Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 2: Mimesis
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 2: Mimesis

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

Before I delve into the implications of Girardian thought for Christianity, I need to provide some crucial background information. In an effort to understand human violence, Rene Girard looked at a wide range of primal and technologically advanced cultures, and he found parallels that yield insights into human psychology and sociology.

Suspecting that frustrated desire was a critical component of human violence, Girard aimed to understand how we come to desire things. He recognized that we determine what we want by seeing what other people seem to desire. This process, called mimesis, is almost like an involuntary reflex. We do it without thinking—it is a natural human tendency.

Mimesis is crucial to human social development. We learn social behavioral standards and even language by observing others and then mimicking their behavior. Then, we need to determine if our behavior is “proper” by gaining feedback from other members of the community. Therefore, language is fine-tuned by feedback from older people regarding word use and syntax. Similarly, “inappropriate” behavior is corrected by condemnation or ridicule. It is possible that the reason that the human brain neocortex is much larger than that of nearly all animals relates to the complex tasks associated with mimesis.

How does mimesis relate to desire? We have natural biological desires, e.g., for food and touch, but we are not born with knowledge about what foods to crave or whose touch most satisfies. We learn this by observing others. Thus, certain foods become highly desirable, for reasons that actually have little to do with taste. It is more reasonable to think that people crave caviar or snails because of mimetic desire than that these feeds actually give inherent pleasure to the palate. Similarly, whose embrace we might desire is heavily influenced by others’ standards of attractiveness. To illustrate how the actual object of desire is quite arbitrary, women who would be widely considered unattractively overweight by contemporary standards were once admired as beautiful, while the slender female frame that many men now find attractive would have been regarded as very unappealing five centuries ago.

Next week, we’ll explore the difference between imitation, which is conscious, and mimesis, which is not. Because mimesis is unconscious, it has a powerful grip on our beliefs and actions.

Go on to: Part 3: Mimesis vs. Imitation
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