Asking René Girard
In 2005 journalist Nathan Gardels interviewed René Girard. The resulting article was published in the Huffington Post under the title “Ratzinger Is Right”. The headline references Girard’s statement from the interview that Pope Benedict XVI was right to challenge the ‘dictatorship of relativism’. The article is worth reading as René Girard’s thoughts often bring surprises and new insights into our channeled discourse.
As we here in America head into the final weeks before another biennial national election cycle, I wish to bring attention to René Girard’s response to the final question posed from this piece:
What do you think of the rise of the religious right in America?
What we see in America today is more the rise of the Republican Party than the religious right. I don’t think there are more Christian fundamentalists in America today than thirty years ago, it is just that they have become politicized. Republicans have focused on issues that bring them to the ballot box. And that is a big change indeed.
The problem with the Christian fundamentalists, though not as much as with the Muslims, is their view of the violence of God. They often talk these days about the Apocalypse. And there is certainly reason to be concerned about where the world is headed. But the violence will not come, as they suggest, from God. I find that incredible. It is we humans who are responsible. That, in many ways, is one of the key messages of the Gospels.
The whole point of the Incarnation is to say that the human and divine are interrelated in a way that is unique to Christian theology, unthinkable in any other religion and, in my view, absolutely superior.
Whether in the case of Muslims focused on martyrdom or the fundamentalist Christians focused on the Apocalypse, the old Greek conception of a God apart from man is not enough. That is really the meaning of all my work.
In the news over the past while, and especially since the riots around the country following the death of George Floyd, and the riot at the US Capital, there has been heard talk of civil war within the increasingly disunited United States. Violent conflict in human communities being one of the central themes of Girard’s mimetic hypothesis, it is no wonder that one frequently hears Girard’s name brought up in these conversations.
Among Girardians there have always been those who believe that mimetic theory not only provides a scientifically thematized understanding of human cultural origins and perpetuation, but also a pathway out of the spasmodic episodes of violence experienced within and between human societies. However, while Girard would never support or encourage violence, as a believer in the Catholic doctrine of fallen human nature (sin), he understood the Christian and biblical truth of the contest between the message of the Gospel and the effects of the Gospel. The message of the Gospel calls all people to repentance and lives of self-sacrificial love, while the ongoing effects of the Gospel erode the ability of any sacrificial (violent) attempts to restore or renew cultural solidarity.
By de-sacralizing violence and the myths generated from it every culture touched by the Judeo-Christian tradition has been destabilized by allowing victims of violence to take the place of mythic or divinized cultural heroes. And to the degree that the people of a culture do not repent of sin and attempt by God’s grace to follow a path of self-sacrificial love, to that degree they will come closer to inevitable episodes of apocalyptic violence.
As with all things Christian, there is a mystery or a paradox here that defies attempts to thoroughly elucidate these themes. My opinion is that Girard’s hypothesis does not provide a pathway out of mimetic conflicts, but in his insistence that the Gospel is key to understanding any of these matters he performs the basic evangelistic task of pointing to the cross of Christ as the source of the light that illuminates the path to peace within and among ourselves, our communities, and with God.