The unlikely Christianity of René Girard

One of the most important men of the 20th century recently passed away

René Girard left behind a legacy of intelligence and innovation.
(Image credit: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis)

Too few people know about René Girard, who passed away on Nov. 4 at 91. He was undoubtedly one of the most important men of the 20th century.

A longtime professor in the U.S., Girard was perhaps destined to leave France, the country of his birth. He had not come up through the ranks of its factory for intellectuals, the tiny and elite École Normale Supérieure. He was of no trendy intellectual school of thought; he was no post-modernist or post-structuralist — until, that is, he ended up quite involuntarily hailed as the founder of one. And he was a Christian.

In the end, his country recognized him, giving him perhaps its highest honor for intellectuals of the humanities, a seat at the Académie Française.

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Girard's work, summed up under the heading "mimetic theory," is like a flash of lightning on a dark summer night, suddenly illuminating everything in a strange new light. Girard's thought has had an influence in fields as diverse as literary criticism, history, anthropology, philosophy, theology, psychology, economics, and even Silicon Valley entrepreneurship.

Mimetic theory, which Girard first hit upon teaching French literature and reading the great novelists' psychological analysis of their characters, is the idea that our desires are imitative. In other words, most of the things we want, we want because others want them. Marketing, and really most of our consumer economy, is founded on this premise. The reason you want a Ferrari or an iPhone is because they're highly coveted items.

This is profound because most of us believe our desires to be individual and authentic. But instead, mimetic theory reveals how deep a hold society has on our imaginations and our longings. Most of our desires are really envy and jealousy deep down.

For any honest and thoughtful person, this realization should provide grist for long sessions of soul-searching. Already Girard would have made his mark on history.

But when Girard expanded his work on mimetic theory beyond literature and psychology, that's when the real fun began.

Imagine the theory on a grand scale. What are the social consequences if most people desire the same things? In many societies, especially primitive ones, the answer is conflict. And there arises mimetic desire's murderous twist.

When Girard trained his literary critic's eye on anthropology and religious myth, he found mimetic desire again: in the practice of scapegoating. Most civilizations and cultures have founding myths that revolve in some sense around the death of an outsider at the hands of the community, e.g. the death of one or several gods leading to the creation of the Universe.

In Girard's framework, mimetic desire and scapegoating are connected. Mimetic desire causes conflict. Because most people desire the same things, the conflict becomes endemic, and unless the conflict destroys society first, the society unleashes its violent urges on someone: a scapegoat. After the cathartic violence, the mimetic desire vanishes, and peace is suddenly restored, which, perversely, vindicates the scapegoating — if killing the scapegoat leads to peace, then the scapegoat must really have been the source of the conflict.

Girard finds this scapegoating dynamic at the heart of most myths. Oedipus, King of Thebes, had sex with his mother and killed his father; as a result of this sacrilege, the Greek gods visit a plague on Thebes. Once Oedipus tears out his eyes and leaves the city, the plague is lifted. Romulus and his brother Remus found the city of Rome; Remus breaks the law of the newly-founded city, so his brother kills him.

We find this same destructive dynamic at the heart of social life even today — perhaps especially on social media. And there is only one to defeat it: expose it as a lie.

To Girard, there was only one religious text which did that: the Bible. Girard, who was an atheist until his work on mimetic theory and the Bible led him to see things differently, expected to see the same scapegoating dynamics at work in the Bible as he did in other sacred religious texts and myths. Instead he saw exactly the opposite: the Bible's stories deconstruct and denounce scapegoating.

The Biblical story of Joseph, for example, has Joseph falsely accused of trying to rape his Egyptian master's wife and put in prison. Egypt only avoids famine when Joseph is vindicated. The contrast with the story of Oedipus is striking: In the Oedipus story, Oedipus really did commit incest and patricide, and it was only by effectively killing him — maiming him and driving him into exile — that order could be restored. The Joseph story is the exact opposite: The Biblical narrative insists on Joseph's innocence and the land can only prosper once the truth is accepted.

Many Biblical stories revolve around this deconstruction and denunciation of scapegoating, but they culminate, Girard found, in the story of Jesus. After all, he is the ultimate scapegoat, condemned by all rightful authorities. But the Cross exposes scapegoating as a lie and thereby, if it is heeded, empties it of its power.

In an age when so many people proclaim the Bible and Christianity to be irrelevant to the 21st century, only a quick scan of the headlines will show how truly relevant this denunciation of scapegoating remains.

And how relevant is Girard's thought. For two thousands years after Christ, we still haven't gotten rid of mimetic desire, and we still haven't completely gotten rid of scapegoating.

Jesus had come, he said, and Girard used the line as the title of one of his books, to reveal "things hidden since the foundation of the world." We may still be wicked, but at least we're no longer blind. And in a small part, this is also thanks to René Girard.

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