Some dangers of Girardian mimetic theory and its application to Scripture

Recently a number of respectable Catholic sources have lauded the work of René Girard, a philosopher who, turning his attention to Christian revelation, applied his theory of the “scapegoat mechanism” to interpret Scripture and in particular the sacrifice of Jesus.

I find the use of Girard’s theory unsettling and believe it to be dangerous, or even “another Gospel,” in the warning words of St. Paul, and I would like to mention a few reasons for caution.

Girard’s theory

To put Girardian theory in a nutshell for those unacquainted with it, Girard begins with two readily observable facts about society. First, people often copy each other in their desires. A man who has a beautiful watch or wife or house will inspire his neighbor to want the same.

Secondly, society has great tensions, to a great degree based on the clashing of desires. A limited edition watch cannot be owned by everyone, and it is the same with most things. Thus there will be many tensions because people cannot realize their desires. When tensions increase to a certain point, society has to regain its equilibrium, and does so by choosing “scapegoats” which they agree to sacrifice. A scapegoat, as a common enemy, disperses tensions and makes for a kind of peace.

According to Girard, this “scapegoat mechanism” was “unlocked” by the sacrifice of Jesus. By making Himself a scapegoat, though innocent, Jesus showed us the way out of our error of scapegoating. Over time, according to Girard, we are learning to ostracize others less and less, gradually learning to put this teaching of the Gospel into practice.

As a societal commentary I find Girard interesting, though not entirely convincing. For example, it does not seem to me that widespread scapegoating occurs easily except in times of unusual distress or change, such as economic distress or war. This seems to me to be distinct from the sort of gradual increase in unaddressed tensions that Girard describes.

More importantly, when his gaze turns to Scriptural revelation, the Girardian lens is inadequate for many reasons. I will briefly mention three of them.

Problem #1: Mimesis and the transcendental of Goodness

For thinkers in the neoplatonic tradition such as Pseudo Dionysius and Thomas Aquinas in his treatment of the transcendentals, good things are inherently attractive. That is what is meant by goodness: being that attracts. This goodness is the way that God, ultimate Being or I AM, draws human beings into virtue. We want to be like Him, to have as much being as possible by participating in a goodness that conforms us to His likeness.

For Girard, attraction works in a much more scattered and random manner. Instead of being attracted to things for their inherent beauty, for good that shines through them, we are attracted only by imitating the attraction of others.

Setting aside the problem of infinite regress that the theory of mimetic desire cannot escape–who was the first person to desire, and if he was the first, whom did he imitate?–losing the Dionysian/Thomistic value for the inherently good is to lose the deepest resonance of human longing for God.  Jesus said that He came that we might have life, and have it to the full. When the smoke clears, and nothing matters but life and being–what can a man give in exchange for his very soul?–we want goodness for ourselves and everyone. This goal is only realizable if goodness has an actual, rather than a mimetically manufactured, existence.

Problem #2: Horizontal reduction of Scripture

When Girard reads Scripture, he reduces it to conform to his theory. For example, the story of Cain and Abel as we read it in Genesis is unfathomably rich. It deals with freedom and judgment and mercy, as well as with Girardian themes of envy and violence. But even more so, it deals with human beings in relationship with God. In Girard’s reading of the Cain and Abel story, the interactive God disappears. There is no vertical dimension, no acceptable sacrifice. The unaccepted sacrifice simply means that Cain is a murderer.

While the Scriptures thoroughly examine the Girardian vices, from the selling of Joseph to Saul’s pursuit of David to “let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us,” that is hardly all there is, and furthermore, there is a revelation of acceptable sacrifice. While this revelation is by no means straightforward, sweeping it away is deeply problematic, making the revealed history of Israel no more than a sociological study.

Girard is reductive, and reductive readings of Scripture are dangerous. They tend towards gnosticism, a heresy that Girard approaches in another important way, by proposing a secret Gospel teaching.

Problem #3: Misapplication to moral problems

One of the most popular current uses of Girard’s work is providing a theological framework for approving of immoral behavior. There are two “moments” in this argument. First, for Girard, there are no objectively ordered desires. All desire–see Problem #1 above–is mimetic, according to Girard. All desire leads to societal tension, and thus violence and scapegoating. No desire is for the good in itself.

Secondly, any disapproval, any natural law or moral argument against any behaviors, can be simply attributed to the scapegoating mechanism. Rather than making any meaningful claims about right and wrong, society is merely scapegoating persons for its own purposes of equilibrium.

In contrast, Scripture, most explicitly in Romans chapter 1, again brings the vertical dimension into play regarding immoral actions. In Romans 1, evil happens in a different sequence. The first movement is atheism; the second is immoral action; the third is violence.

The deep healing of worship

Instead of presenting the notion of sacrifice as the source of evil, I believe the Church calls upon us to embrace the notion of sacrifice and live it. Pre-eminently, sacrifice is the death of Jesus on the cross, re-presented daily in every Mass: His kindness is new every morning, so great is His faithfulness. It is the one sacrifice, unlike the repeated sacrifices of the high priests, and all true sacrifices led up to it in foreshadowing, like the rescue of the brothers of Joseph, or participate in it, like the sacrifices brought by the priest and the faithful to the altar in our own days.

For 20 or more of our brothers and sisters in the Philippines this morning, their participation in the cross of Christ was usque ad mortem, a true martyrdom. For countless others, there are hidden sacrifices of longer endurance: the divorced woman who lives like the “true widow” of 1 Timothy 5, unilaterally faithful to her vows, the truly scapegoated Religious who is faithful to his vows and community, the good bishop, the honest businessman, the truthful and fair journalist, the diligent employee.

“Sacrifice” is not a word to be argued away. It is the cost of setting aside the flesh, with its desires, and putting on Christ. Through the celebration of the sacraments, we are raised to a dignity higher than any teaching could make us. It is a body-soul experience of salvation that begins with the acceptance of the Cross. To us who are being saved, it is the power of God.