The Legacy of René Girard
René Girard has left an enormously rich legacy. Those of us who are privileged to have known him over many years have a responsibility, not only to apply and extend as best we can his work, but also to resist, as René himself did, the temptation to overlook, for reasons of expedience, the role that Christianity played in his work and that his Catholicism has played in his own life.
Girard often insisted that his work led to his conversion, but he as often acknowledged that, had he been working in an intellectual atmosphere suffused with Christian sensibilities, his work could hardly have taken the direction it did or borne the fruit that it did.
The observation that in America even the Catholics are Protestants applies as well today to Western culture as a whole, for our age is dominated by a shriveled understanding of freedom as emancipation which blithely presupposes an opposition between institution and spirit which is alien to orthodox Catholic thought.
When, as so often happens, Girard’s work is interpreted in the spirit of the age its most salient features are ignored or downplayed. This tendency seems likely to grow in the years ahead when Girard himself is not around to counter it, as he had, for instance, in several of his later works: Evolution and Conversion; Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith; and Battling to the End.
It is true that Girard’s faithful participation in the sacramental life of the Church is not reflected in his theoretical work. But this is not because the two are unrelated, but rather because – paralleling the Church’s insistence that faith can be rationality explicated – Girard has insisted on the scientific status of his anthropological analysis, a status for which faith may well “lead to understanding”, but one, nevertheless, for which it is not an epistemological prerequisite.
Recognizing the intellectual – and especially academic – embargo on arguments based on religious presuppositions, while Girard has boldly defended his faith, he has insisted that his work can withstand the scrutiny of those who judge it from a strictly agnostic point of view.
It has been part of Gil Bailie’s work and the work of the Cornerstone Forum he founded, to explore more systematically than Girard himself the link between Girard’s anthropological contributions and the sacramental life of the Church. For instance, Mr. Bailie has often argued that the only sustainable alternative to what Girard calls the primitive or archaic sacred, and the blood-sacrifices associated with it, is not the secular but the sacramental.
Whereas in a Catholic worldview the secular has its own autonomy (Romans 13; “render unto Caesar…”), the deracinated and doctrinaire secularism that is antithetical to an Augustinian understanding of the legitimate role of secularity is an unsustainable project. Now that we are entering the post-secular world, it seems to us all the more important to begin to draw out the anthropological meaning of the shift from the sacrificiality of the archaic sacred system to the sacramental sacrificiality which it has been the special privilege of Catholic Christianity to receive from Christ and the special responsibility of Catholic Christianity to foster among the faithful, and preserve and defend in the face of worldly opposition.
As this opposition continues to grow today, and as post-Christian secularists pave the road to nihilism with sentimentality and doctrinaire multiculturalism – “the dictatorship of relativism” – it seems to us increasingly important to offer anthropological corroboration of the sort that Girard’s work provides to those called upon to defend Catholic faith today.