Reflections on Therapeutic Religion

Therapeutic Christianity is pervasive in the church, but particularly in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches – especially those that lean toward the “health & wealth” phenomenon. According to the health & wealth “gospel”, God wants us to be rich and healthy, so if we are not it must mean that we lack the faith to adequately receive God’s blessings. In such a worldview, God is the source of all good things; finding healing, peace, and success is just a matter of turning to God in the right way, with the right faith, and receiving them.

While health & wealth is the apex of therapeutic Christianity, it is obvious elsewhere too. I live less than a block from a Pentecostal church that, while it is not a health & wealth church, certainly believes that Jesus has the power to heal and that the Holy Spirit embodies that power in believers. I believe this too, but I’m not sure that I appreciate the digital sign out front that rotates through messages such as “Need healing? Come to our healing service!” or “Find inner peace. Sunday service at 10:30” or “Free kids camp! Starts at 10:30 am on Sunday mornings.” I agree that Christ can heal; there are long and deep Christian traditions and practices that promote inner peace; and parents are always looking for ways to stimulate their kids while giving them a few minutes of personal space. But this strikes me as shallow salesmanship, promoting Christ as a product, preaching what Jesus can give you rather than Jesus himself.

At the same time, North American society is almost satirically therapeutic. We live incredibly imbalanced lives, and then look for a simple and easy product or practice that can save us from our own mistreatment of ourselves. We tend to do it in binge doses and fads, drawing a new practice or technique from any source. For a while it was yoga, which was originally a deeply spiritual practice but has since been reduced, in North America at least, to calisthenics and stretching. Meditation is a fad that comes around every few years, renewing its appeal by drawing from a different branch of Buddhism. The religious roots of these practices has traditionally sent conservative Christians into a state of distrust and outright condemnation, because in some circles any therapy that does not come from a Christian source is suspect (though most of us are okay with doctors, of course). We produce Christian versions of yoga, and even devise Christian versions of meditation, completely missing the fact that Christians have been meditating as a religious practice for millennia. The point, though, is that all therapy needs to somehow be connected to Christ.

The craze right now is mindfulness, which is not the same thing as meditation, though meditation produces mindfulness. In our age of technological distraction, digital lives, and stress, we crave things like embodiment, focus, and peace. Mindfulness practices are usually some variation of meditation, but tend to emphasize being present: seeing and hearing the real world around you, noticing fine details, staying in one place for a long period, looking deep into the eyes of another person, hugging or kissing someone for a long period, etcetera. There is incredible value in this kind of emphasis on embodied presence.

In a few minutes I’m going to receive the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. Christians have a long history of emphasizing embodied presence, not only in our gospel of the embodied presence of God in Jesus Christ, but also in our understanding of vicarious representation, in which we see Christ in each other. The Holy Spirit embodies human beings, as God’s continued presence on earth. This is, at least to me, the most important and foundational notion of Christianity: that God is here with us, sanctifying our very bodies and this physical world with a constant presence. So every week I take a day in which I try to stay offline, I walk to church and enjoy the fresh air on the way, and I receive the body and blood of Christ. It is refreshing, empowering, and wonderfully therapeutic.

The difference between that therapeutic experience and what is promised on the church sign is subtle. I have to grant to the health & wealth movement that their emphasis on the way we receive from God has a bit of truth in it: our intentions, attitude, and even our very posture have an effect on the way we understand and approach God, even if our actions are identical. In the eucharist, I celebrate and consume Christ himself; in therapeutic models of Christianity, I am oriented to the therapeutic consumption, rather than being oriented to Christ himself. Health & wealth gets it exactly wrong: they emphasize approaching God in such a way as to receive/consume, and God becomes instrumental – a blessing dispensary. That’s why some theologians have taken to calling this kind of theology “therapeutic deism”, because the actual distinct person of God in Jesus Christ fades into the background and can be completely replaced by a general idea of a distant God who gives us what we desire or need.

I was recently listening to an episode of Note to Self, the tech podcast about being human, in which a former Google guru named Mang talked about why he changed careers from being a tech god to writing and educating people about Buddhist mindfulness as a way of promoting world peace. Mindfulness is all the rage in Silicon Valley, which eats up any therapeutic trend that promises to help maintain the levels of energy and creativity needed to succeed in a fast-paced innovation-driven environment. They pointed out that yoga and Buddhist meditation were once deeply spiritual practices that had been reduced to hollow shells, and I suddenly made the connection to therapeutic deism masquerading as Christianity. It appears that there is nothing unique in the way that Christianity is packaged as a therapeutic product to be consumed: we do it to everything. The distinction is that yoga and meditation are recognized as coming from spiritual practices, but are not generally equated with those spiritual practices, no doubt in large part because North American Christians still want to distance themselves from other religions. We remove them from their contexts and package them into products and classes. Meanwhile, the market for Christian-style therapeutic deism is not so much in DVDs and kiosks, but in actual churches where we put our money into the plate. Our therapy is the performance, our product faith itself (often without referent), and we pay for it like a subscription service – in weekly or monthly payments.

Mang took a minute in the interview to teach a very simple and practical mindfulness technique: focus intently on a single breath. Even driving down the busiest highway in Canada, being conscious of a deep breath was immediately calming and invigorating at the same time. I was also immediately conscious of a little bit of guilt in the back of my mind, because I knew that there are Christian practices that do the same thing and yet there I was taking instruction from a Buddhist. At a few times in my life I have been incredibly blessed by the practice of the “breath prayer”, a traditional Christian mindfulness exercise that combines breathing techniques with a mantra: breathing deeply while mentally reciting a short prayer in time with the breaths. This practice has the calming effect of the breathing, with the centring effect of drawing our focus to Christ. It’s a wonderful practice, but given my epiphany about therapeutic deism only minutes before, it seemed inappropriate.

I want the benefits of these simple techniques, and I’m glad that mindfulness is a craze because I think it’s important. But I don’t want to focus all of my efforts toward mindfulness on Christ because I don’t want to treat him as a consumer product. I know that I will not get the full benefits of Buddhist meditation unless, like Mang, I determine to work hard at meditation; just as doing yoga once or twice a week will not improve my physical fitness significantly. But I don’t really want those things anyway – I don’t want to be a Buddhist or a yogi. Like everyone else, I want quick fixes – and I don’t want to put that on Christ. Perhaps it is problematically colonial for me to be okay with bastardizing Buddhism for therapeutic purposes and not be okay with doing the same with my own faith, but I think it’s still better than the self-worship of bastardizing all things for the sake of my own sense of wellbeing.

I still have a lot to work out in this regard, but in the meantime I want to breathe deep and be present in a generic human way, and actually meet Christ in the eucharist rather than just enjoy the side effects. I don’t think that God desires me to smear Christ all over basic things like breathing, like butter over bread, but rather to consume Christ himself as the bread. I’m in no danger of becoming an accidental Buddhist, even if I appreciate the way that Buddhist teachings and practices help me to become more mindful; and I think that my relationship with Christ is strengthened by removing all temptation to treat him as a therapeutic tool, to seek him for what he can do for me. I believe he can heal me, but that’s not why I love him; I believe he brings peace, but I do not worship peace; and I believe that he blesses people in many ways, but I would love him if he did not. If learning mindfulness from Buddhists and yogis and gurus helps me to keep that perspective, then I’d say that in some sense they help me be a better Christian. This, I think, is much more helpful than the guilty thought in the back of my mind that I’m somehow cheating on Jesus in the way that I’m stretching or breathing.

Tribe, by Sebastian Junger

Tribe had me instantly hooked, and I think that it’s the most important book I’ve read this year. The scope of this book is amazing: in only 136 pages it covers issues ranging from war and PTSD to social institutions and politics to work/life balance and family to rituals in tribal societies. It seems like everything Sebastian Junger is talking about in this book is directly relevant to me and my thought processes in the last few years, which not only makes it clear why I found it so engrossing but also deserves explanation.

The central premise of Tribe is that human beings have spent most of our evolutionary history as tribal people who live in groups of around 50 deeply interdependent people, and that much of our social and psychological malaise today is rooted in the fact that this is no longer the case. Our wealth and technology have allowed us to become individualistic and self-serving, balancing the benefits of less physical need and disease with sharp increases in mental and social disorder. Money cannot buy us happiness, and in many ways it actually costs us our happiness.

Junger begins by reflecting on the fact that early European settlers in North America ran off to join indigenous tribes with alarming frequency, and even prisoners of war who had been taken by the tribes often refused to be repatriated into settler society, sometimes even sneaking back to join their former captors. Meanwhile, there was no traffic the other way: nobody was lining up to join “civilization”, even with all of its technological advances. Indigenous culture was very egalitarian and free; European culture was based on strict rules and laws that regulated every aspect of life under hierarchical structures of authority. Tribal life had relatively little work, while the pilgrims worked exhaustively. European settlers almost invariably held the notion that they were better off than the “savages” – but those who had experienced tribal life tended to never come back.
Junger goes on to talk about war and disasters. As a war reporter over the last 30 years, he’s seen a lot of war zones and noticed that soldiers, and even civilians in war zones, often miss the war. This is because they had such close and intimate bonds with the people around them during those difficult times, when common needs and the drive to survive tear down all social divisions and hierarchies. In the wake of an earthquake, or when a city is besieged, people look out for each other in ways that they don’t in good times. That social cohesion has an incredible psychological effect. During the Blitz of London, for example, the government had expected people to break down under the strain in large numbers, but the reality was that admission to mental hospitals went down. In a study of child soldiers, those children who returned from war to socially integrated societies mostly recovered, sometimes completely; but children who returned from war to socially stratified villages remained traumatized. Chronic PTSD, he suggests, is an issue of disordered recovery, not an automatic result of trauma; short-term PTSD is a normal response to trauma, but chronic PTSD, which is increasingly common even among troops that see relatively less action in war, has a lot to do with the fact that soldiers are unable to properly integrate into our individualistic, materialistic society where the close bonds they had with their unit no longer exist.

Why is this relevant to me? Aside from thinking a great deal about war and peace, trauma, social psychology, and policy, I have also recently made very large changes to my life because I have become disillusioned with the way that we live and work in our society.

Less than a year ago, I had a career. I had reached the Director level in my profession, and was making plans to pursue a PhD. I was doing everything right: at 30 years old I was moving upward, had a Master’s degree, had built my first house and had no other debt, and was married with one child. If I carried on that trajectory, “success” in life was virtually guaranteed. Except that in order to get that Master’s degree and that job, my wife and I had to move very far from our families; to pursue that PhD we would need to move farther still; and that my passions were only incidental to my career, so even if I could get a job in my field of study it would be low-paying and obscure, which meant that I would probably always be pursuing my passions at the expense of either my career or my family or both. My passions, then, took a backseat to family and career; and eventually, family took a backseat to career too.

No career is worth losing your family. It seemed that in order to pursue work that seemed meaningful, we had to be willing to be separated from our tribes. This seemed okay at first, when it was just the two of us, but as time wore on we missed our parents, siblings, and cousins. When I was growing up I was very close with a lot of my cousins, but at this point I haven’t seen some of them in over 5 years, and I’m not sure we’ve all been together in 15. Now we’re spread over three provinces, going where the work is or getting pushed out of places with high living costs. I miss them with a depth that shocks me to acknowledge. My parents come to visit, but their ability to travel is not unlimited, and video calls are no replacement for a tribe. Once we had a child of our own, the lack of close family bonds and support became so much more apparent; we felt we couldn’t be good parents without having grandparents around too. Because my son deserves his grandparents, and they deserve him.

So at the beginning of this year we moved away from our careers (my wife was also at the Director level in her department) and settled in my wife’s home province. Crashing on your in-laws’ couch for months, unemployed, is a far cry from working overtime at an “important” job, but it was surprisingly fulfilling. We had moved based on the instinct that our “successful” life wasn’t what it seemed, and even while my self-worth plunged on the basis of being unemployed and homeless, I found a growing sense of connection with my own little tribe, my wife and son, that was deeper and more powerful than any sense of purpose and self-worth that I had gleaned from my career.

My priorities have completed shifted this year. My goal is to find a job that allows me to be at home as much as possible, and I’m just starting a job that allows me to work only two days per week. I’ve been thinking about the need for jobs like that quite a bit over the past year: in an information economy in which information is cheap, producers of information either need a Guaranteed Livable Income (Mincome) or part-time work that pays a living wage but still gives them time to be productive in their own field. I’ve unexpectedly come across the latter, and I’m looking forward to being a family man five days a week and writing during nap times.

A few days after I was hired for this incredible new job packing cheese two days per week, and as I was still coming to terms with how that would reorient my life away from being centred on work and toward being centred on my family, I picked up Tribe and suddenly every hard choice we’ve made over the past year made sense. This book has given me a conceptual framework within which to understand and express why I was so dissatisfied with a seemingly successful life, why we were so motivated to put family first, and why, somehow, our society needs to find a way to help other people to make that priority shift if we want to address the growing social and psychological problems we face.

Tribe is a short, page-turning read about a host of pressing issues, translating anthropological and psychological research into a very accessible and concise narrative. Five stars.

You can listen to Sebastian Junger talking about the book here.

The Church as a Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point (2000) is a fascinating exploration of how ideas spread. Given its incredible popularity, it’s just as fascinating that we don’t seem to have done much with this information over the past fifteen years. I picked up the book thinking that it would be a good primer on the sociological notion of “tipping points” or “threshold theory” to explore in conjunction with Walter Wink’s theology of the Powers and Principalities (which turned out not to be the case), but the implications of this book for the church immediately jumped out at me. I’ll give a brief outline of the book, examine its implications for the church, and then explore the notion of the church as a tipping point in society.

The basic idea of Tipping Point is that ideas and behaviours spread like epidemics. A disease tends to spread slowly until a certain point, often called the “tipping point”, at which it starts to spread exponentially. The same thing is true of ideas or behaviours: a fad or trend is a behaviour or fashion or product that went from relative obscurity to being totally commonplace, usually in a short amount of time. Some trends stick around forever and become a real social change; others are fads that disappear as quickly as they began; but Gladwell is interested here in how they spread.

A social epidemic is the result of one or more of the following: “The law of the few” (certain types of people who make ideas contagious); “The stickiness factor” (what makes an idea stick with us enough that we pass it on); and “The power of context” (an environment that encourages or causes a particular behaviour).

The Law of the Few

We’re well familiar with the law of the few, which states that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. When it comes to spreading social epidemics, Gladwell distinguishes three categories from within the 20%: Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen.

A Maven is someone who is in the know – the type of person who nerds out on a particular subject, learning about it for its own sake, collecting bits of information like they’re pokemon. The Maven is the person you go to when you have a question or need advice on a particular subject. We all have a friend who is a “car guy”, who probably isn’t a mechanic but knows everything about every model of car, and if you were going to buy a car you’d probably get their advice. Mavens do the hard work of digging up the idea or information that influences the idea.

A Connector is that person who knows everyone. They have a million acquaintances, and if they hear that you’re headed for a lovely holiday in Cleveland (because who doesn’t love The Cleve, and your travel maven friend has already told you all the best spots to hit there) they’ll give you the contact info for someone they know there who can give you a personal tour and put you up for the night. Connectors bring together not only a wide range of people, but often people from a variety of fields or walks of life, which means that they can connect ideas as much as people. Connectors get people and ideas together, where they can proliferate.

A Salesman is someone who can, well, sell an idea. They have an infectious personality that impacts people on an emotional level, often just by being in the same room. These people are influential not because of what they know (like the Maven), or who they know (like the Connector), but by merely being themselves. Through unconscious things like micro-motor mimicry and social/psychological cues, we take these people and their ideas seriously and find ourselves agreeing.

The Stickiness Factor

But no matter how good the salesman, no matter how connected or complex the knowledge or idea, it has to be something that sticks with people if it’s going to spread. It is very important to note that stickiness has nothing to do with the actual truth or value of the idea: some of the most important ideas in history remain open secrets, simply because the way they’ve been presented doesn’t stick with people. Meanwhile, some really terrible ideas and falsehoods are almost universally accepted because they connect with people on a fundamental level.

Stickiness is largely about psychology, and the examples Gladwell uses are Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, both of which were designed by child psychologists to be sticky for kids in order to keep their attention and, hopefully, teach them something. Each episode of these shows is thoroughly analyzed by a team who studies the reactions of children in test audiences, including tracking their eye movement and distractability, their response to repetition, etc. Gladwell’s point is that many of the things that make kids love these shows, and that make them remember them, are counter-intuitive. Nobody believed, for example, that taking long, long pauses and speaking slowly would make for an interesting show: adult attention spans are geared toward fast-paced shows with lots of content. But not only does Blue’s Clues have a snail’s pace, they play the same slow episode five days in a row, and kids love it. Those aspects of the show play directly to a kid’s developing brain, in which a slow pace and repetition helps kids develop the ability to construct sequences, form concepts, and remember things.

Gladwell’s point is not that we should all watch Blue’s Clues (though it might not hurt), but rather that the psychology of what makes something stick with us is not always obvious. We need to understand our audience and present our message accordingly. Some tricks: the more your audience can relate to the message (even something as simple as connecting the idea to their own town or neighbourhood), and the more engaged someone is (making them play a game with the information, or even just take notes with a physical pen and paper), the more something will stick. Teachers and preachers and politicians and advertising agencies have all studied this, and we’re getting very good at making messages stick.

The Power of Context

One of the things that shapes us and our thoughts the most is the context or environment around us. We talk a lot about the impact of nurture, as though parents can program their children (“raise up a child in the way that they should go…”), but we tend to neglect or ignore the rest of our context (peer influence, political climate, physical environment).

As an example of the power of context, Gladwell looks at the New York crime wave of the 80’s and 90’s, which declined very suddenly and rapidly without a clear cause. One criminologist suggested the “broken window effect”: a broken window in a home or business gives everyone passing by the impression that nobody cares for that building, and even that nobody is in charge (i.e., nobody takes responsibility to fix it). This functions, on a subconscious level, as a type of permission: nobody did anything about one broken window, so maybe I’ll break a window too. Using this theory, New York authorities launched a campaign to clean up major crimes like stabbings by tackling little crimes, like graffiti and fare jumping in the subway. Attention to little things in the environment had a major effect on the people, and major crimes reduced drastically. (I should point out that Freakonomics has challenged this theory, but it’s a digression here.)

Another example Gladwell gives of the way context shapes our behaviour hits close to home. A study of this concept featured Seminary students who were giving lectures on the story of the Good Samaritan. Before their lecture was supposed to start, some were told that they had extra time while others were told that they were already late. On the route to the lecture hall, the experimenters had positioned someone dressed as a homeless person who pretended to be in obvious distress, so that the seminarians would have to walk right past them. Of those who were told they had extra time, 63% stopped to help the person; of those told they were already late, only 10% stopped to help. Obviously these pastors-to-be are aware of the command to love thy neighbour as thyself – they were going to teach others to do that very thing! – but something in their context shaped the way their eyes saw the scene, their perception of other people and needs in relation to their own.

Some Criticism of the North American Church

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, because I don’t think I want the church to be a social epidemic like a fad (I think one of the reasons that it’s so shallow in North America is because it is pretty fad-ish already), but there are some obvious things we can learn here to address the much lamented notion that the church is in decline in North America.

  1. We’ve cut out the theology mavens. The North American evangelical church has a history of anti-intellectualism, and while the extent of this viewpoint varies from one denomination to the next, at the parishioner level it is extremely common. In my own tradition (Pentecostalism), one of the founders of my movement quit school because he believed that his learning was interfering with his ability to be led by the Holy Spirit. Theology mavens still exist – there are more seminarians than there are churches to pastor – but they often sit quietly in churches where their input is not welcomed, much less sought out. Increasingly, they leave evangelical denominations for other traditions in which their knowledge is valued, following the “Canterbury Trail” to the Anglican tradition, or the “Road to Rome” (Roman Catholicism), or increasingly, seeking the contemplative and mystic traditions of the Orthodox church. The church is full of highly important knowledge and ideas, and there are plenty of theology mavens to spread them around, but they’ve been almost systematically silenced or marginalized. (One solution, I would argue, is to increase education requirements for clergy; in my experience, churches that have highly educated clergy do not have the same level of anti-intellectualism.)
  2. We’ve limited the connectors. A connector is a person who has their feet in a lot of different circles, but the insular nature of North American evangelical culture tries to bring all aspects of society into a shared, smaller, christianized circle. Rather than Christians rubbing shoulders with people with different backgrounds and ideas at business events, we have Christian business events. Christian music, movies, societies, businesses, publishers, shipping companies (yup, even there)…for a connector in the church, there may only be one circle: the church itself. We have never lacked for connections within the church, but we should not be surprised at our lack of connections to the world when we’ve worked so hard to create a subculture that is insulated so thoroughly from it.
  3. We’ve overstated the abilities and responsibility of our salesmen. One of the things that Gladwell points out is that when marketers saturate one particular form of connection, it becomes so commonplace that we tune it out. We screen our calls to avoid telemarketers, and filter our emails to avoid spam, and refuse to make eye contact with people handing out flyers (or preaching redemption) on the street. The Protestant church has always emphasized the role of preaching, and the North American evangelical church in particular has always celebrated our preachers. We have no lack of salesmen, and we’ve honed the craft to an incredible extent, but I think we’ve saturated the potential for that format. Even for faithful Christians who attend weekly, how many remember even decent sermons a few hours afterwards? (I must admit, I don’t.) Further, without theology mavens to continually bring forward new theological ideas, our salesmen (preachers) often end up recycling content, or writing topical sermons with little theological grounding, depending more on their salesmanship than on the stickiness of the message.
  4. We’ve tried too hard to make our message sticky, and in the process made it stick even less. I’ve been seeing a culture war within the church over the past decade or more, between those who want to accommodate the message to the outside culture and those who want to control the inside culture. It seems to me that both sides of that equation are using Christian subculture as the metric, defining their message as either cultural or counter-cultural in relation to a culture that is just as far from Christian tradition as it is from mainstream secular culture. In my experience, the churches that are actually reaching out to the people around them aren’t concerned with a Christian subculture at all, whether to reinforce it or differentiate themselves from it; they’re just busy being like Jesus in the world. And that sends a message that was always, and remains, incredibly sticky.

But the thing I most want to talk about, if you can stick with me a little further, is the role of the church in forming the context or environment in which we all live.

Hacking the Context

One of the big messages of The Tipping Point is that effective social epidemics (and social change) is usually very subtle. You can’t just put up billboards or run a political campaign to change the world. The most subtle influence of all of those mentioned is context, and I think that’s where Christians can have the greatest impact – not to make a “Christian” environment or nation, but to make a better one, and in so doing to glorify God. Let’s look at the examples that Gladwell uses.

New York’s crime wave dropped off suddenly, and Gladwell attributes that to city officials putting more resources into sprucing the place up a bit and enforcing vandalism laws effectively – but it took them a decade to catch on. What if the church, seeing degrading conditions, voluntarily stepped into the breach and spruced up their neighbourhoods themselves?

In another example, Gladwell looks at the way that the spread of syphilis in Baltimore fluctuates not only based on the weather (it slows down in winter, and picks up again in summer), but also based on how well-staffed medical clinics in the area are; when medical budgets were cut and lineups at clinics increased, people who had syphilis had less access to the clinic and might be passing the disease for several additional weeks before discovering they were infected. But there was a time when churches funded needed medical services in their community – why wait for politicians to address needs?

We have given over responsibility for our context to the government, and then organize politically to try to control the government. The point of the church as an organized entity, though, is to serve the needs of others as Christ did. Jesus could have lobbied the government of his day to purge the Gerasenes of idol worship in order to improve that context, but instead he went over there and cast out demons. The majority of the Gerasenes did not benefit directly from Jesus’ visit (they were terrified and asked him to leave), but you can bet their lives improved now that a legion of demons were no longer terrorizing them in the form of a crazed man who slept among the tombs and wailed through the night. In that sense, the concrete action of Christ helped them far more than any government action there could have. Their environment was transformed in a positive way.

I recognize that not every church is in a city with a crime wave or syphilis epidemic, but I do wonder what our towns and cities would look like if churches took responsibility for their neighbourhoods and addressed those contexts without waiting for government action. Do the people who live in our neighbourhoods even know we’re there? Aside from seeing the programs advertised on our church signs, do they notice us at all? Is the neighbourhood better off for having us there? Do the neighbours benefit from our presence?

I’m not saying that every church needs to advertise their presence all over the neighbourhood – quite the opposite. Nor am I suggesting that the church should be a hub of gentrification, fixing shutters and repainting walls whether people want it or not. But I know that there are needs everywhere, and with some careful thought we can address the needs in our sphere of influence without hammering people over the head with programs and sermons, and actually improve our context with results disproportionate to our effort. But that means finding out how we fit into our context, how we affect our environment. Hard work, but worthwhile.

What do you think? How can your church serve as a tipping point to improve the context of your neighbourhood?

Biohacking/Transhumanism/Self-Evolution, and the Doctrine of Creation

I’ve been on a Note to Self kick lately. If you’re into podcasts, I highly recommend it. It is a “tech podcast about being human”, or basically about how we interact with technology and whether or not that enriches our lives. They’ve just been through a mini-series of episodes about biohacking – that is, tech that manipulates the way our bodies function. They tried out apps that will supposedly help you kick your sugar habits, wearable tech that uses electricity to manipulate your brain states (to give you your morning boost without coffee, for example, or your evening chill time without wine), and finally talked to a guy who tracks biometric data and experiments on himself in order to increase his body’s performance.

At one point in this episode about biohacking, the term “self-evolution” came up. Dave Asprey, the biohacker, firmly believes that we can take control of our own evolution, at least as individuals, through applying our knowledge and technology to improve the performance of our bodies and the quality – and length – of our lives. This is not a new concept, and for years I’ve been hearing about “transhumanism”, which often takes the dream of living forever through technology to the point of androids (human/robot hybrids) as a way of preserving human consciousness in a body that will not break down or be vulnerable to disease or damage. That doesn’t seem to be the way that Asprey is going, but it may be that he’s simply too practical for such dreams; he wants to know how he can live better today, rather than speculate about technologies that could possibly allow us to download our consciousness into a robot body.

This concept, and especially the term “self-evolution”, immediately made me think of the Christian doctrine of Creation. Many Christians are deeply opposed to any notion of transhumanism or biohacking based on their understanding of Creation. If God created us precisely as we are, ex nihilo, then biohacking takes on the appearance of tampering with the sacred. Who are we to “improve” on God’s design? Traditionally, this has been an argument against tattoos and body piercings. This is often also the basis for Christian opposition to transgendered rights: many believe that transgendered people are simply delusional, and that a sex change operation does not in fact change their sex or gender, resulting in a person who is now biologically confused as well as cognitively confused about themselves. In their view, allowing transgendered rights (as simple as going to the bathroom that matches their perceived gender rather than their biological sex) is only compounding the problems and pains of transgendered people, who ultimately need to find peace with the body that God, in his infinite wisdom, has given them. This view is typically based in a literal, 6-day creation reading of Genesis, but not necessarily; it is possible to hold that God used evolution to achieve his ends, but still had very specific ends in mind in regard to human bodies, and therefore it would still be problematic to change them drastically.

But the first thing I thought of in regard to the doctrine of Creation is not that transhumanism somehow violates it, but that it may indeed be a continuation of it. In Human Significance in Theology and the Natural Sciences, Christopher L. Fischer examines the work of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Protestant), Karl Rahner (Catholic), and John Zizioulas (Orthodox), with the aim of showing that we ought to hold to a critical anthropocentrism – that is, that both science and Christian faith both hold that humanity is somehow special in comparison to the rest of the universe. But what he shows along the way is that all three of these theologians (and by representation, all three major strands of Christianity) fit well with the notion of evolution; that is, they hold that God did not create us ex nihilo, but that creation is an ongoing process – that is, we are always evolving and growing. What stood out to me when I read it, especially in the summary of Rahner’s views on this, is that all three to some extent hold that creation is something that God allows us to participate in as co-creators. That is, we have a hand in how the earth and its creatures will continue to evolve and change – and we also have a say in our own evolution.

That we have a hand in our own evolution seems obvious: our ability to biohack has grown exponentially over the past century, and even over the past decade. While I do not share Asprey’s confidence in technology allowing us to live to 180 within my lifetime, technology has certainly changed the way that we live in the distant past (think of the difference between hunter-gatherers and agrarian societies) and the recent past (think of the difference in quality and length of life in the past century). There has also been much written about the way that our socially constructed world has taken a major role in our evolution, while the role of the physical environment in our evolution has been minimized; that is, while evolution is “survival of the fittest”, the natural world is no longer the thing that kills us off, as our survival depends more on our ability to cooperate with other humans than it does on our ability to escape wild beasts or find food for ourselves. Many Christians deny that we have any ability to affect the direction of human history, whether by warming the planet or by any political actions – that is, they hold that God is totally in control of all things, and “progress” is either a myth or a result of God’s sovereign hand guiding history. But these three theologians say otherwise, holding that the thing that makes human beings significant is precisely that we, as co-creators, have an active role in shaping what we are becoming. The ultimate end of our becoming or our evolution is to be like Christ, the true human, and we are invited to participate in this and have the freedom to do so – or the freedom to become something else, at least on an individual basis.

In light of the notion that humanity participates in its own ongoing creation (or evolution), the notion of self-evolution that Asprey is talking about doesn’t seem so blasphemous. Foolhardy, maybe, as he experiments with his own brain function and heart rate, but not blasphemous. If God allows us to participate in our own progress toward Christlikeness and the Kingdom of God, surely living longer and healthier than our current bodies allow is not a contrary goal, is it? If we are co-creators with God, are there theological limits on our ability to tinker with our physical bodies?

What do you think? Is biohacking and transhumanism the next step in human evolution? Is it a way to participate in God’s ongoing work of creation?

Thinking and Feeling

A trend that has caught some attention recently is the increase in “trigger warnings,” which allow people who have been traumatized to know if they should avoid a particular article, lecture, film, course, etc. that might trigger difficult emotional responses or even flashbacks to their trauma. Such trigger warnings are increasingly commonplace, and controversial: some argue that putting warnings on anything that might trigger a negative emotional response sanitizes the world and makes it nearly impossible to talk about anything. This is seen as an extension of the so-called doctrine of “politically correct” or “PC” speech that politicians and talking heads like Donald Trump say is emblematic of a breakdown in society. Some take it as an infringement on their right to free speech, others merely an inconvenience, and others as a sign of weakness.

This post is not about being politically correct. I brought this trend up because it points to another trend, which is that we’re more aware of mental health issues than ever before, and presumably we have more mental health issues than ever before (though that’s hard to tell, if we did not identify them in the past). Put differently, we’re aware of our feelings more than ever, and we’re taking steps to protect them. Counselling was only for the weak when I was a kid, but is commonplace now. Anti-bullying groups and legislation are working to stop playground – and increasingly, online – harassment and assault against kids and teens, and such programs are usually very well supported by the community (unless they are specifically aimed at those who bully gay kids, but that’s a story for another day too).

But not everyone, even among those who support anti-bullying clubs (at least in principle), thinks that this increasing awareness of our feelings and the desire to protect those feelings is a good thing. And not just for free speech concerns either. There is a legitimate argument here: sometimes we’re offended by things that we shouldn’t be offended by, and sometimes being offended can be a good thing. For example, I regularly see Christians get offended by things they feel go against their religion; as a Christian who has studied Christianity extensively over the last dozen years, the things that some Christians take to be anti-Christian often baffle me. I’ve even seen examples of Christians offended by genuine expressions of orthodox, mainstream Christianity, showing their ignorance of their own faith tradition. When that happens, I feel offended by their ignorant backlash, and I’m glad that I haven’t become so cynical as to not be bothered by the way my religion gets absolutely butchered and misrepresented in such situations. I’m offended when people are cruel or cold to others, too, because I see our shared humanity being disrespected. If we cover up all of the things that offend us because we don’t like feeling offended, how can we ever actually address injustice? If survivors of the residential school system hadn’t come forward to tell their deeply unsettling stories, would we ever move toward reconciliation?

But some take the concern further, saying that this awareness of our feelings and desire to protect them undermines our ability to think. I came across this meme a few days ago:


This is obviously an old quote, but it’s making the rounds on Facebook. I don’t know the original context, but the way it is presented here draws a distinction between thinking and feeling that should not exist. It is somewhat possible to separate them, and the fact that it is possible is evidenced by the way people devalue feeling and elevate thinking when they pass stuff like this around. It is evidenced by the way that an entire generation of apologists value being right more than they value the feelings of those whom they believe are wrong. Me saying so is undoubtedly unfair: most of these apologists are explicitly concerned with the eternal salvation of those with and about whom they debate. But nevertheless, they continue to say and do things that hurt people, and when those people complain about being hurt they resort to this theory that people simply feel too much and think too little, and confuse their feeling with thinking.

Here’s the thing about feeling: it is entirely subjective. We have never had the myth that feeling is objective, like we have with thinking. For the past few hundred years (the “modern” era) we have held the delusion that we can think objectively, that what is obvious to one person ought to be recognized as truth by others because it merely reflects reality. This way of thinking was challenged by postmodern views, which point out that our thinking is almost entirely subjective and that true objectivity is either nearly or entirely impossible. But we’ve always known this about feelings – some people are more sensitive than others. Some people are moved to tears by a sunset, while others have no pity for a puppy with only one leg (remember Strongbad, anyone?). We’ve historically found social uniformity with feelings mostly by making sensitive people suppress their emotions (usually by calling them names like “wuss” and “pussy”), which is probably why it took us so long to realize just how crucial mental health is to a healthy person and a healthy society. We now know that emotional trauma even has physiological effects, and are discovering that many people with physical symptoms like obesity or drug addiction have been using such things to hide/treat childhood trauma. So while the extent and importance of feeling is becoming increasingly apparent, we’ve always known that people feel differently and for different reasons – but compared to the universal objectivity of critical thinking, subjective feelings were deemed illusory, contradicting, and maybe even dangerous.

But now that we realize that thinking is not objective, we can no longer make such a separation. We now recognize that we see the world through a unique lens that is shaped by our previous knowledge and experience – the same things that shape our feelings. We are able to think about almost anything, but inevitably our feelings reveal our true beliefs and worldview, which we hold largely subconsciously.

Christians deal with this all the time: we recognize the difficulty of turning our beliefs into actions or a way of life is terribly difficult. In church this morning, the pastor pointed out that Peter really believed that he was ready to die with Jesus and would not abandon him. The scene in which Peter realizes that he has abandoned Jesus so is terribly poignant. Did Peter’s feelings and instincts for self-preservation overcome his belief, or did his actions simply exemplify a level of commitment that turned out to be less than he believed it was? Was it his feelings that were at fault, or his thinking? Did he just lack courage, or did he overestimate the amount of courage he actually had? The answer, of course, is both.

Traditionally, the church has upheld three integrated points of discipleship: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. The fact that my spellchecker only recognizes the first of these three words goes to show how much we have valued one of these above the others. Orthodoxy, or right belief, has unfortunately taken precedence for I-don’t-know-how-long.  Orthopraxy, or right actions, has been deemed too Catholic by most Protestant churches, which emphasize the saving grace of God over (and apart from) works or actions. And orthopathy, or right “affections”…well, I had to look the term up, and I only became aware of its existence at all halfway through Seminary. The point is, these three things are interrelated: we can say that we have integrity only if our thoughts, feelings (desires), and actions all align, but for at least the last few hundred years we’ve only seen integrity as an alignment between beliefs and actions, leaving affections out of it entirely.

With that in mind, I think it is absolutely fantastic that feeling is in fashion right now. Yes, many people are feeling things that are based on wrong beliefs, and that’s a problem! But the problem is their wrong beliefs, not their wrong feelings; their connection between thinking and feeling is an important one, and while it is totally legitimate to correct wrong beliefs, we must recognize that their feelings are not right or wrong at all. Feelings are objective, in the sense that we cannot choose or change them – they just exist, as a natural response to our experience and beliefs. We cannot criticize someone who is overly sensitive for feeling, nor can we dismiss their feelings without dismissing them as human beings. Our feelings are part of us, and rarely subject to our rational choices.

What we can do instead is recognize a person’s feelings, validate them as a legitimate response to their perceptions and experience, and then address any misperceptions they may have that led to their emotional response. Because not only is it rude and dehumanizing to dismiss or ignore or ridicule someone’s feelings, it’s actually counter-productive – because no matter how much we talk about the primacy of logical reasoning, in a stressful situation our feelings guide our actions more than our thoughts do. When we experience great stress, our prefrontal cortex (the decision-making, logical, rational part of our brain) shuts down and we go into a sort of auto-pilot (often referred to as fight-or-flight mode), and we take actions that are based on things much deeper than thought – but our feelings are still powerfully present even when we can’t think straight. So the next time someone asks for a trigger warning, take it as a sign that they would prefer to remain rational rather than being plunged into the high-emotion low-rationality state of recurring trauma.

My son is a constant reminder to me of the importance of recognizing and validating the feelings and desires of others. Toddlers are experiencing many emotions, sometimes for the first time and always uncontrollably, and it often causes them to act out in ways that they would actually not prefer. When a kid has a tantrum, it’s almost always because they’re feeling something and they don’t know what to do with it; telling them that you know what it is they desire (“I know you want that toy”) is usually enough to calm them down, because they know that being understood helps them to understand themselves. That’s the brilliance of human community: we know by being known, and we deal with emotions by sharing them with others. We call this compassion. All of this is just as true for adults as it is for children.

So be careful with the affections of others, and recognize that their emotions may precede, but certainly inform, their understanding and knowledge. Just as our own integrity depends on the interplay between our beliefs, affections, and actions, so too our health, relationships, and ability to communicate also depend on all three things. So rather than pitting thinking against feeling, recognize that it is only by recognizing someone’s feelings that you can find out what they really think.

Kevin Garcia burst my bubble, and it hurts

Kevin Garcia posted an article today about being in an abusive relationship with his church. It’s good, you should read it. In it, he talks about how difficult it is for a queer Christian to feel truly welcome, loved, and accepted in a church that is not affirming of homosexuality.

We are the ones having to be brave, sensitive, nuanced, vulnerable, and accommodating in nearly every scenario. And often times, we’re expected to give a full apologetics on our theological backing for living fully outside the closet as queer Christians.

That’s not relationship or conversation. That’s playing defense.

And it gets super tiring.

I walk into a space, and automatically I’m having to justify my existence. I can’t ever just be. Even with my small group, the place where I’m most longing for that intimacy and connection, there is tension.

This is a great example of the need for what Wendy Vanderwal-Gritter calls “Generous Spaciousness,” or creating a space where people can just be without having to justify themselves. This should be normal in church, a place completely covered by grace so that no sin or perceived sin can place conditions on or otherwise influence our love for one another.

There’s so much in Kevin’s article that I agree with, but I’m having trouble getting past a few things:

It is easy for a straight person or pastor trying to figure out how to love their queer parishoners well to say things like “we need to choose love and relationship over agreement.”  As a heterosexual individual, you don’t have to justify your life or your existence or your marriage or your theology to the vast majority of our culture, let alone the vast majority of Christians.

I get a lot of people who look at me and say, “Well, I’m not sure where I land, I just know that it’s my job to love you and love all gay people. Because at the end of the day, we’re all sinners, right?”

My gut reaction to that? It must be nice not to have to pick a side.

And I bet if I didn’t show up at your church, in your small group, you wouldn’t have had to think about it at all. Sorry to burst your bubble.

And that may sound harsh, but honestly, really, all you straight people out there are so damn lucky.

I really get that it’s much more difficult for gay Christians than straight Christians – that somehow generous spaciousness already applies to me, and not to queer believers. There are no elephants in my room, so to speak. But as much as it may be easier for me, I think Kevin does allies a huge disservice by saying that it’s easy. Please allow me to illustrate with my own story.

I’ve been studying theology formally for the past dozen years. Eight years ago I was pretty staunchly in the anti-gay camp, not in the sense that I wanted to stone anyone, but in the sense that I couldn’t read the relevant texts any other way: homosexuality was clearly a sin in the Bible, and the Bible shaped my whole worldview. I had studied the issue extensively, getting right down to the Hebrew and Greek of the relevant verses, and I felt very secure in my view of homosexuality on that basis. Arguments for different readings were becoming more and more common, but they seemed to me to be attempts to justify or get around what were obviously very unambiguous texts. I was grieved by the negative way many people perceived these texts, but felt sure that the text outweighed any other factors: homosexuality must be a choice in order for it to be sinful, and if it’s sinful it must be a choice, with the subjective perceptions of individual experience by homosexuals being, sadly, just plain wrong.

As I continued to study, my hermeneutic changed. I learned a lot more about the literary nature of the text, and changing standards of morality throughout the Bible. The tension between the prophetic and the priestly. But those particular texts are deeply priestly, and as much as I prefer the prophetic and can recognize the tension, I can’t dismiss the priestly, and I still have trouble with the arguments that dismiss those texts as referring to something else – the evidence for that, even after years of study and better arguments appearing, seems just a little bit too weak. Other arguments have become more helpful: more than ever, I read all of the Bible through the lens of Jesus, and I have a hard time imagining Jesus selectively and aggressively picking on homosexuality over and above other sins; I read the Bible theologically more and more, and my theology is similarly not so selective, and more concerned about systemic evil and God’s identification with the oppressed; and I am frequently comforted by the work of the Holy Spirit in Acts 15, whose presence and empowerment of Gentile believers caused the early church to accept that God loves whomever God chooses regardless of the rules. But those problematic texts are still there, alongside the ones where God commands genocide.

During this period of theological development, I also learned a lot about homosexuality. I’ve watched friends from Bible college come out with enormous backlash from their churches. I’ve watched friends from high school come out and carry on long-term and seemingly very happy and healthy relationships. I’ve had friends who are staunch queer allies correct my assumptions about homosexuality and gender normativity. I’ve read about a gender spectrum, a sexual spectrum, chromosomes, and socially constructed gender. I’ve even had friends confide in me about their own journey of accepting their sexuality in the church. Knowing just a little bit about the depth of their hurt, it became increasingly clear to me that I need to love and serve them unconditionally, no matter what those problematic texts say.

And that’s where it isn’t easy. While I’m no longer a biblicist (that is, I now see the Bible as witness to God in Jesus Christ, rather than itself being divine revelation floating down from heaven), the Bible is still fairly central to my identity as a follower of Christ. To count myself as an ally to LGBTQ+ people, believers and non, I live with a dissonance that cuts to the core of who I am. I’ve found a way to keep that dissonance from ripping me apart, and I do that by subordinating the importance of certain texts to the importance of loving and serving unconditionally. I really do say things like “Well, I’m not sure where I land, I just know that it’s my job to love all gay people. Because at the end of the day, we’re all sinners, right?” I don’t usually include the second sentence, or even specify “gay people” rather than just “people”, but my point is simply that saying this costs me.

By saying this, I have chosen a side. I have chosen to be an ally to LGBTQ+ people, even when I feel like I might be encouraging them to sin, might even be working against God. I don’t feel that way often, but those texts nag at me whenever I think about them, so I mostly choose not to think about them at all. I’ve chosen to sacrifice my integrity as a reader and interpreter of the Bible, to stop revisiting the same texts over and over again because resolving them is too hard and comes with too high of a cost. I’ve chosen a cop-out answer to the most difficult texts, even though by doing so I not only feel like a fraud, but I get called on that cop-out by people on both sides of the issue.

What compounds this for me is that I’m trained to be a pastor as well as a theologian. My theologian side is okay with mystery, but still has a lot of pride tied up in my ability to interpret the Bible well. But my pastoral side is subject to denominational faith statements and the views of any church that might hire me. They’re not exactly knocking my door down with job offers, but even if I were in high demand, I have to satisfy both parties (the denomination and the congregation) with clear, unequivocal statements. By being an ally, I have actually limited my influence in church circles where it is perhaps needed most. But while my theological and pastoral training compounds the issue for me, it also gives me the tools to continue to work through the theological and pastoral issues; for the average person in the average church, it must be much more difficult to navigate those difficult texts. For the average believer becoming an ally must be an even bigger deal, because it probably means going against the word of someone in a position of pastoral and theological authority in their lives. Their cognitive dissonance and professional pride might be less of an issue, but their social dissonance is probably much bigger than mine.

So no, it’s absolutely not easy for straight parishioners or pastors to choose love and relationship over agreement. Our identity as followers of Christ is central, and the Bible is central to our understanding of Christ. We do not set aside texts lightly, and we cannot do so without a deep cost. I look forward to a day when I can read the whole Bible without any sense of dissonance and love everyone without reference to the text, and I think that day might actually come. But in the meantime, I’ll continue to feel uncomfortable with the issue of homosexuality in the church, not because I need you to explain yourself, but because I can’t explain myself or feel okay with the fact that I’ve ignored parts of the text that I can’t come to terms with. My room, and the church, are full of our own elephants. It just might be that constantly calling on queer people to explain their theology and sexuality is projection of our own discomfort with the texts, not with you.

Our “unconditional love”, as Kevin’s friend Matthias points out, is rarely unconditional or even particularly loving. We suck at this. I’ve had super awkward conversations with other believers – hopefully not condescending, as he describes – but they were with seniors or people with very different political views more than with any gay believers. There are so many things that divide us, whether it is generations or politics or theology or just plain social awkwardness. I’m not saying any of this to minimize the struggle that queer people deal with in the church – it is so, so real, and we need to hear more about it and be reminded of it. But I’m saying this simply to point out that it’s awkward all around, and not all of it is outward-oriented; very little of my awkwardness is about you, it’s almost entirely about me. And I’m willing to bet that that’s the rule, not the exception.

Sometimes when we feel rejected, we say “what’s your problem?!” or “it’s your loss!” I’m recognizing the truth of those statements more and more. So if you ever feel like an outsider who’s been pushed aside, or feel like your allies offer cheap support, remember that it really is our problem – we’re just exhibiting our own issues, self-consciousness, and sinfulness. I’m sorry that it hurts you; it hurts us too, and we need to be aware of your hurt and ours, because most of us are in denial about it. The more we all realize that, the more likely we are to create genuine generous spaciousness, and give and receive the real grace and acceptance that we all need. So please, keep sharing these stories, they make a difference; I hope mine has too.

Scapegoating in a Globalized World

I’m powering through the five-part podcast series “The Scapegoat” on CBC’s Ideas. It was originally aired in 2001, but was re-released recently in the wake of Rene Girard’s death last Fall. It explores Girard’s thought in a series of interviews with Girard and a few other scholars.

Tonight I listened to part 4, which brought up the fact that there are two types of mimetic rivalry: external, and internal. But first let’s talk about mimetic rivalry in general.

Girard’s central insight is that human beings are inherently mimetic: we imitate each other, particularly when it comes to desire. I desire what you have, imitating your desire for what you have. You then see that I desire what you have, and your own desire for it becomes all the stronger. But this shared or mimetic desire therefore leads to mimetic rivalry: we both want what you have, and begin to compete with one another for it. But as I compete with you for what you have, you then imitate my competition, so that eventually the mimesis is not about the object of the initial desire at all, but rather about each other. We each call upon the other to imitate ourselves, while also seeking to imitate the other, and in so doing get in each others’ way. Girard holds that this tension and rivalry is the root of human violence, and that religious sacrifice of a scapegoat is a way of channelling that violence onto a common enemy of the community to discharge the tension that threatens the peace of the community. The incredible contribution of first Judaism and then especially Christianity is that it exposes religious sacrifice for what it truly is, a system of controlling and discharging that violence, and that the victim or scapegoat is in fact innocent.

In part four of this series, Girard talks about two types of mimesis: external, and internal. External mimesis is when we imitate someone with whom we cannot compete, and therefore it is imitation without rivalry. We cannot compete with this other person because of a distance between us, whether that is physical distance (in space or time, such as when we imitate a hero from the past or from another country) or social distance (as when we imitate a parent or a person from another social class with whom we could not effectively become a rival). Girard holds that the course of history is toward more and more internal mimesis, and therefore more rivalry; and while his theory of why this is has primarily to do with psychology, I see a different cause – not that they are mutually exclusive, but sadly, probably cumulative.

Globalization is a complex social process by which the world becomes more and more economically interdependent, socially smaller, and culturally integrated. Globalization, then, has reduced or removed the social and physical distance that keeps some mimesis external, allowing for much more internal mimesis.

As we become more democratic, the social distance between different classes disappears: if a hundred years ago a blue collar worker wanted to imitate a banker, they would have tremendous difficulty doing so, whereas now there are social forums in which their different levels of wealth and connections are to some extent set aside, allowing mimetic rivalry where before none was possible. Further, the American Dream is mimetic: a Donald Trump explicitly invites competition with new rivals, and uses the mythology of the American Dream to level the playing field with would-be rivals in order to better induce their mimesis, using their imitation and perceived competition as a way to gain their identification with him, and therefore to gain their support for his presidential nomination. Democracy and cultural shifts have removed the social distance element of external mimesis, making internal mimesis with those to whom we are physically close more possible and likely.

But globalization has also reduced physical distances, not only through transportation (because you can fly around the world in a day), but also through the internet (a new place that is easily accessible from almost anywhere in the world), and through immigration and cultural integration (or lack thereof). For example, let’s say that I want to imitate Tony Robbins, the self-help guru: we’re both enormously large people (he’s much bigger, which just makes me want to surpass him in other ways even more!) who speak in public and write (hopefully) inspirational things. In fact, his whole schtick as an inspirational speaker is largely inviting mimesis: he invites our imitation explicitly, and also implicitly by modelling success and linking it to the principles he preaches. So if I were to take some of those principles and start preaching them in my own words, perhaps even initially giving him credit, I would eventually run into conflict with him when it turns out that we are each holding super-exclusive conferences in the same city on the same weekend! My imitation of him has now become rivalry with him because of our physical proximity, because these days guys like Tony and I just fly around to new places all the time. Of course, it would likely turn to rivalry much sooner, probably as soon as I first published a blog post on a website that competes with his. A hundred years ago if he was in the US and I was in Canada, our paths would likely never cross and if they did it would be non-confrontational, but in the internet age we are in immediate rivalry.

The immigration aspect of rivalry is a bit scarier, and it incorporates another important sociological and theological concept: representation. For decades now, the “clash of civilizations” model has been prevalent. The basic idea is that Eastern (i.e., Muslim) and Western civilizations cannot coexist, and will eventually come into direct conflict. This is of course not at all necessary or inevitable, but many believe that it is. This idea goes back for ages, but it has taken on a large following in the last few decades because globalization has put East and West in close proximity: a comment on the internet or in the press today can lead to international war tomorrow. While it is common for the scapegoat to come from among us, in cases of war the scapegoat comes from a rival group or clan – in this case, from Islam.

There are enormous tensions in our society (economic inequality, race issues, environmental issues, gender and sexuality, etc.) that can be overcome by giving us a common enemy, the scapegoated Muslim. On the other end there are enormous tensions as well, many of them legitimately linked to the Western military and economic domination of the Middle East for the last 40-50 years, but many internal too – poverty, clan warfare, religious ideological divides, etc. While the West tends to scapegoat a leader (Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden) or a faction (the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Daesh) and use it as pretext for an invasion, angry Eastern militants lack the military power for such tactics, and instead declare war on the West in general and then gruesomely execute individual westerners.

This is where representation comes in. Daesh doesn’t particularly care who they execute, so long as they’re a white westerner, the more prestigious the better. To them, each one of those people is representative of the West, of American military oppression, etc. They are symbolic representatives of their enemies, and therefore symbolic victories. Typically, it is the only type of victory they can achieve against superior military rivals.

For the West, the representation goes the other way: to attack a single person, we invade a nation and kill hundreds of thousands of people. Let that sink in: Daesh kills individuals in order to achieve a type of victory over a massive enemy, while we kill masses of people to achieve victory over individual enemies. (This in no way justifies what Daesh does, but we need to keep our own actions in perspective.)

But with immigration, representation goes the other way for us too. Daesh kills individual white people largely because white people are hard to find in their part of the world – usually only Western soldiers or journalists, perhaps some aid workers. But meanwhile, while we are at war with a foreign group like Daesh who claim to be motivated by Islam, there are millions of Muslims in North America. It is very easy for us to scapegoat those Muslims who live among us for the crimes of Daesh half a world away, and we’ve seen that in an increase in violence against Muslims and vandalism toward mosques in the past year.

So while the fight against Daesh can serve as a scapegoat for all of our internal pressures and politics, relieving the tensions we carry about race and sexuality and other hot-button political issues, the tension we carry about fighting Daesh gets relieved by attacking the individual Muslims or other immigrant outsiders in our own midst. Our scapegoating is now serialized.

This type of serial scapegoating will only increase because of the smaller world created by globalization. Once upon a time, having a common enemy on the other side of the world provided an ongoing release of internal tension by setting up a rivalry that could not be consummated due to the physical distance and sheer cost of doing so – so we could feel free to hate, say, the Chinese, because we would never actually meet them. Once upon a time we could dream about a class revolution, when we would finally get what was ours from the rich bankers and elites who barely knew we existed, but not yet, so we’ll get back to work for now until we have the means to launch that revolution. We could scapegoat without actual violence, because social and physical distances kept us separated from our would-be rivals, and therefore no actual rivalries or violence ensued. Now, it would seem, violence is always available to us, always there to funnel the internal tensions created by our ever-increasing rivalry (which has become the basis for our economic systems), allowing us to drop bombs in Iraq to keep from exploding into civil war or murder at home.

More than ever, we need Christ, who is the anti-scapegoat. Christ not only reveals the innocence of all scapegoats, but also the ignorant participation of all of us in putting them (and him) to death. Girard says that becoming a Christian means acknowledging that you are a persecutor of Christ, recognizing your role in scapegoating, and following Christ in the way of defusing this cycle of rivalry and institutionalized murder. So when someone you know is ranting about Muslim immigrants (or homosexuals, or Mexicans, etc.), first be cognizant of your own status as a participant in the scapegoating and murder of Christ and so many others, and then self-consciously address the scapegoating you see. Like Christ, identify with the scapegoat and absorb that rivalry (and if necessary, that violence) into yourself willingly – not seeking it or stirring it up, but not shrinking from it either, like Christ before Pilate. While representation can lead to scapegoating, it can also undo it if we choose to represent the other, to represent the scapegoat.

Christ is the ultimate imitator, imitating God the Father and asking us to imitate him. This is the ultimate external mimesis, a mimesis without rivalry in which we imitate him who refuses all rivalry. As the conditions for internal mimesis grow, it is more crucial than ever that we imitate Christ, and in so doing, defuse rivalries – starting with our own.