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…
With 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.
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. “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.