The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 2

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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 such) 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, too over-invested in negative assessments, too eager to find fault but not to map out what a redeemed human culture 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 that 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 and Girard both see 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 (later in his life)! 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.” crosss“The crucifixion,” Hart describes, “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 Hart’s 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? Hart seems to agree with Girard that there is none. So are the prophets who rebuke Israel merely objecting to an improper heart attitude that spoiled blood sacrifices God was otherwise looking forward to enjoying? Or is the final truth that Christ reveals anticipated more by the occasional but unmistakably radical sentiment of Ps 51.17: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings”? The writer doesn’t appear to believe that sacrifice is the proper response even of a transformed heart. On the contrary, once the heart becomes the explicit scene of grace’s transformation, there’s no need for sacrifice. As he says, “…else I would bring it.” Hosea 6.6 as well: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” But one might ask why not both mercy and sacrifice if all that’s wrong with blood sacrifice is the absence of a merciful disposition in the worshiper? Or Heb 10.8: “‘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 similar 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 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 instructions on how to manage the monarchy within the framework of Israel’s covenant. Eventually Israel’s hopes for salvation become inseparable from the language of monarchy and later Christian thought and worship come 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 brings 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 which 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

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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. Hart writes:

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 thought 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.

 

As I have loved you

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I’ve read through these passages many times, but only this week noticed an interesting shift in the way Jesus reoriented the entire Law and its fulfillment around himself. Consider the Golden Rule:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19.18)

After love of God with all one’s heart and life, Jesus considers love of neighbor the greatest commandment (Mt 22.36-40).

I’ve often made the point that ‘self-love’ is not a bad thing. After all, how are we supposed to love others “as we love ourselves” if loving ourselves is either impossible or evil? Love of others, per the Golden Rule, is a function or expression of love of one’s own self. No one who hates himself can love others.

This is still true, but I’m intrigued by the change in perspective this undergoes in Jesus’ teaching. John picks up on it. In his first letter, St. John (1Jn 2.6) writes “I am not writing you a new command, but an old one.” Indeed, if Jesus had merely repeated the Golden Rule (“Love others as you love yourself,” or “Do to others as you’d have them do to you”) then in fact there’s nothing new here. But John immediately continues (v. 7), “And yet, I am writing you a new command.” Old but new?

Jesus doesn’t shy away from the standard (old) version of the Rule. In Mt 7.12 (cf. Mk 12.31; Lk 6.31) we find, “Whatever you want others to do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets.” This is the “old” rule. So what’s “new” about Jesus’ articulation of the “old” rule? Doesn’t he just repeat it? No.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (Jn 13.34)

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Jn 15.12)

See it? Love others not as you love yourself (old rule) but now as I have loved you (new rule). Note the shift. It’s monumental, and it could not have been otherwise for Jesus’ Jewish audience. Not only does Jesus essentially edit the Law (which no good Rabbi did), he makes himself the measure of its fulfillment and appropriation. No longer is self-love the point of departure for genuine love. Now Christ’s loving life and death constitute that point of departure. It’s not that the old basis of ‘self love’ is false. It’s still true that no one who hates himself can love others. But not everyone loves him or herself. With the self-relation spoiled and fragmented, we have in Christ the truest embodiment of love (for self and for others). Jesus thus replaces every self as the point at which the self can know whether it is loving itself and others.

Paul maintains this shift as well. Note that when the “old” rule is stated, it is expressly identified with the Law:

“For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” (Gal 5:14)

This is to speak of love from the perspective of the Law. But when re-spoken in terms of its fulfillment, Christ replaces the self as measure, standard, and point of departure:

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Eph 4.32)

“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5.2)

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Eph 5.25)

As Dwayne reminded me today, for Kierkegaard, God (in Christ) is the middle term of the love relationship. Christ becomes the effective protagonist in our own self-narrative in Works of Love as the God relationship displaces the self-relationship by way of divine command without negating it.

There is no spoon

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British psychologist Susan Blackmore’s answer to death anxiety is to deny the existence of that which fears death. Rather than fearing death, we extinguish the desire for an enduring existence, and that is accomplished by realizing the illusory nature of what we take to be an enduring reality, namely, the Self. There is no reason to fear death, Blackmore assures us, because there is no enduring Self that lives beyond the span of a nanosecond. What we take to be the enduring identity and significance of our lives is in fact a chain of stillborn selves, each of whom dies as quickly as it is born. Life – as we experience it – is one long chain of death (as much as it is anything else).

All our experiences, perceptions, beliefs, emotions, deliberations are simply a sequence of discrete slices, and any attempt to construe them as constituting a history of personal significance is illusory. After all, that would require a principle of unity higher than the discrete occasions it seeks to unify. Check out the first three minutes if that’s all you have time for. She nicely summarizes the bad news.

One should understand what is being said here. Not only is the Self an illusion, but all aesthetic perception and valuation is illusory, for these are by definition ‘narratives’ constructed by selves over time, and per Blackmore, all narratives are illusions because there is no enduring principle of unity sufficient to gather together the discrete temporal moments of a life into a meaningful whole – and the feelings, aesthetic perceptions and moral valuations of our lives are narratives.

Such an understanding of reality fails on its own terms. Forget special appeals to transcendence for the moment. Rationality itself, as well as moral valuations (even moral judgments made on a purely materialist basis), are only conceivable if our rational beliefs and moral judgments supervene truthfully upon a history (individual or social). But all beliefs and moral judgments are narratives, and as such are illusions on Blackmore’s view. So it is not just the self that is an illusion because it is a narrative (which Blackmore knows because of the non-illusory, socially constructed narrative of her scientific method), but so are all narratives illusions, for all narratives, like the self, are constructed narratives that supervene upon discrete, momentary events which in fact do not constitute an enduring anything. But if this applies to all narratives, it applies Blackmore’s own narrative that all narratives are illusions. Her view cannot escape the reach of its own criticisms.

Indeed, “science” (by which I mean the ‘scientific method’) is a (kind of) Self. It is a socially constructed narrative expressive of an identity (that is, a shared perspective on the truth and meaning of the world) that acts as a filter through which all things are interpreted. But – and this is crucial – the power to recognize illusion as illusion cannot itself be an illusion. Some enduring reality, immanent in every conscious act but not itself deriving from any temporal process within nature, must be responsible for unifying conscious experience in the transcendental ways we require to get the simplest thought off the ground.

What ways are those? Well, to begin with, I’m not suggesting the Self is its own enduring reality that grounds the rational/intelligible/narrative structure of consciousness. With Blackmore, I’m happy to deliver the bad news to those who believe otherwise that they’re believing a fantasy. But not everything is illusion, namely, our power to recognize illusion as such. So the transcendent structure of personal experience should lead us to avoid ending our search where Blackmore ends hers, that is, in illusion.

Two undeniable features of our experience have to be kept in mind: First, the illusory nature of the socially constructed self. Secondly, the transcendent power to perceive this about ourselves (and the conditions under which we exercise this power). In the first instance there is indeed an illusion to expose, namely, the illusion that any self constructed upon the proposition that nature is a closed, material system can serve as the principle of unity for a life. In the second instance, however, the power to recognize this illusion cannot itself be an illusion. It must transcend the conditions under which the self is rightly said to be an illusion. But notice, this recognition of transcendence is itself rational, is the judgment of some ‘self’ (namely, whoever thinks his way properly into the truth of the matter), and it unifies the flow of history in a meaningful narrative. So while it may be an illusion that my truest self, the core of my meaning, is my being a white, American male or a former Republican, or whatever identity I could lose contact with in the event of a stroke or a fall on the bathroom floor, what is not an illusion is that every self expresses an enduring, conscious power for meaning-making under certain transcendent conditions, namely, the longing or desire for rational/intelligible perception, aesthetic experience, and interpersonal relations. In classical terms, it is a power for the experience of truth, beauty and goodness. Any attempt to deny this, as far as I can tell, only manifests its truth. Not all is illusion.

Salvation the formation of rivalry-free desire

positivemimesisI would say my interest in Rene Girard’s theories regarding mimetic desire and human culture (and how they intersect Christian theology) is approaching intoxication. I’ve been enjoying Creative Mimesis, a compilation of contributions whose authors reflect upon Girard’s thought in light of questions regarding the possibility of ‘positive mimesis’.

Mimesis refers to the intrinsically imitative nature of human desire. Because Girard brought the question of the mimetic nature of desire to bear upon the role of violence in the formation of human culture, some believe he held imitation as such to be violent. There is thus no intrinsically good (positive, creative) imitation because desire as such is conflictual and rivalrous. Contrary to to this view, the chapters of this volume explore the intrinsic goodness of mimetic desire. Some do so by extending Girard’s insights in new ways, others show that Girard himself did not in fact hold desire or mimesis to be intrinsically violent, and that taking mimesis to be essentially good makes better sense of his thought.

My interests are primarily theological, so Ch 4 peaked my interests. Robert Doran’s “Lonergan on Imitating the Divine Relations” and Petra Steinmair-Pösel’s “Original Sin, Grace, and Positive Mimesis” were wonderful contributions. Because Girard wasn’t a trained theologian and didn’t always connect the relevant dots, it’s helpful to see his insights unpacked theologically by those able to do so. The fit is there and it’s exposed nicely by Doran and Steinmair-Pösel. Thomas Reynolds’ “The Creative Desire for God: Mimesis Beyond Violence in Monotheistic Religions?” was also very good. In the section dealing with scientific issues, (fellow open theist) Robin Collins’ “Nature as a Source of Non-Conflictual Desire” was excellent. The question of the essential goodness of the created order poses a challenge for those (like me) who assume God created us mortal and the world subject to decay. But it was Steinmair-Pösel’s contribution that especially grabbed my interest. It got to thinking: What kind of desiring must God’s desiring be if God is to be a healing, non-conflictual, non-rivalrous object of desire?

Stanford-cover-rgbIf you aren’t familiar with Girard yet, David Cayley’s 5-Part Interview/Documentary is a wonderful way to get to know him. (Speaking of Girard, my pre-ordered Evolution of Desire: A Life of Rene Girard by Cynthia Haven is in the mail. Can’t wait!)

Back to Steinmair-Pösel. She studied philosophy and theology in Innsbruck and Dublin (Dr. theol., 2005) and is currently university assistant at the Institute for Social Ethics (Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Vienna). You can read and download a slightly edited version of her chapter here. She writes:

Grace and Positive Mimesis
Let us for the last time turn to the theological level. We have seen how the perverse imitation of God is closely connected to the violent history of antagonistic mimesis. But alongside this history and closely interwoven with it, there is another history: the history of grace, which time and again renders possible moments of positive and loving mimesis. This history also starts—like the history of negative mimesis and even before that history—at the very beginning of creation. The theological concept of creation has shown that the capacity of human beings for transcendence is already a bestowed gift—creational grace. And since every human being is an image of God—even if the likeness is distorted by sin—it is also true that the mutual imitation of human beings doesn’t necessarily lead to perdition. In this context, the relevance of law, especially the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament, also has to be taken into account: The Old Testament Law provides a framework within which positive mimesis can be realized. Moreover, there have always been people who have represented this image and likeness of God in an especially lucid way: Such figures included the prophets of the Old Testament and particularly the Servant of the Lord. In its purest and most unaltered way (at least for Christians), this image and likeness of God appears in Jesus Christ. He is—as the Second Vatican Council professes—the homo perfectus, the perfect man, who is at the same time the undisguised image of God.

Like Adam in the garden story, Jesus is also led into temptation; the Tempter also wants him to adopt a counterfeit image of God. But Jesus “does not in any way let himself be drawn into the deceptive world of the enemy.” His significance can—as Nikolaus Wandinger shows—be found in breaking through the vicious circle of counterfeit imitation and the distorted image of God. This breaking through happens on several levels and affects the distorted image of God as well as the quality of imitation. On the level of his preaching, Jesus communicates the undisguised image of God: God is the loving and merciful Father, whose unconditional forgiveness is offered to everybody and who wants to give us everything—even Godself—as a present. However, the drama of Jesus’s life and death reveals that under the precondition of original sin, under the precondition of the ensnarement of humanity in antagonistic mimesis, the mere message of the merciful Father is not enough to correct the distorted image of God. Rather, people drag Jesus into their own, perverted notions of God; they consequently accuse him of blasphemy and finally kill him. In this situation of intensifying conflict, a correction of the image of God is only made possible by Jesus’s own way of acting. Confronted with human violence, Jesus renounces counterviolence and finally even gives his own life for his opponents. After all of this, the risen Christ returns to guilty humankind with words of peace and forgiveness. Thus he allows for a new experience of God: an experience of a God who reacts to human failure and sin not with revenge but with loving forgiveness.

How can Jesus act like that? Is it mere ascetic self-decoration? Jesus says about himself that he imitates his heavenly Father. Yet he doesn’t imitate him in a rivalrous way, but in a positive, nonviolent way. How is such a positive mimesis possible?

Jesus’s imitation of the Father doesn’t end in the blind alley of rivalry, because—as Girard says—it is not based on a greedy and egoistic form of desire. Rather, Jesus’s way of imitation is in itself an unmerited gift. Christian theology locates the fundamental reason for this fact in Trinitarian theology, in the passionate relations of the divine Persons with each other. In Extra Media Nulla Salus? Attempt at a Theological Synthesis, Jozef Niewiadomski pointed out that Jesus “became independent of mimetic projections” because his “relation to his God had become the innermost core of his own self-experience and of his own person.” The concrete man Jesus of Nazareth is stamped by his passion for the communicating God, a passion that arises from participation. Thus Jesus’s image of the Father is not that of a rivalrous God who wants to withhold something from God’s creatures, but that of a loving Father who wants to give Godself as a present. Moreover, Jesus is not an autonomous subject imitating the Father by virtue of his own efforts; he is imitating the Father by virtue of the Holy Spirit that has been given to him. According to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in baptism. Thereby Jesus is designated as the beloved son of God and the bearer of the divine Spirit. This experience in baptism might play an essential role in making positive mimesis become possible. By virtue of the Spirit bestowed on him by the Father, Jesus imitates the Father in a consummate way. Thus, Schwager argues that during his life and death, Jesus perfectly represents his heavenly Father.

By means of his life and death and the sending of the divine Spirit after his ascension, Jesus, the homo perfectus, the undistorted image of God, makes possible a new, undisguised experience of God and consequently also new interhuman relationships, relationships that don’t follow the structure of antagonistic mimesis. This new form of relationship—I want to call it positive mimesis—becomes possible because of the new image or rather the new experience of God, which Jesus communicates by means of his own life and behavior.

God isn’t the rival of humanity; God respects human freedom and wants salvation for all human beings. On the other side, there is also the need for a new quality of imitation, a quality that does not lead into mimetic conflicts, because it arises not from an attitude of scarcity but from the experience of gratuitous forgiveness and from newly bestowed possibilities for life. This form of positive mimesis, given by this new experience of God and the new quality of imitation, doesn’t aim at taking the place of the model and finally of God. Positive mimesis doesn’t aim at replacement but at gratuitous participation—ultimately participation in the divine life.

The experience of having gratuitously received something forms the foundation of positive mimesis. It is cultivated wherever human beings experience themselves as having received a gratuitous gift and consequently are willing to pass on what they have received, freely and without calculation.

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I don’t know if anyone has yet connected Girard’s insights regarding mimetic desire to the belief in divine apatheia. It would make a great dissertation topic. Divine apatheia, as we promote it here at least, is the notion not that God is apathetic, not the subject of something like an emotional life, but rather that God is the infinite plenitude of desire and its fulfillment (viz., unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction). As such he does not compete with us and is not a source of rivalry. The possibilities of expounding human participation in this in Girardian terms as the heart of salvation would make a wonderful book.

What must God be if he is the healing source of desire who fulfills all desire without generating rivalry and conflict between those who share God as the object of desire? It seems to me that that it must be the case at least that the drama of human desire does not falsify the plenitude of divine desire, that God not be thought of as entering into or affected by the conflict and rivalries to which our desires and imitating are enslaved. This doesn’t mean that in Christ God is not truly incarnate in our world; it only means God never surrenders himself to the fragmented, egoistic forms of mimesis and human desiring which are the condition he heals us from.

Hence, what heals warring desire is peaceful desire, what heals conflictual desiring is pacific, rivalry-free desiring. Christians don’t usually speak of salvation in terms the healing of human desire, much less in terms of experiencing divine desire, but it is precisely participation in God’s desire that heals us. How would one articulate that? This is where passibilist vs impassibilist understandings of God’s desiring become relevant.

How does one participate (by which I mean the integration of some reality into every dimension of one’s life) in the desires of another? First of all, I suggest, by experiencing oneself as the object of divine desire, a desire that is not competitive or conflictual but free and fulfilled, unconditioned by all other forms of desire familiar to us, and which is also a desire that is the very creative force that gives us our existence. Here we experience ourselves most fundamentally as a “being desired by” One whose existence and desires, unlike ours, never enter into the competitive rise and fall of frustrated and unfulfilled desire. We thus have a non-violent way to self-relate outside the drama of negative mimesis that defines human culture. As we are loved by undiminished (divine) desire, the truest thing about us is that which is not of this world’s making or wanting. Thus our being given existence and our being loved are an indivisible act not of this world. There is no greater healing force.

pmfrhs12girardp1couvIn a wonderfully lengthy essay on Girard, Thomas Bertonneau writes:

Girard writes how the modern consciousness “renounces the divine mediator only to fall back on the human mediator.” In another formula, Girard asserts that, “Denial of God does not eliminate transcendency but diverts it from the au-delà to the en-deçà.” Christianity cannot exclude mimesis, but it can channel mimesis by directing the subject to imitate the maximally distant model, the Second Person of the Trinity, who in turn desires only to imitate the First Person of the Trinity. To direct one’s attention to God through the Son opens the way to the liberation of the soul from its enslavement to men. The modern consciousness, which has been in rivalry with God since the time of Friedrich Nietzsche at least, exalts the divinity of its own ego, and then wonders why, despite the rhetorical glamour of its syllogisms, it nevertheless fails actually to feel as its own the Being of God. A whole degraded politics of endless complaint has grown out of this failure, attributing what is often called privilege to its targeted malefactors. The subject cannot maintain the illusion of having acquired Being from its dispossessed monopolist and invariably collapses into panic.

Secondly, participating in God’s desires would involve construing our existence – on the whole and in all its particular acts – as a response to the divine desire that creates us. How is this done? St. Paul captures it in several passages. Rom 8.15 comes to mind: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship, and by him we cry, ‘Abba’, Father.” Even my desiring God is a participating in the Son’s response to the Father, “Abba, Father.” Consider the logic of Paul’s “I, not I, but Christ” in Gal 2:20. This “I, not I, but Christ” constitutes a single substantive, so close is his act of self-perception with the reality of Christ’s presence. They comprise a single world – the giver and the gift. This brings human response (and human desiring), even in its free determination, full circle, from realizing ourselves as both gift and object of desire to realizing the nature of our response as equally that of a gift.

What is made of all this if salvation is understood in terms of divine passibilism, viz., in terms of the rise and fall of divine desire? If the fulfillment of God’s own desires (even God’s desire for himself, as is seen in passibilist construals of the Cross) is diminished or improved upon by the world, does this not reduce the divine desire that heals all human desiring to the drama of conflictual desire? It is difficult to relate to God in ways that heal negative mimesis if God’s own desires are believed to compete with our desires as a rival within all all-embracing conflict.

Lastly, I suggest that salvation – as our participating in God’s own desires – means never having to turn from desiring God to desiring anything else we desire, where we can (as Paul describes in Col 3.23) intend every act, however mundane or menial, “as to/for the Lord rather than men.” Not only is the act of self-perception described in Gal 2.20 (“I, not I, but Christ”) made radically one with Christ, so also is my perception of every other person transformed into a perception of Christ. Our desires, and with them ourselves – experienced at the most intimate level of self-reflection as well as in every perception of the world outside ourselves – are truly and finally saved when God is seen and desired in all our seeing and desiring. Perceptive readers will notice the connection between what I’m saying here and my 5-part response to Roberto Sirvent’s Embracing Vulnerability Human and Divine. Sivent argues that imitating God entails passibilism. I argue that the imitation of God entails impassibilism. The same point encouraged this insight as well:

And yet, for our desires to possess God as end without possibility of rivalry, not only must God be infinite, he must also be rivalry-free. To say this brings us round to the question of the antecedent fullness of God’s own desires and to the crucial difference between our desiring God and God’s desiring us, a distinction that is at the heart of our articulation of divine apatheia. Only an infinitely fulfilled desire can be a rivalry-free source and object of desire. Though our desiring finite ends spawns rivalry in us, God’s desire for us finite creatures is not a finite desire, because — here’s the controversial part my passibilist friends will balk at — in desiring us, God is not desiring some finite end, but himself in us. We simply cannot be the end of God’s desiring us in the same way God is the end of our desiring him. Said more provocatively — not only is God’s desire for us ultimately an expression of God’s desire for Godself, but so also is our desire for God an expression of God’s desire for Godself, for from him, and through him, and to/for him are all things.

In these ways I think Girard’s own insights about human desire assume something very like divine apatheia, that is, a plenitude of desire undiminished and unimproved by the world and unrelentless in its desire for the world.