Posted by: gcarkner | March 30, 2015

Rene Girard on Deep Easter

The Gospel According to René Girard

~ Peter Barber, Ph.D. Student Religious Studies at UBC~

The two principal assertions of Girard’s hermeneutical model are ‘mimetic desire’ and ‘scapegoating’. Mimetic desire is the idea that humans do not experience being and identity autonomously, but always only through an Other, a model for one’s desire. This could be an older sibling, an exemplar or a mentor. Desire and by extension ‘being’ is borrowed. This essential feature of human nature accounts for the enormous learning capability (the physical apparatus for which is now identified as the brain’s mirror neuron system), and is a positive basic feature of human existence. And yet, since desiring and being is through a model other, two or more persons desiring the same object(s) or things could end in rivalry over the object(s). This can and often does result in occasioning conflict and seeming to necessitate, in the estimation of the rival(s), the need for sacrifice of the Other, in order to gain the being blocked or inhibited by the model.

It is in this way that scapegoating regularly results from mimetic desire going sideways, as just described. Positive learning descends into destructive violence, the desire to destroy what you admire. The term scapegoat is chosen by Girard because it encapsulates our cultures’ reception of the spirit of Christ’s revelation throughout history, that sacrifice of the other is not ‘good’, is not even necessary, but is the false transfer of responsibility for rivalry and violence off of oneself and entirely onto the Other. The transferal is followed by destruction of the Other for his/her guilt, and for the danger or social pollution they still pose, in blocking access to the desired object(s). It threatens social chaos, and the scapegoat is sacrificed to restore peace and order. 

Girard applies this view of anthropology and social psychology as an interpretive lens for the Gospels. He asserts that all human cultures, being religious (including our own) insofar as they are defined and maintained by the three religious pillars – myth (group-formed narrative), sacrifice, and law – are subverted and conquered, both ideologically and practically, by Jesus Christ’s actions and words recorded in the Gospel accounts. In his reading of these texts Girard disagrees sharply with much mainstream scholarship by (a) asserting the historical and compositional unity of the texts, and (b) arguing that the Gospels themselves return to myth (culture) in order to decode and conquer it, rather than being the receptacles of mythical accretions over time.

The Gospels’ conquest of myth is perceptible in their structure and content, which as Girard observes is framed as God stepping into the ‘eternal return’ or sacrificial cycle of culture with the mission of dismantling it, and more, of providing freedom from the perceived need for it, freedom from the violence (sin) that scapegoating contains. The plot, or events, of the Gospels have therefore been summarized as ‘a redemptive return to the pattern of myth, as well as its overcoming’. Historical criticism and the historical Jesus movements have missed completely, then, the role and nature of the mythological content in the Gospels. The mythical pattern undergirding the accounts is known as the combat myth or hero pattern, and is common to foundational narratives of cultures all over the earth. I have engaged in detailed study of the Gospels’ systematic subversion of this pattern, and have concluded that it is performed in a manner comparable to the subversive Hebrew chiastic parallelism found throughout the Old Testament. Each phase is overturned along the way, and ultimately scapegoating is revealed and condemned by the Cross, with the Resurrection setting humans free – only a few culturally marginal persons at first, but the movement grows: freedom from identity and being via the Other, for real being and identity in Christ, in God. Girard concludes that culture is a tomb that God calls his children out of through Christ. This demythologization of scapegoating culture involves a fundamental commitment to protection of the victim and the innocents.

See also Link to Interview with Rene Girard on the CBC Ideas Series  This five part interview gives a rich understanding of the thought of this brilliant mind. See also Girard’s depiction of the profound impact of the death and resurrection of Jesus in  I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001)

Screen Shot 2015-03-30 at 8.17.56 AMRené Noël Théophile Girard is a Franco-American historianliterary critic, and philosopher of social science whose work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy. Girard is the author of nearly thirty books, including Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the Earth, with his writings spanning many academic domains. Although the reception of his work is different in each of these areas, there is a growing body of secondary literature on his work and his influence on disciplines such as literary criticismcritical theoryanthropologytheologypsychologymythologysociologyeconomicscultural studies, and philosophy.

Girard’s fundamental ideas, which he has developed throughout his career and provide the foundation for his thinking, are that desire is mimetic (all of our desires are borrowed from other people), that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism. Old and New Testament step apart from the ancient cultures to maintain the innocence of the victim.

The way to end violence is to answer/resist with non-violence; refuse to play the game of escalating violence and scapegoating. See Ghandi as an example in India or martin Luther King Jr. in the American civil rights movement. Although Jesus puts himself forward as a scapegoat on the cross, he also ends scapegoating by exposing the evil game of scapegoating (previously hidden to human consciousness). When he said, “They know not what they do.” he meant they did not understand that Jesus, the victim of hate, was an innocent. The entire mob, the authorities and the disciples were guilty of scapegoating Jesus–they placed the evil of the whole community/world on him. Only the centurion among the institutional authorities understood that Jesus was innocent. They were all caught up in the thrall of the scapegoating phenomenon.

The resurrection, although convincing only to a few at the time, proved Jesus innocence before God. The preaching in Acts 2 begins with a claim that “we were all fooled (self-deceived, under a spell)  to hound him, the innocent good son (Messiah), to the cross.” Paul admits his own self-deception at his Damascus conversion; he had been a master scapegoater of young Christians. To become a Christian, one has to realize that one is a persecutor of Christ. The Passion of Christ shows the ugliness of such violence (it is not heroic but savage); Satan’s schema of mimetic rivalry and violence is exposed and broken; he is duped by the cross. While thinking he had won, he actually lost the game. Jesus stepped outside the circle of violence; his self-giving sacrifice ended violence, and provided for reconciliation. A new hermeneutic emerges that takes the power out of ritual sacrifice, a new morality and a new culture. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this at a deep level in his efforts to establish human rights for Black Americans in the 1960s: see the movie Selma. Once the cycle of violence is revealed/exposed, the alternative to violence and chaos for any culture is Christian love–Agape and justice. Even Nietzsche understood this.

See Gill Bailey, Violence Unveiled.

New Book: Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in a Post-Truth Era by Daniel Levitin

Rene Girard, I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning.

Other Blogs on Mimetic Rivalry:

Who Am I? Casting Crowns Why it is still important to discuss a genuine resurrection

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: