By Caleb Nelson
Though few in the church have heard his name, French literary theorist and anthropologist Rene Girard has strongly influenced the theology of both the emergent church and some sectors of evangelicalism. Born in 1923, Girard came to the U.S. after WWII and spent most of his career at Stanford University. Though he is still living (and publishing), he has been retired since 1995.
All desire, teaches Girard, is mimetic. That is, one does not develop a desire for an object unless he first sees another person desiring that same object. But when two people desire the same object, they inevitably fall into a rivalry. In the intensity of the rivalry, the two forget the object and focus entirely on their rivalry. Of course, this process is not limited to only two individuals, and eventually, it will infect an entire society. Society at that point becomes a mob and suddenly fixates on one particular individual as the source of the entire problem of unstoppable mimetic rivalry. That person is then murdered, and his murder brings peace and reconciliation. He is then sacralized as both the cause of societal chaos and the solution to that chaos. From this “founding murder” proceeds all human culture. Girard sees examples in the story of Cain and Abel (after murdering his brother, Cain founds a city, and his offspring invent music and metallurgy) and Romulus and Remus (Romulus murders his brother so that he can found Rome).
This founding murder is also the basis of ritual and religion, which seek to reenact the event which gave rise to community and thus ward off the mimetic chaos removed in the beginning by the founding murder.
The material covered in the first two paragraphs occupies the first section of Girard’s 1978 work, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. According to its back cover, this text falls into three categories: critical theory, anthropology, and literature. It relevance to theology is found in part two, in which Girard undertakes to prove that the Bible teaches Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the founding murder. However, the Bible makes clear what all other myths conceal: the innocence of the victim and thus the illegitimacy of the founding murder. This is already clear in the story of Cain and Abel. The prophets, and especially the Servant Songs of Isaiah, teach that violence is a human product, and that Yahweh hates bloody sacrifice of all kinds. Nonetheless, even the prophets did not see quite clearly, for Isaiah 53 still contains some material indicating a bloodthirsty God: “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isa 53:10 ESV). Only in the Gospels do we find the full revelation of the founding murder. In that revelation is its condemnation: for the murder to work, everyone must agree to believe that the victim was guilty. When it is shown conclusively that the victim was innocent, then the foundation of culture is put in jeopardy. The “founding mechanism” no longer works. Girard claims that within the Gospels is no trace of sacrifice; they are the pure teaching of non-violence. Jesus did not die in anyone’s place. When Solomon determined to divide the infant and give half to each claimant, the real mother offered to give up her baby that she might save its life. In a way exactly similar, Jesus gave up his life so that humankind might live non-violently in future. He allowed himself to be the founding victim, the object of the mimetic storm, in order to reveal to us the truth about human culture’s origin. He died for men, not the object of God’s wrath (God has no wrath), but merely as an object lesson to reveal what mythology had hidden since the foundation of the world.
God’s character is loving to the exclusion of all forms of justice and punishment. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mat 5:45 ESV) is for Girard a complete description of the divine character. His description of Jesus’ messianic message is similar.
This is the essential theme, repeated time and time again, of Jesus’ preaching: reconciliation with God can take place unreservedly and with no sacrificial intermediary through the rules of the kingdom. . . . Thus mankind no longer has to base harmonious relationships on bloody sacrifices, ridiculous fables of a violent deity, and the whole range of mythological cultural formations. (183)
He enthusiastically declares the logical consequence of this view: the crucifixion was merely a drastic example of the consequences of failure to heed the call to Kingdom living. “If they had accepted the invitation unreservedly, there would have been no apocalypse announced and no Crucifixion” (202).
Girard freely admits that the sacrificial reading of the Gospel text is nearly universal. Both the churches and their enemies embrace this reading. Yet it is mistaken. The book of Hebrews (which Girard quotes) is simply a late document out of accord with the spirit of the Gospels and more like the theology of the Isaianic Servant Songs. Meanwhile, the document Christ canceled by nailing it to his cross in Colossians 2 “is human culture, which is the terrifying reflection of our own violence” (192). Thus, for Girard, the good news is simply that we no longer have to take the way of violence and mimetic conflict epitomized by the founding murder. Thus, he goes so far as to speak of “those who could have helped Jesus in his mission and made the good reciprocity really catch on” (203).
The favorite self-designation of Jesus was “the Son of Man.” Girard takes a view almost completely opposite to the generally accepted position, which sees this title stemming from the Messianic figure of Daniel 7:13 to whom is given dominion and authority. God addressed Ezekiel also by the title “Son of Man.” Girard interprets the title in accordance with the mission of Ezekiel as a watchman, responsible to warn those who persist in their violent ways. Jesus was supremely one who warns the violent of the consequences of their violence.
Jesus is by nature God, though not in an exclusive sense. Other human beings can also attain to his divine status through his mediation. Girard even affirms the virgin birth, and a (highly) idiosyncratic reading of original sin.
If Christ alone is innocent, then Adam is not the only one to be guilty. All men share in this archetypal state of blame, but only to the extent that the chance of becoming free has been offered to them and they have let it slip away. We can say that this sin is indeed original but only becomes actual when knowledge about violence is placed at humanity’s disposition. (223, italics his)
Thus, “men are never condemned by God. They condemn themselves by their despair” (247). Jesus does not save; He teaches us to be better—if we’ll listen.
One cannot but applaud the creativity of Girard’s message. He has masterfully read the spirit of the age. But his teaching leaves the Christian reader with a question: is this new theology compatible with Scripture or tradition?
This is the first part of a three-part refutation of Rene Girard’s theology. Here are Part II and Part III. Caleb Nelson is a Presbyterian rancher from Northern Colorado and a graduate student at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Taylors, South Carolina.