Imitation is not only the highest form of flattery; it also helps to shape us into the kind of people we want to become.

The pattern holds in the spiritual realm, too. St. Paul told the Corinthians: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

I could mimic all my favorite baseball players’ stances and swings when I was a kid. I didn’t get to the big leagues, but I’m sure I hit better than I would have on my own.

Actress Jessica Alba plays a blind violinist in the newly released horror film, “The Eye.” The character has her sight restored, only to see dead people as well as the living. She had to be convincingly musical for the role, in addition to being convincingly blind.

Preparing for the role, Alba listened to hours of Mozart and Beethoven. She studied hours of tapes of the concert violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. She imitated Mutter’s posture, her head position, her bowing technique, and even the passionate looks on her face as she played. Then Alba took six months of violin lessons, working especially hard on the difficult vibrator move. She visited the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, along with the Los Angeles Braille Institute. She concluded her training by spending a long time following around a blind student at Boston University, imitating her every move.

Alba was trying to become something or someone she was not before. She was learning how to live as the kind of person she would portray in the film. She had to learn the character from the outside in, in order to live it from the inside out.

All religions to some degree, Christianity to a large degree, tend to celebrate spiritual experience as inside job. The mystical apprehension of God comes to us as a gift, and that uniquely to every person.

But the witness of spiritual history is more complex and more social. The spiritual self is constructed from without, as well as instructed from within. Those who are mature in the faith may be imitated by those who wish to be. Masters become mentors, and disciples learn by following them around and imitating their way of life and their habits of being.

Why not simply follow Christ, though? Why follow Paul as he follows Christ? The same might be said of other religious traditions. Why not bypass fellow human beings and go straight to the Source, putting your own spin on things and making the faith uniquely yours?

We live in a visible and tangible world that coexists with the invisible and intangible. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” For a completely fulfilled and satisfying life to be lived, heaven and earth must come together in us. Invisible and intangible spiritual truth needs flesh and bone to become visible and tangible.

Christianity claims that God endorsed this most dramatically in the so-called incarnation of the Son of God. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” The Spirit of that same Christ may live in any human being through faith.

Becoming like Christ, however, requires Christians, as well as Christ. Becoming a faithful Jew requires Jews, as well as the Law. Becoming a devout Muslim takes more than a few vows about Allah and Mohammed; it takes Muslims to emulate. All the more reason we need to choose the right role models.

People who say they are spiritual and not religious fail to grasp the social character of the spiritual life. We become like the people we imitate, whether we are conscious of that imitation or not.

I would like to be able to say with Paul, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” But first I hope to become the kind of person that someone might want to imitate.