Imitation has a bumpy reputation in Western culture today. In the world of things, imitation is often equivalent to ‘false’ or even ‘substandard’, as in the case of imitation leather or imitation crab. In the world of art, literature, and education, it is at best understood as a lack of unique contribution, and at worst an outright lie — either an attempt to pass something off for what it isn’t, or even plagiarism, taking credit for someone else’s work. But, this isn’t the only way to think of it. In today’s Epistle reading, Philippians 3.17-4.1, Paul offers imitation up as a metaphor for the Christian life. So, let’s take some time today to think more about imitation and what Paul and the Christian tradition as a whole has to say about it.
The theme of imitation is present right from the start of the passage. Paul exhorts the Christians in Philippi: “Join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Paul sets himself and his circle up as examples to be imitated. The alternative, in Paul’s mind, is to imitate others, whose “minds are set on earthly things,” appetites of the mind and body for what can never truly fill them up. What’s interesting here is that Paul doesn’t really think of not imitating someone as an option for them. It is, in his mind, inevitable. I think he’s on to something. In a way, it’s reminiscent of how I described tradition in the series I wrapped up the other week: Imitation is to some extent inevitable in human community. For example, one major way children learn is by mimicking their parents or older siblings’ behaviours; and similarly, the careful repetition of what an instructor is demonstrating is an important way adults learn too. Other people always serve as models for what kinds of behaviour are permitted, encouraged, or punished, and for the kinds of skills we need to acquire. We are very much a “monkey see-monkey do” species in this way. This is why in many cultures, imitation is understood not as offensive but genuinely as the most sincere form of flattery, and a manifestation of humility before those who have gone before us. So great is this instinct to mimic in us that some philosophers and sociologists, led by Rene Girard, have posited imitation as the basic principle for human relationships and culture. Even if we may think Girard and his followers are a bit extreme in this conclusion, it remains that imitation is a very powerful force in human culture. And so, Paul is right: it’s not a matter of imitating or not not imitating. There’s always a strong pull towards conformity — the question is what or whom it is we are going to imitate.
While Paul directs his readers to imitate him, it’s clear that this is not ultimately the imitation he has in mind. For, he continues, Christ will “transform the body of our lowliness that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.” Thus, in urging the Philippians to imitate him, Paul is ultimately urging them to imitate Christ, to follow the way of Jesus. This hearkens back to the hymn to Jesus’ humility from the previous chapter (2.5-11), where Paul had exhorted them to have “the same mind .. that was in Christ Jesus,” which was a mind oriented towards humility — to the point of accepting humiliation and death — and was therefore glorified by God.
By one name or another, the imitation of Christ, or conforming our lives to Christ’s, has always been one of the major ways Christians have understood salvation and spirituality. Elsewhere in the Scriptures, we see the idea of imitation in John 14.12 and Ephesians 5.1; similar ideas of embodying the divine nature or becoming ‘gods’ can be seen in 2 Peter 1.4, Psalm 82.6 and John 10.34, and being conformed to Christ in Romans 8.29, 2 Corinthians 3.18, and 1 John 3.2. Among the Church Fathers, the imitation of Christ can be seen in the writings of Justin Martyr, St. Ignatius of Antioch, the Cappadocian Fathers, and St. Augustine of Hippo. St. Gregory of Nyssa went so far as to define Christianity itself as “the imitation of the divine nature” (De Prof. Chri. 8). In the medieval world, it was promoted by figures such as St. Maximus the Confessor and Nicholas Cabasilas in the East and St. Bernard and Thomas à Kempis in the West. Indeed, as patristic scholar Vladimir Kharlamov summarized the Christian tradition’s self-understanding, “The goal of a believer is to emulate the life and actions of Christ as much as possible. Human ability to imitate Christ is sealed in the message of the incarnation, that also reveals the human potentiality to incorporate the divine” (Theosis, vol 1, 52).
All this sets up Jesus’ life as a model for our own. He understood his mission to be about preaching and enacting good news for the poor, the captives, and the blind, so this is our mission too. He healed and called people up into better, more faithful relationships, and so are we to do this with in whatever way we are able. He held the world with an open heart but without grasping, and so are we to live in this way.
All this being the case, does this mean our cultural suspicion of imitation is entirely off base? To my mind, the instincts towards imitation and differentiation — our Western sensibility of making a unique contribution — ideally operate as a positive-positive polarity. Both are needed and helpful for our spiritual growth and development. As the lives of the saints demonstrate, holiness is as diverse and varied as humanity itself. The more we imitate people of faith whom we respect, and through them, imitate Christ, paradoxically, the more our true, unique selves will emerge. Christ is imitated, but never duplicated. I remember reading a dialog between two artists about the tendency for beginners to copy others’ works and styles that I think speaks to this well. The one urged beginners to avoid copying and to find their own style as quickly as possible; but the other insisted that imitation was an important step in finding one’s own style: the more we copy others, the more we understand what we like and don’t like, what we can and can’t do with the brush, and our own unique style will emerge. To my mind this is what happens with the life of faith too. The more we imitate the saints, and through that, Christ, the more our own unique manifestation of holiness will emerge.
In today’s Gospel reading, we have Jesus setting his mind on his journey to Jerusalem, the arena where his conflicts with the religious and political authorities will come to a head. As we are called to imitate him, this won’t mean that we too will be called to Jerusalem. But it does mean that we will take up his faithful, humble-yet-confident posture, as we set our minds and hearts to enter the arenas of our own lives, whatever they may be, and whatever crosses may be waiting for us there. And so, in the midst of this strange and uncertain Lent, may we all be strengthened to walk faithfully into whatever may lie ahead for us and the world.