Can Psychology Help Resolve the Problem of Imitating a Putatively Non-Present Christ?

Eric Yang
Friday 1 July 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

Striving to imitate Christ has been an important practice throughout the history of Christianity. St. Paul tells the church in Corinth to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1 ESV). Thomas a Kempis’ classic The Imitation of Christ has been part of the regular diet and discipline of many faithful Christians. Imitating Christ is supposed to lead to significant transformation, being an integral activity in the sanctification process for some Christians. The outcome is not merely behavior modification; rather, the goal is for one’s whole personality and character to become more like Christ’s.

In order to imitate someone in such a way as to bring about this kind of radical transformation, careful observation of an exemplar is required. Yet the relevant exemplar, viz. Christ, cannot be observed by Christians today given that his time on earth ended two millennia ago. So how can Christians imitate an exemplar who is no longer around? Psychological insights have been utilized in philosophy of religion in order to address this problem, in particular a solution which employs the notion of joint-attention. However, there are serious worries for this approach.

The theological puzzle to be addressed asks whether insights from developmental psychology can help in offering another resolution to the problem of imitating a putatively non-present Christ. The hypothesis is that these additional psychological insights can assist in pointing toward another solution, viz. the ecclesial imitation solution. Not only can ecclesial imitation avoid the problem of imitating a putatively non-present Christ but it can also provide practical steps for Christians to undertake in seeking to imitate Christ.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 The Imitation of Christ in Philosophy of Religion

The problem of imitating a putatively non-present Christ can be formulated as follows:

  1. Someone can imitate an exemplar only if that exemplar is present in a way that is observable by that individual.
  2. Christ is not present in a way that is observable by us.
  3. Therefore, we cannot imitate Christ.

Imitation requires doing something (Hampson 2019, 307). The content of what the imitator is supposed to do is acquired by observing some goal-directed intentional behavior (Cockayne 2017, 15). This supports premise (1), that the exemplar and her patterns of actions be observable by the one seeking to imitate her. Premise (2) is true for those of us who accept the Ascension of Christ such that Christ is no longer present to us in the way that he was to his disciples two thousand years ago. So we are left without the possibility of imitating Christ.

This problem can be met by either denying (1) or (2). In the philosophical literature, Joshua Cockayne (2017) has proposed an account of imitating Christ that denies (2). His focus is over imitation, which is sometimes distinguished from mimicry and emulation by psychologists insofar as it requires the one imitating to recognize the intentions or motives of the one being imitated and to aim at reproducing those attitudes in oneself (Fridland and Moore 2015). Awareness of someone’s intentions requires that the person be present. Contrary to (2), Cockayne claims that there is a sense in which Christ is present to us. Relying on psychological studies, Christ can be regarded as present to Christians through joint-attention, where the experience of some object or event is shared with another (and where the conscious awareness of the other is a constituent of the experience). Christian religious experiences include joint-attention with Christ, which is brought about by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Joint-attention with Christ also allows a Christian to engage in mind-reading. So in joint-attention with Christ, “Christ’s emotions and intentions are revealed to us in an immediate way” (Cockayne 2017, 18). Since Christ can be made present through joint-attention, the possibility of imitating Christ is not ruled out.

Now even if one accepts that some people can experience Christ through joint-attention, not every Christian appears to have the kind of robust experience that can be reported as having joint-attention with Christ. Furthermore, participating in the liturgy or partaking the Eucharist does not appear to produce joint-attention with Christ for some Christians.

But even for those who do have an immediate awareness of Christ through joint-attention, there is a more serious problem for the joint-attention solution. It is unclear how Christ is to be observed in such a way that we can imitate Christ. Awareness of Christ in joint-attention does not include observable actions being performed by Christ that would provide the content of imitation. So what practices are we supposed to imitate when Christ is present to us in joint-attention? Cockayne’s solution does not provide an answer. The experience of joint-attention involves awareness of the other as a constituent of that experience. But merely being aware of the other does not yield behavioral patterns that are observable, and so there is no guidance as to what should be imitated. Even Cockayne admits that imitation minimally requires observing someone’s behavior. But Christ’s behavior is not being observed in joint-attention. Therefore, denying premise (2) by appealing to joint-attention is not an effective way of responding to the problem of imitating a putatively non-present Christ.

2.2 Imitation and Other Copying Behaviors in Psychology

Can additional psychological insights yield another resolution to the problem? Significant psychological studies on imitation and other copying behaviors such as mimicry and emulation have confirmed the importance of recognizing the social aspect involved in such behaviors (Over and Carpenter 2013). This section will note some of the more relevant aspects that may yield a promising way of addressing the problem. Before examining the psychological literature, it is worth noting that Cockayne primarily focuses on imitation, which involves recognizing and seeking to reproduce the intentions linked with certain behaviors. However, he also admits that both subconscious and automatic mirroring as well as reflective and intentional replication are crucial for spiritual transformation. But much of the former type of copying will not be imitative but rather will some other behavior such as mimicry or emulation. Yet all forms of copying behavior are important in the process of becoming like someone else. Moreover, mimicry, emulation, and imitation all require observing someone else’s behaviors, and it is this observational component that is crucial. Hence, the psychological studies related to copying behaviors can be useful in developing a separate solution to the problem of imitating a putatively non-present Christ.

An important feature of copying behavior is that it often occurs in a way that is not conscious for the subject. Chartrand and Bargh (1999) label non-conscious mimicry as the ‘chameleon effect’. Though this pattern is common in human behavior, Chartrand and Bargh aver that the underlying basis of non-conscious mimicry is the link between perception and behavior (Chartrand and Bargh 1999, 900). As they note, there is an “automatic, unintended, and passive effect of perception on behavior” (Chartrand and Bargh 1999, 894). Perceiving similarity in someone also appears to enhance the mimicking behavior.

The effect of observation seems to go both ways, as mimicking behavior increases when the one who is mimicking someone else is being watched (Wang and Hamilton 2014; Wang, Newport, and Hamilton 2011). Seeing and being seen, then, significantly impacts the frequency and manner in which copying behavior is carried out. This is evident even in the imitating behavior of toddlers and their copying of emotional responses, which are regulated by the emotional responses of another person and when they are being watched by that person (Decety and Meltzoff 2011, 65). Imitation or copying behavior is impacted then by the two-way observation.

Imitating behavior also increases in people when they are in a prosocial environment (Chartrand, Maddux, and Lakin 2006). This is especially so when the one imitating is among those in an in-group (Yabar, Johnston, Miles, and Peace 2006; Bourgeois and Hess 2008). Usually when one is a member of a particular in-group, there will be many rituals, either explicitly trained or implicitly developed, in which participation and facility in imitating those rituals can enable someone to identify members of an in-group from an out-group (Wen, Willard, and Legare 2020). Yet developmental psychologists have seen evidence that behavioral mimicry increases when there exists an already existing relational connection or rapport between the one imitating and the one imitated (Tickle-Degnen 2006; McIntosh 2006). People are much more likely to mimic their friends than strangers.

Finally, mimicry and its prosocial association is not merely for the individual who is copying someone else. Some studies indicate that mimicry behavior is good for the person being mimicked, as the latter are prone to becoming more prosocial when being copied (Chartrand and Lakin 2013, 291). The prosocial benefit, then, accrues to both the one copying and the one who is being copied.

3. Discussion

The three main psychological insights noted are that observation increases copying behavior, imitation is enhanced when undertaken in a friendly environment with like-minded individuals, and copying behavior can yield positive benefits to the one being imitated. These insights can assist in developing a novel solution to the problem of imitating a putatively non-present Christ.

The problem with the joint-attention solution is that there is no observable component even if Christ is present to Christians through joint-attention. But is there an observable component related to the imitation of Christ? In some passages from the Christian Scriptures, there are remarks concerning imitation where Christ is not the immediate exemplar. In 1 Cor. 4:16 (ESV), Paul adjures the church in Corinth to “be imitators of me,” which appears to be expected given his role as their spiritual father. Later in that epistle, Paul discusses proper conduct, one that would not offend Jews, Greeks, or the church of God (1 Cor. 10:32 ESV). Following this, Paul tells them to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1 ESV). Paul does not encourage them to imitate Christ straightaway. Rather, his injunction is that they copy him, in the way that he copies Christ. While the imitation of Christ may be the ultimate goal, some Christians may serve as intermediary exemplars in the imitation process. Since Paul had been with the Corinthians in-person, they would be familiar with his conduct and behavior.

What is needed for imitation of Christ, then, is not necessarily Christ himself but someone who is also seeking to imitate Christ. One need only find herself in the chain of Christ-imitators, and one is likely to find Christ-imitators in their own local ecclesial body. Some of these individuals may serve as a spiritual mother or a spiritual father, and so it would be fitting to carefully observe and imitate their actions. Moreover, much copying behavior occurs non-consciously and automatically. Being closely intertwined with Christ-imitators will facilitate the adoption of behaviors that can be steps to cultivating the emotional and spiritual transformation in becoming like Christ. Non-conscious copying behaviors can play a role in priming the agent for the inculcation of Christ-like character traits.

Now by being a member of a local ecclesial body, one will be in a friendly environment of like-minded individuals. The psychological research confirms that such environments can enhance imitation and copying behavior. In such a body of fellow Christians, there will be many similarities in beliefs and practices. And this environment prizes these similarities over other kinds of differences (Gal. 3:28 ESV). In a local ecclesial body, people can be more like Christ in different ways. So it is possible for two Christians to imitate each other if one is more like Christ in one way and the other is more like Christ in another way. These imitative or copying behaviors can help them become more prosocial, thereby strengthening their kinship, thereby potentially leading to more imitative copying behaviors. This feedback loop can assist in the progress of becoming more like Christ, where each member is contributing in the imitation-chain. This approach should also reduce concerns regarding an unequal status of power. If each member of a local ecclesial body is more like Christ in one way than another member, then everyone in that body should be imitated by someone and everyone should imitate at least one other person. Lastly, since that there is evidence from psychology that copying behavior positively benefits the one being imitated, worries over the imbalance of power can be further mitigated, since imitation is not only for the benefit of the imitator but also for the imitated. Therefore, imitation can be seen as a way of assisting the one imitating and the one imitated in their process of becoming more like Christ.

From these psychological insights, we can develop another way of responding to the problem of imitating a putatively non-present Christ. Rather than denying premise (2), we can deny premise (1). Imitation of Christ occurs not by directly copying Christ, who is not observably present, but by being embedded in a local ecclesial body which will likely have exemplars who are seeking to become like Christ, where these exemplars can be observed and imitated. Thus, imitation of Christ occurs through ecclesial imitation, which involves copying behaviors of fellow members of Christ’s body in one’s own local context. These fellow Christians will serve as intermediary exemplars in the process of ultimately becoming like Christ.

The ecclesial imitation solution has an advantage over the joint-attention solution insofar as the latter offers no clear sense in which Christ’s behaviors can be presently observed. Yet ecclesial imitation allows for many exemplars whose behavioral patterns are observable and immediate. By observing those who are bodily and observationally present such as fellow Christians in one’s local ecclesial body, one can grasp the intentions for why a more spiritually mature Christian acts in the way that they do. A Christian can then try to act in such a way as to acquire a similar intention or motivational profile in order to imitate that exemplar.

An upshot of the ecclesial imitation solution is that it provides practical engagement for Christians in the transformative process. Perhaps the idea of imitating Christ appears to some as daunting, especially since Christ is morally perfect (and arguably impeccable). A novice in basketball may be intimidated by having to start out by imitating a professional player such as Steph Curry, which might feel practically impossible for the novice. It may be easier and more pedagogically effective to have the novice imitate players closer to her level. Similarly, imitating Christ might feel practically impossible for a recent convert to Christianity. It is often easier to imitate someone who is more advanced but closer to one’s own level as opposed to imitating someone who is vastly superior that much of what the exemplar does is incomprehensible or inimitable for the learner. One’s local ecclesial body will likely have many less-than-perfect exemplars, yet can be imitated if they are closer to Christ in some respects over the one who is imitating them.

Finally, it is worth considering another potentially fruitful line for further inquiry. Ecclesial imitation involves imitating someone who is a member of the body of Christ. However, there may also be a sense in which the body of Christ en toto can be imitated. This requires considering the possibility of group agency and investigating whether group agents can serve as exemplars. If the body of Christ en toto can be an exemplar, then it would then be another imperfect exemplar that may be imitated. This may be an interesting possibility since there is psychological evidence for the claim that groups do better at copying the behavior of another group rather than the behavior of an individual (Tsai, Sebanz, and Knoblich 2011).

4. Conclusion

We have seen that some of the studies in developmental psychology points toward the ecclesial imitation solution to the problem of imitating a putatively non-present Christ. The solution relying on ecclesial imitation admits that Christ’s actions are no longer observable (even if one can engage in mind-reading through joint-attention). But this does not bar one from seeking to imitate Christ, for one can imitate those who also seek to become like Christ. Moreover, while not everyone may have a religious experience that involves joint-attention with Christ, almost everyone will likely have access to some local ecclesial body. Those seeking to imitate Christ should take seriously Paul’s injunction for the Corinthians to imitate him. Since Paul is not observably present to us, we need exemplars in our own settings.

The ecclesial imitation solution also provides practical steps, which appear to be missing in the joint-attention solution since there is no content regarding what is to be imitated. For ecclesial imitation, a Christian should embed herself in a local ecclesial body, find Christ-like exemplars, establish a relationship with them (which will likely lead to non-conscious copying behavior), and intentionally seek to imitate that person. Conveniently, the insights from psychology can show how these relationships and attempts at imitation can be effectively accomplished.


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Cite this article

Yang, Eric. 2022. “Can Psychology Help Resolve the Problem of Imitating a Putatively Non-Present Christ?”  Theological Puzzles (Issue 10).

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Eric Yang
Email: [email protected]

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