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.



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)



“Cutting off hands, Congo is ours!”

These words are sung regularly nowadays by certain young people across Flanders, Belgium. I heard them last year during a sporting event organized by the school I’m working in. The following is an example of a sticker found at my school:

Handjes kappen de Congo is van ons (sticker in SJC)

I also heard the racist chant on Congo more recently on a TV news report. Amateur footage showed how a young Belgian-Rwandese woman suffered harassment at a music festival from a group of young men. The men were singing “Handjes kappen, de Congo is van ons” (“Cutting off hands, Congo is ours”). They of course refer to a horrible practice by colonists in former Belgian Congo: colonists sometimes cut the hands of workers who tried to escape oppressive labor conditions. In short, “Handjes kappen, de Congo is van ons” is a very racist song, referring to barbaric aspects of western history and culture.

Leopold II and Congolese hands cut off

Apart from plain racist statements, nationalist claims are also a hype. “This is Flemish soil” are words which often come from the very same people who sometimes sing the Congo song, thereby jeopardizing the cause of those Flemish nationalists who want nothing to do with racism. At least at the already mentioned sporting event this was the case. “Handjes kappen, de Congo is van ons” was uttered by students who write “Dit is Vlaamse grond” (“This is Flemish soil”) everywhere they can (on walls and desks, in notebooks, etcetera). It is quite ironic that people who claim to defend “the Flemish cause” associate themselves with a brutal practice of Belgium’s colonial past.

Godwin's LawIf the racist song is merely a self-proclaimed (however horribly misguided) “joke”, then the singers are really taking a basic element of a so-called politically correct framework as their moral reference point: racism should be rejected. If it is not a joke, then the singers truly reject what is often loathed as “political correctness”. In the latter case, the singers carry out Adolf Hitler’s worldview. Before going any further with this, it should be stressed that Godwin’s law is not at work here.

Claiming that “Flanders is for the Flemish” or, say, “Sweden belongs to the Swedes” on the one hand, and that “Congo belongs to the (Flemish) Europeans” on the other, is the same as claiming that some people have more rights than others. Apparently it is believed that Congo does not belong to the Congolese but to the Flemish.

Black Earth (book cover)To understand how those claims are connected to Hitler’s worldview it is recommended to read the work of historian Timothy Snyder (who was the first to deliver the René Girard Lecture at Stanford University, organized by Imitatio). Snyder explains Hitler’s worldview also in an interview with The Atlantic:

What Hitler says is that abstract thought—whether it’s normative or whether it’s scientific—is inherently Jewish. There is in fact no way of thinking about the world, says Hitler, which allows us to see human beings as human beings. Any idea which allows us to see each other as human beings—whether it’s a social contract; whether it’s a legal contract; whether it’s working-class solidarity; whether it’s Christianity—all these ideas come from Jews. And so for people to be people, for people to return to their essence, for them to represent their race, as Hitler sees things, you have to strip away all those ideas. And the only way to strip away all those ideas is to eradicate the Jews. And if you eradicate the Jews, then the world snaps back into what Hitler sees as its primeval, correct state: races struggle against each other, kill each other, starve each other to death, and try to take land.


It’s a very dark, empty universe. I mean, that’s how Hitler describes it to himself. There are really no values in the world except for the stark reality that we are born in order to take things from other people. And so Hitler sees the only good thing as removing the Jews who pervert, as he says it, human nature and physical nature. […] Unnatur is actually a term that Hitler uses, and I think it’s a really telling term. […] He sees the Jews as being the thing which destroys the world, which infects the world. He uses the term “pestilence” in this sense—the Jews have infected the world. They’ve made the world not just impure in some kind of metaphorical sense—he really means it. And so the only way to purify the world—to make things go back to the way they’re supposed to be, to have a natural ecology, to go back to this struggle between races, which Hitler thinks is natural—the only way to do that is to physically eliminate the Jews.


I went back and reread [Hitler’s manifesto] Mein Kampf, and reread the second book, and read all the major Hitler primary sources, and I was really astonished at how clearly these ideas came out—that, in fact, Hitler’s quite explicitly an ecological thinker, that the planetary level is the most important level. This is something that he says right from the beginning of Mein Kampf, all the way through. And likewise, I was struck that Hitler explicitly said that states are temporary, state borders will be washed away in the struggle for nature. In other words, the anarchy that he creates was actually there in the theory from the beginning. Hitler says from the very beginning, what we have to do is destroy the Jews; strip away the artificial political creations that the Jews are responsible for; and let nature just take its course. And what he means by nature’s course is [that] the stronger races destroy the weaker races.


In short, the “natural order”, according to Hitler, is the struggle between races, whereby the stronger “races” take land from the weaker. And so it happens that people to this day can claim that “Congo belongs to the Flemish” (which means that the Congolese are seen as belonging to a “weaker race”). Also according to Hitler, the so-called “natural order” is “morally preferable”. The Jews, in Hitler’s view, challenge the idea of a direct causality between a so-called “natural physical order of things” and “what is morally preferable”. I think Hitler is quite right about the latter case.

The Jews eventually, in the course of their history, question any determination of human beings by the physical forces that govern our universe. In ancient “pagan” (in this context “non-Jewish”) cultures these forces were deified and worshipped as “gods” (or “the divine” – “the sacred”). They were the authors of human life, whose laws prescribed the ultimate meaning and destiny of that life. Hitler re-interprets those forces in a somewhat pseudo-Darwinian sense, likewise claiming that the goal of human life is necessarily determined by the “laws of nature” as he defines them (see above). By contrast, the God of Israel ultimately calls human beings to become the authors of their own life and to understand themselves as relatively independent of “the given order of things”. To “the given order of things” belong our spontaneous inclinations, which also do not automatically determine our behavior (and the very fact that we can choose to follow our inclinations or not proves that we are relatively free and not determined by them). Even allegiance to a family, to a “father” and a “mother” becomes something that is not naturally, automatically given in a Jewish sense: it becomes a revealed commandment in the Ten Commandments. This might encourage us to focus our attention on those people who truly are father and mother figures in our lives, those who are not necessarily our biological father or mother (see The Judgment of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:16-28). Jesus maybe goes even further, as he invites us to question our attachment to our own family and culture (see previous post: Jesus Christ, Narcissist?) in order to love our neighbor and “love our enemy”. In any case, to many people, like victims of incest, it is probably a relief that abusive family members or oppressive cultural customs do not determine their identity.

What is ultimately at stake in the ideological battle between Judaism and, for lack of a better word, (neo)paganism is a question about what it means to be a cultural animal. Some people would say that the identity of every human being is determined by a particular culture and its history. In this case, any attempt to overcome our paradoxical so-called natural attachment to “our own cultural in-group” is perceived as a “perversion of nature” that is bound to tragically fail. From this perspective we are born into a culture whose given traditions, customs, norms and values we should deeply respect. It is also believed that history shows whose culture is “superior” to other cultures. Again paradoxically, it seems like an endless and necessary law that we are committed to deify our history and cultural heritage.

Contrary to the traditional pagan 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” (as Hitler would have it and detests it, see above), irreducible to the particular characteristics of any “group”.


To be a cultural animal from a (neo)pagan 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.]

Cyclical vs Linear

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” leads 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. Ecclesiastes very nicely points to the futility of any human culture – generations and kings come and go (Ecclesiastes 1:11 & 4:14-16):

No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.

The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

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 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.

Levinas Quote on War

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 the words of Jesus (Matthew 23:29-32):

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!”

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.

P.S. 1 It remains to be seen if a young Flemish nationalist movement like Schild & Vrienden is also a racist movement. Dries Van Langenhove, leader of the movement, called the above mentioned racist Congo song “an edgy student song, sung at nearly every party”. I hope he doesn’t mean that it should therefore be accepted. The supposed racism of “other cultures” doesn’t in any way justify racism in one’s own quarters (although it might make it comprehensible). To be proud of your own culture means that you don’t imitate morally questionable practices of other cultures, and that you don’t take those practices as a reference point to justify your own practices. In the case of responding to the racism of others, we are responsible for our own behavior, and we shouldn’t blame others for the way we act – that would be hiding behind a scapegoat mechanism.

Anyway, here is an interview with Dries Van Langenhove by Lana Lokteff of Red Ice. It reveals some of the suppositions of Schild & Vrienden concerning “identity formation” and some of their views on what it means to be part of a cultural realm:

P.S. 2 For more on the word culture and its etymology click here for slides on Australian pop culture (assembled by Angela Ballas – Yaryalitsa). Or watch the powerpoint:

Much has been written already about similarities and differences between the trials of Socrates and Jesus. This short sketch tries to understand how their sacrifices are interpreted in some key text fragments. It also tries to answer the question whether or not these sacrifices should be understood as vindications of a social order based on sacrifice or, on the contrary, as denunciations of such an order. In the process, this little inquiry also attempts to shed light on Socrates’ and Jesus’ own understanding of their sacrifice, according to the key texts. In the case of Socrates, the focus will lie on Plato’s Dialogue Crito. In the case of Jesus the texts of the canonical Gospels will be questioned, the Gospel of John especially. Readers should please note that the following considerations are merely suggestions for further reflection, as is evidenced by references to some scholarly articles in pdf (see the end).

In Crito, Socrates presents a justification of his death as he reasons from the perspective of an Athenian citizen whose duty it is to obey the Athenian laws. Socrates creates a dialogue between himself and the laws when he tries to convince his friend Crito that he, Socrates, should not escape from prison and accept his punishment. Socrates presents an argument that should be acceptable from Crito’s point of view. In Crito 50e-51c the laws say the following (Socrates impersonating the laws himself):

“Since you [Socrates] have been born and brought up and educated, could you say that you were not our offspring and slave from the beginning, both you and your ancestors? And if this is so, do you suppose that justice between you and us is based on equality, and do you think that whatever we might try to do to you, it is just for you to do these things to us in return? Justice between you and your father, or your master if you happened to have one, was not based on equality, so that you could not do whatever you had suffered in return, neither speak back when crossed nor strike back when struck nor many other such things. Will you be allowed to do this to your homeland and the laws, so that, if we try to destroy you, thinking this to be just, you will then try to destroy us the laws and your homeland in return with as much power as you have and claim that you’re acting justly in doing so, the man who truly cares about virtue? Are you so wise that it has slipped your mind that the homeland is deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother and father and all of your other ancestors? And is held in higher esteem both by the gods and by men of good sense? And that when she is angry you should show her more respect and compliance and obedience than your father, and either convince her or do what she commands, and suffer without complaining if she orders you to suffer something? And that whether it is to be beaten or imprisoned, or to be wounded or killed if she leads you into war, you must do it? And that justice is like this, and that you must not be daunted or withdraw or abandon your position, but at war and in the courts and everywhere you must do what the city and the homeland orders, or convince her by appealing to what is naturally just? And that it is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland?”

And in Crito 51d:

“[…] and yet even so we pronounce that we have given the power to any Athenian who wishes, when he has been admitted as an adult and sees the affairs of the city and us the laws and is not pleased with us, to take his possessions and leave for wherever he wants.”

The Death of Socrates (Jacques-Louis David, 1787)

According to the speech of the laws, a citizen of Athens should act out of a spirit of obedience. An Athenian citizen is said to be “a slave [of the laws] from the beginning”. Moreover, an Athenian citizen should consider it a holy duty to accept execution and should be willing to sacrifice oneself when the homeland, structured and defined by the transcending order of the laws, demands it and when the citizen fails to convince the homeland otherwise “by appealing to what is naturally just”. Hence, “it is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland”.

So, in the end, from this point of view, obeying the laws seems more important than “what is naturally just”. Moreover, as Crito 51d makes clear, those who refuse to accept the order of things in Athens are advised to ban themselves from the city.

This reasoning is crucially different from Jesus’ point of view in the canonical Gospels. According to Jesus, rules (in whatever way they are defined) should be means at the service of individual human beings and society as a whole, not the other way around. When Jesus and his disciples are criticized for doing things that are, strictly speaking, forbidden by Jewish law on the rest day – the Sabbath – Jesus answers (Mark 2:27): “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Contrary to his general ideas on the opinion of the masses (as is clear from other Dialogues), Socrates, speaking from the position of an average Athenian citizen, also uses the desire for recognition by the many as a positive factor in the speech of the laws: “The homeland is deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother and father and all of your ancestors, and is held in higher esteem both by the gods and by men of good sense.” It is difficult to consider such statements as representations of Socrates’ own views in light of other Dialogues. Jesus also criticizes a desire for recognition that becomes an end in itself (see, for instance, Matthew 6:1a: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them…”).

Another contrast between the Athenian laws and Jesus is perhaps highlighted by the following comparison. Socrates says (Crito 51c): “It is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland.” Compare this with the following words of Jesus (Matthew 10:34-36): “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” Opposed to the small and big forms of “peace” based on oppression and violence, of which the Pax Romana in the time of Jesus is an obvious case of course, Jesus challenges people to build peace differently. Family members who belong to a “home” where they can have debates with each other, members of enemy tribes who end age old feuds by questioning their own perception of “the other tribe”, former criminals who start to behave like “moles” to clear their violent Mafia gang, fundamentalists who – realizing what they do to those who supposedly don’t belong to “the chosen ones” – liberate themselves from religious indoctrinations, employees who address a reign of terror at their workplace, individuals who criticize the bullying of their own clique, pacifists who dare to dissent with the violent rule of a dictatorship and unveil its enemy images as grotesque caricatures – Jesus advocates it. “Love your enemies”, Jesus says (Matthew 5:44). Everyone who no longer condemns the external enemy of his own particular group because of a stirred up feeling of superiority, generates internal discord: “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” It’s only logical. In short, Jesus argues in favor of non-violent conflict in order to end violent peace. Hence Jesus’ conclusion in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”

The Athenian laws in Socrates’ speech justify a sacrificial order of things (a sacrificial peace) by demanding the death of Socrates. If Socrates would not accept his death, the laws suggest that he then is in a state of “trying to destroy the laws and his homeland”. Equally, the enemies of Jesus justify Jesus’ death by referring to a potential destruction of the nation. However, by effectively accepting his death, Socrates paradoxically demonstrates that the accusations he is charged with are fundamentally false, and by that he also demonstrates the injustice of his death sentence. Biblically speaking, Socrates “turns the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). In Crito, Socrates does not sacrifice the laws of Athens to establish his own rule. Instead, he accepts the legal verdict and, thus, resists a competition between his potential own sacrificial order of things and the actual one. In short, Socrates paradoxically “sacrifices himself against sacrifice”, much in the same vein as René Girard (1923-2015) describes the death of Jesus. It could be argued that, like the Gospels, Crito already reveals the scapegoat mechanism structuring communities, albeit in a slightly different way.

The Gospel of John perhaps more elaborately reveals how the scapegoat mechanism is at the origin of human culture (and sacrificial ritual).

It is noteworthy that Jesus does not believe in a God who wants him dead. If Jesus paradoxically sacrifices himself eventually, it is a consequence of his obedience to a Love that “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). He does not want to live at the expense of others, not even his “enemies”. That’s why he says, when he is questioned by Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Jesus does not want to start a civil war. He does not want to establish a rule based on the sacrifice of a previous order. In other words, Jesus refuses “mimetic rivalry” (for more, click here). He does not want to abolish the law, but wants to put it at the service of neighborly love (which was the intention of the Jewish law all along).

In the Gospel of John, the devil is a personification of the scapegoat mechanism (which means that an innocent individual or group is wrongfully accused). Jesus knows that the leaders of the Jewish people, the Pharisees and the chief priests, want him dead and that they try to justify his death with certain lies. They obey “the devil” – indeed the mechanism that justifies the elimination of people based on lies.

John 8: 39-44

“If you, Pharisees, were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”

“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

The Pharisees and chief priests are afraid that the growing popularity of Jesus might become a threat to their power. That’s why they try to present him as a rebel leader who could lead an uprising against the Roman occupier of Judea. A war with the Romans would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture. Therefore the Jewish leaders see no other solution than to get rid of Jesus. It’s their way of justifying his elimination.

John 11: 45-50

Many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

In the case of Jesus, the Gospel of John leaves no doubt that these allegations are false. The Evangelist lets Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, unwittingly declare “the truth” about the arrested Jesus, namely that Jesus is innocent. Jesus does not wish to establish a “kingdom” or “peace” in competition with “the kings of this world” (whose kingdoms are based on sacrifices and the expulsion of certain people – like the “Pax Romana”). In other words, the Gospel of John reveals the plot against Jesus by the Pharisees and the chief priests as a scapegoat mechanism: Jesus is wrongfully accused. He refuses to start a civil war that would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture.

John 18: 33-38

Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”

Christ on the Cross (Jacques-Louis David, 1782)

René Girard comments on how the Gospels, in principle, destroy the devil or “Satan” as the endless violent cycle of mimetic rivalry and scapegoat mechanisms ruling the human world (in I see Satan Fall like Lightning, Orbis Books, New York, 2002, p.142):

“By depriving the victim mechanism of the darkness that must conceal it so it can continue to control human culture, the Cross shakes up the world… Satan is no longer able to limit his capacity for destruction. Satan will destroy his kingdom, and he will destroy himself.”

In yet other words (Col 2:15):

“Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

In what way Socrates also made a “public spectacle” of “the powers and principalities” as a kindred spirit to Christ, is open to further debate. An important difference is the fact that Socrates fought in the Peloponnesian war (431 – 404 BC), while Christ radically refused violence (see Matthew 26:52).

Some scholars have argued that the speech of the laws actually represents Socrates’ own view – see, for instance: Socrates Misinterpreted and Misapplied: An Analysis of the Constructed Contradiction between the Apology and the Crito (by Masha Marchevsky, Macalester College). Others understand the speech as an attempt to persuade Crito and indeed reveal something fundamental about the nature of politics – see, for instance: Law, Philosophy, and Civil Disobedience: The Laws’ Speech in Plato’s Crito (by Steven Thomason, Ouachita Baptist University).

As for now, I tend to side with those who consider the speech of the laws as not representing the views of Socrates himself. On a personal note, I should thank my friend George Dunn, who, after a lively and sharp Facebook discussion, forced me to reconsider my initial position and made possible the above reflection.

It’s that time of year again. Advent? Christmas shopping? Charity fundraising? Sure. All of that and more. But also, exams!

It made me think of a particular situation between two friends, Jack and Bob. Jack used to come up to Bob in the morning, while Bob was repeating his courses for the exam that was about to take place. Jack would ask Bob these questions: “Did you pay special attention to that chapter? How long did you study, yesterday, for that part? At least five hours, no? Did you make sure to repeat the extracurricular material?” It drove Bob nuts! Jack made Bob feel bad about himself. Bob always thought that he was prepared well enough for his exams. After five minutes in the presence of Jack, however, Jack somehow managed to give Bob the eerie feeling that Bob might not be up to the task at hand, time and again!

Years later, I realized that this might have been Jack’s purpose all along, albeit maybe rather unconsciously. Sure, his annoying questions and remarks were always wrapped in a package of so-called “good intentions”. He seemed concerned about Bob. But as it turned out, this concern really was a way of troubling Bob. Jack’s “love” came from a little jealousy and resentment. After all, at the end of the day, Bob’s grades were always much better than Jack’s!

Things got worse when Bob started a relationship with the girl Jack secretly had fallen in love with. Her name was Marilyn. At first, Jack comforted himself with the thought that Marilyn “really was a dumb blonde”, and that “Bob was stupid for wanting a relationship with her”. Other friends of Jack confirmed Jack’s ideas. Jack hated Bob for being “so blind”. In the end, however, Jack’s hatred of Bob transformed to pity, even compassion. He felt sorry for Bob, who was “wasting time” with a girl like Marilyn. Once again, Jack managed to make Bob feel bad about himself!

According to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Christian love is comparable to Jack’s so-called love for his friend Bob.

Nietzsche claims that, in Antiquity, the Jews represented a group of weak people who were secretly jealous of the people in power. However, because they couldn’t possess the same position as the powerful, the Jews started comforting themselves with the delusion that “there is one true God who takes sides with the weak, the oppressed and marginalized victims”. The Jews became convinced that the gods at the side of the powerful were false, and that they wouldn’t want to trade places with “those blind, powerful people”. It is clear, in Nietzsche’s scenario, that this hatred of the powerful people’s position comes from hidden jealousy (hidden, even, from the jealous persons themselves). To get back to the aforementioned situation between Jack and Bob: Jack, who is secretly jealous of Bob, makes himself believe that he wouldn’t want to be in the situation of Bob with Marilyn to comfort himself for not obtaining that situation, like the Jews make themselves believe that they wouldn’t want to be in the situation of the powerful to comfort themselves for not obtaining that situation.

Calvin and Hobbes Resentment

Hatred is the first phase of resentment or, better still, ressentiment. Ressentiment literally is an aversion one develops towards something one secretly desires but cannot obtain. In Dutch a synonym for aversion (Dutch: “afkeer”) is “weerzin”, which goes back to a translation of the Latin prefix “re-” (“weer”) and the Latin noun “sensus” (“zin”). Sometimes ressentiment evolves into a second phase, whereby hatred transforms into a kind of compassion and love. Again according to Nietzsche, Christianity represents the second phase of the ressentiment of the Jews: instead of hating the powerful, Jesus of Nazareth starts pitying them. It’s like the story of Jack: in the end he no longer hates Bob, but he develops a feeling of compassion for Bob.

Still following Nietzsche, the dynamic of ressentiment is complete when the people one is secretly jealous of start feeling bad about themselves. That’s the ultimate revenge. Nietzsche claims that a Judeo-Christian morality based on ressentiment eventually contaminated western culture as a whole: powerful people started feeling bad about themselves. The powerful started developing a bad conscience, just like Bob under the influence of his so-called “worried friend” Jack.

Max Scheler & Friedrich Nietzsche

With all due respect to Nietzsche’s impressive account of ressentiment in the development of the West’s morality, it could be argued that Judeo-Christian love itself is not the result of ressentiment. Max Scheler (1874-1928) has done this. He concedes that ressentiment plays a powerful role in our world, but he firmly disagrees with Nietzsche concerning the true nature of Judeo-Christian morality. According to Scheler, Jesus of Nazareth embodies a love that is born, not from ressentiment or hidden jealousy, but from freedom. The love coming from Jesus of Nazareth is like the love of Johnny, yet another friend of Bob’s. Johnny truly was a happy camper, grateful for a life filled with more than he needed. He had a good relationship with his girlfriend Jacoba, for one thing, and at school he always got good grades. He was happy for Bob when Bob started his relationship with Marilyn. He was also concerned about the way Bob prepared for his exams, but contrary to Jack, Johnny sincerely looked after Bob because of Bob, and not because he needed to satisfy his hidden frustrations. In short, with his love, Johnny empowered Bob. Moreover, Johnny was able to reveal to Bob how Jack really was driven by resentment (or, better again, ressentiment), much in the same way as Jesus of Nazareth unveils the fears, the ressentiment and the ulterior motives of the people he meets. These types of revelations make possible new types of relationships between people: from love of one’s self-image (and its confirmation by others) to love of oneself and others. (For more on all this, especially on the way Jesus unmasks ressentiment, click here.)

It’s that time of year again, when we are challenged to imagine ourselves that a Being of Abundant Life comes to us as a fragile child in a manger, not because that Being of Abundant Life is secretly jealous of us, mere mortals, but to offer us a participation in its Abundant Life. That child in a manger does not want us to feel bad about ourselves, but it wants to empower us to love. And what other love responds more to the reality of that little, vulnerable babe than a love that comes from our fullness, from what we have to give rather than from our needs or what we are lacking? What other love responds more to the reality of that little, vulnerable babe than a love that is not driven by fear, wounded pride or resentment, but by hope and joy?

adoración de los pastores (Murillo)

A shepherd wants us to become shepherds, like a resurrected Abel, so like shepherds we shall adore him.

In het tv-programma Reyers Laat van 2 mei 2013 werd speciale aandacht besteed aan… de Liefde.

Reyers LoveAls godsdienstleraar vind ik het interessant om te zien hoe een aantal inzichten die behoren tot de kern van het joods-christelijke denken ook aanwezig zijn in een seculiere context. Dat is niet zo verwonderlijk. Het gaat in de Bijbel, zoals in iedere grote spirituele traditie, om een zoektocht naar de uiteindelijke bestemming van mens en wereld, en die zoektocht vertrekt vanuit een karakterisering van “de mens”. Blijkbaar komen de pogingen van de Bijbelse auteurs om de mens en zijn voornaamste problematieken te karakteriseren overeen met de pogingen van hedendaagse menswetenschappers die hetzelfde doen. Bovendien verwijst psychiater Dirk De Wachter naar Emmanuel Levinas, een Franse filosoof inderdaad, maar vooral ook een joodse denker (ook bekend om zijn lezingen van de Talmoed). En dan is het natuurlijk al helemaal niet toevallig dat een Bijbelse antropologie doorklinkt in het spreken van dokter De Wachter. Het bleek voor de leerlingen uit de 6GRWIb, 6LAWIb, 6ECMT1, 6ECWI en 6ECWE aan wie ik vandaag lesgaf helemaal niet moeilijk om de overeenkomsten tussen de boodschap van de evangeliën en die van Clara Cleymans, Kristien Hemmerechts en Dirk De Wachter aan te duiden. Dank aan Reyers Laat voor het onverwachte didactische materiaal :)! Klik aan:


En voor wie wil weten hoe een godsdienstleraar een en ander over de liefde beschouwt vanuit het Nieuwe Testament, is er volgende link – een inkijk in mijn lessen :), jawel – klik aan:


In mijn boek, uitgegeven bij Averbode in 2009, worden deze thema’s verder uitgewerkt – klik hier voor meer informatie over Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll.

sacrificial peaceTot slot geef ik nog enkele citaten uit het gesprek. Wie het pdf-document gelezen heeft, zal merken dat de nieuwtestamentische opvatting over vrede aansluit bij de karakterisering van de liefde in het gesprek uit Reyers Laat.

De Jezusfiguur van de canonieke evangeliën heeft het niet zo begrepen op een “vrede” of “harmonie” die gebaseerd is op offers, op geweld. Hij heeft het niet begrepen op een slaafse gehoorzaamheid of blinde loyauteit aan een eigen “(familie)clan”, waarbij “de vijand” van die clan automatisch de vijand wordt van eenieder die ertoe behoort, zonder dat de vraag gesteld wordt of de clan het wel bij het rechte eind heeft.

I did not come to bring peaceDe Jezusfiguur uit de canonieke evangeliën plaatst een vraagteken bij relaties waarin conflicten niet op een vruchtbare wijze aan bod kunnen komen. Mensen kunnen pas “thuis” zijn bij elkaar als ze ook het verschil tussen zichzelf en anderen een plaats kunnen geven – en verschillen in opvattingen en persoonlijkheden zullen onvermijdelijk spanningen teweegbrengen; de kunst is om er op een creatieve manier mee om te gaan. Jezus brengt “het zwaard”, maar het is wel duidelijk dat hij dit niet letterlijk bedoelt als een oproep tot geweld – zie Mt10,34-36: “Denk niet dat Ik op aarde vrede ben komen brengen. Ik ben geen vrede komen brengen, maar een zwaard. Want Ik ben gekomen om een wig te drijven tussen zoon en vader, tussen dochter en moeder, tussen schoondochter en schoonmoeder; ja, huisgenoten worden vijanden.”

Put away your swordKortom, de Jezusfiguur uit de canonieke evangeliën pleit vóór de mogelijkheid van conflicten (als vruchtbare spanningen voortkomende uit het verschil tussen mensen), maar is tégen gewelddadige conflicten.

Enkele citaten uit het gesprek in Reyers Laat ‘Reyers Love’ (2 mei 2013)

Dirk De Wachter: “Mijn stelling is dat de duurzame liefde – niet de verliefdheid of het hormonale gebeuren – bestaat uit het erkennen van de ander als ander. Dat juist in het verschil, het onoverbrugbare verschil, de continuïteit zich stelt. Dat is een theorie die ik niet zelf heb uitgevonden, maar die komt van de Franse filosoof Levinas. Dus: de ander als ander, de ander niet willen veranderen; de ander niet willen maken tot wat ge zelf zou wensen, tot uw eigen beeld of verlangen, maar de ander ‘laten zijn’.

Hoe kan men de ander beminnen zonder hem of haar tot zijn bezit te maken? […] De geliefde wordt vandaag vaak beschouwd als een soort consumptieproduct – als iets dat men zich kan aanschaffen en dan naar zijn verlangen kan modelleren, en dan ook opzij zetten als het niet meer echt voldoet aan dat wat men zo graag zou hebben.

Het is bijna een noodzaak. Het is omdat de ander anders is dat er steeds een verlangen blijft. Het is in die onvervuldheid dat we steeds blijven doorgaan. Dat is de paradox.”

Clara Cleymans: “Liefde stoelt altijd op eigenliefde. Daar wil ik niet mee zeggen dat liefde zich zou baseren op egoïsme of narcisme, want dat staat daar natuurlijk haaks tegenover, maar wel dat ge uzelf moet respecteren en uzelf ergens moet graag zien om de juiste partner te vinden of om ‘juist’ lief te hebben.”

Dirk De Wachter: “Dat is zeer juist. Als de ander moet dienen om u goed te voelen, dan zit ge met een probleem. Maar als ge u goed voelt, en de ander kan ook zichzelf zijn, dan is er duurzaamheid – niet gegarandeerd want dat bestaat niet – mogelijk.”

Clara Cleymans: “Als ge uzelf niet graag ziet, dan kunt ge ook heel moeilijk alleen zijn, en dan vlucht ge vaak in iemands armen; en als liefde een vlucht wordt dan houdt het op om liefde te zijn. […] Ik denk dat elke relatie mis kan gaan bij een lage eigenwaarde, omdat het zo een lelijke symptomen heeft. Ge wordt vaak heel jaloers, ge wordt heel bezitterig, heel hebberig… Ge laat helemaal geen vrijheid naar uw partner toe. Maar ook, als ge uzelf niet goed voelt, dan bouwt ge soms een hele dikke stugge muur rondom u, en dan kunt ge niet in een relatie stappen want een relatie is juist een hele intieme vorm van communicatie – waar ge iemand toelaat in uw meest intieme, hyperpersoonlijke ruimte, en ge hebt een soort van openheid nodig daarvoor.”

Kristien Hemmerechts: “Je mag niet afhankelijk zijn van iemand. Je moet je eerst goed in je eigen vel voelen voordat je een relatie kan aangaan. Want anders ga je die ander gebruiken om dat gat in jou te vullen, om die leegte in jou te vullen.”

Als mensen elkaar niet herleiden tot een louter middel ter bevrediging van bepaalde behoeftes en verlangens, kunnen ze het onuitwisbare verschil tussen zichzelf en anderen op het spoor komen dat liefde mogelijk maakt als respect voor de ander als ander. Christenen herkennen daarin de werkzame tegenwoordigheid van de Geest Gods, die uit de gespletenheid van het verschil het scheppende Woord baart dat een mens tot zijn medemens spreekt.


The secret to creativity (Albert Einstein)

Well, Einstein isn’t the only one with quotes :). Through several years of teaching, I’ve developed some expressions myself. Of course, it’s only my attempt to transmit the ideas of others. Anyway, hope to make you think. Enjoy!

about Jesus and Christianity

Jesus is often called a leader whose words and deeds are too otherworldly to be imitated. Indeed, our world produces one illusion after the other, and Jesus is too much of a realist to aspire to be a king of this world.

There are some whose ultimate goal it is to be loved, and they are willing to suffer in order to get to their paradise of happiness. There are others whose ultimate goal it is to love, and they are willing to bear suffering as a possible consequence of their refusal to sacrifice others. The last ones can be considered followers of Christ. The first ones can be considered masochists.

It’s better and healthier – maybe more ‘Christian’ even – to discard Christianity because of a lack of understanding than to accept an untruthful, unhealthy version of it.

quote on Jesus (Albert Einstein)

about truth and lies

Although you might have the opposite impression, as long as you have to take medication, the disease you’re suffering from is not cured. Any doctor who makes you think you are cured by taking drugs is selling pharmaceutical lies. In the case of chronic, still incurable diseases, scientific progress is needed to prevent the pharmaceutical industry of becoming an end in itself. The economics of the pharmaceutical industry, and the medications it produces, should serve the ultimate goal of medicine: cure people, which means making them independent of medications.

One aspect of truth is like a real gift. It’s not immediately necessary are necessarily useful, but it opens unexpected possibilities. The truth has the potential to set you free because you don’t need it.

Although some consider it to be a sign of freedom to be able to approach reality from the perspective of their supposedly very own needs, desires and interests, this is actually a sign of enslavement; for the things you need or learned to need are things you are dependent upon (otherwise you wouldn’t need them).

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift (Albert Einstein)

One aspect of truth is like love. It can hurt, for it does not flee when aspects of reality strike that you would rather do away with.

Truth does not have to be useful. It has to be true.

Some people are primarily interested in what they need. Others are primarily interested in gaining knowledge and finding truth.

There are only two ways to live (Albert Einstein)

about education

Education begins where one’s primary interests and certainties end. It’s a call to adventure.

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education (Albert Einstein)

Some people think they know what’s true by pointing out what’s false. It’s the illusion of a man who dares not criticize and educate himself, afraid he’ll find out that he’s not a god.

The only sure way to avoid making mistakes... (Albert Einstein)

about scientism

Some give the impression that modern science will eventually answer all questions, thereby characterizing as irrelevant those questions science cannot answer. Well, that’s easy. If I can marginalize all questions that I cannot answer (by calling them “irrelevant”), I’ll be able to solve “all” questions immediately.

The important thing is not to stop questioning (Albert Einstein)

Strict scientism makes perfect sense, right? In the end, it considers “Butterflies evolve from caterpillars” a meaningful statement, while it considers “Butterflies are beautiful” meaningless. Should make perfect sense, but somewhere down the road, something apparently went wrong, nonetheless…

about desire and needs

If you desire to be everywhere, you end up being nowhere.

“I don’t need God!”, the atheist said, “I’m perfectly happy without Him!” – “I don’t need a house with electricity!”, the caveman cried, “I’m perfectly happy in my cave!”

[=> Okay, this one’s quite lame :); and of course, to love someone doesn’t mean that a desire for happiness drives you – love is ultimately concerned with the well-being of others, and we’re all unhappy if our beloved others are harmed; still, most of us won’t suppress love because of the possible sadness it provokes – meaning our desire to feel good and happy is less important than our desire for the well-being of the beloved others…].

about love (and utilitarianism)

If you love others, you’ll get hurt when you lose them, and feel sad when they suffer. Still, you will not stop loving them. Not because you enjoy sadness or suffering, but because you are willing to accept that your own happiness can only be a consequence of the happiness of others, and never an end in itself (contrary to utilitarianism).

I never said half the crap people said I did (Albert Einstein)

“I hate all this philosophical mumbo-jumbo! It just doesn’t make any sense!”

I’ve experienced reactions like these from my students quite often while trying to teach them some philosophy. They express the normal frustration people get when they just don’t seem to succeed in mastering the issues they’re facing. To be honest, I more than once imitated their feelings of despair by getting frustrated and impatient myself about their inability to understand what I was trying to say. The story of students blaming teachers for not explaining things well enough, and of teachers responding that their students just don’t try hard enough, is all too familiar. But, at the end of the day, having worked through some negative emotions, I somehow always manage to sit down at my desk and try to improve upon my part of communicating. I can only hope it stays that way.

The writings of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas are not always easy to understand, let alone agree with. Roger Burggraeve, one of my professors at the University of Leuven, has proven to be an excellent guide to introduce me to the philosophy of Levinas (click here for an excellent summary by Burggraeve). But explanations at an academic level are not always easily transferable to a high school level. Regarding Levinas I’m faced with the challenge to explain something about his thoughts on “the Other” and “the Other’s face”. Although Levinas’ musings often appear to be highly abstract for someone who didn’t receive any proper philosophical training, his thinking springs from very “earthly”, even dark realities and experiences – especially the experience of the Holocaust. Levinas’ response to the threat of totalitarianism is actually very down to earth, but because it wants to be “fundamental”, I can imagine it indeed sometimes comes across as mumbo-jumbo to sixteen year olds.

Luckily enough for me, as a teacher, an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (season 3, episode 12 The Cold War) can help to make clear what “the encounter with the Other” could be like in a particular situation. Moreover, it also serves as a good way to connect René Girard’s mimetic theory with some of Levinas’ main insights. Here’s the story:

Will and his nephew Carlton have a crush on the same girl, Paula. Carlton had been the first to date Paula, but after introducing her to Will, she also becomes Will’s object of interest. Will imitates the desire of Carlton and, upon noticing this, Carlton in turn reinforces his desire for Paula by imitating his new rival Will. This is a prime and archetypal example of what Girard has labeled mimetic (or imitative) desire, which potentially leads to mimetic rivalry. Will and Carlton become each other’s obstacles in the pursuit of an object (in this case a person, Paula) they point to each other as desirable. They become jealous of each other and try to out compete one another. They both fear the other as a threat to their self-esteem and independency. Ironically however, as they try to differ themselves from each other by unwittingly imitating each other’s desire, they resemble each other more and more. In fact, their sense of “being” becomes truly dependent on the other they despise. They end up dueling each other in a pillow fight, trying to settle the score.

At one moment, near the end of Will and Carlton’s fight, something happens which indeed illustrates what Levinas means with “response to the Other’s face” (click here for some excerpts from Levinas’ Ethics as First Philosophy). Will pretends to be severely injured (“My eye!”), whereon Carlton totally withdraws from the fight. Carlton finds himself confronted with Will’s vulnerability, and is genuinely concerned for his nephew’s well-being. The Other he was fighting turns out to be more than his rival, more than the product of his (worst) imaginations. Indeed, before being a rival the Other “is simply there“, not reducible to any of our concerns, desires or anxieties. Carlton is not concerned for his own sake: he doesn’t seem to fear any punishment, nor does he seem to desire any reward while showing his care for Will. He abandons all actions of self-interest “in the wink of an eye”.

This is an ethical moment, as Levinas understands it. It goes beyond utilitarianism which, as it turns out, justifies itself as being “good” by arguing that self-interest (i.e. what proves useful for one’s own well-being) eventually serves the interest (well-being) of others as well. Putting forward the effect on the well-being of others as justification for utilitarianism is telling, and shows that utilitarianism in itself doesn’t seem to be “enough” as a foundation for ethics. Moreover, utilitarianism serves the interests of “the majority”, which threatens to overlook what happens to minorities “other than” that majority. Sometimes sacrificing a minority might seem “logical” from this point of view. By contrast, in what is “the ethical moment” according to Levinas, one fears being a murderer more than one’s own death. In other words, provoked by the Other’s “nakedness” and “vulnerability” (the Other’s face which lies beyond our visible descriptions and labeling of the Other), OUR FEAR OF THE OTHER IS TRANSFORMED IN FEAR FOR THE OTHER. The mimetic rivalry between Will and Carlton is thus interrupted until, of course, Will reveals he was only joking about his injury… and the pillow fight continues.


Eventually, Will and Carlton quit fighting and start confessing their wrongdoings towards one another. They no longer imitate each other’s desire to assert themselves over against one another, but they imitate each other in being vulnerable and forgiving, recognizing “each Other”. They imitate each other’s withdrawal from mimetically converging desire and rivalry. It is by becoming “Other” to one another that they paradoxically gain a new sense of “self”, as an unexpected consequence…

Enjoy that grand twist of humor in Will Smith’s unexpected philosophy class…


[on two types of “rewards” – goals or consequences of one’s actions? – and the implications for human interactions]

“If there is no God, everything is permitted…”

This is basically the challenging idea of Ivan Karamazov, one of the main characters in The Brothers Karamazov, the famous novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). Could this be true in any way?

At the beginning of a new year, I always ask my students the following questions:

Suppose there is no principal’s office, suppose you could never be punished for any of your actions – would you still respect your fellow students and your teacher?

Suppose there are no grades to win, and you didn’t receive any reward for studying your courses and reading your books – would you still listen to your teachers and study?

What would you do if you are not watched, if you live outside “the empire of the watchmen”?

Consider Matthew 6:1-2 & 6:5: Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. […] So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. […] And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

To put things slightly differently:

Suppose there is no hell, no punishment in any way, would you still respect your fellow man?

Suppose there is no heaven, no reward in any way, would you still respect your fellow man?

Actually, this is the kind of challenge Christianity puts us to. Christ teaches us that there isn’t something like a heaven as an established “world” for which we should bring all kinds of sacrifices in order to obtain it. As if heaven would be the ultimate goal and justification of our existence. That’s exactly like the reasoning of a student who is prepared to work hard at his courses and to obey his teachers, not because he’s intrinsically interested in his courses or respectful of his teachers, but because he considers getting good grades as his ticket to success, power and happiness – “paradise”.

Christ subverts this sacrificial logic. Rather than being an ultimate goal that justifies, explains and gives meaning to our life, “heaven” is the potential consequence of our actions. By taking up responsibility for ourselves and one another, by loving our neighbor (which is “the righteousness of God’s Kingdom”), we co-create “heaven”. To use the student-analogy again: the student who learns to be genuinely interested in his courses will get good grades as a logical consequence of his love for studying. And he will have learned something!

Consider Matthew 6:25-34: Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

On the other hand, those students who are focused only on getting good grades and who fear failure will tend to forget what they have learned from the moment they have their grades and no longer “need” the information from their courses. Or they will stop being friendly to their former teachers once they have graduated.

In short, Christ doesn’t want us to respect our neighbor because we fear hellish punishment or long for some heavenly reward. He wants us to respect our neighbor because of our neighbor. He liberates us from a system of fear and anxiety based on punishments and rewards, creates the possibility of responsibility (because only a free man can be responsible) and genuine love – without ulterior motives -, and transforms the nature of sacrifice. In Christ’s view, sacrifice is not a gift to receive something from someone you need, nor is it a necessary obligation to protect some kind of “honor gone mad” (see the tragedy of Japanese kamikaze pilots during the Second World War),  but it is a gift from people who are thankful for what they already received by living up to the possibilities of their freedom.

Consider Matthew 5:23-24: So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Of course, there’s a dark side as well to this liberation. Let’s go to the classroom once more. If a teacher tells his students that he will not punish them or, on the other hand, reward them with good grades, there are two possibilities: there will either be an atmosphere of cooperation guided by a genuine motivation to study, or… total mayhem – “hell”!

In Battling to the End, a book in which René Girard reconsiders the treatise On War by Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), the apocalyptic dimensions of Christ’s teachings are related to Christ’s deconstruction of “the god(s) of sacrifice” and of sacrificial systems in general. Girard makes clear that the biblical revelation indeed has two possible outcomes: either a world of ever more rivalry and violence, or a world of ever more Love.

Reading Battling to the End a while ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about two stories in the shadow of a potential apocalypse: Empire of the Sun and Watchmen. In both these stories further mayhem and violence is avoided – at least for the time being – by the restoration of a sacrificial system of fear. Empire of the Sun reminds us how the Second World War came to an end in Japan: by sacrificing tens of thousands of innocent people, victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Watchmen also displays this kind of sacrificial logic. In the fictional story of this graphic novel, the tensions between the US and the USSR during the Cold War are released after an alleged nuclear attack from outer space. Once again the death of millions of civilians provides a “peaceful world”, some sort of “paradise” – however precarious.

In Empire of the Sun, the way the Second World War unfolds in the Far East creates the setting for a boy’s coming of age story. Empire of the Sun actually is an autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, and tells the story of an aristocratic British boy, James (“Jim”) Graham. In 1987, Steven Spielberg made a film based on Ballard’s novel, with a young and astonishing Christian Bale taking the lead role. In the film, Jim’s privileged life is upturned by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, December 8, 1941. Separated from his parents, he is eventually captured, and taken to Soo Chow confinement camp, next to a former Chinese airfield. Amidst the sickness and food shortages in the camp, Jim manages to survive and becomes a token of spirit and dignity to those around him, all the while hoping to get back “home” again. Jim eventually finds comfort in the arms of his mother, after losing his Japanese kamikaze-friend among many others… The scene of Jim reunited with his mother sheds a little light of hope in a world which seems condemned to the sacrificial peace of the atomic bomb – and a seemingly never ending story of fear and worries, with no peace of mind…

I made a compilation using scenes from both Empire of the Sun and Zack Snyder’s 2009 movie adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen. The two stories raise powerful questions regarding humanity’s possibility to cope with freedom and responsibility. I think they’re opening up a lot of issues that are also discussed at the COV&R Conference in Tokyo, Japan (July 5-8, 2012). As Jim learns towards the end of the film: there are no clear-cut, magical solutions to overcome the devastations of a world at war… But to follow Christ’s footsteps, one step at a time, might take us to unexpected and new dimensions. Watch out!


(this essay already appeared at The Raven Foundation and the Dutch Girard Society)



Christ comes to the world as the example, constantly enjoining: Imitate me. We humans prefer to adore him instead. – Quote by Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).

To adore Christ means, in the sense that Kierkegaard uses the verb, to idolize him. When you idolize someone else, it often means that you secretly want to become this other person, that you want to take his ‘royal’ place, sometimes even by ‘murdering’ him. In other words, to idolize someone means that you’re not satisfied with yourself, that you’re not accepting yourself, that you don’t experience love for who you are. This explains why we tend to look for what others designate as desirable, and why we want to obtain a desirable position ourselves – i.e. why we want to become ‘perfect’ and ‘divine’ idols ourselves. For obtaining a desirable position seems to fulfill our need to feel loved. However, in the process of surrendering to an imitation of the desires of others we simply lose ourselves. Guided by what René Girard calls ‘mimetic’ (i.e. ‘imitative’) desire, we often want things for ourselves which alienate us from our ‘true’ nature and from our own, unique vocation. So, near the end of this process we’re not loved for who we are but because of the ‘status’ we seem to have gained. Jesus magnificently points out this tragic paradox: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it… What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:24a-25).

Sometimes the devil wants you to think that until you’re perfect don’t go talking to God. – Quote by C.C. DeVille.

As you can see in the film below, C.C. DeVille – what’s in an artist’s name? –, guitarist of ‘hair metal, glam rock’ band Poison, clearly understands how his early life relied heavily on the principles I just described. He admits giving in to an unhealthy sense of pride, to a desire for ‘status’. He quite literally says he wanted others to be envious of him. Indeed, envy is the negative side of mimetic desire, the flipside of admiration, and for a person who desires to be desirable it is a big achievement to feel envied. Yet C.C. DeVille felt his life was not fulfilled. He was not happy until he experienced, in his own words, ‘God’s grace’. He discovered the ‘unconditional love’ by which he was finally able to accept himself. The paradox is that, by obeying God’s call through Christ, he became free. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it but whoever loses their life for me will save it,” Christ claims (in the completed Luke 9:24). That’s exactly what C.C. DeVille discovered, for truly imitating Christ means to accept yourself and others, not to be ashamed of oneself, and to be enabled to grow towards one’s ‘real’ and ‘honest’ vocation. It’s only when we’re accepting ourselves that we are able to approach others, not as means to fulfill our need to feel loved, but as the true ‘goals’ of our lives in the realm of Love, in the realm of a giving Grace that wants to be ‘imitated’ – and to imitate giving means to become ‘givers’ ourselves. That’s why St. Francis (1181-1226) prays: O Lord, grant that I may not so much seek to be loved, as to love…”

Being free means ‘being free for the other,’ because the other has bound me to him. Only in relationship with the other am I free. – Quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

We are relational beings. We don’t develop relationships ‘out of the blue’, from a primal ‘individual freedom’. On the contrary, it’s the quality of our relationships which decides whether we become free or not – are we led by fear, envy and pride or by trust, grace and truthful honesty?

This post might seem a little weird. I realize that. Few of my friends in the world of music understand why I like ‘hair metal’ so much. This particular brand of rock music has never been a favorite among established pop criticism. I discovered it as a kid, and I was attracted first by the colorful extravaganza of the bands, the big choruses of the songs and the sheer joy displayed in live shows. ‘Hair metal’ felt like summer to me. Later on I discovered that behind this joyful image there often lurked an empty world of drug abuse, superficial relationships without real intimacy and just plain decadence. Yet, at the same time, some of the songs had a melancholic feel which betrayed a longing for more sustainable experiences in life.

Guitarist C.C. DeVille articulates this longing of ‘the soul’ in the following interview. I combined it with quotes by famous thinkers, mostly Christian. One of my pupils, who commences studies in philosophy next year, convinced me to try working with quotes. So, here you have it. I hope I’m able to show in this way that C.C. DeVille really understands what Christianity is all about. Because, let’s face it, especially in the academic world we all too often look down on the so-called ‘superficial’ world of popular culture. Well, at the margins of that world, at what seems to be the pinnacle of superficiality, we have a band like Poison. I dare you, dear reader, to look beyond everything you think to know about bands like these, and to move beyond certain ‘mimetic’ processes which convinced you to dismiss the members of ‘glam metal’ bands. True, Poison might not have written the best songs ever, but I do believe their music is honest – ‘what you hear is what you get’. And if you’re still looking for unexpected complexity and sophistication in this music genre, try a band like Winger – great musicianship combined with the compositional talents of lead singer Kip Winger (as is evidenced by his solo efforts).

Now, watch the interview with C.C. – what you see is what you get –, and click here


Klik hier voor een Nederlandstalige weergave van de gebruikte



Three years ago, in 2008, I lost a very dear friend who was also my mentor: Rev. Michaël Ghijs, a priest and conductor of Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino, the choir I have been a member of for nearly 20 years. I remember going through all kinds of different emotions while preparing and rehearsing songs for the funeral. One state of mind prevailed, however, one of great gratitude.

This was enhanced by a particular experience which, in hindsight, contained the seeds of a new and unexpected discovery. The weeks after the funeral I became acquainted with the spiritual power of hip-hop, rap and r&b music – by spiritual I mean the power this music sometimes has to address the paradoxes and complexities of ‘reality’. You might ask how that came about. Well, the days before the funeral I was also involved in a creative project at the Jesuit high school where I’m teaching religion. Together with one of our music teachers and a disparate ‘bunch’ of younger pupils I don’t actually teach, I had prepared an acoustic arrangement of Heaven, a hit love song by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams. The night of the ‘concert’ (actually a ‘happening’ with all sorts of dramatic acts) I went from rehearsing for the funeral to the stage at our school and back. I didn’t even bother my bike got stolen during the process.

Everything I experienced during those days was of an immense intensity. My senses were sharpened. That particular night was a high point in that respect. We performed the song Heaven at our beautiful little Baroque church. Laura accompanied on the piano, introducing first singer Sandra – a ‘black beauty’ who sounds like pop diva Alicia Keys. At the same time I kind of improvised a second voice – falsetto during the verses and then a ‘bass line’ each time the chorus kicked in. Tim took over for the second verse, while Soufiane led the ‘backing vocals’ together with Mieke, my colleague. The so-called ‘bridge’ was sung by Angela and Charlotte, two Philippine girls testifying that they indeed belonged to a ‘singing nation’.

It was a wonderful moment, and one of great comfort to me. I’ll always be very grateful for what that ‘bunch’ of young people gave me that evening. The way Rev. Michaël Ghijs always tried to make young people discover their own gifts and talents was present right there. In allowing me and the audience to hear their voices, the eleven, twelve and thirteen year olds brought a message of hope to this world. It was a moment of sheer beauty. They sang, not to ‘gain’ anything, not because it was ‘useful’ in any way, but because they received the opportunity to ‘be’, to ‘shine’ and to ‘enjoy’. In the weeks that followed I more and more discovered how Rev. Michaël Ghijs had been a model for me, and how much I imitated him in dealing with youngsters. Both some of my qualities and flaws can be attributed to him, and I’m willing to accept these flaws because I know they come from someone I love. So it’s definitely true I learned a lot from my mentor, but I also learned, and keep on learning, a lot from my pupils – and maybe this willingness to learn from youngsters can also be traced back to how Rev. Michaël Ghijs related to his choristers.

Working together with Laura and Sandra, for example, opened me up to the fascinating world of hip-hop and r&b. They both performed a song by Alicia Keys. Surprisingly perhaps, I discovered traces of Christian mysticism in this music.


So, in this post, I’ll try to point out some ‘mystical elements’ in the world of hip-hop and r&b. I’m guided by two articles on hip-hop and a course by Thomas Merton (1915-1968) on Christian mysticism:

– Alison Burke, A Deeper Rap – Examining the Relationship between Hip-Hop, Rap and Adolescent Spirituality (New Zealand Journal of Counselling 2008; Volume 28/2; p.25-40).

– Christina Zanfagna, Under the Blasphemous W(RAP): Locating the “Spirit” in Hip-Hop (Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology, Vol.12 – Fall 2006).

– Thomas Merton, An Introduction to Christian Mysticism – Initiation into the Monastic Tradition 3, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 2008 (Monastic Wisdom Series: Number Thirteen; edited with an introduction by Patrick F. O’Connell; preface by Lawrence S. Cunningham).



Thomas Merton starts off with a definition of The Oxford Dictionary to describe the mystic person. – Merton, p.29: What is a “mystic”? {The} Oxford Dictionary says: “An exponent of mystical theology; also, one who maintains the importance of this – one who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain union with or absorption in the deity, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths inaccessible to the understanding.”

It is important to stress how this self-surrender should be understood. It does not imply masochism or the glorification of suffering (‘dolorism’) in any way. Merton refers to the martyrdom of Polycarp to make clear martyrdom is not something we should ‘seek deliberately’. As far as contemporary Christian thinkers are concerned, next to Thomas Merton also René Girard is right for having pointed out possible misunderstandings of Christian sacrifice and martyrdom.  – Merton, p.45: Martyrdom is a gift of God – it must not be sought deliberately by our own will (see Martyrdom of Polycarp, c.4; Fathers of {the} Church, Apostolic Fathers, p.153 – [Footnote here: This chapter mentions one who “had forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily” and then apostasized; it concludes, “For this reason, therefore, brethren, we do not approve those who give themselves up, because the Gospel does not teach us this.”]). But it should be accepted with humility and joy when God offers it as a great gift.

In the introduction to Merton’s course on Christian Mysticism, Patrick F. O’Connell elaborates on this issue and makes clear how Christian sacrifice and self-surrender should be understood as a change in the way people lead their lives (and not in a simple ‘replacement’ by one life through the destruction of another). – Merton, Introduction, p.xxiv-xxv: […] It is only through dying to the alienated, sinful self and rising to new life with and in the resurrected Christ that one shares in the divine life of Trinitarian love. Asceticism is initially identified, based on Mark 8:34, with taking up one’s cross (19) through self-denial and following Christ, and is linked to martyrdom as a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection that in Ignatius of Antioch becomes an early articulation of mystical union (43). But the paschal journey is not restricted to the literal surrender of life in physical martyrdom: this pattern must be reproduced in any authentic Christian spiritual life. As Merton summarizes, what the martyr undergoes physically every Christian must undergo spiritually.

The pattern of the ‘paschal journey’ as a ‘change of life’ is sacramentally sealed and established by baptism. – Merton, p.46: Martyrdom is a second baptism. It is the perfect fulfillment of our baptismal vocation. In baptism we die to the world and rise in Christ sacramentally. In martyrdom we do so in all truth. To baptize is to symbolically communicate that every human being has a vocation to live a life that is not guided by envy, jealousy and self-assertion (which are the building blocks of what the Gospel calls the life of ‘this world’).

In short, the mystical experience as an experience of union with God through Christ is a liberating experience, not in the sense that our ‘earthly’ and ‘bodily’ conditions are destroyed, but in the sense that these conditions are transformed by being directed at their ultimate goal. Because we are conditioned by the limits of a bodily, mortal life we didn’t choose for ourselves, we are able to experience ourselves and the whole of reality as a gift handed over to us (‘beyond our will’). So before we can ask how something or someone can be useful to us, we are confronted with the fact that everything and everyone simply ‘is’ – even if we don’t ‘need’ the things and neighbors we are confronted with. The ultimate goal therefore, from a mystical ‘point of view’, is precisely to creatively preserve everything handed over to us. In this sense mysticism has to do with a non-utilitarian attitude towards nature and respect for the ecosystem. It also implies valorizing others because of who they are, not because of their eventual ‘usefulness’.

Theologically speaking, this means discovering these others as ‘imitations’ or ‘images’ of Christ – Him being understood as One revealing our true nature as belonging to and shaped by others and, ultimately ‘the’ Other (likewise: ‘Christ belongs to his Father’ and is an ‘imitation’ of his ‘Father’). – Merton, p.128: The logos of a man is therefore something hidden in him, spiritual, simple, profound, unitive, loving, selfless, self-forgetting, oriented to love and to unity with God and other men in Christ. It is not an abstract essence, “rationality plus animality.” It is however the divine image in him. More deeply it is Christ in him, either actually or potentially. To love Christ in our brother we must be able to see Him in our brother, and this demands really the gift of theoria physike [p.127: Theoria is contemplation of the splendor of divine wisdom in Christ with nature [Elias] on one side and law [Moses] on the other, both looking to Him as to their fulfillment. In the full development of theoria they both disappear and we see Christ alone.] Christ in us must be liberated, by purification, so that the “image” in us, clothed anew with light of the divine likeness, is able connaturally to recognize the same likeness in another, the same tendency to love, to simplicity, to unity. Without love this is completely impossible.

In other words, to become imitators of Christ means to become loving human beings, and love seeks to be ‘materialized’, ‘incarnated’. It means to valorize our body and our material, natural world to its full potential. True Christian mysticism therefore is not manicheistic, it doesn’t separate the ‘soul’ from the ‘body’ or ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’ in a Cartesian, dualistic split.

Merton, p.128: […] the vision given by theoria physike shows us that all creatures are good and pure. This is the first thing, the complement of the active detachment in apatheia. Evagrius declares, following the desert tradition (especially St. Anthony) that “nothing created by God is evil”, and St. Maximus adds, “nothing created is impure.”

Merton, p.127: Von Balthasar says: “The meaning of each natural thing and the meaning of every law and commandment is to be an Incarnation of the divine Word; to realize fully its proper nature or its proper law is to cooperate fully in the total realization of the Word in the world”.



Pseudo-Denys the Areopagite (5th, 6th century AD) was the first to use the term Theologia Mystica (Merton, p.136). The adjective ‘mystical’ was first used by Clement (c.150-c.215) and Origen (185-254), and their understanding of the word already makes clear the close connection between mysticism and theology. – Merton, p.67-68:  The Greek classical term, mystikos, refers to the hidden rites of the mystery religions – not to a hidden experience, but to the mystery which is revealed only to the initiates and through which they pass. […] Christian use of the term mystic (mystikos): Clement and Origen take over the pagan term and use it in reference to the spiritual (mystical or typological) sense of Scripture. For them the mystical sense is the real sense. To discover the mystical sense is to penetrate to the real meaning of revelation and hence to penetrate into the hidden things of God, the mystery of Christ. This mystery, the mysterion of the Cross, is the central reality of all cosmic life: the salvation of the world, the recapitulation of all in Christ. Hence […] the “gnostic” is the man who has entered into the “mystical” understanding of Scripture. Originally, the mystical sense of Scripture is: (a) that which points to Christ; (b) that which deals with invisible realities of faith; (c) that which is spiritual and not carnal, i.e. not involved in {the} “letter” of the Law and of Scripture. It cannot be too often repeated that this “mystical sense” of Scripture is not a hidden idea about God or a mere complex of difficult or secret truths. It is a reality experienced and lived. One might say that for the Fathers the letter tended to be doctrine and law, the spirit tended to be reality and life. Their theology was therefore not simply constructed with the literal elements of revelation, or of God revealed in the mystery of Christ. Hence it is clear that already to enter into the mystical sense or real sense of Scripture, which is interior and spiritual, one must “die to” the letter, to the exterior and apparent meaning; one must “go beyond”, one must “stand outside” (ekstasis) the apparent meaning. This does not necessarily imply a strict opposition between the letter and the spirit, but simply a fulfillment of the letter in the spirit.

In other words, the ultimate goal of studying the Scripture is to be able to experience life ‘in Christ’. Merton seems very much in line with the earliest traditions of Christian mysticism when he warns against a separation of ‘mystical experience’ and ‘theological inquiry’:

Merton, p.65: [The treatment of divinization by the Fathers in the Anti-Arian controversy] makes very clear the close relationship between mysticism and theology. In a certain sense it shows them to be one and the same thing. By “mysticism” we can mean the personal experience of what is revealed to all and realized in all in the mystery of Christ. And by “theology” we mean the common revelation of the mystery which is to be lived by all. The two belong together. There is no theology without mysticism (for it would have no relation to the real life of God in us) and there is no mysticism without theology (because it would be at the mercy of individual and subjective fantasy).

Theological study forces us to reorient our focus towards ‘revelation’. It draws our attention to something we didn’t create ourselves. We didn’t write the Bible and we didn’t create the Christian tradition. Therefore theological study is a preparation, a spiritual exercise to guide our attention towards ‘the Other’ – and therefore also towards our neighbors, approached, not as ‘objects’ of our practical concerns (by which we are only interested in others insofar as they respond to the needs we create for ourselves) but as ‘irreducible beings’. The more you get to ‘know’ someone else in the sense that you lovingly experience his or her ‘being’, the more you might want to develop a language to express, share and communicate that experience. The ongoing theological articulation of Christianity not only tries to do this, but it also establishes the fact that the experience of the God of Christ, of Love itself, is ultimately not communicable. However, to realize the irreducible character of God we should – paradoxically – continue to develop our language! So-called ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’ experiences that are used to dismiss responsibility for the development of theological dialogue and that are used to disguise actual intellectual laziness should be questioned at any time. Patrick F. O’Connell explains Merton’s view on the connection between the experience of love (mystical union) and the desire to study and ‘know’ the Christian theological traditions:

Merton, Introduction, p.xxvi: Merton much preferred the idea maintained in his own Cistercian tradition, that love was itself a way of knowing (“Amor ipse notitia est” [84]) to any sharp dichotomizing of knowledge and love. Though he made no pretensions to being a systematic theologian himself, Merton makes clear in these lectures that he considers solid systematic theology neither a threat nor a distraction to contemplation, but its vitally necessary foundation.

So, no dualistic ‘Cartesian split’ between ‘body’ and ‘soul’, ‘earth’ and ‘heaven’, ‘theology’ and ‘mysticism’. This desire to transcend manicheistic tendencies once again becomes very clear in the way mystics make use of the language of the senses to convey a glimpse of their deeply felt spiritual experience. – Merton, p.82: […] the experience of God by the spiritual senses is in fact more direct and more immediate than the perception of a sensible object by the bodily senses. The mystic has to appeal to ordinary sense experience in order to attempt to express an experience which is ineffable because even more immediate than an experience by the exterior senses. We must understand when the mystic says he is “touched” by God it means that he experiences not only something analogous to a bodily touch but far more, in a spiritual order, which cannot be expressed directly.

Already in the Bible ‘spiritual bliss’ is expressed in ‘earthly’ realities. – Merton, p.83: […] It is quite true that when the Bible wishes to express the experience of God it is always in the language of the senses. But at the same time we must realize that there must be a distinction between genuinely spiritual experience which is eo ipso not sensible, and an interior spiritual experience in which the senses (of the body or at least the interior senses) have a part. [See Ps. 33 (34):9.]

Merton sees no dichotomization between the ‘bodily’ and ‘spiritual’ senses. – Merton, p.91: Mystical experience is spiritual, and it reaches the senses in a spiritual way through and in the spirit. The “spiritual senses” are thus the senses themselves, but spiritualized and under the sway of the spirit, rather than new spiritual faculties. Also interesting in this regard is Merton’s reference to Gregory Palamas (1296-1359): Merton, p.91-92: {See} Gregory Palamas, The Defense of the Holy Hesychasts (tr. In French by Meyendorff): “That which takes place in the body coming from the soul filled with spiritual joy, is a spiritual reality even though it is active in the body” (Meyendorff I:334-5). “The spiritual joy that comes from the spirit into the body is not at all corrupted by communion with the body, but transforms the body and makes it spiritual” (id.). Such spiritual activities do not carnalize the spirit but “deify the body” (id. 342-43).

On the other hand, Merton also warns against an ‘unordered’ use of the senses. – Merton, p.135-136: […] when sense attains to the material object, the spirit attains to the spiritual logos of that object and the sense pleasure is forgotten. There may indeed be a coincidence of contemplation in the spirit and suffering in sense. Let us be careful not to be misled by legitimate protests against “dolorism” into asserting that the senses have {a} right to more than is naturally due to them—that is to say, to emphasize sense satisfaction as a natural flowering of the spirit, when such satisfaction has to be disciplined and brought into subordination by suffering and sacrifice. Again this ‘sacrifice’ should not be understood in a masochistic way – as something which is desired because of painfulness itself. It should be understood as a state of wakefulness, really as a ‘freedom’ of the illusory concerns of this world (caused by self-assertion or envy – René Girard would call this ‘mimetic desire’) to really direct oneself towards ‘the Other’. – Merton, p.304: It is one of the characteristic doctrines of St. John of the Cross [1542-1591] that unless one is passively purified of all imperfections by the divine action, one cannot attain perfectly to union with Him; also, that our cooperation, which is absolutely necessary, consists more in disposing ourselves to accept God’s action, without placing obstacles in His way, rather than in any positive action of our own (on the higher levels—in the lower levels of the spiritual life the initiative belongs to us, and this must not be neglected; if one is not generous in sacrifice in the beginning, one cannot go on to the more difficult and mysterious work of cooperating with the mystical purifications sent by God).


Thomas Merton and, this time to a lesser extent, René Girard guided me to get a basic understanding of the way the mystical traditions of Catholic Christianity look at human beings and (their place in) the world. In this final, third ‘chapter’ I’d like to raise the question if and to what extent modern-day hip-hoppers and r&b artists are continuers of this tradition. Of course most of them never received a proper theological training, but they nevertheless experienced moments in their life they clearly refer to in biblical and Christian terms, indeed experiences we could call ‘mystical’. They also seem able, although not always but many times, to convey their experiences of ‘unity with God’ – in other words, of moments in their life almost completely in line with the demands of agape, of Love – in accordance with a ‘Catholic’ theological framework as described by Thomas Merton. Maybe this is more true for hip-hop than for r&b, although there is a very close connection between these two predominantly African American music genres with respect to their origin. – Burke, p.27: The origins of hip-hop can be traced to black “rhythm and blues” music; to the early days of black slavery in America and its gospel songs; to reggae and Rastafarian culture, and to West Africa where, centuries ago, ancient traditions and folklore were passed down through generations by a select group of revered members of communities who were known as griots. These storytellers orally recited both tribal history and real-time events, to the rhythmic accompaniment of the beat of drums. Today’s rap and hip-hop artists, having resurrected these verbal skills, are considered by many to be modern-day prophets, “the new griots… the wellsprings of true knowledge… tell[ing] the real story of the ghetto” (Imani & Vera, 1996, p.170).


First of all, hip-hop is an important cultural phenomenon for many adolescents in this world, especially for those who have a difficult time growing up (like most of us?). Like other popular music genres, the world of hip-hop contains a host of ‘heroes’ and ‘idols’ functioning as ‘role models’. René Girard is right to have stressed the importance and tremendous impact of mimetic processes (i.e. processes of imitation) in human life. The impact of certain hip-hoppers, presenting themselves as ‘models for imitation’, should not be underestimated:

Burke, p.28: In their journey of self-discovery, adolescents push boundaries, test new ground, experiment with different personae, and find a sense of security by identifying with a larger group. While originally created as music by and for the black community, today’s hip-hop is a genre that appeals across all cultures and ethnicities internationally. In the words of Dimitriadis (2001), hip-hop, “[i]f nothing else… speaks to the urgency with which youth from all across the economic, ethnic, and racial spectrum are trying to define and redefine themselves in the face of massive and ever-present uncertainties about identity” (p.xii). In this postmodern age, more than ever before, young people are experiencing and struggling with the impact of such issues as poverty, high unemployment, broken families, lack of parental support, and uncertain futures. See also p.29: It is well recognized that adolescents adopt the mannerisms of their heroes through the process of modeling. With respect to hip-hop, this is visible in adolescents’ adoption of the same dress code, values, language, and symbols as the artists use: they walk the walk and talk the talk.

Empathizing and identifying with someone else is but a first step in a spiritual enterprise. When hip-hop artists are experienced as mere idols by their fans there’s a good chance both artists and fans alike will fall victim to self-referential mechanisms of masochism and sadism. Then any type of ‘otherness’ disappears. Identification indeed can degenerate into an unhealthy desire to take the place of someone else by attempts to take over his or her very ‘being’. Some fans sacrifice their own identity to become another person – to become a flat imitation, a copy of their divinized idol. True spirituality, on the other hand, has to do with the desire to ‘love’ and ‘know’ the other. We can only know others if we don’t ‘destroy’ them by completely ‘absorbing’ their personality. Imitation in a Christian sense therefore has nothing to do with becoming mere copies of Christ and his life (for example, Christ doesn’t want us to literally get crucified), but with taking the life of Christ as an inspiration for our own life, in our own historically defined time and place. Eventually, that’s also how the more talented hip-hop and r&b artists experience their art. Imitating the artists they look up to themselves means to be as creative as these predecessors. It also means recognizing that ‘no man is an island’. Watch for example the induction of legendary pop artist Prince into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Alicia Keys, and how grateful she is for his legacy


In any case contemporary artists, in turn, ‘give’ themselves to be an inspiration for other people, especially younger people so they can find their own ‘place’ and ‘vocation’ in life.

Burke, p.33-34: Rap lyrics narrate the life experiences of the artists, and it is through stories that individuals come to understand themselves, their place in society and their relationship to others. In a study of adolescents’ constructions of self, history, and identity, Dimitriadis (2001) found that the most influential narratives are provided by popular culture. Most of hip-hop’s raps are centered on a small number of what Dimitriadis (2001) refers to as powerful psychologised figures whose stories – their characters, plots, messages, and powerful symbols – are extremely important in respect to adolescent identity. One such example is the life story of Tupac Shakur, an American hip-hop artist who was killed when in his early twenties. When alive, Tupac drew on myths for his lyrics, and myths have since been created around his life and death.

Much of what Tupac spoke of in his raps centered on a violent and criminal lifestyle. He portrayed himself as invulnerable, living a life of crime whereby all problems were settled with violence, promoting himself as being invincible to any form of retribution. He would verbally attack other rappers, show defiance toward any form of law and authority, but at the same time expressed respect and tenderness towards women, in particular his mother. Since his death he has been “resurrected” and become something of an icon to young people, for through his songs he was an inspiration to many who identified with his stories in their everyday lives. Despite his death, it has been suggested that Tupac has come to represent the modern-day archetype of invulnerability, and indeed, because some believe he knew of it in advance, the events surrounding his death have been likened to the crucifixion, and Tupac as a willing participant in his own sacrifice (Dimitriadis, 2001).

In the telling of these specific narratives, hip-hop artists express themselves creatively through a unique form of language that Shute (2005) believes is an artform in itself, one that has strong links to poetry. He draws attention to the artists’ concentration on delivering lyrics against a minimal musical backing, although the rhythmic qualities are built around the rhyme structure of the lines. Each song track has a beat, a base line, and a single melody line, with the lyrics remaining of fundamental importance at its core. In this way, hip-hop links to the history of poetry which exists somewhere between the spoken and singing voice. Shute (2005) points to poetic techniques that hip-hop artists have adopted, such as the use of alliteration, assonance, metaphors, and similes. In addition, words are deliberately misspelled so as to emphasize the language’s individuality, and to suggest new meanings.

Yet beyond this take on hip-hop storytelling as a means for mere self-assertion, Alison Burke once again points to the spiritual underpinning of this particular art-form. The ultimate goal of hip-hop is to create a sphere for connections between human beings:

Burke, p.36-37: Hip-hop is more than just music. It is a culture, a way of life that provides not only a unique form of language and dress code but also a value system that raises self-esteem and instills pride in indigenous ethnicity as its rappers call their listeners to unite as a people, take pride in their race, and learn their language. In describing how individuals’ spirituality and soulfulness work together to form the foundations of human life, Moore (1992) has said that the “goal of the soul path [is] to feel existence… to know life first hand, to exist fully in context. [That] spiritual practice is sometimes described as walking in the footsteps of another… [and accordingly] [t]he soul becomes greater and deeper through the living out of the messes and the gaps” (p.260). Hip-hop and rap fulfill this spiritual practice and goal of the soul path as their artists speak of the realities of life in the raw as they are experienced. The artists tell the truth; they “tell it like it is.” They form a creative and powerful voice that calls to the masses globally, and to individual souls at a deep experiential and emotional level, and in so doing they speak into the soulfulness of adolescent spirituality.


From what Alison Burke wrote on 2Pac and on hip-hop storytelling in general so far, it would be tempting to conclude the world of hip-hop shows nothing but a misunderstanding regarding the person of Christ and his life. Instead of writing a story about an invulnerable, invincible hero, the Gospels display Christ as being prepared to take a vulnerable position. Instead of describing a person who was prepared to sacrifice himself in order to gain a ‘higher’ status for himself, the Gospels display Christ as someone who is prepared to suffer only because he doesn’t want others to sacrifice their lives for him. Jesus believed God, whom he calls his Father, demanded ‘compassion, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13). That’s why he always took sides with those who didn’t receive compassion, with those who were on the brink of being sacrificed. Hence he always ran the risk of being sacrificed himself. Indeed if, for example, he took sides with an adulterous woman against a crowd that wanted to stone her (John 8:1-11), he could have been stoned himself, but of course he hoped the crowd would turn to compassion. Christ certainly was not on a ‘suicide mission’. The Gospels tell he fled his attackers several times, until finally, there was no escaping them anymore. He didn’t want others to fight for him, because that would maybe imply their death. So Christ died ‘so that others could live’. His love for others was stronger than his fear of his own suffering and death. Finally, the stories of Christ’s resurrection show his followers could also believe the God of Jesus (the Compassion and Love – ‘Agape’ – he lived by) doesn’t want sacrifice (the resurrection can be described as ‘the Father’s refusal of the death of the Son’).

Rapper DMX clearly understands the nature of Christ’s sacrifice when he prays (in one of his famous Prayers): ‘If it takes for me to suffer, for my brother to see the light, give me pain till I die, but Lord treat him right.’ Listen to an excerpt from this prayer


Many other hip-hop artists seem to experience this kind of sacrifice, this martyrdom, as a true locus for meeting with God (in other words, for ‘union with Love’). Indeed, ‘to die for your brother to live’ is to transform your life to a creative Love which ultimate goal it is to let others come alive and to give them the opportunity to ‘live fully’. That’s why a lot of rappers embrace the potential martyrdom as a result of their life ‘on the streets’ as a ‘baptism’, as a transformation of their life by God. The terminology rappers use to express their ‘mystical’ experiences shows a remarkable resemblance with the earliest traditions of Christian mysticism. Many a rapper seems to lead a ‘liminal’ life, a life ‘on the edge’, ‘on the crossroads’, discovering the unexpected, creative power of Love and finding light in the darkest of places. Christina Zanfagna sums up the contradictions of life on the streets and the spiritual power gained from these in her very interesting essay:

Performers and listeners of hip-hop claim to undergo ecstatic experiences – proof that spirituality resides in so-called profane expressions as well. Without the luxury of having religion and spirit exist outside of daily life, Michael Eric Dyson appropriately labels hip-hop’s unique brand of spirit-seeking “ghetto spirituality, street religion, urban piety” and “thug theology” (2003:280). The inherent contradiction in these terms reflects the explosive hybridity and “trickster” nature of hip-hop culture, often embodied in African American folklore and literature as the divine trickster, Esu Elegba. Hip-hop’s spirituality – its mystical allusions, contradictory images, and profaned exterior – can be “tricky” and elusive to the average outsider not borne of or “baptized” in the streets. Prodigy of rap duo Mobb Deep talks about the comforting presence of God in what seems to be an “evil” situation on the track “Shook Ones Part Two”:

            If I die I couldn’t choose a better location

            When the slugs penetrate you feel a burning sensation

            Getting closer to God in a tight situation

Similarly, Brooklyn MC, the Notorious B.I.G., who has had an inconsistent relationship to organized religion, hints at the spiritual purification that comes with the blow of his 9mm, in the song, “Long Kiss Goodnight”:

            My nine flies, baptize, rap guys

            With the Holy Ghost, I put holes in most

Both of these excerpts resonate with Cheryl Keyes’s interpretation of the “crossroads” – one of rap music’s most potent Africanisms – which she describes as “recalling the imaginary location where life ends and death begins” or “the place where all spiritual forces or creations are activated” (2002:219, 1996:235). But these spiritual forces are often secreted in the thorny arenas of sexuality, suffering and materialism. Furthermore, the difficulty of revealing the sacred underbelly of rap music is due to its allusive character. Conjuring up the African nexus again, Keyes explains that rap’s poetic speech is a continuation of the linguistic practices developed by enslaved Africans in the New World, who “devised ways by which to encode messages about their condition” (1996:22).

Alison Burke comes to similar conclusions as Zanfagna when she refers to hip-hop as a ‘spiritual practice’:

Burke, p.35-36: Describing hip-hop as a spiritual practice, Taylor (2003) refers to it as being liminal, liberatory, and integrative. The nature of hip-hop discourse is such that it creates, within its audience, agency of protest, action, social comment, and therefore of liberation. Taylor (2003) views the hip-hop artists’ narratives – in relating their criticisms of society and the challenges and indictments they make against hypocrisy and inequality – as being “a struggle for liberatory experience amid entrapment” (p.119). He suggests such actions form spiritual practices that are also liminal, as the discourse is placed “on a threshold… between entrapment and liberation” (p.122). Perkinson (2003) likens the impact of hip-hop and rap to that of shamanism, as he views adolescents as living on a threshold between the death of childhood and the life of adulthood which they are not entitled to join until their late twenties. In this respect, because much of hip-hop focuses on death and “echo[es] with transcendent and tragic power” (p.143), it is liminal, sitting on the threshold between one world and the next.

In an interview with digital magazine Vibe 2Pac describes the experience of liberation exactly in these terms. He refuses a dualistic view, meaning that he doesn’t consider liberation as a destruction of one ‘bad’ world (‘earth’) in favor of another and second ‘good’ world (‘heaven’). Though it would be tempting to flee the problems of this world in an imaginary ‘paradise’, especially in the case of 2Pac and other rappers who are sometimes confronted with extremely violent situations, 2Pac doesn’t agree with this dynamic. He clearly understands words as ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ in a ‘spiritual’ sense, thereby avoiding his faith would become an easy ‘opiate for the masses’ – he even warns against (organized) religion because in his view it often operates in this way. Here are some words from 2Pac from the interview with Vibe:

‘[…] I believe God blesses us, I believe God blesses those that hustle. Those that use their minds and those that overall are righteous. I believe that everything you do bad comes back to you. So everything that I do that’s bad, I’m going to suffer for it. But in my heart, I believe what I’m doing in my heart is right. So I feel like I’m going to heaven. I think heaven is just when you sleep, you sleep with a good conscience – you don’t have nightmares. Hell is when you sleep, the last thing you see is all the fucked up things you did in your life and you just see it over and over again… Because you don’t burn. […] There’s people that got burned in fires, does that mean they went to hell already? All that [heaven and hell] is here. What do you got there that we ain’t seen here? What, we’re gonna walk around aimlessly like zombies? That’s here! You ain’t been on the streets lately? Heaven [is here] now, look [referring to his plush apartment]. We’re sitting up here in the living room – big screen TV – this is heaven, for the moment. Hell is jail. I’ve seen that one. Trust me, this is what’s real. And all that other shit is to control you.’

2Pac understands the material world in the same way the earliest mystics of Christianity understood it: as a ‘given’ – something we didn’t create ourselves –, as a ‘creation’ handed over to us. The right attitude towards this material world therefore is to consider and treat it as exactly that: as something we ‘received’, something which does not belong to ourselves and which we should respect out of respect for the One who gave it to us. So, from this ‘mystical’ point of view, we should never try to get rid of our ‘bodily’ and ‘material’ conditions, but we should continuously allow our attitude towards ‘the natural world’ to be transformed. This means, essentially (and as 2Pac testifies it), to realize that ‘we don’t belong to ourselves’ but ‘to others’. It means our ‘blessings’ are not our own merit, but the result of opportunities given to us by these others and by the One who ‘created all’. 2Pac is very much in line with the Scriptures when he considers ‘salvation’ as a transformation of this world we live in (and not as a destruction of this world). In line with Judaism, he understands God’s blessings in very ‘materialistic’ terms. Again, some of his words from the interview with Vibe:

‘I’m not saying I’m Jesus but I’m saying we go through that type of thing [the confrontation with violent and dangerous situations] everyday. We don’t part the Red Sea but we walk through the hood without getting shot. We don’t turn water to wine but we turn dope fiends and dope heads into productive citizens of society. We turn words into money. What greater gift can there be? So I believe God blesses us, I believe God blesses those that hustle.’

Watch 2Pac saying the words you just read


Maybe 2Pac depicts the transformational power of God’s creativity best in his beautiful short poem The Rose that grew from Concrete:

Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?

Proving nature’s law is wrong it learned to walk without having feet.

Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else even cared.

Listen to the poem



Soul artist and r&b singer songwriter Alicia Keys begins her album The Element of Freedom with a reference to a quote by Anaïs Nin (1903-1979): ‘And the day came when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to bloom. This is the element of freedom.’ This metaphor of a flower opening up is closely related to the poem of that other black artist discussed in the previous paragraph, rapper 2Pac. Alicia Keys links freedom to ‘taking risks’. Her ancestors, the Afro-American slaves, would have understood this very well. They always expressed their longing to become free by singing Psalms and by referring to the Old Testament book of Exodus. Reggae legend Bob Marley (1945-1981) even had a hit song by the same name, wherein he compares the black struggle for freedom to the journey of Israel out of Egyptian slavery. The black struggle for freedom of course entailed many risks. Sometimes it seems indeed safer to remain imprisoned than to strife for liberty. In the story of Exodus the Israelites long for their time as captives of Egypt several times, because their flight through the desert is a time of great incertitude. However, as the late and great Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) has shown in really imitating Christ, sometimes the fear of being ‘unsafe’ is overwhelmed by the desire to save the oppressed. King was convinced the biblical God wants the oppressed to become free. To consider yourself as an ‘image’ of that God means then that you desire to become a liberator of the oppressed yourself. This means peaceful opposition against systems of oppression, because in experiencing yourself as a liberator of the oppressed you indeed refuse to become an oppressor overall, including not wanting to become an oppressor of your ‘enemies’. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly became an embodiment of peaceful resistance against the forces which eventually demanded his sacrifice.

2Pac already referred to dualistic systems which try to install different kinds of oppressions: oppression of the ‘body’ by the ‘mind’, of a ‘natural’ world by a ‘supernatural’ one, of so-called ‘decadent black’ communities by a so-called ‘righteous’ and ‘white’ ‘civilization’. By looking more closely to the world of black music today, I discovered that black hip-hop and r&b artists are heir to the protest songs of their ancestors. I discovered that their songs sometimes convey deeply spiritual, even mystical experiences. This little investigation also convinced me that, maybe now more than ever, we need artists ‘outside the box’ to inspire us to enjoy ourselves, each other and the world as a whole ‘without ulterior motives’. So that we give ‘what we didn’t create ourselves’ the liberty ‘to bloom’. I sincerely hope every one of you might meet a person in his life like I met in Rev. Michaël Ghijs, our late choir master.

The final words of my longest post so far (and perhaps forever) are from Zanfagna and Thomas Merton – just to make you think a little ;-). Zanfagna’s depiction of hip-hop’s erotic language and symbolism resembles the mystic’s use of ‘the language of the senses’ to express the mystical experience.

Zanfagna: Is it possible that the seemingly blasphemous pairing of sexual and religious symbols in rap videos, where men don diamond encrusted crosses in Jacuzzis full of eager and thonged women, clinking flutes of champagne, actually speaks to a deep spiritual awareness? As theologian Tom Beaudoin has argued, “offensive images or practices may indicate a familiarity with deep religious truths” (1998:123). One must understand the authority of “official” sacraments to forcefully de-valorize them. Likewise, it takes a true believer in the power of worship to turn curses into praise, the word “nigga” into a nomination of the highest respect. Pieties may be permanent qualities in human life, but the shape they take changes through the years. My point here is not to defend the use of degrading terms, but to acknowledge that such rhetorical devices are making a serious philosophical attempt at grasping a practice of inequality that is very real. Marcyliena Morgan’s application of “semantic inversion” in hip-hop language ideology (2001) and Lucius Outlaw’s concept of “symbolic reversal” – a reversing of symbolic meanings – exemplify the move by hip-hoppers to perform such inversions (1974:403). Just as the blues attempted to dissolve the puritan ethos instilled by white slave masters, hip-hop delivers ironic protest as it turns traditional Christian imagery on its head. Such protest involves a process of reflection and projection that transforms symbols of oppression into symbols of critique and empowerment.

Listen to some excerpts of contemporary ‘black’ music and catch a glimpse of its spirituality


Zanfagna: To understand the spiritual tradition within black music, one must be familiar with the African American approach to tapping spiritual energies through media, images and vernaculars that European-American culture tends to regard automatically as profane (Royster 1991:60). Returning to the hot tub scene, it is possible to interpret this context as metaphor of a person in the waters of a spiritual struggle, simultaneously wrestling with and delighting in bodily pleasures and religious beliefs, ultimately resisting the destructive legacy of the Cartesian split. By pushing the limits of excess and hedonism, hip-hoppers hint at the other dimension of their being: their stripped down and naked souls. This scene may also speak to the ubiquitous presence of the sacred in popular culture and places regarded as unholy. For many hip-hoppers, their faith in a higher power is not divorced from their sexuality or the material wealth; they are all “in bed” with each other – in the all-inclusive gumbo of life. Rap music also serves as a public outlet for confession and admission. Outkast raps, “We missed a lot of church so the music is our confessional” (1998). They treat music as the sacred wooden stall where one confesses their weaknesses and wrongs, and also where one professes their faith, loyalties and love. And what makes the sin a “sin”, the wrong a “wrong”? Outkast continues:

            Sin all depends on what you believing in

            Faith is what you make it, that’s the hardest shit since MC Ren

In other words, morality is fluid, contextual, and self-prescribed. Hip-hop artists apply a sense of playfulness to serious subject matter to reach their own spiritual Truth.

Well, reading on how black artists also profess their faith with their art, I couldn’t resist to add some words by Alicia Keys once more. This time she’s talking about her faith and God


Merton, p.132: Maximus sums it up: “The whole world is a game of God. As one amuses children with flowers and bright colored clothes and then gets them later used to more serious games, literary studies, so God raises us up first of all by the great game of nature, then by the Scriptures [with their poetic symbols]. Beyond the symbols of Scripture is the Word…” […] By the logoi of things the Divine Creator draws men who are attuned to logoi, the logical men, logikoi, to communion with the Logos. When a man has been purified and humbled, when his eye is single, and he is his own real self, then the logoi of things jump out at him spontaneously. He is then a logikos. […] here we can see the importance of theoria physike for sacred art. The sacred artist of all people should be a logikos. Hence it is not true that he does not need to be purified. He must in some sense be one who has attained to the summit of apatheia—not of course in the conventional way in which the average pious Catholic might conceive it. He does not necessarily have to be fully respectable in a conventional sense. A kind of unconventionality may be in him a form of humility and folly for Christ, and part of his apatheia. We must not forbid the artist a necessary element of paradox in his life. Conformism will perhaps blind him and enslave his talent.

Merton, p.62: In the De Incarnatione, Athanasius tells us to consider the works of Christ and recognize that they are divine, to realize that by His death (Athanasius by no means ignores the redemptive death of Christ) He has given us immortality, and that He has become the choregos in the great work of divine providence. (Note {the} implicit comparison of the economy of redemption to a dance.)