Amoureax by Eve Arnold

“... the initial intention of the “sectarian” communities which in the course of Western history have renewed a minority ethic has not been to be sects. Division was not their purpose ... They rather called upon the church at large to accept as binding for all Christians the quality of commitment which would in effect lead them all to be separated from the world once again in order to be appropriately in mission to the world.” - John Howard Yoder

Mimesis’ is a Greek word which means ’imitation’. I use it here because of its richer associations than ’imitation’, because of the tradition of its use and because of the resonances that it brings together. Mimesis, according to René Girard, is the way in which humans desire. We are imitative creatures, mimetic creatures. That we are mimetic places us in continuous rivalry with each other. If you get a newer model of mobile phone, suddenly I am unhappy with mine and desire yours or one like yours. We have all seen a child who wants a toy - with which his or her sibling is playing - who looses interest in it once the sibling gives it up. This is mimetic desire. The child desires "according to their desire of another" and so do we. I use these trivial examples to show how pervasive is this mode of desiring. Mimesis is at the core of all of our relationships.

The concept of mimesis is also used by Arnold Toynbee to describe the relationship between ’civilisation’ and ’creative minorities.’ Greer summarises Toynbee's argument in this way:

"...civilizations emerge when a creative minority inspires the rest of their society with a vision of human possibility powerful and appealing enough to break through what he calls the “cake of custom,” the rigid body of tradition that shapes the behavior of traditional cultures. The key to their success is the universal human habit of mimesis – our incurable habit of trying to imitate what impresses us...Civilizations rise when a creative minority with an openness to new visions becomes the focus of mimesis instead." - John Michael Greer - "A Failure of Mimesis"

’Sects’ have been just such ’creative minorities.’ For example, Quakers were famously influential in the demise of the slave trade in the early 18th Century. We may not wish to make ’civilisation’ the primary body upon which ’creative minorities’ act or which they influence. However, if desire is mimetic, as Girard suggests, then the relationship is transferable to any human organisation. That is, if we are imitative creatures and creative minorities play a significant role in forming our desire, a mimetic relationship is not limited to ’civilisations’ but extends to all areas of life. Indeed, ’civilisations’, as such complex systems, can hardly be acted upon directly. They must rather be changed through the alteration of their constituent parts.


I like what you are saying, here, Harry, about these creative minorities. I think one of Yoder's fundamental insights has to do with how Christians tend to stifle our own creativity by limiting ourselves to thinking as if we have the responsibility to run the world--for example, when we think about politics we think in terms of what should the people in power do.

Thinking from this standpoint leads to much mischief, not least a marginalization of the vision of life Jesus taught and lived (since operating with love of neighbor as the most fundamental guide is not possible for people in power).

A "sectarian" approach can free us from the constraints of doing theological ethics from the top down. Ironically, as Yoder also argues, with such freedom Christians may actually be more effective in influencing the wider world than when we work within Constantinian constraints.

December 1, 2007 at 6:12 AM  

@Ted - Thanks for your comment Ted.

December 11, 2007 at 11:12 PM  

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