Monday, May 7, 2012

James Alison: "Prayer: a case study in mimetic anthropology"

From his website, a look at some texts on prayer from Matthew's gospel, read "in the light of" René Girard’s mimetic theory, and contrasted with "a reading which depends on a folk-psychology approach to desire."  (All bolding below by me.)

So, a brief reminder of each of these two approaches. First the folk-psychology approach, which I sometimes characterise as the “blob and arrow” understanding of desire. In this approach, there is a blob located somewhere within each one of us and normally referred to as a “self”. This more or less bloated entity is pretty stable, and there come forth from it arrows which aim at objects. So, “I” desire a car, a mate, a house, a holiday, some particular clothes and so on and so forth. The desire for the object comes from the “I” which originates it, and thus the desire is authentically and truly “mine”. If I desire the same thing as someone else this is either accidental and we must be rational about resolving any conflict which may arise, or it is a result of the other person imitating my desire, which is of course stronger and more authentic than their secondary and less worthy desire. Since my desiring self, my “I”, is basically rational, it follows that my desires are basically rational, and thus that I am unlike those people who I observe to have a clearly pathological pattern of desire – constantly falling for an unsuitable type of potential mate and banging their head against the consequences, or hooked on substances or patterns of behaviour that do them no good. Those people are in some way sick, and their desires escape the possibilities of rational discourse. Unlike me and my desires.

If this is an accurate understanding of how we desire, then of course the New Testament is weirdly quaint and inaccurate, for all it would be doing when talking about prayer is urging us to whip ourselves (and how can “we” whip our “selves”?) into wanting more. Furthermore, following this view the New Testament would contain within itself the seeds of the destruction of its own teaching about prayer, for in the text from St Matthew’s Gospel at which we will be looking in more detail, there appears the phrase

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

The logical conclusion to this, given the premise of the blob and arrow understanding of desire, is to stop praying. There is literally no point expressing your desire, since it is known independently of its expression, and its expression makes no difference at all. The New Testament text seems to be a pointer on the road towards the self-contained and religiously indifferent modern “self”.

Please notice also that since desires are arrived at by the self without need of instruction or intervention from outside and don’t need to be expressed in order to be real, the self-contained and self-starting “blob” with its arrows is also radically private. ... And please notice how miraculously the New Testament text, once again doing itself out of a job, seems to flatter this picture of the self. For if there is one verse from this section of Matthew that almost everyone seems to remember it is where Jesus, having disparaged the attention-seeking public prayers of the Pharisees says this:

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Behold the apparent Scriptural canonisation of the modern individual self (who is, of course, “spiritual”, but not “religious”)!
Then Alison explains the Girardian take on desire:
The understanding of desire which Girard has been putting forward for almost half a century, and which is often referred to as “mimetic” is about as far removed from this picture as you can get. The key phrase which I never tire of repeating is “We desire according to the desire of the other”. It is the social other, the social world which surrounds us, which moves us to desire, to want, and to act. This doesn’t sound particularly challenging when it is illustrated in the way the entertainment industry creates celebrities, or the advertising profession manages to make particular objects or brands desirable. For few of us are so grandiose as to deny that some of our desires show us as being easily led and susceptible to suggestion. It becomes much more challenging when it is claimed that in fact it is not some of our desires that are being talked about, but the whole way in which we humans are structured by desire.

For what Girard is pointing out is that humans are those animals in which even basic biological instincts (which of course exist, and are not the same thing as desire) are run by the social other within which the instinct-bearing body is born. In fact, our capacity to receive and deal with our instincts is given to us through our being drawn towards the social other which inducts us into living as this sort of animal, by reproducing itself within us. And what makes this draw possible is the hugely developed capacity for imitation which sets our species apart from our nearest simian relatives.

And the way this plays out in reading Matthew 6, and in the discussion of what prayer actually is - well, it's fantastic! 
Given this, let us turn to Jesus’ explicit teaching about prayer, especially as we find it in Matthew 6, but with some reference to Luke also.

The first thing we notice is that Jesus’ comments on prayer are embedded in a teaching about patterns of desire.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” [5] (Italics mine)
Before he gets to talking about prayer, Jesus is already demonstrating an understanding of desire. His presupposition is that we are all immensely needy people who long for approval and rewards. He doesn’t say “Really, this is too infantile. You shouldn’t be wanting approval or rewards. Grow up and be self-starting, self-contained heroic individuals who act on entirely rational grounds”. On the contrary, he takes it for granted that we desperately need approval. The question is: whose approval is going to run us? The danger of seeking approval from the social other is that you will get it, and thereafter you will be hooked on that approval. It will literally give you to be who you are and what you will become. You will act out of the pattern of desire which the social other gives you.

I used to think that the phrase “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward”, especially when pronounced in booming tones by a Scots-accented Calvinist preacher, was a euphemism for sending someone to Hell. But it makes much more sense if you see it as an anthropological observation: the trouble about seeking the approval of the social other, is that you will get it. You will act in such a way as to get that approval, and then become its puppet. And because of that you will be selling yourself short. You won’t be wanting enough, you will have too little desire. Your “self” will be a shadow of what you could be if you allowed the Creator to call you into being.
The article is long, and difficult to summarize; it's densely packed with ideas and images, too, and it illuminates - almost shockingly - the text in a way I haven't seen done before. It's theologically rich and - how can I say this? - detoxifying of the puritanism Alison talks about in the article. He defines that puritansim as the psychological result of suppression (not sublimation) of desire.

And because the article is so complex, and requires the bit of introduction I've given above, I can only bullet-point the many, many ideas discussed and conclusions drawn about prayer, and about what it's for, and about how it works! Here are some of those ideas and conclusions (keeping in mind that there is much more at the link!):
  • How the suppression of authentic desire in the effort to obtain approval works itself out in us psychologically; 
  • Jesus 'urging his disciples to receive their “self” from “Another other” (and the Matthean code for “Another other” is “your Father who sees in secret” or “your Father who is in heaven” – that is, the Creator who is absolutely not part of the give and take, the tit-for-tat reciprocity of the social other)'; 
  • That, because there is "no alternative to being run by the regard of another" (i.e., "It is not the case that we can strip off the false-selves given us by the social other, and that there, underneath it all, radiantly, will be our true self, untrammeled by the social other."), the "really hard matter of prayer is learning to receive ourselves through the eye of Another other." 
  • That this "eye of Another" is God's eye - and being in God's "regard" means "looked at by One who is not part of" the mimetic system at all.  It's described as being seen by an Eye that's defined by "deathlessness, abundance, daring, and [the defining principle of bringing] something out of nothing."
  • That Jesus teaches not that prayer is an appeal to a God who's an object who must be manipulated, but precisely the opposite:  " is God who is the subject, who has a desire, an intention, a longing, and who knows who we are and what is good for us and we who are capricious and somewhat inert slot machines who are always getting our handles pulled by the wrong players. In this picture it is precisely because our Father knows what we need before we ask him that we must learn to pray: our Father’s only access to us, the only way he can get to our slot-machine handle, is by our asking him into our pattern of desire";
  • Thus, the "urgent reason why we need to pray: so as to allow the One who knows what is good for us, unlike we ourselves, whose desire is for us and for our fruition, unlike the social other and its violent traps, to gain access to re-creating us from within, to giving us a “self”, an “I of desire” that is in fact a constant flow of treasure.  We are asking, in fact to become a symptom of his pattern of desire, rather than that of the social other which ties us up into becoming so much less."
You can see, I'm sure, what's being said here:  that we have no way to extricate ourselves from the destructive influence of the "social other" and its "patterns of desire" - except through prayer, which is a vehicle that allows God access to us (and not, as I think most of us have always assumed, the other way around!). 

Probably I should have written this post in a different way. It feels like I'm shortchanging these ideas - so I hope you'll go read the article yourself. It's well worth the time it takes to slowly sift through and absorb what he's saying.

Alison talks a lot about how Girard's ideas seem eerily applicable to the Bible as a whole; he's said (paraphrasing) that you can "throw the texts up and let them come down any which way" and the analysis seems to work every time.

And he says here, at the start of this article: "I suspect that we are here in the presence of what René Girard refers to in The Scapegoat when he talks about the texts of the New Testament bearing witness to an intelligence greater than that of each of the (admittedly highly sophisticated) members of the apostolic circle who composed them. Ockham’s razor would suggest that this is an intelligence that goes back to Our Lord himself."

Which is a spookily awesome thought, really....

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