Deciphering Girard 28 April 2014

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René Girard is one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era, known most notably for his theories on the Bible. Yet like many great minds, his writings can often be inaccessible to the layperson. Here, Reverend Keith Hebden reviews James Warren’s ‘Compassion or Apocalypse: A Comprehensible Guide to the Thought of René Girard’.

Rene Girard

René Girard: philosopher, historian and literary critic who has contributed theories and ideas to many disciplines.

James Warren walks us through Girard’s use of “mimetics” as a key to understanding popular literature, biblical narrative, and human relationships in general. With this key he unlocks the story of Adam and Eve’s fall and expulsion in ways that are likely to be novel to any reader unfamiliar with the key. The story is completely broken up and points to something that is both an endless dilemma of the human condition and the means of salvation: freedom from mimesis.

Mimetics and Scapegoating

Social philosopher René Girard describes mimetics as rooted in conflicts that naturally arise when we compete with those we admire. The competition emerges out of the normal social behaviour, exhibited almost from birth, of copying the desires of others: Mimesis. The concept of mimetics was coined by René Girard and has had a huge impact on social theory and on theology ever since. It is simple, once understood, yet radical in the way it opens up our understanding of practically every social interaction and conflict.

Imagine two boys who play constantly together and share all interests bar none. They, climb, play, and fight together and of course support the same football team. One day one of them meets a girl; she is adorable and he adores her. He tells his best friend how beautiful, intelligent and funny she is and the friend is keen to share in his pal’s enthusiasm. (Alright, I admit it: one of them was me!).

The friend is so keen to be like his best friend in all things that pretty soon he too is in love with the girl. It is at this point that the conflict begins to emerge and for the first time these firm friends fall out with each other. It scares them and both hope to resolve their dispute, but they are unwilling or unable to find the source of it. Instead, they seek an outsider to be the target of their anger. The girl, whose arrival on the scene coincided with the conflict, is the obvious choice. She must be blamed in order to preserve the ‘peace’ between the friends.

What has been described in my opening story above, in its simple, almost innocent narrative, is the process of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating. Human interaction goes deeper than simply “copying” others. If it were only a case of mimicry there would be no great distinction between us and any other creature – nothing worth noting in what became Girard’s life’s work. Mimetics goes beyond mimicry because it is about copying desire rather than just the superficial mechanism of copying action.

Society and the Outsider

Scaled up, the same can be true of any community where identification with one another’s desires leads to an intra-communal conflict, which is resolved either by the group destroying itself in revenge or destroying a symbolic outsider. The group usually chooses the outsider rather than face deeper internal issues.

Warren’s chapter on scandal carefully builds a case for what is a mystic and liberating dynamic that breaks with the scandal of treating others as the source of our identity instead of looking to God – the only One who transcends the systems of desire. Having taken us through the complex maze of scandal Warren moves to another biblical motif founded in the mimetic trap: scapegoating.

So if it’s all so simple, why the need for this book? Perhaps because to use a tool so simple as mimetics, in a world so complex as the one we inhabit, we need not only an idea but an arena for testing it in and, because Girard does so in spades – through ancient and contemporary practice and literature – it’s great to have a companion like Warren to help us navigate this awesome task. Warren’s book is aimed at those with no knowledge of Girard as well as those who’ve begun to study his works but need a bit of a helping hand.

Identifying the likely scapegoats in our societies and standing alongside them, equipping our communities with means of identifying and working through the causes of conflict, is the stuff of the good news of Jesus. Jesus after all was an innocent victim made to pay for the sins of the system, but vindicated by a resurrecting God who refused the sacrificial offering of the ‘Human One’ as Jesus called himself (Matthew 26:63–64) and turned the scapegoating world upside down. In telling the story of a resurrected innocent victim, the gospel writers bring to the forefront a story that has long been part of the Jewish tradition: that it is the outsider, the scapegoat, the one who is beyond care, that directs us to the true compassionate justice of God.

Understanding the Biblical God

Compassion or Apocalypse - A Guide to GirardLike many Christians, including Warren, I came to the ideas of René Girard obliquely through another writer. For me it was the writings of Catholic theologian James Allison, and my own search for the answer to the question, “Why is the God of the Bible so violent?” For Warren it was Gil Bailie’s exploration of violence, so the same question was the root of both our quests. But what Warren has done that so many others – indebted as they are to Girard, have not – is that he has made a comprehensive study of Girard and found a way to offer a compelling and easily accessible approach to understanding both the depth and breadth of Girard’s key ideas.

Warren gives the impression early on that his overarching question is where I also started: whether God is violent. While this question is important to Girard, and therefore to Warren, because the huge opportunity for re-imagining that Girardian thought unleashes on pretty much everything, it is quickly superseded by other questions. These include his playful use of Dr Seuss to explain vengeance, and his use of gospel narrative to explain a whole host of social and personal dynamics most brilliantly brought to bear on the story of Jesus’ exorcism of the Geresene demoniac.

This book is not simply a text book of Girardian thought, but is Warren’s perspective on Girard. To really understand mimetics as Girard did we must also turn to his own words. That’s exactly what this book makes the reader want to do. This book particularly aims at a Christian readership, and those Christians in the radical and pacifist tradition would enjoy getting to grips with its ideas. Warren uses a familiar way of writing and a great deployment of the everyday to illustrate significant philosophical points. This is important as Girard is essentially about the everyday reality and claims to take hold of some universal experiences of relating to The Other.

Warren gently relates that the development of the person is shaped not simply by mimicry, but by mimesis; that is the mimicry of the desires of others. He then carefully dissects human desires to separate out desire from simple or biological appetite, then expands this dynamic into a socially cohesive and shared mimetic desire.

This book leaves me sharing Warren’s desire for Girard’s writing. Having read just a few books by Girard I now want more. Warren has done us all a huge favour in writing this book. Friends to whom I wouldn’t have recommended Girard, for fear of putting them off with the density of his prose and concepts, can find an accessible read hear that is no less rigorous or thought-provoking for it.

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About Keith Hebden

Rev Keith Hebden is an associate of the think tank Ekklesia.co.uk and an Anglican pioneer minister and Seeking Justice deanery adviser in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, where he chairs the Diocesan Greener Churches Group. He teaches and writes on Dalit theology, Christian anarchism, green spirituality and spiritual activism. Some of his workshop material can be found at Compassionistas.net