René Girard & Christian Sacrifice, Part I

With Holy Week here, it’s natural for our thoughts to turn to the Cross and Christ’s self-sacrifice.   Of late I’ve had the pleasure of being drawn into conversations with a number of Girardians, here at Loyola and elsewhere, so as I’ve contemplated the Passion this year, I’ve done so in light of the work of René Girard.

My knowledge of Girard comes mainly from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (1999), in which the French-born anthropologist summarizes many of his ideas in a form accessible to theologians.  Girard’s work is refreshingly insightful because he takes seriously two notions most of his secular colleagues are afraid to touch:  Christianity’s claim to uniqueness among world religions and the religious foundations of civilization itself.  Girard, in fact, refers to I See Satan Fall Like Lightning as an apology for Christianity made on anthropological grounds.  Though he is clear in stating that he is not a theologian, it is well worth puzzling out the theological implications of his unique “apology.”

But since some of our readers are likely unfamiliar with Girard, it’s perhaps best to begin with a summary of the key ideas he develops in I See Satan this week and then turn to their applications in a second post two weeks from now.  This will also give others a chance to correct my non-expert misinterpretations.

Mimesis, coveting, & rivalry. Girard’s bold claim is that the “mimetic cycle of violence” is at the root of human culture.  His exploration of this phenomenon begins with his concept of “mimetic desire,” which he equates with the Biblical notion of “coveting.”  We might be tempted to dismiss the final two Commandments as overly fussy and lacking the gravity of the others, but for Girard the final two “coveting” Commandments become the key to understanding the origin of all the sins prohibited by the first eight.

We generally tend to read the prohibition of coveting as applying only to extreme cases of envy, lust, or jealousy, but Girard equates “coveting” with desire as such.  The reason desire is so problematic for Girard is because of its “mimetic” character.  Aside from the biological basics, we human beings come with no pre-set list of things to desire, so we learn what to desire by watching others.  We see others with certain goods, intuit that those things must be desirable, and then start wanting them ourselves—we begin to covet.

Advertising owes a lot to mimesis.  If we consider how fads work, we can see what Girard is getting at.  How many “must-have” Christmas toys are easily forgotten by Easter?  Furthermore, if we reflect on the fights that have been reported to break out in toy store aisles as crazed parents claw for the last “Tickle Me Elmo” (hey, these things happen), we can see how mimetic desire leads to what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry.”  And mimetic rivalry leads to violence.

Mimetic rivalry by its nature tends to spin out of control and undermine community.  In fact, too often mimetic rivalry feeds viciously upon itself, leading to relationships defined fundamentally by conflict and division, conditions which hinder the development of any society.

Scapegoats & sacrifice. But, Girard argues, at the point where rivalry boils over and communities become divided against themselves, a new phenomenon emerges which brings them back together:  the phenomenon of the scapegoat.  At the moment of “mimetic crisis,” the point of all-against-all, the community unites against the scapegoat, and all-against-all turns into all-against-one.  The destruction of the scapegoat is cathartic, releasing a community’s destructive tensions, and establishing peace and unity.  Girard calls this act of sacrificial violence a “founding murder” because out of this (temporary) peace and unity communities, institutions, and, ultimately, civilizations cohere.  Human sacrifice is the paradigm on which Girard bases his analysis, though as sacrifice becomes ritualized, animals substitute for people.

Girard the philosophical anthropologist sees the phenomenon of the founding murder embedded in pagan mythology and ritualized in rites of sacrifice.  The murder of the scapegoat becomes associated with the divine because it brings peace and unity to the community in a way that is not fully explicable.  Because the scapegoat is usually innocent, the phenomenon of cathartic sacrifice requires a certain amount of self-deception in all those who participate; as Girard puts it, “The single victim mechanism only functions by means of the ignorance of those who keep it working.”  The unanimity of the crowd—which Girard calls “mimetic contagion”—allows such ignorance to persist.  No one questions what is happening because everyone (except the victim!) is caught up in the same passions and actions.  Girard identifies Satan with mimetic contagion.

The Christian difference. The similarities between the archetypal pattern of conflict and sacrifice described by Girard and Christ’s Passion are striking.  The Gospels depict a pattern of growing rivalry and tension, followed by the nearly unanimous rejection of Jesus by the crowd, and his sacrificial death, which is described by Caiaphas in almost explicitly Girardian terms:  “it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people” (John 11:50).

Yet the high priest’s bluntness begins to hint at one of the key factors that mark the death of Christ as a decisive break from pagan mythology—giving credence to Christianity’s claim of distinctiveness among world religions.  For, Girard argues, Christianity exposes the cycle of mimetic violence for what it is, breaking Satan’s spell (mimetic contagion) over human nature.  After Christ’s death, instead of a new peace and social consensus emerging, the Church—“a small group of dissidents that separates from the collective violence of the crowd”—springs up in order to testify to the Resurrection of Jesus.

The testimony of the Church exposes the cycle of violence as ultimately a cycle of futility.  It demonstrates the innocence of Jesus and, by extension, other victims of mimetic violence and shows that God identifies with innocent victims.  It makes a bold claim over and against pagan mythology:  resurrection—ultimate peace, ultimate communion—comes from God and is not achieved through sacrificial violence.  The Resurrection of Jesus is the first part of the Passion that cannot be explained in terms of the cycle of rivalry and sacrifice and, therefore, not in terms of anthropology either.  Instead, Girard argues, the Resurrection represents the divine breaking into the world:  “The Resurrection is not only a miracle, a prodigious transgression of natural laws.  It is the spectacular sign of the entrance into the world of a power superior to violent contagion.”

The acknowledgment of divine power is a surprising place for an anthropological study to end, but the fact that I See Satan ends where it does is a mark of the originality of Girard’s work as both anthropology and theological prelude.  We can be appreciative of the seriousness with which Girard takes religion and its role in the development of civilization, a position that put him at odds with secular colleagues who do not seem to know quite how to account for religious ritual.  Furthermore, because Girard does not start with an a priori assumption that Christianity is fundamentally the same as any other mythological system but instead takes seriously Christianity’s claim to uniqueness, he is able to shed light onto the profound differences that do emerge in the way Christianity and paganism respond to violence.  Among other things, these stances allow Girard to make a more penetrating critique of contemporary attitudes and values than that to which we are accustomed.

Perhaps Girard’s most important contribution in I See Satan is providing an example of how faith and scholarship can benefit by taking each other seriously.  I am not won over by everything Girard claims.  I think that Scripture and tradition demand a more robust notion of Satan than what he offers, for example, though I give him credit for taking the notion of the Satanic seriously.  Also to his credit, Girard recognizes the limits of his project; his perspective is anthropological rather than theological, which limits the theological insight he can provide.  So in two weeks, I’ll turn from Girard himself to where his unique anthropological apology leaves us theologically.


Girard’s ideas have been discussed on Whosoever Desires before here.

9 Responses to René Girard & Christian Sacrifice, Part I

  1. Except that we believe in the sacrifice of the Mass… which makes this an awesome Anglican theory? Because wouldn’t we be continuing the cycle of violence every mass?

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Excellent identification of the issue, Andrew: what does this mean for the sacrifice of the Mass? I actually first became interested in Girard because I read a theologian who used Girard to try to take the “sacrifice” out of Mass… Girard himself is a fairly traditional Roman Catholic, so I don’t think his work necessarily leads us in an Anglican direction.

      I’ll try to argue out this point when I next post on Girard, and I’ll be interested to see what you think…

  2. Interesting to get some summarizations of Rene’s
    thought, thanks!

    Locally, an Emeritus UBC Anthropology Prof. as a
    practising Christian, for me, seems to bring more
    comparative order to this discussion, when he gave
    our Newman Association a lecture on precisely this
    topic, in essence saying:

    – all discovered past civilizations had some form of
    “religion” without exception, proving a quest for
    transcendence beyond ourselves, that there is
    “something” out there, above us! (This atheistic
    authors always ignore in their attempted failed books
    against theism, against god!)

    – all such religions converged on commonalities! They
    did not go out and create their own wheel, so to

    – most such religions within their rites, “point” to
    traits which later came into existence once
    Christianity came into existence! Things like
    a surrogate victim who had/has to die, virginity
    of a relational female, blood rites and blood letting,
    vicarious one for the many, and so on!

    – this same convergence phenomenon, this sameness of
    discoveries, C.S. Lewis specifically zeroes in on in his own masterpiece “Til We Have Faces.” In it, he traces the history of human mythology to its maturation point within Greek mythology, showing how
    it prefaces in expectation due to its structural
    content, what later came into being in Christianity!

    Anyway, God is not dead: He is just screening His calls! And most of the time He doesn’t answer because
    of His workload!

  3. Qualis Rex says:

    GREAT post, Anthony! While I am unfamiliar with Girard, his work definitely sounds inspired by “Utopia” and St Thomas More (Pray for us!) I don’t know if he uses the term “state of nature” as coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but it is essentially the same concept: that we as humans are prone both to covetting and violence (what we in Christianity know is “original sin” or the “survival instinct”).

    Ironically, covetting is essentially what the US is founded upon. The “keeping up with the Jones'” or “one-upmanship” si what this capitalistic/consumeristic economy is based upon. To espouse an abandonment of covetting at all levels is tantamount to heresy in our society. And unfortunately, this consumerism is also the principle export of the US (as opposed to Christianity). We have a long way to go towards acknowledging the divine as a model for human perfection, rather than what we possess in relation to others. And yes, I would wholeheartedly support the fact that the latter is actually Satanic. Sounds harsh, but there it is (and I’m just as guilty as the next consumer at times).

  4. Qualis Rex:
    To maybe help contextualize our Christianity,
    since we don’t yet have a Theology of History,
    is the instructive simple but profound observation
    of C.S. Lewis:
    – once Christianity arrived on the world stage,
    most ‘blood-letting’ rites plus related pagan
    religious practises were both replaced and displaced
    by our Mass, and core values, respecting life!

    Pagan rites were heavy with blood rites, killing of
    virgins, u-name-it! Most forget how bad it was!

  5. […] sacrifice, and the (Holy Sacrifice of the) Mass, Part II Two weeks ago I offered a summary of René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.  Girard’s insights into the origins of […]

  6. […] I’ve blogged about the French-born anthropologist Rene Girard before (here’s my summary of key Girardian ideas); what I find particularly insightful in his work is the emphasis he places on how our desires […]

  7. Would you consider condensing your series on Girard and participating in a series I am hosting at Per Caritatem? The link provides more details:

  8. […] some of the ideas from earlier discussion here on Whosoever Desires.  (The original posts are here and […]

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