Mimesis, Complexity and Vanity of Our Conflicts

A dramatic model for the inter-religious hermeneutics

Ilkwaen Chung
Post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, 2009-10

This is the revised version of the paper presented to the The European Society for Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies Second Conference Salzburg, April 15-17, 2009 Interreligious Hermeneutics in pluralistic Europe (see www.sbg.ac.at/tkr/events/.../ESITIS-2009-Salzburg-program.pdf ).

The emerging multi-religious societies are characterized by a new complexity of interreligious encounter with all its constructive and destructive potentials. For the understanding of the cultural complexities in the pluralistic societies and in the encounter of different religions, the anthropologically-based more complex hermeneutic for the inter-religious dialog is demanding. Inspired by the mimetic theory of R. Girard as the comprehensive cultural theory, this article proposes the dramatic hermeneutics for the intercultural communication and for the sustainable and long-term conflict-resolution and peace-making. The social space along ethno-cultural lines in polyethnic, multi-cultural and multireligious societies over the last century are characterized by a new intensity and complexity of inter-religious and intercultural encounter “with all its constructive and destructive potentials” (Schwöbel 1990: 42) and presents enormous challenges to their members – both regarding the possible conflicts and the possible enrichment they offer (ibid., 30). In this postmodern age of liquid identities, indifferentiating experiences and dissolving borders, entire societies undergo the experience of risky vulnerability and fragility. Tolerance, respect, and freedom are fundamental social values for the peaceful coexistence, but they are continuously threatened and

vulnerable. 1 Human society turns out to be a fragile entity. 2 We live in a world in which reality is experienced in a more fluid, hybrid and indifferentiating way. Crises, risks and uncertainties increase, but so do creative opportunities for intercultural dialogue, learning and communication.


A complex and dramatic model for the inter-religious hermeneutics

New challenges demand new approaches. As Schwöbel has rightly observed, a book like The Myth of Christian Uniqueness emphasizes correctly the sense of urgency for the new theological tasks, but it sometimes also reflects the tendency of reducing the complexity of these tasks too quickly to programmatic proposals which restrict rather than open up creative possibilities of theological reflection and inter-religious encounter (Schwöbel 1990: 30-1). In his view, a Christian theology of religions and the hermeneutics for inter-religious dialogue based on the “disconcerting” particularity of the self-disclosure of the Trinitarian God seems to be better able to preserve the independence and distinctive particularity of the partners in dialogue (ibid., 31, 43-4). According to him, difficulties can be traced to the failure to come to terms with the complex relationship of particularity and universality in the religions, and especially in Christianity. The exclusivist view can give strong expression to the particularity and distinctiveness of Christian faith while neglecting the universality of the activity of the God. The pluralist approach, contrary to its avowed intentions, seems to tend to build up a picture of the universal noumenal focus of all religions transcending and neglecting the particular concrete religions, which allows their distinctive particularity only a penultimate and preliminary status. This does mean that all other religions lose their distinctive particularity and become examples of a general abstract notion of religion or instantiations of a general religious metaphysics (ibd., 33). Pannenberg also emphasized the necessity of the more elaborate awareness of the interreligious intricacy. A theology of the world religions that wants to be true to the “empirical situation” in the way the religious traditions confront each other “must not evade or play down

See Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) Conference 2007 at Amsterdam Free University/Netherlands, July 4 – 8. "Vulnerability and Tolerance" (http://www.bezinningscentrum.nl/links/special_links3/covr2007.shtml); Winkler 2007: 61. 2 See Schwager 2003: 1-5.


the conflict of truth claims”. There was, according to him, always “competition” and “struggle for superiority” on the basis of different truth claims. John Hick has been criticized for playing down the fact that different religions make conflicting truth claims (Pannenberg 1990: 101-2). Questioning the “ideology of ‘pluralism’” as the only possible and reasonable basis for dialogue and suggesting dialog as only one possibility in the encounter of religions (Moltmann 1990: 149-53), Moltmann rightly points out the necessity of the “plurality of modes of dialogue” and many pluralistic ways of inter-religious relations (D´Costa 1990: xix). In his view, the interreligious dialog between the religious traditions with truncated forms of religious pluralist identity, which were “sanitized” by “subjectivist ‘tolerance’” for the religious marketplace of Western society, would be not the beginning but the end of all true dialogue (Moltmann 1990: 152). Therefore the more “complex and dramatic hermeneutic” for the inter-religious dialog (Schwager/ Niewiadomski 2003: 28) is required for the realistic understanding of the pluralistic complexities in the encounter of different religions. The complex hermeneutics of cultural studies based on the more Hobbsian anthropological realism can be viewed as an alternative to the Hick’s soteriological pluralism inspired by the Kantian epistemology. René Girard, one of the most important cultural theorists of the twentieth century, provides extraordinarily innovative and wide-ranging insights, cutting across central concerns in philosophy, psychoanalysis, literary studies, cultural studies, religious studies, social-cultural anthropology, theology and sociology. Inspired by the insights of Girard, a dramatic approach for the peaceand conflict-studies and for the intercultural hermeneutics was developed. 3 The dramatic perception of the interreligious und intercultural dynamics is gradually being appreciated as a new productive approach for the intercultural and inter-religious hermeneutics. 4 For example, under the influence of Girard, a reconciliation group in the middle of the conflict in Northern Ireland has developed a view of the dynamics of the intercultural conflict, conflict reason and conflict resolution. The deeply ‘mimetic nature’ of the conflicts in Ireland is clear. Each group imitates the other in frightening way. As the similarities increase, the rivalries proliferate (See Morrow 1995: 156). As Moltmann (1990:150) has pointed out,

Niewiadomski/Schwager/Larcher 1996. Inspired by the mimetic theory of R. Girard, the interdisciplinary and internationally networked Research Platform “World Order – Religion – Violence” in Innsbruck seeks to improve the understanding of the causes of violent conflict, the possibilities for a just world order and the conditions for peaceful coexistence. See http://www.uibk.ac.at/plattform-wrg/index.html.de 4 ‘Nicht zuletzt deswegen gewinnen Vorschläge zu einem dramatischen Verständnis interreligiöser Kommunikation zunehmend an Akzeptanz’ (Wörner 2003: 24). Concerning the dramatic model inspired by Girard, see footnote 9.


religious wars within a community have always been carried out with special severity and brutality in Christianity as well as in Islam. The anthropological theory of Girard possesses the great analytical power for the analysis of these strange mimetic phenomena. 5 This mimetic antagonism can be well explained in the light of the mythological and anthropological theme of enemy twins or fraternal enemies who illustrate the conflict between those who become undifferentiated (Girard 1986: 31). The intriguing results generated by the use of Girard´s interpretative scheme when applied to the analysis of intercultural relations pose interesting challenges to social theorists and liberals. The rise of modern egalitarianism as a modern democratic dogma has caused the omnipresence of intercultural mimesis and led to the “double-bound mushrooming of envy, resentment, and violence between cultural groups” (Laurent/Paquet 1991: 176) and to the envy society. The accompanying rise of indifferentiating egalitarianism has tended to produce an intense degree of tension, passion and envy at the intercultural interface. Girard´s Fundamental Anthropology offers one of the most groundbreaking analyses of the dynamics of quasi-osmotic mimesis, envy and resentment in modern times with its new intensity and complexity of cultural interpenetration and mixing. This anthropological ‘mechanism operates not only at the interindividual level, but also at the intercultural level’: the greater the intercultural differences in wealth and power, in the face of decreed rights to equality, the greater the envy and the resentment as Tocqueville explained (ibid). The more elaborate analysis of this complicated anthropological mechanism at the intercultural and inter-religious dimension would be a suitable alternative to the more Kantian religious pluralism and to the textual hermeneutics. As Surin (1990: 206-7) notes, the proponents of religious pluralism seem to be “in a sense totally on the side of the angels.” The “complexities of centuries of dialogue, conflict and inter-religious rivalry ” (Barnes 2002:9) should not be overlooked too easily. It is not easy to deny that there is an element of (mimetic) rivalry in the inter-religious dialog. 6 Surin (1990: 206) has rightly pointed out the “simplicities of religious pluralisms” that are not adequate to the task of characterizing the complex modalities and patterns of speech typically involved in conversations between persons who belong to different religious traditions. The theory of language allows theologian of religions to
Conflicts can be read in the light of the mimetic theory: ‘…welche häufig dem Brudermord als ihrem Grundmodell analog sind (wie etwa im heutigen Nordirland)….oder wurzelhaft verwandter Religionen (wie im so genannten Nahen Osten), wo es ebenfalls nicht allein um Grund und Boden geht ’ (Wörner 2003: 20). 6 Waldenfels 1990: 26. See 7. Dialog und Konkurrenz (p. 26); 4. Begegnung und Konkurrenz der Religionen (pp. 7174); b. Konkurrenz im Bemühen um wechselseitige Inklusivität (pp. 73-4).

acknowledge that such complex notions as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and modernity are imbricated in radically different epistemes, and are therefore registered in very diverse and even incommensurable ways in the apperceptive backgrounds of those who engage in inter-religious dialogue. It needs to be noted that the anthropological space of inter-religious dialogue is complex, vast and dynamic (ibd). The discursive space of J. Hick and other pluralists turns out to be the space typical of an educated liberal Westerner (ibd., 209). In comparison with the “Western world, the home of a decaying yet persistent Christian church”, there is, as Moltmann has rightly pointed out, in Asia and Africa emerging a body of Christian believers who make no Constantinian claims and who regard no such absolutism as a necessary consequence of Christian doctrines. The missionary witness of such non-Western Christians in the midst of pluralist situations is, Moltmann (1990: 151) says, a nonviolent mission of convincing people about their faith. The emergence of nonWestern Christianity needs to be taken into consideration in understanding the new complexity of inter-religious studies. The critical and careful re-examination of the fundamental anthropological dynamics in the intercultural and inter-religious communication seems to provide a critical alternative to the theologizing of soteriological pluralists. The mainly theologizing hermeneutics needs to be deepened and widened by the cultural studies of new intercultural complexities. Different from the theological hermeneutics of religious experience based on the Kantian epistemological framework and categories, anthropological hermeneutics inspired by the keen insights of Girard does not fail to notice the human all too human passions in the inter-religious dialog and intercultural communication.

2. Mimetic theory of René Girard as a theory of conflict
Analyzing the episode in Don Quixote in which the barber´s basin (an object of mimetic rivalry) is transformed into Mambrino´s helmet, Girard (1978: 16) has pointed out “the vanity of our conflicts”. The mimetic theory as a theory of conflict 7 contribute to lessons about conflict resolution drawn from anthropology, political science, history, psychotherapy or other disciplines. By offering fundamental anthropological insight into the complex dynamics of


Palaver 2003. See 3.1. Die mimetische Theorie als Konflikttheorie.

conflict, rivalry and violence, a girardian perspective on non-violent conflict resolution seeks to promote healing, peace-making and reconciliation without scapegoating in theory and practice. 8 Girard's anthropological analysis of mimetic desire, metaphysical desire, acquisitive mimesis and mimetic rivalry as a new way of looking at the deep-seated and human all too human causes of human conflict and violence is both revealing and disturbing, but its implications are enormous and groundbreaking. An intercultural and inter-religious hermeneutic inspired by mimetic theory might be described as an anthropological criticism. This anthropologically hermeneutics takes the affective and the pathological moment of religious consciousness seriously. 9 Instead of an abstract and over-textual analysis of religions, the anthropological deepening of hermeneutics is necessary in order to tackle the complexities of cultural pluralism. According to Girard, it is not differences that drive conflict but the quasi-osmotic operating mimetic desire to possess what the other possesses. As Girard has pointed out, what is occurring today is, a mimetic rivalry on a planetary scale. 10 Anthropological turn of inter-religious hermeneutics heightened by the socio-cultural anthropological penetration paves new ways of sustainable conflict resolution and peace studies at levels from the interpersonal to the global. For example, social anthropologist, Stanley Tambiah is appreciated for his penetrating social-anthropological analysis of the contemporary central problems of ethnic violence manifested in South East Asia as well as for his original studies on the dynamics of Buddhist society (Tambiah 1996). With the help of the theory of R. Girard, he has deepened his socio-anthropological analysis of ethnic violence and conflict that had broken out between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka: And this situation may also engender a process that René Girard has elaborated on in Violence and the Sacred: the internal divisiveness and conflicts within a group or collectivity may drive its members to seek out a scapegoat and ‘sacrificially’ kill it to gain its own uncertain unity, making of this cleansing a sacred act of generative unanimity and duty (ibid., 277).

For example, see Willard M. Swartley, ed, Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking, Studies in Peace and Scripture 4 (Telford, PA: Pandora Press, 2000). 9 Influenced by the mimetic theory, Gerd Neuhaus (1999: 69) has emphasized the necessity of the “critical theory of religious consciousness”. See footnote 69. Concerning the affective and patholical, he writes: “Freilich ist das sogenannte ‘religiöse Bewusstsein’ nie nur religiöse bestimmt, sondern es ist stets in der gleichen Weise ‘pathologisch affiziert’, in der Kant auch den Akt des ‘ich denke’ affektiven Determinanten ausgesetzt sah” (p. 72). 10 "What Is Occurring Today Is a Mimetic Rivalry on a Planetary Scale." An Interview by Henri Tincq, LE MONDE, November 6, 2001. Translated for COV&R by Jim Williams. See http://www.uibk.ac.at/theol/cover/girard_le_monde_interview.html.


In his book Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka (1992), Tambiah tried to explain how adherents of a religion that espoused nonviolence could take part in a political movement marked by violent action. He has written about the anthropology of ethno-nationalism and the use of collective violence as a way of conducting politics. His socialcultural anthropological reading of the human– all too human phenomena in ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka can be regarded as an example of new approach to the intercultural hermeneutics and peace studies.


Intercultural mimesis, orientalism and postcolonial cultural studies

Hybridity, vulnerability, ambivalence and mimicry in post-colonial studies are new concepts asking for the complex hermeneutics in the pluralistic world. Post-colonial studies, hybrid identity construction, ethnology and cultural studies become a new theory-setting for the intercultural hermeneutics (Winkler 2007: 62). There are comparisons to be drawn between the girardian appropriation mimesis and a theorist of post-colonialism, Homi Bhabha’s notion of mimicry. 11 Mimesis is central to those who explore the contact zone between differences, hybridity, everyday realities of cultural mixing and the ongoing process of intercultural borrowing at the borders between different cultures. In order to comprehend the intercultural complexities in this pluralistic globalized world, it would be helpful to draw attention to what Charles Hallisey has called intercultural mimesis – a phrase denoting the cultural interchange that occurs between the native and the Orientalist in the construction of Western knowledge about the Orient. According to Richard King, Orientalism can never be unilinear projection of the Western imagination and projections onto a colonized and passive Orient, since it always involves a degree of intercultural mimesis. He has rightly emphasized the necessity of more complex hermeneutics for the comprehension of the “polyphonic trajectories” that result from this “interactive process” manifest the diverse ways in which Orientalist discourses develop (King 1999: 155-6). The religious pluralism seems to overlook the lacunae in this dynamic process of intercultural mimesis, namely the “failure of the West to recognize its own reflections in the mirror being held out to it” (ibid., 156).
Patrick Imbert, ‘The Girardian Appropriation Mimesis, the Platonic Mimesis and Bhabha’s Mimicry: The passion for controlling representation’ in http://www.uibk.ac.at/theol/cover/events/innsbruck2003_Imbert_Paper.doc).

Based on a variety of and post-colonial and post-structuralist thinkers, such as Foucault, Gadamer, Said, and Spivak, King rightly shows how religion needs to be re-described along the lines of cultural studies. Philip Almond´s pioneering study of the invention of Buddhism in the nineteenth century 12 also provides a model for future endeavors not only in the field of “political hermeneutics or semiotics of the myths of power, and knowledge” (Surin 1990: 206), but also in the field of new discourse on intercultural mimesis and Orientalism. Another book Curators of the Buddha. The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism is an important work to draw buddhist studies into the larger arena of post-colonial cultural studies and to trace the genealogies and the logics of representation of orientalist buddhology. The problematic of Orientalism and post-colonial cultural studies is increasingly discussed in the intercultural and inter-religious hermeneutics. 13 As John Milbank rightly observes, the other religions were taken to be species of the genus religion by Christian thinkers who systematically subsumed alien cultural phenomena under categories which comprise western notions of what constitutes religious thought and practice. These false categorizations connected with the usual construal of religion as a genus embodying “covert Christianizations” have often been (mimetically) accepted by Western-educated representatives of the other religions themselves, who are (because of the intercultural mimesis) ‘unable to resist the politically imbued rhetorical force of Western discourse’. 14 For the dynamic understanding of “the Dialectical Image: A Cross-Cultural Play of Mimesis and Misrepresentation” (Urban 2003:14), the more complex and dramatic hermeneutics for the critique of the politics of representations as a whole in this mimetic process are required. In a discussion of modern constructions of Zen Buddhism, Robert Sharf (1993: 39) has written about an “irony” in the intercultural dialog: The irony is, according to him, that the Zen that so captured the imagination of the West was in fact a product of the New Buddhism of the Meiji. Moreover, those aspects of Zen most attractive to the Occident – the emphasis on
12 13

Philip Almond, The British Discovery of Buddhism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). For example, ESITIS (European Society for Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies) Conference Salzburg 2009, 15th - 18th April 2009 “Interreligious Hermeneutics in pluralistic Europe”, 6th Section: Is interreligious hermeneutics possible in the light of postcolonial deconstruction of religion? (http://www.sbg.ac.at/tkr/events/ESITIS-2009/ESITIS-2009-Salzburg-program.pdf). 14 Milbank 1990: 176. Supported by Nirad C. Chaudhuri and not falsely, Milbank take a few examples: John Hick can speak of ‘many roads to salvation,’ yet Eastern religions do not seek deliverance by divine grace from a sinful or merely natural condition. The Hindu practice of bhakti is frequently represented as an instance of worship, when in fact it is mainly concerned with a systematic appeasement of, and seeking of favors from, the various deities. The Eastern religions are often seen as highly mystical and spiritual in character, yet the practices, as Milbank rightly points out, misallocated to these exclusively Christian categories are not concerned with a quest for beatitude or unity with the godhead, but with attainment of worldly power and liberation of/from the self (ibid., 176).

spiritual experience – were derived in large part from Occidental sources. “Like Narcissus, Western enthusiasts failed to recognize their own reflection in the mirror being held out to them”, remarks Sharf (ibid). This ironical phenomenon might be well understood in light of the mimetic theory, particularly in the sense of intercultural mimesis. Calling attention to the issue of “radical decontextualization of the Zen tradition”, Sharf argued correctly that Asian apologists, convinced that Zen was making significant inroads in the West, failed to recognize the degree to which Zen was “therapeutized” by European and American enthusiasts and Western enthusiasts systematically failed to recognize the nationalist ideology underlying modern Japanese constructions of Zen (ibid). As Bernard Faure (1993: 5) rightly observed, the Western understanding of Zen is informed by the entire orientalist tradition that gave rise to the various disciplines that define the space of Zen studies in Western culture – and in particular by the circumstances of the Western reception of Buddhism. For this reason, the general questions raised by Said in his work, Orientalism, are especially relevant for the field of Zen studies. Western perception of Zen is necessarily mediated by Orientalist categories, which at work even in the nativist discourse of a Japanese scholar like D. T. Suzuki (ibid., 267). In the light of the dramatic understanding of the latent operation of (quasi-osmotic) mimesis at the intercultural level, the inverted Zen Orientalism can be properly comprehended: “Zen Orientalism” represents, according to Faure, reverse, or inverted Orientalism or “secondary Orientalism” which constitutes a subspecies of Japanese nativism predicated on an inversion of Orientalist schemas (ibid., 5-9). Zen mysticism and Zen Orientalism appears as an ideological instrument to promote a cultural image of Japan in the West und as an essential component of the so-called cultural exceptionalism (Nihonjinron) (ibid, 86). Some Western scholars romanticized Zen mysticism, which was subsequently re-exported to Japan (Arisaka 1996:6) and was mimetically appropriated. In comparison to the tendency to isolate Asian religions into compartments of Orientalism or spiritualism or mysticism, an increasingly self-conscious post-orientalist Buddhist studies begins to understand Buddhism in the light of postcolonial cultural studies, cultural and social anthropology, literary criticism and art history. In Germany this “shift of Asian studies to cultural and social science studies” is also taking place (Kollmar-Paulenz/ Prohl 2003: 146). The “auto-orientalism” of East copying, internalizing and appropriating the western Orientalism is critically examined (Kleine 2003: 241). This new approach of post-orientalist Buddhist studies with its sensitivity for the dynamic complexities in the intercultural mixing and

borrowing would be recommendable for the pluralistic theology of religions, for comparative religionists, and for those interested in interfaith dialogues, who all too often uncritically accept Zen Orientalism. The book Rude Awakenings. Zen, the Kyoto School, & the Question of Nationalism suggests the necessity of the more complex and dramatic understanding of the intercultural communication as follows: Absent the entire problematic of the war years, the phrase “Kyoto school” soon became synonymous with a wide-eyed, open-minded approach to religious philosophy that seemed to answer the need for a serious encounter between East and West as few contemporary systems of thought have… For by and large, the comparative philosophers and theologians who were giving these Japanese thinkers their warm welcome had simply overlooked the political implications of their thoughts, especially during World War II. Today, the situation has clearly changed. 15 The Protestant Buddhism as a new kind of Buddhism also could be well explained from the standpoint of the more complex and dramatic hermeneutics inspired by the mimetic theory of Girard, particularly in terms of the intercultural mimesis. Protestant Buddhism in Theravāda Buddhism both originated as a protest (against Christianity) and itself “reflects” (mimetically) Protestantism. 16 Sharf also analyzed the element of intercultural mimesis in the process of refashioning of Buddhism in the image of Christianity: According to him, the Theravāda reforms, like the Buddhist reforms in Japan, must be considered in the context of the major ideological changes precipitated by the forces of urbanization, modernization, and the spread of Western style education, all of which contributed to the rise of Protestant Buddhism (Sharf 1995: 251). Like Meiji New Buddhism in Japan, Theravāda Buddhism “was refashioned in the image of post-Enlightenment Christianity” by emphasizing the values of individualism, which included the affirmation of worldly achievement coupled with this-worldly asceticism and by repudiating the supernatural or magical or ritual aspect of Buddhism (ibid., 252).

Editor´s Introduction, in James W. Heisig and John C. Maraldo., ed, Rude Awakenings. Zen, the Kyoto School, & the Question of Nationalism (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995), p. vii ; See also Arisaka 1996: 6. 16 Gombrich 1988: 174. See Chapter Seven. Protestant Buddhism (pp. 172-197).


The challenge of the intricacies of pluralistic complexity seems to demand the more dramatic hermeneutics of the anthropological 17 rather than the purely textual hermeneutics. Besides the civic virtues of pluralism and tolerance towards Others, the anthropological rereading of the human, all too human dimension of mimetic affections, passions, resentment and envy in highly complex and pluralistic societies and also at the intercultural dimension is required. The anthropological hermeneutics in an era of pluralism, complexity, and globalization is increasingly accepted and applied in many cultural studies and religious studies. For example, Slavoj Žižek (2008:72-9, 73) describes the Terrorist Resentment: “The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that, secretly, they have already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them”. It is not easy to deny that envy and resentment are a constitutive component of human (mimetic) desire (also at the intercultural level). This anthropologically-based complex hermeneutics for the intercultural communication asks for a realistic understanding of the pluralistic complexities, but it can also promise the sustainable and long-term conflict-resolution and peace-making and at last reveals the vanity of our mimetic conflicts.

Almond, Philip. 2006. The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Arisaka, Yoko. 1996. “The Nishida Enigma: ‘the Principles of the New World Order’ (1943)”, in Monumenta Nipponica 51/1. Barnes, Michael. 2002. Theology and the Dialog of Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


My overall impression of the ESITIS (European Society for Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies) Conference Salzburg 2009 is that the more dramatic model for the intercultural and inter-religious dialogue is increasingly accepted.

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