The Forgiving Victim vs the “self-starting ‘I'”

James Alison, one of my favourite theologians, has been working for some time on a introductory course on Christianity called the Forgiving Victim. A sample video is available at that link.

Regrettably, some aspects of the video look (not to put too fine a point on it) cringingly awful, particularly the reconstructions of biblical incidents by amateur actors in ill-fitting clothes. However, if you can get past those, there are some insightful discussions by Fr Alison, in which he sets out his René Girard-inspired presentation of the Christian faith.

For example, the ten-minute section from 4’00”, where Fr Alison discusses “the Social Other” as a key concept in his account of the Christian faith. The Social Other is Fr Alison’s term for “everything that is other than us on the social level”: other people, our geographical or economical circumstances, and so on. In short, the “anthropological and sociological reality” within which we live.

What Fr Alison emphasises is how the social other is “prior to us at every stage of our being”:

  • our conception is entirely the result of two people who are prior to us, entirely the result of their decision (or lack of decision!);
  • our vulnerability when we are born makes us dependent on others for years longer than other animals.

At every stage of our lives, what enables us to survive, grow and flourish is not “the self-starting ‘I'”, but the social other that precedes us.

Fr Alison continues by describing how mirror neurons help to demonstrate this on a neurological level. Our brains respond by imitation to the actions of others (a concept which Fr Alison has discussed in more detail elsewhere). So when we are babies, for example, the social other “inducts us into gestuers and sounds” that we assimilate with amazing rapidity into speech and so on.

As a result, “what you are is something that the social other produces in you”:

Rather than us being little knowers of what is other than us, what is other than us recreates itself in within us.

In the next section of the video (from 13’58” to 15’36”), Fr Alison goes on to address the “mentalist worldview”. This is the belief that we have a “clear command centre” in our brains, which has clear knowledge of ourselves and of the surrounding world which it then imparts to our thoughts, feelings and actions.

By contrast, our understanding that we are formed by the “social other” (or what René Girard would call “mimesis”, imitative desire) leads us to recognise that:

Our capacity for reason sits upon a huge seedbed of our relationships, the others who have brought us into being, the others with whom we negotiate.

Hence to understand ourselves and our world, we need our relationships with one another and with God to be healed.

All this is hard for us to get our heads round, because we are so strongly attached to the “mentalist worldview”, to the myth of the “self-starting ‘I'” that imposes its will upon the world – a myth that is becoming increasingly untenable as discoveries in neuroscience and social psychology make it clear how much our thoughts and actions are shaped by others.

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