Een Palmzondagmeditatie in tijden van corona

“Sterk als de dood is de liefde.”

Het zijn woorden uit het Hooglied (8, 6), één van de kleinste boeken uit de Hebreeuwse Bijbel. Het is bovendien het enige boek waarin God niet expliciet wordt vermeld.

Als een bundel van rijk geschakeerde, erotische liefdespoëzie, waarin een jonge vrouw het voortouw neemt, kent het Hooglied een navenant rijk geschakeerde interpretatiegeschiedenis. De joodse filosoof Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) noemt het boek “Kernbuch der Offenbarung” – het boek dat de essentie van de Bijbelse Godsopenbaring bevat. In ieder geval vertegenwoordigt het Hooglied diepmenselijke ervaringen die van alle tijden zijn. The Beatles schreven ooit “Money can’t buy me love…” Eeuwen geleden zong het Hooglied (8, 7): “Al bood iemand alles wat hij bezit voor de liefde, men zou hem met verachting afwijzen.”

Jaren geleden werd het vers “Sterk als de dood is de liefde” de titel van mijn masterthesis. Een jaar na de voltooiing daarvan, op 30 april 2002, werd een concert opgenomen van de Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino in de Leuvense Abdijkerk Keizersberg. Het betrof een uitvoering van het Requiem van W.A. Mozart (1756-1791). Wijlen E.H. Michaël Ghijs vroeg mij toen om een meditatie te schrijven voor het cd-boekje. Ik was duidelijk nog in de ban van het Hooglied en dat intrigerende vers, want ik schreef onder andere:

“De onverbiddelijke dood maakt geen onderscheid. Geen mens is tegen zijn vernietigende kracht opgewassen. […] Zoals de dood maakt ook de liefde – in de Bijbel gaandeweg erkend als God – geen onderscheid. Maar de uitkomst en toekomst van de liefde zijn anders dan die van de dood. Terwijl de dood alles en allen in dezelfde duisternis en afgrond stort, is de liefde krachtig als een zorgzaam licht dat – paradoxaal genoeg – onderscheid wil maken en zegt: ‘Je mag bestaan en geheeld worden als man, als vrouw, als arme, weduwe en wees…'”

Ik heb die bezinning bij het Hooglied en bij de requiem-tekst herlezen naar aanleiding van Palmzondag en in het licht van de coronapandemie. Het Hooglied spreekt opnieuw, op een nieuwe wijze.

Christ Entry into Jerusalem_Hippolyte_Flandrin_1842

Onze wereld hecht doorgaans veel belang aan sociale status, politieke macht en invloed, rijkdom en meedogenloze sterkte. Het coronavirus niet. Zijn dodelijke angel treft CEO’s met een overvolle agenda even onverwacht als spelende kinderen, werkende mensen zowel als gepensioneerden. Het coronavirus woekert “zonder aanzien des persoons” en hecht geen belang aan wat wij doorgaans zo belangrijk vinden.

Tegelijk kunnen wij ons als mensen inschrijven in een andere dynamiek, die eveneens “zonder aanzien des persoons” waait. De liefde die in het Nieuwe Testament God wordt genoemd, houdt ook geen rekening met status, rijkdom en macht, maar hecht – niet berekenend – gelijkelijk waarde aan eenieder. Ze creëert hoop tegen alle wanhoop in, licht tegen alle duisternis, en ze maakt ons ontvankelijk voor wie wij ten diepste zijn als mensen. De liefde maakt ons ontvankelijk voor onszelf en voor elkaar – voorbij preoccupaties met status, macht, genot en rijkdom. “Wat voor de wereld van geringe afkomst is en onbeduidend, heeft God uitgekozen (1 Kor 1, 28a),” schrijft Paulus.

De liefde maakt vaak moeilijke (niet direct populaire) keuzes. Ze is ook bereid om zich over te geven aan een vermoeiende, allesbehalve automatisch aangename verantwoordelijkheidszin. En ze redt daarmee levens.

Vandaag verwelkomen wij, misschien bewuster dan andere dagen, het licht van die nederige liefde. In het bijzonder doen we dat voor onze kwetsbare en gekwetste medemensen. Et lux perpetua luceat eis – Dat het ondoofbare licht hen moge verlichten.

Het onderstaande luisterfragment – het Introitus uit Mozarts Requiem – is afkomstig van de eerder genoemde live-opname van knapen- en mannenkoor Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino uit Aalst, onder leiding van wijlen E.H. Michaël Ghijs. De solo jongenssopraan is Colin De Pelsmaker:

Mimetic Theory Overview – Video Series

The following five-part video series provides a preliminary understanding of human culture from the perspective of mimetic theory, which was first developed by René Girard (1923-2015).

I made the first parts to give an overview of some basic cultural facts. The later parts of the video series deal with mimetic theory’s explanation of those facts, ending with the role of the Judeo-Christian heritage in making that type of explanation possible. The last part of the series (PART V) clarifies how the Judeo-Christian traditions result in either a radical atheism or a radically new understanding of “God”.

CLICK HERE TO READ SOME INTRODUCTORY REMARKS FOR EACH VIDEO AND TO SEE AN OVERVIEW OF THEIR CONTENT (PDF)

PART I – THE SPELL OF THE SACRED

PART II – THE DANCE OF THE SACRED (3 VIDEOS)

CHAPTERS I-III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

PART III – THE MYTHICAL REFLECTION OF THE AMBIGUOUS SACRED (3 VIDEOS)

CHAPTERS I-II

CHAPTERS III-IV

CHAPTERS V-VI

PART IV – THE ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF CULTURAL FACTS EXPLAINED (2 VIDEOS)

CHAPTERS I-II

CHAPTERS III-IV

PART V – THE GOSPEL REVELATION OF THE MYTHICAL LIE (2 VIDEOS)

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

Cave I

“Geïndoctrineerd door de jezuïeten” (SJC Aalst)

Misschien is het volgende goed nieuws voor de tegenstanders van het godsdienstonderwijs op katholieke scholen en van alles wat naar godsdienst ruikt:

(1) Wij, godsdienstleerkrachten, geloven niet automatisch in God.
(2) Ja, wij godsdienstleerkrachten geven grif toe dat we de jeugd trachten te “corrumperen” met “vreemde” ideeën.
(3) Ja, de christelijke traditie is – zoals andere grote levensbeschouwelijke tradities – ook zeer interessant voor andersgelovigen en niet-gelovigen.

Daaraan wil ik nog een persoonlijke noot toevoegen: ja, ik ben SJC Aalst“gebrainwasht” na jaren werken op het Sint-Jozefscollege, door de jezuïeten en de spiritualiteit van hun stichter, Ignatius van Loyola (1491-1556).

(1)

Pierre Abélard - Quote on DoubtIk twijfel vrij geregeld aan mijn geloof in God. Net zoals atheïsten die filosofisch zijn aangelegd ook wel eens aan hun ongeloof zullen twijfelen. (Niet) geloven is immers iets anders dan weten.

Intussen weet ik echter wel dat de grote spirituele tradities intrinsiek zinvol zijn.

(2)

Van de jezuïeten heb ik bijvoorbeeld geleerd dat vrij zijn niet hetzelfde is als “je zin doen”. Vrij zijn is “jezelf kunnen ontplooien”.

Een alcoholverslaafde die zijn zin doet, blijft verslaafd. Als je kinderen alleen laat eten waarin ze spontaan zin hebben, eten ze misschien teveel snoep, en onvoldoende groenten en fruit. Dat is niet bevorderlijk voor de fysieke en mentale ontwikkeling van kinderen. Door kinderen hun zin te laten doen, ontneem je hen paradoxaal genoeg dus de vrijheid om de best mogelijke versie van zichzelf te worden. Dat soort verwennerij wordt door psychiaters als Dirk De Wachter en Peter Adriaenssens terecht gekarakteriseerd als “pedagogische kindermishandeling”.

Ideaal is natuurlijk dat we vooral “zin” zouden hebben om “onszelf te ontplooien”.

Spijtig genoeg zijn we vaak overgeleverd aan impulsen waarvoor we niet zelf hebben gekozen, en beslissen die impulsen in onze plaats over ons leven. De kunst is om ons op de juiste manier tot die impulsen te verhouden, niet om ze te vernietigen.

Die impulsen kunnen van een eerder natuurlijke aard zijn – zoals in het geval van een ongecontroleerde lichamelijke drang naar snoep of alcohol. Ze kunnen ook van een eerder culturele aard zijn. We vragen ons soms te veel af wat betekenisvol is volgens de normen van het maatschappelijk systeem waarin we ons bevinden.

Wetten zijn goed als ze de voorwaarden scheppen waarin onze zelfontwikkeling kan plaatsvinden. Ze worden op een verkeerde manier benaderd als ze in onze plaats bepalen wie we zogezegd zijn. In termen van de Jezusfiguur uit de evangeliën klinkt dat als: “De sabbat is er voor de mens, en niet de mens voor de sabbat.” Een leerling die op een frauduleuze manier honderd procent haalt bijvoorbeeld, heeft het evaluatiesysteem tot doel gemaakt. Hij heeft het niet gebruikt als een middel dat hem helpt om zichzelf te ontwikkelen.

Teach us to Give and not to Count the Cost St IgnatiusHet voordeel van een beroepsopleiding is alvast dat leerlingen zichzelf en de wereld uiteindelijk moeilijk iets kunnen voorliegen: een gemetste muur is recht en blijft overeind, of ze is slecht gemetst. Leerlingen in het algemeen secundair onderwijs kunnen zichzelf langer op het verkeerde been zetten. Ze kunnen wiskundige bewijzen “van buiten” leren zonder die te begrijpen bijvoorbeeld, of vertalingen van Latijn en formules van fysica. De Einsteins van deze wereld studeren echter niet om de punten of het geld. Ze ontplooien een gepassioneerde liefde voor de werkelijkheid die ze willen leren kennen.

De ene honderd procent is dan ook de andere niet. “Plus (Latijn: magis) est en vous,” zeggen de jezuïeten. Daarmee dagen ze je uit om gebruik te maken van de ruimte om jezelf te ontwikkelen. Dat betekent niet: jezelf “verbeteren”. Dat betekent wel: jezelf “aanvaarden” met alle mogelijke begrenzingen die daarbij horen, en van daaruit “de best mogelijke versie van jezelf worden”. Als dat op een bepaald moment betekent dat je volgens de normen van een evaluatiesysteem zestig procent behaalt voor fysica, dan is dat maar zo. Die zestig procent is oneindig veel meer waard dan een frauduleus behaalde honderd procent.

De paradox, alweer, is dat jezuïeten vooral de leerling willen uitdagen die op een onwaarachtige manier “goede” punten behaalt. Aan leerlingen die hun zelfwaarde laten afhangen van hun “score” binnen een bepaald maatschappelijk systeem, zeggen zij: “Plus est en vous; wees niet tevreden met wat voldoende of excellent is voor het systeem, maar wees tevreden met wat voldoende of excellent is voor jezelf (en de rest komt dan wel).”

St Irenaeus The Glory of God is a Human Being Fully AliveDe reden waarom een katholieke spiritualiteit in navolging van Christus hamert op een realistische zelfaanvaarding, zelfliefde, zelfontplooiing en ja, een altijd zéér betrekkelijke “zelfbeschikking”, is eenvoudig: ze is de basisvoorwaarde om “God” (zijnde liefde) toe te laten in je leven. Zelfrespect leidt tot respect voor anderen. De alcoholverslaafde die zichzelf niet langer kan respecteren, kan op den duur ook geen verantwoordelijkheid meer opnemen voor anderen. De bouwkundige ingenieur die op een frauduleuze manier zijn diploma behaalt, zal misschien bruggen bouwen die in elkaar storten en slachtoffers veroorzaken.

Alle voorgaande overwegingen zijn extreem godsdienstig. Ze komen uit het hart van de christelijke traditie. Ze zijn ook heel logisch en worden bevestigd door wetenschappelijk onderzoek (zie De Wachter en Adriaenssens). De fabel dat godsdienstige tradities “irrationeel”, “anti-wetenschappelijk” of “immoreel” zouden zijn en dat ze alleen via “cherry picking” zin bevatten, geloof ik dan ook allang niet meer. Ook labels als “conservatief” of “niet meer van deze tijd” zijn niet van toepassing. Die labels getuigen van een stuitend gebrek aan realiteitszin aangaande de hierboven beschreven christelijke theologie en antropologie.

(3)

Alleszins inspireert elke parabel van de Jezusfiguur uit de evangeliën oneindig veel meer dan een gepolariseerd debat over de vraag of God bestaat. Dat weet ik wel zeker.

Zulk debat mondt immers vaak uit in kinderachtig narcistische wedstrijdjes over wie en wat het schadelijkst is voor de wereld: gelovigen en hun godsdienst of ongelovigen en hun seculiere levensbeschouwingen?

“In het dorp waar ik woon weet iedereen dat die imam kinderen misbruikt, en niemand doet er iets aan…” Dat vertelde een atheïst uit Suriname mij ooit. Hij verwees daarnaar om aan te tonen hoe verderfelijk godsdienstige organisaties wel waren. Tegelijk was hij er trots op dat hij niet tot die – in zijn ogen – “achterlijke” islamitische gemeenschap behoorde. Toen ik hem vroeg of hij al iets aan het misbruik van die kinderen had gedaan, bleef hij mij het antwoord schuldig.

Was die man echt bekommerd om het lot van die kinderen? Of was hij voornamelijk bezig met zijn zelfbeeld en wees hij op het misbruik om zich als de “moreel superieure” te profileren? Jezus’ gelijkenis over een farizeeër en een tollenaar (Lucas 18, 9-14) stelt precies die vraag. Als mens zijn we allen onderhevig aan gelijkaardige dynamieken. Precies daarnaar peilt Jezus, en dat is voor iedereen dus zinvol.

Jezus stelt trouwens nooit de vraag naar het bestaan van God. Wat hij wel doet, is mensen via onder andere verhalen een spiegel voorhouden. Hij vraagt ons naar onze diepste drijfveren. Zo ontmaskert hij vaak niet erkende jaloezie en ressentiment, of de eerzucht die zich soms verschuilt achter morele verontwaardiging. Tegelijk daagt hij ons daarbij uit om op een andere manier in het leven te staan – minder angstvallig en met meer vertrouwen. Of je die evident transcendente liefdesdynamiek ook goddelijk noemt, is een andere kwestie.I show you doubt to prove that faith exists Robert Browning

Een levensbeschouwelijk gesprek tussen atheïsten en gelovigen op basis van bijvoorbeeld een concrete parabel lijkt mij dan ook veel zinvoller dan een “wollig” dovemansgesprek over het al dan niet absurde karakter van geloven in God. In plaats van bevestiging te zoeken voor een narcistisch superioriteitsgevoel zouden we ons beter bezighouden met de altijd genuanceerde realiteit. Of is dat een vergissing?

Ignatius of Loyola

The Point Yuval Harari Misses of Myth – Bringing René Girard to the Table

A FAMILIAR SCENE BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION

“Why don’t you girls get along with June anymore?” Regina’s mother asked. Regina and her two friends, Gretchen and Eve, stared at her in bewilderment. They were about to go on a shopping spree. For weeks they had gone out without June. “She has changed so much,” Regina answered. “Yes, she spoils the whole atmosphere of the group,” Eve added. “Quite frankly, mother, June has become this ordinary slut,” Regina concluded. Now it was her mother’s turn to stare at the three girls in bewilderment. And off they went.

About a month later, Gretchen accidently ended up next to June in the bus to school. The silence between them was awkward enough to make them talk to each other. Gretchen learned that her pretty companion had been going steady with Lysander for several months. And then it dawned on her: Regina had been gossiping about June being a slut because June had run away with Regina’s big crush, Lysander!

As soon as she had the chance Gretchen confronted Regina. “I talked to June and she is still the same old friend I knew!” she exclaimed. “You’re just jealous of her, that is the truth! You two are the same, you want that Lysander guy as much as she does! June in no way is a slut!” At that moment Eve stepped in to defend Regina and claimed both of them would turn their back on Gretchen if the latter didn’t change her opinion on June.

All of a sudden the clique of three were arguing about who betrayed who and they accused each other of being delusional. Their internal peace at the expense of an outcast had been broken. One of them had shown love for their external enemy, and had thus created internal enmity, within their own household. A new expulsion seemed imminent. Or would they all eventually be able to reconcile themselves with their former enemy?

YUVAL NOAH HARARI VS RENÉ GIRARD ON MYTH

Sapiens - A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari)

In his bestseller Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind (London, Vintage, 2015), Yuval Noah Harari points out the consequences of the so-called Cognitive Revolution in human evolution. Between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago new ways of thinking and communicating allowed our ancestors to share more information with each other, not in the least about dangerous animals. Predators regularly threatened bands of humans from the outside. On the other hand, members of the same group of humans could also threaten each other. Hence, as we are primarily social animals depending on cooperation for our survival, we need even more information about each other and about potential threats from the inside.

“Our language evolved as a way of gossiping,” Harari concludes (p. 25). “Gossip usually focuses on wrongdoings. Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate, journalists who inform society about and thus protect it from cheats and freeloaders (pp. 26-27).”

Harari paints a rather positive picture of gossip. He even refers to it as providing “reliable information about who [can] be trusted,” which allowed our ancestors to “develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation (p. 26).” René Girard (1923-2015) would agree that gossip is a way to unite people. As the story of the introduction makes clear, the bond between Regina and her friends is indeed strengthened by their exclusion of June. However, Girard would also include the more common understanding of gossip as providing questionable or untruthful information. According to this scenario, June can be characterized as a scapegoat. She is accused of things she is not responsible for and seems to be the victim of Regina’s own misjudged desires. It is a type of misjudgment that is already at play very early on in human life.

When a child notices a playmate’s interest in a toy that the child had forgotten about, the child’s desire for the toy will very often be re-awakened. Instead of enjoying whatever he was doing, the child most likely will reclaim the toy as being his and insist that he was “the first” to want it. More often than not the playmate will mirror the child’s behavior and will also claim being the first. In other words, both the child and his playmate imitate and thus reinforce each other’s desire for an object until they forget about it and end up fighting about their very “being”. The more they try to distinguish themselves from each other by pretending that their own desire is not mimetic (i.e. imitative), the more they do imitate each other and become doubles. That is the tragic comic paradox of mimetic rivalry.

While the fighting children both deny the mimetic nature of their desire and claim that their desire is primary, they also both claim that their own violence is secondary. Both children will justify their own violence as a “necessary defense” against a so-called “first aggression” of the other child. Peace is restored when one of the parties either surrenders, is banned, or is somehow eliminated. Of course, the one with the most allies often has a better chance at winning a fight.

Research has shown that we more easily commit violence in groups than on our own, and this is one way by which a sense of personal responsibility for violence evaporates. After all, we are social, mimetic creatures. The well-known bystander effect is but one example of the consequences of our imitative behavior. At the same time, we tend to understand our own violence as “acts of self-defense” against potential threats and rivals, like the above mentioned two fighting children. It allows us to interpret the victim of our violence as the primary cause of that violence. This is yet another way by which a feeling of personal responsibility for violence disappears.

History knows many examples of violence that is justified by the myth of self-defense, which often gives rise to a mimetic dynamic of revenge over different generations. Al-Qaeda, for instance, justified its attacks on 9/11 as acts of self-defense. On April 24, 2002, the Islamist organization released a document about the matter, which also contained the following statement regarding the attackers:

“The only motive these young men had was to defend the religion of Allah, their dignity, and their honor. […] It was a service to Islam in defense of its people, a pure act of their will, done submissively, not grudgingly.”

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US eventually decided to invade Iraq in 2003 and presented its move as a preemptive strike. The violence was justified as an act of self-defense against a regime that, according to the US, possessed weapons of mass destruction. The weapons were never found, but the aftermath of the war did create the conditions for the rise of ISIL… Violence begets violence.

The myth of self-defense indicates the flaws in Harari’s understanding of myth. Harari characterizes myths as merely fictional products of collective imagination, which allow people to develop complex networks of cooperation (pp. 30-31):

“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. […] States are rooted in common national myths. […] Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. […]

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

The myth of self-defense partly agrees with Harari’s line of thought. It is indeed a story that allows people to develop a large-scale cooperation towards a common goal: the establishment of a peaceful world by eliminating the (so-called) potential sources of violence. What Harari misses, however, is that myths are not merely interchangeable products of collective fiction which create new “imagined” realities, but that they are also interpretations of an already existing reality. As such, myths can be wrong, deceptive and mendacious.

The introductory story of this article already points this out. Regina and her friends justify their own behavior against June by believing the myth of their collective imagination: “June is a slut and we have to defend the group atmosphere by excluding her.” Although this kind of gossip tightens the bonds between Regina and her friends, it also turns out to perpetuate some blatant lies and unacknowledged desires: June is not the slutty girl she is accused of being, and as Regina fancies June’s boyfriend Lysander she is more like June than she likes to admit.

It is striking that Harari presents gossip as a means to provide “reliable information” about other people. It is even more striking that he separates myths – “imagined realities” – from lies (p. 35):

“An imagined reality is not a lie. […]

Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.”

René Girard is heir to a tradition that tries to understand the human mind, and its imaginative and rational powers, from within the context of the fears and the desires of the human animal. Our imagination, whether individual or collective, is often a distorted reflection of those dynamics, not just an innocent expression thereof.

Girard more generally understands myths as stories that cover up the complete picture of violent situations. Myths allow people to deny their own responsibility for violence. Hence, for instance, managers can say “it is the economic reality which forces the company to fire half of the employees.” The economic reality is, of course, a myth or – in the words of Harari – “an imagined reality”. From Girard’s point of view, Harari’s story about myths as mere products of collective imagination is itself a myth: his story once again obscures the violent reality (or, better still, the “violence against reality”) behind the cultural imagination.

In the case of the introductory story of this article, Gretchen’s final assessment of June could still be dishonestly presented as “a matter of opinion” equally valid to Eve’s and Regina’s assessment. In the context of, say, the Oedipus myth, it is unequivocally clear that the mythical interpretation of reality does contain lies.

Myths are, apart from fictions, also lies about reality that people believe in, used to justify sacrificial violence.

The Oedipus myth presents the plague in Thebes as the consequence of the behavior of Oedipus. The citizens of Thebes believe that they are violently punished with the plague by disgruntled gods because they tolerate Oedipus as their king – a man who killed his father and married his mother. They as well as Oedipus also believe that the plague will end if Oedipus is expelled from the city.

Just like other myths, the Oedipus myth deceptively deals with the reality of violence. There is no causal relationship between killing your father and marrying your mother on the one hand, and the eruption of the plague on the other. There also is no causal relationship between the expulsion of Oedipus and the potential ending of the plague. In reality Oedipus is a scapegoat, wrongfully held responsible for a disorder and an order he is not responsible for. Nevertheless, the community of Thebes justifies the sacrifice of Oedipus as a divine commandment to finish off the disaster of the plague. The violence of the plague is interpreted as a divine punishment.

In short, the Oedipus myth reveals the two faces of the sacred in archaic religious communities. On the one hand, everything that is considered sacred is taboo because it is associated with potentially uncontrollable chaotic violence. On the other hand, if the sacred is made present in a controlled, structured way through ritual, it is believed to have beneficial peaceful outcomes. Hence destructive epidemic violence is taboo, while the violence of ritual sacrifice is allowed. The latter is the vaccine of controlled violence that should defend communities from the wildfire of violent disasters.

It is no coincidence that Oedipus pays for the wrath of the gods. After all, he is perceived as an embodiment of violence whose presence threatens the stability within the community. He did not honor the hierarchical position of the king. He violated the taboo against killing the king in an unlawful way. He also violated the taboo against desiring the wife of another. Moreover, he violated the taboo against sexuality in a ritually inappropriate way by unlawfully marrying his mother. By violating these sacred taboos, however unwittingly, Oedipus is perceived as having unleashed the violent wrath of the gods and as someone who needs to be sacrificed.

The justification of sacrificial violence is an essential component of mythic storytelling, which is not just “a figment of the imagination” but a deceptive interpretation of reality. The gossip of Regina and her friends reflects a deceptive understanding of themselves and June, which is used to justify the expulsion of June. The fighting child and his playmate have a deceptive understanding of themselves and each other, which is at work in their attempts to expel each other. The religious myth of Al-Qaeda reflects a deceptive understanding of itself and the US, which is used to justify the suicide of its members and the killing of US citizens on 9/11. The nationalist myth of the US reflects a deceptive understanding of itself and wrongfully accuses the former Iraqi regime of having weapons of mass destruction, which is used in 2003 to justify the destruction of that regime. The myth of a so-called inevitable economic reality is used to justify social and ecological sacrifices. The religious myth of the Theban community reflects a deceptive understanding of natural disasters, which is used to justify the expulsion of Oedipus. And so on. The list of stories that represent the deceptive myth of redemptive sacrificial violence is endless.

And yet Yuval Harari separates myths from lies and barely mentions sacrifice in his exploration of the religious and cultural imagination. He refers to sacrifice explicitly only twice. René Girard, on the other hand, remains much closer to today’s common parlance about myth as a story that is basically not true. His mimetic theory explains how our religious and cultural imaginations continue to develop from mimetic origins which are easily misjudged and which lead to the justification of sacrificial institutions.

It is not difficult to imagine how distorted perceptions of mimetic mechanisms underly the mythical imagination of the human animal, from the very beginning until now. Already in early human communities, mimetic rivalry over food, women, social status, power or territory could easily escalate until one of the fighting parties was overwhelmed by a group of opposing allies.

The transformation of a chaotic fight of “all against all” into an orderly unity of “all against one” has an astounding restorative effect, which is not only observable in bands of fellow humans but also in our ape cousins.

As illustrated earlier by the fight between a child and his playmate over a toy, mimetic doubles tend to blame their rival for the violence they experience. When one rival overcomes his enemy by banding together with some allies, his sense of responsibility for the violence will disappear even more. After all, humans feel less personally responsible when they are part of a group whose members imitate each other.

Hence, the phenomenon of victim blaming must have occurred regularly in early human communities as the result of restorative group violence. The rival who becomes the victim of collective deadly violence is perceived as the troublemaker. As long as he was alive, the community experienced violence. After killing him, the community experiences a renewed peace.

Instead of acknowledging its own share in the violence, the community will consider its victim as the exclusive cause of the violence, according to the two mechanisms described above. At the same time, the victim is perceived as the one who restores order in his presence as a dead creature. In other words, the victim is a scapegoat. He is exclusively held responsible for a disorder and an order he is not exclusively responsible for. He is at once villain and hero, horrifying monster and admirable savior (“mysterium tremendum et fascinans”).

On the basis of that deceitful scapegoat mechanism, violence and its victim get an ambiguous meaning. An outbreak of violence is perceived as a return of the “troublemaker” in the community. However, that victim is not visible anymore (in reality, he is dead). Nevertheless, violence more and more becomes associated with those kinds of “invisible persons” – later called ghosts, gods or forces.

Gradually, human communities will consider sacred everything they associate with violence. Insofar as sacred phenomena are associated with destructive violence resulting in disorder, they are taboo. On the other hand, insofar as sacred phenomena are associated with order, ritual allows for a controlled violation of taboos.

René Girard accurately characterizes myths as representing the taboos and the deceptive idea of “redemptive violence” by which communities maintain themselves. Myths are essentially stories that make a distinction between so-called “good” and “bad” violence in any given community.

The so-called good violence of ritual sacrifice is presented as a necessary, often sacred demand that preserves the taboo on uncontrollable violence (of sacred wrath). In terms of the introductory story, the “ritual” expulsion of June is deemed necessary to preserve the peaceful atmosphere within Regina’s group of friends. In terms of the Oedipus myth, the “ritual” expulsion of Oedipus is deemed a necessary divine commandment to restore peace and order. What these myths obscure, time and again, is the community’s own responsibility for violence. In this sense, the cultural order, in whatever guise it appears, continues to imitate the lie concerning the first victims of collective violence: every sacrificial expulsion that is justified by a myth of redemptive violence is actually a “re-presentation” of the scapegoat mechanism at the origin of human culture.

Some stories, however, challenge the ever-present myth of redemptive violence in the world of the human animal. The Gospel in particular tells the story of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who consciously runs the risk of being sacrificed. After all, he constantly sides with the ones who are sacrificed (expelled or eliminated) on the basis of the myths of redemptive violence by their respective communities. This makes him suspect. Jesus is subversive to the extent that he reveals the lies behind every sacrificial structure. He thus challenges the core of the cultural order, as that order relies on sacrifice time and again.

Jesus of Nazareth calls people to love the external enemy of their particular groups and thus creates animosity in one’s own “household”. In this sense, he brings an end to the violent peace of the sacrificial order and creates the peace of non-violent conflict – internal debates, for instance.

To come back to the introductory story, Gretchen is a type of Jesus. She reveals that June is not that different from Regina. She reveals that June is not the monster she is called out to be. She reveals the sameness between June and Regina, which is a scandal in the context of the myth about June that Regina tries to defend.

The outcome of this revelation is not sure. Regina and Eve might restore their sacrificial order by expelling Gretchen as well, or they eventually might have a conversion and acknowledge the sameness between themselves and their former enemies.

The latter choice, acknowledging that sameness, paradoxically creates the possibility of accepting the other as other… and not just as a figment of one’s own imagination. 

P.S. Find highly recommended further reading here (pdf): Evolution and Conversion, by René Girard.

Evolution and Conversion (René Girard)

The Absurdity of the Christian Faith? Hell, yeah!

THE FOLLOWING IS THE RESULT OF A CONVERSATION WITH AN ATHEIST WHO ASKED ME SOME BASIC QUESTIONS ABOUT MY CHRISTIAN FAITH.

the-preaching-of-foolishness

What is the purpose of the New Testament?

Well, the writers of the New Testament want to enable an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.

Why would that be important?

The New Testament authors all believe in God. They are convinced that God is revealed in the person of Jesus, who is therefore called “Christ”. Basically they claim that knowing Jesus is an excellent way to know God.

Okay, now suppose there is a God – which I don’t believe, by the way –, why on earth would it be important to know God?

Maybe you will label the following answer as an absurdity, if not as an outright offensive statement.

The New Testament writers are convinced that you cannot know yourself if you don’t know God. So, according to them, if you are interested in knowing yourself, you must know God.

Your prediction turns out to be right. The Christian faith sounds ridiculous. It claims that there is a God, which is a first absurdity to my atheist ears. Second, it claims that I should somehow learn to know a poor Jewish guy who lived and died two thousand years ago in a remote area of the Roman Empire if I want to know that “God”. Indeed, that sounds absurd!

Does the Christian tradition claim that this is the only way to know God? What about the people who lived before Jesus? What about the people who have never heared of him?

I don’t know about all the Christian churches, but I do know that the Catholic Church acknowledges other ways through which God can be known. In that sense the answer to your question is no. The Bible and the Christian tradition as a whole are not the only ways to experience the reality of Christ.

Anyway, what you are saying still sounds patronizing. I’m an atheist. I don’t have to know a fictitious “God” to know myself. Moreover, what if I’m not interested in knowing myself at all? Why would it be important to know myself?

Let me ask you this question: is it possible for people to know themselves without love?

What do you mean? What has that got to do with anything we are talking about?

Well, you will need to be a little patient now. I’ll try to explain it.

I’ve learned from child psychiatrists that there are basically three types of child neglect, which are often mixed together. All of them have to do with a lack of love. The first one is treating a child as if the child is worth nothing. That is the merely negative approach. The second is treating a child as if the child doesn’t exist. That is the indifferent approach. The third is treating a child as if the child is a superior being. That is the merely positive approach.

Children who are treated in these ways will grow up craving attention and recognition. In order to satisfy this craving, they will tend to present an image of themselves that they believe will give them the desired attention.

The child who ends up thinking he is worth nothing might try to avoid further negative criticism by attempting to meet everyone’s expectations. This child does not know who he is or what his qualities are, apart from being whoever people want him to be. He has difficulty recognizing his own talents because he suspects others might ridicule them. Being ashamed of himself in this way, he tends to look up to others – as if they are flawless and he is full of mistakes.

The child who experienced a lot of indifference while growing up might think he must be a bully to get recognition. This child does not know who he is or what his qualities are, apart from being a bully. He reduces life to a powerplay.

How seldom we weigh our neighbor in the same balance with ourselves (Thomas a Kempis)And the child who is used to be treated as a superior being might think he indeed is superior to others and might only listen to people who confirm his self-concept. This child does not know who he is or what his qualities are, apart from being the narcissist he has become. He has difficulty recognizing his own flaws. Being ashamed of himself in this way, he tends to look down on others – as if he is flawless and they are full of mistakes.

If those children would have been treated with love, they would have discovered their talents as well as their flaws without being ashamed of them. Moreover, if people can recognize their own true talents, they will be more able to recognize and appreciate the talents of others as well, beyond inferiority complexes, powerplays or jealous competition.

In short, loving others is only possible if you truly love yourself and that’s why you should know yourself in some sense. If you believe loving yourself and others is important, then you should develop a minimum of self-knowledge. This is only possible if you refuse to treat anything as divine, except love itself. If you open up yourself to receive love, you will be able to love yourself as well as others.

I understood everything you said until your next to last statement. Could you please explain what you mean by “love is only possible if you refuse to treat anything as divine, except love itself”?

It is a short version of Mark 12:28-31, in which Jesus summarizes the teachings of the Bible:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard the Sadducees debating Jesus. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, the teacher of the law asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The Greatest Commandment in Hebrew.jpg

“To love God” is, in a Jewish sense, the prohibition to consider anything as divine or “perfect” (see Exodus 20:3-4). It is the prohibition on idolatry. Now let’s connect this principle to what was mentioned earlier.

If you want to learn something that will help you, learn to see yourself as God sees you (Thomas a Kempis)Someone who suffers from an inferiority complex has the tendency to idolize others and to blame himself for everything that goes wrong in his life. He also has the tendency to compare himself to those so-called “perfect” others in order to develop an acceptable self-image. Thus he is primarily interested in others as “mirrors”. Others are reduced to means who should confirm a certain self-image. Having experienced a lack of love while growing up, the person who suffers from an inferiority complex is not interested in himself apart from the image he hopes will give him some social recognition. Unable to truly respect himself he is also unable to respect others. As said, he is only interested in them as means, not as ends in themselves. His whole life is dominated by fear, more specifically by the fear of punishment or rejection by others if he doesn’t live up to a so-called acceptable image in his main social environment. His life is hell. Hell is real. 1 John 4:18 puts it this way:

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

no fear in love

The same reasoning goes for someone who suffers from a superiority complex. This comes as no surprise, as a superiority complex is often a compensation for feelings of inferiority and shame about one’s own flaws. The person who suffers from a superiority complex has the tendency to idolize himself and is again only interested in others as means to confirm his so-called “perfect” self-image. Fearing failure the person who suffers from a superiority complex turns his own life and the life of others into hell.

Love is the abandonment of the fear of not being perfect. It is the abandonment of any kind of idolatry, which creates the possibility to “love your neighbor as yourself”. Again, “to love God” is, in a Jewish sense, the prohibition to consider anything as divine, neither yourself nor others. As such, it is the conditio sine qua non “to love your neighbor as yourself”. Respect for the prohibition on idolatry as an absolute commandment is the recognition of the singular divinity of love. That is the paradox that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Indeed, the Christian tradition claims that “God is love”. Hence, in this light it is true to say that you can only know yourself if you know God: you can only know yourself if you know love.

See for instance 1 John 4:16b:

“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”

agape love

Love allows us to discover the truth about ourselves and others, beyond illusory self-images. It allows us to discover each other’s beauty, as we no longer consume each other as means to satisfy our desire for recognition, but recognize each other as ends. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth embodies the reality of love in an excellent way. That’s why they call him the Christ and that’s why they call for an Imitatio Christi. The importance of that kind of mimesis in the Christian tradition runs from the apostle Paul over Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) to René Girard (1923-2015) – to name but a few.

Jesus criticizes both superiority and inferiority complexes in people in order to enable “re-connections” and reconciliation between them. He offers the grace of forgiveness so that we might no longer be ashamed of ourselves and that we might be able to forgive and accept the flawed nature of others as well. Whenever that happens and the reality of love is established, there is “heaven” – “the Kingdom of God”. Love leads to the salvation of ourselves and others.

The glory of God is a human being fully alive (Irenaeus of Lyons)As Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202) writes, “the glory of God is the human person fully alive.” The human person who is “fully alive” is the person who overcomes fear in order to love more deeply. Love transforms fear from fear of the other (as a potential rival) into fear for the other (as my neighbor).

I guess my next question is superfluous. You do believe in God, heaven and hell?

In Christianity you are not martyring yourself (René Girard)Yes. I do believe in the reality of love, and I do believe that wherever it is given room to establish itself there is “heaven”. As I also believe that wherever fear takes over there is “hell”. And as far as this world is concerned, we always find ourselves between heaven and hell, between love and fear. The challenge is to distinguish between those two “spirits” or dynamics, and to rely on love ever more deeply. In reference to Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), discernment is key in order to follow the transformative and creative power of love, which turns fear of the other (as a potential rival) into fear for the other (as my neighbor). We can only hope people will imitate each other in this way.

So love over fear, even if love can bring you in a situation where you end up being despised, rejected or crucified by people who hate the criticism of their socially mediated self-images?

That’s the challenge, yes, in which we more often fail than succeed.

Isn’t it foolish, if not absurd to live that kind of risky life?

Hell yeah, it is! But I would rather live an authentic life in the realm of love than die to an inauthentic one because of fear. As that saying goes, derived from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892),

“It’s better to have lost at love than never to have loved at all.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson In Memoriam XIV_XXVII_XXXV

I believe that is true. There is a comfort in love that does not depend on its eventual outcomes. In that sense it is “all-powerful”, however much vulnerable and fragile it is.

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