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Imagination is one of the lynchpins that allows Ibn Al’Arabi and Rene Girard to be joined. They frame it differently, so it will be necessary to build a bridge between their views. I’m going to start with Ibn Al’Arabi and use his conception of the imagination to lay the groundwork into which I will then integrate some of Girard’s account of mimesis. This won’t be a single post, but a series of related ones. I’m trying to make each post short to help break down the complexity into simpler elements.

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Where to begin?

One of the challenges to a project like this is where to begin. There are levels within levels, sometimes so entangled that separating them is troublesome and the results of the separation bland and reductive. While it is easy enough to distinguish in theory the level of the Divine, of God, from the human, in practice they are intertwined deeply because we know the Divine only through our human capacities. If we look to the human, we are faced with not just our perceptions, but the psychology of our perceptions which in turn draws our attention to our reason and imagination, both difficult to free from the social forms that give them forms with which to work. Our psychology and our perception both develop within the framework of our physiology, which is implicated with the ecological world in which that physiology developed.

The advantage of Girard’s mimetic hypothesis is that it neatly unites these levels of embodied human experience as they come into play in religious life. What it does not do, though, is provide a framework for understanding human life in its spiritual fullness. It is the clay without the breath. Just as a thorough account of the person only integrates a vague horizon of the greater world in which persons move, so a strictly mimetic account of human experience only dimly illumines the spiritual world into which the person is inserted. In confronting that, we face no small challenge. The world is chocked full of accounts of spiritual beings of different shape and size, with and without strong personalities of their own. While there seems a relationship between spirit and the embodied world, it is mysterious and obscure.

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Finding the Level

I ended the last post describing the two poles that theology could stretch between, that of ‘high theology’ and ‘folk belief.’ Those terms are good enough for a start, but they won’t do for much more. They are too safe and too vague, leaving a reader too much room to interpret and me enough ambiguity to fall into abstraction. Theology details the relationship between the human and the divine, with abstract conceptions like theology and belief entering the discussion insofar as they play a part in that. So, let me phrase myself clearly: the concept of mimesis enriches our theological understanding and provides us with a way to integrate our relationship with spiritual beings into our relationship with God.

Many theologically-minded folk will find this odd, thinking either that we shouldn’t have relationships with spiritual beings outside of our relationship to God (radical monotheism) or that nothing distinguished God from other spiritual beings (polytheism). While both perspectives have well-spoken and thoughtful representatives, I don’t find these positions compelling from a devotional perspective, much less from a theological one. When I talk about integrating high theology and folk belief, I am talking about integrating monotheism with an experience of a polyvocal spiritual world.

To preserve the distinction, I will reserve the term ‘divine’ for all that which is most intimately connected to God. For the same reason, I won’t use the term ‘gods’ in the plural, except in quotation marks to indicate entities that some (to my mind mistakenly) identify as such.

Revisions Likely on the Way

There are hardly ‘regular’ readers on any blog I produce, most especially this one. Still, I want to make a little note here regarding some blog revitalizing. I haven’t posted much here at all, nothing at all recently, but the underlying project that motivated this blog continues to drive me; I just couldn’t lay hold of the right tools to start talking about it properly. The posts that precede this one were very useful to me in getting started, but are fundamentally unsatisfying. Most seem a little too concrete and a little too abstract at the same time, which is a bit of a feat.

I’m going to leave those posts up in spite of that. They present the mess around which I was working reasonably well so I don’t want to simply disavow them. I surely have some more stumbling and groping around the topic yet to do, so they’ll stay as a reminder for now. I will likely change the way in which I structured the blog, though, as it looks overly precious from my current vantage point.

I’m going to adopt a perspective that is rooted in the religious landscape delineated by the work of Rene Girard. I have a different take on how to negotiate that landscape and how to understand the forces that shaped it, but I remain convinced of the value of his account. Without withdrawing from the importance of sacrifice in resolving mimesis or of ‘Axial’ religions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, in proffering an alternative to sacrifice, I want to examine in more detail the world defined by mimesis and sacrifice.

I have two big motivations for doing so. First and foremost, mimetic religion remains an integral part of the daily life of most people, even those deeply committed to the Axial religions. Understanding the way in which that mimetic practice can support and coexist with the Axial break seems key to making theological distinctions regarding this or that religious practice. Second, though, I want to examine the ways in which mimetic religious practices defer sacrifice, becoming more complex in ways that may very well contribute to social complexity more generally.

While this is academic, it has theological payoffs. I won’t get ahead of myself here, but I do believe that a clearer understanding of mimesis can form the basis for a richer theological understanding of our relationship to the spiritual world, one that navigates between what is traditionally divided into high theology and folk belief.

Excursus on Poetry

In regards to this, when writing about the weather:

It is difficult to retain the sincerity of that ambiguity in this sort of conceptual discussion. The metaphoric and the metonymic are not entirely distinguished in it. Things are both ‘like’ and a ‘part’ of each other. When the spirit is experienced in the thundering storm, it is both ‘like’ the storm and a ‘part’ of the storm without quite yet being the storm. That needs to be kept in mind.

I am sure some would call this experience poetic. I prefer to reserve the term ‘poetic’ for other uses. While many forms of poetry have their source in this sort of experience, I don’t think the experience itself is poetic.

I would prefer to distinguish a poetic response to this experience from the experience itself, especially for this blog’s purposes. Poetry is one of many responses to this experience, an effort to replicate in words the imbrication of body, world, and thought. That, more limited, application of the term maintains the clarity I desire.

Several months ago, I wrote myself a series of notes in regard to my theological project. I keep coming back to them, praying and reflecting upon them. They have held up well and it feels proper to post them here. They are not my last word on these issues; they are merely strong middle words. They both draw together my past reflection concisely and lay out a clear direction for future work.

I reproduce them here exactly as I made them, beneath the cut. They form a pivot for me, around which my private reflections turn toward the public. They are heavily inflected with my personal intellectual shorthand, but they should be intelligible. The bold text reflects my emphasis in my original notes.

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Continuing with the theme of talking about very basic components of religious thinking, I want to do a post about weather. It is an immediate dimension of our daily life. While some of us may be more insulated from it than others, it can rarely be ignored.  We are embedded in our immediate environment that weather shapes.

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When I talk about the concrete forms of spiritual expression, I want the reader to keep in mind that the accretion of spirit to and in matter also introduces a sense of distance between these disparate expressions. Regardless of whether the divine is all one or not at the ‘highest’ level of understanding (I’m not taking a stand on that point right now), it is most definitely not one in the material world.

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Methodological Excursus

I have started this blog by focusing on topics, like color and kinship, for a specific reason.  These domains of human experience have deeply influenced how we think about the divine.  Focusing on what they contribute to theological discourse also helps me avoid overemphasizing their importance.  As I point out what they contribute, I also hope to clarify that there is a divine distinct from them.

There are a few things that follow from this that I want to make clear.

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In starting with how we think with color, I wanted to highlight how we can organize and deepen our theological thought using very basic perceptual categories.  I want to jump into a different conceptual register and examine a little how we can do that using social categories, too, starting with kinship.  Like color, patterns of kinship have a powerful and often unseen influence on how we form concepts.

In religion, where the divine is often experienced with a personality, kinship thinking is all the more pronounced.

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