Imitation: The Cure to Deadness
Imitation is a fundamental human instinct. We do not learn to imitate so much as we learn by imitating. You can think of it as a built-in capacity embedded on our basic human programming. A toddler who struggles to walk straight up in his daddy's large shoes is engaged in the same imitative activity as the amateur athlete attempting to master his hero's signature move. Both of them abstract the essence of another to embody it in themselves. This instinct to imitate corresponds to our essential identity as human beings. We are imaging beings (Genesis 1:26).
The highest and noblest object of our imitative function is the person of God. When our imitating falls short of the divine, we become less of who we were supposed to be. In Acts 17:29, Paul made use of a point of contact with the Athenian pagans to draw an argument against icon worship. His argument went like this: If human beings are God's offspring, it follows that God cannot be properly represented by inanimate, lifeless materials. The only warranted creaturely analogy then for the being of God is the fullness of life that is the potential of a human person. But this also entails that only when we engage in God-imitating activities that we experience the rich vitality of human living. It is not rare to hear people today saying "I feel dead inside." Perhaps a remedy is found in the truth of our being and identity as God's image.
How do we get to imitate something? There are three elements in every imitative transformation: attention, attraction, and appropriation. We don't get to imitate what we fail to attend to with our senses of perception. But only when we deeply admire something that we find it actually worth imitating. Then, imitation is completed when the admired attributes become absorbed into our own personalities. This is the same dynamic of Christian transformation, aided by the sanctifying operations of the Spirit. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 3:18, "𝘈𝘯𝘥 𝘸𝘦 𝘢𝘭𝘭, 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘶𝘯𝘷𝘦𝘪𝘭𝘦𝘥 𝘧𝘢𝘤𝘦, 𝘣𝘦𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘥𝘪𝘯𝘨 (𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯) 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘨𝘭𝘰𝘳𝘺 (𝘢𝘵𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯) 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘓𝘰𝘳𝘥, 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘣𝘦𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘵𝘳𝘢𝘯𝘴𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘮𝘦𝘥 𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘴𝘢𝘮𝘦 𝘪𝘮𝘢𝘨𝘦 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘰𝘯𝘦 𝘥𝘦𝘨𝘳𝘦𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘨𝘭𝘰𝘳𝘺 𝘵𝘰 𝘢𝘯𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 (𝘢𝘱𝘱𝘳𝘰𝘱𝘳𝘪𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯). 𝘍𝘰𝘳 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘴 𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘴 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘓𝘰𝘳𝘥 𝘸𝘩𝘰 𝘪𝘴 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘚𝘱𝘪𝘳𝘪𝘵." The Bible scholar G. K. Beale puts the point well in one of his books: we become what we worship. In the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Isaiah, worshippers of dead idols are described as having gradually assimilated the lifeless traits of their icons. Because their idols cannot see, hear, or speak, they too become imperceptive, devoid of spiritual life — as dead as their objects of worship (Isaiah 6:9-10). Beale's thesis is stated this way: "What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or for restoration" (𝘞𝘦 𝘉𝘦𝘤𝘰𝘮𝘦 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘞𝘦 𝘞𝘰𝘳𝘴𝘩𝘪𝘱, p. 16). Imitation is tied to worship.
Think of the powerful shaping effects of our digital habits. Studies are revealing how the new media of our age are altering what it means to be a human. The inherent traits of these media's algorithms are getting reflected on the character of their most frequent users. They embrace the delusion that they are one-dimensional, virtual beings, and their Instagram profile is their true identity. They treat each other not with the respect appropriate to persons created in the image of God, but as impersonal, digital avatars who can be carelessly bullied. Romance is not an inspiring event, but an online shopping experience. All of these lead to swamps of depression because this is far from the rich life that befits those who are created to reflect the image of the living God. But this is not surprising because the attention-industry of our digital age is a battle of worship and re-creation of man.
The Spirit is engaged in a restorative work, to conform believers to the image of God in His Son, Christ Jesus. He uses means of transformation which repetitiously direct our attention to God, so that we learn to admire Him, and become proper imitators of Him. These spiritual liturgies of attention, attraction, and imitation, through shared and embodied activities of the Word, prayer, and fellowship are the counter-formative engagement we need to battle the world's liturgies that lead to deadness. Through these habits, the Spirit trains us to love as God is love, and experience the pulse of life in the infinite flow of giving and receiving and giving and so on. We are equipped to become little creators, generative beings rather than passive consumers. We overcome the deadness inside as we share the joy of our eternally blessed God. And as we come to behold in each other the stamp of the divine, we engage in a mutual mediated imitation, following each other's example of Christlikeness.
Image: Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead (Wikipedia Common)