Introducing Rene Girard to the Symbolic World, and Placing Him Within It
Rene Girard often appears in our conversations, in an unusual way. He is not a spiritual authority like saints, monks and certain theologians, nor an influential online thinker. No, he is a French theorist. He happened to create a theory which is extremely important, a theory uniquely relevant to us because, early in its life, it was transformed by Christianity, and became an explicitly Christian anthropological theory. All praise to God, but what should we make of it? More importantly, how does it fit into our understanding of Christianity, and the world? As it was transformed by Christianity, does it transform Christianity in return?
This article will introduce the reader to Girard’s ideas, but my main purpose will be to help the reader to position Girard, and to identify certain problems which may stand in our way. These include Girard’s understanding of sacrifice and his tendency to overstate the remit of his theory. After introducing Girard’s theory, the second half of this article will analyse Girard’s concept of sacrifice in detail, in comparison to the recent three Lord of Spirits podcasts on the subject.
Before delving into the ideas and problems, I should make clear that much of the appeal and significance of Girard lies in his acute observations and analyses of the contemporary world. He realised two phenomena were happening by the late 90s; the acceleration of a disconnected fragment of Christianity (the concern for the victim or the ‘social justice’ fervour that we are so familiar with today) as well as social conflict in the form of opposing groups. His writing on these subjects is insightful and impressive, and is linked intimately with the content of his theories.
An Introduction to Rene Girard’s Theory
Rene Girard was a French professor of History and Literature who spent most of his career in US universities. Early in his career he undertook a project to answer a simple question: Was there something in common between what he saw as the greatest works of literature? What made the prose of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, Proust and so forth shine so brightly to him?
In studying this question he discovered something: characters’ desire was at the forefront of these works, but this desire operated in a very particular way. Instead of an individual simply desiring an object, characters’ desire tended to be mediated through another individual, a ‘model’. This is mimetic desire, referring to the ‘mimicry’ that is fundamental to it. The relationship that results from this pattern often becomes rivalrous – the focus of the individuals becomes disconnected from the object and fixed to the model, who becomes a rival. The power of these works of literature, their insight into social life, made Girard wonder about the extent to which mimetic desire was integral to human life.
Girard pursued this question by delving into anthropological texts on 19th and 20th century African and American tribes. Here he made another discovery, aided by his pre-existing knowledge of ancient Greek mythological texts and plays. He discovered that mimetic desire, or social configurations arising from mimetic desire, was integral to all the tribes’ mythological ‘founding’ stories. His reading then led him to relate these configurations to much of the ritual form and context of sacrificial practices. These links, together with the insight he had gained into mimetic desire and his ongoing research, inspired a daring theory which he would later refer to as a ‘revelation’.
He theorised that early groups of humans would inevitably face a social crisis, called a mimetic crisis. In this crisis the rivalries that mimetic desire creates would spiral out of control. Cycles of desire and violence would mutually reinforce each other, and inevitably end in the destruction of the group. This crisis came to be solved in one way – at the height of the crisis, while everyone’s desires, wrongs, rivalries and anger (we would say sins) are circulating through the group, an individual is picked out as a target. The group suddenly transfers all of the wrongs from themselves onto that individual – they are the one to blame, the one who harboured or caused all of the bad things that were happening, all of the violence and incest and destruction. This individual is violently killed or perhaps violently exiled.
And the problem is cured. All of the mimetic tension, all the rivalries and cycles of hatred, are gone. Such is the collective relief – the powerful phenomenological sense of a crisis averted, a problem gone away, a new dawn – that the group views the victim they have just killed as having divine powers. The view that his death caused the end of the crisis becomes the idea that the individual himself caused the end of the crisis. He is divinised, and stories are created about the events, in which the victim was truly to blame, but was also a great Hero or God.
As this mythologising is happening, of course the mimetic crisis is beginning again. The problems were only temporarily cured. Instead of letting the crisis reach its peak, the group begins to ritually re-enact the crisis, culminating in the killing or sacrifice of a suitable individual. This serves perfectly well to solve the crisis in the same way as before – the sins of the group are placed upon the individual, and they are killed, temporarily getting rid of the problems. This becomes the foundation for human culture, and the main management system for human society. Mythological stories hide, and at the same time justify, this violence and unjust killing.
For Girard, this is how the institution of sacrifice is born. All varieties of sacrifice are linked, for him, to these ancient crises and their resolution.
Now, allow me to relieve your tension, dear reader, with a break from this explanation of Girard’s theory. Those who read the Symbolic World, or have read Matthieu Pageau’s Language of Creation, or who listen to Jonathan Pageau or Lord of Spirits, will be frowning in disagreement – because these works put forward a very different conception of sacrifice. In this ‘symbolic’ conception, sacrifice, or for Matthieu Pageau ‘offering’, is the main mode through which Heaven and Earth interact. 1 Material from the Earth is ‘selected’ or ‘refined’ and given ‘upwards’ to Heaven, which provides form, meaning or information ‘downwards’ in exchange. This is also a ‘management system’ for human societies, but is fundamentally ‘natural’ or ‘positive’.
I can put forward my contention about this very simply. The ‘symbolic’ conception of sacrifice is a true description of how our world works, and Girard almost completely missed it. It doesn’t really factor into his theories at all. Such was the force of his literary and anthropological discoveries that sacrifice became welded to the theory he had created. This is an error in his work, but his work still has great value, as I will, hopefully, make clear. Later I will analyse the problem of sacrifice specifically, and use it to show how Girard provides insight and perhaps even revelation alongside his errors.
The Christian Turn
I will now return to Girard’s theory. The ideas that I have described above were initially formulated in his 1972 work, Violence and the Sacred. After this he began to be acclaimed in academia; his theory was lauded as a secular, technical theory of religion. Secular academics rejoiced that they now had a rational tool with which to explain the myriad strangeness of religious behaviour – Girard’s text was extremely well read, providing many anthropological examples. Unfortunately for them, Girard’s work had only just begun. He initially approached the Bible as just another anthropological text, which, he expected, would reveal a similar pattern of the mythologising and concealment of violent sacrifice.
However, from the very beginning of the Old Testament, the Bible tells a different story. Immediately, with the story of Cain and Abel, the Bible takes the side of the victim; God pronounces that Cain will be cursed due to ‘thy brother’s blood from thy hand’ (Genesis 4:11). Throughout the Old Testament, Girard saw a partial, emerging consciousness and condemnation of the ‘single victim mechanism’, or scapegoating, and the violence inherent to it.
As an example of this ambiguous, partial realisation, Girard gave the example of the Servant of Yahweh in Isaiah. The servant is described, in some ways, like a guilty scapegoat and receptacle of violence: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53,6), “as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (53,3) – and yet he is also recognised as innocent and without blame: “By oppression and judgement he was taken away… although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (53, 8-9).
This foreshadowing in the Old Testament is fulfilled by Christ in the New Testament. In a frighteningly exact way, Christ’s death on the cross explicitly unveils what has been happening ‘since the foundation of the world’; an innocent man is accused by a crowd swept up in a mimetic frenzy, and killed. Through the resurrection and the revealing of His divinity, His death does not bring about the expected effects of the resolution to the people’s crisis – instead it reveals that the solution that humanity had been using to deal with this crisis is based on a lie, is based on the accusation of the innocent.
The clarity and power of this Girardian interpretation of the Gospels is best illustrated in this extremely limited space by a few examples, rather than trying to explain it at length.
The first is the illumination of the meaning of Christ’s words recounted by Matthew (10:34-36):
“Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
These words are of course accompanied immediately afterwards by words asserting the importance of what we in the Symbolic World recognise as the hierarchy of attention; we worship and pay attention to God first, and family after. But nevertheless the quotation is still strange, because correct hierarchy brings cohesion, not discord. Girard’s ‘anthropological revelation’ identifies precisely what Jesus is referring to: through His death on the cross, Jesus removes the solution to the mimetic crisis (which is precisely the members of your household becoming your enemy). Jesus of course provides a far superior solution – the imitation of himself, as well as important principles that guard against mimetic conflict – but one that he knew would be extremely difficult to follow. History between the resurrection and today is the story of an imperfectly realised Christian revelation interacting with a social crisis which that revelation prevents being solved, unless through the difficult path of theosis.
Girard’s writing also illuminates something which many Christians believe to be true, but may find hard to explain, or even be embarrassed about. This is the almost immediate transformation of the entire world through Jesus’ death on the cross. Girard’s ‘technical’ reading of the death and resurrection, and what it unveiled, explains how Christ can have a universal revolutionary effect without any conversion or belief being necessary. A social group can, and will, have its illusions about the guilt of the victim stripped away without ever coming into contact with a missionary. Once the belief in the guilt or wrongdoing of the victim is dispelled, it cannot truly return without some form of self-deception.2
These examples link Girard’s theory to the text of the gospels in a very direct way. The ‘literality’ of the connections can sometimes seem like a vulgar coincidence or misreading, but they are so frequent, going far beyond these examples, that they command attention.
With this too-brief description of the Christian transformation of Girard’s work, I will make an observation. Girard’s theory is primarily ‘technical’, and was regarded by Girard as ‘scientific’.3 It identifies ‘mechanisms’ in human social life which predictably happen, and that we can only overrule as individuals with difficulty. On the level of the group, they become almost inevitable. The way he constructed and researched the theory was impeccably academic, and the power and force it has in terms of its correlations and insights often manifest in a ‘technical’, rationally satisfying way.
This allows us to easily place it in a hierarchy of meaning or knowledge. The status and place of technical or scientific knowledge is to be respected, but it should be located underneath or peripheral to symbolic knowledge and theological knowledge. While symbolic knowledge orientates us and directs us, scientific knowledge is a tool which we can use, and its use can be good or bad. But scientific knowledge can also shine a light into places that were dark; the recovery and decoding of lost texts comes to mind. This exposing of things that were hidden can also be good or bad – perhaps we could symbolically identify it with the uncovering of the father.4
Girard’s theory is certainly a tool that we can use to rationally explain Christianity to people with a certain kind of mindset. Jordan Peterson springs to mind as someone who might receive Girard’s work – in its full extent, not simply a summary – quite well, and perhaps with some transformative effect. The danger here would be a person remaining there, without receiving further revelation. Here Girard’s theory can be comfortably placed beneath higher or more central knowledge, especially considering his lack of understanding of important symbolic concepts.
However, I believe that it is possible that Girard’s theory shines a light on, and uncovers, a Christian truth that was hidden. And I think it is furthermore possible that this truth was never meant to have been hidden; that it was always part of the Christian revelation from the beginning, but was misunderstood.
I will open my mouth with parables,
I will utter what has been hidden since the
foundation of the world (Matthew 13, 35)
Analysing Girard’s Ideas of Sacrifice
Let us return to the problems identified at the beginning.
The first problem is simple; Girard tended to overstate the remit and significance of his theory. I think that Girard’s theory may be the most important of the 20th century, perhaps beyond, and still I think that he overstated its significance. I will explain the way that he did so very briefly by way of Genesis. We could see Girard’s theory as illuminating a hidden part of the meaning of the murder of Abel by Cain, and how this came to found the world’s social orders. Having made this discovery, Girard then placed this event – the murder – at the beginning of the story, and at the top of the hierarchy of significance, ignoring the significance of everything that came before it. This problem occurs frequently in his work,5 but I believe it can be isolated and nullified easily by the sympathetic reader.
The second problem is regarding his conception of sacrifice. Now, the timing of the writing of this article is significant because it coincides with the publication of three long talks on the subject of sacrifice by Orthodox Fathers Andrew Damick and Stephen De Young of the Lord of Spirits (LoS) podcast.6 This ‘coincidence’ suggested to me that I should use their excellent content in my analysis. Unfortunately the reader may get lost without having listened to them, but it is worth your time.
In comparing Girard’s ideas with the fathers’, I must make clear the vast superiority in knowledge that the fathers (and Girard) have to me; I had to listen to their words several times in preparation for this writing, receiving new knowledge and insight each time.
As outlined earlier, Girard did not perceive the symbolic conception of sacrifice. We can use the fathers’ words to show exactly what he did not perceive. However, our analysis will also suggest that he illuminated an aspect of the Christian revelation that may be under-appreciated.
In the last of the LoS podcasts on sacrifice,7 the fathers explore in detail the rituals of the Jewish ‘Day of Atonement’, involving the sacrifice of a goat as a sin offering for Yahweh and – in the terms of the fathers – the expulsion of another ‘goat for Azazel’, who in several English translations was termed the ‘scapegoat’. We can note uncontroversially that the first goat fulfils the positive, symbolic account of sacrifice mentioned earlier, while the second goat has the sins of Israel placed upon him, and is driven out of Jerusalem in order to return the sins to where they come from (i.e. the domain of Azazel or Azazel himself). They explain the important meaning and purpose of these rituals, and, importantly for us, symbolically identify Jesus with both goats, meaning that Jesus’ death on the cross fulfilled the role which both goats had in the day of atonement, on a larger scale – i.e. for the whole world.
The fathers’ symbolic identification of Jesus with both goats is correct and impeccable. They already have attained the full symbolic picture. Girard meanwhile could not see that Jesus is the first goat, the purifying sacrifice, offered by Himself as a priest of the order of Melchizedek. Such was the force of Girard’s discoveries, and his position outside of the religious hierarchies, that he could only identify sacrifice with negative, violent qualities.8
Though we are acknowledging this error, Girard had the partially correct insight of identifying Jesus with the second goat, which he unambiguously identified, of course, with our concept of the scapegoat. Meanwhile, although the fathers of the LoS podcast have the full symbolic picture, details of their interpretation of the scapegoat or goat for Azazel seems somewhat strange to me. I do not claim to be able to judge their interpretation; I am instead comparing it to Girard’s conceptions. I think Girard may have uncovered details of this identification which have been missed.
An insightful reader can piece together Girard’s insight from what I have written about his Christian theory above. Girard sees the scapegoat or ‘goat for Azazel’ ritual as exactly the ritualised remnant of the violence against the single victim, the same violence against the single victim which gave rise to ‘human sacrifice’. The goat loaded with sins and sent out into the wilderness has many parallels with pagan rituals, described throughout Girard’s Violence and the Sacred. The individual – goat or human – is exiled, killed or otherwise ‘gotten rid of’. Girard would see an exiling as another variety of killing, which of course is symbolically correct. The fact that the ‘goat for Azazel’ came to be driven off a cliff, and thus killed in an indirect way, makes this point even more strongly. Even more important than the ultimate fate of the victim is the ritualised violence meted out upon it; the fathers of LoS describe how the goat had a red cloth wrapped around it, and was beaten and spat upon as it was driven out of the city.
Girard reads a deep meaning into this violence. This meaning intensifies and strengthens the identification of the ‘goat for Azazel’ with Christ – because the violence suffered by Christ is also meaningful, and has been for Christians since the beginning. Girard’s reading imbues the violence suffered by both Christ and the goat with a unifying history, one that potentially reveals a hidden, or misunderstood, facet to Christianity.
The idea that this facet may be hidden or misunderstood is reinforced by the fathers of LoS’ treatment of the ‘goat for Azazel’. They undermine the meaning of the violence meted out to this goat – because they rightly note that the prescribed biblical ritual regarding this goat is non-violent.
But Girard’s theory suggests a reading which explains why the ritual became violent; in the stead of the old, violent, exiling or murdering rituals which were used to manage social groups, God provides a replacement ritual which symbolically accomplishes the same thing in an explicitly nonviolent way. But because of the fallen state of humanity before Christ, the violence that this ritual is supposed to replace inevitably re-emerges in the people’s enactment of the ritual – they begin to beat and spit upon the goat as it is exiled, and eventually do kill it.
The importance of this violence and its redemption for the Christian story shows exactly why Christ was identified with this goat by the gospel writers through this violence – a fact that would otherwise be mysterious, as it is not a feature of the Levitical ritual.9
Now I will attempt to unify this reading with the problem of sacrifice. Girard would have seen the ritual of the ‘goat for Azazel’ as a sacrificial ritual. He confused the violence which is behind the story of this ritual with sacrifice itself, and would have extended this violence to being ‘behind’ the sacrifice of the first goat, the goat for Yahweh. This was a mistake, but it was a mistake which we can rectify, and salvage his theory from. His confusing of mimetic violence with sacrificial ritual points towards a simple correction.
Sacrifice, in the symbolic form described by Matthieu Pageau’s work ‘Language of Creation’ as well as the LoS podcast, is a fundamental structure to the world which pre-exists the murder of Abel by Cain. It is an entirely practical way in which humans and the divine interact, but it is also a structure which can manifest in microcosms of the cosmic hierarchies, such as the human body or societal hierarchies.10
I theorise that because it is a fundamental structure, the discovery by humanity of the ‘single victim mechanism’, or in other words the usage of a scapegoat murder to solve social problems, often became subsumed into the sacrificial structural form. But even though it assumed this form, it was never ‘real’ sacrifice – it was always just a collective murder. This explains precisely why the ‘goat for Azazel’ resembles other rituals which have been previously identified with sacrifice, i.e. varieties of pagan human ‘sacrifice’. This also justifies LoS in choosing to omit human sacrifice as a subject – these rituals, as well as the ritual of the ‘goat for Azazel’, are not sacrificial in the sense of an offering to the divine.
However, LoS does not explain what these rituals are or why they are the way they are. To put it most simply, they do not explain, or even deny, the link between the phenomenon of the scapegoat – the solving of a problem through the blaming of an innocent victim, which we know is real in our world – and the Day of Atonement ritual which was known in the English-speaking world as the ritual of the ‘scapegoat’, which they correct as the ritual of the ‘goat for Azazel’. It seems that according to their reading, these are two separate phenomena, and it is pure coincidence that the details of the ritual of the ‘goat for Azazel’ appear so similar to scapegoat phenomena.
Girard does explain what these rituals are; they are the murders which Satan/Azazel used to found ‘this world’ which he is prince of. They are the satanic order which was then used to govern and manage the world before Christ came.
Using Girard’s theory, we can link with a chain this initial, precisely defined satanic order of the world with the pagan ritualised forms of this order. It allows these to be linked to the partially redeemed remnants of these rituals in Judaism – the ritual of the ‘goat for Azazel’ or ‘scapegoat’, justifying and illuminating both translations. The full meaning of this goat’s partial identification with Christ can then be understood; the scapegoat, Christ, is murdered according to the will of the crowd, and then revealed to be both innocent and divine, unveiling and thus destroying the entire foundation of the satanic order, which relies on the concealment of the innocence of the victim.
We can see this chain of connections in terms of a symbolic identification with a Christian mystery, the ‘Triumph of the Cross’;
Having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross; having put off from himself the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. (Colossians 2:14-15, English Revised Version)
This ‘triumph’ refers to the public dragging of a Roman Emperor’s vanquished enemies behind him – this chain of connections is that which is used to drag the principalities and powers, which had used the ‘old law’ to govern. Christ blots out the old law by nailing it to the cross, by revealing it.
Girard identified this chain of connections over the course of his work, despite his errors and the things he could not see. Its perception gave him great insight into many aspects of our present situation, and we would do well to receive this insight, forgiving his mistakes.
Our collective view of Girard seems awkwardly suspended between enthusiastic embrace, and outright rejection. The solution to this suspension is, firstly, to understand his mistakes and how to rectify them, and then secondly to place Girard within our hierarchies. Perhaps the place he will occupy, once his mistakes have been understood and his insights have been integrated, is that of a tool that will be in the hands of the technically-minded. This tool will allow them to convince with greater power those that are also technically minded; it is Girard who may provide a true Christian ‘science’, a rationalist, anthropological understanding of Christianity that, once properly integrated underneath or peripheral to theological and symbolic understandings, will not harm the structure of Christianity itself.
Rationalist or anthropological understandings are not worthy of explaining Christianity, but Christianity is not alien to them; it can include and redeem them within it. When they are in their proper place they should become a tool which can be used to analyse and converse with the ‘outside’; this use would ‘save’ our symbolic understanding, allowing it to remain close to our heart. Within these proper bounds, Girard was a brilliant mind, and truly can contribute to Christianity in the 21st century.
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- Pageau, Matthieu. The Language of Creation, p. 77-97. Independently Published Kindle edition, May 2018
- We can see the kinship of this conception to an alternative way of describing this phenomenon, found in the ‘Lord of Spirits’ podcast interpretation of John 2: “John 2:1-2 is talking about the Atonement. 2:1 is talking about Christ as the high priest who intercedes in prayer, and then 2:2 says that Christ is the Atonement not only for our sins, but also for the whole world. And what he’s doing here is he’s taking this idea of the purification of sacred space, so if we imagine that there’s this layer of darkness over the whole world, and then there’s this sort of dome, a dome of light over Israel, and… [what is] under the dome is being cleansed and kept pure; now that dome is expanded to encompass the whole world… Christ gets rid of Azazel, he’s broken Azazel’s hold over the whole world; now the whole world can become sacred space.” (Damick, Andrew & De Young, Stephen. The Priest Shall Make Atonement – the Lord of Spirits podcast. The Ancient Faith Ministries website, 2021.) Now in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard precisely identifies the ‘single victim mechanism’, the assignation of blame onto an innocent victim, as the method of Satan, who here would be identified with Azazel (if they are in fact different figures, Girard would be instead referring to Azazel).
- Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred, p.244-246. Continuum, 2005. First published 1972.
- See a brief discussion from Jonathan Pageau about the subject here.
- for a culminatory, and relatively mild example, see the conclusion to Girard, Rene. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p.182. Orbis Books, 2001. Originally published in 1999.
- Damick, Andrew & De Young, Stephen. Eating with the Gods – the Lord of Spirits podcast. The Ancient Faith Ministries website, 2021.[↩]
- Damick, Andrew & De Young, Stephen. The Priest Shall Make Atonement – the Lord of Spirits podcast. The Ancient Faith Ministries website, 2021.
- Girard made the regrettable error of rejecting texts which identified Jesus with positive sacrifice, most notably Hebrews (Girard, Rene. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, p.215-226. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016, first published in French in 1978). I understand that while his conception of sacrifice remained inflexible, Girard walked back his over-hasty rejection of Hebrews in time.
- I believe the fathers also undermine the violence in this ritual to dispel the ‘punishment’ associations that brought about penal substitution theory. A feature of Girard’s position on Christianity is that he was also strongly opposed to this theory (Girard, R. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, p.215-226). Although as mentioned this chapter goes much too far, with sympathy we can see how it correlates with Orthodox theology.
- Pageau, M. The Language of Creation. p.76.