René Girard is one of the most important Christian intellectuals of our time. Beginning with the publication of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), Girard’s thought began making waves in a number of disciplines. His first work impacted literary criticism with a basic and revolutionary idea: that the structure of desire is mimetic or learned. This insight cut against the modern trend to emphasize autonomous desire. With the publication of Violence and the Sacred (1970), Girard extended his thesis into ethnology, anthropology, and the study of myth. From his research Girard unfolded a theory that placed religion at the very basis of a culture’s foundation.
At this point, Girard had offered a sweeping critique of much in modern thought, but the implications for Christianity were only suggested or hinted at. With the publication of Things Hidden (1977), Girard began to make explicit the impact of Christianity on religion. He has continued to amplify his Christian apologetics in subsequent writings, most notably The Scapegoat (1982) and I See Satan Fall Like Lightening (2001). Girard’s thought allow for a novel and persuasive reappraisal for some of the most challenging ideas in Christianity¯the efficacy of the Cross, Scripture as revealed text, Christianity’s unique status among religions, and the mystery of original sin.
Christian appreciation of Girard’s thought began with Raymund Schwager’s work in the 1970s and continues today. Still, it has too frequently been ignored or marginalized as overly theoretical. When properly understood, it can provide the basis and framework for a catechesis and an apologetics that remains faithful to traditional doctrine while allowing those new to the faith a unique vista for understanding the essence of Christianity.
The following interview was conducted over the phone in early October 2008. It was in many ways a follow-up conversation from January, when Prof. Girard and I sat down to lunch near his home in Stanford, California.
Grant Kaplan: It is often said that you stumbled into Christianity in your research, but the truth of the matter is somewhat different.
René Girard: Yes, you’re right; it is somewhat different because I was already Christian by my mother who was a very good Christian and quite sophisticated [in her belief], especially for her time. My father was moderately anti-Church. This dynamic was very typical for the French middle class. My mother was not very influential at first. Every time I could escape from Sunday church I did, from the age of twelve until about thirty. But it is false to think that I stumbled into Christianity. I had Christian elements in my childhood that were¯that are¯very powerful, and the influence of my mother was very important. Therefore, [the research for Deceit, Desire and the Novel ] was a renewal of my Christianity and it was a very challenging course. The childhood experiences can be very important. The more I think about it, the more I think that you’re right in suggesting that this was the case.
GK: The Church in America, and to maybe a lesser extent, in Western Europe, seems bitterly divided between those who call themselves traditional and those who call themselves progressive . Besides ignoring these superficial distinctions, are there ways that you have been able to avoiding aligning yourselves with a “group” within the Church?
RG: It is a complicated question. I think there is little difference between Europe and America, or less than you imply. The question about division between progressives and traditionalists has dominated conversation for many years. Today I feel that it is a little bit passé and not as relevant as it used to be. It seems to be that the great progressive enthusiasm of the Council seems to have lessened and to be less important. The question for me is whether one remains a Christian or not, really. I am inclined to feel not like a Christian of the past but as a permanent Christian. I was regarded as extremely conservative at the time because I felt that progressive Christianity at the time was imitating, if you will, debates that were not fundamentally religious . . . debates of political life and of social action [that] are interesting, but not fundamental to Christianity. In my view the question is whether one believes or not in the Incarnation and the divinity of Christ. We are slowly going back to that.
I do not read many periodicals and I have little or no contact with progressive Christians, so I don’t really know what goes on with them. It seemed to me that very often the progressive Christianity was an initial step in de-Christianization but this was probably unfair.
GK: Being French but also an American resident, do you find the American church too inwardly-turned?
RG: Historically, this has been so true of the French church, which called itself the “Gallican” church to emphasize its independence of the papacy. From a French point of view, the American church is much more concerned with its relationship to the papacy and its desire to be orthodox and to say things that are not out of order from the general Christian standpoint.
From the perspective of someone from the outside, the American church is extremely generous in its giving. There is certainly something of the scapegoating, but it does not strike me as a particularly American phenomenon.
The tendency to criticize the papacy was very great in France. For instance, during the First World War, people are not aware of what happened with Benedict XV. (Maybe Benedict XVI took this name because of him). Benedict was very popular during the war, although he was unpopular in France for being too pro-German, and unpopular in Germany for being too pro-French. He made very praiseworthy efforts to stop the fighting during the year. He intervened and did his best to promote negotiations. No one has appreciated his effort as much as people should have. He was really prophetic in understanding that war was a disaster of major proportions for all of Europe.
GK: If the pope were to ask you what we need to do better to catechize in the Church, what would you say?
RG: The Church is aware of what it is, and it is constantly asking itself what it needs to do to improve. Reaching the young people, certainly. This explains why John Paul II was so important. He is the only one who seems to have succeeded up to a point in reaching them. The mysterious sympathy of young people toward John Paul II has been greatly emphasized in recounting his papacy. Events like “World Youth Day” are very important. Obviously the new pope does not have the same charisma as his predecessor, but the great success of his visit in the United States and the recent visit in France was pretty amazing. There were 250,000 people to listen to his Mass and 100,000 of them spent the night there. This was an extremely impressive affair. So people who think that Christianity is over in France are completely wrong, I think.
For instance, when Cardinal Lustiger was in Paris he said Mass at 6:30pm on Sundays at Notre Dame. If you didn’t arrive well ahead of time it was impossible to get a seat in the church. He was very unpopular with some of the clergy in Paris, progressives who regarded him as too conservative. But with the people of Paris his popularity was absolutely incredible. This phenomenon has not been publicized enough as it should be because there was something quite paradoxical about it. He was not a Parisian but a Jew, and a bishop in Orleans before coming to Paris. His popularity was a very unusual phenomenon.
GK: How do you think of your work as apologetic?
RG: I think the most influential aspect of my work is to show that Judaism and Christianity exist in a continuity with archaic religions. I am fundamentally an anthropologist and a rationalist. What I say is that human societies are very different from what specialists call “animal society” because the former have religion. In archaic society religion and culture are absolutely one, even when they don’t seem to be. Religion, therefore, is a way that human beings learn, without realizing it, how to deal with violence in their midst. Here, sacrifice comes in as the killing of substitute victims. This phenomenon as a scientific entity should be explained in purely anthropological terms. It takes no religious conviction to be understood. It is a complete revolution in the way that even people unfavorable to religion understand archaic religion; to show that they are absolutely indispensable to the survival of man is a very important thing.
In a way, Christianity is the end of archaic religions because it reveals that the victim is innocent. When you understand Christianity correctly in its closeness and distance from archaic religion it is the same structure, the scapegoat phenomenon, that Jesus is victim of. Yet the text is intended to destroy your belief in scapegoat phenomenon instead of using it in order to have sacrifices. The relationship is very central and rational with all archaic religions in the past that may go back tens of thousands of years. This is very important.
The religion of the Incarnation should be an anthropology as well as a theology. Incarnation means man and God together. Theology is pure God and is built on schemes that completely neglect what we call Incarnation in Christianity.
GK: On a more personal level, do you have any insight on making the faith attractive to non-believers?
RG: An important thing would be to show that Christianity has something to say about the sciences of man. This is absolutely indispensable. Anthropology has always seen religion as some kind of story. Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century felt that archaic religion was the first attempt to understand the “mysteries of the universe.” In other words, it undertook the same enterprise as science. But it was very bad science instead of being very good science, according to Comte. In the middle [for nineteenth-century positivists] there was philosophy, which was a little better than theology but still not as good as science.
That view was very abstract and has little to do with the fact that religion is a very concrete phenomenon that means to prevent people from killing each other completely.
GK: The debate about homosexuality has risen to the forefront in debate among many churches. Your work has been criticized as hostile to homosexuality in its explaining the genesis thereof, yet one of the leading expositors of Girardian theology, James Alison, has used your method to argue for a greater acceptance of homosexuality in the Catholic Church. How would you address this matter?
RG: The theory of homosexuality being linked to mimetic desire is very much disliked by some homosexuals but not all of them. Some have told me of the truth they have felt in this and were not offended. But I cannot say much about it because I am not homosexual myself. I understand very well that James Alison would write what he writes, and he has an experience that is his own.
But I must tell you that I don’t like the debates about this. I feel that the Church has been moving more and more to an understanding of these problems. This movement has been generally very good and has diminished prejudice and that sort of thing. I hope this will continue and when I can do something to encourage this I do it. But it is not for the Church to emphasize these questions. It can be turned into a spectacle, which I think is not right, not sound, and not good.
I do not see why the expansion of the use of the word marriage to homosexuals would help the situation. I am favorable in principle to whatever can help destroy the prejudices. But I also understand a legitimacy to the desire not to change the significance of such words as a marriage . I feel moderate on these questions. I feel it would be better to try to quiet the situation. I don’t see the need for some great language revolution. These things seem very important at certain times, but once the change of language is accepted they can become insignificant rapidly.
GK: How do you think the main theses of your work will be played out in the coming decades?
RG: I think the question and the paradox of the scapegoat (it is there when you don’t see it, and not there when you see it) is going to be understood better and will play a role in apologetics that it has never played. The view of Christianity is not paradoxical enough. I think that when you read Kierkegaard carefully he is not very far from several of the things that the scapegoat theory can formulate more rationally. Therefore, it can be a tool of apologetics that hasn’t been discovered yet.
Grant Kaplan is an assistant professor of theology at Saint Louis University.
Written by René Girard in First Things : “Are the Gospels Mythical ?”
Joseph Bottum on “Girard Among the Girardians “