By Chris Haw
What do you get when you combine Darwin, Durkheim, Freud, Nietzsche, and Saint Augustine? You get something like René Girard. I never had the pleasure of meeting this, now late, French-American Stanford Professor and “Immortel” of the Académie française. But he was apparently a mixture of gravitas, pugnacious insight, and humility. I’ll introduce you to his ideas.
His debut came through literary and cultural criticism on Proust, Dostoyevsky, et al, in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1966). There he built his theory of mimetic desire: we do not just desire objects, but others suggest our desires to us. All great literature and myth subtly deal with this dilemma, that we imitate others’ desires, and are thus often magnetized into rivalry—as we deeply want the being of others.
Following this, Girard became internationally famous for producing “the first authentically atheistic theory of religion and of the sacred,” in his Violence and the Sacred (1972). And then he turned this theory toward a sweeping, anthropological and psychological re-casting of Judaism and Christianity as unveiling the sacred forces that organize human culture and that had remained hidden since the foundation of the world (1978).
His hypothesis, too coarsely, is that spontaneous scapegoating, and its ritualization into sacrifice, ushered proto-humans into modern form, safely redirecting group attention and abetting the growth of homo sapiens’ disproportionate feature: imitation, noted above. We can bracket the question of whether the hypothesis is true, simply emphasizing why it is important for numerous disciplines: it attempts vast and disciplined synthesis of numerous fields into an extreme elegance. He is called a simple “hedgehog” (in contrast to the diverse skills of a fox), as his research-diversity converges into just one thing: this “single victim mechanism” as an organizing principle of human culture.
His idea fits into, and builds off of, numerous academic conversations, and I’ll mention three. First, Darwin and evolutionary theory, in his searching for cultural patterns and feedback loops that could have established fitness in early homo sapiens. This involves analysis of phenomena like: ancient altars/thrones and ethnographic studies, the human birth canal in relation to encephalization (rapid brain growth), creation myths and dismemberment, sacrificial rites (and its various accessories, like ritual incest), the origin of settlements around sacrificial sites, cannibalism, the relationship between human omnivory, the recession of incisors, and hunting through dentition, etc.. Even if these are quite disparate phenomena, he manages (some say accurately) to relate them all to mimesis-managed-through-the-single-victim-mechanism.
Second, he is building off, and critiquing, Freud, who suggested that a collective spontaneous murder, followed by a cannibalistic, father-deification funeral-meal, is the origin of religion, morals, and social organization in early humanity (Totem and Taboo). Girard seeks to put to rest numerous excesses and mistakes of Freud, emphasizing not oedipal desire, but deeper and more general mimetic desire.
Thirdly, he is also building from Nietzsche, who was among the first to flag what was really at issue (and problematic) in the Bible: not the miraculous or “God” per se, but its extreme concern for victims. The point is not merely that “God is dead,” but what follows: “and we have killed him”—that is, “Christ crucified” ruins the party we call civilization. From Genealogy of Morals: “Through Christianity, the individual was made so important, so absolute, that he could no longer be sacrificed: but the species endures only through human sacrifice…If one regards individuals as equals, one calls the species into question, one encourages a way of life that leads to the ruin of the species…The species requires that the ill-constituted, weak, degenerate, perish: but it was precisely to them that Christianity turned as a conserving force” (19).
Girard developed his mimetic/scapegoat theory in such a promiscuously interdisciplinary way that he has become loved and critiqued on many different fronts: he is far too Christian for those with secular methodologies; he is far too reductive, Darwinstic, for Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Milbank; he is too broad and ambitious for the postmodernists, and so on. How can one but startle at such sweeping remarks as:
All religions, including Christianity, are alike in that they worship a victim.
Christianity seems to be dying together with the religions it extinguishes, because, in sacrificial terms, it is perceived as one mythical religion among others. Christianity is not only one of the destroyed religions but it is the destroyer of all religions. The death of God is a Christian phenomenon. In its modern sense, atheism is a Christian invention.
And yet, despite those who shy from big theories, or those who may critique him, his voice still generates mass appeal—even if only to modify, critique, or advance his theory. The Colloquium on Violence and Religion is well attended and startlingly diverse in the disciplines (and non-academics) represented therein. Balthasar, critiques aside, conceded that Girard’s research program is surely the most dramatic project to be undertaken today in theology. Anglican theologian and philosopher Sarah Coakley, even though critiquing him some in her Gifford Lectures, is now devoting time to interpreting his work, even this very autumn on her speaking tour. And Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, on a theological panel-discussion at the 2015 above Colloquium, stated that Girard is one “of the few thinkers who gets the New Testament right, and has offered us one of the most profound salvation-atonement theologies. And, rather than an acquired taste, he should become to systematic theology a genuine theological voice that must be appreciated without reserve.”
Enough of generalities: I hasten to some details you must know:
He later qualified his strong Judeo-Christian centrism. It is true he lived, until his end, quite heavily Catholic, singing praises of “Catholic stability and cheer,” almost like a Chestertonian, in his Battling to the End. And he always maintained a triumphant-tragic appraisal of Christianity: “Wherever Christianity spreads, the mythical systems decay and sacrificial rites disappear”; and “the more Christianity made its influence felt, I believe, the more widespread rivalry and internal mediation became.”
But, in one of his last books, on Hinduism (2003), he ceded space for strands of Hinduism to be considered “revelatory”—insofar as such strands critiqued the blindness of sacrificial practices and its roots in violence. Others have also seen how much Buddhism or Islam are great conversation partners with mimetic theory on the question of managing desire (Webb, Palaver). His mimetic theory may likely undergo an extreme broadening as we historically come to see that there have been other ways—besides the innocent Crucified One who called all to love their enemies—that forgiveness-based nonviolence and critiques of sacrifice permeated world history.
Girard is sometimes critiqued for opinions he eventually modified. As for sacrifice, some perceive him as promoting a complete supercessionist (anti-Jewish) rejection of all sacrifice-language, such that the book of Hebrews should be thrown out. He admitted in 1993 that he initially thought this, seeing how radically Christianity treated the problems of violence and sacrifice, but eventually came to a more paradoxical reading, that we cannot escape our mimetic desire, which can lead toward rivalry; and thus we cannot escape sacrifice. But we must instead learn to renounce imitating others’ violence, adopt a deep imitation of Christ, who imitates the Father, who imitates no one, but is pure Love—and this renunciation of violence, and embrace of love, is our “sacrifice,” but inverted.
Similarly, he is sometimes thought to be saying that humans only desire through imitation (no: he thinks we have numerous other kinds of desire woven in), or that we are essentially aggressive (no: he suggests we are essentially collaborative and competitive). Instead, Girard helps us see that one of our greatest strengths for learning and empathy (a deep inhering of others’ desires inside our selves) is also capable of escalating into rivalry—collaboration against scapegoats, for example.
Anyway, I offer those two caveats, as it should be remembered that his thought is not ossified into a Christianity-centrism, and some critiques are simply not really critiquing him, but an opinion that he either modified or never held.
I close by stating what I’ve learned on a more spiritual level from Girard, which I posted elsewhere: even our growing awareness of scapegoating is a spiritually complex, even dangerous, enlightenment. That is, even if we now feel enlightened and more scientifically aware of social mechanisms, we are now today tempted more than ever to condemn the condemers, hate the haters, to scapegoat the scapegoaters. We are tempted to identify as or with the righteous victims, over and against the persecutors: “had I lived in the day of Martin Luther King Jr. (or any great martyr), I would not have been racist or shed their blood.”
Instead, we are invited, through exposure to a profoundly nonviolent love, to step out of cycles of accusation and defensiveness, to recognize the persecutor-within. We are invited to courageously love anyone and everyone–even our enemies, even ourselves. There is no magical solution to the subtle temptations of hateful vengeance, which is often done under the guise of justice. The Spirit of Defense, the Paraclete—against the spirit of accusation and prosecution (that is, “satan”)—is not a quick fix, but a slow, seeping-in of unconditional Love. This we have seen in not only the sun and rain, but in the lives of the saints, the martyrs, the prophets—of all religions, non-religions, and “the exit from religion offered from within the demythified religion”—which Girard (through Gauchet) calls Christianity.
Chris Haw is a doctoral student in Theology and Peace Studies at the Unvierstity of Notre Dame. He is the author of From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart and co-author with Shane Claiborne of Jesus for President. He is a husband and father of two, and has also worked as a carpenter, potter, and community developer.
 Re: Girard’s Violence and the Sacred. G.-H. De Radkowski, in Le Monde, Oct 27, 1972.
 Battling to the End, 211.
 Evolution and Conversion, 257.
 Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. IV, 299.
 I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 154. The One By Whom Scandal Comes, 125).