René Girard: The Creed Overcomes the World

First published in the Japan Mission Journal, Autumn 2023

As soon as I began exploring the Internet from the mid 1990s, I ran into arguments against Christian belief that were couched in the following terms: ‘To believe in an objective truth, to believe that history has a meaning and a destiny, is necessarily to wish to impose that understanding on others. All such “overarching stories”– otherwise known as “meta-narratives” or “master narratives”—are necessarily intolerant and violent—the Christian Creed included. The history of Christianity proves exactly that.

This is the argument for relativism, for the impossibility—and the danger—of any Creed, any overarching ‘story of salvation.’ It is the Gospel according to postmodernism. Yet when Pope Benedict XVI launched an intellectual assault on what he called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ in 2005, he found a firm supporter in the influential literary, anthropological, and philosophical thinker René Girard (1923-2015).

Girard upholds the objective truth of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, but gives it an anthropological reading that renders it credible in a fresh way. He sets up the Creed against the World in a battle for the human soul. Here I shall meditate on two Girardian themes: the influence of mimetic rivalry in history, and the way in which the Gospel weans us from seeking glory from one another (showing the importance of this for young people dealing with social media today).

A native of Avignon, France, who spent the bulk of his career in the United States, Girard insisted that he was never a theologian. He was first (in chronological order) a historian, then a literary critic, then a cultural anthropologist, and then a philosopher of violence in his ground-breaking work La Violence et le Sacré.1 René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) He came from a French intellectual tradition that was, on his father’s side, secularist and anticlerical. Nevertheless in the 1970s he came to the firm conclusion that the Jewish and Christian scriptures, known to us as the Bible, had revealed, more clearly than any other texts, a fundamental inescapable truth about human nature – a truth that lies, he argues, at the root of all violence.

This is as follows: after we have satisfied our basic physical needs we humans literally do not know what we should want. Someone else who is apparently more important than ourselves must show us what to want or desire. We are therefore, necessarily, imitative beings. We learn by copying, subliminally, the behavior we see, as soon as we begin to see. We cannot help but adopt as our own at least some of the desires that we also see—especially the desires we observe in those who appear to have greater ‘being’ or status or fame. Girard calls this copied desire ‘mimetic desire.’ He identifies it with the tendency we are warned against in the 9th and 10th commandments—not to covet what belongs to a neighbor—not to want anything that belongs to a neighbor.

To covet is not a matter of simple greed or desire; it entails an element of rivalry and imitation. The repetition of the word ‘neighbor’ is, Girard argued, all-important. It is through that lens that he interpreted the tales of violence in Scripture and indeed the entire historical record. (He had previously uncovered the dynamics of mimetic desire in studies of the modern novel, including Cervantes, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, and Proust.)2See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

Mimetic Desire in History

Take, for example, the young 6thcentury Irish monk, Columba. His coveted object was the laboriously handwritten and unique copy of the Psalms owned and prized by his eminent neighbor St Finnian. According to one version of the story there followed from this clashing desire the collision of two Ulster Gaelic noble families in the battle of Cul Dreimne in 561—–and Columba’s penitential exile on Iona. The history of copyright law began at that point, according to Wikipedia.

Henry II of England coveted the lands of his nearest neighbors to the west, the Irish. There was a ready excuse for appropriating them: the allegedly lower moral and religious standards of us Irish back then. No eminent cleric in England, or Rome, demurred (as far as I know) when Henry performed his religious duty—by invading Ireland in 1171. Note both the ostensible religious motive for that invasion and the far more likely motive—simply wanting what your neighbor has that you do not. Those who want to see in religion the cause of all violence do not ever want to notice what almost always lies beneath.

How could Henry II of England so easily get away with that? Recall that since the fourth century Christianity had come to be allied with state actors in a contract that seemed to benefit both. Charles the Great (Charlemagne) crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, had built that empire, avowedly, in the cause of the one true faith. He did that, often, with immense cruelty.

And then, in 1095 came the famous speech attributed to Pope Urban II at Clermont—the oration that launched the first Crusade against the Islamic world. One historical source has Urban saying the following:

Can anyone tolerate that we [Europeans] do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited earth? They have made Asia, which is a third of the world, their homeland…. They have also forcibly held Africa, the second portion of the world, for over 200 years. There remains Europe, the third continent. How small a portion of it is inhabited by us Christians.3Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976, p. 244

Yes of course there were very good religious reasons for heading off to Jerusalem with an army, but was the occupation of the Holy Land by the Crusaders truly all about religious zeal? Exactly the same question applies to the global Christian imperialism that set in with the voyages of discovery in the 1400s, with Portugal and Spain in the lead. In the summer of 2022 Pope Francis was faced with the so called ‘doctrine of discovery’ that justified all that.

The New Digital Imperialism

In our own time, following the rise and fall of the prestige of Christian churches (over twenty centuries) a new global empire has arisen: the empire of global electronic media. Everywhere the teenagers of today can look for proof of their own significance on screens they need never darken. The screen itself, easily portable on a mobile smartphone, is a mimetic magnet. If a friend is absorbed in her phone that surely signifies the existence of a more important social universe via the phone than can exist without one, so the phone becomes a ‘must have’, a ‘portal’ to the irresistible possibility of ‘going viral’. And yet ‘virality’ too is a scarce resource, so fractious rivalries—this time in an arena that is potentially global—are the inevitable consequence of this online mimetic competition for attention.

The result? The verdict of many studies confirms the research of an Oxford University team: screen time correlates with poor mental health and ‘the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use.’ Furthermore, the renowned US psychologist Dr Jean Twenge found in 2022 that the correlation between social media consumption and mental health challenges for young girls was even stronger.

The link between social media use and poor mental health for girls was 10 times as large as what the Oxford paper identified for “screen time.” A recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also examined the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link. These findings fit with Facebook’s internal research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last fall, which concluded that Instagram led to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.’ (Washington Post, 16 February 2022)

The power of ‘social media’ lies in the simplest of mistaken assumptions —that our value and importance are determined by the judgment of others. Disappointment and elation, obscurity or recognition, honor and shame are in the gift of a handheld device that tells us at a glance where we stand. Anyone can therefore fall victim to an iron law of history—the very same law that governed the rivalries of the ancient world. Wherever there is a search for status there will also be the formation of alliances in the shaming of those who are in any way vulnerable.

That many of the young are now mentally distressed and disturbed as a consequence is well established. To believe in the Internet, or in media generally, as the arbiter of a person’s worth is to fall into spiritual poverty. It is also to be in danger of entrapment in cults or conspiracy theories, completely isolated from reality. Already there have been tragic instances of youthful suicide directly related to the power of social media to determine the mood and the behavior of its most vulnerable devotees. It is not far-fetched to describe social media fixation as algorithm enslavement, and the deployers of those algorithms—aiming as they do at ‘hooking’ and retaining the attention of all who enter—as digital imperialists and enslavers.

The Creed as Antidote to Digital Imperialism

The logic of crucifixion in the ancient Roman world was also squarely based upon the proposition that the value and significance of any human life is determined by social verdict. Why take the time to make a spectacle of crucifying anyone if the expected payoff was not the consolidation of the power and status of Rome, by convincing the beholders that there could be no greater power?

And yet the crucifixion of Jesus had the opposite effect on those who firmly believed that, somehow, Jesus had not been obliterated by it. Hence the conviction of the converted Paul of Tarsus that a ‘New Creation’ was now in process, and that the power of Rome was ‘passing away.’ With its trinitarian and resurrectionist core already expressed in the Gospel of Matthew by the end of the first century, the Creedal narrative was clearly in its origins a rebuttal not only of the Lordship of the Caesars, but a portable indestructible passport through any tyranny—to be recited in time of trial as a reminder of where the greater power always lay. The survival and growth of the church in the first three centuries, despite three separate waves of persecution, is testament to a core of belief that warded off all contrary social verdicts. The Creed is the densest expression of that core, even if, under Christendom, it was later misapplied as a catalogue of dogmas serving as an instrument of clerical control.

Now, with clerical control receding into history, the essence of the Creed—the proclamation that Jesus has been resurrected and vindicated by the Father, and raised to the status of supreme judge of the living and the dead—is ready for rediscovery as a rebuttal of the fallacy that anyone but Jesus is valid final judge of any one of us, and therefore as rejection of the orgy of judgmentalism—and of ‘viral’ global ambition—that plagues the Internet. No one should ever consider the verdicts of YouTube or Instagram or TikTok or any other online arena to be definitive of the value of anyone, least of all of oneself.

What has the Experience of Media Shaming taught Irish clergy?

An Irish Catholic Church that has fallen from high social prestige to social disgrace in little over a generation has so far adjusted poorly to this situation. Clergy whose vocations began before ‘the fall’ were themselves teenagers when their own corporation was a power-broker of both honor and shame in Ireland. Resentment and even anger (much of it justified) can be their default reaction to the reversal of fortunes they have experienced.

There is another option: to look again at that human tendency to see ‘honor’ as truly at the mercy of other humans, and to identify this as the driving force of all ascent to social superiority, in all eras, and as the ‘worldliness’ that Jesus came to conquer. The Gospel story exposes that mistake, and the fallibility of human judgment even when all are in agreement. So perhaps we may see the disgracing of the Irish church, at the hands of a secularizing media, as deliverance in disguise. It was to protect its social eminence, its ‘reputation,’ that the clerical institution failed to be truly Christian in its protection of Catholic children. Now their own ‘humiliation by media’ may free them to celebrate and re-affirm the Creed—the shortest summary of the story of Jesus, and of Catholic belief—in the face of a secularism that direly needs it.

Certainly there must be many Irish (and Japanese) teenagers ready for saving from the mistake of believing their dignity is decided by the Internet, so intensely controlled merely by ‘the market.’ Our Creed, rightly understood, can be an instrument of that rescue. It is a calling for all of us to take up that instrument and use it to overcome this new form of enslavement.


[1] René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[2] See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[3] Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 244.

About Sean O'Conaill

Retired teacher of high school history and author. Now editing here and on acireland.ie - and campaigning for immediate implementation of Article 37 of Vatican II's 'Lumen Gentium'. A fuller profile can be found at 'About / Author' from the navigation menu above.

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