Volume 23, Issue 2, Autumn 2018
Mimetic Wisdom: René Girard and the Task of Christian Philosophy
On Mimesis, Folkways, and the Impossibility of Christianity
Neither rationally constructed nor intentionally imposed, humans live much of their lives guided by unspoken folkway traditions passed on from generation to generation. As the American sociologist William Graham Sumner reminded us over a century ago, those norms that prescribe “acceptable” social behavior bubble up from everyday life experience, rather than imposed from the top by cultural authorities. Sumner’s insights throw further light on the mimetic theory developed by Rene Girard and offer a more nuanced understanding of how mimesis actually works. The benefit of the extraordinary grip that folkway traditions hold on us is their utilitarian value and resultant cost‑effectiveness in terms of expenditure of mental energy. We follow folkway traditions to save time and mental energy. It is the thesis of this paper that Jesus recognized this power of customary thinking as a determinant of human behavior, and it was his strategy to attack specifically those folkway traditions that were exclusionary in nature in “shocking” ways that agitated many who followed generally accepted behavioral norms. As a result, it is wrong to take Jesus for a moral law‑giver, even with such benign terms as a new “law of love,” or the like. In fact, he did not propose a new formal legal tradition, but challenged individuals to reflect consciously on their unthinking behavior and assume responsible ownership of it. To follow Jesus, therefore, does not so much imply a deeper understanding of love, but a deeper understanding of the unconscious decision‑making processes that unwittingly guide our everyday lives.