Category Archives: René Girard

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.

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Catholic Education and the Future: Insights from René Girard

By Sean O’Conaill and Eugene McElhinney

 “I have integrity, but when winning gets in the way of integrity, integrity goes out the window.” 1Lord Sugar launches his search for a new Young Apprentice; BBC Media Centre, 2011

Attributed in 2011 to a seventeen-year-old contestant in the UK televised reality show, Young Apprentice, this comment resists easy assessment.  Read lightly it can certainly be understood as the facetious acting-out of an ebullient stage persona, by a shrewd young aspirant to stardom who knew there can be media advantage in appearing outrageous.

However, this student’s own Catholic school might have worried that such enthusiastic public support for amorality could be taken more seriously by the school’s competitors, and even by prospecting parents, in a widely diverse and still conflicted society (Northern Ireland).

As former teaching colleagues in that very school we two add our own misgivings over that to other concerning data – to raise the question of the impact of even the best catechetical formation in Catholic schools when set against the background of a fragmented student experience that is far wider and weightier, and is now seriously impacted by international media of all kinds.  This wider formative experience – of the school as well as the student – increasingly pressurises schools to succeed in terms of ‘winning’ something – and cannot be subject to the intent of the church’s General Directory for Catechesis.

Under the heading of ‘other concerning data’ we mention especially the implications of the two-to-one rejection of the church’s official position on the Irish referendum to repeal the 8th amendment to the constitution (forbidding abortion) on May 25th, 2018 – with younger generations proving even more solidly in favour of repeal.  This reinforces the implications of the widely observed departure of school-going teenagers from religious observance In Ireland, and the testimony given by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin to Pope Benedict XVI in 2006: “I can go to parishes on a Sunday where I find no person in the congregations between the ages of 16 and 36. None at all.”2Irish bishops in Rome for talks with Pope, Irish Times,  Mon, Oct 16, 2006

We hear also from our own contacts that, increasingly, young people will freely declare that they find such observance too often ‘boring’ and ‘irrelevant to our lives’.  This is supported by sample research reported by the US Barna Group in 2017 – suggesting that less than one in three young people in the Republic feel they have a clear grasp of core Christian beliefs, while one in four may be facing a crisis of faith.  The same report found that, increasingly, young people are dissatisfied with what they see as the passive/conformist faith of older generations, while one in four now claims to have no religious belief at all.3Finding Faith in Ireland: the Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland, Barna Group, 2017.  (This report is based on both qualitative and quantitative study of 790 subjects in the 14-25 age range, and interviews with 63 youth workers.)

 It seems that increasingly while our Catholic schools are considered successful in teaching a ‘life-readying’ curriculum they are less effective in their efforts to pass on an observant and committed Catholic faith.

Reasons for Optimism

Nevertheless, despite these worrying indicators, we two are far from pessimistic about the long-term dominance of that wider disintegrated student experience, heavily influenced as it is by post-modernist scepticism.  Furthermore, we foresee a new adult faith formation initiative that will change the mind of any adult who thinks that their school formation taught them all they could wish to know about the meaning of the Gospel.

The reason for our optimism is simple. We see unmistakably, in an international context, the beginnings of a deeply rational response to secular scepticism, a response of extraordinary explanatory and educative power – and we see that gentle ‘force’ growing.  Heavily influenced as they are just now by the scepticism and relativism of the secular Enlightenment – currently cresting in Ireland – the ‘human sciences’ are nevertheless, in all cases, under growing international challenge from an academic movement inspired by a single powerful 20th century insight – an insight that strongly supports orthodox Christian belief.4See e.g. the website of the international Colloquium on Violence and Religion

This is the observation that we humans do not in fact behave as though ‘naturally’ free to choose our own separate destinies, as the secular Enlightenment tends to teach.  We tend instead to be trapped unconsciously in replication of one another’s desires, because – at least to begin with – we literally do not know what we want.  

This insight first surfaced in the late 1950s in the context of literary criticism.  René Girard, a French émigré academic in the US state of Indiana, came to notice a pattern in the heroes of five ‘classic’ European novels.  In every case the desires of those heroes had been absorbed from a model, an historical or contemporaneous ‘other’, to whom those heroes were drawn by the supposed superiority of that model.

For example, Flaubert’s provincial heroine Madame Bovary is absorbed by the supposedly far more glamorous lives of the Parisian society women in her magazines, and seeks to model herself upon them, with fateful consequences.

In all such cases these heroes find freedom from mimetic ‘followership’ only in the tragic realisation that this captivity has prevented them from being their fearful yet real ‘selves’.  In the case of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, this character has literally been ‘out of his own mind’ in wanting to be the mythical medieval knight, Amadis of Gaul.5Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure by René Girard, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966

In writing these stories these great novelists (Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Proust) had also been admitting their own vanity in once supposing themselves heroic authors of their own destiny.  Furthermore, in the case of Stendhal (The Red and the Black), the hero of this novel, Julien Sorel, points to an earlier historical sequence in the case of his own heroic model, Napoleon I.  Through his many admiring biographers this same non-fictional Emperor of the French was well known in Stendhal’s time to have modelled his own career on classical European military predecessors, Alexander of Macedon and Julius Caesar of ancient Rome.

For Girard this raised the question of what other literary sources might point to this phenomenon of ‘mimetic desire’ (desire acquired unconsciously from someone else) – as a dominant influence on human behaviour, and therefore as a pervasive ‘human problem’ of which the secular Enlightenment seemed oblivious.  Already possessing a doctorate in medieval history Girard had no doubt that this phenomenon was important not only in literature, but in ‘real life’- as a potent source of real violence.

Pursuing this interest Girard branched into anthropology and philosophy, and came to identify mimetic desire as a dominant theme of world literature – with special attention to the Judeo-Christian texts that we know as the Bible.  As the imitation of the desires of a living person is obviously dangerous (e.g. in the case of the desire of Paris, prince of Troy, for Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta; or the desires of both Argentina and Great Britain to control the Falkland Islands in 1982; or the desire of Joseph’s brothers for his coloured coat) how had humanity coped with and survived this problem from earliest times?

Girard theorised then that the answer to this question was to be found in archaic religion, centred on the practice of ritual sacrifice, and that the thrice uttered climactic warning in the Decalogue of Moses – not to ‘covet anything your neighbour has’ – was also an attempt to limit the potential damage of doing just that, by simple prohibition.

The singular importance of the Bible lies, according to Girard, in its exposure of the typical culmination of the dangerous enmities caused by mimetic rivalry. Wanting what another also wants will lead easily to the striking of a blow if the object of desire cannot be shared, and the first blow struck in anger can then quickly escalate to a civil crisis – especially in any society without adequate policing and judicial structures. The human tendency to evade responsibility for our own mistakes has led always naturally to the unjust blaming of someone else. Those with most to lose from any such escalating crisis will therefore tend to sink their own differences in the accusation of, and then the killing or expulsion of, an isolated individual – the ‘scapegoat’. This has the effect of ‘saving the community’ by releasing the tensions of the crisis at minimum cost, bringing a temporary peace.

Again and again this phenomenon is revealed in scripture to Girard’s lens: in the throwing overboard of Jonah by the entire crew of the ship on which he has attempted to flee; in the story of Joseph and his brothers;  in the many psalms which tell of a single victim surrounded by enemies; in the story of Job who is deserted and accused even by his own friends; in the ‘suffering servant’ of Isaiah; in the Gospel case of the intended stoning of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ (John 7:53–8:11).  Finally, the meaning of what is happening is explicitly identified by Caiaphas in his justification of the killing of Jesus: “you fail to see that it is to your advantage that one man should die for the people, rather than that the whole nation should perish”.  (John 11: 49)

Ritualised sacrifice in archaic religion was, according to Girard, the half-conscious commemoration of this spontaneous scapegoating event.  In that ritual the essential all-against-one character of the event was faithfully replicated, as was the shedding of the victim’s blood.6For Girard, Christian sacrifice as ritualised in the Mass is radically different – because no deflection of violence onto another is involved. Jesus as the model for the sacrificing priest was also victim, the ‘giver of himself’.  In exposing the injustice of the scapegoating process Jesus also provided a ritualised bloodless alternative to the sacrifices of the ancient world and now bids all believers to imitate this self-giving.  It is implicit that no further victimisation should follow.

As Girard is being taken seriously by Catholic theologians, as well as by academics in the entire range of the human sciences – from philosophy and history to anthropology, literature, economics, political science and even psychiatry – it is surely appropriate for all who have an interest in Catholic education – and in the wider influences that now also impact on all students – to pay attention.  As Girard’s insight can explain also such enveloping phenomena as celebrity mania, high-street fashion, body-fixation, life-style modelling, Internet trolling and needless ‘consumerism’- and the unpredictable violence and many other developing crises of our era – it should, we believe, be in discussion in Catholic schools wherever curriculum development is taken seriously.

In our particular experience of that one school (which ended for O’Conaill in 1996 and for McElhinney in 2003) it was not on the school’s pressurised timetable to discuss the impact of that changing wider society, or even of what was being learned in ‘secular’ subjects, on ‘faith development’.  To our regret we never met as colleagues to discuss the possible impact of the curriculum of the History department, or of classes on ‘current affairs’ (O’Conaill) on the programme of ‘RE’ (McElhinney), or vice versa.  Looking back we find this an important reflection on the current situation – especially because O’Conaill had a particular interest in the 18th century Enlightenment and McElhinney was simultaneously fighting that very challenge.  We know that now we would want to be discussing ‘mimetic desire’ as an obviously overlapping concern – and with other humanities departments too, as a ‘whole school’ concern.

The History Teacher

Back then O’Conaill was typically explaining things in history class as follows:  England’s ‘1066’ as ‘the rivalry of kings’; Henry II’s invasion of Ireland in 1171 as ‘acquisitive imperialism’; Northern Ireland conflict as having to do with ‘clashing nationalisms’; the Cold War as ‘a struggle for global hegemony’.  Now he would probably view Islamic Jihadism in western cities as ‘frustrated envy of the West’. To see and say that all of these might simply also be ‘wanting what your neighbour wants’ would have appeared far too naïve back then.

O’Conaill was noticing also the apparent reciprocal need that each of the far extremes in NI politics had to ‘feed off’ the enmity and opposition of the other, their clashing yet ‘symbiotic’ relationship.  He notices now, and regrets, this need for an elaborate vocabulary for the pervasive phenomenon of rivalry, the inevitable ‘locked in’ nature of each of two ‘neighbours’ wanting always what the other wants – sovereign power.  He would also probably be utilising some of the resources of the nearby Corrymeela community, in Ballycastle, where Protestant teachers seeking peace have been drawing also from the Girardian well.7See e.g. The Far Side of Revenge: Reflections on the Northern Ireland Peace Process, Duncan Morrow, 2016

Now also O’Conaill would wish to know what biblical stories are currently being covered in RE classes at all age levels, and could be confident that he shared a basic common explanatory vocabulary with RE.  He would be interested in knowing when the story of Tom Sawyer’s painting of his Aunt Polly’s fence was likely to be discussed in English class, or if Pip’s desire to become ‘a gentleman’ in order to court Estella, Miss Havisham’s niece, might be ‘coming up’ in Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ – or with what year group Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ might occur, the dictator of Rome who was ‘neighbour’ to and envied target of ‘lean and hungry’ Cassius.

The RE Teacher

As a young teacher of Religious Education back in the late 1960s, McElhinney’s received wisdom was that the subject had to move away from the apologetics that had marked his own experience of it as a schoolboy. Two influential educationalists, Fr. Josef Jungmann, an Austrian Jesuit, and, later, Johannes Hoffinger, were now advocating what they called the kerygmatic approach. To them scripture was the kerygma, or herald of the good news of salvation. The emphasis switched from dogma to scripture, liturgy, doctrine and service.

Although this was seen as an improvement on the old creed-based approach it was still removed from pupils’ experiences of living out their faith.  As we moved into the seventies and eighties an Irish Catechetical Programme was drawn up for use in Key Stage 3 which was more pupil-centred.  It drew on pupils’ experiences and used modern interactive methods such as song, story, discussion and  illustration to engage pupils with content that touched on scripture, sacrament and liturgy.

An important element of this programme was the complementary support that was hoped for from the home and the parish. In retrospect these programmes were attempting to present to young teenagers the history of salvation and the church’s mediation of that salvation through sacrament in a way that was supposedly suited to their physical, cognitive, moral, social and religious development. In Key Stages 4 and 5, less overtly catechetical programmes dominated with greater emphasis being place on the academic aspect of Religious Education which meant that it had to pursue a more academic and open approach to religious belief.

While religious education teachers were ‘delivering’ this prescribed curriculum within the confines of their classrooms, societal changes were exerting powerful influences outside the school that were to challenge, and in some cases undermine, the liturgical and moral beliefs and practices of the religious education being followed. The growing inter-connectedness of the world, revealing greater success in the natural sciences, coupled with largely unregulated and unchallenged dissemination of information and ideologies, left religious education teachers having to counter an avalanche of counter cultures.  There was no coming of age in this new dispensation and little coming to terms with these pervasive pressures. In a generation we had moved from a village culture to a global one and we were not prepared for the latter. As Barry warned us back in the mid nineties the “.. influence of culture escapes our consciousness”. We need to find “… how any of us encultured human beings can become free enough from our culture to be believers”.8Barry, W., U.S. Culture and Contemporary Spirituality. Review for Religious 54, 6-21 (1995)

From 1985 McElhinney became aware of the seminal influence of the counter culture led by René Girard (1923-2015). This French academic, who began his academic life as a teacher of medieval history, had from about 1961 begun to expose in a series of books and articles, elements of culture that were to advance our understanding of our anthropology.  This helped many catechists to find that way sought by Barry to free ourselves from our culture in order to proclaim the Good News in a new way.

Girard’s mimetic theory engendered McElhinney’s own conversion from seeing the world and social relations in a binary perspective to understanding it in a triangular one. That is, in addition to an object of desire and the person who desires it, there is also, pervasively, a third party – the admired person, the model whose desire has been mimicked.  The Romantic Lie of the 18th century Enlightenment had led the academic world to believe that we have autonomy in decision making and that we are autonomous in our social relations and in our sense of self. Girard’s exposure of this lie has revealed to us, as Michael Kirwan expresses it: “The self is, rather, an ‘unstable, constantly changing, evanescent structure’ brought into existence by desire.”9Kirwan, M., Discovering Girard, Darton, Longman and Todd (2004), (p. 19)

McElhinney was led by the realisation of this dynamic to a deeper understanding of teacher/pupil relationships; pupil/pupil relationships; culture/pupil relationships and the Judeo/Christian history of salvation. Put simply, he now believes that the role of the Religious Education teacher in a Catholic school has to take account of Girard’s mimetic theory because at the core of the relationship between the teacher (catechist) and the pupil must be the quality of authenticity.

McElhinney was introduced to this idea in 1985 by a Dutch Academic, Roel Kaptein, who explained it like this. The teacher wishes the pupils to learn and the pupils wish to learn because it is the wish of the teacher. This is mimesis. At those times when the pupils do not wish to learn we teachers tend to wonder what is wrong with them. That is the wrong question to ask. We should ask, what is wrong with us? If the teacher is not wishing (in heart and mind) for the pupils to learn, the pupils who are in mimesis with the teacher will recognise this and cease to wish to learn. We need to understand that mimesis is not just something of the head, and teaching is not just something of the head either.  It is related to the totality of one’s being. Otherwise the teacher is just using words. When this is the case the pupils also will only deal in words – because again they will be in mimesis with the teacher.

A particular problem in this regard for the Catechist is that because schools place such a high priority on academic success and hence provide a breeding ground for rivalry and envious desire, pupils need to be reminded that while there is a corresponding academic aspiration for success in religious education, there is also a requirement to follow the prospectus set out in the Sermon on the Mount. The religious education teacher has to witness to this in his/her classroom and in his/her life.

The matter of autonomy exercises the minds of teenagers greatly. They feel constrained by some of the sexual moral teaching of the Church, which they think outdated and repressive. The prohibitions of the Decalogue seem to them like a blunt instrument to subdue and spoil their enjoyment of life. In pre-Girardian days McElhinney’s teaching on moral issues upheld the orthodox approach of the Catholic Catechism. Today he would approach moral issues via an exploration of the mimetic dynamic of the reciprocity of desire and self-identity.  He would be challenging students to look for mimetic models of their own desires – and to note the impact of Christian servant-leader models, beginning with Jesus, upon the behaviour of countless ‘followers’ throughout history.

This is not to say that sexual fidelity and discipline should cease to be a deep concern of a Christian school. In fact mimetic theory also exposes the role so often played by mimetic competition in the destabilising of sexual relationships. Girard was very supportive of the Augustinian understanding of ‘disordered desire’ (concupiscence) as a very real phenomenon that continues to cause intense harm and suffering.  His insight helps us to see this disorder more clearly in the all-too-frequent ‘conspiring’ of sexual desire and mimetic desire to form a dangerous ‘perfect storm’ – a theme that Shakespeare and so many others have so often visited.

Other disciplines

As authenticity and enthusiasm will be present in all effective teaching – and all of the ‘humanities’ must now address a gathering human crisis – both of us see enormous potential in Girardian insight for the entire second level school curriculum.

With respect to the environmental crisis, we wonder how Geography and Economics explain the frustrating reluctance to grapple with that now, in arguably the world’s most advanced ‘consumer society’?  How do these academic subjects explain desire for the latest iteration of the iPhone when it is not truly needed – or why Rory McIlroy finds it so profitable to wear the Nike logo – the ‘swoosh’ – on his golf cap?  For those who now study politics, how is the rivalry of one-time close political colleagues – so often a potent source of political instability – to be explained?

When it comes to the personal welfare of pupils we wonder if the phenomenon of online ‘trolling’ is being addressed as an inevitable effect of mimetic rivalry and of competition for the ultimate put-down – rivalry that must happen when an audience of unknown size is known to be observing a ‘discussion’. What of the dynamic of the bullying of a pupil, if it happens within the school itself, or via mobile devices outside?  Are some pupils perhaps dangerously over-needy of attention, and resentful that others may be getting more of that?  What explains the pull of ‘social media’ and ‘fear of missing out’ if not the discontent that arises from the apparently greater success and happiness of others – with ‘viral popularity’ and ‘celebrity’ as the supposed last horizons of human achievement? Is it time for all schools to challenge – head on – the deepest mistake of contemporary culture – the belief that our value as individual human beings (and the worth of any school) is determined by social accolade?

We two also remember vividly the occasion of the loss by one pupil of a treasured role in a school musical – a part then given to her close friend, whose friendship she then rejected bitterly.  Is it now understood why that rupture happened (and could happen again to others) and why the pupil concerned felt that she could not remain at the school?

Under the heading of pupil welfare and the possibility of ‘self-harming’ (in the context of media obsessed with body image), who in the school might read with benefit Girard’s essay on the coincidence of the very first clinical diagnoses of anorexia with the rise of 19th century printed popular media – media that obsessed over the body rivalries of highly connected ‘beauties’, including ‘Sissi’, Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1854-98) and Eugénie, Empress of France (1853-71)?10Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire, René Girard, Contagion 3, 1996

As for that 2011 declaration by a bright pupil of our own old school – that, when it came to winning, his integrity would go ‘out the window’ – was that not simply a case of ‘catching’ the very same desire that motivated his rivals (‘mimetic contagion’)?  And might the young author of the comment now be able to see that he was explaining, albeit unconsciously, the cause of so many failures of integrity, in all eras?

Teachers of the ‘hard’ sciences should surely be interested also, as they will be aware of the accusation that modern science has destabilised the human ecosystem.  Nor can they be indifferent to instances of the corruption of scientific research through intense mimetic competition for global fame.  Is the misuse of science – for example in the nuclear arms race – not in itself a scientific conundrum that needs our deepest attention?  Girardian insight into ‘coveting’ makes RE a compelling component of a ‘rounded education’ for students who specialise in science or computing – or in languages.


The gravitational pull of the problem of sexuality has for too long unbalanced Christian moralism and education.  Jesus’s own celibacy has facilitated an idealisation of that specific life-choice as the sine-qua-non of sanctity, while his obvious rejection of the status-seeking and power-seeking cultural models of the ancient world has received far less attention.

Girard’s insight teaches us to look more closely at those temptations of Jesus that are recorded in the synoptic Gospels, at the start of his ministry.  None of these was sexual. All three were invitations to aspire to power and status – of the sorcerers of the ancient world; of the Jewish Temple hierarchy; and of the kings and emperors of Jesus’s own era (e.g. Matt 4: 1-11).  That is, they were appeals to mimetic desire. Jesus himself claimed to have overcome not the problem of sexual attraction but the problem of ‘the world’, i.e. of an enveloping culture that provided so many dangerous models of desire to distract him from his mission of bringing all humans back to the spirituality of Psalm 23, i.e. to intimate relationship with ‘the Father’.

That ‘sinlessness’ has therefore centrally to do with overcoming covetousness – understood as mimetic desire – becomes clear in the Girardian lens.  That Jesus’s supreme achievement lay in this rather than in his celibacy could not be so easily seen or preached in the long centuries of Christendom.  Beginning with Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the church was always then beholden to state power won by force, from whose military elites it so often drew its own hierarchs.  How, for example, could the Christian bishops of Constantine’s time see covetousness (i.e. mimetic rivalry) in the decisive battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312, when Constantine’s supporters were insisting that he had been told by Jesus’s God to defeat Maxentius under the sign of the cross?  The self-censorship – even connivance – that fell then upon Christian hierarchs in their relations with their own state actors and social elites was to persist into our own time – with deeply scandalous consequences.

Now that the tide of Christendom is fast receding, René Girard’s insight has revealed that phenomenon of covetousness as the dominant human and political problem of both past and present – and given an entirely fresh relevance to the Creeds.  We feel confident that this insight is set to redirect the Enlightenment, to revolutionise the way that future generations will interpret the world, and to undo what Pope Benedict XVI has termed ‘the dictatorship of relativism’.

Knowing well that Enlightenment scepticism derives huge leverage from the argument that all claims to an ‘objective truth’ are necessarily oppressive, we know also that there can be no question of imposing Girardian mimetic theory on any school, or any teacher.  As the bishops of Vatican II observed in 1965, “Truth can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.”.11Vatican II – Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1, 1965

 In the end it can only be the explanatory power of Girard’s insight, and its verification in the personal experience and observation of any teacher, that will together ‘win over’ anyone.  We two can only ask:  Do we humans tend to imitate those we see as ‘modelling’ our own ideal lives? Is there danger or futility in many of the ‘models’ or ‘icons’ that our pupils encounter these times?  And has evangelical secularism yet explained, or even squarely addressed, its own Utopian failures?

If Girard is correct about the dominance of unconscious imitation in the desires that drive us, it follows that we humans simply cannot do without models—that we are necessarily ‘mimetic’. We can all surely agree that Christianity, and Catholicism – in contrast to ‘media culture’ – have many real models of integrity.  These in turn have sought to model their own lives on the one who denied himself the kingdoms of the earth – and who called us to attend to those whom the world miscalls ‘losers’.  To be ‘counter-cultural’ is to continue that tradition. If we are to learn how to do that now, decisively, in our own time we surely need to observe closely how the wider culture ‘works’, and come to our own conclusions on why this happens.

For us two retired Catholic teachers the central Christian belief in the human importance of a historical model of complete integrity is now amply supported by rational mimetic theory.12René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver (Michigan State University Press),2013

Challenging philosophical relativism on its own ground, this seems to us the best explanation so far of the failure of the secular Enlightenment to take us to liberty, equality and fraternity in over two centuries of trying. We are confident that a thoroughly integrated and coherent Christian second-level curriculum – and a thoroughly reorganised adult faith formation system – will someday bear witness to this.


  1. Lord Sugar launches his search for a new Young Apprentice; BBC Media Centre, 2011
  2. Irish bishops in Rome for talks with Pope, Irish Times,  Mon, Oct 16, 2006
  3. Finding Faith in Ireland: the Shifting Spiritual Landscape of Teens and Young Adults in the Republic of Ireland, Barna Group, 2017.  (This report is based on both qualitative and quantitative study of 790 subjects in the 14-25 age range, and interviews with 63 youth workers.)
  4. See e.g. the website of the international Colloquium on Violence and Religion
  5. Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure by René Girard, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966
  6. For Girard, Christian sacrifice as ritualised in the Mass is radically different – because no deflection of violence onto another is involved. Jesus as the model for the sacrificing priest was also victim, the ‘giver of himself’.  In exposing the injustice of the scapegoating process Jesus also provided a ritualised bloodless alternative to the sacrifices of the ancient world and now bids all believers to imitate this self-giving.  It is implicit that no further victimisation should follow.
  7. See e.g. The Far Side of Revenge: Reflections on the Northern Ireland Peace Process, Duncan Morrow, 2016
  8. Barry, W., U.S. Culture and Contemporary Spirituality. Review for Religious 54, 6-21 (1995)
  9. Kirwan, M., Discovering Girard, Darton, Longman and Todd (2004), (p. 19)
  10. Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire, René Girard, Contagion 3, 1996
  11. Vatican II – Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1, 1965
  12. René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver (Michigan State University Press),2013

Views: 271

What underlies René Girard’s ‘Mimetic Desire’

The lowly character Pip in Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ – in his social encounter with the grand Miss Havisham and her haughty ward Estella in Satis House.

What underlies ‘mimetic’ desire – the desire that we unconsciously copy from someone else, and make our own?  This question was posed by myself to Duncan Morrow in a conference centred on the thought of René Girard in Corrymeela, Northern Ireland, in November 2017.

Necessarily confined by his need to deal also with other questions in a short time-frame in this seminar situation, Duncan’s response was concise in my memory of it. Arguing against the romantic Enlightenment conception of the individual person as a completely autonomous actor, he emphasised the necessarily relational development of the ‘self’. Referencing the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Duncan proposed (I believe) that the desiring ‘self’ is always participating and developing within a network of relationships in both time and space. He drew a simple lattice of intersecting lines to illustrate this. He then circled some of the nodes of this lattice as points of encounter with others that will necessarily impact upon us, and therefore upon what we will desire. (Figure 1)

Figure 1 – The social network

This was helpful to me, as I had already reached an understanding of mimetic desire as ‘socially mediated’.  However, I was struck by what seemed the ‘coolness’ or ‘lack of drama’ in this brief account of social interaction. I felt that I was being invited to believe that in these encounters there could be no question about the equality of dignity of the actors – that such events would always be as ‘comfortable’ as a conversation in Corrymeela.

Looking back I think this impression must have been partly a product of the two-dimensional illustration of that lattice. I wanted to go on to explore another interior dimension, that element of ‘drama’ – of ‘felt inadequacy and inequality’ – that is present in so many of our social interactions. I could not do that right then as other members of the group had other questions waiting.

And so I propose to explore it now, by introducing what I tend to call the universe of uncertainty, honour and shame in which we all emotionally dwell. I will begin with a very short story of my own early mimetic desire.

My issue with soap

Some years before my own arrival on this planet in 1943, as the son of a Dublin civil servant, my mother’s younger sister had taken the eye of a prominent Dublin obstetrician. I grew up some miles away from a slightly younger cousin, the son of this doctor. Occasionally I visited his home in a far more select Dublin neighbourhood.

To this day my use of a particular brand of soap was determined by my finding it, on one of those days, in the far more luxurious bathroom of that house. Its shape and colour and weight and scent lingered with me, at the age of about twelve I think, and gave birth to the desire that I was later able to satisfy.

‘We are afflicted with a congenital uncertainty as to our own value.’ So concluded the philosopher Alain de Botton in 20041Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton, Penguin, 2004, p. 15. I can think of no better short summary of my own considered view of our deepest human problem. As this chronic uncertainty tends to put us in flight from shame and in search of honour (both socially ‘mediated’) it lends itself to a perception of society as necessarily and righteously ‘judgmental’ – as having both the power and authority to determine our ‘worthiness’.

In that household of my cousin I had an acute sensitivity to my own social inequality, my lack of what is called ‘status’. I was not thinking in those terms at that time, but I was lacking in something important: this was painfully obvious to me. That I might make up at least part of the deficit by using that particular commodity seemed logical enough. No dramatic reverse had ever happened to me in that house – merely a condescension that was usually kindly. However, just that element of condescension, and my mother’s deferential yet slightly resentful behaviour towards my aunt and uncle, had been more than enough to make me want to ease the shame of my felt inferiority by that means.

Charles Dickens and Mimetic Desire

A far more dramatic story— also to do with a visit to a grander house – is told in Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861). Raised in a smithy by a tyrannical sister and her submissive husband Joe Gargery, the young Pip – just beginning his apprenticeship in the smithy – is brought one day to the decaying but still impressive Satis House, to play with the ward of the very strange Miss Havisham.

This well-dressed young lady, the ‘very pretty’ Estella, disdains to play cards with Pip at Miss Havisham’s request – although she is of the same age. She comments on his ‘coarse hands’ and ‘thick boots’. Later she leaves him alone in a courtyard in the dismal Satis House, and Pip recalls:

I took the opportunity of being alone in the courtyard to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. My opinion of those accessories was not favourable. They had never troubled me before, but they troubled me now, as vulgar appendages. I determined to ask Joe why he had ever taught me to call those picture-cards Jacks, which ought to be called knaves. I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.

When Estella returns to give him some food in that yard, without looking at him ‘as if I were a dog in disgrace’, Pip feels deep humiliation:

My sister’s bringing up had made me sensitive. In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.2Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, Chapter 8

Discerning on many subsequent similar visits to Satis House that the increasingly beautiful Estella is deliberately being schooled by Miss Havisham to attract and reject many suitors, Pip comes to desire not only Estella but the gentrified status that could allow him to court her. The novel pivots on that desire. Pip has become entrapped not only in the web spun by Miss Havisham but in the wider social web that had captured and unbalanced her.

Earlier, in Little Dorrit (1855), Dickens had made even more plain his understanding of this social conditioning. Briefly, the elderly William Dorrit has been locked up in the Marshalsea prison for so long, for debt, that he has become – at least hopefully in his own eyes – a worthy object of veneration. He deals with the shame of his indebtedness by affecting the role of monarch of the prison. He affects also the belief that visitors to the prison will feel privileged to pay tribute in small gifts of money for his upkeep. He converses with these as though bestowing honour upon respectful envoys from foreign lands.

His daughter Amy – Little Dorrit – had been born in and has grown up in the Marshalsea – and is stunned when an investigation reveals that, to a vast fortune trapped in legal confusion in the world outside, her own father, William Dorrit, is the true heir. Released from the Marshalsea in splendour, the family undertakes a European Grand Tour.

In Venice eventually, staying in a luxurious rented villa, Amy is troubled to observe that:

A perfect fury for making acquaintances on whom to impress their riches and importance has seized the House of Dorrit… It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they now lived greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea.3Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens, Book II, Chapter VII

In just these two sentences Dickens reveals that William Dorrit’s real prison had not been the Marshalsea, or even London. He had carried it with him to Venice in his own head. It was the prison of his own fixed conviction that his dignity and value were absolutely at the mercy of the judgement of others, of society. His suddenly acquired wealth could not in itself convince him of his own dignity: it needed to be observed, appreciated, recorded – at the summit of that Victorian social pyramid – for Dorrit himself to be convinced of his own value as a person.

It seems to me therefore that to illustrate the perceived judgemental authority of that social network, in time and space – the network that convinces us that honour is not a ‘given’, and that shame attaches to the nakedness of owning nothing – we need to add something to that lattice in Figure 1. That ‘something’ should convey this perception by our ‘little selves’ that ‘society’ regards us not with affection or even disinterest, but appraisingly and with imminent scorn.

Figure 2 – The appraising social eye

To try to convey this I did some searching among the images provided on the Internet for ‘scales of justice’ and ‘observing eye’ – and overlapped two of them, as follows (Figure 2):

What if we now zoom in on one of those ‘nodes’ of encounter in the experiential lattice in Figure 1 – to note that in critical social situations we are subjectively ‘under judgement’ as illustrated above?

It remains only to superimpose the second image upon the first to complete a rendering of the power of the social network to influence our mimeticism. (Figure 3)

Figure 3 – The appraising social network

From early experience of parental presentation to relatives (to warble agonisingly in an unreliable soprano in my case!) to the teacher’s assessment of our intellect in the classroom, to that first job interview and, in later years, to the end-of-year honours’ list, are our lives not always a series of ‘trials’? Always uncertain of the outcomes, is it not our fate to be poised always somewhere between the City of Shame and the City of Honour? And do we not typically seek to acquire whatever will ward off the disaster of social contempt – unless we can sometime find a means of ‘relativising’ society itself?

Somewhere in my encounters with Girardian literature I am sure I came across a quote from René that explicitly acknowledged that role of the fear of shame – in not only determining the object and intensity of our desire, but in explaining our reluctance to acknowledge that imitation has played a part in that. To my annoyance I cannot now locate that passage. I shall be indebted if anyone can help – and even more pleased with other references to this underlying dimension of honour and shame in choosing our models for us – and in determining the intensity of our desires – in the development of mimetic theory.

I strongly suspect that it is this same experiential dimension of judgement, honour and shame that for so long concealed the full meaning of the verb ‘to covet’ from Christian clergy – and that underlies much of the remaining resistance to mimetic theory in our own time. That a major ‘sin’ could have become obscured to the view of Christian moral theologians for so many centuries – to be uncovered by a lay student of secular literature in the late 1950s – is not something that those schooled entirely in theology and related religious disciplines would necessarily feel honoured to acknowledge.

Sean O’Conaill, Contagion, Feb. 2018


  1. Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton, Penguin, 2004, p. 15
  2. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, Chapter 8
  3. Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens, Book II, Chapter VII

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The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?

Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)

Must Catholics believe that God is violent? Taught that the Mass is a ‘Holy Sacrifice’ must we therefore believe that ‘the Father’ required a violent sacrifice to still his anger, and that this is the central message of the Eucharist?

Never having heard an Irish Catholic cleric squarely address such questions, and therefore inferring more than a little uncertainty, I (and others in Ireland) have followed with fascination the key ideas of the late American-French anthropologist René Girard and his collaborators. (These can be traced from the website of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion.)

René Girard 1923-2015

Girard argues that the historical origins of all religion lie in an attempt to minimise social violence by focussing it upon a single victim. He argues also that the Judeo-Christian scriptures point to a unique critique of this religious violence – and especially of the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. His work has therefore been exploited by some theologians to deny that the death of Jesus, or the Mass, can safely be understood as a sacrifice.

However, Girard himself famously changed his mind on this very issue. Influenced especially by the Austrian theologian, Raymund Schwager, Girard concluded in his mature work that the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ is itself undergoing a shift in the course of the Judeo-Christian texts. The ‘precious gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice had always accompanied the ‘killing’ aspect (for example in Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac). This story shows how this ‘gift’ aspect gradually becomes predominant – in the end supplanting, in Jesus self-giving, the element of priestly killing. In offering himself, Jesus united the always previously separate roles of priest and victim – defining a sacrifice that resists all projection of the consequences of sin onto someone else. This leaves open an interpretation of ‘Christian’ sacrifice as directly oppositional to violence, and as ‘self-emptying’ or ‘self-giving’ – utterly uncompromised by any suffering inflicted upon a third party.

In the latest issue of the Girardian journal Contagion, Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. argues that theologians who use Girardian anthropology to reject any concept of the Mass as ‘Holy Sacrifice’ are therefore mistaken. Lusvardi tracks this scholarly debate with detailed footnotes and makes the case for regarding the Mass as a divinely inspired act of worship that makes present “that central moment in human history when seemingly endless cycles of violence and falsity are brought to a halt by the limitless self-offering of God” (‘Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”: Mimetic Theory and Eucharistic Theology’, Contagion Vol. 24, 2017 ).

For me this article strengthens a conclusion that it is unnecessary to oppose an understanding of the Mass as ‘holy sacrifice’ on the one hand, to its character as celebratory ‘communal meal’ on the other. If Christian sacrifice is self-giving, the ‘communal meal’ implication also follows logically from that understanding. In this understanding to ‘sacrifice’ is ‘to give completely of oneself’ – a meaning wholly compatible with contemporary understandings of ‘goodness’ and ‘heroism’.  It is the ‘Offering’, the self-giving ritual in which we all can join, that makes possible the communal meal, and no violence is implied by the Christians who practise this sacrifice – even if blood is nevertheless shed by others who misunderstand. The ‘bloodiness’ of Jesus crucifixion was solely due to the human sin that impelled his persecutors, in defiance of God – not to divine need, wish or intent. For Girard, the Calvary event starkly revealed the archetypal practice of scapegoating or ‘lynching’ – the unjust blaming of any individual for any social crisis to save the community. The Cross therefore lies at the root of the principle of ‘human rights’ – in opposition to all scapegoating.

Far from requiring our assent to his ‘divine violence’, the Father can therefore be understood as true to Jesus’ teaching that ‘the Father and I are one’ – in the rejection of violence, as in all other matters. The Mass is a ‘holy sacrifice’ because non-violent self-giving is central to the divine nature – and to heroic human potential also, when aided by grace. It is to that self-offering that all of us are called.

Clerical reticence on ‘divine violence’ and ‘sacrifice’ surely began with the fourth century acquiescence by Christian bishops in Constantine’s assertion that his violent acquisition of imperial power had been sanctioned and assisted by the Christian God. That acquiescence lies also at the foundations of Christendom – the long and often horrifically scandalous imbroglio of church and state that lasted into the twentieth century. Girard’s insights, and those of theologians who continue to be stimulated by Girardian theory, allow for a re-evaluation of all that, without in any way compromising the Creeds. Pacific self-offering was never utterly absent under Christendom, proving the subliminal counteraction of the Cross to all violence.

The secular Enlightenment was partially motivated by a revulsion at the semi-religious wars that followed the Reformations of the 1500s, but is still lacking a convincing explanation of human violence. On the other hand, Girard’s insight into the origins of our own aggressive desire in the desire of someone else – vindicating the thrice-repeated biblical ban on ‘coveting’ – is as copiously illustrated in the daily news as it is in the TV epic Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile Christian fundamentalism continues to scapegoat the Father for the crucifixion, and to cloud our thinking on Christian sacrifice. This can be regarded as a time-limited hangover of Christendom. Anthony Lusvardi’s article well illustrates how Girardian anthropology, and the theology it inspires, give us a far better pair of glasses.

(Anthony Lusvardi’s article is available for download from the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, by clicking the title below.)
Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”

Views: 259

‘The Chain That Binds the Earth’ – Novel now on sale

This project preoccupied me for months:  the experiment of a novel that would test the power of Girardian mimetic theory to explain to young people a wide range of modern ills – from the global threat to the environment to violence of all kinds – including school bullying.

The project arose out of a realisation that were I still in the classroom I would be proposing that we do often unconsciously absorb the desires of others  – as a tool to explain such events as the assassination of Julius Caesar, the burning of Joan of Arc, the World Wars of the 20th century, the Cold War – and the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

Would it have been feasible to do so?  Do young people already notice ‘unconscious copying’ as a dominant feature of human behaviour, and even as a potential source of conflict?

The second crucial factor heading me in the direction of fiction was the simple fact that my classroom days are over.  Now in my seventies I am retired from formal teaching – but very much committed still to what lies behind all teaching:  the task of maintaining a living tradition of insight into so much of what ails us, and especially of passing that insight on to young people concerned for the future of the planet.

So could I write a story that would have eleven-year-olds stumble upon the significance of our human weakness for adopting the desires of others, and then have them argue their case in their own school context?

I have tried to do that, in any case.  It is for young people themselves to tell me if I have succeeded.  My very first young readers of a late draft have been enthusiastic, but I have no way of knowing how representative they are.

As I was obliged to self-publish this story, the initial retail cost of the paperback version on Amazon is too high.    I am setting out to make copies available soon at what they cost me, ordered in quantities at a discount.  I will update this page to log progress in this attempt.

Views: 12

New Light on the Problem of Atonement

In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked, in terror and anguish: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:39)

As we know, the cup was not taken from him. Jesus then suffered arrest, isolation, humiliation and an excruciating death. Are we then to blame Abba, our Father too, for the crucifixion? Did he ‘make Jesus die in reparation for our sins’ as people sometimes say?

This question – the problem of atonement – is possibly the most difficult in all theology. Even Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Church’s top theological official in 1997, asked “Why does God reign from the Cross?” Dean Andrew Furlong of the Church of Ireland admitted in 2002 that he could not accept any of the classical theories of atonement – one of his reasons for rejecting Jesus’ divinity.

Atonement means simply ‘at-one-ment’: the coming together, or reconciliation, of ourselves and God. So the problem of atonement is to understand how Jesus’s passion and death bring us humans and God together.  It is also the problem of understanding what could be called the necessity of the cross.

The earliest theory of atonement, the one probably held by all the apostles, was that in some sense we humans had been enslaved by Satan, and that Jesus’ death had somehow purchased our liberty. However, in the Middle Ages theologians came to doubt that any debt to Satan could have warranted such a high price. One of them, St Anselm, proposed another theory, the satisfaction theory.

To understand this we need to remember that in the middle ages people were very unequal in dignity or ‘worth’. The king at the summit of the social pyramid was held to be far more ‘worthy’ than the barons and knights, who were in turn far more worthy than the farmers and peasants or serfs. So, for a serf to steal from a king was a far more serious matter than for a serf to steal from another serf. In order to make good the injury to the king the serf would have to pay a far higher penalty, so that the debt to him would be satisfied.

St Anselm pointed out that God is at the summit of the heavenly pyramid, so that every sin we commit is an extremely severe offence to Him. He taught that no matter how much we may suffer for our sins, we are incapable of paying the full price of making good the injury, as we are so much less worthy than God. So Jesus died to make up the difference – because his life was worth so much more to the Father. In that way humanity’s debt to God was satisfied.

Although other theologians have argued against this, in the absence of anything more persuasive it became a standard explanation for the crucifixion. In the highly rated Alpha programme devised for evangelisation in our own time by the Anglican Church, a very similar explanation – the substitution theory – is used. Nicky Gumbel tells the story of two friends separated for many years who meet one another eventually in court. One is the defendant who has committed a crime for which a heavy fine has to be paid – so heavy that he cannot pay it. The other is the judge, who must find him guilty according to the law. The judge does so – but then descends from his high bench and pays the fine, as a friend. Justice is served – but the guilty man has been ‘redeemed’ from the full price of his crime, which would have been imprisonment.1Since this article was written the Alpha programme has changed this particular story in video 3 – with Nicky Gumbel now referencing instead the story of Fr Maximilian Kolbe – who took the place of another prisoner sentenced to death in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1941. Alpha’s emphasis upon God’s unfailing love for everyone counteracts any mistaken inference that it is God the Father who was responsible for Fr Kolbe’s death, so the video is an opportunity to discuss the fascinating history of the theology of atonement.

That story is in the end unsatisfactory. The problem is that if we see God as all powerful, we see him also as in a position simply to cancel the debt – something the judge in Gumbel’s story obviously could not do. The ordinary person finds it very difficult to square God’s infinite justice with God’s infinite mercy – but tends to believe that an infinite God could manage to do so – sparing his own son.

The Gospels seem to support this difficulty. In explaining the ‘Kingdom of God’ Jesus tells the story of a king who cancels the debt of a servant, as an example of the forgiveness we should ourselves show one another (Matt 18: 23-35). The story of the father who welcomes back the erring prodigal son, without conditions, teaches the same lesson (Luke 15:11-32) – God does not hold back on his forgiveness. And it was especially for his habit of forgiveness that Jesus was accused. Since He taught us that when we see Him we also see the Father, we expect that Father to be as forgiving as he was.

Maybe we are right to be dissatisfied with the satisfaction theory. There is another possible explanation for the crucifixion: that the Father and the Son both suffer for our sake: to release us from a captivity we could not otherwise escape from – the captivity of violence, the culmination of every other evil.

In the ancient world there were broadly speaking two main sources of violence. One was warfare, brought about by the mimetic desire and ambition of warrior kings. The greatest of these was Alexander, King of Macedon, who built an empire reaching from Greece to the Himalayas and Egypt. His victories were unprecedented in the ancient world, and made him in the eyes of many, a God. We can see this as the fulfilment of the temptation offered in the Garden of Eden – ‘thou shalt be as Gods’. Julius Caesar set out to emulate Alexander in the century before Christ – and became indeed the founding God of the very empire into which Jesus was born.

In the temptation in the desert, Jesus is offered an even greater empire, ‘the kingdoms of the world’, by Satan (Matt 4: 8-10) – but resists this temptation. He will not be a warrior king, like Alexander, Caesar, or even David – Israel’s greatest military hero. This must mean that he will be vulnerable to those whose power is based upon violence: the Roman government in Palestine.

The second kind of violence in the ancient world was internal: the practice of scapegoating violence – the murder or expulsion of vulnerable individuals as a means of defusing internal conflict.

To understand this we must simply grasp that the ancient world did not have advanced policing and judicial systems, like modern societies. This meant that a blow struck by one member of one tribe or family against another was liable to be reciprocated – and then to escalate uncontrollably. We are an intensely mimetic species – i.e. we often unconsciously mimic one another’s behaviour. Where there was no restraint upon this by a developed policing and court system, such mimetic violence – fuelled by the usual resentments that develop out of human competition, jealousy and rivalry – could escalate out of control.

What happened then is well illustrated by the story of the woman ‘taken in adultery’ in St John’s Gospel – the woman brought into the presence of Jesus in the Temple Court. This woman would – in the normal course of events – be stoned to death by all who wished to participate. The selection of a vulnerable individual, shamed so that no-one would take her part, allowed all to defuse their anger in such a way that there could be no retaliation. In this way, one person could literally be made to pay the price for the aggression – i.e. the sins – of all. And a peace – temporary of course – would then fall. We should see this isolation, humiliation and intended murder of the woman ‘taken in adultery’ as a rehearsal for the very similar process soon to be mounted against Jesus himself.

In the accusation and crucifixion of Jesus, both forms of violence come together – the violence born of internal rivalries, and the violence born of political ambition. Caiaphas insists that the death of this one man will ‘save the nation’ i.e. defuse an internal Jewish crisis threatening to undermine his own power. It will thus also prevent another Roman assault upon the Jewish people to restore order. The semi-riot he then foments persuades Pilate, the Roman governor, that Rome’s control is also at stake.

At Gethsemane, Peter offers the standard riposte to violence – more violence. But a violent God can set only the same violent example as Caesar and Alexander, and the name of Jesus must stand far above theirs. His kingdom can only be built on forgiveness – and so the cup that he dreads cannot pass him by. The Father gives him the strength to stand alone – for the sake of en entirely different kind of kingdom – one for which no blow may be struck – either to win, or to retain, power. And one that will never sacrifice individuals for the sake of its own survival.

Thus, the crucifixion brings humankind and God together – because it is God who first moves towards us. But we also then move towards him, because Jesus is human, and can therefore be imitated in his spirit of self-sacrifice – for example, by Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz. To sacrifice oneself for another is the very opposite of sacrificing someone else for oneself. Following Jesus, we move towards the Father.

The early understanding of atonement: that it broke the power of Satan – can easily be reconciled with this – because the power of Satan does indeed culminate in violence – the violence of ambition, and the violence of victimisation. And the crucifixion did indeed break this power.

Not immediately, of course. Traumatised by the persecutions of early Christians by Rome, the bishops of the Church made an unfortunate pact with another military adventurer in the fourth century – the Emperor Constantine. This was the beginning of the process by which the Church became itself a privileged and powerful – and victimising – institution in the medieval period. This was why St Anselm could not see the crucifixion as a protest against all violence – for Constantine too was supposedly the benefactor of the Church. Modernity has stripped away that power – as Pope John Paul I recognised with gladness. It is time the inadequate medieval theory of atonement – which argues, foolishly, that Abba is too proud to bend – was put to rest as well.

Today, as we try to build a new Ireland upon the principle of forgiveness, not violence, we should see Jesus of Nazareth, and his Father – and the Holy Spirit that unites them – as the real founders of that ideal kingdom. And with him all those who were also innocent victims of political ambition. We too need to atone – to be spiritually, if not politically, ‘at one’ – in grief for all those we have lost.

And all others can move towards God through Christ – all those driven by social and political humiliation to addiction, criminality and violence. In the kingdom of God no one is to be humiliated or left out in order to secure the peace of all the rest.

There is another important reason for welcoming the insights of René Girard for the light they throw on the problem of atonement.  The competing mimetic desire or covetousness that lies at the root of all violence is also the root of human over-consumption – the most important cause of Earth’s growing environmental crisis.  Awareness of this is also in the gift of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion.  This strongly supports Richard Rohr’s conclusion that Jesus’ life, teaching and death all tend towards changing our minds about God, rather than changing God’s mind about us – and towards warding off all of the dangers that gather around the future of humankind.

See also ‘Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept crucifixion?’


For an excellent overview of Girard’s understanding of the relationship between religion and violence, I recommend René Girard’s Mimetic Theory by Wolfgang Palaver, MSU 2013.  

Sean O’Conaill – May 2015

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Jesus and Violence: The importance of René Girard II

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword . For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household.” Matt 10:34-36

Could this be the most troubling text in the whole of the Gospels? Certainly it seems to contradict entirely the Christmas promise of Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” How can these passages be reconciled, if at all?

Usually the attempt to explain Matt 10:34-36 is most successful when it points out that many Jewish families must have become deeply divided about Jesus himself, during and just after his three-year ministry  – and this is certainly effective as far as it goes.

However, the Catholic academic René Girard takes a very different tack – centred on his belief that what the Gospel is doing above all is revealing a universal human process of scapegoating: the projection of all of the potential violence in an archaic community onto an individual, as a means of limiting its violent impact on the community as a whole.

It is this process, Girard argues, that we are witnessing in multiple ‘all-against-one’ episodes throughout the Bible:  for example, in the stories of Joseph and his brothers, and of Susannah and the Elders. Both speak of mimetic desire – covetousness – the conflictual wanting of something that cannot be shared. In the case of the story of Joseph, this is the supreme favour of the patriarch, Jacob – symbolised by Joseph’s coat of many colours. In the story of Susannah it is Susannah herself – lusted after by two elders. In both cases, an individual suffers innocently at the hands of multiple others. Frustrated by Susanna’s refusal to comply with their lust, the elders together accuse her of adultery.  She is found guilty and about to be stoned to death – when her plea of innocence rouses the Paraclete – the advocate for the defence – through the young Daniel.  (Why this most beautiful story has never been filmed I cannot imagine.)

For Girard, our competitive desires must inevitably build up social tensions of this kind. Inevitably, in any society lacking an effective policing system and judicial process, they will boil over – and that, he argues,  was the virtually incessant condition of societies in the ancient world.

Thus, for Girard, when we read of the ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah, or the episode of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ in John 8:3, we are witnessing the very same process, repeated again and again in ancient times. The social tensions arising out of mimetic desire were always supremely dangerous, because our inherent capacity for imitation can lead inexorably to a ‘struggle of all against all’.  At some point in the escalation of this tension of imitative violence, Girard believes, someone, or some group, would come to identify some isolated individual as the real cause of the contagion. This, for Girard, is the significance of John 11: 49-50.

‘And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.”‘

For Girard, therefore, this scapegoating process in ancient society was equivalent to a lightning conductor: it ‘saved’ the greater part of a community by sacrificing a lesser.

In the case of the ‘woman taken in adultery’, how many internal tensions might have been resolved within a given family by pointing at, and stoning to death, this single individual? She may well have been guilty of adultery, but was everyone else there innocent? Jesus’ response points to exactly what was going on.

If Girard is correct in seeing the story of the passion of Jesus in this way, he must also surely be correct in pointing out that the Bible is constantly directing our attention to the injustice of this scapegoating process. Joseph, Susannah – and Jesus above all – were entirely innocent – and the story of Jesus has revealed the wrongness of scapegoating for all time. It is simply wrong to target any  individual to deflect and discharge the collected aggression of an entire community.

But how then is this tension to be released? For Girard there are only two possibilities: in repentance and forgiveness on the one hand – or in the random conflicts between individuals and groups that will otherwise be inevitable.

So, Girard believes, in warning us that he comes to bring a sword and not peace, Jesus is not saying that internal family feuding must happen, but that it will happen – because many will refuse the options of repentance and forgiveness. Jesus has removed from us the option of a familial violence targeted outward against a scapegoat, so – unless we repent and forgive one another – that violence must result in internal family feuds.

I find this in the end a complete explanation of Matthew 10: 34-36, in a way that does not require us to believe that Jesus’ intention is violence. In fact it is quite consistent with a belief that he seeks to lead us to a deeper peace that will never rest on the victimisation of anyone.  That is where we are historically still as a species – unable to opt decisively for repentance and forgiveness, also unable to justify scapegoating – and therefore subject to a violence that can erupt anywhere, anytime.


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Mimetic Desire: The Importance of René Girard I

At the age of ten – c. 1953 – I threw an especially odious tantrum. Already an avid reader, I had the notion even then of becoming a writer of some kind. I had also decided that the first successful step of my ascent to literary grandeur must be the ownership of a very particular fountain pen, heavily advertised at that time. When my parents told me they couldn’t afford this I sulked hideously for a week over my blighted career.

I remember this now because my complaint had absolutely nothing to do with any ‘ism’ that I was aware of – least of all ‘materialism’. The plastic, rubber, metal and other constituent materials of that gleaming object were not of the slightest interest to me. I had instead, and not for the last time, fallen victim to magical thinking – the attribution to a cloned advertised object of the power to enhance my own personal ‘nobody’ status. That particular pen alone, I had convinced myself, would surely make me a famous writer. The very inferior pen I already owned, although made of the same materials, was surely the reason I hadn’t yet written a novel and wasn’t already a celebrity.

Reflection on this, on other similar episodes in later life – and on the way that advertising works generally – has convinced me that the church’s standard diagnosis of the global plague of material accumulation is hopelessly off centre and misdirected. The charge of materialism implies to me that the feverish purchasing of inessential objects is driven by a deep interest in matter per se, or maybe even by a belief that nothing but matter exists. Nothing could be further from the reality that I have observed. The diagnosis of ‘materialism’ is totally ineffectual because none of us can see that we are actually guilty of it.

What is fundamentally wrong with us has nothing to do with any materialist philosophy, or with entirely innocent matter. Our basic acquisitive complaint – and it seems to be almost congenital – is deep and recurrent doubt as to our own personal value, accompanied by a deep desire to enhance it. Reinforced by media, and too often by other aspects of our surrounding culture, it is this complaint above all that makes us vulnerable to ‘iconic’ advertised objects designed to ‘change your life’.

Brand Bullying

Ireland’s Breda O’Brien once told the story of a friend exasperated by a teenage son. This boy had rebelled when his mother had tried to persuade him that it would be foolish for her to spend an extra €50 simply to enable him to wear the logo of a more expensive branded jacket. When she asked him why on earth she should do that he said, instantly: “Because I’m worth it!” A clever slogan designed to enhance the pulling power of an entirely different class of branded goods had lodged fast in this boy’s consciousness – to be deployed later to bully his own poor mother!

Here again, obviously, this boy was totally uninterested in the constituent material of the jacket. The brand logo – a simple memorable image – had become ‘iconic’ for him, a mysterious guarantee of the personal value and status that an unbranded item of exactly the same material could not give its owner.

This is not simply undifferentiated ‘wanting’ or ‘desiring’ either. Simple lack of food causes an entirely specific kind of wanting and desire, for which we have the precise name ‘physical hunger’. The wanting that fixates upon a particular ‘iconic’ object also surely deserves a specific and descriptive name, a name that isn’t ‘materialism’ either. (Isn’t food, even the Eucharist, material, after all, and clothing also – and don’t we need both?)

Mysteriously we don’t have in common use today a precise name for this particular desire for ‘iconic’ objects.

René Girard and Mimetic Desire

Thankfully, however, this kind of wanting now has a fully descriptive name, learned gratefully by me from the work of the American-French Catholic academician René Girard. He uses the pinpoint term ‘mimetic desire’ for that specific kind of desire that unconsciously mimics the observed desire of someone else – someone we mistakenly believe to be more highly valuable than ourselves. The power of most of the world’s multinationals is based on a deep understanding of how our mimetic desire can be manipulated to buy ‘designer’ objects of every kind – from clothing to cars, from lipsticks to the very latest smartphone or tablet computer.

Despite our obvious need to understand and resist this phenomenon, I have yet to hear a Mass homily on this problem of truly contagious mimetic desire. How has it come about that our clergy do not notice or speak insightfully about a pervasive problem of modern culture – a problem that is obviously also moral and spiritual?

This question becomes even more interesting in light of René Girard’s compelling argument that mimetic desire is the very problem denoted by the biblical word covetousness. How come that no homilist in my experience has ever noted that in the decalogue the triple warning against coveting links this sin in every case to something possessed by a neighbour, i.e. by someone we know? Surely that ox of the decalogue was the sleekest and strongest one, the one that belonged to the richest farmer in the community. Proud possession by someone else is crucial to the transmission of mimetic desire. It is usually the higher perceived status of the owner that transfers addictive desirability to the desired object. This is why celebrities are paid millions to use and to be photographed in association with big brand logos.

There is a further reason our homilists need to notice this. Girard shows convincingly that when mimetic desire becomes focused by two or more people upon anything that cannot be shared, real violence looms.  For Girard the Bible is the world’s greatest literary source of illustrations of this. Cain killed Abel because he concluded that Abel’s animal sacrifice had won God’s preference before Cain’s own sacrifice of grain. Desiring the intangible divine preference that Abel apparently now possessed, and the unattainable status that went with it, Cain went mad with jealousy and killed his brother.

Similarly Saul hated the young David as soon as David had won the greater admiration of the women of Israel.  Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery out of mimetic desire for the ‘coat of many colours’ – the garment that marked him as his father, Jacob’s, favourite. Absalom rose in rebellion against his father David out of mimetic desire for the kingdom of Israel. And the land of Israel’s ‘milk and honey’ – the produce of its richest soil – made it mimetically desirable to its neighbours, such as the Babylonians and later the Romans. There was even a near outbreak of violence among the apostles themselves, when they visualised one of their number being granted the highest status in heaven, next to Jesus himself. This is a clear echo of the story of original violence between brothers.

The Bible even tells us that the desire of the people of Israel to have a king was a contagious borrowing of an institution that ‘all the other nations have’. (1 Sam 8: 4,5) Could the reason for that particular mimetic desire be that surrounding kings were apparently better at the high-prestige art of warfare?

Mimetic Desire in Irish History

As for violence and mimetic desire in Irish history, what about the extraordinary tale of the Cathach, the copy of the Psalter made by the young Colmcille from another copy owned by St Finnian?  It was this quarrel of two saints that reputedly led to the war that ended in Colmcille’s self-exile on Iona.

Centuries later it was rivalrous desire for the kingdom of Leinster that led to the conflict that brought the Normans to Ireland – and the competing desires of England, France and Spain led to many further troubles.  Far more recently, Charles J. Haughey’s absorption of the desires of 18th century Irish landlords led to the greatest scandal in living Irish political memory.

In the case of conflict in Northern Ireland, the legend of the red hand of Ulster is obviously also about mimetic desire.  What else do we need to explain the irreconcilability of the competing nationalisms that still plague the north-east?  Surely it is a mistake to point the finger exclusively at either of the competing traditions when essentially the same desire drives both – for possession of the security that goes with sovereign authority.

Mimetic Desire, Overconsumption and World Crisis

As for ‘consumerism’, today’s mass production of desirable objects has allowed the many rather than the few to possess apparently identical objects, hiding from us the full violent potential of mimetic desire in day-to-day life  (unless at end-of-year sales!). However, teenagers have been murdered in the US for possession of top-brand sneakers. And the sweat-house production of branded clothing in the developing world – an almost inevitable product of globalisation – has caused inexcusable violence to exploited workers, for example in the building of criminally unstable factories. Chinese factory workers have sometimes been driven to suicide by the terms of employment in factories that produce our highest status electronic goods.   Profit-driven multinationals, their managers dependent upon the favour of investors, seem too often indifferent to the pressures this creates for employees at the manufacturing base.  And those managers and investors too are likely to be mimetically driven – to afford higher-status homes, transport, personal technology and ‘bling’.  A world driven by unseen mimetic desire will necessarily be an abusive and unjust one.

René Girard has been writing about mimetic desire, and its connection with all kinds of violence, since the early 1970s. He has gathered around his mimetic theory a community of distinguished academics in the fields of sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, philosophy, literary criticism, history and theology.  Probably no other living intellectual has been so influential in so many fields.  Having delved as a historian into just a fraction of this work I am convinced that Girard’s insight is set to have profound consequences for the future of Christianity, as well as for the social sciences and the arts – and even the second level school curriculum.  It is not going too far to say that Girard has brought the secular Enlightenment back to its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that his work is set to transform the relationship between the churches and the secular world.

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The Story of the West: VI – Mastering Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2007

Why did a second-generation Irish nationalist leader set out to mimic in the late 1900s the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Irish ascendancy landlords, with disastrous and tragic consequences for his own reputation and his family? Why is the baseball cap worn around the world – even in cold weather? Why are people so fascinated by celebrity? Why do the youngest children so quickly learn to recognise corporate logos, and to desire what they decorate?

All of these questions were summed up in just one simple question that was asked in the Chinese spiritual classic, the Tao Te Ching, centuries before Christ:

“Why do we desire what others desire?”

To put it another way, why is desire so often contagious? A full answer to this question would give the human family a chance of overcoming, or at least containing, the crises of over-consumption and violence that now threaten the survival of our planet and our species. It is over-consumption that makes resources scarce, and it will be desire for the same scarce resources (e.g. oil) that is likely to fuel the worst violence of the near future.

No one has explored this question of contagious desire with greater energy or brilliance than the French Catholic academic, René Girard.

Beginning as a literary critic in the 1970s Girard noted that some of the West’s greatest modern writers, from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Gide were fascinated by our tendency to ‘catch’ desire from one another. He then noticed that the Bible had begun this western fascination (e.g. in the story of Solomon and the child claimed by two women). From there Girard branched out into anthropology and philosophy, developing a theory of religion that is now influencing academics throughout the world.*

Insisting that in the biblical warning not to covet ‘anything our neighbour owns’ there is a naming of this dangerous human tendency, Girard calls it by a more descriptive name – mimetic desire: a tendency to mimic, often unconsciously, the desire of someone else. Noting that a group of children presented with a choice of toys will almost inevitably begin squabbling over the possession of just one of them, Girard also locates our problem of violence in this tendency.

He also argues, however, that our tendency towards mimicry or imitation is also a gift that allows every new generation to ‘pick up’ everything learned by the preceding generation. The tendency of males to imitate older males, and of females to imitate older females, is an essential attribute that allows us to learn how to become self-supporting adults, mastering a huge range of complex tasks and bodies of knowledge.

But the huge danger of our habit of mimicry becomes obvious as soon as we enter the realm of appropriation – taking hold of something as our own. If the appropriated object is scarce or unique, in grasping it we will tend to confront one another – and violence can then follow. And when just one blow is struck to assert ownership of such an object, our gift for mimicry takes on an entirely different character – one that can destroy an entire community. This is the origin, Girard believes, of, for example, the blood feud that can still be found in many cultures.

This insight alone – that in speaking against covetousness the Bible is warning the human family against a pervasive tendency that now threatens our survival – is hugely important for Christianity – as well as for Judaism and Islam, which share the same text. The tendency for so many religious teachers in all three traditions to focus heavily upon sexual morality has helped the enemies of all religious faith to argue that religion is largely irrelevant to the problems of the moment – and even that the biblical injunctions to ‘increase and multiply’ and to dominate the earth are a source of the global environmental crisis.

On the other hand, if ‘covetousness’ identifies the human habit that betrays us into not only over-consumption but violence, the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian morality’ encompasses the only lifestyle that can take us past the problems of the moment – a lifestyle that is virtually forced upon us by our present crisis anyway.

But Girard’s understanding of covetousness does far more than this. It gives us a means of explaining, in terms that secularism can understand, the whole relevance of the orthodox Christian belief system that is summarised in the Nicene and ‘Apostles’ Creeds.

The Creeds, finally formulated by the fourth century, are centred on the story of Jesus, placing it in a cosmic salvational context. Because the ‘vertical’ picture of the universe depicted in the Creeds has been exploded by modern science, there has been a tendency in much recent theology to find those Creeds absurd and embarrassing.

But if Girard is right, the Creeds can be understood in an entirely different way: as relating a story intended to save us from ourselves – from this habit of manic and foolish imitation of lifestyles that now threaten to destroy us.

Almost all the ‘great men’ of history aspired to be ‘great’ – i.e. to acquire ‘renown’ by climbing to positions of dominance or influence, as Alexander did. Their life story begins with this ascent. Almost always, however, this rise is followed by a fall – through what the Greeks called hubris or arrogance.

Ireland has been riveted by just such a story over the past decade – the tragic story of Charles J Haughey. But in historical terms that story is mundane rather than sensational. From Alexander and Julius Caesar through Napoleon I to George W Bush and Tony Blair, the desire for ‘greatness’ has betrayed us humans into violence and excess. This has led in our own time to what The Economist now calls ‘an authority crisis’ – a growth of cynicism and disillusionment in relation to leaders and institutions in the West generally.

The story told in the creeds follows an entirely different arc – an inverted arc. It is, incredibly, a story of worldly failure rather than success – of someone who sought the company of the poor and the excluded rather than of the wealthy and powerful – and was crucified as a consequence. It defies logic that this story should ever have been told at all – especially as a story of eventual triumph.

The stories of good Christians throughout history explain why. Instead of setting out to win the favour of social elites they have done what Jesus did – they have sought out and served the poor. St Francis of Assisi is a typical example: so are Jean Vanier1This article  was written in 2007, thirteen years before the revelation in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, was also an abuser of the trust of some of the able-bodied women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Ireland’s Michael McGoldrick in our own time.

The story of the Creed is a story of both humility and triumph – and its message is that God loves and rewards humility.

That is exactly what the West needs to hear – because it has brought the world to a great crisis through its own vanity.

Vanity can be defined as a presumption of entitlement to superiority, priority or admiration. It is the attitude that then leads us into covetousness – a desire to possess whatever is possessed by those who dominate the ‘the world’. In our era it is TV that tells us who these people are, and what they possess – and so our world becomes a pyramid of desire also.

Those who can see those TV pictures, but are shut out of western prosperity – for example, educated young men in the impoverished parts of the Arab world – acquire other problematic attitudes: jealousy and envy – a feeling of resentment against those who possess what they cannot. Nothing else is needed to explain the anger that fuels the ‘War on Terror’.

Vanity, covetousness, jealousy, envy, anger – we still need these terms to explain human behaviour and to place the responsibility for dealing with these problems squarely where it belongs – upon ourselves. After almost three centuries of failure to build a perfect world without reference to sin, the most perceptive secular writers are rediscovering the attributes that are the opposite of sin: humility, frugality, mutual respect, simplicity, co-operation, peace. These are the characteristics of the Kingdom of God – preached most eloquently by the one who best exemplified them: Jesus of Nazareth.

The world is in crisis because the West above all has still to realise the full gift it received in the Christian tradition – a gift the whole world is now ready for. It is for western Christians of all traditions to realise the full scope of this gift, and to become adept at explaining the problems they see around them in terms of a truly holistic Christian morality.

This does not mean that we need to abandon our perception of the dangers of Christianity’s most consistent target: sexual indiscipline and infidelity. It means simply that we need to add to this perception an equally discerning analysis of vanity and covetousness. To be persuasive we will need to begin ourselves to see the dangers of imitating models of ostentatious consumption – and then to imitate in these matters also the one we say we love.

And when we read in Genesis that the temptation to Eve was to envy God himself, we will learn to associate Original Sin with vanity and covetousness rather than with the gift of sexuality.

As the global crisis deepens, so will the suffering of humanity – but so also will our perception of salvation. We will see that it is in one kind of imitation only that real global salvation will lie: not the imitation of the wealthy but the imitation of the one who was uniquely humble – the imitation of Christ.

* For a good introduction to Girard, as well as a good bibliography, read:Discovering Girard, Michael Kirwan; Darton, Longman and Todd 2004; ISBN 0-232-52526-9.

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The Lost Sin

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2003

As part of his ‘progressive’ assault on the Old Testament, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, J S Spong, inquires scornfully “Who nowadays covets his neighbour’s ox or donkey?”

But if we are to believe the French Catholic anthropologist René Girard* the whole of Christian revelation pivots on covetousness, whose full meaning we have almost lost.

According to Girard covetousness is not simply what the Catechism describes as a disordered desire for possessions per se – the desire for more – but a desire acquired specifically from our neighbour, a desire to possess what he possesses because  he possesses it.  So, a covetable ox would be one that belonged to someone able to afford a better one than we could.  And the car we will covet is the one that belongs to the corporate high flyer who can afford the model that we cannot.  In this interpretation, covetousness is the root of the very modern vice described as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.

To re-establish this understanding of covetousness Girard gives it the more descriptive name mimetic desire – desire that unconsciously mimics that of someone else.   One of these days a new wave of adolescent mimetic desire will begin as streaming video cell phones make all previous models obsolete.

As the modern global economy is centred on this human weakness, this understanding of covetousness has radical implications for Christian thought on – for example – the future of the human environment.  The accepted Christian explanation for over-consumption is materialism – an intellectual bias.  But no car manufacturer makes a selling point of the chemical elements that constitute its products.  Instead we are invited to believe that the car will enhance our status or give us access to a more exclusive lifestyle – and this is what mimetic desire is all about.

Even more provocative, however, is Girard’s insistence that covetousness is the root source of all human violence, and that this is central to biblical revelation.  The archetypal biblical act of violence – that committed by Cain – had to do with Cain’s desire for the divine preference that had apparently been given to Abel.  Similarly, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because Jacob favoured Joseph above them.  Saul hated David because the women of Israel preferred the boy hero – dispossessing Saul of this privilege.  Absalom’s fate too had to do with rivalry – mimetic desire for the status that belonged to his father’s role as king.  And so on.

In the ancient world, Girard argues, the internal social tensions and resentments provoked by mimetic desire were the original source of sacrificial religion.   Not having the judicial and policing systems characteristic of modern societies, primitive societies were in real danger of collapsing into an orgy of reciprocal (i.e. mimetic) violence.  In such a crisis the universal cultural mechanism that came into play was scapegoating violence – the accusation that a given marginal individual, a stranger or cripple, say, was the source of the crisis or contagion.  Such an accusation would focus the aggression of all upon someone whose death or expulsion would end the cycle, because he or she had no connections who would retaliate.

This, Girard believes, was the real origin of human, and later animal, sacrifice – which was simply the ritualization of scapegoating murder as a means of containing violence.  He sees the four Gospels as texts that uniquely reveal the scapegoating process in all of its essential injustice.  Caiaphas’ assertion that the death of Jesus would ‘save the nation’ was the archetypal formula that justified the scapegoating of an individual to restore communal peace.

In this analysis, the episode of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ assumes a new significance.  In suggesting that the one without sin could cast the first stone Jesus was identifying and confronting the real purpose of the accusation – to make the woman bear the punishment due to all for their sins.  And this in turn makes perfectly comprehensible the traditional Christian understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion – as an acceptance by Jesus of the role of punishment-bearer for all humanity.

More important, it suggests a Christology centred upon Jesus’s freedom from – and exposure of – mimetic desire.  Far from coveting the role of High Priest, Jesus had stepped down into the Jordan with the sinners.  Then in the desert he had resisted the temptations to political and religious supremacy.  Afterwards he had scandalized the religious establishment by associating with the dregs of Galilean society, assaulted the ‘for show’ aspects of much religion, and then made an assault upon the Temple system by freely forgiving sins without sacrifice.  Supposing Jesus to be a rival, Caiaphas had focused the scapegoating mechanism on him.  Had covetousness been Jesus’s motivation, he would have attempted to reverse this process, focusing contempt upon Caiaphas.  The fact that he didn’t reveals instead not only Caiaphas’s hidden thoughts – but also ‘things hidden since the foundation of the world’ (Matt 13:35) – this for Girard is the scapegoating process itself.

It is the Bible’s stark revelation of the origins of violence in mimetic desire that makes it, for Girard, supreme in ancient literatures.  The Greeks, by contrast, could not confront the reality of scapegoating – in, for example, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia in the Greeks’ mimetic pursuit of Helen, or in the tale of Oedipus.  ‘Plague’ for Girard is the standard historical metaphor for contagious internal violence – used for example to justify Christian scapegoating pogroms of Jews in the middle ages – so the real reason for Oedipus’s expulsion from Thebes is revealed by the fact that Oedipus was both a cripple and a stranger.  He was the perfect victim of the scapegoating process intended to focus and expel that plague.  Even in the era of the great Greek playwrights, Greek religion included the ritual assassination of the pharmakos, a lowly victim selected for this precise purpose – but neither Greek drama nor classical Greek philosophy dared to confront this injustice directly.

And this understanding of the Christ event gives it the uniqueness that modern relativism threatens to strip away completely.  None of the other great religions both exposes mimetic desire as the major source of violence, and confronts its effects in the scapegoating process.

Even if we don’t swallow Girard whole, his exposure of the theme of mimetic desire in the Bible, and of the origins of much human conflict in competing mimetic desires, is extraordinarily suggestive in the context of our modern predicament about sin in general.  The Augustinian analysis of sin as centred upon concupiscence, inherited through sexual generation, is clearly a dead end that discredits orthodox Christianity – especially in the context of the current clerical sex abuse scandals.  Meanwhile all around us – and even in the church – we can see the appalling effects of human competitive self-advancement.  This fault alone threatens to make the planet uninhabitable.

So an understanding of Jesus as the one person who completely overcame covetousness, and exposed it as the source of social injustice and victimisation generally, is extraordinarily timely.  It suggests that Christian revelation is centrally about exposing the source of the greatest modern evils – runaway consumption,  environmental crisis, and violence – in a way that can be understood in completely secular terms.  Nothing could be more pervasive in modern society than mimetic desire, or more dangerous to humankind.

In the Jubilee year the ‘artist’ known as Madonna declared her intention to become better known than God.   Remembering that celebrity was indeed a distinctive possession of ancient Gods we can interpret even original sin in mimetic terms – the desire to possess what Gods possess  (‘You shall be as Gods’ – Gen 3:5) – and to see the mimetic pursuit of celebrity, now rampant globally, as evidence of this universal flaw.

But this in turn has radical implications for the role of the papacy – which went out of its way to create a global personality cult centred upon John Paul II.  The logic behind this seemed secure enough – that the better known the Pope became, the more pervasive would be Christian principles.  But Time magazine made John Paul II man of the year twice, while demolishing creedal Christianity in a series of feature articles.   And John Paul has himself recently wondered why the western church generally has rejected so much of the church’s official teaching on sexuality.   The pope’s failure to convert the west on the issue of abortion speaks for itself.  Celebrity as such is patently no guarantee of moral impact – while the pursuit of it is clearly a very modern pathology.

Moreover, it appears to be connected to some of the most outrageous acts of violence committed in the west in recent years.  David Copeland, the bomber who devastated gay bars in London in April 1999 declared:  “If no-one knows who you are, you never existed.”  Eric Harris, one of the duo responsible for the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, was fascinated by Hitler’s celebrity and complained about his own failure to climb the school pyramid of esteem (his family had to move home frequently to follow his serviceman father).  More recently Robert Steinhaeuser told a friend that he too would be famous some day – shortly before shooting sixteen in a school in Bavaria when he was prevented from sitting final exams.

All of this suggests that the contrast between rampant media celebrity and the lack of attention received by many young people today due to adult careerism is a deadly combination that is simply not addressed by any of the Church’s most cherished ethical causes.  Could the reason for this again be a Christian failure to perceive the lost sin of covetousness, and its impact upon modernity?

As someone who has lived through 32 years of violence in Northern Ireland I judge mimetic desire to be an essential component of that also.  It fuelled the initial civil rights movement by arguing, with much justice, that the Unionist political monopoly was the source of greater Protestant prosperity.  This meant that educated Catholic ambition came to have a political, and destabilising, focus.  Mimetic desire was always present in Irish separatist nationalism – a desire for exclusive ownership of the island.  (Just as it was always a component of the European imperialism that had brought English power to Ireland in the first place.)  It also explains the protestant paramilitary backlash – a bid to wrest media attention from the exclusive possession of the NI minority.  And nothing could be more mimetic than the stone and bomb throwing along Belfast interfaces these days.  To paraphrase Girard, nothing could be more like a Catholic republican youth throwing a stone than a Protestant loyalist youth picking up the same stone and throwing it back.

Mimetic desire is also clearly a component of the present global ‘war on terrorism’, as the Islamic world surveys the enormous economic and military supremacy of the west.  And the Kashmir issue is a classic instance of mimetic rivalry.

But all of this in turn raises the question of how such an obvious human flaw could ever have been overlooked by the Church’s episcopal magisterium.  Could the reason be simply its acceptance of social elevation in the period after Constantine the Great?  What bishop could then have described Constantine’s military ascent as driven by covetousness?  And bishops who now enjoyed the wealth and social eminence of the pagan priesthood  would scarcely want to be made aware of ecclesiastical ambition as a spiritual flaw.  Nor would the younger sons of the landed nobility of the ancien regime who dominated the episcopacy at the dawn of modernity.  Nor would those bishops whose careerism Cardinal Gantin deplored as recently as 1999.

Indeed the present humiliations of many western bishops suggests that we may now be close to the end of an arc of episcopal social ascent, then descent, stretching through the whole ‘Christendom’ era, and affecting the Catholic episcopacy generally.  Perhaps we must wait for the descent of all bishops to the ground the rest of us occupy before we can expect a Catholic revival.  Especially if we can then make our faith relevant to the aspirations, as well as the problems, of the young.

There is much to be said for the recovery of the full meaning of covetousness as mimetic desire – but how will the hierarchical church respond to the possibility that it has been editing the Decalogue, to the detriment of the faith, for over sixteen centuries?

(*René  Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books, NY, 2001)

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