James Alison, mimetic theory, and discipleship

James Alison’s work on Rene Girard’s mimetic theory is becoming more and more central to my understanding of Jesus and of “discipleship” and of nonviolence.  This is a modified version of an email to a bunch of friends on why I think it’s important.

One of the things Rene Girard discovered is that desire is imitative – that human desire is structured so that we never really desire ourselves, we only ever imitate others’ desires. That is, we desire according to the desire of another, what he calls mimetic desire. That’s probably something that we can all basically recognise in certain situations – say two children fighting over the same toy, or advertising, or whatever. It’s more difficult to see it in action with some of our more basic desires if you like, because we have layers and ways of covering over the fact that we do this, and because desire is not necessarily just about what you or someone else wants, it’s about what you’re averse to, or react to, or repress. And because our pattern of desire is imitative (mimetic) we get into rivalries, and competition, which causes conflict and violence.

So James Alison has taken Girard’s ideas even further into the realm of Christian theology than Girard did and shown how the Christian scriptures witness to God as the only ‘other’ who is not caught up in this web of mimetic rivalry, or imitative desire. This is a being whose ways are “as far from our ways as the east is from the west”. And so God doesn’t get caught up in these webs of desire and rivalry and violence, not because God doesn’t desire, but because God is not imitative of our destructive web of desires (otherwise known as sin), and as such is free to be radically for us (which is called grace).

So the only way for us to emerge from this mimetic rivalry which leads to violence and sacrifice of all kinds, we need to imitate Christ, who is the perfect imitation of God.

Notice that we cannot escape mimesis itself – it is the basic way our desire is structured – but we can choose what we imitate. If we do not recognise the patterns our desires take then it is harder for us to be the people God has intended us to be because we’re too busy being the people we think others want to be/not be (hence the importance of prayer being formation by God’s desires rather than our social other).

More than that, our rivalrous patterns of desire makes it necessary for us to scapegoat and victimise others and other things. This is what Alison would say it means to know Jesus – that is, to recognise those we make our victims due to our destructive patterns (similar to what Margaret says below). So the question is do we have an experience of Jesus being utterly and gratuitously for us beyond our categories of right and wrong? And then how can we be gratuitously and graciously for other people without depending on anyone but Christ for our motivation?

So far from coming out of some kind of self-righteousness, once we become aware of the utter gratuitousness of God’s grace, we cannot help but imitate such gratuity. Recognising the ways we have (and continue to) participated in patterns of rivalrous, imitative desire which allows the social other to run us, and causes conflict, means that we have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear”, and the opportunity to repent. As God’s desires are non-rivalrous, we are freed to be truly ourselves.

Thus it is always God who initiates repentance and reconciliation, not us. In fact, the priestly pattern (as James Alison has pointed out in a fantastic article on atonement here) is not that we make sacrifice for our wrongdoing, but that God is doing the work, it is God who emerges from the Holy of Holies to forgive people. The blood which gives expiation for sin is God’s blood.

More than that, Jesus’ death becomes the revelation of our patterns of rivalrous desire which leads to conflict which leads to scapegoating – and reveals it in such a way that makes it difficult for us to continue such practices (what Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim”). As Mark Heim (Saved From Sacrifice) writes, the cross is intended to save us from ever thinking we need to sacrifice. That doesn’t mean we don’t bear costs when acting non-rivalrously in a world of rivalry, it means that we don’t need to perpetuate such a pattern.

So one of the questions I’ve been exploring is, in what ways am I caught up in mimetic rivalry with my social others? And how can I begin to extricate myself (or more properly allow God to extricate me) in ways that allow me to imitate Christ’s gratuitous grace, particularly in being for victims?

1 thought on “James Alison, mimetic theory, and discipleship

  1. While I will need to personally read about mimetic theory to truly get my head around it, my initial concern is that its a nice neat theory that ‘reality’ is made to fit in to. My concern is that its too simplistic and therefore as a lens in which we grapple to understand what is going on in ourselves, our families, communities and societies we arrive at false and distorted beliefs. But i would have to investigate this further to see if there is any substance to my concern.

    My concern partly comes out of a first hand experience whereby (so i believe) the essence of the theory was applied as an explanation as to why a particular person was supposedly being sacrificed/scapegoated by a group of other individuals (a form i sacred violence i believe). While i did not have the intellectual resources to refute this outright ( perhaps there was a portion of truth to the belief) i was concerned that mimetic theory was distorting the complexity of the actual situation; boiling it down to mimetic desire or yet another occurrence of the human propensity toward sacred violence (a re-occurrence of the most exemplary example of this, the crucifixion of Jesus) While i realize i may have fully misjudged the group to which i am referring, i nonetheless had strong reasons to think that they may have been oversimplifying their situation.

    So i would have to ask espouses of mimetic theory are there factors this theory is missing or losing sight of. For instance, what if you take a group where there are complicating conditions such as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at play? What if Borderline Personality Disorder is present? What if the subtle but highly influential dynamics of conformity (a complex field of psychological inquiry) are occurring (with its many subcategories) and have been occurring for years and years? What if things are being compounded by verbal aggression and unconsciousness that has set in after decades of a close knit sub-society? How might misapplied Christian beliefs be influencing the situation, like harmful standards of submission, leadership, obedience and personal freedom as against corporate unity? What if their are misguided beliefs and lives lived around potential false Freudian notions of repressed sex and anger? How do poor diets affect all of this? What about a context where negative feedback, criticism, freedom of speech is repressed outright or by way of taboos derived from biblical notions of: no grumbling against God’s chosen leaders? How do fear, trauma and abuse fit in to all of this?And what if you jumbled all of this together, throwing in the most extreme cases; with the most sophisticated beliefs, ideas and figures of power to reinforce this all? Moreover, what if significant macro condition are effecting this group: a economic recession, climate change, a strengthening police state, fears of terrorist attacks, the social dislocation and isolation of suburbia, industrialization and a free market economy that reinforces false notions of material happiness, appearance and lifestyle and finally a lost connection with the wonder of the natural environment?

    I don’t think the situation i have given is unique or especially complex (well it may be to some extent). But i think if i were to survey the world i would find as diverse and complicated scenarios. I ask, therefore, is mimetic theory useful, or how then can it be meaningfully applied without arriving at false if not outright dangerous conclusions, which result in ineffective ways of restoring peace and truth, or conclusions that in no way shed any light on reality?

    Am I missing something here? Please enlighten me if i am.

    There are many belief systems (some extremely sophisticated and grand) that claim to have the world, the human condition and our corporate condition clearly worked out and thus the ‘best’ advise as to what we should do. Various forms of socialism and capitalism come to mind. Yet advocates of both in their fervor to save the world, from its ignorance and ills, have made some major errors based, in some cases, on oversimplifications of reality and false assumptions about human nature and our connection to the natural world. I would hate you to apply mimetic theory in the same way.

    Its easy to prove that a theory works. Simply find evidence to support your claims/beliefs and ignore or fudge the rest (even if its screaming in your face; knocking down your walls and killing those around you). There are other ways to prove a theory works as well, which don’t come to mind, other than to misinterpret information/evidence. For instance, is imitative desire the best way of interpreting two children fighting over the same toy? Are there other ways of interpreting this same situation? How might a Darwinist interpret it for example? Or a child psychologist? What about cases where children share, or give up their toy, or don’t imitate their sibling? Which cases are more typical? What other factors are at play in any given case of children fighting over a toy: genetic, social, familial, didn’t have breakfast, didn’t have morning nap, neighbors playing heavy metal day and night casing stress, poor diet, aggressive father etc, etc. This, too, i could carry over to advertising and ask thousands of questions in trying to arrive at why humans consume the way they do and why advertising is or isn’t effective and what this all says about the human condition.

    I’m not saying you are necessarily doing any of this. I’m genuinely interested in the mimetic theory and knowing whether it can, in fact, make sense of the complexity and diversity of the human experience, without ignoring or neglecting any of the crucial facts, factors and complexities. I doubt i have the time or intellectual vigor for this, but i’m sure you do!? And perhaps you have already sorted all this out.

    In any case i would like to read James Alison myself to try and gain some sense of these things.

    You concluded:

    “So one of the questions I’ve been exploring is, in what ways am I caught up in mimetic rivalry with my social others? And how can I begin to extricate myself (or more properly allow God to extricate me) in ways that allow me to imitate Christ’s gratuitous grace, particularly in being for victims?

    I will be interested to know if this brings you any personal insight, freedom, life or maturity or rather just becomes an exercise in mental musings.



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