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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


  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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Suzanne Ross of COV&R reviews ‘The Chain That Binds the Earth’

Front FinalO’Conaill, Sean, The Chain that Binds the Earth. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse UK 2015. ISBN: 978-1-5049-4228-7 (sc), 978-1-5049-4229-4 (e).

The Chain that Binds the Earth, written by Sean O’CONAILL, is a novel for young adults that turns out to be a must read for their parents and teachers as well. Set in Northern Ireland after the Troubles, the violence of that time haunts the lives of the parents, and so also, the children. As we journey through a school year with four fourteen-year-olds attending an exemplary Catholic school, we encounter the way in which the sins of the parents are visited upon their children. Cruel, sometimes violent, bullying is a constant part of the children’s lives yet remains invisible to the adults who love them.

Mimetic theory is, of course, a theory of violence and religion. It has proved a valuable tool for those working toward a sustainable peace in Northern Ireland. Roel KAPTEIN and Duncan MORROW in particular have used mimetic theory to analyze the conflict and create a workable pathway out of it. Hope that the lessons of the Troubles could benefit other areas afflicted with religious/political violence has led to exchanges with peacemakers in the Middle East. Applying the structure of the sacrificial mechanism to such conflicts illuminates the resistance of the participants to conflict resolution. The necessity of an enemy to cultural cohesion means that scapegoating is so enmeshed with group identity that to do without it feels like death.

For those of us who work with children and youth, the mimetic theory allows us to understand bullying as a particularly pernicious form of scapegoating. Pernicious because it is a scapegoat mechanism wrapped inside a larger one. Bullying among children is a spot on imitation of the larger cultural phenomenon of scapegoating, something too easily denied by adults. Because we associate bullying with children, adults are often unable to see their own culpability and so blame children for the problem. In other words, children are the convenient scapegoats of a scapegoating culture, helping to sustain the blindness necessary for the system to function.

O’CONAILL does a good job of dramatizing the various and random ways in which scapegoats are chosen as we follow a series of bullying incidents. These encounters carry the threat of violence, which is often realized, and adult readers will wince at the ignorance of the teachers to what is happening on their watch. We wince because we recognize the truth of this fictional account, especially the way in which O’CONAILL connects the bullying in the school to the scapegoating violence perpetrated and endured by the adults. The children are sadly victims of the sins of their parents and O’CONAILL clearly intends this to be a message for all of Northern Ireland to hear. The novel warns that violence risks replicating itself in the next generation, but it is also the next generation that can, perhaps, reverse the trend. It is the scapegoats, after all, who have the clearest understanding of the lies and deliberate blindness that sustain the system. This truth is what James ALISON refers to as the “intelligence of the victim” and it is this very intelligence that motivates O’CONAILL’s characters.

These children want answers. Why does bullying happen? Why do we want what other people have, especially when what they have makes us feel small or less important? Does this type of wanting have anything to do with bullying? And they especially want to know why their teachers can’t answer any of their questions! Before long they are making a connection between the commandment not to covet and the world of desiring they see all around them. They invent a term, “copy-wanting”, for what we know as mimetic desire.

The children see what the adults around them cannot – that all sorts of problems in the world begin with copy-wanting, which they define as “wanting something that someone else has because you think it makes them better than you.” Wanting to be better than others even appears to be behind the bullying that’s going on in their class, especially from one Gavan McGuire. Gavan picks on a number of classmates for a variety of reasons: stuttering or being adopted, overweight or shy. Johnny and his friends, Margaret, Mary and Eddy see that Gavan enjoys feeling like top dog and putting others down gives him the lift his ego craves.

The foursome calls themselves bridgers with a small b, an idea that begins with the main character, Johnny Mullan, and spreads to his friends. Johnny is from a Catholic family living in the Protestant section of town – on the wrong side of the bridge, as it turns out. He crosses the bridge by bus every day to attend his Catholic school with the other wrong-siders Margaret, Mary and Eddy. Each is troubled by issues that defy easy answers, from crime to the environment to the sheer number and variety of obstacles in the way of peace. But they are united by two things: a deep desire to stop bullying in their school and their prayerful search for a solution to the world’s problems.

When they get picked on by Gavan and his fellow bullies, or when they see someone else in their class being ridiculed or taunted, they are tempted to dish the abuse right back. But that only seems to make things worse and besides, they don’t want to turn into bullies themselves. Luckily, prayer comes as naturally to these friends as does their passion for knowledge.

O’CONAILL offers us prayer seasoned with youthful imagination, which may be what adult prayer sometimes lacks. There is nothing dry or rote about the inner dialogues these children have with God. In response to their prayerful longing for help, guides visit them in their dreams. Ordinary in appearance yet magical in their knowledge and insight, the guides teach them how to respond to bullies. In the moment when the bully seems to have the upper hand, when you want to run away or strike back, pause before responding. The dream visitors advise that they take a moment to pray for the “power of the bridge”. A response will come that builds a bridge between the bully, the bullied and the confused and frightened bystanders.

Soon the friends are interrupting the abusive bullying and protecting the most vulnerable in their class. Humor seems to work well as does agreeing with the bully but adding a twist to the meaning of their taunt, almost the way parables work. The victims are amazed and grateful, but the bullies sulk away promising revenge. Revenge is a dangerous business when you live on the wrong side of the bridge, and we soon discover that the worst bully in the class, Gavan McGuire, comes from a family that scapegoated Johnny’s father during the Troubles when Johnny’s dad was only 14 himself.

O’CONAILL was born in Dublin and taught history in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland for thirty years. The problem of festering scapegoating in schools as well as the inability of Ireland’s religious educators to come to the aid of the children prompted him to speak directly to young people about mimetic theory. With his fictionalized account of parents and their children wrestling with the consequences of the Troubles, O’CONAILL has found a way to share the wisdom of mimetic theory with children and perhaps most poignantly, through the children offer hope to the adults who love them.

Suzanne Ross

suzanneBased in Chicago, USA, Suzanne Ross edits the website of the Raven Foundation – which declares itself  “committed to making religion reasonable, violence unthinkable and peace a possibility by spreading awareness of the transformative power of mimetic theory.”

This review appears in the December 2015  issue of the Bulletin of the international Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R).

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Bishop Donal McKeown on ‘The Chain That Binds the Earth’


As a former teacher myself, it is a pleasure and a privilege to be here for the launch of a book which reflects some of the accumulated wisdom of a dedicated and passionate teacher. It is a very well balanced book, containing a deep insight into how young people live, work and think, a passion for offering good news into their often challenging lives and a pedagogical awareness of how to communicate core messages in a clear and succinct way. This is a book for young adults and for any who work with them.

It is an encouraging book — and that is one of its great strengths. We live in stressful times. Threats are posited on all sides — global warming, terror attacks in tourist centres and uncertainty about work into the future. For many, the prospect of a wild week in Magaluf is about as good as life can get. So often the heroes they see are Rambo-esque or seductive. What we don’t need is cultural candyfloss or Mills and Boon type escapist caricatures of what life can offer. This book offers a story of struggle, faithfulness to core principles and the ultimate victory of good over bad. It tells of young people who wrestle with the imperfections of the world in which they find themselves, confident that a deep truth can be mined from the hard rock of experience. But this is not a victory won by brute force and ignorance but rather a success that is built on persistence, dialogue and comradeship. So I welcome a book for young people that treats them as intelligent and idealistic, loyal and generous. The characters at the heart of this story are not prepared to tolerate the invisible
chains that keep the strong in power. They seek a liberation that promotes dignity and not merely libertinism. Poor cultural heroes are part of the chains that bind the earth.

And there is another thread to this fabric. The story is set in a city that has known decades of violence and destruction. Some of the young people in the story have come to believe that might is right and that violence solves things. Many of our governments similarly seem to believe that, after decades of bombing the Middle East, another series of bombings will be necessary to settle the hornet’s nest that has been stirred up. But violence never puts an end to violence. It is remarkable that this book is being formally launched just one month to the date after the death of René Girard, whose insights have intrigued our author. Our story shows how the chains of violence and counter-violence, the illusion of a war to end all wars, the cycle of action and reaction, have bound us into the perceived need to react violently to events like 9/11 or the murders in Paris exactly three weeks ago. Teachers and parents have so often heard the story from someone who assaulted another — he started it. He is to blame for what I did. And Irish society has been plagued by the desire to claim victimhood. But victimhood diminishes us all as I then disclaim responsibility for my actions or those of my community. This story tackles that profound Girardian theme in a clear and concrete manner. Even for that element of its content, it would be a welcome addition to our literature.

Thirdly, we have heard over the last few days how the UK and today Germany have decided to join in the bombing of targets in Syria. No matter how much analysts assert that more bombings will make little or no difference, there seems to be a driving mimetic desire not to be seen as different from other countries that are already bombing. To me this seems like one more example of the childish ‘copy-wanting’, a tsunami of which hits us at this time in the year as young and old are told that they have to have something newer, bigger, better, cooler or just geekier. ‘Copy-wanting’ is a felicitous neologism that our young hero coins to describe his experience of the pressures to acquire and conform. But our story shows us that these chains that bind the earth can also be broken.
I read this book in September while on holiday. It was a good read then. But a sign of the quality of both tale and writing style is that I can still remember so many of the scenes – the first journey to lona College, the relationship with his dad, the attitude of some teachers — and of course, the wisdom of the bishop, to name but a few. It is a story that is anchored in landscapes that we know — not just Derry City and its environs but also the cultural world that we know that the author has skilfully captured.

I commend it to you as an excellent read and a wise story. And I really look forward to the day when a future edition of the Oxford English Dictionary includes the word ‘copy-wanting’.  And then we here this evening can say that we were among the first to celebrate its birth and appreciate its wisdom.

Most Reverend Donal McKeown, D.D., Bishop of Derry

In the Everglades Hotel, Derry, on the night of Storm Desmond, Dec. 4th, 2015.

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‘The Chain That Binds the Earth’ – Formal Launch in Derry, 4th December 2015

Front Final

The thought of a public event, with invited media, to mark the publication of this book has intimidated me for some time, but advice from relatives and friends – and a happy set of circumstances – has finally prevailed.

I am especially grateful to Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry, who read the book while on holiday in September, liked it, and offered in October to help with the launch and with getting the paperbacks into Veritas Books in Derry.

So that launch will happen on Friday December 4th, in the Everglades Hotel, Prehen Road, Derry – beginning at 7.30 p.m. – details below.

Invites have gone out, and in the case of Derry second-level schools, preview copies as well.

For any of you who don’t get an invite but would like to turn up, please use the comment facility at the base of this page.


marking the launch
of the novel for young adults The Chain That Binds the Earth,

at the Everglades Hotel, Prehen Road, Derry, BT47 2NH
on Friday, December 4th, 2015 – beginning at 7.30 p.m.
with light refreshments.

Featured Speaker: Most Rev. Donal McKeown DD
Bishop of Derry

Chair: Mr John Bradley, Educationalist

Complimentary copies of the first edition of this novel for young adults
(and for the young-in-heart of any age) will be signed by the author.
Any donation will benefit the cause of migrants and refugees.

For a less subjective view of this work, Aidan Donaldson’s review in the Irish Catholic, click here.

From the start my major aim has been to provoke a lively discussion on the issue of ‘counter-culture’ – to help us all clarify what we mean by the term. This seems to be a concern of Bishop McKeown also, who, twice in my hearing recently, has argued for a fuller and deeper understanding of the Christian Creed, in opposition to the commercial slogans that tend to dominate popular culture – (such as ‘Let’s Feel Good’ from pharmacy chain Boots).  His quotation of Victor Frankl – to the effect that life at its greatest is a search for meaning – could not be closer to my own way of thinking.

The frequent denial that life can have any deeper meaning than to ‘live it up’ leads inevitably to the culture of self-harm that threatens people of all ages today, especially those on the threshold of adult life.

So this launch event of Friday 4th December could kick off a lively discussion on how all of us are to become counter-cultural, with the characters and young readers of The Chain That Binds the Earth leading the charge.

Now being asked about a sequel to this story, I have to say, first, that although there are themes I want deal with, it will take time to develop a workable plot.  I need to wait for far more feedback from younger readers, hoping a plot might come from all that.

Secondly I tend to say that the very best sequels may come from younger writers.  Although I have a particular interest in the main characters of ‘The Chain’ I cannot claim copyright on the idea of the ‘bridgers’ , and won’t even try.  Why couldn’t there be teenagers out there who, if they like ‘The Chain’, would make ‘bridgers’ stories of their own, either fictional, or in the real and heroic events of their own lives?

Our Catholic Christian tradition is not dying in Ireland – it is preparing itself, through deep trial, for a new and different cultural reality.  On Friday December 4th 2015 we will be celebrating what we owe to it, and the certainty of its ongoing renewal.

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The Real Root of Inequality?


“Rising income inequality troubles Americans,” wrote Shamus Khan in the New York Times (Dec 14, 2013). That’s why the paper commissioned a series on the very same issue, calling it “The Great Divide“. What truly seems to wind up Wall Street is the fear that capitalism and the American Dream may even be facing eventual divorce.

For some a dread prospect looms:  that Karl Marx might have been right in predicting that capitalism leads inevitably to such vast income inequality that middle-class markets for ‘fetishised’ commodities actually dry up.

Even as a student in the 1960s I wondered why a society founded on the Enlightenment ideal of social equality had become so vastly unequal in less than two centuries – so this recent American pondering on the same problem was fascinating stuff. So was the prediction of the touring French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, commenting on the same America as early as 1835: “But men will never establish any equality with which they can be contented”. American discontent, he argued, must be never-ending: based as it is upon the desire to ‘get ahead’ it must always be mostly frustrated by the very same desire in others. In the rural backwaters of the ‘old world’ (Europe) De Tocqueville knew of peasants who were far poorer than most Americans ‘yet their countenances are generally placid and their spirits light‘ – simply because, he argued, they didn’t have that particular American discontent.

102626504-income-inequalityGiven the Enlightenment origins of the science of Psychology, it is remarkable how little attention has been paid by that discipline to the roots of social inequality. ‘Social Dominance Theory’ claims to explain how and why dominant groups maintain themselves – and there are very persuasive theories also on why individuals tend to join groups to begin with. However, as far as I can see from a month’s scanning of research abstracts, there is as yet no overarching psychological theory of today’s out-of-control social inequality that could withstand historical validation also.This might yet emerge, however, from a more closely focused and long-term study of our human need to secure, maintain and enhance our self-esteem. The ‘Self-Uncertainty’ theory of why we tend to join groups is that the latter reduce our tendency to be uncertain in early life about both ourselves and our world. Successfully serving the interests of a dominant group brings positive feedback and acclaim from its other members – reassurance that we have made the right move, a kind of ‘uncertainty damping’.

Making our group’s worldview our own also tends to lessen our uncertainty about everything else. Today’s economically dominant groups must surely flatter their members to an extent that would beggar Croesus, and convince them that they are ‘righter’ than anyone has ever been.

In 2004 the philosopher Alain deBotton put a closer focus on a particular variety of human uncertainty – our uncertainty about our own value. Calling this complaint ‘Status Anxiety’ he argued that it lies at the root of all social snobbery, and even at the root of such modern malaises as depression and addiction. In a supposedly ‘meritocratic’ society those who don’t make it are lacking – by implication – in merit itself – and are therefore denied even the right to value themselves. This makes them far less fortunate than de Tocqueville’s happy peasants, who had no reason to suppose in the 1830s that the aristocrat or bourgeois in the biggest house did not depend primarily – even at table – on the labour of those who lived in the smallest.

The reason this should interest all Christians is that de Botton argues persuasively that what he calls ‘Status Anxiety’ is what the Gospels call worldliness – the very moral challenge that Jesus himself claimed above all to have bested. “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

In expounding the divinity of Jesus, how come Christian preaching and theology has placed so little emphasis upon this claim, emphasising instead Jesus’ celibacy as proof of his freedom from sin? Why exactly is it that Yves Congar’s summary still holds valid: “In the Catholic Church it has often seemed that the sin of the flesh was the only sin, and obedience the only virtue?” Why have I (worshipping in Ireland) never yet heard a homilist unpack worldliness as status-seeking – or indict snobbery either – not even in the wake of revelations of devastating abuse of the poorest in Ireland’s Catholic-run 20th century institutions?

burke_cm3“Which of us is the greatest?” asked even the apostles. The last pope may well have been unshipped by the same fixation among his subordinates. His successor, thankfully, seems to be not only totally free of Status Anxiety but ready to make it a major target. In Evangelii Gaudium (93) Francis zeroes in on Jesus’ indictment of that complaint: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44)

This opposition of faith and status-seeking surely needs to be carefully studied by those preparing a ‘New Evangelisation’ now – and seeking a sharper focus on the relevance of Christianity to the problems that secularism hasn’t solved. Such eminent spiritual guides as Richard Rohr OFM have been persuasively arguing for years that all of us need to go on a spiritual journey that has no shortcut – not even through intensive religious instruction – to a mature faith. It is because we are uncertain of our value that even religious professionals can be ambitious for religious acclaim from one another – the origin surely of diseases as various as celebrity evangelism, Vatican careerism, clericalism and what we Irish call ‘lay popery’. To all of this Francis gives the title ‘spiritual worldliness’. It is usually only a deep personal crisis of some kind that can – through heartfelt prayer – shake us free of the delusion that our value depends upon what others think of us – facing us with the stark reality that those others tend to have exactly the same unease.

It was surely the clerical Catholic church’s thirteen-century association at its summit with the ‘movers and shakers’ of the secular world that led to its current crisis of credibility – its eye-shutting at status seeking and its sex-fixated moral theology. The threat of ‘aggressive secularism’ will never be faced down by mere intellectual rivalry with it. We all need to become aware of our tendency to contribute to inequality by engaging in any kind of grim competition – and to establish by our own ‘self-dying’ that the roots of modern inequality lie in a problem targeted squarely in the Gospel.

So the Franciscan revolution in Rome is potentially far more than a change of style. It is visibly a return to the most important moral critique of the Christian tradition – the assault on self-promotion. The greatest game afoot now is surely to beat anti-religious secularism, joyfully, to the only solution to the global problem of unsustainable inequality – a deeper, thoroughly actuated, spiritual wisdom.



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Scattering the Proud – Chapter Summaries


Chapter 1:  The Chasm

The chasm or gulf between the word and the deed – between what great ideologies promised in the twentieth century and what they have delivered.  The millions who fell into these chasms in two World Wars and under Leftist and Rightist tyrannies.  The chasm also in western culture between the disciples of freedom and those of Christ – into which millions also fall daily, forced to choose between faith and a personal search for meaning.

Chapter 2:  The Upward Journey and the Pyramid of Esteem

The origin of the chasm between the word and the deed in human sinfulness, properly understood as the upward journey.  Ideologies cannot bridge the chasm, because they are always used by those who supposedly understand them to empower themselves.  This is the human constant – the upward journey that we humans – in particular we men – embark upon, looking for ‘success’, wealth, prestige and power.  Its root is the belief that our own importance depends upon the recognition of others – so we carry in our heads a mental map of the communities to which we belong as pyramids of esteem, hierarchies in which some are superior and some are inferior to ourselves.  And we set out to climb.  Historical examples – Crassus who in 70 BC crucified 6,000 slaves along the Appian Way, and Bill Gates who set out to dominate the world of computer software at the millennium.  It is these upward journeys that maintain the pyramids, and the endless cycle of injustice continues.

Jesus of Nazareth was essentially bent upon reversing and exposing this upward journey to ‘glory’ – by embarking upon a downward journey, of recognition of the ‘losers’ of the ancient world, and finally, crucifixion.

Chapter 3:   The Impossible Journey

The upward journey of the ancient world – through ‘heroic’ violence to recognition.  Alexander, Caesar and David.  Jesus as a complete contrast – with humility accepting the baptism of John, implying that he too needed cleansing.  He was then, and for no other achievement, recognised by ‘The Father’.  He then rejected the temptations of Satan in the desert – specifically the temptations to worldly and religious ambition.  And then embarked upon a journey of recognition of those unable to ascend the pyramids of esteem controlled by the religious elites of Palestine.  This ‘downward journey’ inevitably earned the resentment of those whose self-respect and livelihoods depended upon the Temple system of winning God’s favour.

The difficulty expressed by Jesus’ disciples in accepting the downward journey: They constantly ask ‘which of us is the greatest’?  His refusal to establish a pyramid of esteem among them, and his own exemplary insistence upon service, especially in the washing of the feet at the last supper.  Peter’s particular difficulty in accepting the downward journey.  His attempt to reverse it at Gethsemane.  The crucifixion as the culmination of the downward journey.

Chapter 4:   The Kingdom

The beautiful objective of the downward journey – the kingdom of God, in which the poor in spirit will learn that they are equally loved by the Father, and in which all are free to be themselves.  The end of conflict, which is the inevitable result of the upward journey – between states as well as individuals.  Repentance as a profound emotional reaction to the knowledge that each of us has been loved from the beginning, an acknowledgement of our waywardness, and a deep reconciliation.  Also a rediscovery of the self that we hide behind masks on the upward journey.  Conversion as the desire to love and serve, joining in the task of recognising the unloved.  The crucifixion as a divine affirmation that there is no such thing as a ruined life.

Chapter 5:   The Crucifixion and the Key of Knowledge

The Crucifixion as interpreted by the academic Rene Girard – as a key of knowledge that allows us to unlock the most important secret of the ancient world.  This was the fact that all ancient culture was founded on scapegoating violence – the communal murder of isolated individuals or groups upon whom could be blamed all that appeared to be going wrong in society. Ancient myths as a concealment of this process – and the Bible, uniquely, as a revelation of it.  This process of revelation reaches its natural culmination in Jesus’ crucifixion, which he himself predicts – revealing ‘things hidden since the foundation of the world’.  This too was a purpose of the downward journey.

Chapter 6:   Origins of the Western Chasm

How did the meaning of Jesus downward journey get lost to view in Western history?  The explanation begins when the declining Roman Empire decided to adopt Christianity as the state religion in the 400s CE, and the Christian clergy themselves set out upon an upward journey to power and prestige.  It became their task to support and justify the social pyramids of the middle ages.  The crucial role of Augustine of Hippo in this process,  misinterpreting the gospels to justify religious persecution.  This deliberate association of Christendom with intolerance was the root of the rejection of Christ by the West in the modern era.

Chapter 7:   Downward Journeys

The decline of the power of the Church in the modern era, accelerated by the Enlightenment of the 18th century.  This was partially a reaction against Christian intolerance, again expressed in the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation, and partially a reaction to the extraordinary successes of science in the 17th century, and the opening up of the world with the voyages of Columbus and others.  The bible knew nothing of science or the Americas.  Could a new world be built, upon foundations other than Christian intolerance?  The Enlightenment thought so, and the age of secularism began.  Science replaced Christianity as the wave of the future, and Christian clerics lost their intellectual ascendancy to the scientists.  The Church lost further ground when it opposed the democratic aspiration originating in the USA and France in the late 18th century, and Darwinism increased this route in the 1800s.  Secularism – the systematic de-clericalisation of western society – continued apace into the twentieth century.

However, the optimism of the secular ideologies of the nineteenth century was confounded by the horrific violence of the twentieth.  Naive modernism – the notion that a peaceful and just world could be built upon reason alone – gave way to extreme intellectual and spiritual pessimism.  So, secularism too is on a downward curve at the end of the 20th century.

Chapter 8:   Healing the Chasm Between Faith and Freedom

The argument between conservative Christianity and liberalism.  The first emphasises the need for dogma – fixed and immovable truths, while the second insists upon the primacy of freedom.  Are we bound to stay in the paralysis of this debate?  Cannot truth embrace freedom?  The Vatican 2 acceptance of religious freedom – how is this to be theologically justified?

The separate problem of understanding Atonement – the process by which we humans become ‘at-one’ with God, through the crucifixion.  Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s question: why does God reign in this weak way, from the cross?

The solution to both problems is the inviolability of human freedom from God’s perspective.  He wants humans to come to him freely, rather than by coercion.  The crucifixion is an appeal to that part of us that should and can direct our freedom: our capacity to love, our heart.  When the church opposes freedom it stands in the way of atonement – and this is why much of the modern west has rejected Christ.  When the principle of human freedom is accepted by the church, freedom becomes dogmatic – and this dogma is shared with liberalism, for which freedom is paramount.

Chapter 9:   Healing the Chasm between Individual and Community

The threat to community – and therefore to the individual – from individualism.  The parables of the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son embrace this problem also.  Most individual upward journeys end in failure – but the cross remains as a means of healing, repentance and reconciliation.  It reveals the divine compassion and forbearance.  This will be the role of all Christians in the new millennium – to embody – or incarnate, this compassion.  This can be the foundation of a new spirit of community.

Chapter 10:   Healing the Chasm Within the Church

Pope John Paul I’s joyful acceptance of the disempowerment of the church as an acknowledgement of the church’s current situation in western history, and of the imperative of the downward journey.  The polarised wings of the church must seek reconciliation through service of all those who suffer from the effects of the upward journey.  The Church as a body must also embark upon the downward journey.

Chapter 11:   Futile Desire

‘Consumerism’ as a desire to possess those things possessed by those we envy – and thus as an inevitable consequence of the upward journey.  The threat to global peace and the environment this poses.  Jesus’ downward journey as an invitation to frugality and sharing by the west – a source of hope and inspiration in the midst of greed and ambition.  The downward journey will remain eternally relevant, and has never been more relevant than now..

Chapter 12:   Coming to the Father

“You shall be as Gods” – this promise of Satan in Eden was the invitation to the upward journey that most humans follow, the ‘original sin’ that still troubles the world.  It is the source of hierarchy and of great suffering for it ensures that only a tiny minority can be recognised.  Jesus life as an invitation to join with him in recognising the equal beauty of all lives.  His inspiration of many to the downward journey in the past two thousand years – e.g. St Francis of Assisi, and, in our own time, Jean Vanier who founded the L’Arche movement1Scattering the Proud was written and published just before the Jubilee year 2000, two decades 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..  It is the route back to the Father, a living personal reality with whom we can commune through prayer.  This is the extraordinary journey to which we are all called.

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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: IV – Jesus the Layperson

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

We Catholics have always been taught to see the priest as an icon, or model, of Christ – as the best possible guide to how we should live our own lives. So, in our minds eye we may see Jesus as more of a priest than a lay person.

This is especially because the central ritual of the church, the Mass, is led by a priest who takes the place of Jesus at the last supper.

But Jesus was in fact, for almost all of his ministry, simply a layperson who attacked the snobbery of the Jewish priesthood of his time – for example in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And his own priesthood was of an entirely different kind – a kind that we lay people can – and must – imitate if we are to fulfil our own calling as Christians living in the world.

Moreover, the church has always taught that Jesus is prophet and king as well as priest – and prophets and kings were lay people also.

Jesus spent most of his ministry as a lay teacher or Rabbi, living among his disciples in the world. His priesthood began only on the night before he died. It was for his teachings as a lay person that he was disliked by the Jewish elites – and it was for these teachings that he was crucified. It was Jesus the priest who gave us the ritual of the Eucharist – but it was Jesus the lay person who hung on the cross. He was placed there because he had identified with those Jews whom the religious elites called sinners , because he had attacked the Jewish religious authorities for their lack of compassion, and had built up a large following who saw him as the Messiah, or deliverer of his people from oppression. Priests in Jesus time did not do that sort of thing.

Before Jesus all priests had offered victims other than themselves as offerings to God. They had wielded the sacrificial knife against human, and – by Jesus’ time – animal victims. In other words they had shed not their own blood but the blood of someone, or of something, else – to deflect God’s supposed anger from themselves and from those who had provided those victims.

Jesus put an end to this evasive process by replacing a religion of sacrifice with a religion of self-sacrifice.

Alone among the teachers of his time, Jesus had picked up on the profoundly important words of the prophet Hosea, words that Hosea placed in the mouth of God himself:   “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”  (Hos 6:6). Jesus reminded his enemies of this passage twice in the Gospel of Matthew (e.g. Matt 9:13).

This is profoundly important, because it makes it impossible for us to believe that God the Father, whom Jesus called Abba , wanted Jesus to die because he needed some kind of sacrificial blood offering. Quite the reverse: he gave us Jesus to stop us victimising one another – to replace victimisation with generosity. If we are hurt, bitter or angry we should never take this out on one another – but carry this cross ourselves.

Down through the centuries many Christians have somehow absorbed this message. Although all my life I have shuddered at the idea of blood sacrifice, I have absorbed from the Mass the conviction that Jesus wants me to take some pain for others. I believe that Jesus has subtly but profoundly changed the meaning of the word sacrifice itself.

When parents at Christmas time deny themselves luxuries so that they can buy expensive gifts for their children they will call that a sacrifice . The priests of Jesus time would not have understood them, but that usage of the word is now accepted and understood by everyone – because of the cross.

That simple act of putting ourselves out for others, if we can make it the centre of our lives, will fulfil our lay role as priests in the world. And since without it the world cannot be changed, that priesthood of generosity is the most important priesthood in the church. The ritual sacrifice of the Mass is an invitation to take the same holy spirit of self-sacrifice into the world – but only lay people can do that to the extent that it needs to be done.

Once, as a teacher, I reprimanded a young pupil for yawning in class. Somewhat hurt, she told me she had been up all night tending to her sick grandmother. That somehow stuck in my mind – as an example of the priesthood of the laity. But did she ever realise that?

It reminds me now to say something else. Although words are a beautiful way of expressing love, they are often useless and out of place. The world is awash with words today – but in desperate need of loving action.

I am now convinced that the leadership of the church is in serious danger of overvaluing words, and undervaluing action. I have found it extremely difficult to get priests to listen when I say that they undervalue the eloquence of Christian action, and make too little of the loving actions of their people – for example their potential to reach out to people in desperate need of self-esteem. The church will not be truly healthy, I believe, until it reverses this order of priority – and makes Christian action the centre of the church’s life.

Jesus was king and prophet as well as priest – and the first two of these are roles that can best be filled today by laity, as we too are baptised into the kingship and prophetic role of Jesus.

As Jesus was a king who insisted the last shall be first , it follows that lay Catholics are implementing that kingship when they work for an equal and just society. Prophecy was always far more a matter of speaking the truth to powerful institutions than of foretelling the future. Both of these roles are required today in a society that is becoming increasingly unjust and unequal, and in a church that has still to rise to the challenges laid down by the second Vatican Council.

Lay people were challenged by the council to consecrate the world to God – but have not yet been given ownership of this great task. The reason for this is the continuing – but now declining – power of clericalism, the mindset that accords to clergy a superior status and a controlling power in the church.

Consecrating the world to God should not, however, be seen as a matter of imposing our faith on others. Although we lay people too must participate in the New Evangelisation we need to avoid the fundamental mistake of coming across as holier than thou . Ireland has had enough of evangelists who do not fundamentally understand what the good news is: that all are loved unconditionally for themselves, even if they do not share our faith.

Despite our best intentions we Christians usually convey the message: “God will love you if you let us tell you how to run your life”. This is evangelisation as manipulation. It is counter-evangelical, because it presents our God as self-absorbed and manipulative.

Do we love our fellow-citizens unconditionally – even if they refuse to believe what we believe? Is our love superior to our need to have our faith confirmed by the conversion of others? If not, we are spiritually unready for evangelisation. We are also intellectually unready, because we have not fully understood what unconditional love means.

It means service that does not require payback of any kind: the kind of service that Jesus gave.

And that, above all, is what we Catholic laity need to pray for above all – for the spirit of love and service – both unconditional.

This is especially true because all Irish people believe they already know the Gospel – and are rejecting our church because they see it as essentially dedicated to its own power and survival. That is the lesson they have taken from the scandals of the past twelve years.

We will only rise to this challenge if we have no hidden agenda to empower our church once more – no agenda other than the service of the needs of the neediest Irish people – especially of those who are today outside the magic circle of secular power and influence.

We will rise to this challenge, I am convinced, if we pray to Jesus the layperson, and ask him to give us the gifts we need to fulfil our own lay role.

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