Somehow or other I've become Facebook friends with half a dozen or so people who know a lot of theology. Some are professional theologians (i.e. they are theology professors) or just have studied it extensively. Several of them seem to be very excited about René Girard. I'd never read anything by him and really only vaguely recalled having heard of him, so I decided to read one of his books. I chose I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, I think on the recommendation of one of those Facebook people.
I finished it a few days ago and...well, I'm not sure what I think, though I can certainly say it was interesting. One of the blurbs is from the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus, who advises the reader to "prepare to be changed" by this book. My reaction to that was, approximately, Yeah right. But having read the book, I could almost say the same thing. Only almost--I'm not exactly a disciple, but I think the book is going to stick with me, and Girard does show us a way of looking at things unlike anything else I've ever encountered in the theological line. That of course isn't saying a whole lot, as I haven't read very much theology, but a number of people who have seem to think it's true.
There's an overview of his life and thought in his Wikipedia entry. Sometimes those are questionable, of course, but having read this book I'll vouch for the accuracy of this description:
Girard's fundamental ideas, which he had developed throughout his career and provided the foundation for his thinking, were that desire is mimetic (i.e. all of our desires are borrowed from other people), that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.
Girard's thought seems to have puzzled some readers, not only in the sense of being puzzled by his ideas but of being puzzled as to what exactly those ideas are. For that reason, I assume, the translator of this book (originally published in French) provides a foreword in which he these ideas explicitly in a numbered list (1-10). (Not a "forward" (!) as I see more and more often in discussions of books.)
That first idea, that all our desires are borrowed from other people--we want what others want, and learn those wants from models, beginning with our parents--seems so obviously wrong, so obviously at best a partial truth, that I keep thinking I misunderstand it. All these very intelligent, very knowledgeable people who esteem Girard so highly seem to understand and accept it; if I don't, it must be my error. Or at least there's a good chance that it's my error. Note that these are all people whom I have reason to respect intellectually; that is, it's not just their academic credentials that I respect, as those lost their association with good sense in my mind a long, long time ago.
Obviously this mimetic desire operates in some cases: we only want the blue ribbon in a contest because we want the prestige it symbolizes, and we absorb the whole idea of prestige, and attach value to it, by the influence and example of others. We learn manners and to a great extent virtues and vices from others, and rivalries involving them can easily arise. But surely there are many desires that are not mimetic, and Girard does not seem to limit his claim very much. The translator seems to say that Gerard asserts this for all desires except the instinctive, but he doesn't go into much detail. So perhaps the range of desires which he counts as instinctive is much greater than I think.
Take the desire of a child for ice cream, for instance. Most of us learn this desire the moment we taste the marvelous substance. No one has to tell us that it's something we should like. We don't have to observe our parents enjoying it in order to desire it for ourselves. I could multiply instances of this sort a great length, and so could you. Men don't desire beautiful women primarily because other men do, but because they are beautiful, and a man's immediate spontaneous reaction to the sight of them is to desire them. That desire begins with instinct, certainly, but goes well beyond it.
And "mimetic rivalry"? Yes, certainly, rivalry for a desired woman (to continue the last example) can certainly produce conflict, and envy and prestige play a part in increasing the conflict. But they aren't its root. I would think that in a great many cases, including both my examples, scarcity is at least as much a contributor to conflict as rivalry. Ice cream usually has to be shared, and every bite that my siblings eat is one that I don't get. Not all women are beautiful, and any one beautiful woman is desired by more than one man; they can't all have her. Or consider the desire for wealth: it is in part a means toward the satisfaction of desires that are thwarted more by scarcity than by rivalry as such.
So before I'd read a single word of Girard himself, I seemed to disagree with him. I'm going to stick with "seemed" there because I'm still allowing for the possibility that I'm misunderstanding. Like I said, the objections seem to me so obvious that they must not apply to what Girard actually means. Perhaps the examples of desire I've given are ones which he would count as instinctive, and therefore outside his sweeping assertion. If so, it would help if he made that clear. And perhaps he does in other books. (And if any Girardians read this and can straighten me out, please do so.)
Why, then, do I say that Neuhaus's prediction of the book's effect might be true for me? Why did I proceed from skepticism to excitement about the book? Because, having mentally registered my objection to at least part of Girard's premise, having placed some limits on its applicable scope, I found that it does shed a great deal of useful light on the relationship of Judeo-Christian religion to human culture. The "Judeo" part of that is not a formality, as Girard very explicitly includes both the Old and New testaments in his analysis. Let me see if I can briefly sum up this relationship:
Human culture, Girard believes, is produced by the efforts of a community to mitigate the effect of intra-group violence caused by mimetic rivalry. Conflict intensifies and if not somehow resolved and dissipated will destroy the community. The mechanism for doing this is the scapegoat: the community unites in blaming one person, kills him or her, and is restored, at least for a time. The cycle repeats itself. The release of collective violence against a single victim makes the continuation of a culture possible, i.e. prevents its self-destruction. Often the victim is, after the fact, accorded a god or god-like status by the (unconscious?) conviction of the community that the sacrifice of the victim is the direct cause of the restoration.
In order for this mechanism to work, the community has to believe, at the time of the killing, that the victim is in fact guilty and deserves to die. The victim must truly be, in the eyes of the group, responsible for the trouble which it is experiencing. This conviction is the work of Satan, who was also responsible for the trouble in the first place. By the victim/scapegoat mechanism, Satan casts out Satan. But the casting-out is temporary. It is based on a lie about the victim, and the violence of mimetic rivalry sooner or later returns.
What Judeo-Christian religion does--uniquely, according to Girard--is to unmask this cycle, to reveal the actual innocence of the victim, and thus to expose the Satanic power of the scapegoating mechanism. And to expose it is to end its power.
Girard elaborates all this in some detail, though perhaps still not enough, which may cause me to read more of his work. Is he really accurate, for instance, when he grounds all of non-Judeo-Christian mythology in the single-victim process? I'm not knowledgeable enough either to agree or disagree with this.
Through most of the book I tended to applaud Girard's passing observations more than his principal thesis. It is in the latter part that he really makes his mark on me. He winds up his story with an explication of the place of the victim in contemporary secular culture, and it was there that I most often found myself getting excited, saying Yes!, and marking passages. I just counted and I've placed thirteen book darts (what?) in this book. That's a good many for a relatively short book (193 pages). One of them marks the entirety of Chapter 13, "The Modern Concern for Victims." Here he makes the case that such a concern is almost unheard of in pre-Christian cultures (I think in fact he would remove the "almost.")
This is, as usual, going on a bit too long for a blog post. I'm skimming Chapter 13 in search of a quote that will serve as an example of Girard's insight. It's hard to isolate one bit, but I'll make do with this:
There is just one rubric that gathers together everything I am summarizing in no particular order and without concern for completeness: the concern for victims. This concern sometimes is so exaggerated and in a fashion so subject to caricature that it arouses laughter, but we should guard against seeing it as only one thing, as nothing but twaddle that's always ineffective. It is more than a hypocritical comedy. Through the ages it has created a society incomparable to all the others. It is unifying the world for the first time in history.
To some extent this is a variation on the oft-made point that our society is living on the moral capital of Christianity. Girard seems to be a little hopeful that universal concern for victims is a sign that Christianity is still very much alive and well. But he also wonders (I think) how this will play out when separated from its foundation. At any rate I wonder that. Right now I'd say that the signs are not encouraging, that the secularized community of concern for victims is now characterized by mimetic rivalry in victimhood, is tearing at itself, is therefore in search of a scapegoat, and is looking toward Christianity as a candidate for that role.
It's probably inaccurate to classify this book as theology. It's more a species of anthropology--religious anthropology, maybe. Whatever it is, it's worth reading. If the list of things I really, really want to read were not so long I think I'd immediately re-read it.
This afternoon I went Christmas shopping with my wife at the local Barnes and Noble store. I had not been in one of those for a long time, some years at least. Browsing the shelves there made me actively question the notion that reading is in itself a good thing. What a lot of drivel, some harmless and some not at all harmless, is on display there. You would be better occupied in staring at a tree then reading most of it.
It's almost the end of the year. Does anybody want to do 52 Things next year? I think we considered 52 Poems. I would be willing to do that. However: as I've said before in this context, if I say it's going to be 52 Things, I want it really to be 52. It will really bother me to miss a week. I know I can't count on other people delivering something every single week, so I have to be prepared to do it, and I'm finding that to be more of a distraction that I can really afford (my book is not going well at all). It shouldn't be, but I have trouble concentrating under the best conditions. So if we do something this year it will have to be something for which I can do a post without actually writing anything. Poems would work, as I could just copy-paste the poem into a post, or link to it, without necessarily writing any commentary beyond "Here's one I like."
If we should decide to do poems, I would have some specifications for how they're submitted to me. Nothing too complicated, but formatting poems for the web can be time-consuming, so I'd like to have them in a form where they can just be copied and pasted. Details if we decide to do it.
This picture was taken a few minutes before 11pm Friday night. I was on my way to Christ the King church in Daphne for my hour of Adoration. Yes, it was taken from the driver's seat of a car in motion. No, I should not have done it. But snow is so very, very rare here that I wanted to capture the image. It was really much thicker than this. I guess a lot of it just wasn't bright enough for the camera to catch.
I've been living in this general area since 1990, and I think this is only the third time that there's been enough snow to leave a visible accumulation, though only for a few hours. This is midnight at Christ the King.