Wednesday, April 04, 2007

René Girard for Holy Week

First it was Mark Gordon lifting up praise for Girard and now we have FIRST THINGS article René Girard for Holy Week by Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

Here is an excerpt:
Again, if you want to know why contemporary art keeps preening itself on its “daring transgressions,” you’ll find the answer in Girard. Also, if you’re a puzzled secularist, wondering why religion is making such a comeback in the headlines, you need only go to Girard for the answer. As Kirwin rightly notes: “Girard has explicitly distanced himself from Marcel Gauchet’s claim that Christianity has brought about the end of religion in the world. Rather, he suggests our current humanism will be perceived as merely a short interval between two forms of religion.” (I don’t think Girard has been at all taken off-guard by the resurgence of militant Islam.)

Of course, that still leaves open the question of what that “second form” of religion will look like in the future, to which Girard has only this quintessentially Christian answer to give: “What makes our hearts turn to stone is the discovery that, in one sense or another, we are all butchers pretending to be sacrificers. . . . One thing alone can put an end to this infernal ordeal, the certainty of being forgiven.”

What a great Holy Week meditation - reading the anthropological study of mimesis through the lens of René Girard. In fact anytime is a great time for this.

18 comments:

Porthos said...

Thanks! Looks great! I can't get past First Thing's subscription wall.

(I used to be a subscriber to the paper version for many years.)

Fr. Oakes has written a lot of interesting stuff in FT, including some rather sharp criticism of Intelligent Design.

Aramis said...

Dear Porthos,

Are you saying you are unable to link to the article in First Things?

Athos said...

I've read two pieces by Fr Oakes and liked them both very much.

His theological critique of Girard going all weak regarding the Church's Doctrine of Atonement strikes home, IMO, regarding certain folk who fall for the liberalization of Girard. It may be an actual weakness of mimetic theory in its eagerness to be "scientific". Oakes:

The Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, took issue with Girard on just this point—most directly in the fourth volume of his Theo-Drama, subtitled The Action (or “plot”). There he points out, tellingly, that in Violence and the Sacred the words God and Christ never appear (although Balthasar concedes God and Christ are present throughout the book implicitly). But, more to the point, Girard adopts a position on the Atonement, Balthasar claims, that is oddly redolent of the early Karl Barth...

It seems to me that this may be because Girard does not want to give up his membership in the academy, and simply goes unsaid. What goes unsaid? Talk about the metaphysical Otherness of a benevolent God who created (Father) the universe, sustains the universe (Holy Spirit), and entered to redeem the human cosmos, at least. How does one explain the term "external mediator" in any other way?

So, I'm in Fr Oakes corner in not throwing the baby of the Doctrine of Atonement with the bathwater of deconstructionist thought.

Porthos said...

Yes, I cannot link to the piece. It just gives me a registration wall, but I can't register unless I have an account number from a paper subscription.

Athos said...

I just sent you the article as a word.doc attachment via email, Porthos.

Porthos said...

Thanks, Ath!

I am very much in agreement with you re: atonement. I think there are a few things, but very big things, that Girard and MT miss--or rather, have not yet been developed enough to account for. Another (and it may be somewhat the same thing) is suffering. Another is gift.

There may be a way through to these blank areas, but MT will never get there if it is accepted as a total system rather than a line of inquiry.

But anyway, I need to read the article!

Porthos said...

Good article! Thanks again, Ath!

We should discuss this in depth.

Athos said...

One notes with some true sympathy the way that some erstwhile internet acquaintance is writhing under the heft of what Fr Oakes, with Fr von Balthasar, and St Anselm, said in yon article (i.e., the old list starter).

Sadly, Porthos isn't witnessing this shrill reprisal. Alas and alack.

Porthos said...

Gosh, how impoverished I am to miss all the fun!

However, I differ from you perhaps in one respect; I feel compelled to say, in fairness to our friends, that I never felt that they were taking unjustifiable liberties with Girard. They were just taking Girard at his word. MT tends naturally toward postmodern social gospel victimology, let Girard himself make ever so many scattered caveats to the contrary.

There is a certain disconnect, as Fr. Oakes notes, between Girard's confessional commitment and his theory.

Porthos said...

Thanks also Aramis for the doubled email attachment.

Athos said...

There is a certain disconnect, as Fr. Oakes notes, between Girard's confessional commitment and his theory

Yes. I think Fr Oakes is delicately, but certainly not hat-in-hand, saying this gloved in his appreciative words surrounding the critique. More the way a Confessional discussion goes with a vvery savvy priest who wants to confront yet not provoke.

Porthos said...

I feel guilty now, as if I were initiating some kind of Girard dissing session. My debt to Girard and MT is deep, and it is difficult to articulate that AND, at the same time, express reservations about MT as a total system that is supposed to help me live the faith.

As Ath put it somewhere above, it must be very difficult to, on the one hand, carry on a discourse with scholastics where one is trying to sell them on Christianity in the context of default atheist assumptions, and, on the other hand, make a profound theological contribution that will deepen the faith of believers. Girard does both, but often, in MT, the eviscerated ("demythologized") language of faith that arises from the first type of discourse is brought back into the' discourse with the faith community. This language and these concepts don't always cut it for me because I'm not in a place where I have to present every item of faith so that it is palatable to scholastics. (However, other people are differently placed, and I should not denigrate the difficulties or complexity of their situation.)

I think I could make a fairly clear itemized list of where I have problems with MT.

For starters, I might say that not every sorrow and suffering is comprehensible in terms of the scapegoat mechanism. This is important insofar as Jesus' sorrow and suffering is participatory--he shares in all ours, and we are invited to share all ours in his (and furthermore, this is our bridge toward bringing Christ into the world and to others). This is deeply personal and a major, if not THE major, aspect of what it means to be a Christian, to belong to Christ, to share everything with Him and to experience Him in all that happens to us. Yet if Christ's Passion is ONLY a certain kind of social awareness, all or most of this is lost--part of the "mythology" which "true" Christianity is supposed to deconstruct. Yet, don't get me wrong; Girard is right about the awakened social awareness, I'm sure. It's just not everything.

Practically speaking, I assume that all or most Christian Girardians know this on some level. They'll speak the radicaizingl and all-encompassing theology of MT on the one hand, then go on and actually live their particularized walk on the other--where they (quite rightly) essentially forget everything they learned in MT 101 and, out of deep need, offer it up.

Gotta stop now.

Athos said...

It's a matter of subsets, IMO. If we are scapegoating the great man, that is not acceptable. But these are important points of discussion regarding something as important as doctrine.

The usual concerns will be raised: people are more important than doctrines, legalism must step aside for this and that ...

But, as Bailie once said to me, if the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith called Girard to defend MT, he would gladly go along with the Magisterium.

Aramis said...

Well, I don't think I am in disagreement with you guys; however I may need more of your clarification, particularly after you read the following.

In a comment above Porthos said: MT will never get there if it is accepted as a total system rather than a line of inquiry.

Athos commented in another post:
As Porthos is wont to say, mimetic theory is a helpful tool so long as it isn't taken as an end all be all. The anthropological as a diagnostic instrument in the hands of the Church's Magisterium is extremely helpful for studying sin pathology and taking preventative measures. It is prayer, sacraments, faith, hope, and charity all in a relation with the Source and Summit of our being, Jesus Christ our Eucharistic Lord, where real life happens, IMHO!

In Gil's tape series, "The Trinity" he reminds us that we live in a Trinitarian world. And, as 'holons' (a Oughourlian term which he feels better describes what he thinks a 'person' represents in his book, "The Puppet of Desire") we are creatures of another or Other - it is either the crowd (terrifying at times or simply in a state of flex, but keeping one ever so knotted up in its web of soap operas) OR the church (as the Holy Spirit and the task of the church walk hand-in-hand releasing us from the melodramas).

When we attempt to study MT separate and distinct from a universal theory we are usually bound up in fragmental thinking that has no place to put the larger aspect of MT, leaving us with an incomplete and troublesome version of MT. I feel that theologians are called 'back' to their table (of whatever they do) with this fresh approach (and language partner) to a Gospel revelation which Girard has drawn out by way of a 'scientific' venue.

I agree with your statement Athos, that it is through prayer, sacraments, faith, hope, and charity that we become ontologically substantial, however this must be (and I know you are way ahead of me here) seen in communion – in church with others. Our world today is so divided that we must say these things for most people will not draw out the connection between church and our ontological substantiation. They must be seen as building blocks of the new creation that St. Paul talks about.

The key to this solidification is our understanding of the glue that holds sway with either the crowd or the church, and that is sacrifice. The glue and this understanding of how we are joined together is paramount to seeing the larger picture, as Girard acknowledged so much as he changed his view on this with the help of Fr. Schwager. Girard’s reference to 1 Kings 3:16 and the story of the 2 widows and the judgment of King Solomon is so telling of this universal understanding of the choice between one form of sacrifice as it relates to the crowd and the other form of sacrifice as it relates to the church. I think this connection needs to be drawn out more for people to understand.

I find that most of our academic thinking is based “in the crowd” and therefore our reasoning power is limited to or spirals around throwing this Point out. The church is commissioned to go out into the world proclaiming this Point of which we are all called into love and worship, building community. I just pray that we don't get stuck in academic thinking and toss MT out because of its look of universality.

Porthos said...

There is quite a lot of ground to cover here.

No doubt academe thinks it has come out of the crowd and that it is the slaverring proles of piety who are caught up in their sacred frenzy. And then it just gets down to trading accusations (which MT was supposed to lift us out of, right?). One person's victim is another's sacred fetish. One person thinks Terri Schiavo was a victim, another thinks the agitation around the miserable vegetable lady was the mindless generative mechanism of the sacred mob polarizing around its sacred figure and crying for blood (regardless of whether any blood is cried out for). Who arbitrates? MT does not arbitrate particularly well. Victim status can be claimed by anyone for any reason. Anybody can be plausibly criticized for being in some kind of sacred mob. I mean, really, GA is much more able to handle the phenomenon of victimology itself, at least theoretically--or at least, it makes an effort.

Or consider marriage. Is it a primal good to be defended and preserved, or a archaic taboo whose decontruction should be seen as inevitable? MT leans VERY heavily in the latter direction and we shouldn't pretend that it doesn't (or blame MTers who naturally follow MT to its own conclusion).

But anyway, universality can be understood different ways. You can have universals about prime numbers. But they apply universally to prime numbers and may not to non-prime numbers. Should I get upset about that? It's not a question of tossing MT out. I should think MT would be less likely to be tossed out if it were tested, refined, clarified, extended, developed rather than accepted en bloc as a total system that has to work for everything in every possible way or nothing at all in no possible way.

It might also be worthwhile also to consider Popper's dictum: a theory that explains everything explains nothing. Popper is not airtight there, but the dictum can certainly make one stop and think. (I believe Hammerton-Kelley at one point addresses the Popperian objection in one essay that Ath pointed me to long ago.)

A neat but incomplete theory is not a crisis of faith for me. It's just a neat but incomplete theory. Heck, people get paid to work this stuff out. If someone wants me to invest my faith in MT, let them write me a huge grant and maybe I'll try it for a year. If the grant's bigger, maybe two.

But seriously, OK, I agree with what you dudes are saying above insofar as we are all three drawn to a sacramental life.

To me, MT is detail work, an intellectual hypothesis, to be worked out slowly. I accept some of its generalities, but always somewhat reluctantly.

Athos said...

To me, MT is detail work, an intellectual hypothesis, to be worked out slowly. I accept some of its generalities, but always somewhat reluctantly

Here again, I believe we have a personality difference. From the get go I had an electric thrill of being on the scent of something really important. The impression grew steadily more and more trustworthy the more I listened to Bailie (first Gospel of John tapes, then one by one all the rest I am aware of), then delving into Girard's works and the others in his wake.

I want his to be a "unified field theory," but not to the point of butting against the Church's Magisterium. And it is precisely at this point that I commend Gil and Girard himself: their humility says all the more about them, their work, and the validity of mimetic theory.

The image that comes to my mind is that MT is a bright and illuminating hand torch that is extremely helpful to the theologian (although eminently useful to any area of study of human behavior). The Church's teaching, the servant of Scripture and Tradition, is what one consults when the "torch" gives conflictual, contradictory data, or when one doesn't want to fall prey to one's puny decision-making tribunal.

Probably bilge but I'm still working on it.

Aramis said...

Great discussion. Going back to Porthos, I do not believe that we should look at the material as if there is a lot of ground to cover (I know, my comments rambled on way too much) and I do acknowledge that there is a lot to MT, but at the heart of it there is still the mystery of desire, where words have trouble expressing. As Girard's life work found with MT (not that he has said this in so many words) is that it needs to be fully studied in proximity to the altar. To see a ‘positive value’ (and that means a long term benefit) from MT it must be read from a partnering with the Church's Magisterium and the Gospels.

The further away from the altar one goes to try to bring forth reason or justification for judgment, though MT may initially appear a worthy tool for this means, it will ultimately led one back to the crowd and the soap operas of finger-pointing, as you were saying, "One person's victim is another's sacred fetish."

Like most all human attempts at theory, we must recognize how MT can and is being used, by secularist as well as religious. The following Merton quote implicates all theories: "Those who think there can be a just cause for (violent) measures, ... are in the most dangerous illusion, and if they are Christian they are purely and simply arming themselves with hammer and nails, without realizing it, to crucify and deny Christ."
[From Merton's Cold War Letters, quoted by Jim Douglass , Catholic Peace Voice, Winter, 2007]

This quote also illustrates, with its reference to Christians (but actually all religious, for we all are prone to bringing back the old sacred) why we need to pray that the theologians begin partnering with an anthropological rather than rely just on a philosophical language partner, so that they can help work out the ‘negative’ or distorted view that can come out of MT.

Athos hits the mark pretty well with his comment: “The image that comes to my mind is that MT is a bright and illuminating hand torch that is extremely helpful to the theologian (although eminently useful to any area of study of human behavior). The Church's teaching, the servant of Scripture and Tradition, is what one consults when the "torch" gives conflictual, contradictory data, or when one doesn't want to fall prey to one's puny decision-making tribunal.”

What I quibble about (not necessarily disagree with) is that MT is “eminently useful to any area of study of human behavior.” I believe that MT can also be hazardous to our health if left in the hands of those who (and maybe they are not conscious of it) have an agenda or any “just cause” separate from Church's teaching, the servant of Scripture and Tradition. But this is the risk that accompanies freedom.

In my earlier comment I left out the all important aspect of desire, and of course we are not talking of Freudian desire here. To effectively resolve the issue of violence, that is our sinfulness, we must start at desire and it is here we need so much help, for without obedience our desires are chaff in the wind. For our life to be one of prayer and discernment, we must choose to blossom forth from the God of I AM; the God of Love, and not from any other. When I make judgments or choices or decisions, what is really the source of my ontological substantiation? Whom am I grounded in? Whose feet am I washing? Who do I let wash my feet? I find that the world’s distractions are being amplified more and more in efforts to keep us from answering or even acknowledging these reflections.

I think if one can start to get their arms around this reflection they can begin to use MT in the way that is truly helpful for themselves as members of the Body of Christ. They will begin to experience the freedom of obedience loosening the restraints that keep us wrapped up in the crowd ever spinning in the cycle of violence and sin.

Athos said...

I believe that MT can also be hazardous to our health if left in the hands of those who (and maybe they are not conscious of it) have an agenda or any “just cause” separate from Church's teaching, the servant of Scripture and Tradition. But this is the risk that accompanies freedom

Extremely important to remember this, Aramis. Thank you for raising the concern. Yes, I've often wondered what havoc a partisan political advisor couldn't reak using the "reveal code" button of MT. Why, he might even start a war using phony evidence of WMD.

Or instigate a Dionysus Mandate as a "peace restoring" institution ...