Monday, April 16, 2012

James Alison: "What sorts of difference does René Girard make to how we read the Bible?"

James Alison talks about Girard's reading of Scripture. I've bolded a couple of (what I think are) really important things below:

I guess that many of you shared the sort of excitement I felt when I first read “The woes against the Pharisees” in Things Hidden or any of the chapters in the second half of The Scapegoat. Or when I heard René explain “The woman taken in adultery” even before he had written it up in I saw Satan. It was and is the excitement of experiencing someone handling scripture in a way that none of us had ever seen or heard it handled before. It was not like the massively erudite deliverences of our Scripture professionals, which so often leave us impressed, or depressed, by their knowledge, but no more enflamed by, or loving of, the sacred pages themselves. On the contrary Girard’s readings don’t tell you much about Girard, nor stun you with his erudition. Rather he seems to be reading Scripture from within a logic that is proper to Scripture itself, as though the same spirit which had enabled Scripture to be written was enabling it to be read, so that you, the reader, end up seeing more and more in Scripture than what Girard points out himself, and you find yourself loving and treasuring the Scriptures even more. You get the sense that you are, at last, beginning to understand the text “from the inside”.

It is because of this that I wanted to start with something which seemingly has little to do with any “Girardian themes” in Scripture. And yet which is vital if we are to avoid bibliolatry. That is, to recall the sense, from which I hope we all learn, of someone who simultaneously takes texts extremely seriously, and yet not seriously at all. Girard really looks in a very detailed way at what particular texts say, and then appears to throw them all up in the air so that the textual elements come down any which way, but “any which way” turns out to be extraordinarily powerful, coherent and whole. It is having seen Girard do this, time after time, that I have begun to get a sense of Jesus doing the same thing, time after time in the Gospels. In other words, what Girard does with texts is in itself an education in the art of “doing things with texts” which is what we see Jesus do in the New Testament. When we can glimpse that this is what is going on, so many of the apparently arcane arguments set in an ancient world suddenly become alive and contemporary.

Now there is something consistent which has enabled Girard to read texts in this way. It is not simply an adorable personal quirk of his. And it is something which can consistently help us avoid bibliolatry. It is the realisation that the centre of meaning is not to be found in the texts themselves. The centre of meaning is real, historical, non-textual, or not primarily textual, and the texts themselves are certain sorts of monuments to this real, historical, pre-textual reality. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so intense were the explosions that the light from them etched what look like photographs of buildings and protrusions on the walls of other buildings. Each one of those light-etched walls is a monument to the unimaginable, and unsurviveable reality of the explosion, some hints of whose force can be read off from its monuments. And for Girard the centre of meaning, the unimaginable explosion, is a highly agile and dynamic centre in which two apparently opposed things are happening at the same time.

The first of these is entirely offstage and entirely beyond any sort of direct knowledge of ours, only detectable in the traces thrown up against some textual walls (and just conceivably, some cave walls, as at Çatalhöyük). This is the postulate of the founding murder, a dynamic postulate which suggests that, however it happened, over whatever huge length of time it happened, the central building block which has enabled our human cultures to come to be and to survive at all is the all-against-one of collective lynching. All human cultural forms flow from this. Ancient mythical texts do not point to this in a simple affirmative way. On the contrary, they dance round it, mostly hiding it, occasionally glimpsing it, sometimes horrified by what they see, sometimes complacently satisfied with the order which has resulted. The point is not “if you read ancient texts you will see that Girard is right”. Because of course, if you want you can read anything at all into ancient texts. The point is this: if you accept Girard’s postulate, you will find that the ancient texts make much more sense than they have before, in a way which is much more worthy of respect than we are inclined to acknowledge, and that there was and is a certain rationale in what we call the “primitive” mind which, while we cannot go along with it, is not at all stupid, and is a serious part of what has enabled our own ways of being and living together to survive and thus of what has allowed us to exist as we do now.

The second part of this unimaginable explosion is also prior to any text, but it has been reaching into our foreground and into our texts in a strange and unique way through the adventure of the Hebrew people, culminating in the making explicit, public, evident and frontstage of something which had been structuring and running people without their being aware of it up until then. The apparently necessary lie by which we bring into being and maintain order, culture, language, memory, thus finding ourselves established as humans, is shown to be exactly that – a lie. So the offstage structuring reality is gradually over time brought closer and closer to the surface, less and less dishonestly, in the interpretations which we glimpse in the Hebrew Scriptures, until finally that offstage structuring reality is brought centre-stage and made completely visible and obvious in the Passion. Thus the lie is undone, and we find ourselves embarked on the possibility of humanity becoming something much better, more interesting, more responsible than we had imagined, and simultaneously we start to discover how very much more dangerous to each other we can be than we had thought, and how much more precarious is our stability, given that the comfort of “the old lie” only reassures for as long as we don’t know that it’s a lie.


....Girard offers us a centre of meaning that is both prior to history, yet historical, liturgical, and contemporary, it means that the whole question of the relation between the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures and those of the Apostolic Witness (or New Testament) comes into a much fresher light. Rather than seeing two juxtaposed histories, of which one is newer and the other older, it makes much more sense to see the Hebrew Scriptures as being a permanently contemporary vision of who we are, and the Apostolic Witness being the permanently actual interpretative key revealing what has really been going on all along as the Word comes into the world. In this sense, what Girard has given us is an extraordinary tool for breaking free of the twin temptations which have beset Christian reading of the Scriptures: – the Marcionite temptation of attributing to some other god all the really unpleasant and violent passages of the Old Testament, and the Fundamentalist temptation of applying the words “God” and “Lord” univocally across both Testaments. Nor is this a Christian temptation alone: the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel were wrestling with the same temptations close to six centuries before Christ, as are shown in their differing justifications for moving beyond the child sacrifice apparently enjoined in the book of Exodus.

Here's a fairly simple illustration of "mimetic theory" from another source:

Here’s a new word for you: hominization. It refers to the process of becoming human and is part of the language of cultural anthropology and archaeology. One of the 20th century giants of this world is Rene Girard, a French thinker and devout Roman Catholic who has contributed numerous books and articles to a wide range of disciplines: history, philosophy, literary criticism, critical theory, anthropology, theology, psychology, mythology, sociology, economics and cultural studies. Girard received his Ph.D. in history from Indiana University and has lived and taught for most of his life in America.

What makes him fun is that while he combines a “deconstructionist” and “debunking” analysis of the origins and bases of human culture he uses it to affirm his Catholic faith and Christianity. Most in academia would belong to a secular or atheist bent but Girard is unapologetically Catholic. His thought, while at times complex and demanding is rooted in a simple phenomena called mimesis, the imitation or representation of aspects of the sensible world, especially human actions, in literature and art. Brian MacDonald, whose interview with Girard is here, gives this explanation of Girard’s thought in his introduction:

“Picture two young children playing happily on their porch, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy,” pushes him out of the way, and grabs it. The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to wrest it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummeling each other.

As the fight intensifies, the overweight child next door wanders into their yard and comes up to them, looking for someone to play with. At that point, one of the two rivals looks up and says, “Oh, there’s old fat butt!” “Yeah,” says his brother. “Big fat butt!” The two, having forgotten the toy, now forget their fight and run the child back home. Harmony has been restored between the two brothers, though the neighbor is now indoors crying.”

McDonald continues: “It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Girard builds his whole theory of human nature and human culture through a close analysis of the dynamics operating in this story. Most human desires are not “original” or spontaneous, he argues, but are created by imitating another whom he calls the “model.” When the model claims an object, that tells another that it is desirable — and that he must have it instead of him. Girard calls this “mimetic” (or imitative) desire. In the subsequent rivalry, the two parties will come to forget the object and will come to desire the conflict for itself. Harmony will only be restored if the conflicting parties can vent their anger on a common enemy or ‘scapegoat.’…Girard shows, throughout the body of his work, how his theory of “mimetic” desire can illuminate and unify an extraordinarily disparate set of human phenomena. It can explain everything from sacrifice to conflict, from mythology to Christianity.

The point here, at least for me, is NOT (necessarily) that Girard's "mimetic theory" is correct (although I have to say it sure looks right, from the last illustration!). The main point is simply that we can dispense with all sorts of problems of communication in post-Christendom if we can show that Christian faith has something to do with the way human beings actually are. We don't have to worry so much about "translations," or "exegesis," or the whole scholarly endeavor in the course of evangelism (although these will still be exceedingly helpful and in fact can be a fun and profitable exercise, even for layfolks like me - so don't go anywhere, scholars).

We can simply point to the facts of the world and of the human condition, and to Revelation as we understand it to speak to these facts. The Nicene Creed sets up the boundaries of this Revelation - but that's all it does (an important thing, no doubt!). This is not important by itself, but only how it affects how we ought to understand Revelation.

All this can also be done with psychoanalytic theory, BTW; I've seen this actually done. It can be, and is, done in A.A., via A.A.'s own particular approach and language. Evangelicals do this, too, in the way they speak to "sin" and "salvation." But Anglicans (and therefore Episcopalians) are a compromise religion - and we act our faith in our worship. We have forgotten that this stuff doesn't speak very clearly to people who don't know anything about it; thus, we will never be able to attract the "unchurched," but will only be able to get defectors from other faiths.

There's nothing wrong with that by itself - but even for our own sakes, we have got to address the way real life is for real people, and speak to the way human psychology works; "liturgy" is way, way later, miles off down the line. We now have the movement for "Communion Without Baptism" as "total inclusion" - but if we don't have any self-examination (Girard, and psychoanalytic theory, and A.A. all require this - but CWOB doesn't require anything at all) we will never get beyond this bare surface understanding anyway. Who wants to be "included" in the church, if it doesn't offer anything in the way of movement, anyway?

This is what I've been trying to say for the past months and years on this blog; we cannot expect to be able to speak to people unless we're speaking directly to observed experience and outside self-referential religious jargon.

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