Wednesday, December 12, 2007


My prize discovery of the Advent season is this interesting website offering seasonal Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary: Understanding the Bible Anew Through the Mimetic Theory of René Girard. It's the work of Paul John Nuechterlein from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA, and it was nosed in my direction by Artur Rosman (Facebook link - registration required), who is also promoting Thinking in Values: The Tischner Institute Journal of Philosophy. I'll say something about that in the near future, as Artur has kindly sent me the first issue. But let me here set the scene for these Advent Girardian readings, which offer what, for many, will be different perspectives on well-known texts. (I haven't trawled too much of the site myself, but it comes well recommended.)

Rene Girard (pictured left), for those who don't know, is a cultural and anthropological historian and literary scholar who has explored 'the scapegoat mechanism' in ancient cultures, understanding it through mimetic theory (which looks at how human beings learn by behaviour reproduction and modification) in order to arrive at some highly innovative and useful theories about the relationship between violence and the sacred on a planetary scale. His work really should be studied by all those who are sounding off loudly in the media at the moment about religion and violence, since it probes well beyond the simplistic polarities that often pass for analysis in this area - from both 'secular' and 'religious' protagonists.

Unusually, Girard was brought back to his Christian (specifically, Catholic) faith in the light, especially, of his re-reading of the Hebrew prophets and parts of the New Testament, particularly the Passion narratives. He approached them assuming that they were likely to reinforce the scapegoating procedures common to ancient cultures -- which had adapted religion to maintain communal integrity by finding a way of identifying, externalising and expelling those who are made paradigmatically responsible for what the community perceives to be the force(s) undermining it. Instead, Girard discovered some surprisingly anti-sacrificial texts wrapped in superficially sacrificial garb. Texts which confound their own genesis, in certain respects. Jesus, in particular, is seen to be killed because he wholly refuses to play the scapegoating game, such that his own rejection of violence decisively exposes the manipulations of the powerful (both political and religious). For this reason he has to die from their point of view and to preserve their interests. The form of his vindication also confronts and undermines triumphalist strategies associated with 'victory' politics. This casts 'normal' religious understandings of atonement in a very different light.

All that is probably inadequately put (mea culpa), but it suggests the contours and texture of Girard's work, which has gone on to embrace narration, history, mythology and social science in a critical but constructive theological framework that challenges what we understand to be both 'traditional' and 'contemporary' meanings. His readings of the biblical texts are often highly suggestive and faithfully creative, and have been developed further by those who greatly admire his work, but very much have their own voices and stances, like the British theologian and philosopher James Alison. (There are a number of legitimate critical questions one could pose about Girard, regarding both the totalising tendency of some of his theories and its alleged domestication within his subsequent Catholic trajectory, but I do not think these undermine its central contributions.)

Girard's work also provides possibilities of a powerful interface between what could be broadly characterised as 'secular' and 'theological' forms of reasoning. Perhaps he has been more eagerly received by rational theologians of various kinds, because the dominant assumption among some non-religious scholars is that religion is to be understood almost wholly as a problem. Girard certainly problematizes it; but in so doing, he also points to real and irreducible possibilities of redemption within it. That is a message which many involved in 'religion wars' (on both 'sides' of the debate) do not want to hear, because it messes with their attempts to 'win'. So they don't hear it. The conversation needs to be wider and deeper in order to admit a wider range of options for synergy and selection. Our survival and flourishing depends upon it.

1 comment:

Jane said...

REally liked the stuff on the site and your intro to Girardian theology. The bits about scapegoating and sacrfice interested me in particular. I'm quite interested in how we get away from the sacrificial pattern of practising Christian faith - surely in an era of sustainable development etc. we should be trying to. Yet I recognise that I am a very unworthy example in this respect myself. the church is run on over work and burn out. I sense clearly that the gospel and radical advent are about something rather different. Oh dear I'm still saved by grace and stuck at work!!