This is a guest post by @fitnessfeelingz, a participant in my recent course, “The Philosophy of René Girard,” hosted by IndieThinkers.org. At the end of the course, course participants delivered presentations in the concluding proseminar. What follows is a lightly revised text version of the presentation. This is the second in a series of guest posts.
René Girard’s work on literature and the anthropology of religion show the Western world in the throes of the historical destiny set in motion by Christianity. The Gospel texts revealed a truth hidden by archaic myth: the innocence of victims. This revelation, Girard argues, set history in motion, unfolding a new era which must grapple with the possibilities and dangers of that truth.
This line of thinking is not typical of the modern era. And I venture that the average person would be surprised by his arguments, just as I was. My initial understanding of his work was to think that the complete Gospel revelation had finally been revealed. That Girard’s work was a revelation of the revelation. At various points in his analysis, Girard himself gestures towards the originality of his interpretation, arguing that the most prominent Biblical interpreters failed to do the text’s justice.
Somewhat paradoxically, however, Girard views himself as a mere messenger, presenting a message which has been both revealed completely and understood. The message in question is the centrality of scapegoating to human culture and the innocence of scapegoating’s victims. This truth, Girard argues, has been the engine of history since the time of Christ, driving a gradual, though not strictly linear, acceptance of the innocence of victims.
What is most intriguing about Girard’s understanding of his own role in spreading this message is the claim that the above revelation is already known. Interpreters of religious texts will always say their interpretation existed in the text all along. What they rarely do, however, is argue further that their interpretation is already universally understood. How do we address this? And how do we reconcile the seeming originality of Girard’s interpretation with his self-conception as an imitator?
We should give credit to the strong evidence Girard brings to bear. Pointing to examples of historical persecutions such as witch trials or blaming Jews for the spread of plague, he argues that the message of Christianity must have been received, because we immediately understand the innocence of these victims. No one thinks to suggest that empirical examination is needed to exonerate these accused. We intuitively separate fact from fiction when engaging with persecution narratives, grasping which parts are true and which represent the mythic attitude of the persecutors. This intuition reflects a deep internalization of the Gospels.
The more strongly the Gospel revelation has taken hold, the less we are aware of its impact. Girard is cognizant of this, observing how aspects of modern, secular, or post-modern projects are continuations of the Christian ethos of de-mystification and moral revolution, which nonetheless view themselves as transcending Christianity. They paradoxically establish their continuity with Christianity via their rejection, copying its structure but changing the content. Christianity serves as the scapegoat, the myth modernity reacts against. The Bible has become the target of the very process it began. In other words, lacking awareness of the truths we possess, we have become trapped in the structure of Christianity’s original conflict with the world of myth, endlessly reliving the cycle of de-mystification.
Here is the key point. This development has occurred because we understand the Gospels, but we do not understand that we understand. We might describe the revelation’s epistemological status, in Rumsfeldian terms, as an “unknown known.” In other words, Christianity was potent enough to change history, to reveal the inanity of the scapegoat mechanism, but insufficient to overcome the human proclivity for self-deception. We never allowed ourselves to openly acknowledge our understanding, to integrate it with human reason. It thus operated unconsciously, unchecked by reason’s powers of distinction and contextualization.
This failure to bring the Gospel message into consciousness has sent modernity on a wild goose chase. We imagine that by ending difference and out-persecuting persecutors, we can achieve a utopian world without openly acknowledging the most shameful aspect of the Gospel revelation: that violence belongs neither to scapegoat, nor persecutors. It belongs to us all equally.
Girard did not reveal the Gospel message to history. He is right to acknowledge that work has already been done. Yet Girard achieves what may be the highest task of interpretation. He makes the text speak to rational consciousness with such force that it cannot be repressed. We can, therefore, view Girard’s work as revealing the Gospel message to human reason. A view which respects the uniqueness of his thought in the modern context, yet takes his self-understanding seriously.
Earlier I referred to the pre-Girardian understanding of the Gospels as unconscious. The operation of this stance is twofold; a deeply internalized belief in the innocence of victims combined with a kind of clinging to the world of myth as model/rival. Hence the need to pathologically re-live the original de-mystification, even in increasingly absurd forms.
But after Girard, the Gospel message has been raised to rational consciousness. We can finally let go of Christianity’s original conflict, and turn our attention to what the Gospels give as the essential post-mythical activity, achieving alignment with the absolute example of non-violence, Christ. In a fitting reversal, reason rescues faith.
@fitnessfeelingz is a marketer, photographer and friend to all who resist the bio-security state of exception.