2 – The Work of Rene Girard

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Inspiration for this work is taken from the work of Rene Girard. Wikipedia says of Girard: “René Girard (25 December 1923 – 4 November 2015) was a French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science whose work belongs to the tradition of anthropological philosophy.

Girard was the author of nearly thirty books, with his writings spanning many academic domains.

Although the reception of his work is different in each of these areas, there is a growing body of secondary literature on his work and his influence on disciplines such as literary criticism, critical theory, anthropology, theology, psychology, mythology, sociology, economics, cultural studies, and philosophy.

“Girard’s fundamental ideas, which he had developed throughout his career and provided the foundation for his thinking, were that desire is mimetic (i.e. all of our desires are borrowed from other people), that all conflict originates in mimetic desire (mimetic rivalry), that the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry, and that the Bible reveals these ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.”


Girard’s Christianity

Girard was a Christian and he used his ideas to strongly defend the Christian faith. Though his ideas are sometimes mentioned in the context of evolutional belief, they have nothing really to do with evolution. They just explain human behaviour in some ways, since the creation and fall.

I have listened to Girard a little on discussions about evolution, and from what I have heard he is unsure about how the creation/ evolution debate will ultimately work out. He spoke about biases and prejudices in science going through a process and being undone through new learning. I think Girard is unsure about Genesis as a genre and how exactly it is to be applied to history. In my own view, killing, selfishness, meat eating, originate in the fall of man, and not in the creation itself.

Girard spoke about myths. This referred to the pagan myths. But he also used the term to refer to ancient biblical stories. He didn’t mean that the stories were not true history. By myth, he meant that the stories had taken on an iconic significance within human or biblical worldview. Myth refers to the importance of these historical events as symbols of reality within our cultures.

Girard also spoke of satan in the symbolic sense, as a characteristic within humanity, our propensity to blame and accuse others. Satan stands as the symbol of accusation, which brings our civilizations into rivalry and murder. We see scapegoating when others do it, but never when we do it. This is what is hidden from our eyes, about our conflicts, since the beginning, since the Garden of Eden. But this doesn’t mean that a personal satan isn’t driving this blindness within us.

Girard saw the significance of his teaching about the kingdom of God, and the coming of a new life to humanity through the gospel of Jesus Christ. He believed this new life would one day renew our world. Girard’s teachings are about the concepts of the satanic kingdom and the contrasting love and care of Christ’s kingdom, which has come to fill our hearts, behaviours and nations.


Girard’s Publications

One of his latest books, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, is about this contrasting rule of the kingdom of God in our lives, coming to pass through the death and resurrection of Christ. Wikipedia gives the web links to several of his articles. Some of Girard’s other books include: Things Hidden Before the Foundations of the World

  • Violence and the Sacred
  • The Scapegoat
  • Deceit, Desire & the Novel
  • Sacrifice
  • Violent Origins
  • Mimesis and Theory
  • Pagan Myths

Girard studied many famous literary works, as well as histories of persecutions. In these sources, he found similar behavioural patterns, which he claims make perfect sense of the ancient pagan myths about their gods. He said these discoveries give a key to unlock and interpret the ancient myths.

In reading the ancient myths, Girard found consistent themes. He described these as memetic desire, scapegoating and violence. He claims that this process in ancient cultures, shows the ways in which these cultures and civilizations were founded.

When interpreted, the myths reveal a culture of violence. Girard believes that the pagan myths depict real history from the beginning of the pagan civilizations. The myths have been passed down in a form that hides the original violence, but Girard believes that when these myths are properly interpreted, the violence and true history is clear.

The foundation of our separate civilizations is violence. Girard shows the basis and reasons for this violence, that work within human behaviour. He shows how we continue to hide this from ourselves, and discusses our need to change, before our world comes to even more serious consequences.


Ending Sacrifice

Girard claims that the work of Jesus Christ, his teachings about the kingdom of God and his death and resurrection, reveal the violence of our world and the motives that are behind it. It is through the gospel that the hidden secrets of our violent cultures come out into the open. The gospel shows the scapegoating processes in action, and especially reveal them because of the innocence of the victim, Jesus Christ.

An example of Girard’s memetic teaching is the story of Joseph and his brothers. The brothers sacrificed Joseph in their jealousy. Later Judah refused to sacrifice Benjamin, but offered himself instead. He showed the way we end violence, by our unwillingness to participate in it. This is what made Judah the lion. This is how Jesus ended sacrifice.

Here we see the biblical stories, unlike pagan myths, reveal the scapegoat to be innocent, the murderers guilty, and that the divine has no part in the violence. They reveal the violent origins of civilizations to be entirely human.


Awakening to Christ

Girard said there is a danger in our current day, that without sacrifice in our Christianised world, people who also don’t follow the principles of Jesus, may escalate violence to catastrophic proportions. He believed that our refusal to talk about this possibility made it even more likely.

Girard’s philosophy concerning human behaviour puts him at variance with most Enlightenment philosophers, who saw individuals as independent, rational actors, not at risk of mimicking and escalating dangerous behaviour. Girard wasn’t as sure. He saw mankind as interdependent, whose mimetic actions can spiral into an extremism that is devastating.

If we are aware of this danger, we can act now to reverse the trend. One of our roles in this is to follow Christ as witnesses of his kingdom of peace, living that out today in our relationships with all our neighbours, from diverse backgrounds.

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