Stanford University Home

Stanford News Archive

Stanford Report, June 14, 2000

'Managing Angelic Rivalry'

This is the text of the baccalaureate address by Professor Theophus Smith, Emory University Religion Department, on June 10, 2000.

Congratulations to the Class of 2000! Greetings to your families and friends from home, and to your university family and friends here at Stanford. It is a pleasure and privilege to share with you today my best thinking about the spiritual period we are now entering at the turn of the millennium. Begin by considering my title for today's baccalaureate address: "The Two Spirits: Managing Angelic Rivalry for the Next Millennium."

You note right away, of course, that unlikely phrase, "managing angelic rivalry." Notice the combination of religious language about angels, and everyday language about management. Now, I'm just as eager as you are to see whether I can justify combining those terms in the same title. And why such a flamboyant title? But, in fact, my extravagance does not end there. Believe it or not, I'm about to sin even more boldly and offer you yet another, third language: the language of science fiction. Now, religion provided the first language of my intellectual life in childhood. But in college my imagination acquired a second language under the influence of countless Star Trek episodes on television. And in that science fiction language, an alternative title for my remarks today would read something like this: "Replicating Ourselves as a Nonviolent Species; Or, Re-Coding Rivalry in the Next Millennium." After all, the celebrated author Ursula K. LeGuin once described science fiction as "the mythology of the modern world" (U. K. LeGuin, "Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction" in The Language of the Night).

In that vein, I offer you an example of science fiction as the mythology of our postmodern world. However, let's get beyond Star Trek and take a more recent science fiction work. Consider last year's blockbuster film The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne. Now, you may know about this film in another context, because it features Keanu Reeves wearing a black trench coat and firing multiple automatic weapons in computer-simulated shooting sprees. But even if you had never heard of the film, you can probably recognize from my description a connection to the non-simulated violence that broke out also last year at the Columbine High School in Colorado. The computer-enhanced violence in the film, you may recall, is blamed as a model for the real, flesh-and-blood violence at Columbine High. There, in an all-American suburban community, the film's fashionable trench coats and violent simulation effects were mimetically replicated in real time with real people and real effects. Yet these eruptions into our everyday reality were remarkably ironic. For one of the themes of the film is that the postmodern era requires us to recognize and escape from our captivity to simulations, mass deceptions and fabricated forms of pseudo-reality.

Stay with me now, as I briefly describe the film's plot. And notice how, like much contemporary cinema, it is designed to be viewed as a kind of Apocalypse Now. Although located in the distant science fiction future, it's really about our contemporary marvels, challenges and terrors. Thus, The Matrix begins with Keanu Reeves believing that he is a normal person living a normal life with a normal office job in 1999. But recurring nightmares reveal that he is in fact a vegetating body with its brain hooked up to a vast computer system. There he and the rest of humanity exist in a fabricated world in the distant future. The system is maintained by powerful computers that dominate the earth and simulate ordinary reality in the brains of their captive subjects. In addition, they breed and feed these human beings, but only to serve as the energy source on which they feed as parasites. Then, with the intervention of Laurence Fishburne, our hero Reeves is liberated and joins an underground rebellion. These computer "hackers" are expert at manipulating computer codes in order to decode the enemy's fabrications and to reprogram people like Reeves. The film ends with Reeves becoming the new, messianic leader in a revolution against the computer overlords.

In these terms, The Matrix presents itself as critical commentary on the postmodern condition. It reflects our experience in a world of domination, where overwhelming social systems simulate reality and fabricate for us compelling images of pseudo-reality. It is ironic, therefore, that this very film is indicted as a case in which the entertainment media overwhelmed a group of alienated young men at Columbine High. The claim is that the film induced the youths to reenact its fabricated world of violence. Thus, in contradiction to its effort to counteract pseudo-reality, the film appears to have become a contagious source of pseudo-reality. For their part, the young murderers saw themselves as outcast rivals to the more popular "jocks," the in-group of well-favored athletes in the school. Out of that rivalry they fabricated a mythology in which their classmates became their enemies and their school became a system to be destroyed by means of the most fashionable violence of the day. But with this link between rivalry and violence, we are now ready to go beyond the matter of one film and one school. We are now ready to take a look at our own captivity; our own rivalries; our own forms of pseudo-reality.


In this connection, I take the liberty of reminding you of something you may already know. Here at Stanford you have been privileged for many years to have on your faculty a scholar whose theories account for the phenomena I have just described. I refer to the work of Rene Girard on contagious rivalry and scapegoating, mimetic desire and sacred violence. Professor Girard's work explains why almost every story ever told conveys these contagious or contaminating elements: rivalrous desire, scapegoating behavior and attitudes, and violence as the solvent or the savior that we worship in order to resolve the story's crisis or just to move the plot along.

Now, notice that I'm not referring to what is conventionally called competition, although competition is a useful example of the deeper phenomenon of imitative desire. Girard calls this deep structure "mimesis," from the Greek word for imitation; thus indicating that our conflicts arise from imitating the desires of our models who too often thwart us and so become our rivals. But why is this kind of spiritual distemper endemic to our species? Why is it almost the defining quality of human nature? And why is our imagination also captive to it; so captive that we can rarely imagine, even in science fiction, essentially different ways of being conscious or sentient? Rarely in Star Trek, for example, can one find an extraterrestrial species that does not also act out rivalry as imitative contagious desire just like we do. For all their anatomical, genetic and personality differences, the Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans -- like most of our storied characters throughout history -- appear just as driven as we are by rivalrous desire.

By contrast, I ask you now to join me in an exercise of imagining a non-rivalrous spirit; an act of imagination that is every bit as adventurous as any science fiction story. In his well received book, Engaging the Powers, New Testament theologian Walter Wink talks about these kind of phenomena in terms of "the powers" described in the Christian scriptures. You may be more familiar with this term in its traditional King James version as "the principalities and powers." But instead of portraying these powers in traditional terms as external or supernatural beings, Wink describes them as the inner character, or the "interiority," of our institutions and relationships. Wink arrives at this formulation on the basis of what he calls a new "integral worldview," in which spiritual powers do not exist "up in heaven" or "out there somewhere" as in traditional religious belief. Rather, Wink declares, they exist integrally both inside of us and between us, "at the center of the political, economic and cultural institutions of [our] day."

On the one hand, Wink argues that the spiritual aspect of the Powers is not simply a "personification," like Satan or an angel. On the other hand, he is careful to allow others to represent this spiritual aspect as supernatural if they insist. As he says:

I prefer to think of the Powers as impersonal entities, though I know of no way to settle the question except dogmatically. It is a natural human tendency to personalize anything that seems to act intentionally. But we are now discovering from computer viruses that certain systemic processes are self-replicating and "contagious," behaving almost willfully even though they are quite impersonal. . . . [Then Wink goes on to explain:] I use the expression "the Domination System" to indicate what happens when an entire network of Powers becomes integrated around idolatrous values. And I refer to "Satan" as the world-encompassing spirit of the Domination System. Do these entities possess actual metaphysical being, or are they the "corporate personality" or ethos or gestalt of a group, having no independent existence apart from the group? I leave that for the reader to decide (second emphasis mine).

And following Wink's wisdom, I too will leave that for each of you to decide. In an interesting footnote, however, Wink adds that "in actual practice it may not matter so much whether one sees the demonic as having seized an institution from without . . . or whether one sees the demonic as the angel or spirituality of the institution itself become pathological, as I do. What counts is that something is done about it" (W. Wink, Engaging the Powers, Fortress, 1992, pp. 6, 8-9, 327, n. 11).

Now, in a moment I want to propose something to be done about the Spirit of Rivalry, or imitative contagious desire, that is infecting and plaguing our relationships and institutions today. This is Spirit "number one" in my title of "The Two Spirits." It constitutes one aspect of Wink's satanic "Domination System," or one aspect of the entity that Jesus calls in the Gospel of John "the ruler of this world" (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). Elsewhere, the Johannine Jesus calls this Spirit "the Father of Lies" and, even worse, "a murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44). Now, at this point it is my job, and my accountability to you as your baccalaureate speaker, to decode for you our North American enthrallment to this Spirit, and our complicity in its operations. The bad news is that it is getting increasingly difficult in our day to discern this enthrallment. That is because we North Americans are so caught up in its fabricated forms of pseudo-reality.

Perhaps the most revealing context for discerning our captivity is the area of money-making. Here we are perhaps most unaware of being driven by imitative contagious desire, and for that very reason all the more subject to it. One index for gauging our subjection is the great disparity between our economic wealth and that of most of the world's people. Surely you have heard some of these figures. The United Nations "1998 Human Development Report" revealed that the three richest people in the world had assets exceeding the combined gross national product of the 48 least developed countries, about 10 million people. The United States is estimated to have nearly 200 billionaires, while poverty claims 20 percent of our children, on the one hand, and 20 percent of our elders, on the other. Some 40 percent of our national wealth resides in the assets of the richest 1 percent of our families. Taken together, such figures show the United States to have the greatest disparity between rich and poor among all industrialized nations. At the same time, however, U.S. citizens are collectively among the richest 20 percent of the world's people while consuming more than 80 percent of its goods and services. This state of affairs, according to some observers, critically undermines our democratic values and aspirations (Douglas Mattern, "Great Wealth -- and Poverty," San Jose Mercury News, Jan. 18, 1999).

But may I turn more directly now to your context here in the Bay Area and at Stanford? I've been told that the Bay Area is generating, every day, some 60 new millionaires. And I must confess that just hearing that figure excites my own contagious desire. I feel the pull to want to be here; to get in on that kind of driving prosperity; and so not miss out on the gold rush still going on here in California. At the same time, however, I'm hearing that in Palo Alto it is impossible to purchase a two-bedroom house for less than $700,000. I'm told that some of you who graduate from Stanford today will immediately begin corporate careers that promise you the resources needed for such a life. And I hear that others of you will continue your studies but at the same time will be working in start-up ventures that will challenge your non-monetary virtues and values. Finally, I worry that those of you who try to exercise a social conscience by working in public service or for nonprofits will find the challenges too severe. Will paying off your student debt, or meeting your parents' high expectations, or meeting your own ambitions regarding salary, career and prestige overwhelm your ability to act in human solidarity with those who are less privileged? How will you counteract the power of our collective wealth to fabricate a pseudo-reality for us, making us forget the vast majority of the world's people who are living an altogether different reality?


To help you address these issues, I propose to you a new asceticism for managing our captivity to the Spirit of rivalry as imitative contagious desire. Now, asceticism means a renunciatory discipline or set of practices. However, because the word is so often associated with self-abuse, I prefer the original Greek term, askesis. Imagine, therefore, a new askesis that would function like a kind of spiritual hygiene. In this hygiene, we would periodically check to see if we were participating in imitative contagious desire in relation to others. If the rivalry were trivial, tolerable, perhaps serviceable or even necessary for moderate ends, we would probably ignore or simply continue to monitor it. However, if the rivalry threatened to become vicious, cruel, toxic, lethal or pernicious in some way, so that it would backfire on us or on others by making us captive to it in some way, then we would renounce it and attempt to eliminate or mitigate it.

However, this aptitude presumes that we are capable of discerning or decoding our imitative contagious desires. On the contrary, it is likely that the most pernicious and insidious desires will have so thoroughly enthralled us that we are oblivious to them. Like a magic spell, or a thoroughly convincing simulation, we are most probably defenseless against them. That is why Walter Wink declares that "exposing the delusional system is the central ascetical task in our discernment of the Powers" (Ibid., p. 88). A key element of that askesis, I propose, is to use rivalry itself as a means of deconstructing rivalry. In this vein, managing our rivalries would consist in each of us discovering what is it about our rivals that hooks us and orients our (imitative) desire toward them. Conversely, we would probe for what it is in ourselves that hooks our rivals and orients their (imitative) desire toward us. The hypothesis on which this strategy depends is the claim that my rival is the nearest resource that I have for recognizing and treating the toxicity and deformities of my own desires. According to our theory, we would not even have rivals unless they were signifying for us, in some coded way, a desire that plagues us like an infection or contamination from which we need freedom.

Our task in the next millennium is to become increasingly adept at valuing our rivals as coded bearers of this data. Imagine a management training program that would assist us as co-workers in decoding our fixation on each other as rivals. Instead of allowing imitative contagious desire to pit us against one another all day and every day, we might instead find amazingly new ways to be in solidarity with one another. Our new training or askesis would help us realize that if we are in rivalrous conflict with someone, then help is immediately at hand in the persona itself of the rival. "Love your enemies" from this perspective is not a pious platitude but a management strategy. Thereby, we outwit a spiritual power that uses our desires to manage us against our best interests. This revaluation of my rival, as the repository of my own unacknowledged or unprocessed desires, would then constitute a new Spirit operating between us. This is Spirit "number two" in my title of "The Two Spirits." This Spirit would free us from taking at face value the pseudo-reality that our institutions and careers fabricate for us and the pseudo-reality that our imitative contagious desires fabricate for us.

In conclusion, I want to leave you with an alternative to the science fiction model that I presented earlier: the model of a "matrix" through which we must acquire intricate and complex ways to decode simulations and deprogram ourselves. For if Ursula K. LeGuin is right, this science fiction version of reality is mythology also in the sense of something that we must approach skeptically and critically. In place of that mythology, I offer you more human-scale models for decoding pseudo-reality based simply on genuine solidarity with others. Some of the best models that we have today for this kind of solidarity are people like Dr. Martin Luther King, who knew what his Ph.D. was for: It was for helping striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tenn. Similarly, Mother Teresa knew what her Catholic vocation was for: It was for picking up the dead and dying on the streets of Calcutta. And similarly Princess Diana, in the last years of her life, finally figured out what her royalty was for: It was for becoming an advocate for those with too few advocates in the world. So in the spirit of these human models, I offer up this baccalaureate blessing for you: May you also discern what your education and privileges are for, so that you too may become not just one more rival among others, but a living icon for the rest of us to see what it means to be a human being in solidarity with others. Amen. SR