The Crucifixion—Part 1

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddI found myself reading through portions of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion this week after reading it (or did it read me?) last year. It’s a dense and beautiful work that left me feeling the whole work would be diminished if a single phrase were omitted. It reveals a lifetime of intense reflection and pastoral sensibility and will I hope occupy my for as long.

That said, there are a few unpleasant surprises. There is some straw at the heart of her objection to a so-called “forgiveness is enough” reading of the Cross. I don’t anyone is ever guilty of actually believing that forgiveness, and forgiveness alone, is enough and that this explains the Cross. Her dismissal of Girard is also odd. She admits to having never read him and to relying on the criticism of others. That would be understandable if it were somebody like me she was disagreeing with. But it cannot succeed in the case of Girard. She also claims that both Girard and his interpreter James Alison too narrowly interpret the Cross as delivering victims while failing to recognize that victimizers are also in need of deliverance. This is a surprising misunderstanding of both Girard and Alison, since both (Alison at some length) explicitly address how the Cross embraces victimizers as well. I hope to get around to these points, and to other wonderful aspects of her book, in a later post.

What I’d like to do here is share a portion of David Hart’s reflections on Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (“A Gift Exceeding Every Debt,” Pro Ecclesia 7.3). I share it here because Rutledge appeals to Hart’s appreciation for Anselm. I suppose I’ve done to Anselm what I just complained Rutledge does to Girard – dismiss him based on what others say. But I want to thank both Hart and Rutledge for encouraging me to rethink Anselm. Hart writes:

Nor indeed is there any suggestion made in the Cur Deus Homo that God is appeased by the “penal” death of Christ (Harnack is quite right about this, though disturbingly wrong about its implications). Anselm certainly depicts Christ’s sacrifice as an offering that, in the end, “secures” forgiveness by satisfying the demands of divine righteousness, on our behalf; but, then, how far does his version of the story of salvation actually differ on this matter from its more remote precursors? When Lossky uses Athanasius to call attention to the divergence of Anselm’s model from its patristic predecessors, even though he knows that many of the themes of the Cur Deus Homo are already to be found in De Incarnatione, there is some slight irony, it must be said. At one juncture in De Incarnatione, Athanasius, lamenting the loss of humanity’s original beauty in the fall, argues that redemption was necessitated by God’s agathotes (consistency, righteousness, honor, glory), which requires the maintenance and execution of his twin decrees that, on the one hand, humanity will share in the divine life and that, on the other, death must fall upon the transgressors of holy law; to prevent the second decree from defeating the first, guilt must be removed from humanity through the exhaustion of the power of death in Christ’s sacrifice. The hold death had upon us was just, says Athanasius, and it would be monstrous were God’s decree that sin shall merit death to prove false; but it would be unworthy of God’s goodness were he to let his handiwork come to nothing. Nor could God simply accept our repentance as just recompense for our offense, as repentance would neither suffice to guard God’s integrity nor serve to restore our wounded nature. In his body, then, Christ exhausts the wrath of the law, and offers satisfaction for our debt. Already present in Athanasius’s account is the very story whose inner shape Anselm will, in a moment of intense critical reflection, attempt to grasp as necessity. Already, in Athanasius’s theology, one finds the language of punishment used, but subordinate to the narrative of complete and unmerited forgiveness, and the language of law employed to describe the depths of an infinite mercy. As it is with Athanasius, so it is with Anselm. Far from an arbitrary arrangement of jurisprudential transactions calculated to effect a forensic reconciliation between humanity and God, the atonement as Cur Deus Homo depicts it is an assumption of solidarity with us by an infinitely merciful God in order to fulfill in us that beatitude intended in our creation, by accomplishing on our behalf what, in our impotence to do good and in his unwillingness to employ unjust means, could never otherwise have been brought to pass.


God’s order is preserved through his own assumption of the conditions of estrangement; his mercy is imparted in the acceptance of Christ’s voluntary death; the highest law of God’s inviolable justice is boundless mercy; God’s sovereignty necessitates his condescension; the goodness that condemns the sinner requires that sin be forgiven. This is not because Anselm sees God as divided against himself: rather, he has come to see that Christ’s sacrifice is ultimately not an economic gesture (meant to insure the stability of a universe founded upon unyielding laws of equity and retribution), but belongs instead to the infinite motion of God’s love, in which justice and mercy are one and can never be divided one from the other; he has recognized Christ’s act as an infinite motion towards the Father, belonging to the mystery of the Trinity, simply surpassing all the arrangements of debt and violence by which a sinful humanity seeks to calculate its “justice.” Consequently, the only “necessity” Anselm demonstrates in the drama of salvation is an inward intelligibility to the mind grasped by faith. And indeed, in the end, Anselm merely restates the oldest patristic model of atonement of all: that of recapitulation. Granted, he rejects simple typological or aesthetic recapitulation, the correspondence of motifs shared between the narratives of the first and last Adam, but he is still concerned with recapitulation in essentially the same sense as is Irenaeus: Christ takes up the human story and tells it correctly, by giving the correct answer to God’s summons; in his life and death he renarrates humanity according to its true pattern of loving obedience, humility, and charity, thus showing all human stories of righteousness, honor, and justice to be tales of violence, falsehood, and death; and in allowing all of humanity to be resituated through his death within the retelling of their story, Christ restores them to communion with the God of infinite love who created them for his pleasure. And when Christ recapitulates humanity, he shows the gravity and terror inherent in posing his form over against the violence of the world of sin; he “satisfies” all the requirements of that form by living out his obedience to the Father under the conditions imposed by a sinful order of power, which conditions bring about his death. It must not be overlooked that for Anselm it is not Christ’s suffering as such that is redemptive (the suffering merely repeats sin’s endlessly repeated and essential gesture), but rather his innocence; he recapitulates humanity by passing through all the violences of sin and death, rendering to God the obedience that is his due, and so transforms the event of his death into an occasion of infinite blessings for those to whom death is condign. Christ’s death does not even effect a change in God’s attitude towards humanity; God’s attitude never alters: he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandon them even to their own cruelties.

Even here, then, in the text that most notoriously expounds a penal logic of atonement, the idea of sacrificial penance is subverted from within: as Christ’s sacrifice belongs not to an economy of credit and exchange, but to the trinitarian motion of love, it is given entirely as gift, and must be seen as such: a gift given when it should not have needed to be given again, by God, and at a price that we, in our sin, imposed upon him. As an entirely divine action, Christ’s sacrifice merely draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned. The violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace. And simply by continuing to be the God he is, and through the sheer “redundancy” of the good that flows from the infinite gesture of his love — which is a generosity in excess of all calculable economy — God undoes the sacrificial logic of our bondage; his gift remains a gift to the end, despite all our efforts to convert it into debt. This is the unanticipated grace of Easter. Whether one chooses, of course, to follow Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals and see the redundancy of Christ’s merit, inasmuch as it avails for salvation, as an infinite multiplication of debt depends upon one’s prejudices. As for Anselm, though, the primordiality of the gift is the truth of Christ’s paschal donation: the gift God gives in creation continues to be given again, ever more fully, in defiance of all rejection, disobedience, injustice, violence, and indifference; there is no division between justice and mercy in God, on Anselm’s account, because both belong already to the giving of this gift:

The mercy of God, which seemed to you to be lost when we were considering God’s justice and humanity’s sin, we find now to be so great and so in accord with justice, that neither a greater nor a more just can be thought. For what possibly could be understood to be more merciful than that God the Father should say to the sinner — damned to eternal torment and having no means whereby to redeem himself — “Take my Only-begotten and offer him for yourself”; and that the Son himself should say, “Take me and redeem yourself”? For thus they speak, when they call us and lead us to Christian faith. What indeed were more just, than that he — to whom is given a price exceeding every debt, if only given with the love which he is truly owed — should put aside every debt?


Now, for a somewhat contrary take on Anselm, see Mark Heim’s thoughts here. Heim largely agrees with these positive features of Anselm’s work. But, if you’ll check out this link to Heim, you’ll see where he thinks Anselm makes an important mistake.

It’s so interesting to stand between Heim and Hart on Cur Deus Homo because when you take Anselm out of equation altogether and simply compare the statements each makes about what is transpiring on the Cross (the absence of any violence in God, the falsehood of the notion that Christ’s suffering exhausts some infinite balance of suffering that we deserve, the unchanging nature of God’s forgiving attitude, the justice and goodness of love’s submitting to what our notion of justice does to Jesus), they’re in agreement.

I particularly like the ‘narrative’ shape of Hart’s explanation. Christ takes up “the human story and tells it correctly.” He “renarrates humanity” according to its true pattern. The Cross is what we do to this story. But Christ “resituates” all humanity “within the retelling of their story.” The deliverance wrought by Christ on our behalf is the revealing of humanity’s true story within the false narratives that enslave us. Yes, that true story has to be told in terms of the entirety of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, but the death must be such that it delivers the new and true story within the very text of our false narratives. Christ’s own capacities for meaning-making have to embrace the depths of the human predicament. I have Marilyn McCord Adams (Christ & Horrors) in mind here; she writes, “By catching up our horror-participation into a relationship that is incommensurately good for us, Divine participation in horrors defeats their prima facie life-ruining powers.”

I’ll have to return to this in a second post. I’ll just say here that what is objectionable (not that Rutledge believes this – but neither did Girard and neither does Alison, hence her curious disagreement with them) is the notion, which can be heard in pulpits every on Sundays, that someone has to die for God to forgive us. This is a mistake, and more egregious, I should think, than any claim that Christianity is reducible to forgiveness (which I don’t believe anyone believes) because plenty of Christians actually do believe the Cross makes it possible for God to forgive us. On the contrary, however, it is because God forgives us and wishes us to know and live in the truth of this that there even is a Cross. The Cross condemns all crosses, for all God gives (love, acceptance, forgiveness) is ours antecedent to the Cross. The Cross, then, is not the price God requires to extend these to us, it is the price we require to believe they are freely given.


Christ—fangzhipin or fuzhipin of God?


Please enjoy this very interesting description of Eastern (Japanese) aesthetics by Byung-Chul Han (“The Copy is the Original“). I’d love to hear David Bentley Hart reflect on how this different aesthetic sensibility (as transcendental as is our aesthetic appetite here in the West yet contrary in how it manages and propagates its values) would express core Christian beliefs like the Trinity (Father as the ‘original’, the Logos as the ‘image’, etc.), Incarnation, etc. After reading this I wondered how beholden to a Western aesthetic palate Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite: An Aesthetics of Christian Truth, might be. What sort of “aesthetics of Christian truth” would a thoroughly Eastern/Japanese aesthetic palate produce? Here’s just a sampling. You’ll have to digest the whole piece to appreciate my question: Is Christ the fangzhipin (仿製品) or fuzhipin (複製品) of God? In addition, which are we?

In 1956, an exhibition of masterpieces of Chinese art took place in the museum of Asian art in Paris, the Musée Cernuschi. It soon emerged that these pictures were, in fact, forgeries. In this case, the sensitive issue was that the forger was none other than the most famous Chinese painter of the 20th century, Chang Dai-chien, whose works were being exhibited simultaneously at the Musée d’Art Moderne. He was considered the Pablo Picasso of China. And his meeting with Picasso that same year was celebrated as a summit between the masters of Western and Eastern art. Once it became known that the old masterpieces were his forgeries, the Western world regarded him as a mere fraud. Yet for Chang himself, they were anything but forgeries. In any case, most of these old pictures were no mere copies, but rather replicas of lost paintings that were known only from written descriptions…

In the West, when monuments are restored, old traces are often particularly highlighted. Original elements are treated like relics. The Far East is not familiar with this cult of the original. It has developed a completely different technique of preservation that might be more effective than conservation or restoration. This takes place through continual reproduction. This technique completely abolishes the difference between original and replica. We might also say that originals preserve themselves through copies. Nature provides the model. The organism also renews itself through continual cell-replacement. After a certain period of time, the organism is a replica of itself. The old cells are simply replaced by new cell material. In this case, the question of an original does not arise. The old dies off and is replaced by the new. Identity and renewal are not mutually exclusive. In a culture where continual reproduction represents a technique for conservation and preservation, replicas are anything but mere copies.

Things Hidden

desireI’m finishing up Cynthia Haven’s biography of Rene Girard, Evolution of Desire. It’s a wonderful window into Girard’s life and the evolution of his thought. In talking about what a game-changer Girard’s Things Hidden (1987) was, she recalls a conversation:

The distaste and resistance that Girard’s theory has sometimes provoked reflects today’s postmodern bias against the cornerstone of Western civilization—and the situation was even worse in France.

At the Stanford Bookstore café in his half-hour afternoon break between classes and meetings, Jean-Pierre Dupuy…explained to me why he felt his colleague and friend is completely ostracized in French intellectual circles. He quickly listed three big reasons for the rejection of Girard and what he has to say:

Reason #1: “He believes in God, and he says it.” Dupuy said that laïcité in France means, in practice, “a public hatred of religion,” which makes Girard a jolting departure from the norm. “If a French leader said, ‘God bless France’, people would take to the streets. It would be the revolution again,” said Dupuy.

Reason #2: “He believes in the possibility of a science of man,” he said. Post-structuralisim, and other “isms,” have denied the possibility of knowing truth, or at least devalued it. There in France, he said, “truth is no longer legal tender.”

Reason #3: Finally, what he called the last straw: “#1 and #2 are the same reason.” That is, “if it’s possible to reach the truth, it’s because truth is given by God, and the incarnation of God is Jesus Christ.”

Nichts zu trinken

beer“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” Martin Luther

The Devil’s March—Part 2

skeleton-mirrorIn his opening to “The Devil’s March,” David Hart paints a grim picture of the world and our existence in it. “All the things about the world that enchant us,” he urges, “are at best tiny flickers of light amid a limitless darkness,” a darkness filled with the torments of disease, the blood of the innocent, war, conquests, enslavements – the list goes on. “Everything we love vanishes,” he laments, “and so do we.” If God does exist, and if we do owe him our gratitude for the gift of being, Hart cautions, “this is no obvious truth of reason, but a truth more mysterious than almost any other.” Our knowledge, left to its natural limitations, “instructs us principally that we owe God nothing at all, but that really we should probably regard him with feelings situated somewhere along the continuum between resigned resentment and vehement hatred.”

Surprisingly, the first words to follow are “And yet Christians must…believe in the goodness of all being.” But Hart is in no hurry to get there and neither should we be. We reduce faith to facile and glib sentimentality if we don’t truly experience the Void and allow it to deconstruct and dismember us, but few of us are that patient. One has to face the nothingness of existence in all its finitude, and the violence that Hart rehearses, before one can even hope to get around to discerning an essential goodness to the world, and whatever good we affirm, it cannot be achieved by cordoning off this or that particular good from the world’s pain so that the voice of suffering isn’t heard. After all, if we have to “shout down” evil, we affirm no essential good. The only good worth having is a good that is as immanent within the whole of a suffering world as it is transcendent of the world, and that means affirming the good in full view of the world’s evil. But most treatments of the problem of evil resolve themselves miles before they get to this place.

Here is that following portion of Hart’s piece that affirms the goodness of existence. I’ll meet you on the other side with a few reflections in fear and trembling.

And yet Christians must, of course, believe in the goodness of all being, with a certitude that even the most sanguine Platonist could not match, because they are committed to the doctrine that all things are created from nothingness by a God of infinite power, wisdom, and benevolence. And so certain affirmations—metaphysical, moral, and narrative—prove inevitable for any coherent Christian reflection on the problem of evil, not only to answer the question of evil’s origin, but also to defend the innocence of God against the evidences of finite experience. One of these affirmations is that evil possess no proper substance or nature of its own, that it exists only as a privation boni, that though it is real—exorbitantly and ubiquitously real—it is so only in the way that cancer is real: as a corruption and perversion of something that in its own proper nature is essentially good. Thus we may say that, in a purely metaphysical sense, God is implicated neither as substance nor as direct cause in the existence or effects of evil. Another equally indispensable claim is that evil possesses a history, one composed entirely of contingencies and compromising both a first and a last moment. Thus we may say that evil, in all its cosmic scope, is still only an episode, with no share in God’s eternity. Another is that the proximate cause of sin lies in the mysterious difference between rational creatures’ natural wills (which necessarily seek the one Good in which all things have their true beginning and end), and their deliberative wills (which, under the transcendental canopy of the Good, can nevertheless be diverted toward lesser goods and false ends). Thus we may say that evil is the creature of our choices, not of God’s creative will. Yet another is that the moral apostasy of rational beings from the proper love of God is somehow the reason for the reign of death and suffering in the cosmos, that human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly “methorios” (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell. Thus we may say, as fantastic as it seems—as fantastic as it truly is when reduced to fundamentalist literalism regarding the myth of Eden—that all suffering, sadness, and death, however deeply woven into the fabric of earthly existence, is the consequence of the depravities of rational creatures, not God’s intentions. Not that we can locate the time, the place, or the conditions of that event. That ours is a fallen world is not a truth demonstrable to those who do not believe; Christians can see it only within the story of Christ, in the light cast back from his saving action in history upon the whole of time. The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death—perhaps the divine or angelic aeon beyond the corruptible sub-sidereal world of chronos, or perhaps the Dreamtime or the supercelestial realm of the pure forms or the Origenist heaven of the primordial intelligences, or what have you.

In any event, this (or something roughly like it) is the story that orthodox Christianity tells, and it can tell no other. From the outset, Christian doctrine denies that suffering, death, and evil in themselves, have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all. They are cosmic contingencies, ontological shadows, intrinsically devoid of substance or purpose, however much God may, under the conditions of a fallen order, make them the occasion for accomplishing his good ends. It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “power” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.

voidI’m working through two issues/questions here. The first has to do with how we bring together the world’s beauties and its evils into the kind of broad assessment we make about the ultimate meaning of existence. The second has to do with the intrinsic evil of death and mortality.

In the first case, Hart argues that our experience of the world’s evil and suffering leads naturally to the existential void he describes in Part 1. Christians, however, believe the world to be good “because [we] are committed to the doctrine that all things are created from nothingness by a God of infinite power, wisdom, and benevolence.”

I may be over analyzing things or just missing the point altogether, but something seems off here. We know the world is evil based on our experience of the world, but we believe the world is essentially good because of our belief in a particular doctrine? Christians do share the doctrinal convictions Hart names, but it seems to me these convictions just are our belief in the goodness of creation, not why we believe in this goodness. I’d like to suggest that if we know the world to be evil because of our experience of it, we believe it is good also because of our experience of it.

Might we be falsely defaulting in our valuations of the world to a preference for evil? By this I mean the way we reason that since the world is a world in which innocent children are abused and trafficked as sexual slaves, the beauty and goodness of a child’s loving prayer, or some some very great shared beauty or good, or, to pick a couple of Hart’s favorites, Bach’s final fugue or Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, are all swept out to sea by the force of evil; the idea being that whatever beauties there are, they can’t abide the force of evil. I’m wondering why this is so, why we tend to reason that ‘this’ beauty is reduced to the meaninglessness of ‘that’ evil. But why must our aesthetic valuations run in that direction? In this instance, evil is so consuming that we (unintentionally) settle for the belief that evil is the substantial reality and love is the privation, as if by some default of logic evil becomes the gate-keeper and final arbiter in our evaluation of experience and history. Evil gets to say what beauty and goodness are, or whether they are. Hart doesn’t believe this of course, but it seemed to me that in his opening call to sobriety, goodness and love are relativized by evil in the world.

I don’t mean to sneak in a conviction of faith into the conversation as the basis for questioning the way love and goodness in the world are related to evil in our valuations. On the contrary, I mean simply to observe the nature of aesthetic experience per se. Why should the many obvious acts of loving kindness and creative beauties that litter the world not be the final arbiter of our overall response to its evils? I’m not sure exactly how to answer this question myself, except to say that the a priori transcendental shape to all our experience prevents the sort of rise to preference which evil seems to enjoy in treatments of the problem of evil. There is a problem of evil, yes. But there is also the problem of beauty and goodness; and the latter defines, even makes possible, the former. That we approach all our experience of the world within a prior transcendental framework of truth, beauty and goodness is what makes possible our viewing evil and suffering as something objectionable. Our affirmation of beauty, truth, and goodness – apart from any developed doctrines – forces itself upon us. I’m suggesting that its force is categorically greater than the world’s evils, for no objection to the evils Hart describes is even possible apart from the prior transcendental orientation of all experience as essentially good, true, and beautiful. These are the measure of evil; they say what evil is, or that it is, and they shape the conclusions we come to regarding the ultimate meaning of the world.

My point is that it is not experience of the world that tells us it is meaningless because of its evils and doctrines of faith that tell us the world is good. It is experience of the world that tells us its evils cannot arbitrate the final truth of things. Doctrines of faith make sense of those convictions and organize them into a faith. We don’t always navigate this split in the road rightly, but it’s a split in one and the same experience of the world. I apologize if I’m articulating this poorly.

Secondly, I struggle with the notion that mortality is an evil that has perverted the goodness of creation through a primeval catastrophe occurring outside the history of this world, in the unsearchable foundations of its coming to be. Let me suggest something less other worldly: humankind was created mortal by God – from the get-go. This world, its material becoming, and us in it, were created subject to the decay and entropy by which the earth absorbs the energy of the sun and seeds die to give us vegetation, etc. Mortality isn’t itself a privation.

Why do I suppose this? For the rather simple reason that there is (for us) no coming into the fullness of being which is not a coming into to the truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God. This entails, of necessity, embracing the truth of the nothingness out of which God calls us into being. This is a truth we cannot comprehend apart from an experience of mortality. Mortality is the possibility of our relating the truth of our finitude to the immortal God, and this is the truth we must come to terms with en route to fully participating in the grace of eternal life. So to the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace, however temporary a mode of being it was meant to be. Mortality becomes death “the enemy,” when we choose to misrelate despairingly to our finitude and to respond to it by turning our attention and energies to securing a meaningful existence this side of the Void.

The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 2


In his critique of Rene Girard (see Part 1), David Bentley Hart argues that Girard draws too absolute a distinction between the sacrificial violence of scapegoating and the non-violent forms of sacrifice present within Israel’s faith and history. For Girard, Hart points out, to speak of Christ’s death “as a sacrifice” legitimizes sacred violence. One can see this in Girard’s reading of the book of Hebrews as a violent, and so false, reading of the gospel whose sacrificial motifs implicate God in the persecution of the victim. Hart argues that Girard fails to appreciate how foundational the language of “sacrifice” is to God’s covenant with Israel (a covenant which Christ fulfills), and that Christianity’s soteriological vision is too bound up with sacrificial themes and motifs to dismiss such language. Not all talk of sacrifice describes an economy of exchange and propitiation that Girard rightly seeks to expose as violent.

Though Girard doesn’t intend as much, still in the end, Hart contends, one is left with a savior who is more gnostic than the Jew who fulfills and mediates Israel’s covenants in history, a savior who establishes not a way of being in the world but a path of escape from it, and so a savior who gives victims “no story to tell” within history. Though Hart agrees with Girard’s overall intent to establish a truly benevolent, non-violent view of God and God’s redemptive presence in the world, he feels Girard’s methodology is too negatively shaped by the force of prophetic fervor. Hart goes on to offer, beautifully as always, a non-violent reading of the Cross as sacrifice.

I’d like to respond a bit to Hart’s criticisms of Girard, because while some of his criticisms could describe the early Girard (given the texts Hart depends on), they are not true of the late Girard, as I’ll show. At the time Hart assessed Girard, Girard would have agreed with Hart’s non-violent account of Christ’s death, even as sacrifice, as being consistent with his overall theories on mimetic desire and sacred violence.

In an interview with Rebecca Adams (“Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Conversation with Rene Girard,” Religion & Literature [Vol. 25, No. 2] Summer, 1993), subsequent to the works of Girard that Hart basis his critique upon but prior to the publication of Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI|2003), Girard addresses the core of Hart’s concerns. The interview is quite revealing.

Take for example Hart’s mention of Girard’s dismissal of the book of Hebrews (and ‘sacrificial’ language) as a violent reading of the Cross implicating God in persecuting the victim. There’s no doubt this is Girard’s view in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978 in French, 1987 in English). In that book (228) Girard writes:

According to this Epistle, there is certainly a difference between Christ’s Passion and the sacrifices that have gone before. But this difference is still defined within the context of the sacrificial, and consequently the real essence of the sacrificial is never examined. Like all the variants that are to follow, this first attempt at a sacrificial theology is based on analogies between the form of the Passion and the form of all other sacrifices, but it allows the essential feature to escape.

Certainly the believer rightly sees an enormous difference between Christianity and the sacrifices of the Old Testament. But he can give no justification for this difference as long as he continues to define everything in sacrificial terms…As long as the Christian difference is defined in sacrificial terms, as all former differences among religions have been defined, it will eventually be effaced.

To sum up: the Epistle to the Hebrews re-enacts what is re-enacted in all earlier formulations of sacrifice. It discharges human violence, but to a lesser degree. It restates God’s responsibility for the death of the victim….

But when asked about this by Adams in 1993, Girard repents of “having scapegoated Hebrews” and all talk of “sacrifice.” Here’s a portion of the conversation:

Girard: I agree entirely with you that there are problems with my treatment of Hebrews. It’s a problem of language: the language of the “last sacrifice,” even though in Things Hidden I say, ultimately, that the word “sacrifice” doesn’t matter that much. But I say it too briefly. And I give too much importance to that word. That’s one of the reasons for my misinterpreting Hebrews. I was aware of these great things in it, especially in the quotation of the Psalms.

Adams: You’re saying that you dismissed Hebrews too quickly?

Girard: Yes, sure. I was completely wrong. And I don’t know what happened to me, really, because I was pretty careful not to do that, generally.

Adams: Hebrews is one of the main sources, of course, for sacrificial theology. And so it deserves careful treatment.

Girard: Yes, it deserves careful treatment. And its concept of the “last sacrifice” can be very easily interpreted, made to fit, the view I propose. There is no serious problem. But in Things Hidden I ask Hebrews to use the same vocabulary I do, which is just plain ridiculous.

Adams: We’ll look for further work on Hebrews, then?

Girard: That’s true. That’s one part of Things Hidden that I would like to change.

Adams: Let’s continue then with the question of “sacrifice” as a developing and fluid concept.

Girard: I say at the end of Things Hidden – and I think this is the right attitude to develop – that the changes in the meaning of the word “sacrifice” contain a whole history, religious history, of mankind. So when we say “sacrifice” today inside a church or religious context, we mean something which has nothing to do with primitive religion. Of course I was full of primitive religion at the time of the writing of the book, and my main theme was the difference between primitive religion and Christianity, so I reserved the word “sacrifice” completely for the primitive.

Adams: So you scapegoated Hebrews within the canon of Scripture.

Girard: So I scapegoated Hebrews and I scapegoated the word “sacrifice.” I assumed it should have some kind of constant meaning, which is contrary to the mainstream of my own thinking…

girardWith respect to the notion that mimetic desire is inherently acquisitive and violent, Girard makes it clear that he always believed mimetic desire to be capable of peaceful and non-violent fulfillment. He in fact agreed that mimetic desire is that which opens us up (positively) to God and others.

Adams: But again, that’s the idea of renunciation of the will, isn’t it?

Girard: The idea of renunciation has, no doubt, been overdone by the Puritans and the Jansenists, but the blanket hostility that now prevails against it is even worse. The idea that renunciation in all its forms should be renounced once and for all may well be the most flagrant nonsense any human culture has ever devised. But as to whether I am advocating “renunciation” of mimetic desire, yes and no. Not the renunciation of mimetic desire itself, because what Jesus advocates is mimetic desire. Imitate me, and imitate the father through me, he says, so it’s twice mimetic. Jesus seems to say that the only way to avoid violence is to imitate me, and imitate the Father. So the idea that mimetic desire itself is bad makes no sense. It is true, however, that occasionally I say “mimetic desire’ when I really mean only the type of mimetic desire that generates mimetic rivalry and, in turn, is generated by it.

Adams: This is an important clarification. It seems that it wouldn’t make sense, in light of your theory itself, to say mimetic desire should be renounced…

Girard: A simple renunciation of desire I don’t think is Christian. It’s more Buddhist. Undoubtedly there are similarities between what I am saying and Buddhism. If you read the descriptions of Buddhism, they are very profound; they are very aware of mimetic desire, and of contagion, and of all the things that matter in human relations. Like all great religious writing. The thing that is unique about Christianity is that it wants to go back to the origin, to the sacrificial origin, and uncover it. Buddhism is not interested in doing this at all. And Buddhism advocates getting out of the world altogether. Christianity never does that. Christianity says, the cross will be there for you, inevitably. But that kind of renunciation is very different.

…I would say that mimetic desire, even when bad, is intrinsically good, in the sense that far from being merely imitative in a small sense, it’s the opening out of oneself.

Note, finally, in Girard’s objections to Buddhism an answer to those who see in Girard a gnostic tendency to see salvation as an escape from the world and time. “Buddhism advocates getting out of the world altogether,” Girard insists, “Christianity never does that.” Adams brings up the charge of Gnosticism:

Adams: I’d like to ask now about your understanding of history, and how you interpret both sacrifice itself and Christianity within the movement of history. It seems as if your thought tends toward Gnosticism, in the sense that it is knowledge which eventually saves us, history is a process of coming to greater and greater knowledge of the victimage mechanism, and there is some point toward which we are progressing, at which we will be enlightened in a definitive sense.

Girard: Yes, but don’t forget that I say that this knowledge is very ambivalent in the way it works with people, that there are always perversions of this knowledge.

Adams: So history is not a straight line, a humanistic progress toward an end goal, or something like that.

Girard: No, no.

Adams: And yet you do seem to have a sense of progression.

Girard: I do. The nineteenth century had too much of this sense; our age has too little of it. We are a big reaction against the nineteenth century, and in many ways that’s very positive. But in some ways it’s excessive: all the pessimism against our own religion, against our own culture, against everything which is ours. So I think that’s a problem as well.

Adams: You are referring to multiculturalism, at least in some of the extreme separatist or punitive forms it takes?

Girard: Yes, and that sort of thing.

Adams: Because we’re reacting against our own ethnocentrism, and that’s a healthy impulse, but what we are doing essentially is scapegoating our own culture in the process, and that’s problematic.

Girard: It is the little compensation we can give to the people who have been historically scapegoated. But we are then turning around and scapegoating our own tradition. Scapegoating and betraying our own tradition has become an absolute duty, especially when it is done in the name of Christian charity, of course.

Girard - Things Hidden__________________________

It may be that Girard is driven by a certain prophetic fervor to expose the violence that has crept into so much of Christian thought and self-understanding. But this is, after all, the prophetic calling. One could similarly accuse Israel’s prophets of being too one-sided, over-invested in negative assessments, eager to find fault but not to map out what redeemed human solidarity looks like, etc. Girard did not map out an ecclesiology of how the Church embodies within the world all the cultural forms of human solidarity that God realizes in and through it. This is an incompleteness to be sure, but to suspect him of latent gnostic tendencies seems a bit much, to say nothing of the fact that Girard directly addressed the question.

It’s one thing to admit non-violent senses of sacrificial language in the ways Hart describes – as expressive of the loving self-surrender and reception that defines Father, Son and Spirit as the God who is love. But does this tell us how to distinguish those “currents of stress” within Israel’s faith and history which Hart as well as Girard sees in Israel’s texts?

Near the end of discussing Girard, Hart notes that we should not speak of the Cross “as a sacrifice” but as “the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice.” That sounds perfectly Girardian. And the convergence cannot be allowed to blend together to become a third thing. The “radical opposition” has to remain clear and definable throughout or no truly non-violent account of the gospel is possible – and Hart wants that as much as Girard.

So what are the two opposing orders? One is Israel’s entire sacrificial economy with every requirement of blood sacrifice. The other is the peaceful surrendering of Christ’s life to God – a life we can describe as a ‘sacrifice’ in the positive, peaceful sense Hart champions (and which we now know Girard himself celebrated). But as Hart agrees, Christ does not require the Cross to constitute the event of his life as gift surrendered/sacrificed to God, however completely his life of surrender is revealed in the demands which being crucified make of him. Thus, the sacrifice which Christ makes and the sacrifice which they who crucify him make are the “two radically opposed orders of sacrifice” Hart describes. crosss“The crucifixion,” Hart descrbies, “is what happens to this sacrifice [viz., the sacrifice that is Christ’s peaceful and loving life lived in surrender to God], even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event” (emphasis mine). Thanks to Rebecca Adams, we know that there’s nothing here the late Girard would have disagreed with, so I take Hart’s criticisms of Girard in BOI to be answered. Had Hart engaged Girard’s later reflections published by Adams, I’m guessing his assessment of Girard would have been different.

What Hart doesn’t address in his critique of Girard’s thoughts on Israel’s sacrificial cult is whether or not he (Hart) thinks God really directed Israel’s development of sacrificial rituals. It’s a fair question. Does God’s being non-violent extend to the treatment of animals used in sacrifice to God or to the arguably inevitable corruption of faith and thought that so bloody an approach would precipitate? It would arguably be impossible to secure a non-violent reading of the gospel if one believes God ordained and directed the slaughter of vast numbers of animals. If the “event” of God’s triune fullness is an infinitely accomplished peace which Christ’s life reveals, whence the divine requirement for blood? On this point Girard was clear. The prophets who rebuked Israel were not merely objecting to an improper heart attitude that spoiled blood sacrifices God was otherwise looking forward to enjoying. The prophets were making, it seems to me, a distinction more in line with Girard: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings” (Psalm 51:17). But now that the worshiper’s heart is right, why not go ahead and sacrifice? “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Why not both mercy and sacrifice if all that’s wrong with blood sacrifice is the absence of a merciful disposition in the worshiper? “‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’, though they were offered in accordance with the law,” and so forth.

I liken Israel’s entire sacrificial cult (as missing the point) to Israel’s monarchy (see Israel’s request for a king in 1Sam 8), or for that matter to God’s permitting divorce (Mt 19:8) – as something God never wanted, something which was essentially a misrelation to God’s intentions and desires, a violation of an economy of peace God sought to establish, but something which God permitted due to the hardened, socialized heart of Israel, God’s covenant partner. Consider how this plays out with Israel’s insistence upon having a king. God never wanted Israel to have a king, and the very request, Samuel warns, amounted to a rejection of God by Israel. And yet God gave them what they wanted, complete with an instruction manual on how to manage the monarchy within the framework of Israel’s covenant. Moreover, eventually Israel’s hopes for salvation became inseparable from the language of monarchy and later Christian thought and worship came to express themselves in the same terms. But the “radical opposition” never gets resolved into a peaceful economy. However natural it feels to celebrate later achievements wrought by grace through such accommodations (whether blood sacrifice or monarchy or what have you), the accommodations remain obstacles that are overcome, contingencies in spite of which God wrought his salvation.

For the present it is the Church’s calling to realize, via the Spirit, what God intends human solidarity to look like, all the while maintaining the “radically opposed orders” of sacrifice. There’s no way to read straight off Israel’s history the one story God is writing, however tied to Israel’s history we must be. Does God’s good story include divorce since God permitted divorce? Hardly. Does it include monarchy since God tolerated that? Not in light of Israel’s reassessment of her own history. Does it include animal sacrifice since God accommodated blood sacrifice? Does it include the Cross since God submitted to it? Here, with Girard, I have to follow the logic of peaceful love. The story we tell, the story victims tell, is the story of our shared participation in the “event” (Hart’s word) of God’s peaceful, self-surrender. The revelation of this event always occurs in a violent, less than ideal world, a world which is both the means of revelation and the object revelation addresses and seeks to transform. That may not be an easy history to parse, but (the late) Girard manages it as well as any, better than most.

The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 1


There’s a Youtube interview (never mind the link) with David Bentley Hart in which Hart discusses Rene Girard’s work. Unfortunately the audio recording makes understanding Hart impossible.

I’ve kept an open ear online for announcements of an interview or essay in which Hart describes his appreciation for and criticisms of Girard, but nothing forthcoming. I did, however, manage to find enough of Hart’s thoughts on Girard in Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI, 347-353), relevant portions of which I’ve reproduced below. I’ll leave this Part 1 to Hart and return with a Part 2 to reflect upon his assessment. If you have BOI and are a fan of Girard as I am, take advantage of the whole passage.

The myth of the cosmos as a precarious equilibrium of countervailing forces, an island of order amidst and infinite ocean of violent energy – which is also the myth of the polis or the empire – belongs principally to a sacral order that seeks to contain nature’s violence within the stabilizing forms of a more orderly kind of violence: the sheer waste and destructiveness of the cosmos must be held at bay and controlled, by a motion at once apotropaic – repelling chaos by appeasing its chthonian [pronounced /Kthounian/ or /Thounian/, meaning “pertaining to the underworld”] energies and rationalizing them in structures of Apollonian order – and economic – recuperating what is lost or sacrificed in the form of a transcendent credit, a numinous power reinforcing the regime that sacrifice serves…This is the sacrificial logic that theology is called upon to reject: the commerce of the totality, which is overcome by the infinite gesture of Christ’s sacrifice.

Can, though, sacrifice defeat sacrifice? Is not the cross of Christ another myth of peace won through violence, of chaos and death subdued by a propitiatory offering, and of, indeed (as Nietzsche said), the infinite multiplication of debt rather than its discharge? One would obviously wish to say not, but one must also have a care that, in making one’s argument, one does not fail to account for the element of oblation in the story of salvation. A salutary example, both for good and ill, of how delicate a matter it is to argue against the idea of the cross as divine violence is Rene Girard; no one else has made so great an issue of the difference between the death of Christ and the death of the “sacrificial” victim. Girard’s most extensive treatment of propitiatory exclusion is found in The Scapegoat, where he draws an absolute distinction between the mythology that dictates that religions make room, on ritual occasions, for disorder in subordination to order and those biblical narratives that tell their story from the perspective of the victim of both that disorder and that order. Mythologies, according to Girard, generally reflect the thinking of the class of persecutors; and “[s]trong in their righteousness, and convinced that their victim is truly guilty, persecutors have no reason to be troubled” (104). Not that persecutors are always creatures of malice more often than not they are guardians of the public weal, whose prudence prevents violence from erupting into riot, warfare, or internecine strife. Their sacrificial economics is simply the art of responsible politics. Of Caiaphas’s remark that it is better that one die than that the nation perish, for instance, Girard writes: “Caiaphas is stating the…political reason…for the scapegoat: to limit violence as much as possible bot to turn to it, if necessary, as a last resort to avoid an even greater violence. Caiaphas is the incarnation of politics at its best, not its worst. No one has ever been a better politician (113). And so, “Caiaphas is the perfect sacrificer who puts victims to death to save those who live. By reminding us of this John emphasizes that every real cultural decision has a sacrificial character (decider, remember, is to cut the victim’s throat) that refers back to an unrevealed effect of the scapegoat, the sacred type of representation of persecution” (114). For Girard this means that theologians who speak of Christ’s death (at least in its salvific function) as a sacrifice “once more make sacred the violence that has been divested of its sacred character by the Gospel text (126); and in so doing they lose sight of the evangel that truly sets free: “The good news is that scapegoats can no longer save men, the persecutors’ accounts of their persecutions are no longer valid, and truth shines into dark places. God is not violent, the true God has nothing to do with violence, and he speaks to us not through distant intermediaries but directly. The Son he sends us is one with him. The Kingdom of God is at hand” (189). In Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World Girard goes so far as to advocate a “non-sacrificial reading of the gospel text”: the Bible from the beginning seeks to unwind the narrative of sacrifice, he says, taking the side of Abel against Cain, whose violence is indeed the founding of cities; the crucifixion is, thus, in no sense a sacrifice (180); for the notion of divine violence is no part of the Gospel story (189). Girard sees the profound logic of Scripture, as a whole, as lying in its constant movement away from the mythology of sacrifice (205-6), even as the presence of sacrificial and exclusionary themes causes currents of contradiction to run through its texts: he contrasts (to the former’s discredit) the stories of humanity’s expulsion from Eden and that of Johns prologue, which speaks of God’s exclusion by a violent world (247-76); and he does not hesitate to take the book of Hebrews to task for trafficking in sacrificial motifs and for, in consequence, implicating God in the persecution of the victim (227-31).

That Girard’s arguments suffer from an occasional want of subtlety scarcely needs be said; in particular, his failure adequately to distinguish different senses of sacrifice from one another leads him all too often to treat the history of Israel’s faith as a stark opposition between a sacrificial cult and a prophetic tradition that has rejected sacrifice, causing him in consequence to overlook the manifold meanings inherent in Israel’s many sacrificial practices, the dependency of the prophetic tradition upon the language of sacrifice, and the ways in which the life and death of Christ are received in Christian thought as perfecting God’s covenant with Israel – even insofar as that covenant involves sacrifices. If Christ’s death overcomes a certain sacrificial order, it also fulfills one. Still, Girard’s observations must not be casually dismissed: it would obviously be repellent, for instance, for a Christian theologian to make of the crucifixion a kind of justification for capital punishment; but within a certain understanding of sacrifice, the immolation of the hostia and the execution of the criminal belong to the same motion of exclusion, the same inhibition of chaos, the same economic gesture; and this is a distinction that cannot be ignored. If the language of sacrifice in Christian though did properly refer to an economy of exchange, such that God were appeased in the slaughter of a victim and his wrath were simply averted by way of a prudential violence of which he approved (and Flagellation of Christ, ca. 1900.who can deny that many Christians have imagined their faith in just these terms?), then indeed the Christian God would be a God of violence, and the Christian evangel of peace would simply dissemble another economy of violence and debt – one that, in fact (Nietzsche winning the field), has been monstrously magnified. Here, as nowhere else, this book’s initial question proves most perilous to ask: Does the language of sacrifice within Christian thought, inextirpable from Scripture, make of the gospel a tale that defeats itself in the telling, the beauty of whose rhetoric proves in the end to be another – and particularly meretricious – variant of the glamor of violence? And this is by no means an easy question to answer: contrary to Girard’s contention, the presence of sacrificial language in the New Testament is so deeply constitutive of Christian soteriology (even in its overcoming of sacrificial models of cosmic order) that it cannot simply be dispelled by drawing a firm demarcation between the site of the persecutor and the site of the victim, between the place of eminence and the place of abjection. Girard is right to make this distinction, of course, and even right to do so with a degree of prophetic fervor; but the dangers of his method are many: he risks leaving Israel behind and so, in consequence, the world.

The Christian story of salvation concerns not the descent of some gnostic savior bearing tidings of an alien God, but the covenant that God makes with Israel and the covenant he makes, consequently, with all flesh; it is in the history of the world he elects; it is in his people, the Jews, that God instates an order of infinite giving that responds to the infinity of his gift in creating, and that stands apart from the hierarchies of worldly power. It is only in fulfilling – indeed, in being the substance of – this covenant that Christ makes the story that God tells concerning creation triumph over the false and violent stories that sinful humanity tells of the world. Girard’s treatment of the matter, however, in its most extreme moments, makes out the salvific motion of Christ’s life to be almost purely negative, a motion of alienation, running dialectically against history. Not that this is Girard’s intention: he intends that the story of the victim be recognized as a true story and one that must be liberated from the narratives of the persecutor; but the effect of his account of salvation is that Christ comes to look almost like a Marcionite savior, who does not so much inaugurate the liberating history of God with us as describe a path of flight from time. Rather than the form that stands in the midst of creation to declare the true shape of creation, Christ looks suspiciously like a figure who saves simply by pointing beyond every economy – and every world but society is exchange, giving and taking, even in some sense sacrificing one thing for another, offering one thing up for another. Does Christ then offer a new order of exchange and sacrifice, or is he simply the abnegation of human solidarity, a revolutionary outcry that forever interrupts the story of the world but tells no story of its own? Is salvation merely the liberation of souls from the bondage of the world? Again, Girard intends to say no such thing; but where, in the world, does the victim have a story of his own?…

There are many sacrificial moments in Israel’s response to God, of course, and so Israel’s cultic practices cannot be reduced to one essential thing univocally termed “sacrifice.” There are indeed practices of violence and exclusion, but also practices of sanctification and reconciliation, thanksgiving and adoration. Before all else, though, sacrifice is a qurban, a drawing nigh, an approach to God who graciously approaches his people in love. If there are currents of stress in the history of Israel’s cult, they do not run between the idea of sacrifice as such and a prophetic rejection of sacrifice, but between different ways of understanding the motion of sacrifice that Israel is, the gift it makes of itself – of its body – to the God who gives it its being and its name…

…For Christian thought the true order of sacrifice is that which corresponds to the motion of the divine perichoresis, the Father’s giving of the Son, the Son’s execution of all the Father is and wills, the Spirit’s eternal offering back up of the gift in endless variety, each person receiving from and giving to each other in infinite love. The pagan or secular sacrificial regime obeys the logic of the boundary, the “justice” of demarcations, the blow with which Romulus slays Renus; the sacrifice that Christ is obeys the life of the God who is apeiron, aperilepton, boundless, impossible to “leap over,” but crossing every boundary in absolute freedom to declare his love…

This is why the cross of Christ should be seen not simply as a sacrifice, but as the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice. It is pure crisis, a confrontation between worlds, the raising up of one out of the grip of the other. Within Israel’s history the most important practice of sacrifice is ultimately confined to the temple in Jerusalem alone, and this is entirely appropriate. Israel’s offering does not express a sacrificial logic simply inherent in being, practicable in any setting, for purposes of auspication or haruspication or private benefit, but is the single action of God’s people, the extraordinary motion of Israel’s ceaseless exodus toward God, to whom all being belongs, peacefully, and who therefore has no need for it to be portioned to him in an economy of violence. It is this same motion toward God that is made perfect in the life of Christ, in the gift he makes of himself to the Father by the entirety of who he is. The crucifixion is what happens to this sacrifice, even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event; the cross is the response of political power to Christ’s self-oblation, which is the entire kenotic and faithful unfolding of his mission. There is a double motion in the crucifixion, of gift and immolation: Christ giving himself to God in the entirety of his life lived toward the Father, unto death, and the violence of worldly power folding back upon this motion in an attempt to contain it.