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.



As I have loved you


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 other 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


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, our Self. There is no reason to fear death because there is no enduring Self that lives beyond the span of a nanosecond. In a manner of speaking, or perhaps rather exactly, 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 story, and feelings, aesthetic perceptions and moral valuations are narratives before they are anything else.

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 and/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 (which we know because of the non-illusory, socially constructed narrative we call the 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 all experience.

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, for aesthetic experience, and for 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.

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.



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.

What difference does Jesus really make?

CreationIconOW258-259webA friend shared a question he recently overheard:

“If Jesus quit having a relationship with you tomorrow, in what ways would you tell the difference?”

It’s an interesting question because it can open up to an important discovery. It’s a very bad question because it assumes a particularly mistaken view of things, namely, that Jesus could quit having a relationship with us and we be in a position to contemplate it after the fact. The question assumes Jesus is someone and something very different than the Jesus of the Church’s faith and experience, whom we have to deny in even attempting to answer the question on its own terms.

All the logical theistic arguments (properly conceived) that are so embedded in the nature of things make sense because they concern themselves with the existence of an infinite, benevolent, personal God who is both ground and end of all things. If this Ground “quits having a relationship with us,” then there’s literally no saying what the difference would be because “saying” involves rationality/intelligibility, meaningfulness, teleology, etc., and if God quits having a relationship with us, these self-evident features which define the very givenness of being would no longer shape our experience of ourselves and the world. So very literally, there is no “saying” what the difference would be because there would be no “saying” anything at all. God’s Logos is God’s “Saying” which makes all “saying” possible. If I wake up to tomorrow to an existence that is intelligible, that responded to rational inquiry, a life in which I continued to perceive and desire beauty, etc., then I’d have to say God had not quit on me. I know no way to logically ponder existence (mine or anyone else’s) apart from the truth of the openness of things to God. But this question asks us to consider precisely what is unintelligible, namely, what ‘being’ would be like without benevolent ground and end.

So the question can’t be asked about Jesus if the Jesus we’re talking about is the God-Man, the Incarnate One who is the created realm the abandonment of which this question asks us to consider. For Christ to quit on creation (or any part of it) is for Christ to quit on himself, for creation is united to himself through Incarnation, and the Cross and Resurrection declare such abandonment forever inconceivable. Of course, there may be other Jesuses out there who are compatible with the sort of “quitting” this question is based on. But in that case, these have already quit on us because they never existed to begin with.

‘Cessation of consciousness’ and ‘being’ constitute each other in God?

JensonChris Green’s “Robert Jenson” may be the truest representation of Jenson out there, better than photographs of him for capturing the colorful fire of his intellect and work; and my thanks to Caleb Sanchez for alerting me to this passage in Jenson (from On Thinking the Human). I’m traveling for the next few days and will have to wait to gather my thoughts in response to it, but I’d like to post it now and invite others to think through it in the meantime.

Regarding death, Jenson writes:

It has often been suggested that our immortality is in the mind of God, that although my death is simply my non-existence, this is not a sheer occurrence of non-being because the whole of my experience is preserved in his universal consciousness, because I am remembered by God. Such proposals do not work if we leave the matter where it is usually left, that is, if we presume with modernity that God is a monadic consciousness. Merely that I am remembered by you, even if you are God, does not help with the problem that presents itself to us, does not help my effort to think my own death. For me, the cessation of consciousness is exactly the same and remains exactly as unrepresentable whether you remain conscious of me or not; and we have seen that also “for me” must finally be dropped.

But the matter works out very differently if the Christian dogma just adduced is taken into account. It is a point belabored through all the centuries of Christian reflection: my existence as an actual other than God, my existence as “a” creature over against a God who is someone other than me…is enabled only by and within the otherness of the Son from the Father. But the Son’s death is integral to this otherness and so to this Sonship, and therefore to the relation within which my distinct being is enabled. And therefore the non-being to which I as creature return at death is integral to that relation within which my distinct being is enabled in the first place. The vanishing of being belongs to that relation between the Son and the Father which is the very life that is God, belongs to the Being that grounds all beings. The ‘mind of God’ is the reason and will lived between the Son and the Father in the Spirit, and to be remembered there is to live.

It may perhaps a little help understanding, if we recur to the analogy just used, of the created second-person. There is after all someone who sees me whole, and that is any of you. For to you I am an object, that is, you can and in some circumstances must deal with me as if I were an already known thing, and that is, as if I were dead. But you know the object I am as a presumed consciousness; I am for you a person-type object. Thus you, who know me as if I were dead, nevertheless can address me out of that very apprehension. And in hearkening and responding to that address, I too have myself as my object, that is, have my dead self as the content of my consciousness.

With these reflections we may seem to have undone my contention: we may seem to have found a way to think my death without invoking God. But of course this does not quite work. In the dialectic just described, you and I remain each partly aloof from the relation between us. Thus your consciousness of my dead self can indeed be communicated to me, but this consciousness that you enable in me cannot be wholly identical with my consciousness of my self, and so is not truly a consciousness of myself as dead.

But in God, according to standard trinitarian thinking, the persons Father, Son, and Spirit are identical with the relations between them none of the three has any position aloof from his self-giving to or through the others. The Father knows the Son’s death as god’s own, and so as his own, suffered in the person of the Son. The Son knows the Father’s continuing consciousness of his dead self as God’s own, and so as his own consciousness of his dead self, active in the person of the Father.

Here we must again take a step taken before: my being is participation in his triune Being. Thus the cessation of my being for my consciousness is participation in a mutual consciousness in which cessation and being each constitute the other. And that is a thought which, however difficult, can be entertained.

Being where things are going

grayNot sure how to express this.

I sat quietly for a couple hours yesterday afternoon. I had an episode of Black Mirror (a sort of modern remake of The Twilight Zone) on. The episode got me into a kind of suspended frame of mind – a bit disconnected from the world but for that reason more connected to things that I usually am. Anita asked if I wanted to go on a walk. So we took a good 30 minute walk in a nearby park we often enjoy. It was a beautiful day here in CA, about 5 PM, sun was out but beginning to set, low 60’s, beautiful trees, lawn, flowers.

I saw everything clearly – blades of grass, hummingbirds nearby, dogs barking, children playing, Anita and I chatting. It was all equally present to me without any part of it competing for my attention. Everything (even my own body) manifested both an essential beauty and a complaining tragedy that recognized–beautiful for obvious reasons, but also tragic because temporary, passing, fading, on the edge of ceasing to be. But I didn’t feel any sense of regret or sorrow at seeing the ephemeral, fading being of all things. Though they were fading, their beauty wasn’t threatened.

There was movement, obviously. We were walking, talking. Time didn’t literally stop, but it was a kind of timeless moment, like the whole walk we took, including the words we spoke and the thoughts I had, all comprised a single unbroken present moment that didn’t suffer from coming to be or passing way, a fuller moment in which the individual parts of our walk (the steps we took, the words we spoke, etc.) all occurred, a fuller moment that was already there waiting for things to occur within it. It contained those moments but wasn’t comprised of them. Where my consciousness is typically locked into one particular location or event feeling its way through the passage of time from one event to the next, feeling some of the tragic loss of time’s passage, today I felt like my consciousness was one with a location, a perspective, that wasn’t my own (even though obviously I was experiencing it), a perspective that wasn’t coming to be and passing away, but instead it was a perspective from within the truth of all things – a truth all things reflect and toward which they tend. It’s like I was already where things were going.

A peculiar thought came to me. I thought that ‘time’ isn’t the front and center issue/problem that we often make it out to be. What mattered was simply how we situated ourselves within this all-embracing perspective that made room for things, welcomed them and gave them their beauty. I thought also that instead of giving ‘time’ the priority of place in how things are viewed and experienced, the ‘narrative’ of their being was more important. Our lives have meaning (or not) as ‘narrative’, where and how they belong in the connectedness of things. I felt as though my own personal conscious perspective was completely connected, or identified, with a perspective that already knew the story – where things came from, where they were, and where they were going, a perspective (a fuller story) that wasn’t waiting for things to happen to figure out what the story would be, but rather a perspective that integrated and gave meaning to what was happening because it was where things were going. But this sense of the present in which I was totally at rest wasn’t itself also “on its way” to becoming something else. It wasn’t just another moment like the moments it was making room for. From this fuller place from which I was apparently taking things in (which seemed to me to contain every disconnected story – good or bad – as well as the happy resolution of every story and its integration into a single, all-embracing story which story was where I felt I was at the time) I thought to myself, “All stories get redeemed. No tragic remainders to be irredeemably lost, because everything happens within this.”

Probably losing my mind.