Whether or not imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as has often been said, the reality is that imitation plays a profound and often unexamined role in our behaviour as human beings.
Rene Girard, who served as a professor in a number of American universities, is often credited with establishing a fascinating and wide-ranging approach to understanding human behaviour which is often referred to as “mimetic theory”. The word “mimetic” is based on the Greek word mimesis, which means to “imitate” – and is the same word that formed the basis of the word “meme” which Richard Dawkins coined, and which is now so ubiquitous in the worlds of social media.
Girard’s mimetic theory suggests that our desires emerge out of our imitation of the desires of someone who we consider as a model or mediator of what we should desire. When we observe someone else desiring a certain object, their interest in it actually increases our perception of the object’s value which, in turn, increases our desire for it. We begin to imitate the desires of the model or mediator. However, this also creates a rivalry between ourselves and the person who had been a model or mediator, with the result that the rivalry escalates and conflict for the object ensues.
And, posits Girard, the resolution to that intractable conflict, all too often in human affairs, either involves conflict which leads to the death of one of the rivals, or the need to find a person to accuse or blame for the conflict. If the rivals can find a shared focus for blame, sometimes called the scapegoat, that “blamed other” becomes a source of unity for the former conflicting and competing rivals. The scapegoat is driven out or destroyed, with the result that peace and unity between the rivals are restored.
Although Girard’s analysis emerged out of his work as a literary critic, the theory has now developed to the point where his mimetic theory now has implications for a wide range of disciplines including literary criticism, psychology, sociology, politics and religion.
And what is interesting is that most of us observe what he described on a daily basis. Two children can be set in a room filled with toys, but one of the children takes a particular interest in a certain toy, thus becoming the model for the other child. The other child begins to notice and to imitate the desire of the first child, which can escalate to the point where those two children in that room filled with toys can end up arguing over one specific toy. A rivalry begins to grow, which then begins to create a dynamic that results in conflict for the object, and potentially violence in order to acquire it. Any parent or caregiver will know that fights in the playroom, over a single toy, are not entirely unknown.
But these mimetic rivalries and conflicts are not limited to the playroom – how many of the great stories of the world – from the Bible to Shakespeare to the latest Hollywood blockbuster — are based on people’s perceptions of wanting to acquire what others desire as well, with all of the levels of conflict that then arise?
Advertisers know the dynamic well. Most marketing and advertising campaigns are based on this unconscious appeal to stimulate these mimetic, or imitative, desires within us. Whether it is increasing an object’s desirability by getting people’s friends to “like” it on social media, or by hiring celebrities and famous individuals — whose lives, beauty, hairstyle and power people are already seeking to imitate — the ad companies are using this unconscious tendency to imitate a desire for what someone that we admire desires. A nice wristwatch may be a nice wristwatch; but a nice wristwatch on the wrist of a handsome movie star suddenly makes it even more appealing. Our imitated desires grow.
Girard realized that there is a dangerous dimension to this mimetic or imitative dynamic, and much of Girard’s work actually sought to explore the origin and influence of violence in relation to imitation – that is, why rivalries so often led to violence, and why the typical “resolution” to these conflicts either leads to violence and death, or to the finding of a scapegoat upon whom the blame was unleashed.
Girard even suggested that primitive religions may have played an important role in reducing the seemingly inevitable escalation of violence in human interactions. Girard suggested that the development of religious prohibitions and religious rituals can be understood as one of the most important ways that our human ancestors found to resolve these rivalries and conflicts in non-violent ways.
Without doubt, who and what we imitate can have a profound effect on our lives.
Which leads us to today’s suggested reading from the letter to the Ephesians. The passage begins with a series of fairly practical suggestions for how we should conduct ourselves, as followers of Christ. How we treat one another, how we speak about one another, how we avoid anger, how we are called to work hard and seek to encourage one another, how we are called to avoid bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice, and instead seek to treat one another with kindness, tenderness and forgiveness.
All of which is good advice. But then the passage offers an intriguing invitation – “therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Be imitators of God.
Which is an intriguing challenge.
One of the essential questions that emerges from this call to be imitators of God, of course, is this. If we are to be imitators of God, what is our understanding of the God who we are being invited to imitate?
And in this, there is great challenge, and perhaps even great danger.
Because, as the Bible clearly attests, while there may be one God, there are nonetheless many competing visions for what God is actually like – and if we are imitating the wrong vision of God, we are truly in trouble.
Which is something that we all have to struggle with every day. Every day, we are subtly lured into elevating other “things” to a place of divine concern. Every day, we are invited to place our trust in, and our focus on things other than God. We place ourselves or another person or group into that place of primary importance, assuming that we – or they – are able to save ourselves from all of life’s problems, or we trust that our acquisition of more and more material wealth with make our lives more safe and secure, or we imbue a particular ideology or political system with our believe that it has the power to save us and our society, or we find individuals or groups that we feel have what we think that we want, and what we think will bring us satisfaction – and we begin to imitate their attitudes, their desires, their choices, their beliefs, their convictions.
And then, when those other gods fail us, we find someone else, or some other group to blame for keeping us from that that envisioned goal or that desired life. And the rivalries and enmities begin. And the scapegoats are blamed. And it doesn’t end well.
But then we hear these words from Ephesians, this invitation to set aside any other concern, or idol, or ideology, or hero, and instead to be imitators of God alone.
So what would it mean to live our lives in imitation of the God who is revealed to us in the pages of Scripture, and most importantly in the person of Jesus Christ? What if the model for our behaviour was the One who is perfect love, the One whose amazing creativity, longsuffering compassion, transforming forgiveness, and life-giving grace are so much more powerful and enduring than any of the other transient people and things that we focus so much of our attention upon?
And in the life of Christ, can we catch sight of what that divine love looks like in the world – in the person and presence of the One who used his power to care for the vulnerable, the hungry, the sick and the weak, to challenge the powerful and uphold the weak? What if the model for our lives was the One whose love and whose power was so great, in fact, that he took upon himself the role of the innocent scapegoat, and once and for all accomplished what none of us could ever do on our own, bringing us to a place of unmerited and unearned reconciliation, grace, forgiveness and peace?
Such a life, such a vision, such a God is actually worth imitating.
But it is profoundly challenging. Because to be imitators of God is to be imitators of the One whose love is not just for us – rather, it is to be imitators of the One whose love is not only extended to those who are beloved and loveable, but whose love is also extended to those who we might consider our enemies, and yet who are also – and always – still beloved of God as well.
So how do we do this? Perhaps, first and foremost, we try to let the words of the biblical vision of God seep deeply into our minds and hearts and souls. God is love. So what does it mean to imitate the One who is love itself? Or what might it mean, in our daily lives and interactions, to imitate the One whom the Psalmist claimed was gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? Or what does it mean to imitate the One who forgives even those who do not know what they are doing? Or what does it mean to imitate the One whose compassion is over all that has been made?
None of us will ever be able to perfectly imitate God – but we are forgiven for those times when we fall short of that standard. And we are blessed, in our baptisms, with a Spirit who will help us in that wondrous pursuit. And we are fed, for the journey, at a Table where we gather to remember what He accomplished for us.
So come to this Table, as those baptized into Christ, to be fed for the journey — and then go from this Table, and from this place, to live as imitators of God in this world that God so dearly loves.