a Christian missionary as well as a commercial zeal?  Wasn’t the global western empire that provided the global market essential for mass production born initially out of a Christian evangelical sense of global mission?

There is a little truth in some of this, but it would be far more true to say that the wellspring of western spirituality, the Jewish and Christian texts we know as the Bible, were both a forewarning of the crisis now upon us, and the only diagnostic tool the human family possesses that can take us to the root of the problem, and provide a solution.  For the fact is that we humans have always been rapacious and acquisitive, and this has always caused us problems.  It is not merely coincidental, but providential, that the West’s central repository of spiritual insight should so clearly identify the source of that rapacity, and the most likely means of escape from it.

First, the essential theme of Genesis, and of the Bible throughout, is the goodness of Creation.  This stands in opposition to much of the mythology of mankind which suggests that Creation is malevolent.  It is now believed that Genesis was Judaism’s response to the Babylonian myth, the Enuma Elish, whose primary God was worshipped for matricide.  Tiamat, mother of all the Gods, had plotted their destruction for the noise they made, only to be thwarted by Marduk, whose dismemberment of her created the cosmos.  This central theme of a malevolent origin to everything is what lies behind much human violence – including much of the subjugatory rhetoric of western expansion.

For the fact is that Christendom represented not the victory of Christianity in the west, but a fateful compromise between Christianity and violence.  It was the gift of Constantine and other military despots, not of Christ – and Constantine was far closer to Marduk than Yahweh, the Jewish God (as Constantine well illustrated by asphyxiating his wife in a steam-filled room).

Not only does Genesis repetitively insist upon the goodness of creation – it tells us also that the fate of the earth is bound up with the fate of humankind – and that human goodness alone can save it.  As the level of the global ocean rises with the melting of the icecaps we do indeed need, like Noah, to look to the problem of rescuing as much of the biological inheritance as we can, and of developing lifestyles that lean least heavily upon our biosphere.

So Genesis insists that Creation is interested in us, cherishes us and looks to us for the salvation of the earth.  And the rest of the Old Testament insists that Creation will make and remake covenants with us to that end.  The text that most powerfully expresses the creative power of God – the book of Job – suggests that this alone is sufficient to reconcile us with our own sufferings and humiliation, the pain of being.  So overwhelmed is Job by the fertility of the creative process that in the end he falls silent, taken out of himself.

So Creation is, first, good, and, second, patient – unwilling to leave us to our fate.  But, third, it reveals to us the source of our rapacity – our unwillingness to be less than Gods.

In the ancient world, long before capitalism developed the power to overwhelm the earth, military conquest was the quickest route to glory, the sign of Godhood.  Living as he thought upon a planar disc with boundaries – the ends of the earth – Alexander drove eastwards to find them, conquering as he went.  His military successes convinced him of his own divinity.

The positive legacy of the Alexandrian epic has concealed the negative: the identification of heroism with violence.  This has plagued western culture ever since.  Yet the Jewish texts clearly identify the spiritual fault that lies behind it: the desire to be ‘as Gods’, that is to have what Gods have – including power and adulation.  Named as covetousness in the Decalogue, this desire for the possessions of another is based upon the unarticulated perception that we can somehow acquire the being, or dignity, or worth, of another by possessing those things that appear to distinguish that other.  To emphasise that we are not simply talking about ‘greed’ it’s best to call this problem mimetic desire – desire based upon unconscious imitation.

That violence should be a more striking consequence of mimetic desire in the ancient world than environmental destruction is due to the simple fact that modern mass production was both impossible and inconceivable then.

But the Decalogue makes clear that covetousness has to do with envy of our neighbour, and that we can covet any of his possessions.  It is against this backdrop that we need to place the New Testament story of Jesus – the man who would not reign as king.  His very birth was beset with danger, as it threatened Herod with the loss of what gave him his self-esteem, his priority as King.  This repetition of the story of Saul demonstrates the fact that mimetically inspired violence was the key feature of ancient culture – a flaw so repetitive and predictable, yet so unobserved, that it might well have plagued this planet forever.

What broke the spell was the unprecedented resistance to mimetic desire of Jesus himself.  His humble birth did not set the scene for a subsequent rise to fame and glory – the basic plot of many another ancient tale.  It established a pattern of rejection of mimetic behaviour from first to last.  The refusal of the offers of promotion to the summit of either the religious or political pyramids of the ancient world – the temptations in the desert – was followed by a teaching mission that led ultimately to the accusation ‘we know you do not regard the rank of anyone – so tell us is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’  And those teachings refer far more often to the problem of spiritual presumption, which was linked then with social status, than to what later became the fixation of hierarchs: sexual sin.

If we emphasise the humanity of Jesus, we also emphasise the mystery:  from where did he acquire the psychological strength to undertake so suicidal a mission, ending in a lonely and shameful death?   And even more imponderable – from where did his followers, who had deserted him in the end, receive the strength later to advance his cause, at similar cost to themselves?  The answer to both questions is the same:  all were equally free of that need for other-esteem that underlies all mimetic desire.  It was this that ensured that the mission of the early church was directed to ‘the poor in spirit’ of the Roman Empire – those who thought least of themselves because the world too thought so little of them.

And this in turn is why covetousness became the ‘lost sin’ of the post-Constantinian Church.  The promotion of Bishops to wealth and social influence meant that for the next sixteen hundred years the role of successor to the apostles became itself a covetable title.

How then could those bishops generally convey a spirituality centred upon the equal worthiness of all, and God’s solicitude for the least regarded?  Instead, Augustine’s spirituality of dread of sexual weakness won primacy, and how convenient that was for men who need only practice sexual discretion and aristocratic aloofness to remain worthy of social respect.  The table fellowship of Jesus and the original apostles – the most important social sacrament of the early church – passed into history, while episcopacy became part of the patronage of the social elite.

This transition is vital if we are to understand why it was that the Christian churches, and especially the Catholic Church, came so late to the addressing of the problem of the environment.  For centuries churchmen supposed that Christ’s primary purpose was to rescue the human family from ‘concupiscence’, rather than to challenge the human pyramid of esteem that arises out of, and is sustained by, mimetic desire.    This fixation stayed with most of the Christian missionaries who followed on the heels of Columbus and the other merchant adventurers who made the global ocean a European lake in the period 1480-1660.  The baptism of slaves would somehow make up for their exploitation, and the exporting of European covetousness around the globe need not be radically challenged.  Especially since this would challenge the ‘order’ created globally by European power.

Inevitably the theology of the Middle Ages had distanced the God who for Jesus and the Apostles had dwelt within – which meant in turn that the spirituality that had grounded the egalitarianism of the early church was also almost lost.  Abba was scapegoated with the crucifixion by the Anselmian doctrine of atonement, and ‘salvation’ became merely an after-death experience.  To achieve it one merely must not die in sexual sin – while covetousness simply didn’t measure up as a moral problem, and its true meaning was virtually invisible.

This applied equally to the Protestant Reformation, with the result that England and Holland could pioneer the basic institutions of capitalism and plough energy into an industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The ability to mass produce goods held out the prospect of wealth for all.  The rise of secularism in this era also diverted the churches from the need to ponder the acquisitive drive and its origins – which came to be attributed to ‘materialism’ – an ideology – and therefore something to be combated intellectually rather than spiritually.  And of course, because of this misperception, the assault upon ‘materialism’ has been a total failure.

This remains the situation to this day.  Modern advertising discovered mimetic desire before the churches did – associating all consumer products with social success, with celebrity, or with an enviable ‘lifestyle’.  The cloned images of celebrities wearing or using or driving or consuming this or that regale us at every turn, while ecclesiastics housed mostly in palaces maunder on about materialism to nil effect.  Their problem is that were they to divine the real source of mimetic desire – lack of self-esteem – and to remember that Jesus resolved this problem by joining the people of low self-esteem – the poor in spirit – they would be obliged to do likewise.  (It is good to see the beginnings of a realisation of this among a minority of bishops.)

The basic foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that the only secure sense of our own value comes from a spiritual relationship with God.  The history of the Jewish people seems to prove that they learned more about God from hardship, exile and privation than from worldly success – and this suggests that the environmental crisis may grow much deeper before many will begin to address its cause.

Yet the man who invited us to consider the lilies of the field, who assured us that we are loved whatever we own, must eventually be seen as the one who did more than anyone else in human history to question the basic irrationality of considering some people more ‘worth it’ than others, and of amassing wealth to prove it.  We cannot add a cubit to our height, and the sun and rain fall on rich and poor alike.  God’s love is unconditional, and it is from the experience of his love for us as individuals that liberation from mimetic desire will eventually flow.

This is crucial to tackling all of today’s major problems – including the environmental crisis.  Over-consumption is directly related to the dearth of self-respect that media consumption inevitably creates – as it prepares the viewer for the advertisements that intersperse the celebrity coverage, the advertisements that tempt us to believe that personal significance can be purchased.

It is above all the Christian Gospels that offer the best hope of mass discernment of the trap of mimetic desire – before the environmental catastrophe becomes unstoppable.  More clearly than any other texts they address the very fault upon which western ambition is based, and point to our salvation – the triune God who honours simplicity by dwelling within.

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