Saturday, November 22, 2008

Imitation of Christ

This quarter I've been taking a class entitled "Imitation and Mimetic Theory." It's a class that integrates research on human imitation with Rene Girard's theory of mimesis (think miming). Mimesis refers to the way that humans learn about the world through imitation. One of the fundamental aspects of being human is that we imitate one another, according to Girard. This can be seen in the interaction of two toddlers: one is playing with a toy and another comes along. When the new toddler sees the one playing with the toy, he immediately wants to play with that particular toy, even if there are other toys exactly like that one. Girard believes, and I am fairly convinced, that adults interact with one another in a similar fashion, albeit more sophisticated. The result is that humans tend to get into conflict because we want the same thing.

Research on imitation has found that humans are born with an innate ability to imitate. Newborns are capable of imitating facial movements, such as tongue protrusions (i.e. sticking your tongue out at the baby) even before they get the chance to see themselves in a mirror. Scientists discovered about ten years ago how this might occur with the discovery of "mirror neurons." Mirror neurons are neurons in the brain that fire regardless if the person is performing an action or if they are watching another person perform an action. The result is that the person will have the same experience regardless if they perform an action or watch an action performed. These mirror neurons are scattered among the brain and scientists are still trying to learn more about them.

Why is this important? Mirror neurons would mean that when a toddler sees another toddler playing with a toy, they will experience pleasure as if they themselves were playing with that toy, to a limited extent. That toddler will have desire for the toy awakened in him/her and will want to play with the toy.

Advertisers have known this implicitly for years. Showing a clip of a man or woman enjoying a product will leave viewers with the neural experience of having enjoyed that product. They will want that product more after they have seen someone else want it.

Where am I going with all this? The reality is that we all imitate. We try to be like others. Not exactly like them, but in the rhythm of our lives. We want to be successful, powerful, rich, influential, charismatic, beautiful, and funny. We learn how to be this way from our parents, our peers, media, and countless other sources. We choose others as our models for how to live.

The solution is not to revoke those people as evil but to choose better models for how to live. We find people who are living their lives for a greater purpose and imitate them. We choose our friends wisely and seek to learn from them. But most importantly, we hold up Christ, who was the perfect human for whom our innate motive to imitate was designed. We live like Christ, not in being a first century Jewish rabbi, but in his rhythm of living. We choose to live out his connection with the Father, his willingness to serve, and his pursuit of perfection. That is how we turn around our God-given imitative qualities to worship Jesus as Lord, rather than ourselves.