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and the Sacred
René Girard's Insights into Christianity
by Gil Bailie
In the Genesis story of the fall, Eve exhibits no spontaneous desire for the fruit of the forbidden tree; it is only when the serpent flaunts its desirability that her desire for it is aroused. Likewise, Adam desires it only when infected with Eve's desire for it. The serpent's desire, replicated first by Eve and then by Adam, represents the distortion of the desire for God into the rivalrous determination to be God.
The fall story tells us about desire, and what it tells us is what Augustine told us about sin, what Paul told us about salvation, and what Dante told us about both, namely, that we learn to desire from others, that the distortions of desire lead to sin, and that the right ordering of desire, the key to our liberation from the "power of sin," begins with Christian conversion.
Desire, as distinguished from animal appetite, is always aroused by the desire of another; we desire what another desires. However this may jar with popular ideas about the autonomy of desire, it conforms perfectly with everyone's lived experience, if not with their interpretation of it. Two children in a room full of toys always want the same toy, and the more each expresses a desire for it, the more the other desires it and the more heated the rivalry between the two becomes. Were we not still under the spell of the modern myth of self-sufficient individuality, this simple and universal scene would be enough to cure us of the notion of spontaneous, autonomous desire, a notion, by the way, for which there is no biblical corroboration. This little example also brings home the fact that the imitative nature of desire leads to conflict, to animosity. In its simplest expression, Girard's insight into desire is this: desire is mimetic and, because of that, acquisitive desire gives rise to conflict.
If one acquisitive gesture awakens another acquisitive desire, and if the mimetic nature of the rivalry set in motion by these competing desires forces the rivalry it provokes to escalate in intensity, then the conflict itself will have two social ramifications. First, the rivals' desire, exaggerated by their rivalry, will "glamorize" the object of their desire in the eyes of still others, awakening the desire of onlookers and drawing them into the fray.
Secondly, as the conflictual vortex grows wider and more vertiginous, the rivals will grow more obsessed (negatively) with each other than (positively) with the original object of their mutual and conflicting desires. So the contagious nature of desire insures that the enmity it spawns will quickly draw a wider and wider social circle into an ever more furious and violent maelstrom.
All society-wide strife can be related back to the mimesis of desire and the contagious nature of the conflict it incites. Girard's demonstration of this principle has been thoroughgoing and extensive. Space permits only the foregoing summation of it, the point of which, for our purposes here, is that the very existence of human culture requires that the constant threat of violent conflict arising from the mimetic nature of desire be somehow counterbalanced.
The question is: how does this happen? To put the issue in Hobbesian terms, how do we humans bring the war of all-against-all to which the mimetic nature of desire leads to a peaceful conclusion? How do we get from the crisis born of mimetic desire to the resolution which provides the nascent social consensus upon which human culture as we know itfallen human culturedepends?
The Accusatory Gesture
To be brief, another form of mimetic contagion emerges spontaneously in the midst of the crisis set in motion by the contagion of mimetic rivalry. The more frenzied a social melt down is, the more susceptible its participants become to mimetic suggestion. The crisis itself consists of a myriad of "accusatory gestures"whether mental, verbal or physical. The highly contagious nature of the situation makes it inevitable that sooner or later one of these accusatory gestures will attract imitators.
In contrast to the mimetic effect of the acquisitive gesture, the accusatory gesture, when imitated, bonds all those who join in the gesture, lending a moral certitude to the accusation which is directly proportional to the degree of social unanimity the accusation mimetically generates. Functioning very much like a "black hole," the gravitational power of this accusatory consensus gradually becomes irresistible, sucking into its vortex both matter and light, so to speak, both the testimony of the senses and the sentinel of moral judgment.
As studies of the mob phenomenon show, this process happens with literally blinding speed and produces the all-against-one resolution that would have climaxed in our most ancient ancestors' first profound experience of intense social bonding, the rudimentary "community" from which human culture eventually elaborates itself with the help of archaic religion.
Again, space does not allow for an exposition of these themes. The point is simply that desire is mimetic, that it gives rise to violence, and that turning that violence toward one expendable victim is what made (fallen) human culture possible.
The Surrogate Victim Mechanism
To suggest that what Girard calls the surrogate victim mechanism is what made human culture possible may seem inconceivable to those unfamiliar with his work and the anthropological data for which it accounts, but it is no more inconceivable than is the related Christian claim that the human race has been freed from sin and death by a victim murdered at the insistence of a bloodthirsty mob. Indeed, the latter claim finds its most powerful contemporary corroboration in the recognition of the anthropological centrality of the former one.
The Similarity Between Gospel and Myth
It is not surprising that it was with exotic non-Western societies that nineteenth century anthropologists were most fascinated. Though the science of anthropology is itself an intellectual extension of the process of cultural decoding that the biblical text inaugurates, the new science was tardy in reckoning with the Bible's own anthropological significance.
Moreover, the very thing that made it possible to appreciate this significance made Christians deeply reluctant to do so. For when the biblical texts are read against the anthropological background, something at once astounding and shocking becomes clear, namely, the structural similarity between myth and gospel.
Christian reluctance about recognizing this similarity is perfectly understandable. We have maintained that Christianity is utterly unique, but we have never before had to account for that uniqueness in the face of anthropological evidence that seems to contradict it.
Stories of dying and rising gods are found in countless places; the mythological world is filled with them. Not only that, but all human drama, all dramatic narrative, is structured by the pattern that myth and gospel have in common: a social crisis culminating in a dramatic death and followed by a religious epiphany and the restoration of social harmony.
The fact is that the human drama is as inherently paschal as the soul is naturally Christian. Or, as Balthasar insists, history is an "inexhaustible abundance of Christian situations." This no doubt because, as Origen said, and as Balthasar reiterates, "the mystery of sin . . . has the power to perpetuate the Passion of the Word down through history."
The animus against Christianity that subtly and not so subtly haunted the modern project predisposed early researchers to see the similarities between myth and gospel as reason enough for dismissing Christian claims of uniqueness and universality.
Since they failed to recognize the fundamental structure of the drama that myth and gospel have in common, they were unable to recognize the anthropological significance of the universality of this structure. Their conclusion was a banal one, namely, that the gospel was just one more myth of death and resurrection, a conclusion that has been popularized in recent decades and, lamentably, adopted by a good number of Christians, whose acceptance of the rhetoric of radical multiculturalism is the natural outcome of it.
Given the pervasiveness of this relativistic bias, and the seeming lack of a robust and intellectually respectable response to it, many of the Christians who continue to insist on Christian uniqueness often do so with a churlishness that is not easily mistaken for Christian joy. Nor are they in the mood to revise their assumption that, at best, myths are just primitive nonsense, or, at worst, tom-toms on which the neopagans can pound out their Nietzschean contempt for Christianity and its universal claims.
There is truth in both these positions, of course, but if we are to counter the prevalent trend, proclaim afresh the true uniqueness and history-altering centrality of the Christian gospel, and reclaim the joy that is the lifeblood of our faith, then the issue must be joined on precisely the question of the similarity between gospel and myth.
The Uniqueness of Christianity Substantiated
Paradoxically, it was by completing the work of researchers who thought they were disproving Christian claims of uniqueness that Rene Girard was able to substantiate these claims decisively. The very fact that in performing this impressive feat, he took up the project of those who sought to relativize Christianity was bound to arouse suspicion among Christians already wary about the pagan death and resurrection myths and the artless conclusions being drawn about their implications for Christianity.
Girard insists that one has to begin with the similarities between myth and gospel in order to bring out the true and radical differences. If myth and gospel are dealing with two totally different realities, as Christians have tended to argue, then the differences between them are as theologically moot as the similarities are intellectually uninteresting. The difference between them can be significant only if they deal with the same fundamental event, and if, as is the case, myth and gospel respectively offer radically different interpretations of that event, one true and one false.
One of St. Luke's narrative instruments for reckoning with the meaning of the Cross is the testimony of the Roman centurion at the moment of Jesus' death. "When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, 'Certainly this man was innocent"' (Lk 23:47). The innocence of the victim is the one thing that cannot be seen if the social benefits of his victimization are to be enjoyed.
This recognition is the beginning of the end of conventional culture, an intriguing allusion to which occurs in the following verse: "And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts" (Lk 23:48).
The spectacle which has gathered human communities together since the beginning of culture here has the opposite effect, and those who saw what the centurion saw wander away, the gravitational power of their gathering ritual having been broken by the revelation of the innocence of its victim.
Satan The Accuser
In all but the earliest stages of the mimetic crisis that gives rise to archaic culture and primitive religion, the social atmosphere is thick with latent accusations, but it is when the accusations become overt that the various and sundry "sins" of those caught up in the crisis become recognizably "satanic" in the etymological sense, for the word satan means the accuser.
The autonomy and internal logic of this social mechanism is, mutatis mutandis, what we mean when we speak of the power of Satan in Christian discourse. For this social contagion is nothing more and nothing less than a breathtakingly swift distillation of a thousand latent accusations into one gigantic and spectacular one, an accusation in unison with which all the former antagonists become "blood brothers."
In a world where hundreds of millions of victims have been slaughtered in wars, death camps, Gulags, Hiroshimas and Nagasakis, abortion clinics, and campaigns of ethnic cleansing, those who wince at Christianity's traditional vocabulary for probing the "power of sin" may have complex reasons for doing so. But the fact that our ancestors in the faith used metaphysical tropes for expressing their new-found awareness of satanic power, and that these locutions, despite the fact that Jesus found them serviceable enough, are now out of fashion, is hardly proof against the validity of what the gospel has to say on the subject.
Paraclete Advocate for the Accused
Jesus had said: "I see Satan falling like lightning." To see Satan is to see him fall, for he is the prince of darkness, and "Satan's first trick is to convince us that he does not exist." If we see Satan falling, it is because we can see him, and if we see him, it means he is falling.
The nature of the conversion experience enabled the earliest Christians to catch a fleeting glimpse of the one who was falling like lightning, for their conversion was part of his fall. It was the work of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, and it is hardly coincidental that the word, parakletos, means the advocate for the accused, the opposite of satan.
In providing anthropological grounding for these and other New Testament formulations, Rene Girard helps us recover from its place of reproach the vocabulary in which the world's most profound revelation first broke in on the human race, and to insist that proposed improvements to this vocabulary be the result of our attempts to be faithful to what Jesus saw with perfect clarity and what early Christians saw dimly, namely, that the Accuser is the prince of "this world"the organizing principle of conventional culturethe ruler of the kingdoms of this worldand that his power was broken by the revelation of the Cross.
Upon first encountering this analysis, it is perfectly understandable that Christians might think it entirely too sociological to be the basis for an apologetic, evangelical and theological revitalization. But the mystery of Christian faith is a mystery that breaks in on us precisely when the mesmerizing spell of "the father of lies, the murderer from the beginning" is broken. What Girard has done is to describe how that sinful spell is woven, how deeply implicated in it we humans aremorally, mentally, and epistemologicallyindeed how humanity's oldest religious reflexes are entangled in the structures of sacralized violence of which he has given such a lucid account.
Girard would be the first to insist, however, that it would be an absurd reduction to think that Jesus died on the Cross in order to improve the social order. Far from it. By his death, rather, he shattered the spellbinding mechanism that established and maintained conventional cultural order at the expense of its "scapegoats."
To recognize the presence of this mechanism at the crux of humanity's sinful self-delusions is to begin to understand, in anthropological terms, why Jesus had to go to the Cross to liberate us from it. He could have died of leprosy or cancer. But he did not. He died at the hands of a righteous and angry mob, and Girard has helped us understand why.
If space allowed, it would be helpful here to develop at greater length the gospel's anthropological perspicacity. Suffice it to say that the New Testament's astonishing insight into the nature of the post-Easter historical situation is due to the anthropological centrality of the event long occluded by myth and the systems of religious mystification and finally revealed by the gospel. The Cross reveals the definitive truth about both God and humanity, and it alters profoundly and irrevocably the human cultural and spiritual condition.
If the Christian revelation is so radically new and historically pivotal, why did it take the shape of the very thing it came to supplant? The short answer is that that was the only way it could be supplanted. To try to destroy the old system of sacred violence in any other way, would have been to redeploy it. It would have been to try to cast out Satan using Satan's own trick, namely, casting out. The only way the satanic power could be truly broken was to let Satan do the casting out yet one more time, and to expose the whole sordid system once and for all.
This is part one of a two part article, to be continued in next issue.
First published as 'René Girard's Contribution to the Church of the 21st Century' in Communio: International Catholic Review, 26 No.1 (Spring 1999) 134-153. Contact: P.O.Box 4557, Washington D.C. 20017, USA. E-mail: email@example.com. Republished with permission.
Cf. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled Humanity at the Crossroads, Crossroad, New York, 1995. Hb $24.95. ISBN 0-8245-1464-5
For this social contagion is nothing more and nothing less than a breathtakingly swift distillation of a thousand latent accusations into one gigantic and spectacular one
To try to destroy the old system of sacred violence in any other way, would have been to redeploy it. The only way the satanic power could be truly broken was to let Satan do the casting out yet one more time, and to expose the whole sordid system once and for all.
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