“To become Christian is, fundamentally, to perceive that it isn’t just others who have scapegoats.”1 A characteristic insight from the work of René Girard, that. His thought can operate in the theoretical stratosphere. Grand theories of the Romantic novel, how homo sapiens evolved, archaic ritual, myths, the origins of language, modern laïcité. But then, as if struck by lightning, his speculation illumines the intensely interpersonal, dramatic, cultural, or political dynamics of human existence—bref, the extraordinarily mundane, and you’re electrified.
Mimetic theory’s the main current in Girard’s thought. Many now have heard tell of it, if only summarily. Desires don’t spring from your “true self” like spontaneous quantum particles. You get them from others by noticing and learning to desire what they desire. This sets the very act of desiring within a context of likely rivalry (picture two kids wanting one toy). A complex web of dynamics emerges. But to simplify: mimesis leads to rivalry, rivalry to societal-level crises of violence, crises to religious awareness (only the gods can save us), religion to rituals like sacrifice, and sacrifice requires a scapegoat supposedly demanded by the gods to restore order. Only or at least most clearly in the Christian gospel, Girard claims, do you see that God demands no victim, since there he is the innocent victim sacrificed. We require victims, not God.
No surprise that Girard’s found hearers and even adherers among Christian theologians. Kaplan’s book deepens and advances their engagement on at least three fronts. First he underscores and commends Girard’s own self-understanding as a Christian thinker. Girard didn’t always or consistently come across like that, so Kaplan’s branding him a sort of Christian “apologist” proves interesting in its own right. Second and most originally, Kaplan summons Girard for the task of fundamental theology. That task is Janus-faced; it looks ad intra and ad extra. It tries to render Christian doctrine more intelligible (even for believers) and more persuasive (to unbelievers). The fundamental theologian lives “on the edges of faith” (9). She works, as it were, at the crossroads of conversion. Girard too, Kaplan thinks, and there lies perhaps his truest promise for theology. So Kaplan proposes “a mimetic fundamental theology in a Pascalian key” (10)—the more intellectually persuasive, the more spiritually devastating. Last, Kaplan leads by example. Ad intra, he applies Girardian insights to theological topoi beyond the more familiar ones like soteriology (chapter 3 considers revelation, chapter 5 ecclesiology). Ad extra, he enlists Girard alongside David Bentley Hart in the confrontation with modern atheism, Nietzsche’s in particular (chapter 7).
Neil Ormerod initiates the symposium with a classically Lonerganian intervention. It even narrates Girard’s theoretical development according to various levels of insight. Ormerod’s guiding question is one Girardians know well: is human desire merely mimetic? Awe, wonder, the desire to know truth for truth’s sake (or meaning for meaning’s, beauty for beauty’s)—don’t these configure the structure of human reason as much or more than the capacity to imitate? Surely Girard’s insight proves a crucial one, Ormerod concedes. But does Girard get a part right only to mistake it for the whole? Questioning along these lines makes Ormerod wonder whether Girard’s account of human being (subjective and social) finally reduces to an overly Augustinian grace-sin dialectic. Ormerod wants to know where human nature and its transcendental orientation have gone in Girard.
Mark Heim worries at another potential reduction, the reduction of mimetic theory and the scapegoat mechanism to the Christian gospel. His worry leans in two directions. Equating Girard’s insights into sacrifice, say, with Christianity’s specific revelation seems to vitiate Girard’s significance for interreligious dialogue. Must all non-Christian “sacrifice” be scapegoating? This question splits toward the other direction. Doesn’t this reduction also risk painting Christianity—indeed any religion—in too monochrome a manner? Better to summon Girard, Heim suggests, to enrich and underscore the multidimensionality of particular religions and of “religion” as such—an especially precious desideratum the more you heed Girard’s apocalyptic vision of a world deprived of religion’s violence-reducing power.
Brian Robinette raises his question at Kaplan’s ground zero, at the level of Girard’s use for fundamental theology. Robinette agrees that Girard offers a particularly compelling response to Nietzsche, and so modern atheism in its most persuasive form. And yet he wonders if parts of Girard’s own project do not in fact exacerbate a different, more prevalent species of atheism today. Girard edges toward making Darwin’s “natural selection” and the ubiquitous violence it implies so necessary to hominization that a certain “protest atheism” seems more reasonable than ever. The protest comes to this: why so much and so grave of violence (for so long) on the way to God’s disclosure of peace? What to say about God’s providential presence—even if indulgently permissive—in and through the great slaughter bench of history? Does Girard unwittingly sever the creator God from the savior God? And doesn’t this make it more difficult to believe in God at all? Or has Girard yet untapped resources for the fundamental theologian facing this kind of unbelief?
Chelsea Jordan King rounds out these abiding questions with three of her own. First, can feminist theology critique Girard’s anti-Romantic animus? In his eagerness to evacuate the autonomous “self,” Girard appears to reassert that the root of all sin is pride, self-interest. And yet, as several feminist theologians have argued, forgetting yourself is about the last thing women have struggled to do. Second, and reprising some of Robinette’s concerns from a different vantage, King asks after the precise status of our “guilt” in relation to what seem to be the inevitable conditions of human evolution. Scapegoating depends fundamentally on my ignorance of the victim’s innocence. In what way am I to blame for its crimes? Last, King shares a bit of Heim’s worry too: if salvation from scapegoating comes through the church alone and its sacraments, what about those who have no part in these?
René Girard, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer, translated by Trevor Cribben Merrill (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014), 2.↩