May 6, 2013

René Girard: Who Is This Guy, Anyway?

(Photo Credit: Films 7)

(Photo Credit: Films 7)

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.

  • Mr. Girard read another discredited intellectual: Freud. Scarey stuff

  • It seems that Jesus was a sign showing the way of nonviolence and had nothing else to offer humanity. It is surprising that for 2000 years people have committed their life to Jesus believing that he has the authority to redeem them from sin and lead them into the presence of God but all he really wanted to do was to teach people not to lash out in violence. No hell to be saved saved from (see Rob Bell) no sin to be guilty of (see Brian Mclaren), just nonviolence and bliss.

  • Pingback: First Links — 5.7.13 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog()

  • Pingback: Marcion Lives! René Girard’s Unoriginal Errors | Juicy Ecumenism - The Institute on Religion & Democracy's Blog()

  • Pingback: The Violence of God: a Final Response to Girard | Juicy Ecumenism - The Institute on Religion & Democracy's Blog()

  • Pingback: Who is Rene Girard?()

    • Chris

      In pointing to a supposed circular problem for the origin of desire among humans, you overlook another possibility – that imitative desire was introduced to humanity by the “nachash” (serpent) in Genesis 3. After this point, humans had their eyes opened and lost their ability to “see” God and imitate Him. All they could see was their own nakedness.

      Prior to her encounter with the nachash, Eve saw the tree and its fruit as something to be afraid of, not even to be touched. After the nachash denied the dangers and proclaimed the supposed benefits of eating from the tree’s fruit, all of a sudden Eve sees the tree and its fruit as “good for food, pleasing to the eyes and a tree to be DESIRED to make one wise”. Why the sudden change? The nachash made it clear that he saw the tree and its fruit as desirable and Eve imitated his desire. We humans were created to be images, reflectors of another – that other being God. We were created to be imitators. I believe this is why Adam was to both tend and to “keep” the garden that he had been placed in. The Hebrew word translated as “keep” in that verse is shomer, and its meaning is quite a bit stronger than to simply keep an eye on something or casually take care of it. It means to put a protective hedge of thorns around something to protect it from a threat. I just looked up the first several usages of it in the old testament and aside from the first usage under discussion here, the ones following it all involve serious protective scenarios with serious stakes (the cherubim keeping the way to the tree of life, Cain being his brother’s keeper, Abraham keeping God’s covenant with him, etc). Why should the FIRST usage be considered in any different light?

      But this presents us with a problem. If all was “very good” when God finished creating everything, and sin had not yet entered, what serious threat was there that the garden needed to be protected from? The nachash.

      The “Eve” that ate of the fruit and gave to her husband was not the same Eve that was in the garden prior to her encounter with the nachash. How many times have you heard of someone saying “After I met so and so, I’m a different person”. In studying “mirro neurons and their role in learning and personality development, many scientists are talking about using the term “inter-dividual” instead of individual when referring to people. The “me” that I know of as myself is formed only as I interact with another. And the character of that “other” is a determining factor in the “me” that results. How else would one explain Jesus talking about His fellow Jews in one verse as being Abraham’s seed (John 8:37) and then a few verses later saying that these same people were of their father the devil and the DESIRE of their father they would do. The ability for a new person to be formed by interacting and responding to a different “other” is the basis of the biblical phrase “born again”.

      The nachash, (or “serpent” as it is normally translated) was not a simple snake. The word nachash has ties to the concepts of using dramatic sights and sounds to “enchant” people. In fact the meaning of the primitive root word that it comes from means “enchanter, sorcerer, prognosticator”. The derived word translated as “serpent” means “to hiss” (throughout the old testament enchanters are described as hissing, chirping, muttering, and making other strange SOUNDS while plying their trade). It also means “shining” and “copper or brass” (which are “shiny” metals). Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14 also hint at the same being in terms with similar concepts involved. The king of Tyre’s timbrels (tambourines) would make a “hissing” SOUND when shaken, and his “pipes”, which are not musical pipes, but rather mounting sockets or bezels for “shining” gemstones would provide for quite a dramatic SIGHT. The “king of Babylon” in Isaiah 14:11-12 is also associated with dramatic sounds and sights. In verse 11, his pomp accompanied by the NOISE of his viols is brought down to the grave, and in verse 12 we have mention of the “light bringer” who in Hebrew is hey-lel, also known as a splendid, SHINING star, who would be quite a SIGHT to behold.

      Once Adam and Eve fell, mankind could no longer see or interact with God well enough to imitate Him. That is why Jesus had to come in a form that we could see and “show us the Father”.

      As far as God requiring a sacrifice in order to satisfy His “justice”, how can God be this way when we are told by the Holy Spirit through the writing of John that God is love, and then in Paul’s description of love, inspired by the same Holy Spirit, he says that “love keeps no account of evil”. (a lot of translations read “love… thinks no evil”, but the Greek word there has more to do with reckoning, considering and weighing information) . It also says love does not “seek its own”. Its own what? Its own justification? Its own satisfaction?

      I have not yet made up my mind whether I should see God as demanding that sin be paid for by sacrifice or whether the sacrifices of God really are a broken spirit and a contrite heart like David spoke of in Psalm 51 when he said God did not want a sacrifice.

  • Greg

    Rene Girard has quite a following with the folks at the Raven Foundation:

  • Duane Armitage

    This is close to being accurate, but Girard does not say that another human being can achieve divinity like Jesus. Jesus is God and is unique for Girard. When he talks about mythology he notes that sacrifices would “divinize” the victim (perceived to be guilty); he’s not saying this is fact, or real — the only real “myth” is the Gospel, which is not a myth at all and thus destroys all mythology by revealing its inner mechanism: scapegoating violence toward an innocent victim.