Initial Thoughts on René Girard

Initial Thoughts on René Girard September 5, 2013

In the past couple years, I read a lot about René Girard, I’ve listened to numerous interviews with him, I’m consulted the Girardian Lectionary numerous times, and I’ve had innumerable conversations regarding Girard’s thought. But only now am I diving into Girard’s writing itself. I’ve begun with I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, a book with one of the the worst covers you’ll ever see:

That cover notwithstanding, Girard’s writing is airy and approachable. This book lacks scholarly footnotes, having only footnotes from the translator. Those are particularly helpful when running into words that are unique to Girard, or at least when his use of a word is unique.

I’m reading Girard as I write my book on the atonement — my ultimate take on the subject will be a mash-up of Girard and Moltmann, with my own twist and conclusions. Girard’s take on desire, violence, sacrifice, and atonement has become very popular in theological circles in recent years. Part of that is because, honestly, I think that there wasn’t much new to say about the atonement on a theological level. But Girard isn’t a theologian, he’s an anthropologist, and he calls his an “anthropological reading of the atonement.”

I think that one of the reasons that Girard’s “scapegoat theory” has become so popular is that he explains it so clearly, and it makes so much sense. I’ll elaborate on Girard’s views in future days (more here than in the book; in the book, he’ll be more in the background). But I will say this: I think he overplays his hand on some of his biblical interpretation. He’ll often take an unconventional tack on a passage, and he’ll write something like, “This passage obviously means…” Then he’ll provide no exegesis. He may be able to get away with this because biblical exegesis is not his field, but it’s tricky to make theological claims without dealing with exegesis.

Have you read Girard? What’s your take?

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  • I’ve been reading Girard for over fifteen years and he has been pivotal for a renewal of my faith. He has made Scripture and atonement make sense to my life long intuition that it’s not God who is violent at the cross, but human beings. Paul Nuechterlein’s Girardian Lectionary is a monumental resource for those who are preaching and teaching nonviolent atonement. In fact, I will be interviewing Paul next Thursday at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement here on Patheos. We would love to have you and your community join us for a great discussion on Rene Girard, mimetic theory and biblical interpretation.

  • I was given a much more beastly book by Girard called Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World from my spiritual mentor about ten years ago and it completely changed everything for me. It never occurred to me that Jesus could have died for any reason other than to appease God. It seems like Girard’s books are all rewrites of earlier books with new things added, so ISSFLL is similar to THSTFOTW but he’s much more concise. I’m not wanting to be too reliant on Girard in my thinking today because he’s so easy to discredit by evangelicals since he doesn’t really do proper exegesis.

    But I think his basic concept is sound. The air is full of rage; the rage needs a place to go; the cross gives the rage a place to go. The cross absolutely satisfies wrath; we could even call it “God’s” wrath inasmuch as creation belongs to God but it’s not a personal emotion on the part of God. It’s the fact that we’ve all dicked other people over and been dicked over in impossibly complicated ways that no apologies or peace treaties can ever do justice to. So the universe is covered in a fury that is ready to explode any moment. Some people convert the wrath into love by absorbing it non-violently. Others get covered in wrath by handing themselves over to its violence, slamming into each other like a humanity sized pinball machine.

    Basically, I would say what I got from Girard is that the “penal” aspect of the cross is probably best understood as a ransom payment to “Satan,” Satan being understood as the anthropomorphic symbol of mimetic contagion itself. With the cross, God says blame me because you will never be able to untangle all the mess of your overlapping mitigating circumstances to assign blame appropriately for injustice yourself. The cross is an infinite metaphysical vacuum that sucks all the violence and oppressive power synergies out of the air at least for those of us who seek to be “crucified with Christ.”

    • Mark Wendland

      I wrestle with Girard a lot because he provides a needed alternative. Two things: 1. Sarah Coakley is one prominent anti-Girardian that I think needs to be discussed more in connection with atonement stuff. 2. Girard has modified his position at lead somewhat over the years.

  • Michael Hardin

    Tony: I’ve been reading Girard for a quarter century and have employed him all over the biblical theological map. When Girard mines a biblical text he use a plethora of methods, most of them literary critical but almost always in terms of the ‘figura Christi’ of the Middle Ages. Girard seeks to mine the Bible for its anthropological data first, and then, and only then for the implications of that data for theology. This is where a number of us have use Girard to discover that we must first change our anthropology before we can change our theology. I could name over a score of biblical scholars who have provided the exegesis to support a number of Girard’s claims. His work is transformative for the field of biblical studies and theology precisely because it provides a philosophy of religion upon which an articulate theory of the gospel can be crafted that is congruent with the trajectory of scripture as anti-sacrificial and with the hermeneutic approach of Jesus, Paul, the writer of the Fourth Gospel and the author of Hebrews. It’s all there if one chooses to peer down the rabbit hole.

  • Steven Kurtz

    from Christian Century article: “How does Jesus save? An alternative view of atonement” Jun 02, 2009 by William C. Placher

    “I wish I thought the Girardian approach works. But a theological solution needs to deal with the problem that we really have. Girard’s solution lies mostly in a realization: we realize that scapegoats are innocent, and once we have realized that, we cannot keep scapegoating them…. Still, the problem with Girard’s theory is that after 2,000 years of Christian teaching, we are at the end of a period that saw the Holocaust, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Christian missionaries’ participation in the Rwanda genocide, and the ongoing division among most Christian communities over how to treat homosexuals (I am not claiming that these issues are morally equivalent). If Girard’s theory is right, we should have seen at least a little diminishment in the practice of scapegoating by now.”

    As much as I am attracted to Girard, this observation makes me wonder.

  • I think Girard is absolutely “right” — not because he is correct about everything he says, or because his take on anthropology is the truth, but because reading Christianity and the scriptures and the atonement anthropologically is really the only way to do it. In this, I am taking a similar stance to that of Andrew Perriman: history trumps theology.

    Theology is theory, and it is often theory about metaphysics. And that kind of metaphysics becomes very hollow without anthropology and history to ground it.

  • I will be very interested to follow your thoughts on this. I purchased this book last spring, partly because I hadn’t read Girard directly, and partly to work on my still-very-inadequate French,

    From what I know of Girard, I would question whether he is really addressing the Christian doctrine of the atonement–the reconcilliation of God and man, the effecting of the salvation for which the Creed says that the Son came down. Girard, though a devout Catholic, writes as a literary critic and anthropologist, not as a theologian. An anthropologist may write about how, say, the seven sacraments work to integrate a community’s times of passage, and that description may be very accurate and illuminating without touching on the theological meaning of baptism or eucharist or marriage. I think one must therefore be very careful about approaching Girard’s work as if he were offering an alternative to the existing theological or liturgical models and images. His subject is how the story of the passion can (not must) diffuse violent conflicts among a society which has taken it as a central, authoritative narrative. That certainly has a bearing on the more cosmic themes of salvation, reconcilliation, and universal forgiveness. But it’s not quite the same thing.

    Well, having now expounded Girard for one and all, I suppose I should read him.

    • KentonS

      I’m a Girard novice, no, make that a Girard initiate, so my dos centavos would be WAY overpriced compared to some of the others weighing in on this thread. But I think what some of us find refreshing in Girard is precisely this idea that he’s not a theologian. We’ve been too long in the box the theologians have put us in, and we need non-theologians to get us out of it.

      Is it a new way of atonement? I’m not so sure we’re supposed to be looking at all of this in terms of atonement (“at one”-ment?). Are we really estranged from God in the first place that we need to be reconciled? My understanding of the incarnation is that God took on flesh in order to be with us. That doesn’t sound like there’s a problem with estrangement that demands an(other) act of atonement in the first place.

      Most theologians I know, though, can’t think outside that box.

  • Scot Miller

    My pastor Doug Roysden and I are working through Violence and the Sacred right now.