Sunday, August 12, 2007

Girardean things hidden since the foundation of the world...

René Girard
(Image from Stanford University)

...or at least since yesterday for me, when I first puzzled over Roger Scruton's summary of a point developed by René Girard in Le Bouc émissaire (The Scapegoat).

The point developed by Girard, as I have since come to understand, concerns archaic religion's emphasis upon the killing of a sacrificial victim, who serves as the ritualized object of sacral hatred expressed through a sacrificial act carried out by a community to purify itself of its envy and jealousy by concentrating all of its impurity upon one individual whose death effects the destruction of that impurity and thereby restores communal peace. Temporarily.

Now, let's turn to Scruton's puzzling summary, in "The sacred and the human" (Prospect Magazine, Issue 137, August 2007), of Girard's point:
Only those ignorant of the source of their hatred can be healed by its expression, for only they can proceed with a clear conscience towards the tragic climax.
Scruton's summary here refers to non-Christian sacrifice, which works effectively only so long as the community members remain unaware that they are motivated by their own flawed nature, their own envy and jealousy, for only if they believe that they have killed the truly guilty one can they feel justified in their regained innocence.

Or so I gather is what Girard more or less means in the system that lies behind Scruton's summary. Doubtless, I've gotten some of it wrong, but be patient with me, for I'm working in relative ignorance of Girard own writings.

Anyway, I think that I now understand Scruton's larger summary as well, for in the Christian enactment of the archaic sacrifice, the victim himself forgives those who sacrifice him:
The climax, however, is not the death of the scapegoat but the experience of sacred awe, as the victim, at the moment of death, forgives his tormentors. This is the moment of transcendence, in which even the cruellest of persecutors can learn to humble himself and to renounce his vengeful passion.
This forgiveness works to effect something even larger, as Scruton explains, again summarizing Girard:
Christ's submission purified society and religion of the need for sacrificial murder.
It could only do so, of course, because in Christianity's high Christology, the crucified Christ is himself divine. Absent that detail, the death of Jesus is merely a sad, if noble, tale.

In poking about on the internet, I came upon an interview with Girard by Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, which published the interview in its Summer 2005 issue under the title "Ratzinger Is Right." In this interview, Gardels poses a startling question:
NPQ: Is Christianity superior to other religions?
Girard affirms this without hesitation, then procedes to lay out his own summary of his theory, which helps clarify Scruton's obscure remarks:
Girard: Yes. All of my work has been an effort to show that Christianity is superior and not just another mythology. In mythology, a furious mob mobilizes against scapegoats held responsible for some huge crisis. The sacrifice of the guilty victim through collective violence ends the crisis and founds a new order ordained by the divine. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.

It is true that the structure of the Gospels is similar to that of mythology in which a crisis is resolved through a single victim who unites everybody against him, thus reconciling the community. As the Greeks thought, the shock of death of the victim brings about a catharsis that reconciles. It extinguishes the appetite for violence. For the Greeks, the tragic death of the hero enabled ordinary people to go back to their peaceful lives.

However, in this case, the victim is innocent and the victimizers are guilty. Collective violence against the scapegoat as a sacred, founding act is revealed as a lie. Christ redeems the victimizers through enduring his suffering, imploring God to "forgive them for they know not what they do." He refuses to plead to God to avenge his victimhood with reciprocal violence. Rather, he turns the other cheek.

The victory of the Cross is a victory of love against the scapegoating cycle of violence. It punctures the idea that hatred is a sacred duty.

The Gospels do everything that the (Old Testament) Bible had done before, rehabilitating a victimized prophet, a wrongly accused victim. But they also universalize this rehabilitation. They show that, since the foundation of the world, the victims of all Passion-like murders have been victims of the same mob contagion as Jesus. The Gospels make this revelation complete because they give to the biblical denunciation of idolatry a concrete demonstration of how false gods and their violent cultural systems are generated.

This is the truth missing from mythology, the truth that subverts the violent system of this world. This revelation of collective violence as a lie is the earmark of Christianity. This is what is unique about Christianity. And this uniqueness is true.
I'm curious what Girard means by "true" in this last remark. Does he mean that the Christian story of Christ's sacrifice is true in its historical and theological details, or does he mean that it's true in the sense that it expresses most succinctly the psychological truth that lies behind the scapegoating myth, namely, the guilt that each individual bears for the envy and jealousy felt toward other individuals, hatreds that can only be overcome through forgiveness?

I guess that finding the answer to this will require some future reading on my part in Girard's oeuvre...

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At 12:37 PM, Blogger Jessica said...

How, then, is Christianity superior to Islam, might he argue?

At 1:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Not having read much of Girard, I don't know, but I'm guessing that he would argue that Islam lacks the necessary sacrifice of the willing, innocent victim who forgives those sacrificing him, a renunciation of vengeance that breaks the cycle of sacred violence.

In other words, because Christianity is Christianity, but Islam isn't.

That's my guess.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crikey, so that is what Scruton meant! It seemed to pass all understanding...which is typical of Scruton except when he expresses his prejudices, then he is quite mundane.

At 7:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well ... I've had second thoughts since posting this guess. See my next post.

Jeffery Hodges

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