Image and imitation

In my previous post I observed that, for René Girard, mimetic desire (that is, the desire that we learn by imitation) is “both what makes us human … and what makes us sinful”.

This raises the question of what non-sinful mimetic desire could look like: that is, desire that does not immediately lead to rivalry and ultimately to violence. And here is the answer:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19)

Jesus’ sinlessness consists in the fact that his desire comes from imitation of the Father rather than imitation of the sinful human beings around him. And as Girard argues, when Jesus calls us to imitate him, he is not calling us to an ascetic way of life. Rather:

What Jesus invites us to imitate is his own desire, the spirit that directs him toward the goal on which his intention is fixed: to resemble God the Father as much as possible. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p.13)

This is what we were created for: to imitate God the Father and Creator of us all. I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest that this is what is being spoken of in Genesis 1:26,27:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

The meaning of the “image of God” (and the extent to which we have retained it following the fall) has been much argued-over by Christians. I wonder if Girard gives us a useful way of looking at it: at being concerned with the imitation of God; with mimetic desire in which what is mimicked is the non-rivalrous love of God, rather than the rivalrous desires of sinful human beings.

When we read “image of God” in those terms, we can see how it is both completely shattered by the fall, and something which we can still ascribe to human beings today. It is completely shattered in that we lose all ability for non-rivalrous desire, for desire that does not lead to conflict and violence. But it is still the case that mimetic desire, in making our desires something we learn from our neighbour rather than by instinct alone, is the basis for human culture and for what distinguishes us from other animals. So in that sense it is still possible to speak of us as bearing God’s image and likeness.

Jesus restores this original image in us and gives us the capacity to resume the imitation of God to which we were called at creation:

Contrary to what we ourselves claim, he does not claim to “be himself”; he does not flatter himself that he obeys only his own desire. His goal is to become the perfect image of God. Therefore he commits all his powers to imitating his Father. In inviting us to imitate him, he invites us to imitate his own imitation.

This capacity to “imitate Jesus’ own imitation” is what Paul calls “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10). The Christian life thus becomes a constant struggle between the “new self”, with its desire to imitate Jesus’ imitation of the Father, and the “old self”, which continues to desire in imitation of, and rivalry to, our neighbours.

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One Response to Image and imitation

  1. Mack says:

    I agree with much of this post, and I really like this “mimetic desire” idea as applied to the Fall, but I’m not sure I agree with your assertion that “when Jesus calls us to imitate him, he is not calling us to an ascetic way of life” — what about, for example, Jesus’s command to the rich young man in Luke 18/Mark 10?

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