This past month, the world lost one of her greatest living philosophers with the death of Rene Girard. There have been a number of commentaries this month on the man and his work, for instance, Bishop Robert Barron has an excellent piece here.
Girard’s work has been influential in my life and I would like to add to the chorus of praise. The 91 year old, Catholic philosopher spent a lifetime thinking about the nature of mythology. In books such as Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World or Deceit, Desire and the Novel, he painstakingly outlines a theory about how archetypal myth works and what its function is in the creation of culture. Reading mythology through Girardian eyes is an interesting exercise because it changes the way one interprets history.
In short, Girard sees in mythology a basic necessity to scapegoat. Examples are abundant, Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, the murdered prophets of Jerusalem, the Aztec sacrificial system, even Joe Versus the Volcano. Humanity is plagued by mimetic desire (known to a layman as jealousy). I see it every day in my children. Here is how it begins:
- Toy Train is neglected for years
- Toy Train is discovered by child
- Toy Train is played with by child
- Every child in the house instantly desires and fights over previously neglected Toy Train
- An all-out brawl ensues for Toy Train
Here is how it ends:
- I throw Toy Train into the basement to never see the light of day again
After the train is disposed of, the children need to find someone to blame. They believe that it simply cannot be their collective jealousy that caused the problem. They may organize to isolate one of their own or they may unite against me, as the case may be, but the point is that a scapegoat is chosen, blame is assigned, and life goes on.
Girard makes a number of salient points about the nature of scapegoating, mimesis, and violence. Mythology is a way to make sense of the world, to import cultic meaning to the traditions and history of a people. By assigning blame to another, a people are allowed to believe in their special stature, American Exceptionalism, if you will. These founding stories play a vital role in the development of culture, but for Girard, the presence of the scapegoat reveals those stories to be lies; thought provoking, utilitarian in their way, but ultimately a chimerical escape valve from the pressure of having to acknowledge our own sins. Even the later development of fictional tragedies by the Greeks is a hidden misplacement of blame. It is only by lying to ourselves that we are able to pretend that tragedy or punishment is deserved by another while we are wholly justified.
There is one myth, though, that stands apart from the pattern of violence—The Passion of Our Lord. Mythology typically challenges us to see the sacrifice and the violence at the heart of culture. “There is no culture without a tomb,” says Girard. Somewhere at the foundation of everything, blood has been spilled, a cult created, and out of the violence is regeneration. Lamech will murder any man simply for looking at him wrong, but his descendents are directly credited with the creation of civilization as we know it. The Garden of Eden is left behind for the City only by way of suffering. The Old Testament is intriguing because, even from the start, it calls into question which one is better, is it worth it to inhabit a magnificent civilization if the price is human blood? When the Christian narrative is grafted on, the commentary becomes even more subtle, for the New Jerusalem is not a restored Garden of Eden, it is a city. This heavenly city is founded on the blood-soaked Mount Calvary. On Holy Thursday, Christ suffers in a garden. He is resurrected and subsequently mistaken for a gardener. But he is in the fact, the scapegoat to end all scapegoats and his pilgrimage goes straight through the gates of a mighty city.
No more lies. The mythology by which we have been used to releasing tension is now gone. There are no more scapegoats, meaning that the mechanism by which civilization has been built is now unmasked.
Christianity is a founding murder in reverse, which illuminates what has to remain hidden to produce ritual, sacrificial religions. (Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre)
It is Christ or nothing, and as Girard sees it, we are in the midst of a slow-moving and inevitable apocalypse as what was hidden in mythology has now been revealed to be false. When this world finally grinds to a halt, we would do well to have carefully considered what we believe to be true.
The old gods are dead, drowned in the blood of the Dying God hanging on the Cross.
Revealing the self-deception of those who engage in violence, the New Testament dispels the lie at the heart of their violence. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning)
This sounds terrifying, as if Jesus has in some way become Destroyer of Worlds, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In a way, it is. But of course, Our Lord himself speaks this way, warning that he brings with him the sword, division, and the end times. But if an apocalypse grinds ever-nearer, we need not be afraid.
I think that Christ alone allows us to face this reality without sinking into madness. The apocalypse does not announce the end of the world; it creates hope. (Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre)
In the work of Rene Girard is the antidote to the caricatured, postmodern view that there is no over-arching narrative to our lives. Instead, we see that there is indeed a deeply rooted, foundational story to human culture. In fact, there are two such competing stories. The first is a lie, a mass therapy that allays the conscience and allows us to carry on, happy that we were not the chosen victim. To face our guilt without the accompaniment of a scapegoat would be to stare madness in the blank of the eye (I believe that this is what post-modernism in general is attempting to cope with, and the result is that our culture is going mad). The second myth is the Passion of Our Lord. It casts its lot entirely with the victims. Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, and the suffering. In this myth, we are challenged to admit that we are not okay after all. We are sinners. We are the cause of our own troubles. Our only hope is found in admitting as much and willingly becoming victims along with the innocent Lamb of God. We deserve to die, and yet the sacrificial blood that drowns the old, power-hungry gods is, for the repentant, the transformative event of the entire universe. This myth, as it so happens, is true.