Saturday, November 15, 2008

A bit about Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire: Part 3

So, back to Rene Girard and mimetic theory... (which I just realized I misspelled in my previous posts! Whoops!)

Previously, I briefly described Girard's theory and the explanation it provides for human violence. Now, I want to look at Girard's description of the manner in which the biblical narrative, culminating in Christ, actually represents the reversal of violence. Again, my source is Depoortere's Christ in Postmodern Philosophy.

Girard claims that the Bible describes a "gradual exit" (to use Depoortere's words) from the cycle of violence that is interwoven within ancient myths and religions, and, in fact, all of human culture. While this may seem spurious, given the amount of violence contained within the Bible, Girard asserts that unlike other ancient stories, violence in the Scriptures is presented as worthy of condemnation rather than praise. In Greek and Roman mythology, for example, murder is seen as simply part of the destiny of relationships between gods and men. In the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, however, murder is roundly condemned.

What's more, the Bible consistently describes God as taking the side of the victim. Remember that Girard has hypothesized that the "scapegoat" is understood by human beings as a necessary sacrifice to alleviate violence. This does not, however, mean that the scapegoat was necessarily understood to be innocent. The victim's innocence was connected less to the victim, and more to the alleviation of the violence, or evil, or curse. The innocence of the victim her/himself is actually an idea that owes a great deal to the Hebrew understanding of violence, as it is described in the Bible. Rather than simply resigning to the need for the victim to exist, the Bible undermines violence by pointing out that the victim has done nothing wrong.

This is seen most clearly, of course, in the prophecies alluding to Christ (Isaiah 53, for example). Jesus' death and resurrection are a fulfillment of these prophetic messages describing God's immanent reversal of the violent system imbedded within human culture and human hearts. In Christ, God is telling humanity that the way to life involves abandoning violence and vengeance, and surrendering fully to God's love.

However, Jesus' message was not well received, to put it mildly. Rather than responding to Jesus' call to renounce violence, people actually turned their violence upon Jesus, making him into the ultimate scapegoat! It is this travesty - God as the ultimate innocent victim of violence - that reveals the root of human violence. So, the crucifixion is not just an event that reveals something about God, it also reveals something about us. It reveals our captivity to violence. This revelation of the structure of violence is, for Girard, a sort of evidence of Christ's divinity.

The resurrection, in turn, is not only Jesus being raised to new life (which is available for humanity as well), it is also the paradigmatic example of freedom from violence. When even death cannot succeed, violence has been stripped of its power. There is much more to say about this, but I want to stop and make a few brief observations:

First, some will no doubt question Girard's interpretation of Scripture. Clearly there are examples in the Bible where it appears that God either condones violence, or outright commands it. Girard's mythologically-oriented view of Scripture allows him to brush these aside as anomalies. This is a weakness, I think, but I will let you take that up with Girard by reading his books for yourself... ;-)

Second, and more pressing, I think, is the following issue: violence still exists - perhaps now more than ever - 2,000 years after Christ's death and resurrection. How do we deal with this? Girard seems to think that, in spite of continuing violence, the message of the Gospel is slowly working its way out in human history. He states, for example, regarding the longing for vengeance: "... longing for real vengeance is a luxury which can only be afforded in a society in which violence has already been curtailed..." However, I am not sure this is really the case.

It is extremely difficult to quantify how much violence may or may not have been alleviated by the Gospel versus the traditional cultural method of scapegoating. Certainly I prefer the Christian message of non-violence to other approaches. But it seems to me that if Girard's theory holds any weight, than we must also admit that most Christians have rejected, and continue to reject, the message of Christ's Gospel, which calls into question the validity of that Gospel. How transformative can a message be if no one cares enough to really take it seriously? This leads into questions of human will and agency, which I will not address here. Of course, this also leads us back to the ultimate question of hope: Do we believe that, in spite of everything we see around us, God really is in the process of redeeming the world? How we answer that is the surest description of the status of our faith.

At any rate, Girard's theory is quite impressive, and intriguing, and deserves further attention, if only for its expansive effort to account for the whole of human behavior and culture. That it is also a profound theory of religion is the icing on the cake, so to speak. :-)


Anonymous said...

Girard sucks!!!

And the quicker that everybody understands the fact,and throws away his garbage with both hands, the better the world will be.

Any and every body who claims that the entirely mythological "event" of the "cruci- FICTION made any difference re the level of violence on this planet is asleep in the midst of their own delusions.

In fact I would argue that the level of global violence has been ratcheting up ever since the church was coopted by the Roman state and thus became an integral part of the western drive to total power and control of the entire planet.

The role of institutional christianity and ALL of its "theology" has been an attempt to control the Divine Reality and reduce IT to the human scale only.

And to thus use "god" concepts as excuses and justifications for all of the INEVITABLE horrors that you produce when you combine religiosity with worldly power.

Onward christian soldiers INEVITABLY marching into war for 1600 plus years.

Culminating in Bush claiming that "god" told him to invade Iraq.

Geoff said...

umm... Ok. Glad I could be the sounding board for your anonymous random rant! :-)