To Jesus or Not To Jesus? (JECSE, January 22-25, 2019)

2019 started with a bang for some pastoral workers and teachers of Jesuit high schools from all over Europe. From Tuesday January 22nd until Friday January 25th, representatives of pastoral care groups assembled in Manresa, Spain, for a conference that was dubbed Can we talk about Jesus? About 100 participants from 17 countries gathered to learn from each other. The conference was organized by JECSE (Jesuit European Committee for Primary and Secondary Education).

The participants were divided into several “dynamic groups” to exchange experiences and reflections about their work and the speakers of the conference. This proved to be encouraging and inspiring at the same time. Encouraging, because the challenges a Christian pedagogy is faced with are similar across the European continent, and no Jesuit high school has to face these challenges all by itself (we indeed are part of “dynamic groups”). And inspiring, because people could hear new promising ways of dealing with those challenges from their international colleagues.

Manresa 1

Apart from the different workshops, key note speakers Fr. Adrian Porter sj and Fr. José María Rodríguez Olaizola sj gave food for thought and practice. Both these Jesuits mainly focused on the multi-convictional context in which today’s Jesuit high schools have to develop their pedagogical vision.

Adrian Porter went back to the sources of the Jesuit projects, namely the life and spiritual development of the order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. Paradoxically, this “step back” presented a clearer picture of the current situation and of possible answers to that situation. José María presented some important features of the Christian faith and how these features might contribute to an emancipatory project in the face of some of today’s potentially suppressive psychosocial dynamics. The second part of his talk focused on how the emancipatory character of Christian faith could be transmitted. The following text is an attempt to summarize the content of both speeches in a reflective way. The speeches themselves can be found elsewhere.

Shifting Contexts

First of all, concerning the question about the characteristics of the situation in which Jesuit education takes place, it is clear that the context in which Ignatius developed his spiritual life and pedagogical vision is different from today’s context. Ignatius lived his life in countries whose culture was marked by Christian references. It is true that people can still encounter many of those references in contemporary Europe, but they often don’t understand them anymore. The cultural idiom has changed. Therefore, if we want to talk about Jesus at all in a sensible way and in a way that “sticks”, it is important to develop a “Jesus culture” in schools. This can be achieved through a conscious use of images, music, plays and other forms of cultural expression.ESP_Mundosi_500 The Jesuits can build on a long-lasting tradition in that respect. It is no coincidence that the pop band of the Jesuit project MUNDOSI performed at the conference one of the evenings. The group consists of lay people and Jesuits.

Jesuit education has always tried to reconcile human culture and religion. It does not consider “the world” as a place that we should liberate ourselves from to encounter God, but precisely as the place that we can co-develop in a responsible manner in order to find and even please God. This goes right back to the spiritual growth of Ignatius. At first he experienced his new life in the footsteps of great monks and saints in a military fashion (being the knight that he had been, but under different circumstances). Gradually however, he discovered that the spiritual life was not about “abandoning the world” or “conquering the life of a saint over the life of ordinary man,” but about “ordering the life of ordinary man in light of God’s vocation and grace.” Ignatius eventually no longer sought some sort of entitlement to God’s grace through his own efforts, but realized that God’s love had already been given to him apart from his efforts – which is in fact the experience of grace. In Manresa, Ignatius started writing his Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises consist of forty contemplative imaginations of the life of Jesus. Apparently, Ignatius himself developed a “Jesus culture” right from the start. It allowed him to actively accept what he saw as God’s love. Ignatius lived that love as a dynamic that allowed him to give back love and to do things for the good of the world.

One of the things that Ignatius and the first Jesuits developed for the good of the world was good education. An Irish Jesuit at the conference used to hear quite regularly that “the Jesuits know their Cicero better than their Scripture.” From the get-go, Jesuit institutions indeed focused on young people, from all kinds of social backgrounds, who were destined for a worldly career. As Ignatius perceived the world as God-given, a worldly career for the benefit of mankind could very well be a service to God. However, in today’s multi-convictional and also often secularized context, this creates a tension between the expectations of certain parents and the motivations of Jesuit pedagogy.

The Place of Ignatian Spirituality

Many parents are very much interested in the fruits of the Ignatian tradition, a good education for their children. They often are less interested in the sources of that tradition, the belief that it is God who desires human beings to be “fully alive”. Hence it comes as no surprise that a second point addressed by both speakers is the question why we should talk about Jesus if today’s context might not be interested in the so-called “good news” proclaimed by Christianity.

The answer from a merely cultural and pedagogical point of view is, essentially, that the Christian tradition played a major role in human history on several levels – for better or for worse – and that no emancipatory pedagogical project can leave its students in the dark about the way that the Christian tradition co-created the world we are living in. In order to understand and critically question today’s society, we need a basic insight into the worldviews that are still at work in that society. Since the Christian tradition is often no longer explicitly understood in today’s culture, a re-introduction into the Christian cultural idiom might be mandatory. From the sixteenth century onwards, Jesuit education has always given attention to inspiring and influential historical figures from the past, and made those figures known. One workshop in particular, Educating the Hero Within by David Tuohy sj, reclaimed that tradition. It is clear that Ignatius and Jesus are figures who could use a renaissance today.

From a spiritual point of view, the Christian tradition functions as a critical resource vis-à-vis several current and often dominant ideas on happiness, freedom, (religious) faith, the meaning of life and what it means to be human. As Friedrich Sperringer sj made clear in his workshop on his experiences in Kosovo, the focus on Jesus paradoxically might intensify an open and multi-religious conversation about those questions.

In this context, it is noteworthy that the Jesuit order does not take its name from its founder, as is the case with most other religious orders in Christianity. The Jesuits want to stress that, ultimately, Ignatian spirituality is relative to the goal of that spirituality: the challenging emancipatory yet “comforting” encounter with Jesus. Ignatian spirituality is not about Ignatius, it is about Jesus. And if it is about Jesus, then Christian spirituality should – imitating the example of Jesus – imply an openness and respect to people from other cultures and traditions.

Adrian Porter referred to a presentation by Michael R. Carey with the title If You Meet Ignatius on the Road, Kill Him! (for the Jesuits of the Oregon Province and their Collaborators in Ministry – Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington July 30, 1992). Carey explains this title as follows:

If you meet the Buddha on the road kill himThe title is an allusion to the story of the Zen Buddhist master who struggled to bring his disciples along the road to the achievement of satori, or enlightenment. His were good disciples, reflectively reading from the Buddhist scriptures, earnestly chanting their prayers, patiently sitting in zazen, or seated meditation, in front of a great statue of the Buddha. The master understood that the disciples’ focus on Siddhartha Guatama as the historical Buddha might stand in the way of their each individually becoming the Buddha (which means, simply, ‘one who is awake’), so he asked them, ‘What should one do if he should meet the Buddha on the road?’ A few of the disciples attempted answers while others sat in reflection over this new koan, or problem, of their master. Finally, the Zen master warned, ‘If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!’ It was said that many of his disciples achieved satori on that day. Others, very possibly, became even more confused!

The analogy is clear. If, in our search for the reality of the type of love that is present in Jesus, we get stuck in the Ignatian tradition as such (and its mediators, teachers and pastoral care workers), we should reorient our attitude towards that tradition: it is a means to another end, not an end in itself.

On the other hand, mediators are necessary in spiritual growth. Ignatius followed the example of the saints and of Jesus, and he also acknowledged the importance of intellectual work not to fall in totalitarian forms of subjectivism and relativism – wherein “the other as other” is reduced to a highly personal interpretation or experience of the other. As one participant from the Netherlands expressed it, “spirituality without reason (theology) that is merely about ‘feeling (good)’ is ‘spiritual masturbation’ and is not spirituality at all.” Eventually, every true spirituality fosters love of oneself and of others. Hence it opposes both the tendencies of a totalitarian subjectivism and objectivism.

In a previous post, Left with Right Identity Politics? – A Jewish Challenge, I wrote about the Jewishness of Jesus and the Christian tradition to explain why a truly Christian spirituality takes cultural traditions seriously as it also relativizes them:

Contrary to traditional notions of identity, the Judeo-Christian influence on history instills us with the idea that we are also free individuals. In other words, our identity is not determined by any particular cultural group, history, sexual orientation or even gender we’re born into. As individuals we do not necessarily belong to any particular group except, paradoxically, to humanity. Thus Judaism indeed opens up the possibility to perceive the other as ‘other human being’, irreducible to the particular characteristics of any ‘group’. To be a cultural animal from a traditional viewpoint means that a human being is born into a given culture that he naturally tries to maintain and develop. (Anarchy in this context is the ability to exist without being dominated and determined by other cultures. This usually results in the exclusion or destruction of other cultures, understood as a ‘natural evolution’ in the cyclical order of things. There is no goal in this context but the goal to ‘preserve’ and ‘obey’ the endless laws governing human history.) To be a cultural animal from a Jewish or Judeo-Christian viewpoint means that a human being is born with natural gifts to adapt to and create any culture. (Anarchy in this context is the ability to exist without being dominated and determined by the physical order of things, and to consider the possibility of the beyond, the revolutionary and truly new ‘meta-physical’; it is a consideration of a non-cyclical, linear future.) It is clear that Judaism warns against the deification of any particular culture or history. Claiming the moral high ground by thinking that one’s culture is ‘superior’ might lead to the oppression of ‘others’ who are perceived as ‘less human’, and Judaism battles this inhumane outcome. In this sense, Judaism is directly opposed to many far right identity politics. On the other hand, Judaism also warns against the deification of individuality and human freedom. Claiming the moral high ground by thinking that one is ‘enlightened’ and free from particular cultural traditions and historical influences unlike ‘backward others’ leads to stores of rage and resentment from those others (who are merely ‘tolerated’ but not really engaged with in dialogue). In this sense, Judaism is directly opposed to far left-wing and all too liberal identity politics, which feed the resentment right-wing identity politics thrive upon. Jesus warns his fellow Jews against the illusion that they are not dependent on historical influences like their ancestors. To think that we would not have made the mistakes our ancestors made in their time, is to deny the inescapable historicity of our humanity, and again leads to a rejection of the other as ‘other human being’. Again we then show the tendency to reduce others to the particular characteristics of a ‘group’ different from ‘us’. In short, Judeo-Christian tradition acknowledges that there are physical forces and cultural laws which precede our existence, but they are merely starting points. They do not determine the goals and destiny of our lives. We are called to live an existence as individuals who ultimately belong to no particular group but humanity. Thus we are called ‘to love our neighbor as ourselves’. Therein lies the essence of ‘human nature’ in a Judeo-Christian sense.

Creating Opportunities for Spiritual Growth

An important third question both speakers addressed at the JECSE conference was how to share the life-giving experience of the encounter with Jesus. The present text already hinted at several ideas concerning this question: the creation of a conscious “Jesus culture”, using today’s cultural language to recount the story of Jesus (this world is not a place that should be avoided), and the creation of multi-religious communities (as is the case in Kosovo) around the figure of Jesus and figures from other traditions (“educating the hero within” by providing the experience of inspiring examples). It is also important to provide students with the intellectual means to counter both the temptations of religious fundamentalism and the so-called New Atheism. As José María Rodríguez Olaizola put it, “if you’re going to be an atheist, be an atheist in a truly critical manner.” If one thing became clear concerning the question how to transmit the idea that faith is a critical and inspiring option, it was that there is a lot of dynamic creativity in Jesuit high schools.

Ignatius by Gudiol

The JECSE conference in general proved to be a hotbed of inspiring ideas and of heartwarming international encounters. It was an opportunity for spiritual growth in itself. Mass was celebrated intensely at the place that was so important for the spiritual growth of Ignatius – the Cave in Manresa –, also because some of our colleagues had to cope with the sad news that some of their students had recently lost their lives. In the end, Ignatian spirituality is about empowering each other and about the encouragement to use all of our human faculties the best we can, for the good of ourselves and of the world, based on the faith that there is a loving God in whose hands we find shelter.

For sure the conference brought together the group of Flanders. Each of the seven high schools had sent one representative to the conference. Under the guidance of Peter Knapen and Tom De Bruyn, Wouter, Liesbet, Anne-Sophie, Heleen, Vera, Ruben and myself experienced four days of authentic, open, reflective and energizing encounters among our group. Just thinking about it makes me smile. I’m sure that I’m not the only one looking back with much gratitude, and with a great desire to develop some projects from within this group in the future.

Erik Buys

SJC Aalst, Belgium

 

Love the Enemy’s Side of the Story (Covington Kids vs Nathan Phillips)

I was ready alright. I saw a clip on YouTube where “white privileged teen boys of an all-male Catholic school (Covington)” were taunting and mocking Nathan Phillips, an Omaha Tribe member and Vietnam veteran. This happened after the March for Life in Washington, D.C. Moreover, some of the boys were wearing caps that said MAGA (“Make America Great Again”), especially also the boy with an apparent smirk on his face who seemed to block Nathan’s way.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have been fascinated by Native American culture, especially since the Kevin Costner movie Dances with Wolves (1990) came out. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of Donald Trump and the way he wants to “Make America Great Again”, to put it mildly.

So I was ready alright. Ready to defend the oppressed, ready to take up the underdog cause. Ready to go on a rant against “conceited racists”. I spontaneously identified and empathized with Nathan Phillips. In doing so, I equally spontaneously vilified especially that smirking boy with the MAGA cap. My primal conclusion run parallel with this kind of meme:

nathan phillips and the maga hat wearing teens

However, luckily some people pointed to other clips about the event and I had to radically alter my vision. Don’t get me wrong. I still sympathize with people like Nathan Phillips, but now I also no longer vilify the teens from Covington Catholic High School. And here is why (thanks for this video by Dinkleberry Crunch):

 

Surely this video adds more context to the whole situation, and prevents me from thinking of one side as “noble knights” and the other as “big monsters”. The truth is that the knights (the “Jedi”) aren’t that noble and the monsters (the “Sith”) aren’t that monstrous. Moreover, by choosing sides the way I did, I became somewhat a self-righteous monster myself.

Jesus demands (Matthew 5:44): “Love your enemies.” Father Robert Barron pointed out that this kind of “love is not a sentiment or feeling. It is actively willing the good of the other.” Indeed, if love were a mere feeling, we could never love our “enemies”, for we mostly associate them with negative, dark sentiments. The reality of the love Jesus is talking about cannot be reduced to feelings, though. It has to do with a conscious act of the will. Love demands us to look at a conflict from “the enemy’s side”. This leads to a kind of self-criticism that allows us to restore a healthy relationship with “the enemy”. Love as an act of will operates in the hope that the enemy will imitate this kind of behavior, be self-critical himself, and make a new healthy relationship a reality – in whatever form. In other words, that kind of love has the potential to create a space for mutually reinforcing “good mimesis”.

Anyway, Jesus warns against perversions of “defending victims”. He fully stands with the oppressed, but refuses “to persecute others in the name of victims”. After all, by persecuting others in the name of victims, we tend to become oppressors ourselves, and we become the monsters we wanted to destroy. That’s what kind of happened to me, I must admit, in the case described above. Sometimes we need the words of wise, spiritual people to be more aware of what happens to ourselves and the world. So, to conclude this post, two quotes by the wise voices of Gil Bailie and René Girard:

René Girard in Evolution and Conversion – Dialogues on the Origins of Culture, Continuum, London, New York, 2007, p. 236:

We have experienced various forms of totalitarianism that openly denied Christian principles. There has been the totalitarianism of the Left, which tried to outflank Christianity; and there has been totalitarianism of the Right, like Nazism, which found Christianity too soft on victims. This kind of totalitarianism is not only alive but it also has a great future. There will probably be some thinkers in the future who will reformulate this principle in a politically correct fashion, in more virulent forms, which will be more anti-Christian, albeit in an ultra-Christian caricature. When I say more Christian and more anti-Christian, I imply the figure of the Anti-Christ. The Anti-Christ is nothing but that: it is the ideology that attempts to outchristianize Christianity, that imitates Christianity in a spirit of rivalry.

[…]

You can foresee the shape of what the Anti-Christ is going to be in the future: a super-victimary machine that will keep on sacrificing in the name of the victim.

rené girard quote on caricature of christianity

Gil Bailie in Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1995, p. 20:

There’s plenty of truth in the revised picture of Western history that the young are now routinely taught, the picture of the West’s swashbuckling appetite for power, wealth, and dominion. What’s to be noted is that it is we, and not our cultural adversaries, who are teaching it to them. It is we, the spiritual beneficiaries of that less than always edifying history, who automatically empathize more with our ancestors’ victims than with our ancestors themselves. If we are tempted to think that this amazing shift is the product of our own moral achievement, all we have to do is look around at how shamelessly we exploit it for a little power, wealth, and dominion of our own.

The fact is that the concern for victims has gradually become the principal gyroscope in the Western world. Even the most vicious campaigns of victimization – including, astonishingly, even Hitler’s – have found it necessary to base their assertion of moral legitimacy on the claim that their goal was the protection or vindication of victims. However savagely we behave, and however wickedly and selectively we wield this moral gavel, protecting or rescuing innocent victims has become the cultural imperative everywhere the Biblical influence has been felt.

gil bailie quote on myths justifying violence

 

 

Environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth and his Pagan-Christian Spirituality

Paul Kingsnorth is a former green activist who believes that the environmental movement has gone wrong. An interview with him appeared on Dutch television channel VPRO (tegenlicht series). Watch it here (or click here for PDF with background information in Dutch; or read the article by Frank Mulder on his website here):

 

Kingsnorth’s analysis of many current sociological attitudes towards the environmental crisis is similar to an analysis from a viewpoint inspired by René Girard or Slavoj Zizek, although the latter two wouldn’t fully embrace the conclusion proposed by Kingsnorth. All quotes by Kingsnorth in the discussion below are from the interview in tegenlicht.

First, Kingsnorth describes the myth of progress as the religious story we use in a secular society (oh, the paradox!) to make sense of the way we should behave and act in the face of the current crisis:

It seemed to me for years that the notion of progress is the religious story that we tell ourselves in western civilization. It’s the story that everything will keep getting better, because it just has to. And the more I look around me, the more I think that we don’t really know how to deal with the possibility that that might not be true.

According to René Girard, myths are stories that societies tell themselves to make a distinction between (violent) acts that are taboo (in order to avoid a crisis) and (violent) acts that are allowed to present a solution to crisis situations. The latter acts are often directed at people who are perceived as bringing about the crisis. Not surprisingly, punishing those people or removing them is believed to offer a solution to the crisis. As a myth, the story of progress identifies the so-called ‘monsters’ responsible for the crisis. At the same time, the story of progress justifies a noble ‘fight’ against those monsters: activism. Paul Kingsnorth says:

Activism is predicated on finding an enemy. So you find the bad guys, and then you go out and you campaign against the bad guys in any number of different ways.

Following René Girard, Slavoj Zizek argues that Judeo-Christian tradition gradually dismantled the sacred myths of archaic religion. The story of Christ’s Passion takes the universal pattern of mythology and criticizes it from within. The Gospel reveals that the myths of archaic religion are based on an ever recurring lie: the ones who are presented as ‘monstrous people’ in the religious stories that societies tell themselves to justify the sacrifice of those people, are really innocent or no more guilty for the crisis than other members of the society. In other words, the ‘monstrous people’ are actually scapegoats, which means that their sacrifice can no longer be justified.

The revelation of the scapegoat mechanism as the cornerstone of archaic religion also implies that a crisis situation can no longer be interpreted as ‘the wrath of gods who need sacrifices to be appeased.’ If the violent force of disruptive crisis situations can no longer be transmitted to a so-called sacred realm that would be responsible for those situations, then there are mainly two possible outcomes: or people will take responsibility for their own share in a crisis situation and refrain from further (activist) fighting, or they will become part of an ever more intense ‘endless fight’ that occasionally comes to a temporary halt with the creation of scapegoats. Paul Kingsnorth also points to the disappearance of the realm of the sacred. His ideas on the consequences of this disappearance are similar to the ideas of Zizek and Girard:

We don’t have a religion in the broad sense of the word. But more than that: we don’t have a sense of anything that’s greater than us, that we have to bow our knee to, that we have to humble ourselves before – whether it’s a god or a goddess, or the divinity of nature itself. We don’t recognize those terms really. We see them as antiquated. We see them as old-fashioned and backward and reactionary. Part of the myth of progress that we believe in is the notion that we’re evolving beyond religion. […] It’s been a long journey for me to realize that if we don’t have anything that we believe is above us, then we become destroyers.

Paul Kingsnorth, as many of us, clearly is a child of a culture that is affected by the revelation of the scapegoat mechanism. Kingsnorth criticizes the secular religion of progress that, not unlike the myths of archaic religion, tries to identify so-called ‘monsters’ we should fight against in order to save ourselves. We are ourselves part of ‘the bad guys’, Kingsnorth says:

But what if you’re the bad guy? What if you are the one on the airplane, you are the one driving the car, you are the one using the central heating, you are the one doing the things that are destroying the planet? Which you are! And I am, and everybody watching this is, right? And that’s not a blame game. That’s not anyone’s fault. We’re just born. We’re just living our lives. But by being born into this world, we are part of the problem that we are creating.

confessions of a recovering environmentalist (paul kingsnorth)

Apart from the similarities, maybe the biggest difference between archaic religion and the current secular religion of progress, which is often reduced to ‘economic growth’, lies in their assessment of human desire. Archaic religion tried to keep human desire in check by a system of prohibitions and rituals, often resulting in a structure of society that is hierarchical in principle: as a subject, you couldn’t just desire what belonged to the king, or your parents, or your neighbor. Mimetic (i.e. imitative) desire was strictly regulated. Today, however, society is not hierarchical in principle. We can imitate each other’s ambitions and desires because we are all ‘equal’. In principle, everyone can run for president.

In economic terms, the myth of progress turns into a system that generates ‘scarcity’ by creating ever new demands in order to ensure ‘economic growth’. From an economic viewpoint, human beings have to keep on desiring, which of course leads to a culture of consumerism. This, in turn, has a devastating effect on the environment. Like René Girard, Paul Kingsnorth argues in favor of a kind of spiritual control over greed (which can be understood as a variation of mimetic desire):

What do you think the problem is with this society that we’ve got to this point? I don’t think it’s a technological problem. I think it’s a cultural problem, even a spiritual problem that we’ve got in our relationship with the rest of life, in our relationship with our own desire and our own greed, and our notion of what we mean by progress – which is usually very narrowly defined. To me, there’s a kind of spiritual emptiness at the heart of it. We don’t really know what relationship we want to have with the earth. Okay, maybe you can fuel your capitalist growth society on solar power instead of oil. But you’ve still got the same problems in terms of the world that you’re eating, the amount that you’re consuming, the values that you have, the individualism, the kind of digital narcissism that we have as a culture. It’s not a healthy culture we live in.

In the end, Paul Kingsnorth believes that a type of revived archaic religion, some sort of animism or neo-paganism, might provide the means to regain control over those desires of ours that are destructive and violent:

And the conclusion – if there is a conclusion, maybe it’s just a step on the road –, is: if there’s going to be any future for the kind of culture we’re in or whatever it turns into, it’s got to be in finding some sense of the sacred in nature itself. It’s got to be going back to or going forward to some almost pagan or animist sense of the divinity in everything: the gods in the sea, the gods in the stones, the spirits of the air. I don’t know how you would put it. But if you can’t recognize this web of life that we are part of is anything more than just a resource that you think you can understand and harvest, then you’re doomed.

René Girard would agree with the call to humility and with a greater realization of our possibilities and limitations as ‘human animals’. However, he would not argue in favor of a restoration of archaic religion. At the most, from a Girardian point of view one could argue in favor of a transformation rather than restoration of archaic religion. In any case, also Kingsnorth interprets the violent consequences of the disappearance of a respect for ‘the sacred’ as ‘human violence’ (see higher: “It’s been a long journey for me to realize that if we don’t have anything that we believe is above us, then we become destroyers.”). The ancients would see the violence as a consequence of a lack of respect for ‘the sacred’ as ‘the wrath of the gods’. The Gospel reveals that violence as human violence.

Human beings not only have to come to terms with their own violence, apart from their ability to love. They also have to deal with the cruelty of nature, apart from its beauty. Moreover, apart from being children of nature, human beings are also children of a vocation that is not merely defined by nature. Some people call that vocation ‘grace’.

Paul Kingsnorth formulates the reality of grace in his own way:

Once you drop from your shoulders the self-imposed burden of having to save the world from everything, you can kind of breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘Ah, okay, now what can I actually still do?’ For me it comes down to the work you have to do on yourself. What values have you got? What sort of person do you want to be? How can you use the few skills you have got to do what you need to do? […] Whatever it is that you have the skills and the ability to do.

28-33,46,47.indd

P.S. ON ACTIVISM

injustice quote martin luther kingOn social media (especially in certain Facebook groups) several people pointed out that not every form of activism can be reduced to scapegoating. Rebecca Adams, for instance, commented that “telling the truth about oppression and resisting it is not automatically scapegoating.” And she added, “it’s ridiculous for instance to name Dr. Martin Luther King’s very real nonviolent activism as merely looking for an enemy.”

I fully agree with the statement of Rebecca Adams and I believe Paul Kingsnorth would as well. However, the context wherein Kingsnorth makes his claim on activism is quite particular: it is about an activism that does not question the status quo as such. It is not about an activism that wants to change or transform “the system” but about an activism that wants to “repair” the system. As such, this type of activism is a fight amongst “oppressors” themselves; it is not a struggle by “victims” against “oppressors”. In short, it is a fight over victimhood, in the sense that people are saying of themselves, “Well, we are not guilty of this crisis, we’re really the victims of the people that control the system…” The reality in this context, of course, is that we are all more or less responsible for maintaining “the system”.

 

 

Rome, René Girard and the Sixteen-Year-Old Researcher

Linde Van den Eede, one of my high school students for almost two years now, wrote a very interesting paper on the end of the Roman Republic from the perspective of René Girard’s “mimetic theory”. She chose it as an assignment for her English class (English, mind you, is a third language here in Belgium).

Linde is one of those people who likes to reflect on our cultural history and on the ideas of what it means to be human. Her paper is a precious little pearl, well-researched and opening up perspectives for further reading and writing. Today, Linde celebrates her 17th birthday, which means that she was only 16 when she wrote her paper. I am convinced that whoever reads her paper will be quite astonished, as I was, about the academic level of her writing.

I am very happy and grateful to be able to share this piece of hard work on the occasion of Linde’s birthday – click here: PDF NON MOS, NON IUS.

vincenzo_camuccini_-_la_morte_di_cesare

AN AFTERTHOUGHT (A REFLECTION AFTER READING LINDE’S PAPER) 

Dictatorial regimes like the creativity of artists, novelists, philosophers and scientists insofar as that creativity proves useful for the maintenance of the totalitarian system. In extreme right wing and extreme left wing regimes, art becomes propaganda, novels serve as censured forms of escapism, philosophers turn into political ideologues, and scientists become technicians who are no longer interested in knowledge of reality as a whole.

In a totalitarian system governed by money, creativity is allowed insofar as it serves the goals of capitalism, which is to yield ever more money. Art becomes propaganda at the service of “supply and demand”, only now it is called “publicity”. If there are any novels left, they are supposed to be “entertaining”, thinking is reduced to “management”, and science only serves technological innovation.

What dictatorial regimes don’t like is freedom. They don’t like the true creativity of artists, novelists, philosophers and scientists, which is the creativity “to move beyond the system”. True creativity allows us to reflect on the system that we are part of, which is also a way of distancing ourselves from that very same system. Being able to reflect on a system means that we are not totally defined by that system. This kind of freedom makes us human.

True artists and novelists imagine “new worlds” that enable us to question the world we are living in. They don’t just offer forms of escapism. True philosophers and scientists ask new questions or ask age-old questions anew, and open up unprecedented perspectives. If humanity has found ever new ways of “being in the world”, it is not because people burned books that were deemed “not useful” or “a threat to the existing system”. No, it is precisely because there were people who rescued and revisited ideas that were supposed to be burned.

We give up our own humanity if we just ask ourselves how to function in a given system. Of course that is an important question, and we are always at the same time part of the systems that we are able to question. But to safeguard our humanity we should cultivate our ability to ask what it means to be human (and asking the question is more important than answering it). This liberating ability is quite unique to us, human beings, and therefore contains our humanity.

Let’s hope we never lose it.

cicero denounces catiline (cesare maccari, 1889)

 

 

STAR WARS TUSSEN MYTHE EN EVANGELIE

“Het uiteindelijke idee was om een verhaal over redding te creëren, om te laten zien hoe de schurk eigenlijk de held is.” – George Lucas, in een interview naar aanleiding van AFI Life Achievement Award.

Het doel van het volgende video-essay is om het verschil op het spoor te komen tussen de manier waarop Joseph Campbell mythen begrijpt en de manier waarop René Girard dat doet. Het wil ook hun verschillend begrip van het Evangelie aan het licht brengen.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) wordt onder andere geïnspireerd door Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Hij begrijpt het Evangelie als het zoveelste voorbeeld van de mythe. Volgens hem gaan mythen in essentie over een stervende en opnieuw tot leven komende ‘monsterlijke held-god’, wiens noodzakelijke en onvermijdelijke gewelddadige opoffering een altijd voorlopige vrede en orde schept. Bovendien gelooft Joseph Campbell dat dergelijke heldenmythes een onontkoombare dynamiek illustreren die aan het werk is in het menselijk leven en de cultuur, zowel op individueel als op collectief niveau.

René Girard (1923-2015), aan de andere kant, begrijpt het Evangelie als een radicale kritiek op de gewelddadige offercyclus die wordt gerechtvaardigd door traditionele heldenmythen. Het Evangelie neemt de universele mythologische structuur over en ontmaskert haar afhankelijkheid van het leugenachtige zondebokmechanisme van binnenuit. In tegenstelling tot Joseph Campbell laat René Girard zien hoe het Evangelie het idee ondermijnt dat geweld een onvermijdelijke ‘transcendente’ kracht is die de menselijke cultuur beheerst. Het Evangelie laat zien dat geweld menselijk is, niet goddelijk.

De manier waarop het volgende video-essay de gelijkenissen en verschillen tussen Joseph Campbell en René Girard belicht, is door de eerste zes episodes van de Star Wars-filmsaga te analyseren. Zoals bekend werd George Lucas, de bedenker van Star Wars, sterk geïnspireerd door het werk van Joseph Campbell bij de creatie van Star Wars. Campbell zou uiteindelijk zelfs de persoonlijke mentor van George Lucas worden.

Star Wars, begrepen als een ‘mythologische tragedie’, draait om de overeenkomsten en radicale verschillen tussen Mythe en Evangelie, tussen het Offer van de Mythologische Held en het Offer van Christus.

Joseph Campbell en René Girard blijken allebei onmisbare, briljante gidsen te zijn om ‘de magie van de mythe’ bloot te leggen.

Bekijk de onderstaande video (of klik hier om een ​​pdf van de video te bekijken):

 

Star Wars

Tot besluit volgen enkele fragmenten uit interviews met George Lucas over de ideeën die de achtergrond vormen voor de Star Wars saga:

Uit een interview met Ty Burr voor The Boston Globe (25 October 2005):

GEORGE LUCAS: There’s absolutely no conflict between Darwinism and God’s design for the universe – if you believe that it’s God’s design. The problem for me is that I see a very big difference between the Bible and God. And the problem they’re getting into now is that they’re trying to understand intelligent design through the Bible, not through God. Our job is to find all the “intelligent design,” and figure out how He did everything, and I think that’s consistent with science.

All we’re doing in our own fumbly, bumbly, human way with our inadequate little brains is trying to figure out what He did. And once we figure it out, we say “Ooh, that’s great!” And then we just continue on. Will we ever figure out everything? I don’t know. There’ll always be that faith there that there’s something more to figure out.

TY BURR: When you’re in there creating the nitty-gritty of the “Star Wars” universe, figuring out how an inhabitant of a given planet might evolve a given way, do you feel like you’re playing god?

GL: Well, I started out in anthropology, so to me how society works, how people put themselves together and make things work, has always been a big interest. Which is where mythology comes from, where religion comes from, where social structure comes from. Why are these things created? Now we’re getting into more of the social sciences side of the things, but the biological side is starting to float into that. I’m looking forward to the evolution of neuro-anthropology, because I want to see our genes affect how we build our social systems, how we develop our belief systems in terms of our social beliefs and cultural beliefs. We’re at an exciting time.

TB: What’s neuro-anthropology? I’m not familiar with the term.

GL: It doesn’t exist. [laughs] It’s sort of an extension of neuropsychology, which does exist. But the next step is neuro-anthropology.

TB: The nervous systems of social groups?

GL: Yeah. A friend of mine is writing a book on the social interactions of people based on brain research and how the way we interact with other people is affected by the development of our brains in terms of how the synapses and neurons work. You know, like how married couples influence each other just on a neurological level. What I’m interested in is what happens when you take that to the next level. How do the social institutions reflect the neural activity of the individuals. But that’s an outgrowth of how, in the case of “Star Wars,” I’ve taken psychological motifs from 4,000-year-old stories and put them into a modern vernacular. The reason they worked then is that they were told verbally over and over and over and handed down from father to son. Because they were tested by an audience for thousands of years, they have a certain emotional integrity to them, and you can take those little modules and stick them into a story as they are. They work well because emotionally we have not shifted all that much in the last 4,000 years, whereas intellectually we have.

TB: Are you saying that motifs like the lone hero coming to grips with his father are encoded into our cultural DNA?

GL: I see mythology as a kind of archeological psychology, in which you take psychological fossils that sit in our brain and test to see if they’re still working.

TB: Does your penchant for painting detailed pictures of entire societies come from these interests?

GL: Yes. Also, I love history, so while the psychological basis of “Star Wars” is mythological, the political and social bases are historical. I like to take things and strip them down, then use the model and build a different story on it. You can put in a motif of Saturday-afternoon serials to make it relevant to kids of today, but the political situation of the Empire and the Republic — that’s a scenario that’s been played out thousands of times over the years and that never seems to change much.

I had an interesting discussion when I was doing publicity in Europe for the final “Star Wars” movie. I was sitting around with a dozen reporters, and the Russian correspondents all thought the film was about Russian politics, and the Americans all thought it was about Bush. And I said, “Well, it’s really based on Rome. And on the French Revolution and Bonaparte.” It’s shocking that these things get repeated through history. The same mistakes get made and the tension between democracy and tyranny is always the same. And we haven’t figured out any way around it.

Uit een interview met James Cameron (in zijn serie Story of Science Fiction, 2018), waarin George Lucas enkele beweringen doet die waarschijnlijk “schandalig” klinken in de oren van sommigen: de “goede” Jedi uit de Star Wars filmsaga worden vergeleken met “terroristen”. Lucas praat in dat verband over de Viet Cong, terwijl Cameron Moedjahedin vermeldt. Hun dialoog verwijst met andere woorden naar de onderliggende gelijkenissen tussen tegenstanders in wat René Girard “mimetische rivaliteit” zou noemen (rivaliteit gebaseerd op imitatie):

“Het uiteindelijke idee was om een verhaal over redding te creëren, om te laten zien hoe de schurk eigenlijk de held is.” – George Lucas, in een interview naar aanleiding van AFI Life Achievement Award: