Against René Girard

The death of René Girard has been followed by the flood of eulogy one expects for an author so often cited, a professor beloved of so many students, and a thinker so effectively popularized.

Much of that appreciation, I’m sure, is merited. Girard was nothing if not thought-provoking, and he gets plenty of mileage out of the few idées fixes that run through all his writing. (His key concept of “mimetic desire” strikes me as one that may bear great fruit for psychology and politics alike, and at any rate will keep the grad students busy for a long while.)

But among his disciples, René Girard is not only praised as a critic or as an interesting writer, but as a kind of theologian, as a sage whose anthropological key has deciphered the secret meaning of Christianity. His practice of the Catholic religion, and his personal loyalty to the Church, were commendable, and do nothing to refute this view. Girard himself suggests that he held such an opinion of his career — but it’s wrong, and wrong enough that those who would recommend Girard to Christians do him no service by repeating it.

Girard’s view of Christianity is so closely tied to his broader anthropology that it can hardly be explained without it. So for the perhaps unfamiliar reader, let me give a brief summary. (It’s brief not to dismiss Girard, but because his broader work is not my subject. For the curious, there’s a longer summary here, although the strictly philosophical criticisms in that article are not the same as my own.)

For Girard, who bases his arguments partially on literature, and partially on speculations about primitive human life, an essential motor of human desire and action is mimetic desire, a relation by which one person’s observing another’s desire for some object causes him to desire the same object himself. For Girard, this mechanism propagates desire across a society, leading inevitably to conflicts, when each cannot possess what all now desire. Girard believes that the pressures created by this mimetic desire build up within a society, and would tear it apart, were there not in his view a release mechanism in the device of scapegoating.  The selection of a scapegoat allows a group to nominate one part of itself as the cause of the tensions within it, and by the cathartic destruction or expulsion of that part, to restore peace for a time. But the wheels of mimetic desire do not cease to turn, and new scapegoats, more bloodshed, will again be required to purge the violence that otherwise would destroy the whole.

It is here that, for Girard, the story of Christian revelation intersects with his theories. We can set aside his unusual interpretation of the creation stories: his thought depends much more closely on his reading of Biblical atonement, and it is here that the principle objection to his thinking lies.

In his system, the animal and vegetable sacrifices of the Jews, typified but not limited to the sacrifice of the goat from which we take the name “scapegoat,” represent a first step away from the cyclical violence he imagines the primeval scapegoating to have involved. It is still through bloodshed and destruction that the escalating tensions of mimetic desire are relaxed, but this violence is no longer found in human bodies, but in other sacrifices that Girard would have us understand as their typological equivalent.

More importantly, in the religious life of the Jews one hears also the words of the prophets, who in Girard’s view call the efficacy of the Jewish sacrificial order into question, even as they remain in that order. Here he exploits real tensions in the texts: a God who desires obedience and not the fat of rams, a God who sends his servant to suffer in innocence, is a God who does not preside over a simplistic order of scapegoating in which the nomination and elimination of the guilty one is sufficient for atonement.

And on Girard’s reading of the New Covenant, this tension is finally resolved in the Passion, as a perfect being, a victim that cannot credibly be proposed as a scapegoat responsible for our suffering, is nevertheless offered as a sacrifice. The Passion discredits forever the sacrificial economy, and gives to those with eyes to see the understanding that social violence is avoided not through scapegoating or sacrifice, but through the pacifism Girard takes Christ to have preached.

Such, in a nutshell, is the role that Christianity plays in Girard’s system. It is his intention to take a favorable view of it, and he is certainly correct to see Christianity as leading mankind from strife into peace, but his goodwill towards the tradition cannot excuse the basic errors in his interpretation of Christian revelation. Three of these errors deserve our attention most:

1. René Girard’s Christian narrative is purely immanent — it is anthropology, not religion. This is not to deny that Girard uses religious language, or spends much time discussing the mysteries of the Christian religion. Though he himself was a Catholic, his intellectual interest in the Christian religion was not that of the believer, but of one who thought he could use it as a tool for what was at heart a secular project. In his thought, the redemption the Gospel preaches to us is not the justification of sinful men or their regeneration in the spirit — it is rather a kind of Enlightenment, by which man, finally given a standpoint from which to pronounce judgment on the psychological forces of mimetic desire and the mythic imperatives of scapegoating that have ruled him for so long, realizes that a better, more peaceful, happier life is possible. René Girard does not hesitate to use the language of redemption, but what he describes is really the clarification of a mistake in political theory. When he talks of things hidden since the creation of the world, he does not, as the Christian does, intend the secrets that God had not yet made manifest in Christ: Girard’s Gospel, of the futility of scapegoating, of the need to discipline one’s desire, has nothing properly supernatural about it, even if he believes man happened to be too muddle-headed to figure it out without Christ.

In their enthusiasm to embrace Girard, then, his Christian fans run the risk of reducing the Gospel to an anthropological story. It can be seen as a more humanistic equivalent to the just-so stories of evolutionary psychology: mimetic desire and scapegoating are the natural inclinations that shape human life; Christ brings a kind of mutation that competes with the predominant traits, and Girard’s eschatological hope is that the Christ-meme will in the end prove more adaptive. This is an interesting and very creative story — it might even be successful as a secular account of the role of Christianity in history — but it is far poorer than the story Christians should tell to themselves.

2. René Girard’s view of the Old Covenant requires that we consider the Mosaic revelation to be ironic, at odds with itself. Girard does not deny that the laws of the Jews are from God. In their use of innocent victims, Girard even believes the Jewish sacrifices to be a step forward for humanity, as opposed to earlier mythic practices that he claims required the imputation of guilt to the victim. But this faint praise of the Old Covenant should make the Christian wary: Girard praises these sacrifices only because they point the way beyond sacrifice. The Jewish tradition of sacrifice is not  propitiatory but propedeutic, a ladder to be kicked away once it has been climbed.

It is certainly true that God spoke to the Jews in a means appropriate to their times, but it is gross impiety to think on this account that he did not mean what he said to them. Yet for Girard, it is what is most expressly commanded by God that is most wrong — the sacrifices God commands for his praise and for the expiation of sins do neither of these things, even if (as Girard claims) they point forward to a later age of true religion. This is not strict Marcionism, but it is not Christianity: the Christian believes that the New Covenant fulfills the Old, not that it declares false what the Old Covenant had stated ironically. But it is not with respect to the Jewish rites that Girard’s errors about sacrifice are most damaging.

3. Girard’s view of Christianity rejects the sacrificial understanding of the Passion and of the liturgy. Girard and his disciples talk often about the evils of “substitutionary atonement,” adding their voices to the large chorus of Modernist and Eastern scholars who have built careers denouncing this theological bugbear. But I don’t mean here to offer a defense of substitutionary atonement (Hart, I think, does this well enough in his Beauty of the Infinite); the Girardian critique is radical enough to disturb even Christians who reject that understanding of the Cross. For Girardians, “substitutionary atonement” is a broad enough idea that all who believe in the effectiveness of sacrifice are guilty of it.

In every language and in every rite, Christians have viewed the eucharist as a sacrifice, typologically tied to the offerings of Melchizedek and of the Jewish priests, and figuring the perfect sacrifice of the Passion. This typological connection is everywhere in Christian thought. When the Church repeats Christ’s words — “this is my body, given for you” — this is taken to refer equally to the cross and to the liturgy, which are understood together to be the perfection and seal of the finite sacrifices offered by those who had not yet heard the Gospel.

The difference between this and Girard’s view is vast — for him, the Cross is not the perfection of sacrifice but its final refutation, an absurdity and an offense designed to convince us of the fatuity of all sacrifice. Christ’s Passion saves us not because he is offered in our place, or as a propitiation to the Father, but because it teaches us to set aside the myths of sacrifice and the economy of violence they entail. It is not Christ’s blood, but his instructive witness, that saves.

But to say this is to say that Christians have always misunderstood their religion, that all who have prayed in traditional forms, or participated in traditional liturgies, or even read certain passages of the scriptures ingenuously, have implicitly rejected the Gospel, and fallen victim to a delusion that for Girard is more or less synonymous with original sin — the idea that sacrifice is effective in itself, and not merely as a sign to those who look at it correctly.

To dismiss this view is not to imply that the Christian concept of sacrifice is simple, or uncontroversial even among the orthodox, or comprehensible without much prayer and meditation. It is merely to say that when the Church talks about sacrifice, when the Church tells us that God commands and blesses sacrifice, she is speaking neither in irony nor in delusion. But if we accept Girard as a correct expositor of Christianity, we can receive the Church’s words in no other way.

If this blog will have a sacred principle, it’s that it’s worthwhile to read authors who are wrong — that salutary food for thought and no small measure of wisdom can be found even in writings whose overall argument we reject. To show me the weight of an objection I’ve disregarded, or to draw my attention to a potential solution I’ve overlooked, is to do me a service. But there must be a curb set to our gratitude, lest the professional respect due to an able thinker run over into the honor due to the sage, or into the deference due to the prophet.

It is not to belittle any true contributions of René Girard that I suggest this curb has been in his case too often breached — that many Christians, thrilled at the idea of having such a man on their team, have failed to read him with an adequately critical eye.