Symposium Introduction

“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?

  1. René Girard, When These Things Begin: Conversations with Michel Treguer, translated by Trevor Cribben Merrill (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014), 2.



Ormerod Commentary on Kaplan

Let me begin by repeating my congratulations to Grant Kaplan for his achievement in this fine work. I was more than happy to provide an endorsement for the publishers when they approached me some time ago now. Girard is a significant thinker, seminal in many ways, and Kaplan has done the theological community a service in extending the dialogue within his thought into the area of fundamental theology. My own exposure to the thought of Girard was mediated by the writings of Sebastian Moore, who excitedly “discovered” Girard some time after his own theological explorations into soteriology, and through a brief work by Michael Winter on the atonement which made reference to the writings of Raymund Schwager.1 I have always found Girard’s account of mimesis and the scapegoating mechanism to be theologically provocative and fruitful for exploration in the area of soteriology and regularly use it to that end.

However, I have never fully bought into the Girardian worldview. I remember reading James Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong and feeling distinctly uncomfortable with the approach, which to my mind reflected a more Protestant anthropology than a Catholic one (I note Kaplan’s reference to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s critique of Girard along similar lines [p. 2]).2 The more I read into the issue the more I thought that while Girard’s work highlights an important insight into anthropology, it is not a complete anthropology and taken on its own it represents a truncation of the human subject. I expressed some of these concerns in a piece in Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies, which Kaplan cites, and in two other pieces not mentioned by him.3 This concern is more pressing as Kaplan seeks to move into the area of fundamental theology, where it is important to get all the fundamentals, not just some of them. The question I keep coming back to is the following: is all desire mimetic? My Lonerganian-based critique is that the answer is no, that the detached, disinterested, and unrestricted desire to know is not mimetic, but innate. The implications of this I now explore, first in relation to Girard’s own performance as an author and then into matters of anthropology and culture.

Girard’s Performative Desire to Know

While not extensive, Kaplan gives us bits of biographical material in relation to Girard’s own performance in the development of his account of mimesis. First, there is the extensive familiarity Girard developed in relation to literature, identifying a significant set of data to draw upon. Out of that familiarity there emerged a particular insight into the data, the role of mimetic desire in relationships. This was an interesting and important insight, but did it stand up to judgment? Girard expanded the range of data to take up materials from a broader base, materials from primal religions and cultures. He found further and further confirmation of his insight in the broader range of data. Having found this further empirical data to ground his judgment he then acted to publish his wide-ranging insight into mimesis, scapegoating and the origins of religion and culture. He took responsibility for making his insight grounded in judgment more widely known and understood. As further data emerged and dialogue ensued he made modifications that helped clarify the place of his original insight and broaden its application in a self-correcting spiral of learning.

The question here is whether Girard’s account of mimesis is sufficient to explain his own performance in relation to gathering data, having the insight, grounding the judgment and responsibly communicating his work. Those familiar with Lonergan will recognize there his transcendental precepts: be attentive; be intelligent; be reasonable; be responsible.4 Let me be more specific. The event which drives this process is the conscious event of insight and insight is not mimetic. My previous life as a teacher of mathematics would have been so much easier if insight were mimetic. No amount of me having an insight into calculus was enough for the same insight to occur in my students. I could dispose the data, draw on various examples, present the argument. But in the end the insight either happened or did not happen in my students. My desires for the students to understand may have been mimetically communicated, but not my insights.


This oversight in relation to the nature of insight has anthropological consequences. Kaplan and other Girardians seek to understand mimesis as somehow defining what it is to be human, that we are homo imitator (22, while noting with some irony the number of times Kaplan uses the word insight in the relevant paragraph). While they acknowledge that mimesis may be present in animals, human mimesis has a different quality. It “easily entangles humans in patterns of reciprocal escalation . . . human beings seem to possess a far less evolved breaking mechanism [to de-escalate] . . . men engaged in rivalry may go on fighting to the finish” (22–23). Humans have a “larger mimetic . . . brain” (24) and mimesis finds its biological evidence in the existence of mirror neurons.

Putting aside the seeming implication that somehow our situation is evolution gone wrong (“far less evolved”) and that the account is somewhat reductionist (my mirror neurons made me do it), it is interesting to compare the notion of homo imitator with the more traditional understanding of what makes us distinctively human: we are rational animals with an intellectual/spiritual soul not reducible to our material substratum (brain). This definition is not primarily an empirical statement, but teleological—we are rational in that we are meant to be . . . intelligent, reasonable, and responsible. From this perspective, the unlimited quality of mimesis does not appear as a retrograde step in evolution, but more the participation of our human psyche in the unlimited intentionality of the human spirit reaching out for meaning, truth and goodness (Lonergan refers to this in Insight as the principle of correspondence5). The emergence of the scapegoating mechanism is then more closely linked to the derailment of that reaching out by something less than (the whole) meaning, truth and goodness.

None of this is to deny the importance of Girard’s insight into the mimetic nature of (most of) our desires. Indeed, this mimetic quality becomes even more overpowering inasmuch as we fail to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible in negotiating them. Girard is right to say that many of our desires are not original or autonomous, but mimetically derived. Inasmuch as we fail to objectify that and deal with them responsibly, they will inevitably (with the inevitability of moral impotence) result in conflict and scapegoating; however, we can also recognize the fact and deal with it responsibly in whom we choose to imitate and why we choose to imitate them. This is precisely the situation whereby Christians choose to imitate Christ, to “put on the mind of Christ” as Paul says (1 Cor 2:16).

This issue is of particular importance when Kaplan seeks to discuss the relationship between faith and reason (ch. 2). Without a clear understanding of the nature of reason, which I don’t think Girard supplies, the discussion will fail to attend to key features to be addressed.

Girard and Culture

As Kaplan notes, Girard argues that the scapegoating mechanism marks the origins of religion and culture, which are somewhat to be identified, sort of religion-culture (109). In this way Girard renders the universal presence of primal religion more transparent, not as merely the product of primitive superstition, but as inherent in the notion of culture itself. My concern here is that Girard’s portrayal of the origins of culture present culture itself as intrinsically problematic; or as Milbank suggests, there is more than a hint here of the ontological priority of violence. Culture’s origins lie in a primitive originating murder, recast as a founding religious myth to mask its true nature. Culture/religion is then built on a lie. The gospel is then cast as the unmasking of this lie and the laying bear of the scapegoating mechanism and our complicity in it.

Again my concern is not with the plausibility of this construct to explain important features of primal religious culture. The question is whether it is a complete account. Is there a place in our story of culture’s origins for intelligence, reasonableness and responsibility? Is there a place for a non-mimetic wonder and awe in an awaking into consciousness of the universe of being in those first human beings? In a more down-to-earth way, is there a place for the practical intelligence that developed the axe heads and spears, the pottery and leatherwork, the nascent agriculture and the like, that allowed human populations to grow and flourish creating the leisure for an emerging mathematics and science to raise above the demands of common sense and strive for genuine explanatory knowing?

If I may draw on Eric Voegelin’s cultural typology, Girard is strong on cosmological culture in his account of primal religious culture; and equally cognizant of soteriological culture in the role he gives to the gospel; but what is missing is any recognition of the role of anthropological culture (always keeping in mind that these are types, not cultures per se).6 While Girard acknowledges the importance of Karl Jasper’s notion of an axial period (115), it seems to me that he does not attend to the two different responses that emerge at this time to cosmologically dominated cultures: one anthropological as exemplified in the person of Socrates; the other soteriological as initially revealed in the Old Testament culminating in the person of Jesus. These represent two different responses to the mimetic crisis. The first seeks an intelligent, reasonable and responsible resolution to the crisis; the second is to recognize the innocence of the victims of history. These possibilities suggest three ways of resolution: the way of sacrificial violence (the scapegoating mechanism); the way of self-transcendence (anthropological); and the way of self-sacrificing love (soteriological).7 One advantage here is that it allows us to understand the scapegoating mechanism as parasitic on a more fundamental good; it is a privation of the good and hence not in itself foundational to culture. While it may share in the omnipresence of sin, still sin is not fundamental to what it is to be human.


It seems to me what we have playing out here in the realm of cultural anthropology is the very traditional theological schema of grace, nature and sin. Girard’s approach, it seems to me, is a transposition into the cultural realm of a very Augustinian grace-sin dialectic, and carries with it all the problems associated with that dialectic: e.g., rather than the total corruption of the sinner we now have the totally corrupt origins of human culture. Into this dark picture the recognition of a human nature teleologically oriented to meaning, truth and goodness offers a shard of light, something that may be diminished by sin but never extinguished. Indeed I might go so far as to suggest that without the recognition of this “natural” element, Girard’s cultural grace-sin dialectic runs the risk of perpetuating a further system of “us graced—them sinners” and consequent mimetic doubling and the very scapegoating that he was seeking to avoid.


  1. Michael M. Winter, The Atonement (Collegeville: Liturgical, 1995).

  2. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998).

  3. Neil Ormerod, “Doran’s the Trinity in History: The Girardian Connection,” Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies 4.1 (2013) 47–60; “Desire and the Origins of Culture: Lonergan and Girard in Conversation,” Heythrop Journal 54 (2013) 784–95; “Is All Desire Mimetic? Lonergan and Girard on the Nature of Desire and Authenticity,” in Violence, Desire, and the Sacred: Girard’s Mimetic Theory across the Disciplines, ed. Scott Cowdell et al. (New York: Continuum, 2012).

  4. Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1972), 20.

  5. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, ed. Crowe Frederick E. and Robert M. Doran, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 477.

  6. Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952). The typology is given a dialectic structure and more fully exploited in Robert M. Doran, Theology and the Dialectics of History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990).

  7. I spell all this out in more detail and considerably more nuance in Ormerod, “Desire and Cultural Origins.”

  • Grant Kaplan

    Grant Kaplan


    Response to Neil Ormerod

    I am thankful for the careful and generous reading of my book by Neil Ormerod. I first encountered Ormerod at a Lonergan Workshop in 2007, where I had prepared a paper on a topic on Lonergan and revelation. It was only shortly before the conference that I discovered: (1) Ormerod’s book on the topic; (2) that Ormerod would also be at the conference, listening to my paper. I was a bit out of my depth on the topic, but Ormerod handled it gently. Since my initial encounter with Ormerod eleven years ago, I keep finding that he gets to the places I want to go before I get there, whether it is the hermeneutics of the Second Vatican Council, the relationship between faith and reason, or the impact of mimetic theory on fundamental and systematic theology. Like Ormerod, I came to Girard through Sebastian Moore, whose posthumous book, The Contagion of Jesus, makes his debt to Girard more explicit than his earlier work.

    When somebody reads your book so carefully and well, it seems presumptuous to complain that they should have also read something else that you wrote. Especially today, when theologians are too busy writing their own theology to bother to read the work of their peers. But I am going to complain anyway. The unread article in question not only answered the main objection raised by Ormerod, but also appeared in the same issue of his own article on Lonergan and Girard, under the title: “New Paths for a Girard/Lonergan Conversation.”1 In the subsection dealing with previous engagements with Girard by Lonergan scholars, it covered the work of Charles Hefling, Frederick Lawrence, and Ormerod. It also noted Ormerod’s “sustained and tenacious engagement with Girard,” and cited his two previous articles mentioned by Ormerod in this symposium.

    Ormerod’s fundamental critique from both 2004 and 2013 prefigured the critique here: that Girard denaturalizes desire, naturalizes sin and ontologizes violence.2 A view of human nature too attached to the human being as homo imitator does not allow for the process of insight and discovery expressed so well by Bernard Lonergan. Ormerod deftly connects the Girardian claim that all desire is mimetic—calling into question the pure and unrestricted desire to know, with the scapegoat mechanism, through which Girard tries to offer a comprehensive account of human beginnings. As he notes in his conclusion: “Rather than the total corruption of the sinner we now have the totally corrupt origins of human culture.” Such an anthropology “runs the risk of perpetuating a further system of ‘us graced—them sinners’ that doubles down on scapegoating.” In my response, I would like first to address the claim that mimetic desire extinguishes the natural desire to know, before responding to Ormerod’s critique of the scapegoat mechanism.

    Girard’s frequent, sweeping statements about desire give the impression of a totalizing account of desire. In the interviews that constitute When These Things Begin, Girard qualifies the comprehensiveness of mimetic desire by explaining that the love of parents for their child lies outside of the range of mimetic desire.3 Although this comment rests at the periphery of Girard’s corpus, it is a key corrective. For if the love of a parent for a child can be natural and spontaneous, so can the love of an engineer for a dam, a poet for a verse, and even a woman for a man. There exists a natural human capacity for these kinds of loves and desires, and when pushed, Girard admitted this. Further, these desires are not simply appetitive or instinctual.

    Beginning with his first book, a literary endeavor that launched his career, Girard had Romanticism in his crosshairs. As I mention in the book, the proper translation of his first work is: Romantic Deceit and Novelistic Truth, a wordplay in which the stem for romantic (romantique) and novelistic (romanesque) are separated by a single letter. Girard sought in this work to rebuke the myth of the autonomous Romantic hero, unaffected by the influence of others, or the crowd. With this audience and opponent in mind, one can understand and appreciate the force of Girard’s argument.

    Yet I do not think this qualification will satisfy Ormerod, so let me take on his examples. First, he cites the case of learning mathematics. Second, the kind of practical intelligence needed to make “axe heads and spears,” as well as “pottery and leatherwork.” Girard’s mimetic account of human knowing has nothing to say about how we come to understand calculus. Lonergan’s does. Girard does offer an insight (there’s that word again) about why we might care about mathematics. It is not the pure and unrestricted desire to know, but instead a cultural force that is anterior to our being. This force, rather than nature, explains why so many professions have extreme gender and racial disparities. To Ormerod’s second example, the why question becomes even more central. A number of archeological studies that make their way to mainstream media point out that the earliest humans were both more violent and more religious than the previous century’s ethnologists, archeologists, and anthropologists cared to admit. To take a crude example, the Aztecs had to know something about the human body to rip out a beating heart, and they had to know something about construction to make such marvelous pyramids, pointing toward the sun. For Girard, the scapegoat mechanism antecedes any cultural institution, including agriculture. Yes, practical intelligence was necessary to human cultural advancement, and Lonergan offers an explanation beyond the reach of mimetic theory. Culture develops through both the unconscious scapegoating and collective desires that Girard explains, as well as through the transcendental precepts of Lonergan.

    I do not think it a coincidence that, of all major factions in Catholic theology, scholars of Lonergan have been the most willing to engage Girard, and the most equitable in doing so (although it must be granted that the Radically Orthodox and the Balthasarians treated him first, and in ways that continue to shape the discourse). To a general audience, I have tried to preach a both/and. But to Ormerod I hope to have answered, at least in outline, some of the abiding questions that need to be addressed for Girard to continue to be a dialogue partner for Catholic theology.

    1. “New Paths for a Girard/Lonergan Conversation: An Essay in Light of Robert Doran’s The Trinity in History,” in Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies 4.1 (2013) 23–38.

    2. My judgment at the time, namely that Doran’s book represented the most sustained and constructive engagement by a scholar of Lonergan with the work of Girard, must now be revised, given the magnificent new book by my colleague Randy Rosenberg, The Givenness of Desire: Human Subjectivity and the Natural Desire to Know God (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

    3. Girard, When These Things Begin, trans. Trevor Merril (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2014), 12.

    • S. Mark Heim

      S. Mark Heim


      Response to Neil Ormerod

      As a Protestant theologian (a graduate of the joint Boston College-Andover Newton Theological School doctoral program where I learned to appreciate Lonergan), I worry less about assimilating Girard to specifically Catholic theology and more about extending Kaplan’s “both and” into this ecumenical realm. Ormerod’s concerns are in some ways a mirror image of George Hunsinger’s criticism that Girard provides a Pelagian answer to what is fundamentally an Augustinian problem. Ormerod feels Girard skews too much to a stereotypically Protestant view of the situation—where sin is naturalized and the intrinsic status of grace slighted, while Hunsinger feels Girard skews too much toward a stereotypically Catholic view of the situation—where the solution is an insight (!) and once humans possess this understanding they need no further transformation to set things right. Both put their fingers on concerns many sympathetic interpreters of Girard express regarding the apparent global claims made for mimetic theory. Is all desire a product of mimesis? Are not some drives natural and intrinsic or endowments of a divine created image? If human mimesis is a full account for what has carried us into a ditch, can the human understanding and reform of mimesis be the sufficient tool to save us, with God at most as tutor and prompter?
      I believe both views overshoot what needs to be the case with Girard’s thought, however apt they may be for some formulations of it. The overwhelming centrality of negative mimesis in Girard’s interpretive work is structurally misleading because mimetic theory presupposes positive mimesis as its ground. Distinct from its explicitly sacrificial character, archaic religion—in the cultural stabilization and transmission that takes place through ritual, taboo, and myth—channels the emergent, positive qualities of mind-to-mind contagion and fends off its dangers. The emergence of cultural rather than purely genetic transformation is the hominizing breakthrough of positive mimesis. Such positive mimesis, the kind expressed in the gaze between mother and infant or in the contagion of curiosity shared from teacher to student, or in the spread in the axial age of the emulation of thinking about thinking, is the fundamental good on which scapegoating is a parasitic adaptation. Kaplan says that for Girard the scapegoat mechanism antedates any cultural institution (my emphasis). But institutions require many generations. The mechanism does not antedate humans living in community or humans sharing positive mimetic modes of interaction. That is the only setting in which the mechanism can have any effect. Scapegoating cannot create culture, it can only play an ancillary role once that culture is incipient, once a kind of intersubjective “big bang” is underway. Girard’s point is that a sacrificial religious adaptation allows the positive mimetic cultural process to continue in history, without being continually dissipated in escalating violence. Positive mimesis is ontologically basic and chronologically prior to the ritualized violence whose only evolutionary value is its role in preserving historical space for the culture that mimesis makes possible. Human culture was born (perhaps many times) innocent; it was preserved in sin. Whether it could have survived any other way, this is how it was actually preserved. It seems to me that such a perspective on the emergence of sin and the “fall” makes neither one any more basic or logically necessary than is the case in the theological accounts against which it is judged.
      Girard certainly thinks we have desires not created by mimesis—biological drives for food, shelter, and sex that are shared with much less mimetic creatures. And, I would suggest, we have desires or orientations not created by human-enclosed mimesis. What it means to be made in the image of God is (in this connection) a) to be (like the trinitarian God) of a nature to be constituted by relation (there is no isolated, human “essence”) and b) to have God as our true model (not that we are to be God or to enter into rivalry with God, but that God’s desires are the key designations of what is good for us to desire). So, to take Ormerod’s example, an unrestricted desire to know is proper to us, according to our nature in (a) and (b, prompted by the prior existence of that unrestricted desire and its fulfilment in God. Just as there are biological “desires” that arise “below” human mimetic interaction, there are transcendental orientations natural to our true and full being that arise “above” it, in the respect that they make sense only by reference to the divine model/image. Once we grant that “divinely endowed” is not logically contrary to “historically emergent,” mimetic theory need not be put in competition with notions of “innate” human characteristics.

S. Mark Heim


Heim Response to Grant Kaplan

Chapter 4 in René Girard, Unlikely Apologist, takes up mimetic theory in the realm of religious pluralism. I am deeply appreciative of this analysis, as the extension of Girard’s thought into this arena is only at its beginning stages.1 The challenge for this chapter is that in the area of religious pluralism Girard has appeared as anything but an ironic apologist. He has often spoken straightforwardly on the superiority of biblical insights over all others regarding the anthropological realities of sacrificial crises and scapegoating. Girard consistently contends that the uniqueness of this insight is an empirical observation, even as he sometimes suggests that its appearance requires something approximating divine revelation or grace. This commendation of Jewish and Christian truth, however, runs up against the contemporary trend in Christian theology (and Roman Catholic theology in particular) toward greater appreciation for other religions and for comparative learning from those traditions. Thus, a classic apologetic for Christian superiority to other religions runs counter to a more recent apologetic that commends Christianity precisely for its openness and capacity to appreciate the validity in many religions.

Kaplan responds by softening the first claim. He points out the later Girard acknowledges that one can find recognition of the mimetic character of humanity as well as opposition to sacrifice within other axial religions. And he relocates the comparative discussion by characterizing Christianity not so much as a religion among religions—he joins with those who question the coherence or the provenance of the category—but as a critique of religion, in a semi-Barthian sense. I take it that Kaplan believes this latter perspective takes some of the sting out of any supposed Christian exclusivism by stressing that all historical communities and cultures are subject to this critique, Christian ones alongside others. This fits with Girard’s criticism of “sacrificial Christianity,” which he recognizes as identical with much historical Christianity.

This would fit with Kaplan’s larger emphasis that the encounter of religions, like Christianity’s own engagement with the enlightenment and modernity, needs to be placed within the wider framework of the break between the archaic and the secular. The fullest scope of Girard’s Christian apologia rests in his case for this framework. The greater the interpretive fruitfulness of this framework, the more important mimetic theory for theology, and the more cogent Christianity’s evangelical claim, since that claim is hard to understand in the modern setting apart from that framework.

However, I am unclear how far Kaplan thinks that the critique of religion found within the biblical tradition and expressed by Girard in its terms is in truth an apologetic argument in favor of Christianity in preference to other religions. Sandor Goodhart expressed the conviction that “one can be a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist and still be a Girardian.”2 Indeed, Girard seems to believe that though the anthropological views of the gospels would never have had any cultural effect without being made available, so to speak, by their promulgation through history by believers, they demonstrably exercise their cultural influence far beyond the community that carries them. In this sense, they are a truth about human nature that is perhaps contributed by biblical tradition, but that can be separated from it and has no need to be continually integrated in that tradition for its effectiveness.3 The objectivity of this effect is a strong recommendation for the significance of the biblical sources, but that same objectivity would undermine that recommendation insofar as one needs neither faith nor belonging to access this truth.

I would like to emphasize a respect in which Girard is in fact a “common cause” apologist for the religions in our contemporary setting. That is, prior to any distinctive claims for the biblical tradition, his work is a significant intervention in the debate regarding religion itself, as it has been stimulated by the “new atheism.” This has to do with Girard’s positive appreciation for archaic religion. Contemporary debate has been driven by two questions, one empirical and one constructive. First, did religion have a positive, adaptive role in human evolutionary history or was it an excrescence, mere “static” in cognitive or social systems of which it was only an inadvertent by-product? Second, independent of the answer to the first question (but perhaps related to it), does religion have any necessary or useful place in the mature and healthy life of humans going forward? To these questions, Girard’s theory gives emphatic, affirmative answers, answers not based on an appeal to revelation or any particular religious tradition. Archaic religion, in restraining the dynamic of mimetic violence, made culture, and perhaps even the transition to the human, possible.

From the point of view of mimetic theory, the debate over whether religion was of any adaptive use to humans is mis-calibrated; the sacred is the adaptation that constituted humanity as the social reality it is and allowed it to have a continuing evolutionary history. Archaic religion was not failed science whose superstitious fallacies humans were inexplicably slow to see through. It was a powerful guard against runaway vendetta and an endlessly verified remedy for real social problems. Not only this, but unlike certain superseded tasks once allocated to the gods (like invoking rainfall or appeasing angry spirits), the central problem that archaic religion solved—restraining escalating conflict and resolving sacrificial crises—remains actual and relevant today. It is not clear that our contemporary solutions can do without their religious elements or that, where the pattern of archaic religion totally dissolves, any alternative solution is fully viable. The latter possibility is Girard’s vision of the apocalyptic. A world bereft of archaic religion, and unable to find a new basis for community that can function alongside the demythologization of the archaic (i.e., in the secular), falls into a mimetic vortex of violence with no means of interruption. The crises that threatened to preclude human social life at the origin return unchecked to bring it to an imploding end.

Whatever else one may want to say of this vision, it makes a powerful case for the past and present relevance of the religious traditions. The axial age religions all represent strategies for living in the post-archaic world, whether or not they diagnose that world in the same way. And mimetic theory encourages a sympathetic attention to them in this light. Girard exemplifies this in the comments Kaplan highlights, where Girard seeks out the ways that these traditions address mimetic conflict and its dangers, so to foster peace.

But mimetic theory itself suggests another dimension to the relation among religions. Concerns about exclusivity and superiority reflect the rivalry concerns that lie so close to the surface in interfaith dialogue and study. Practitioners must bring to interreligious learning whatever resources their own religious or cultural setting provides to combat the tribal gravity that elicits competition rather than appreciation, the solidarity of communal exclusion rather than the exploration of “intervidual” enrichment. Girard suggests that mimetic rivalry is most intense when people or groups compete for the same objects. Those objects become desirable by their designation by other’s desire for them, and the intensity of the competition is magnified by the awareness of that parallel pursuit. Thus, somewhat counterintuitively, differentiation is a path to peace. The more that religions see themselves as mirror images of each other, and their ends as identical, the more “zero sum” must be the competition between them as the vehicles for that purpose. Differences among religions can in this sense be reconciling, and desires that are at least in part orthogonal are less prone to rivalry.

Thus, it is important to note that the supreme aim and purpose of the Christ event and of Christian faith is not the recognition of mimetic rivalry and the overcoming of scapegoating sacrifice. Girard’s anthropological content of the gospels is not their only or most important content, crucially significant though it may be. The ultimate aim is communion in love among creatures and between creatures and God, the shared life of salvation. The anthropological content Girard identifies is one facet of this. Likewise, overcoming scapegoating sacrifice is not the sole aim and end of Buddhist wisdom and practice. These seek the overcoming of mental defilements, liberation from suffering and the realization of enlightenment/emptiness. This project too has many facets, which include those that bear on mimetic violence.

From this perspective, even Girard’s more unqualified claims about biblical insight need not equate to the superiority of Christianity as a religion or a community, any more than, say, the claim that distinctive benefits accrue to certain kinds of Buddhist meditative practice equates to the superiority of Buddhism as a religion or community. Interreligious dialogue and learning may encompass a variety of such particularities, in which individual traditions stand out in relation to others. Such elements are woven together in each religion, referring any question of global superiority or adequacy to a complex combination of description and valuation.

This multidimensionality needs to be brought into play especially in regard to the discussion of sacrifice in a pluralistic religious context. Richard Schenk has suggested that Girard’s eventual acceptance of a positive meaning for sacrifice within Christian tradition might correlate with an increased openness among Girardians to positive non-scapegoating meanings of sacrifice within other religions.4 This would be a very helpful development for mimetic theory in the pluralistic context. While the empirical significance of the scapegoating dynamic has found widespread support, Girard’s tendency to explain all sacrificial phenomena and references in light of the “founding murder” has convinced few anthropologists or scholars of other religious traditions (and not many more scholars of the biblical texts themselves). The recognition that not all phenomena or references grouped under the heading of sacrifice operate on the same axes of meaning would encourage appreciation for distinctive features of other traditions, and in no way undermine the significance of the biblical contribution.

Kaplan seems to advocate moving the interreligious discussion onto the plane of cultures rather than “religions.” I believe there is an important place for the comparative study of the traditionally religious elements that bring out the varied axes of meaning they involve. In this way we preserve the multidimensionality within which we are free to recognize specific strengths in each tradition, without falling into the destructive rivalry mimetic theory goes so far to illuminate for us.


Selected Bibliography

Daly, Robert J. “Girard and World Religions: The State of the Question.” In Mimetic Theory and World Religions: Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, edited by Wolfgang Palaver, 181-194. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017.

Goodhart, Sandor. “Literature, Myth and Prophecy: Encountering René Girard.” In For René Girard: Essays in Friendship and in Truth Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, edited by René Girard and Sandor Goodhart, 87-100. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2009.

Hunsinger, George. Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Kirwan, Michael. “René Girard and World Religions.” In Mimetic Theory and World Religions: Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, edited by Wolfgang Palaver, 195-214. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017.

Schenk, Richard. “The Ambivalence of Interreligious Historiography: Foreign and Domestic Narratives.” In Mimetic Theory and World Religions Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, edited by Wolfgang Palaver, 215-28. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017.

  1. In this regard see Robert J. Daly, “Girard and World Religions: The State of the Question,” in Mimetic Theory and World Religions: Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, ed. Wolfgang Palaver (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017); Michael Kirwan, “René Girard and World Religons,” in Mimetic Theory and World Religions: Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, ed. Wolfgang Palaver (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017).

  2. Sandor Goodhart, “Literature, Myth and Prophecy: Encountering René Girard,” in For René Girard: Essays in Friendship and in Truth Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, ed. René Girard and Sandor Goodhart (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2009), 94.

  3. Some Christian theologians object precisely on these grounds to identifying mimetic theory with the gospel, on the ground that such an identification makes the gospel simply the vehicle for a certain insight that can be separated from it. So, for instance, George Hunsinger sees Girard as offering an “essentially ‘Pelagian’ solution to an essentially ‘Augustinian’ problem.” See George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 28.

  4. Richard Schenk, “The Ambivalence of Interreligious Historiography: Foreign and Domestic Narratives,” in Mimetic Theory and World Religions Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, ed. Wolfgang Palaver (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017).

  • Grant Kaplan

    Grant Kaplan


    Response to Mark Heim

    I am grateful for the response of Mark Heim. When I read Saved from Sacrifice nearly a decade ago, I had a model for what a theological appropriation of mimetic theory should look like. Although René Girard, Unlikely Apologist did not sufficiently reflect Heim’s influence on my development, it has been significant. I have taught Heim’s book in multiple graduate seminars, to great benefit.

    Heim focuses on the consequences of mimetic theory for comparative theology and inter-religious dialogue. If I read him correctly, we fundamentally agree that Girard’s anti-liberal approach to religion opens up more possibilities than first appears, and that mimetic theory need not be a dead end for interreligious dialogue, despite what some have said. Heim cites from several essays in an important book, Mimetic Theory and World Religions, which appeared subsequent to my own book, and thus whose insights could not be incorporated into its fourth chapter.

    In quoting Sandor Goodhart, who has made similar statements in countless COV&R meetings, Heim floats the suggestion that mimetic theory need not be solely for Christians. In his footnote Heim cites George Hunsinger’s reservation about identifying mimetic theory too closely with the gospel. Here a distinction must be made. By “Girardian” one can mean acceptance of mimetic desire, and of the scapegoat mechanism. In this sense, one need not be a Christian. But if one means by “Girardian” the truth revealed by Christ and hidden since the foundation of the world (Matt 13:35), then it seems impossible for a Girardian not to be a Christian. Even when acknowledging non-biblical insight into mimetic desire and scapegoating found in the great religious traditions, Girard himself insisted that no other tradition outside the Bible makes these insights as explicit. Biblical revelation constitutes the famous “third step” in mimetic theory, and if one assenting to this third step becomes required to call oneself a Girardian, it seems to follow that a Girardian would need to be Judeo-Christian.

    One does not need to swallow the whole package to learn from Girard, or even to count Girard as one’s most formative intellectual encounter. Many Christian theologians count themselves as Girardian while not accepting Girard’s thesis on the unity of all rites; I myself do not think Girard offers anywhere near a sufficient account of eros. As Cynthia Haven’s delightful biography demonstrates, Girard had many admirers, especially in literary circles, who did not share his enthusiasm for Christianity.

    As I hoped to have shown in the book, although Girard was no theologian sensu stricto, he certainly was a Christian apologist. The goal of his work was to persuade people to reconsider the gospel as the deepest revelation of the human condition. Girard did not seek followers, but he did seek to change people’s minds about more than just literature and the proper reading of ancient myths and rites.

    In my only conversation with Girard, I asked him whether he had been accused of Gnosticism. He of course affirmed the accusation, and added that he had been accused of almost everything. It is possible to read mimetic theory as a gnosis, and presume it to be a kind of “saving knowledge” needed to escape from an eternally, essentially fallen world. In this version, mimetic theory functions merely as a social theory, and therefore reduces the gospel’s message. I would suggest that this problem is not unique to Girardians; intellectuals need to be on guard against any intellectualist reduction of Christianity. Mimetic theory is ultimately personal. Girard wrote, “To become Christian is, fundamentally, to perceive that it isn’t just others who have scapegoats” (When These Things Begin, 2). Put otherwise, mimetic theory goes some length in revealing the mechanism to explain the gap between knowing the good and doing the good. Like David, we sometimes need a Nathan to distract us long enough from our own-self righteousness so that we can recognize ourselves as scapegoaters: “You are the man” (2 Sam 12:7). Once we recognize the ease with which we backslide into envy, rivalry and scapegoating, we understand the need for continued grace. I tried to outline the need for this grace in chapter 5. As Augustinian, Girard’s theory seems as anti-Pelagian as could be, with the qualifier that Pelagianism is the arch-sin for Catholics.

    These points only gesture toward what I took to be hints of disagreement. I agree with Heim on the imperative of interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, and confirm his concerns about the capacity of prideful escalation to impede such dialogue, and concur that mimetic theory, while not offering the most linear path to interreligious dialogue, still offers a surprisingly promising path.

Brian Robinette


Robinette Response to Grant Kaplan


In the epilogue to his René Girard, Unlikely Apologist, Grant Kaplan writes: “I have found, almost without exception, that Girard’s most problematic statements often find correction in his later work. It is not the case that critics have simply misinterpreted him, but that they have failed to read him widely enough” (203). As a longtime (and hopefully wide-enough) reader of Girard’s work, I am quite sure Girard would have expressed deep gratitude for this book—not only for its spirited defense against Girard’s learned critics but for the genuine contribution it makes to his overall project. I dare say that Girard would have understood his own work better, both its argumentative coherence and overall theological shape, having read Kaplan’s monograph. Of course, Girard often acknowledged a debt of gratitude to others for contributing to his self-understanding, which continued to evolve over six decades, and in this way he modeled a rare form of intellectual humility even as he vigorously defended his basic intuitions.

Kaplan acknowledges that René Girard, Unlikely Apologist is not the first book to offer a comprehensive account of Girard’s oeuvre, though he is quite right when he adds that it is the first of its kind to bring that body of work into sustained dialogue with fundamental theology. The results are truly exceptional, and the seasoned reader of Girard’s work soon discovers that Kaplan is working out a serious contribution to fundamental theology of his own. That is, although Girard’s work remains his central focus, Kaplan thinks with, through, and not infrequently beyond Girard’s typical range of explicit interests in order to produce an original piece of theological inquiry. Given all that Kaplan has managed in this volume, it may seem greedy to ask from him yet another point of clarification concerning Girard’s work, particularly a few of those “problematic statements” that trouble me the most. But such is the spirit of this review symposium—and besides, a deeply sympathetic reader of Girard, such as I consider myself to be, genuinely wishes to know whether I have failed to read him widely enough, or whether there are untapped resources in (or beyond) Girard to think through one of Christian theology’s most pressing issues today.


My question, which I will articulate shortly, springs most proximately from the final chapter, “Mimetic Theory and Atheism.” Following a discussion of Girard’s insights into secular Modernity in the previous chapter—one that puts Girard and Charles Taylor into dialogue—the concluding chapter aims to “show how mimetic theory allows Christian theology to rethink what the absence of God might mean” (178). Kaplan weaves together several conversational threads, including the contributions of Michael J. Buckley, David Bentley Hart, and Friedrich Nietzsche, in order to outline the dialectical relationship between Christianity and modern atheism. “Western atheism necessarily assumes a particularly Christian form of atheism; Christian theology produced the soil from which modern atheism sprouted” (184). Such a statement can be rendered benignly, as if to say merely that Western atheism bears some vestigially Christian shape insofar as it arises out of, and in reaction to, a historically Christian milieu. No atheism arises out of a vacuum, one might add, and so it stands to reason that whatever environment out of which atheism arises will inevitably be influenced by, while also distinguishing itself from, its religiously-laden elements. No controversy here.

But the matter is immediately complicated once we suspect that the seeds of atheism lie within Christianity itself. If Buckley’s monumental work on the origins of modern atheism convincingly shows that apologetic efforts undertaken by theologians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ultimately undermined the intellectual supports for faith in a self-communicating, personal God—this because such efforts so thoroughly accommodated themselves to the prevailing sciences of the day that construed the world in mechanical, impersonal terms—Girard’s genealogy of atheism goes much deeper than Buckley’s, to the heart of Christianity itself. Girard’s main contribution is not that atheism is the proper destiny of Christianity—such is the view we find among “death of God” theologians and certain variants of “weak theology”—but that Christianity so thoroughly weakens the violent sacred of archaic religion that the God of Jesus Christ can seem virtually nonexistent by comparison. Just as the Gospels completely unveil the scapegoat mechanism for what it is, so do they set in motion a historical process that drains exclusionary violence of its mystery and power. The Gospels puncture the false canopy of archaic religion and reveal the truly transcendent God of Jesus Christ. Compared to the false transcendence of the sacred, Christianity can seem quite atheistic, and indeed was regarded as such in its early history for this reason. As Kaplan observes, “Girard finds the difference between the God revealed in the Bible and the gods of archaic religion so extreme that he even shows a willingness to jettison the word ‘God’ when discussing the former God” (186).

I will return to this point in a moment, but we should note that this recognition makes for a far more interesting dialogue with atheism than is usually supposed today, especially among the so-called “New Atheists” who do not seem to have the requisite historical self-understanding for it. This is why Kaplan pivots in his chapter to engage an atheist’s atheist, Friedrich Nietzsche. At the very least, such a serious interlocutor will clarify what is truly at stake in modern atheism, and why, if it wishes to be a genuine alternative to theism, it will need to be clearheaded about what it is embracing. As Nietzsche observed, more penetratingly than anyone before him, and most since, the declaration “God is dead” is not merely the passing recognition that belief in a transcendent God is no longer tenable. It is not primarily an intellectual assessment. It is, rather, the recognition that the values many of us regard as stable and self-evident, including those deemed “humanistic” and “scientific,” can no longer be regarded as such; that what we blithely take as indubitable “facts” is really a dense clustering of “interpretations”; that all our certainties, including our deepest moral convictions, turn out to be historical (and endlessly revisable) accretions; that even if God is no longer believable, intellectually speaking, the entire edifice of values around which such a belief gained support is beginning to crack and must eventually come crashing down.

Perhaps it is intellectually fashionable to proclaim atheism these days, but as Nietzsche noted especially of those French “freethinkers” who espoused the humanistic values of pity and altruism while ridiculing Christianity, there is a deep hypocrisy in not acknowledging just where those values originated. Kaplan puts it this way: “Modern atheism takes for granted the innocence of the scapegoat and the emptiness of sacred violence. Yet these truths, according to mimetic theory, are the product of the Christian story” (185). In other words, the Gospels themselves shaped the very lenses through which “today’s anti-religion” looks accusingly at Christianity. Nietzsche well understood the massive irony in this. Though God may be denied as intellectually retrograde, God survives vestigially in many of the deepest convictions underwriting so-called secular humanism. If one truly wishes to be an atheist, avers Nietzsche, one must ferret out these vestigial forms and deliberately embrace the pagan values that the Judeo-Christian tradition undermined. For Nietzsche, this means revalorizing the “will to power,” which for those acquainted with Girard is code for the violent sacred. Kaplan sums up the modern atheist’s dilemma quite well:

Atheism has never been a term, like geocentric or cell phone, that has a stable meaning. Atheism in the twenty-first-century West means a rejection of the monotheistic God, whose acceptance has marked, with the appropriate qualifications, Christian culture. Yet if Girard has correctly identified the breakthrough of Western monotheism with the ethical stance toward victims, then today’s atheism faces a dilemma: it can dishonestly or naïvely suppose that the rejection of this God has no impact in our stance toward victims, or it can face this truth, as Nietzsche did, and choose Dionysius over the Crucified. (199)

If Kaplan’s goal in this chapter is to think through what the absence of God might mean in light of mimetic theory, I think he is quite successful on at least two accounts. First, because the seeming “absence” of God in the modern world can be interpreted as the diminishment of what human beings have historically taken “God” or “the gods” to be—the violent sacred. The God revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by comparison with the God (or gods) of false transcendence, can seem like no transcendence at all. Paradoxically, the radically transcendent God, who has nothing to do with our violence, is the most intimately near to us, the most immanent, precisely as the nonviolent, self-communicating Spirit of the crucified-and-risen One. Apparent absence bespeaks of an ever new, creative, and utterly ineffable presence in our midst.

Second, if we attempt to interpret the absence of God in an atheistic sense—in a way that is quite deliberate in choosing its alternative—it is virtually bound, if Nietzsche serves as any indication, to revalorize the false transcendence of the sacred in some form. Though acutely attuned to historical ironies, this is one irony that Nietzsche seems not to have noticed. In opting for the “will to power” as an atheistic alternative to Christianity, he was affirming, willy-nilly, the very sacred canopy out of which countless gods have sprung. Atheistic denial, it seems, can scarcely avoid becoming another, covert form of religion.


But now my promised question for Kaplan.

Returning to one point made above, namely, that the gulf between the God of biblical revelation and the gods of archaic religion is so extreme that Girard hesitates even to use the word “God” for the latter, I wonder whether this poses a major problem for fundamental theology in a Girardian key. I am thinking here of the intelligibility of divine revelation, but more specifically of the intelligibility of divine providence. It is a question that arises regularly from those who say they do not believe in God, even if they might wish to. It is a question of “protest atheism,” which Kaplan does not explicitly address in this chapter, or elsewhere in the book, so far as I can tell.

We might put the matter this way: How could the violent sacred ever gain such traction in human history in the first place? Why, if the gulf is so vast between the God of biblical revelation and the gods of archaic religion, could it ever have been permissible, even as a part of divine pedagogy, to allow the scapegoat mechanism to become so entrenched, not only for vast stretches of human history, but in the process of hominization itself? Does this not open up an insuperable chasm between God the redeemer and God the creator? How can the two be coherently related?

I ask this mindful of several perplexing passages that show up in Girard’s works, particularly around his linkage of mimetic theory and evolutionary theory. To give just one example, after expressing his “strong kinship” for Charles Darwin’s way of arguing, Girard declares that the “theory of natural selection seems to me quite powerfully sacrificial. After all, Darwin, in resorting to Malthus’s theory of population, stresses the importance of death just as much as the importance of survival. In some sense it is representing nature as a super-sacrificial machine.”1 Given this striking assessment of natural selection, and Girard’s acceptance of its centrality in the evolution of all species, not just human, it is difficult to understand how the God of redemption—who graciously unmasks the scapegoat mechanism for our liberation—could be involved in the “super-sacrificial machine” of nature. As Wolfgang Palaver observes, Girard comes closest to “ontologizing” violence when he attempts to combine his mimetic theory with Darwin’s theory of evolution.2 Even when Girard can (and should) be defended against the charge of ontologizing violence—a charge that comes up frequently among his critics, which Kaplan addresses in several places—the suspicion lingers that, while contingently arising in terrestrial and human history, and hence not necessarily willed by God, violence is so ingredient to hominization itself, so pervasive in human history, that the God of salvation seems only tenuously connected to creation; that creation, historically (not metaphysically) speaking, is so entrenched in “fallenness,” even long before the appearance of our species, that Christianity is not only the “exit from religion,” to borrow a phrase from Marcel Gauchet, but the exit from creation itself. Granted the celebration of the “new creation” that comes with the bursting forth of Easter, which allows us to look retrospectively at what creation should be, what can we intelligently say about the unity of creation and redemption within an evolutionary perspective?

This question, I submit, is not just a matter of coherence for systematic theology. It is a pressing matter for fundamental theology. Indeed, given the widespread protest atheism of our day, which rejects a creator/providential God in light of the pervasiveness of evil and suffering in the human and natural world, the attempt to show the extreme incompatibility between the God of biblical revelation and the gods of archaic religion seems only to heighten the difficulty. In other words, to the extent that a fundamental theologian might point to the unveiling of the violent sacred as testimony to the attractiveness of Christian faith, to that extent does it render more problematic the fact that the violent sacred could ever be allowed dominion by a providential, creator God in the first place.

And so, to sum up my question for Kaplan: What resources might we find in mimetic theory for addressing the protest atheism that balks at the credibility of a creator God? Even if Girard can be defended against the charge that he ontologizes violence, which would render the relationship between creation and redemption incoherent, what resources might he provide the fundamental theologian who wishes to address the pervasiveness of violence in the natural and human world as grounds for unbelief? Or must the fundamental theologian reach more decisively beyond mimetic theory, perhaps as a point of significant supplementation and correction, to address this question?

  1. René Girard, Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture (New York: Continuum, 2007), 96.

  2. Wolfgang Palaver, René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, trans. Gabriel Borrud (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 226.

  • Grant Kaplan

    Grant Kaplan


    Response to Brian Robinette

    Among Catholic theologians in my “generation,” few, if any, have reputations for being both as broadly read and as subtly agile as Brian Robinette, so of course his participation in this symposium means a great deal to me. Although it does not come across as clearly as it should have, his Grammar of Resurrection greatly influenced René Girard, Unlikely Apologist. In many ways, my reading of not just Girard, but also Charles Taylor and David Hart, probably cannot be untangled from Robinette’s, for we had many conversations about these texts during the four years we shared at Saint Louis University.

    The questions Robinette poses are so on the mark that they require a twofold response: first a radicalization, and then a reply. Robinette asks how it could be that the God of biblical revelation let the archaic sacred of pre-biblical revelation, a sacred “red in tooth and claw,” reign for so long. If I read Robinette correctly, this question, for which Girard does not have much of an answer, lends moral legitimacy to atheism.

    I have taught some version of a “Modernity and Belief” course since 2006. It has been my bread and butter course. Over the past dozen years of revising and rethinking the course, and rereading the canonical texts of Western atheism and anti-Christianity, I have grown steadfast about two things: (1) most of the critiques are less weighty than at first appear; (2) the problem of theodicy is even greater and more problematic than I used to think. At the peril of offending pious ears, I can say that, if I ever stopped being a Christian, I would probably prefer something like the sacrificial version of the Rig Veda, which Roberto Calasso outlines so beautifully in his underappreciated book Ardor. Creation in the Vedas is most obviously a sacrificial system, and religious practice should reflect this.

    Yet so much of theology proceeds as if Darwinism and prehuman animal history should not affect how we reconcile the God of creation and the providential God of the Bible. And those that do, like Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, fail spectacularly to realize the full radicality of the matter. Consider, for instance, the successive eras of dinosaur life. Evolution worked such that successively massive and ferocious creatures roamed and ruled the earth, ripping one another apart as part of the inexorable law of natural selection until a giant meteor, or shower of meteors, momentarily threw the earth off its axis, leading to the permanent eradication of these massive creatures. Just what was the purpose, from a purely functional standpoint, of all that violence, a violence far more pervasive, if less cruel, than the hominid and human violence over the past ten thousand years? And why so long? If humans had been sacrificing one another, under the sway of a false God, for a few thousand years, and this provokes a righteous query, then what to make of the natural evil that had evolved to incorporate flesh-eating dinosaurs the size of a school bus, under the providential direction of God, who had then intended (or permitted) a meteor shower that extinguished most of this animal life, save a few reptiles and small dinosaurs that became birds? In light of this seemingly pointless violence, what Woody Allen says in jest in Love and Death seems prophetic: If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil [. . .] he’s an underachiever.

    Leading theologians from the current and previous century have weighed in on these matters. In the chapter titled “Evil” in God Matters, Herbert McCabe preserves the traditional categories of natural and moral evil. McCabe thinks through the problem of natural evil and concludes that, if one rids nature of all the animals that destroy others, then eventually one eliminates nature itself. If so, then is nature, channeling Love and Death again, just one big restaurant? What’s good for the lion clearly is not good for the lamb. Stated otherwise, it becomes challenging, if not impossible, to examine natural history and conclude that nature is not a giant sacrificial system? And would the proper religious response not be something like what the aforementioned Vedas describe, sacrifice ranging from a daily agnihotra—libations of milk to the gods indistinguishable from the fire—to elaborate horse sacrifices with priests ankle-deep in blood?

    The best option for Christian theology is to adopt some version of Origen’s cosmic fall, after which nature was under the dominion of demonic powers and principalities. In Doors of the Sea, David Hart offers a sketch for how to think about creation in light of a “provisional cosmic dualism” under the quasi-jurisdiction of the permissive will of God.

    What does this have to do with Girard, archaic religion, and the claim made by Ormerod, and suggested by Robinette, that Girard naturalizes evil? Plenty. For non-fundamentalist Christians, i.e., those who do not think that humans first appeared in the same week as the dinosaurs, the fall of humanity is subsequent to the millions of years of naturally evil events that took place long before primates. Likewise, as hominids became humans, talk of a first sin becomes problematic, especially in reckoning with the porous link between cavemen and homo sapiens. But if the previous millions of years fall under this cosmic dualism—and in case I have not been heard, let me here deny the prudence of Christians who want to use Darwinism as evidence that validates belief in a providential, loving God—then so too does the evolution from hominid to human.

    Then what to make of peccatum originale? At a bare minimum, a Catholic theologian needs to affirm monogenism—the belief that all human beings come from the same species stem—and the inheritance of original sin as inherited—that successive generations inherit the sinful condition of their ancestors by generation, not imitation (Council of Trent, Session V), a condition the Church determines to have resulted from an abuse (not a lack) of freedom.

    At least since Augustine, theologians have tried to confront the paradox of human freedom. All acts of human sin and violence take place within a paradox of freedom and unconsciousness. Our earlies ancestors sinned against the natural law when they killed their fellow humans wantonly. Yet they did so within a fog of unconsciousness. This fact cannot be denied, for Jesus says in Luke 23:34: “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” Girard regularly cited that and similar passages, and Girard preferred an Augustinian emphasis on our lack of awareness in the act of sinning, an Augustinianism that may vex some Thomists, but lies clearly within orthodox boundaries. A central tenet of the scapegoat mechanism holds that the scapegoaters are not aware that they are scapegoating. Girard’s claim about the lack of awareness finds support in Augustine as well as many of the spiritual and mystical writers whom Robinette has so artfully brought into conversation with mimetic theory (and nothing in this paragraph I take to be challenging the questions raised by Robinette).

    Why did God not choose to reveal the false God of archaic religion sooner? This is a good question, and any Christian theologian with an ounce of humility would have to acknowledge that the traditional answers given about “the fullness of time” do not alleviate the full moral gravity of the question. Here the moral instinct of the ardent atheist seems to be closer to that of Christ than of any theologian who would suggest that the countless murders of innocent victims before the gospel revelation as somehow necessary. We know that from the first murder that the blood of every human victim cries out from the ground to God (Gen 4:10). Through something like Jaspers’s Axial turn, which has received new life in recent years, we can also suggest that non-Judeo-Christian traditions discovered ways to curb mimetic escalation and to reduce human scapegoating, and that this can be incorporated into the positive will of the biblical God who positively hates violence and death.

    Were the demonic powers that bound animal evolution to millions of years of senseless violence the same that bound (and continue to bind) human communities to tens of thousands of years of intra-species violence? I would say yes, with the qualification that only in the latter instance does the violence qualify as sin (as opposed to natural evil), and it might be time to imagine Christ’s triumph in such a way that would make possible, if not a world without lions, at least one that would extend the consequences of our being-forgiven to creation at large. Again, such statements do not just follow from working through Girard’s scapegoat mechanism, but from Scripture, which declares that the wolf and leopard will lie with the lamb and goat (Isaiah 11). This passage implies that fallen created order, under which creation presently groans, refracts, as through a broken glass, the creation that God positively and antecedently wills.



King Response to Kaplan

I have been fascinated by the work of René Girard ever since my “academic career” began at a community college in Moorpark, California. In my first college-level philosophy class, my professor challenged all of my preconceived notions of God and the Bible. I entered as a biblical fundamentalist, and left as a questioning theologian headed for Notre Dame.

In that class, I was faced with questions I had never asked. What do I mean by the words “inspiration” and “infallible”? Do I really believe that God demanded sacrifice from the Israelites? Does that make God inherently violent? My professor was a wise woman. She never answered my questions, and she kept her Catholicism to herself. Instead, she threw a strange-looking book at me. The cover was cast in a black and white zigzag pattern, and in the middle, was a red figure about to chop off the head of another little red figure—the words Violence and the Sacred in bold at the top.

I remember picking up the book, excited. I turned to read the first page . . . and didn’t understand a word. Dismayed, I put the book down, and I didn’t pick it up again until after reading James Alison’s The Joy of Being Wrong years later. After Alison’s work, Girard suddenly became clear.

Once I realized how much Girard made sense of my own world, and seemed to be presenting something real and true, I couldn’t stop talking about him. I soon came to the further realization that not everyone appreciated Girard in the same way I did. My self-appointed task, since transferring to Notre Dame as an undergraduate, and returning as a PhD student, has been to demonstrate that Girard’s ideas are not only compatible with the Catholic tradition, but bring new tools for understanding that tradition. It is no surprise, then, that Grant Kaplan’s book René Girard, Unlikely Apologist, is sitting in the middle of my bookshelf (as we know, the middle spot is the most privileged spot on a shelf).

What makes Kaplan’s work so unique is how he has decided to engage with Girard’s thought. Many scholars have focused on various theological ideas within Girard’s corpus: sacrifice, theological anthropology, sin, and grace, to name just a few. Few have done what Kaplan has set out to do. In deciding to use the theory as a heuristic for understanding themes within the Catholic tradition, Kaplan has made a unique contribution to Girardian and Catholic studies. By heuristic, Kaplan means “a model that allows theological narratives and positions to become more intelligible” (4). This model certainly illuminates various concepts within Christianity: the relationship between faith and reason, religious theory, revelation, ecclesiology, secularism à la Charles Taylor, and the oftentimes contentious topic of atheism. Throughout each chapter, Kaplan takes us through the way that mimetic theory aligns with, and helps us to see, so-called “problems” in a new light.

Underlying all of these theological issues is fundamental theology that gives rise to them. Fundamental theology, as distinct from theology proper, is about the condition for the possibility of our beliefs. In Christian terms, this comes down to metanoia, a turning, or a conversion experience. This conversion experience itself has fascinated Christian theologians for centuries. What exactly brings about our conversion? How do we leave a life to which we’ve become so attached, in favor of another, seemingly countercultural Way of living? These musings are not at all foreign to those engaged in Girard’s work. As Kaplan states, “Mimetic theory is also a theory about conversion. One must acknowledge one’s own complicity or sinfulness if the theory will ever be something more than just another social theory” (66). The driving question that each chapter in Kaplan’s book addresses is: “Is mimetic theory a mode of discourse for the already converted, in order to help them make explicit their faith commitments, or is it a mode of discourse that aims to bring about conversion?” (13–14).

The profound idea here is that we already need to be aware of our culpability and complicity in the scapegoating mechanism in order to see it for what it is. Revelation is discovery. What exactly are we discovering given mimetic theory? Girard’s entire theory is presented in chapter 1 of Kaplan’s book with both precision and depth. It goes something like this: the idea that we are each autonomous little “selves,” each possessing our own unique desires is completely false—a “romantic lie.” We are easily blinded by this lie, and this inevitably leads us to become rivals with one another. We forget that our desire is always mediated by a model, which leads us to become envious and jealous of another who seems to want what we want. We insist, “But this is mine!” Or, “I had that idea first!” Soon, we become angry at the other who has now become our obstacle to the desired object. Anger turns into rage, and rage can turn into violence. To curb the tendency toward complete annihilation of the human species, we have a further ability to choose an arbitrary scapegoat. This scapegoat is blamed for the whole mess, and once we both join forces and cast him or her out, we feel a great sense of peace and reconciliation. Girard’s insight is that culture itself has been founded upon this mechanism, founding with it a whole system of the religious sacred.

Part of what leads us to scapegoat innocent victims, is our refusal to see our own participation in the violence that we have created. This happens, first and foremost, when a “self” is perceived as distinct from a “you.” The lie that we tell ourselves over and over is, “I have my own desires, my own beliefs, and if you try to take them from me, I will destroy you.” (I couldn’t help but reflect on the notion of “intellectual property” in light of Kaplan’s book. Does Kaplan’s book belong to a “him”?)

All of this sounds incredibly dark and reeks of a kind of fatalism. But this isn’t the end of the story. The further insight is that Christ himself becomes a scapegoat (a sacrifice) that ends all scapegoating by revealing the lie for what it is. Christ makes the innocence of the victim explicit. In allowing himself to be overtaken by the violence of this world, and further revealing himself in the resurrection as the “forgiving victim,” Christ calls us toward conversion. This is where the story usually stops, and most people I have introduced Girard to find it to be less than satisfying as a soteriological theory. What about grace? What about the atonement? How do we concretely escape from the scapegoating violence? What’s “Christian” about this?

I find Kaplan’s chapter on mimetic ecclesiology to be the most hopeful piece on church life that I’ve ever read, and addresses many, if not all, of these concerns. Kaplan points out that “mimetic theory helps to highlight how the Church signifies what it means to be and to belong” (139). Because none of us are truly independent, we all necessarily belong to a community. As I see it, Kaplan (relying on the work of Alison) claims that there is a false sense of belonging, and an ecclesial belonging that is right and just. The church is where we can unlearn patterns and false ways of belonging that involve us in sin and scapegoating. We are especially able to participate in Christ’s redemptive death on the cross in and through the Eucharist. True conversion involves experiencing being forgiven. As Kaplan states, “The experience of being forgiven (soteriology) and the discovery of a new way of belonging (ecclesiology) constitute two sides of the same coin” (143). I believe that this further exploration is necessary for any engagement with Girard’s thought from a Christian standpoint. We can continue to ask abstract questions about the “conversion experience,” but we must be willing to enter into a new community made available to us through the Crucified and Risen One. The importance of an ecclesial community cannot be understated in our conversion process. It must be participated in, and part of the genius of Kaplan’s book is that it attempts to perform such a conversion process. In reading mimetic theory as a heuristic, we are reentering age-old ideas and truths in a new way, seeking concrete ways of professing our faith and living out of our conversion experience. Does Kaplan answer the original question? Is mimetic theory a discourse for the already converted, or is it a mode of discourse that leads to conversion? In classic Catholic fashion, Kaplan’s answer is a resounding “both, and.”

With all of this in mind, there were a few ideas in Kaplan’s work that provoked me to ask some further questions. The first has to do with the “romantic lie” of the autonomous self. The problem of the “self” has always troubled me. How do we concretely live out our lives as mimetic creatures? Though of course our own concept of what it means to be a self today is not at all the same as what it was hundreds of years ago, it is very difficult for me to “get out of myself.” It is very difficult for me to imagine myself as not me. Sure, I can say that my desire is mediated. I can affirm wholeheartedly that my “self” is constituted by the community in which I live. But it is very difficult for me to experience that. To even ask the question: How can I experience myself as mimetic is a nonsense question! For who is this “I” that poses the question? Perhaps this means the lie is so pervasive and toxic that it is a hopeless situation.

This is where I see feminist thought raising some challenges to mimetic theory. Without generalizing too much, feminist theologians seek to create selves, and give voices back to the voiceless. They try to establish a sense of identity in those who have not experienced themselves as having any identity whatsoever. One could argue that women (due to their cultural environment), are the best at forgetting themselves; they are the best at renouncing themselves for the sake of the other. In Valerie Saiving’s influential article “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” she suggests that pride may not be the fundamental sin of women, but rather “lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s own self-definition, tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence; inability to respect boundaries of privacy . . . in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self” (109). How can a Girardian thoughtfully engage with these feminist concerns?

A second question has to do with the notion of forgiveness. My question is simple: From what are we being forgiven? Earlier, Kaplan makes the point that the “texts of persecution lack awareness” (39). The scapegoat mechanism remains hidden from us. I find it difficult to understand of what exactly we are guilty. Girard has argued that mimetic rivalry is not deterministic, but it is inevitable. But why do we need to be forgiven for an inevitability? Perhaps there is forgiveness of things we did not realize we were doing (“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”). This is when we come to realize that we had been guilty the whole time—the final twist in the drama that is our lives. But I think it becomes far more challenging and difficult for us when we realize how pervasive scapegoating is in our lives, and we still do it. With this knowledge of how we sin, are we now guilty in a way we were not before? Do we experience Christ’s forgiveness in a different way when our sins are not merely sins of ignorance, but willful participation in the scapegoat mechanism? Does a new form of guilt emerge when we become aware of our complicity in accusing others, and we fail to embrace a new way of relating to others?

Finally, a question on inclusivity and ecclesial belonging. If we suggest that the Christian Church is where we unlearn false ways of being in the world, are we not making a claim to Christian exclusivity? How do we begin to talk about other religions and rituals that can also foster an awareness of “being forgiven”? It seems difficult to separate the notion of conversion and forgiveness from Christianity. I found the notion of Eucharistic abiding to be powerful: “Without this abiding, for Alison, it seems nearly impossible to imagine how real conversion could work” (149, emphasis added). But so many of God’s mimetic creatures do not encounter God through the Eucharist. Does this mean they are not capable of real conversion?

  • Grant Kaplan

    Grant Kaplan


    Response to Chelsea King

    Of the four responses, King’s focuses the most attention on working through, phenomenologically, how mimetic theory functions. It asks the hardest questions because it challenges not the intellectual coherence of a theory, but instead where that theory meets reality. To begin my response, a bit of autobiography.

    I began graduate study in theology with the hope of doing ecclesiology, and it was not until nearing the end of coursework that I discovered the question of revelation underlay many of my ecclesiological questions. Eventually I wrote a dissertation on the doctrine of revelation and thus planted myself within the field of fundamental theology. But my ecclesiological antennae remained up, and it was with these antennae that I heard much of what mimetically-oriented theology was trying to do. As I drafted the book, I was most worried that the reviewers would reject my chapter on ecclesiology for two reasons: (1) because its fit could have been conceived as awkward, and (2) because the main subject of that chapter was not Girard, but James Alison. Of the chapters in the book, it is the most constructive, with the clearest indication of how to plant mimetic theory into the soil of Christianity and see if it could somehow grow. When King describes that chapter as “the most hopeful piece on church life that [she’s] ever read,” I count it extremely high praise.

    I was fortunate to bounce some of the ideas for that chapter off Brian Flanagan, a former graduate-student-colleague and the ecclesiologist I always wanted to be. One thing he told me as I drafted the chapter in 2013 was this: if the Eucharist is a sacrifice that’s not really a sacrifice, then the church is a community that’s not really a community. One might consider that phrase as the oxygen that lets breathe a mimetic fundamental ecclesiology. Or one could phrase it as a question: what happens when you put the plant of Girardian soteriology into ecclesiological soil?

    Here is my tersest summary of Alison (and Sebastian Moore in a Girardian key): instead of self-righteousness resulting from having chosen better, the converted imitator of Christ realizes the grace of her being-forgiven. Her status as a sinner-forgiven contains a simultaneous horror at recognizing the depths of her sin along with a security in knowing herself as loved-sinner. She wears this heaviness lightly. She lives in the security of knowing that she is more of a victimizer than a victim. And she shares this identity with a community. Rather than belonging to a false community of false victims, she finds a true community in which the out-in-the-openness of its sinfulness creates the space for the identity of forgiven-victimizer to outflank both the anonymity of the sinner-in-denial and the victim who uses her thus-derived anonymity to create another scapegoat.

    The preceding paragraph concentrates (perhaps to the point of unintelligibility) the insights I had hoped to communicate in the aforementioned chapter. King also raises two further questions unanswered in the chapter and the paragraph. First, King recalls the important work of Valerie Saiving, who questioned the over-emphasis on pride in the Christian tradition, and also highlighted the difficulty of applying this largely male category to female experience. I consider it mistaken to correct sinful patriarchy in the theological tradition by doubling down on post-Cartesian notions of the self. Put another way, the model of autonomous individual, as part of the modern project identified most especially (if unfairly) with Descartes and Kant, and extended through the Romantics whom Girard wanted to topple, is a losing strategy for feminist theologians trying to correct this sinful patriarchy. Instead of doubling down on the modern, autonomous self, feminist theologians, along with the rest of Christian theologians, should be deconstructing that self, especially as evidence from the social and the hard sciences continues to affirm the relational self, and as leading theologians like John Zizoulous, along with Girard of course, have been proposing an anthropology both more Christian and more realistic. The biological capacity for some women (and no men) to carry another human body within their own body, and to feed another body from their own body, might make some women more attuned to the porousness of our bodies, our desires, and our identities. It would be perfectly Girardian to consider this capacity as a resource.

    Mimetic theory does not exclude personal agency. If humans are imperfectly relational, the persons of the Trinity are perfectly relational. This relationality did not stop Jesus from decisive action in the world, nor did it stop Paul the Apostle, who so thoroughly abandoned autonomy—“It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me”—from exercising an impactful agency on his community.

    King is right, if I read her correctly, that mimetic theory, like much of the Christian spiritual tradition, can be used to encourage docility, passivity, and bad meekness. I confess to having expressed rage at those who have suffered under such manipulations, and I myself withdrew from a lay group when it insisted that power imbalances must remain unspoken and unexplained. Mimetic theory can help people exit the cycle of perpetual rivalry to which we are all prone. The danger in shrinking before a domineering figure to avoid conflict is held in tension with the danger in remembering every slight suffered. Can a marginalized person or group of people attain, in the words of James Alison, a “faith beyond resentment”? I would hope so, while fully acknowledging the fragility and danger of such a project.

    Second, King asks about the extent to which sin can be attributed to people in such a fog of unconsciousness. Paul’s famous discourse on sin already raises this problem; one could read Paul as the first liberal with the first Twinkie defense: “It is no longer I that do it, but the sin that dwells in me” (Rom 7:17). Girard always insisted that humans were free, but understood that freedom within the Pauline-Augustinian framework of a wounded, truncated freedom, which Aquinas modified through the metaphor of inclination (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 85). A Girardian-Augustinian hamartiology can be supplemented through Lonergan’s brilliant analysis of bias (Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, chs. 6 & 7). I often pose to students the question: did white people in the Jim Crow South choose to be racist? It’s hard to see how any social ethic gets off the ground if the answer is “no,” but it’s equally difficult to imagine giving an unqualified “yes” to the question. Mimetic theory by no means solves the problem of reconciling human agency with a freedom-delimiting social and inherited sin, but it certainly aids in constructing a phenomenology of the sinful condition, and in imagining what it means for humans to work through, with the grace of Christ, that condition.