Some stories are more true than others. This statement runs the risk of being loaded so much with criticisms by postmodern epistemologies that it might ultimately be abandoned, destined to become a lone voice crying in the wilderness of supposedly interchangeable cultural narratives. And yet the idea that there are different degrees of truth in storytelling is one of the major claims made by René Girard’s so-called mimetic theory. His work basically explores two sides of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture.

First, human beings make up stories for a number of reasons. On a formal level, however, this make-up seems to maintain some general characteristics, regardless of the specific contexts in which it appears. As a mimesis of reality storytelling always relates to actual events with different degrees of interconnectedness. Stories can represent actual events, can represent a fictional situation that shows what potentially happens in the actual world, or can represent a fictional situation whose fictitious character is realized precisely because it exceeds the limits of what could happen in the actual world. Each representation reveals its own character in a comparison with the actual world. From this comparison we may conclude in what sense a certain representation is true. In any case, every narrative representation always also includes, as a mimesis of reality, a distance from reality. No story is reality itself (outside the story). One of the questions that could be addressed is how and to what extent this distance can be considered positive or negative.

C.S. Lewis on Myth

It should be stressed that the acute awareness of a distance, or even a divide, between different representations of reality and reality itself is not as old as humanity itself. It probably coincides with the birth of Western philosophy in ancient Greece. From that time onwards, the cultural experience of reality becomes an issue. Whereas in archaic cultures man seems to mainly consider himself as a receiver or transmitter of truthful stories forged by sacred powers (great ancestors, spirits or gods), in Western culture man begins to discover himself as the author of stories (and gradually as a historical being). This also means that he becomes more aware of his potential to deceive others. Hence traditional stories, as they are told by man, should not necessarily be considered true anymore. Those stories become unreliable myths, while the search for truth becomes the quest for a language that uncovers reality from behind particular cultural deceptions.

The shift from a mythological to a philosophical worldview thus is twofold:

  • In mythological cultures stories represent the subject of meaningful speech, while man is the object that is spoken to. In other words, man is shaped by the stories of his culture. In post-mythological cultures man gradually becomes the subject of meaning, while stories become objects of inquiry. In other words, man shapes the stories of his culture.
  • In mythological cultures truth is only accessible to man insofar as sacred powers don’t trick him and grant him knowledge and truth. In post-mythological cultures man himself becomes capable of and responsible for gaining knowledge and truth.

The pinnacle of the belief that there is a culturally independent, universal language for accessing an objective truth is reached in the Age of Enlightenment. Of course, as is known, that universal language is provided by a so-called transcendent reason and the modern scientific method. Today, however, there is a well-established tradition in the humanities where the enlightened reason is believed to have overstepped itself. Enlightened reason not only claimed objectivity regarding the explanation of the natural world, but also regarding the justification and evaluation of cultural values, which became highly problematic on the political level. For indeed, by reducing reality to a so-called objective and inevitable truth, modern political ideologies like fascism and communism became violent totalitarianisms. One could say that, in these contexts, reason became violently unreasonable in ‘forgetting’ that it doesn’t escape being embedded in a cultural narrative as well (a ‘made up’ story).

The unprecedented scale of the violence of modern political ideologies in a paradoxical way reveals the second side of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture. Cultural narratives serve as an attempt to escape social disintegration by distinguishing so-called justified sacrificial violence from so-called unjustified escalating violence. This is essentially René Girard’s definition of myth.

René Girard on Myth

In other words, cultural narratives contain violence. They keep violence in check… by violent means. From the perspective of Girard’s mimetic theory, modern totalitarianisms therefore can be interpreted as failed myths. They were stories that could not ‘make up’ human beings, meaning that they produced more violence than that they provided human beings with protections against violence. Exactly why this kind of mythmaking increasingly fails in the course of history is yet another issue that could be explored.

In short, man and his culture are not only the cause of potential mimetic representations of reality, they are also the result of mimetic dynamics represented in mythic storytelling. As René Girard shows, mythic representations exteriorize the potentially violent nature of those mimetic dynamics (violence in this context is understood as a possible outcome of mimetic desire). This exteriorization at the same time is a kind of exorcism of uncontrollable violence. Through myths man claims to ‘know’ which habits, desires and creatures are taboo or should be ritually sacrificed in order to prevent (social) chaos. The cultural order thus not only produces sacrificial violence, it is itself also the product of such violence; it is the result of violence ‘kept in check’.

René Girard on Tomb as First Cultural Symbol

Today, however, we find ourselves confronted with the opportunity to be highly suspicious of whatever cultural justification (i.e. myth) for taboos or sacrifices. According to René Girard, Judeo-Christian tradition especially revealed archaic cultural justifications as part of a scapegoat mechanism. Cultural justifications, in other words, were discovered as at least partly blaming the wrong phenomena for certain events. In this sense, Judeo-Christian tradition hurts the ‘ego’ or narcissistic identity of any cultural order, insofar as this order is maintained through scapegoat mechanisms. It is perhaps possible to understand and examine the heritage of Judeo-Christian spirituality, and other spiritual traditions, as a criticism of individual and collective narcissism (as this narcissism is shaped by particular cultures and preserved by their narratives). I would like to show that a spiritual realm of forgiveness allows for individual self-honesty as an epistemic device for truth, as it also allows for freedom and responsibility beyond guilt. If man acknowledges his initial vulnerability and powerlessness in the face of what happens beyond his control, he might neither punish himself nor others to regain power over a certain situation. Instead, he might start looking for the real causes of what happened and no longer exteriorize his fears and frustrations as entities apart from him.

Finally, in this regard it could be investigated how stories can function as ‘safeguards of transcendence’. This could be a major concern. In other words, the question could be how stories do not get locked up in themselves as a kind of tautological reduction of reality (a deviated transcendence). The history of science-fiction stories, and especially the influence of the graphic novel Watchmen as a ‘meta-story’, might be a good way to address this issue. More specifically those stories, under certain circumstances, might help to transform (physically or mentally) violent sacrifice into non-violent sacrifice (a concept that could be developed).

As for now, it seems there are two major pitfalls in storytelling. On the one hand, there is the temptation of using modern technical reason and the scientific method to establish a totalitarian story of universalism wherein individuality is defined within limits relevant to a system of ‘technical management’ (politically speaking this is the temptation of a communist or neo-liberal globalism). On the other hand, there is the temptation of making truth wholly relative of individual particularities and thus establish a totalitarian story of particularism (politically speaking this is the temptation of nationalism). This totalitarian particularism refuses to acknowledge the sameness with others and therefore, paradoxically, excludes otherness. In this context, it would be interesting to bring scientific insights into mimetic processes to the table and also explore what happens when these processes are denied.

 

 

 

The door bell rings. I open the door. In front of me are two of Jehovah’s witnesses. I invite them in. It’s a force of habit, enhanced by the fact that I’m a teacher and student of religion. I always jump at the opportunity to ask them a few questions.

Actually, I’m really curious about their views on the evolution vs creationism debate. They assure me that Jehovah’s witnesses don’t accept creationism because some statements of creationism reject credible scientific evidence. No kidding. Thus I assume that Jehovah’s witnesses accept the theory of evolution. Which, I learn, they don’t either.

As the conversation continues, I come to the conclusion that Jehovah’s witnesses refuse to be labeled as creationists because it puts them in the same basket with Christian fundamentalist Evangelicals. From an outsider’s perspective, Jehovah’s witnesses and Evangelicals have a lot in common. However, as is often the case, it’s easier to admire those who do not belong to your own terrain than those who are close to you. It’s – as René Girard would have it – a mimetic law, which Plato already refers to in his dialogue Lysis (215d) when Socrates says:

By a universal and infallible law the nearer any two things resemble each other, the fuller do they become of envy, strife and hatred…

best-tennis-playersCompetition and rivalry indeed often increase because of similarities. Two tennis players with similar talents and competences will make for a good game. Another example is the feud between biker gangs Hell’s Angels and Outlaws, or the rivalry that existed at first between ISIL and Al-Qaeda. And most of the time, foreigners and their customs don’t bother us until, of course, they become refugees who seem to invade “our country” and might take “our jobs”.

The desire to differentiate yourself from an adversary increases as differences are actually disappearing. The tragic and ironic thing is, the more you then try differentiate yourself from your opponent, the more you become (like) your opponent. For instance, after the Second World War many Germans and German speaking citizens in Europe were brutally raped, tortured and murdered in a horrific frenzy of vengeful violence. This genocide truly became a mimesis of the holocaust, although the vast majority of perpetrators never had to stand trial for what they did. History is written by the victors, and they create the stories (which is, in light of Girard’s mimetic theory, the function of classical mythology) to cover up violence or to decide whose violence is justified and whose is not.

Back to my visitors, the Jehovah’s witnesses. Like their ideological kinsfolk and rivals, the Evangelicals, they reject the theory of evolution. They claim that the Evangelicals’ representation of God as Creator is not scientific enough, meaning that, in their view, it is just partly in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.

As strange as this may sound, both the religious movement of Jehovah’s witnesses and of Evangelicals are heir to modernity. They are not harking back to the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Christian humanists and reformers started protesting some of the (medieval, premodern) Catholic Church’s teachings (hence the name Protestantism). The protests eventually led to the second major Schism in the history of Christianity, the first being the Great Schism of 1054 (the separation of Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches).

christian-churches-timeline

Protestants are convinced that individuals can make up their own mind on what the Bible teaches. Therefore protestants attach great importance to the availability of the Bible in your mother tongue. According to them, you shouldn’t accept any dogma on the basis of clerical authority or Church tradition, which is a modern idea indeed. They are convinced that the Holy Spirit guides every reader to reach a correct interpretation of the Bible. The idea that every human being principally has access to some kind of transcendent, universal rationality as a criterion to determine what’s true, independent of the truth claims made by so-called authorities and historically, culturally situated traditions is, again, a focus of modernity.

However, Protestantism not only meant a separation of new churches from the Catholic Church, it also almost immediately became internally divided. Apparently, what the Holy Spirit teaches is not so easily agreed upon. Hence, today, there are a myriad Protestant denominations. Moreover, the history of Reformation and Counter-Reformation eventually brought an end to the central position of (the Christian) religion in Western Europe.

For centuries, the Christian religion had been a unifying, stabilizing factor in Europe’s society, important for the establishment of peace between people with different cultural backgrounds. The Christianization of pagan habits brought the nations of Western Europe under one and the same religious umbrella.

crusadesThe internal peace and identity of a Christian Europe was enhanced by military expeditions against an external Islamic enemy during the Crusades. In contrast, the violence and the wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation meant that religion was no longer experienced as a factor for peace. Thus it comes as no surprise that, in the 18th century – the Age of Enlightenment – many philosophers stressed the priority of the so-called transcendent, universally valid (and thus divine) Reason to determine truth, values and moral behavior.

In premodern thinking, reason and science had been servants of the so-called revealed truths in Christian religion. The clerical authorities, their interpretation of the Bible and the traditions of the Church set the agenda for reason and science. Someone like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) turns the tables. Sapere aude, he writes, which is Latin and translates to Dare to be wise or Dare to think. By that he means an individual should think independently of any religious dogma (whether it comes from scripture, tradition or authority). Religious dogma should stand the test of Reason, and not the other way around.

The Enlightenment thinkers are convinced that every human being is principally capable of reaching the universal (and therefore, for many of them, divine) truth by developing his or her reason. According to Kant, you shouldn’t accept any truth claim on the basis of authority and tradition, nor on the basis of an uncritical “own opinion”, but on the basis of the so-called transcendent Reason. Eventually, the modern secular State became the institution that at first seemed to provide its citizens the means to discover the so-called universal truth. Sadly, however, some of the modern states became totalitarian, claiming to own truth and morality, and violently suppressing any type of “otherness” that was considered a potential threat to the government’s policy. Hitler and Stalin were two leaders of infamous totalitarian states in their respective countries.

In short, after the historical period of the Church defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence, Europe gradually accepted the secular State defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence. One of the main features of modernity indeed is the State’s monopoly on the use of violence. Both the Church and the State were experienced as totalitarian institutions at certain points in their history. The use of their force was not always experienced as something that provided safety, but as a source of terror.

theuniversaldeclarationofhumanrightsIn 1948 the world received The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is in fact a declaration on individual rights. After the traumas of violence motivated by religious ideologies in the 16th and 17th centuries and of violence motivated by secular ideologies in the 20th century, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be read as an attempt to protect the individual from too much influence by the Church (hence “freedom of speech”) or the State (hence “freedom of religion”). The secular violence in the 20th century also meant that we do not automatically believe anymore in reason and science as factors for the progress of humanity. Scientific progress and technological developments also made possible weapons of mass destruction, which caused violence at an unprecedented scale during the two world wars. Moreover, the Industrial Revolution also started an era of increasing social and environmental issues.

Anyway, a totalitarianism of the Church was replaced by a totalitarianism of the State, and is now replaced by a totalitarianism of the Individual. There used to be a time when educated citizens referred to the Church’s teachings as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life, followed by a time when they referred to the State’s program as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life. Today, in our postmodern world, individuals refer to themselves as the ultimate measure of all things, very often unaware of the influences shaping their perspective (that’s why reflection, philosophy – the art of asking questions, also about yourself – is so important to gain some freedom!).

gravity-just-a-theoryIs it really surprising that someone like Donald Trump became the president of the most powerful nation in the world? We are indeed living in a world where there seems to be no truth more important than one’s own opinion, and everyone, including Trump, produces his own narcissistic self-validating bubble by ignoring certain facts and advocating others. It seems the most powerful individuals have the means to impose their bubble on others. When research on climate change is not favorable for his policy, president Donald Trump simply bans Environmental Protection Agency staff from talking to the press (as this happened on January 24, 2017).

I think about my visitors of the Jehovah’s witnesses again. They also had a “Trump Reflex”. When I confronted them with all the data, all the scientific research and all the logic supporting the theory of evolution, they simply replied: “It is just a theory.” In other words, confronted with reason and science questioning their own opinions, they reduced that reason and science to something like “mere opinion”. And then you get conversations like this one (from The Big Bang Theory, season 3, episode 1, The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation):

This dynamic, the Trump Reflex, is visible in all quarters, not only in religious circles. Anti-theists, for instance, when confronted with the fact that a modern, fundamentalist reading of the Bible is not the most plausible one from a scientific point of view (including historical and literary critical research), will also often speak of “just a theory” to uphold their views on the “stupidity” and “irrationality” of biblical narratives.

Georges Lemaître and Albert EinsteinBelgian Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, the famous physicist and founder of the “Big Bang” hypothesis, is a good example of someone who clearly distinguishes the questions of modern natural science from the questions the Bible is concerned with. In doing so, he criticizes both creationists and anti-theistic atheists regarding, for instance, their reading of the creation myths in the biblical book of Genesis. Both groups approach these texts with the same expectations, only to come to different conclusions. Creationists believe that the Bible and science tell the same story on the origin of the universe and of life, while anti-theists are convinced that, although the Bible tries to answer the same questions as science according to them, science actually contradicts the Genesis stories. Lemaître, on the other hand, sees no agreement nor disagreement between the Bible and modern science, simply because they are concerned with different questions.  Some quotes from Lemaître, taken from an article by Joseph R. Laracy (click to read) clarify his position on the relationship between modern science and the Bible:

Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes… The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.

The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague… In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.

The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them… The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.

As for the so-called mimetic theory on the origin and further development of culture, some people almost immediately, without really knowing what they are talking about, discard it as “just a theory” also. Even when solid scientific research that is in no way informed by this particular theory comes to very similar, if not the same conclusions (click here for more)!

Christopher Hitchens quote on own opinion

Anyway, Donald Trump is each and every one of us when we refuse to question our so-called “own” opinions by scientifically obtained facts and reasonable, scientifically supported theories. Of course, no one owns the complete, total truth, but some theories will be more plausible than others.

The day we started believing that our entitlement to own opinion was more important than a quest for truth and for understanding reality was the day we paved the way for the Donald.

alternative-facts-donald-trump-titanic

Well, here’s my attempt at creating a “Girardian” image. René Girard constantly demonstrates how enemies have the tendency to imitate each other, although rather unwittingly. The more they resemble each other, the more they strive to differentiate themselves from each other, which tragically ends up in an even more undifferentiated monstrous cycle of mutual aversion and violence – a cycle of revenge…

CLICK THE IMAGE TO ENLARGE:

True Islam is Violent Mimetic Defenders and Enemies

Enemies become “mimetic doubles”. Today’s fight over so-called “True Islam” as a religion that supposedly justifies violence is but one example of a mimetic (i.e. imitative) interdependence between “defenders” and “attackers”. I highly recommend René Girard’s Battling to the End in this regard (find an extensive review by clicking here).

A slightly different version of the same image:

True Islam is Violent (by Mimetic Doubles)

One more:

True Islam is Violent Mimetic Fight

Just recently I stumbled upon quite a fun BBC documentary about monkeys. Fragments can be watched below.

Of particular interest to anyone who’s concerned with mimetic theory are the following observations, eminently shown in the documentary:

Besides getting smarter, monkeys living in larger groups also become more competitive, even aggressive and violent. From the point of view of mimetic theory this comes as no surprise, since an increased learning capacity is based on the same principle as an increased tendency for a certain type of rivalry: imitation or ‘mimesis’. Monkeys learn through imitation, but they can also become rivals through imitation. The latter happens when they imitate each other’s desire for a certain object – be it a female, a piece of food or some favorable territory. It is from this mimetic interplay that a craving for ‘status’ and ‘power’ emerges, as well as a certain ‘greed’.

Individual rivaling monkeys tend to gather allies to compete with each other. Again, the engine behind these forms of empathetic bonding seems to be mimesis by which monkeys are able to ‘project’ themselves in other members of the group. They might even ‘imagine’ what others are up to and make plans for themselves. The so-called mirror neurons in the brain play a tremendous role in this regard.

Normally, rivaling groups balance each other and keep their violent tendencies in check. However, sometimes an individual monkey becomes the victim of a whole group. The documentary shows what happens when this victim dies. His former attackers – actually the ones who murdered him! – gather around the dead body, unusually calm. [WATCH THE DOCUMENTARY FROM 4:23!]

René Girard considers this type of event foundational to the way human culture eventually originated and to the way it developed sacrificial rites. Already the BBC documentary states that more monkeys are victim to other monkeys than to predators. Girard claims that the intra-violence of mob lynching must have occurred even more in primitive ape-man societies, since rivalries must have been more intense there due to an ever stronger mimetic ability. Gradually, our primitive ancestors might have made associations during their experience of killing a common ‘enemy’ that account for the emergence of sacrifice. Aggression, rivalry and turmoil within the group seem to persist for as long as the common enemy lives. From the moment he is dead, contention ceases. ‘Chaos’ no longer reigns. ‘Order’ is restored.

The sacrificial rites of our ancestors suggest that they indeed gave meaning to victims of ‘mob lynching’. According to René Girard, the significance these victims and the mob lynching eventually received, creates the dividing line between animals and humans, and has two aspects:

1. Chaotic situations or crises within a community can be controlled by killing someone – hence the rise of what is eventually called ‘sacrifice’.

2. Chaotic situations are associated with the resurgence of a victim that is held responsible for previous chaotic situations. Indeed chaos reigned for as long as some victim was alive. That victim, therefore, is perceived as ‘being’ chaos – what seems to be beyond the control of the community, as a ‘transcendent’ or ‘sacred’ force. This violent force – i.e. the now divinized and ‘invisible’ victim – can be stopped, as experience seems to show our ancestors, by killing a new victim. So together with sacrifice the potentially violent gods originate who demand that sacrifice.

Very important to understand Girard’s mimetic theory is the observation that the victims of this type of collective violence are scapegoats, meaning: held responsible for something they’re not really responsible for (even when they are, in fact, considered ‘bad’ individuals). The real source for certain types of rivalry, tensions, conflicts and chaotic situations within communities are all sorts of ‘mimetic’ interactions. This is something the first human communities don’t realize, and that’s why, according to Girard, religion and human culture as a whole developed in all kinds of directions from sacrificial origins. Some of these origins can still be observed in groups of our actual ‘family members’, the monkeys and the apes, who, more than ever, seem to mirror fundamental aspects of ourselves.

‘Know thyself’ the Temple of Apollo at Delphi read. Start this quest by watching the fragments from the documentary Clever Monkeys

– CLICK TO WATCH: