by Caleb Nelson
“Interpreters,” notes Rene Girard, “never notice that they are themselves invariably understood and explained by the text that they pride themselves on understanding and explaining to us” (212). This point ironically applies to Girard’s own work, of course—which, as a postmodern thinker, he himself would almost gleefully acknowledge.
From a pan- or mere- Christian perspective—bracketing the specifically evangelical commitments of most contributors to this website—Girard’s thesis presents difficulties both logical and doctrinal. In the spirit of the ancient father Tertullian, who first refuted the arch-heretic Marcion with arguments from reason and then with arguments from Scripture, I will undertake to refute Girard first with reason and then with Scripture.
Two arguments from logic militate against Girard. First of all, his thesis of mimetic desire is logically faulty, for it cannot explain the origin of desire any more than evolution can explain the origin of life. Girard powerfully criticizes Freud for postulating circular taboos—desire for the father is forbidden because desire for the father is forbidden—but apparently does not trouble himself about the circular origin of the first mimetic desire. Secondly, his attitude toward Scripture is internally inconsistent, as he accepts Scripture where it confirms his theory and rejects material he perceives as contradictory.
Two arguments from Scripture also militate against Girard. First, he contradicts the essential Christian teaching that Christ will judge the living and the dead. Secondly, the entire sweep of Biblical narrative is about bloody sacrifice. Girard’s wholly loving, nonviolent God is uncomfortably similar to Marcion’s God.
Two Logical Considerations
Where did the first desire come from? The answer to that question, says Girard, is bound up in the question of how the first man became a man. What provoked the process of “hominization”? The answer is in the work’s epigraph: “Man differs from the other animals in his greater aptitude for imitation.” This is a quote from Aristotle (Poetics, 4), and Girard enthusiastically embraces it. “The only thing ‘lacking’ in animal rites is the sacrificial immolation, and the only thing an animal needs to become human is the surrogate victim” (102). This statement of the problem comes after some caustic criticism of the evolutionary hypothesis. Girard correctly states that “[w]e have absolutely no idea what early ‘cultural’ processes consist of, how they interlock with ‘natural’ processes, and how they act on the latter to create more and more humanized forms” (88). In one of the brilliant insights he so frequently has about modern thought, Girard declares, “contemporary science has adopted the habit of treating the statement of the problem as if it were the solution. . . . Evolutionists answer the supreme confidence of the creationists with their own supreme confidence” (88). Both, he thinks, are merely speculating.
Though Girard’s theory can be faulted in many ways, it is not shy. Precisely where the confidence of the evolutionists falls short, Girard’s theory takes over and dogmatically asserts that hominids became human by their discovery of the power of mimetic desire. The founding murder brought about by this desire is the basis not only of human societies, but humanity itself. Yet where did this first desire come from? Simply put, if all desire is mimetic, then no desire can exist. It has to be seen before it can be felt, and it cannot be seen unless some other feels it. Yet that other could not feel it unless he first saw some third human feeling it. Remember, on Girard’s view, animals lack this capability for mimetic desire. The first human was the first mimetic desirer. But how did he get that way? Once more, the statement of the problem is regarded as the statement of the solution. The evolutionists, victims of Girard’s blistering criticism, say that somehow animals became man and therefore evolution is true. Girard himself, victim of his own critique, says that man imitates and animals do not; therefore, the first man came about by imitating another man. By definition, no man existed before the first man! So who did the man imitate? An animal? One does not become human by imitating animals. Girard cannot have it both ways. Either the first man was a man and the first, or he was not. Period.
The other logical problem in Girard’s approach arises in his treatment of the Gospels. For Girard, these four documents teach a wholly non-violent deity. One of the interlocutors in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World brings up a problem with this view. In the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard, Christ Himself declares that the owner of the vineyard will eventually destroy the wicked tenants. This is the text of both Mark (12:9) and Luke (20:15-16). Matthew has a slightly different version, in which Christ asks the crowd what the vineyard owner will do. “They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons’” (Mat 21:40-41 ESV). Girard explains. “Jesus does not credit God with the violence. He allows his audience to come to their own conclusions and these represent not his thoughts but their own, thoughts that take God’s violence for granted. I believe we should prefer Matthew’s text” (188). Girard, in other words, simply prefers the reading that supports his thesis and rejects the two that do not. In other words, Girard himself cannot read his thesis out of Scripture without cherry-picking texts. But why should we regard Matthew as correct if we are free to reject Mark and Luke? Once again, Girard cannot have it both ways. Either Scripture is authoritative, or it is not.
Furthermore, a glance at the passages in question demonstrates a stunning lack of scholarly care. Look at the text of Luke 20:15-16. “‘What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.’ When they heard this, they said, ‘Surely not!’” (ESV). So much for the audience’s belief in a violent God! Now, the chief priests, scribes, and elders (this parable’s original hearers) doubtless had a vested interest in denying the reality of God’s coming judgment upon them. Matthew records their recognition of the justice of God’s punishment; Luke, their fearful response to that same reality. This is not Jesus accommodating a misinformed crowd, but Jesus threatening violence against the religious leaders who knew only too well their own guilt before God.
Two Biblical Considerations
Virtually all Christians acknowledge that Christ “will come to judge the living and the dead,” as the Apostle’s Creed summarizes. The Swabian Revivalist preacher Christoph Blumhardt described one way out of this teaching: “Jesus can judge,” he said, “but not condemn.” But the very parable cited by Girard clearly shows this interpretation to be false, as do other clear passages. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” teaches Paul, “that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:7 ESV). Jesus both judges and condemns.
Finally, Girard’s system contradicts the sacrificial and cultic core of the Bible’s teaching. What is the central chapter of the central book of the Pentateuch? Leviticus 16. That chapter outlines the crucial concept of the Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement. The Levitical cultus is the heart and soul of the Old Testament method of approaching God. The Old Testament is more than a Hebrew relic; it is truly Christian Scripture, and all Christians agree that it is important for their faith. Readers of the Old Testament are confronted with a burning question: Who can ascend the mountain of Yahweh (Psalm 24:3)? Only the one with clean hands and a pure heart. How can one get these hands and heart? Through animal sacrificial atonement. The entire core of the Pentateuch (and thus the foundation of all Scripture) is the story of Israel’s sojourn at Sinai, which runs from Ex. 19 to Num. 10. There the Tabernacle and the Levitical cultus was revealed to Moses. But of course, sacrifice shows up far more often than that in Scripture. How was the wrath of God placated after the Flood? By Noah’s animal sacrifice. How was Christ’s death interpreted by the writer to the Hebrews? As “offering one sacrifice for sins forever” (Heb 10:12 HCSB). These few points are merely the smatterings of the entire tone and tenor of the Bible.
God will judge, and he requires and accepts sacrifice. As Tertullian argued so long ago, a “wholly good” god who will not bestir himself to punish iniquity is a contradiction in terms. If he loves good, he must hate evil; and if he fails to hate evil, then he does not love good. The true God, unlike the God of Marcion and Girard, is wholly good, and maintains a holy hatred of evil.
The Biblical text understands Girard as a human sinner liable to God’s judgment. It explains his attempt to explain away God’s judgment as the attempt of that guilty person to justify himself in some way other than that offered by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Any interpreter who does not understand and explain these truths from the Biblical text has neither understood nor explained that text’s message.
This is the second part of a three-part refutation of Rene Girard’s theology. Here is Part I and Part III. Caleb Nelson is a Presbyterian rancher from Northern Colorado and a graduate student at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Taylors, South Carolina.