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Reading Selections From Girard’s Mimetic Theory And The Relationship Between Science And Religion by Britton W. Johnston

April 1, 2011

René Girard

This is from an article titled “How Girard’s Mimetic Theory Can Help Us Understand the Relationship Between Science and Religion” by Britton Johnston, a Presbyterian minister who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Rev. Johnson earned his Masters of Divinity at the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, class of 1990 and organized the annual meeting of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion in June, 2004. The complete article is at Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science. I add this to my little collection of Girardian articles and summaries.

Culture And Truth
The question of the relationship between science and religion, like many other leading concerns of theologians today, has to do with the relationship between culture and truth.
It therefore seems appropriate to approach these theological issues anthropologically. Unfortunately, the field of Anthropology tends to be dominated by a “politically correct” suspicion of religion in general, and of theology in particular.

Fortunately, there is a new anthropological theory emerging. This new theory is congenial to theology, promising to give us powerful new concepts and tools to finally resolve these vexing theological questions. This theory is the “mimetic theory” of René Girard. It has been around for about 30 years, though it has made little progress among theologians and anthropologists until recently. What I would like to do with this essay is to introduce the basics of Girard’s theory, and to suggest how this theory might supply us with a fruitful new approach for reconciling science and religion.

Who Is René Girard
René Girard is what you might call a “literary” anthropologist — this despite the fact that his formal education was in neither literature nor anthropology. His Ph.D. is in history. His doctoral dissertation was on the subject of Franco-American relations after World War II. Although his “outsider” status might lead us to question the validity of his theories, in fact a lack of official credentials is common among those who bring revolutionary new ideas to a field of study.

Girard was born in France in 1923. He came to the United States in 1947, working on his doctoral dissertation at Indiana University. They put him to work teaching French literature, something for which he had little training beyond the fact that he was a Frenchman. In fact, he was often just barely ahead of his students, reading some of the novels for the first time, two chapters ahead of the class assignments. In the process of teaching literature, he began to notice certain patterns in the great novels, in their treatment of human desire

Deceit, Desire, and the Novel
His first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, was published in French (with the title Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque) in 1961, after he had become a professor at Johns Hopkins University. In that book he argues that great literature reflects awareness that human beings get their desires from one another. We are “mimetic” creatures, meaning that we internalize one another through imitation. A crucial aspect of the mimetic process is that it is the means by which we acquire our desires. Human desire therefore is not innate; rather, we “borrow” our desires from those we imitate. This brings us into conflict with those others. The person who is our model also becomes for us the greatest obstacle to getting what we want. Great literature, Girard argued, depicts its protagonists’ entanglement in these mimetic webs of desire and rivalry — but often with liberation at the moment of the hero’s death or expulsion.

Patterns Of Expulsion
Girard continued to examine the theme of expulsion, in ancient literature and primal myths. He found that every ancient myth contained traces of a pattern of expulsion. Every ancient myth, that is, except for the Bible. In 1972, he published La Violence et le Sacré, in which he argued that all religious myths are disguised accounts of actual historical events, specifically expulsions, the sacrifice of scapegoats.Even the Bible follows this same pattern, but with one important difference: the Bible is the first narrative to present the expulsion from the point of view of the scapegoat.

Girard went on to develop his mimetic theory in subsequent books, such as Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (English edition, 1987), The Scapegoat (1986), To Double Business Bound (1978), and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (English edition 2001). In these books and others, Girard and his followers have demonstrated that his theory has amazing power to clarify issues in anthropology, theology, biblical interpretation, psychology, political science, economics, linguistics, and on and on. It is truly a “grand theory,” simple yet powerful. Such theories are not in fashion in these postmodern and multicultural times; they are in fact regarded with suspicion. So far, there have been no grand theories that have worked. So far.

A Sketch Of Mimetic Theory
The preeminent characteristic of human beings is that we imitate each other (thus the term “Mimetic Theory”). This mimesis is not mere mimicry, but an instinctive and preconscious impulse. Even our desires–especially our desires–come from the imitation of others. Because we want the same things that others want, we come into conflict over who will possess the desired object. This rivalry is in turn imitated so that it escalates into violence. The rivalry does not remain limited to the first individuals involved, but others imitate it until it spreads to the entire community, generating a mimetic crisis. Violence threatens to destroy everyone involved, unless a solution is found.

The solution that our species stumbled upon was the mechanism of sacrifice. One individual is singled out by the community as the scapegoat whose death absorbs the violence in the community, delivering the community from this threat. The community mistakenly believes that the scapegoat was at once the cause as well as the all-powerful cure for the chaos of the mimetic crisis. The pagan concept of the gods emerges from this misrecognition. The deliverance brought about by sacrificial violence is the basis for the primitive sacred. It is also the basis of archaic religion and the foundation of human culture.

Human culture extends the power of sacrifice by creating myths and idols, which remind the people of the sacred event of the sacrifice, damping down the fires of the mimetic crisis. The function of a myth is to preserve and obscure the historical event of the sacrifice. By preserving the experience of the sacrifice, a myth reduces the need for frequent repetitions of it. But it is also important that myths obscure the murderous reality of the sacrifice, because to speak openly of murder is to risk triggering a new mimetic crisis.

Human culture inhibits the development of the mimetic crisis by also putting in place taboos, laws, and other forms of sacred differentiation so that the effects of mimesis are reduced, thus slowing the development of mimetic crises.

The biblical revelation (in both the Old and the New Testaments) breaks the power of this sacred violence by revealing it for what it is, the collective murder of an innocent victim. The voices of the prophets, and especially the revelation of Christ on the cross, demythologize human culture by forcing us to acknowledge our sacred sin. Because the sacred depends upon denial, the biblical revelation renders sacred murder unworkable. The Bible brings the workings of the sacred to an end. This is why Jesus is described in the Gospel of John as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin [singular] of the world.” (John 1:29)

The loss of the sacrificial mechanism would result in our self-destruction, if some alternate form of functioning were not provided. Fortunately, the Gospel also gives us new means to avoid mimetic rivalry, supplanting the old taboo systems, by calling us to imitate Christ. When we imitate Christ (“Set your minds on things that are above” Col 3:2), we are possessed by a desire for the well-being of our neighbors, in place of the old desire to have what the neighbor wants. This process of acquiring new desires transforms humanity and leads to a new and better non-sacrificial culture.

The Difficulty of the Sacred
One of the things that are hard to get used to with this theory is the idea that the “sacred” is a bad thing. It’s not as bad as the mimetic crisis, but it is nevertheless fundamentally bloody and violent. Violence seems to inhere in the sacred object like an electrical charge. Whoever draws too near runs the risk of inciting the crowd to attack.

Girard argues that without religion human beings could not exist. The greatest threat to our existence has never been starvation or predation, but our own violence. The origin and purpose of religion is to save us from this threat.

A Clear And Simple Scientific Hypothesis For The Origin Of Culture And Religion
The advantage of Girard’s theory is that it gives us a clear and simple scientific hypothesis for the origin of culture and religion. With this as an analytical tool, we can unpack theological problems in fresh ways, when they have to do with culture and violence. Most of the really difficult theological problems can now be taken apart in a few quick steps, like an encoded message that becomes easily readable once the key for the code is discovered.

Science and Religion
According to René Girard, the sacred is inseparable from the practice of sacrifice. In fact, the word “sacrifice” literally means to “make sacred.” This is “sacrifice” in the ancient sense, meaning taking someone (a person or an animal) and ritually killing them. The sacred comes into being with the spilling of reconciling blood.

For example, belief in witches is typical of the workings of the sacred in society. In virtually every primitive culture in the world, there is a belief in witches. Whenever things seem to be going wrong, when resentments build between people, and sickness seems to be everywhere, the primitive culture will posit that a witch is at work causing problems. The community sets to work identifying the witch. When they identify someone (usually whoever has the fewest friends in the community) in such a way that everyone believes the accusation, they put the witch to death. Upon the killing of the witch, the buildup of hostility in the community is discharged, and things seem to return to normal. It seems obvious that therefore the witch indeed was the cause of the problem. This in turn reinforces the belief in witches. This scenario could never function without a fundamental misrecognition of the situation. The “plague” that the witch supposedly caused was really a mimetic crisis. The witch was only a scapegoat, blamed and punished to help the community regain its harmony.

This cycle of crisis, execution, and renewal tends to reinforce the superstitious belief in witches, because experience seems to show that it works. People feel “deep down” that it is obviously true; that the world is filled with magical powers and that witches are a grave danger to society.

Jesus as Witch
The biblical narrative deconstructs these superstitions by presenting the familiar story of the witch from the point of view of the “witch.” Jesus occupies the same cultural location as the witch; but the narrative reveals that it is the crowd that is guilty, rather than the innocent – (and forgiving!) victim. As a result of this revelation, humanity begins (dimly at first) to realize that the founding “Truth” of culture is in fact a lie.

The historical and cultural project known as modernity, building on the influence of the gospel, is designed to demolish superstitious worldviews. Modernity begins with the assumption that what is purely cultural or purely a matter of what people feel “deep down” is not sufficiently trustworthy. Modernity applies principles of truth that it considers beyond culture, i.e., what one can observe in nature or what is consistent with the principles of logical reasoning.

Modern science is the result of the discovery that there is a difference between “culture” and “cosmos.” All archaic or “primal” cultures assume that the natural world is an extension or expression of their culture. They make no distinction between “culture” and “nature.” Animistic religions believe that every rock, tree and stream has its own “spirit” with its own will and power, and that this spirit must be treated with respect, even awe. The belief in spirits comes from cultural and religious experiences. These concepts are projected onto the natural world, so that the primal culture considers them intrinsic to nature. This is a confusion between culture and nature.

The reason that primal cultures have this confusion relates to what might be termed the “mythological imperative”: the sacrifice of the victim must be remembered (for its reconciling benefits), but it must also be forgotten (so that speaking directly of collective murder doesn’t generate violence). The description of the victim’s death is forgotten, but the spiritual power of the sacrifice is remembered, because the victim is said still to be present in the rocks, trees, or streams.

Or the stars. Many cultures, especially agrarian ones, put a lot of effort into the contemplation of the stars. This is useful because observation of the movements of celestial bodies is the best means of timing the changing of the seasons. The timing of the seasons is important especially in agricultural societies as the means of assuring a good harvest; an early thaw is less likely to tempt you to plant too early, if you know how to watch for the spring equinox.

It seemed as though the stars controlled the seasons. Did they control other things as well? The product of the sacrificial altar came to be projected onto the stars. The planets and constellations were said to contain the spirits of sacred beings — gods, monsters, and the hero-priests who killed them. These figures in the sky came to be seen as guiding life in society. The culture was written in the sky by people who believed that somehow the sky was writing itself into their culture. Thus did astrology — that entertaining but pathetic superstition — come into being. This confusion of culture with cosmos is common to all archaic cultures (and to a large extent it is found in Western modernity, even Western science, as well).

The biblical revelation is the force in human history that has made humanity aware that there is a difference between cosmos and culture. It has brought about this change by revealing that the sacrificial victim is not the cause of the society’s problems. Jesus, the crucified victim of the crowd, is revealed to be innocent. It is the crowd that is guilty. As the sacrificial myth is thereby demolished, the other myths and superstitions of the culture begin to follow one by one. We realize that we can’t trust ourselves to be right about what causes the rain to fall or how the stars influence our lives. So we begin to explore ways to know things apart from the influence of culture. Science, the effort to insulate our inquiry from cultural influence, is born. The rest of modernity emerges at the same time. Modernity challenges and tests our cultural assumptions about our world. Culture is regarded with a considerable amount of suspicion. Culture and cosmos begin to separate in our thinking. As René Girard has said, “We didn’t stop burning witches because we invented science; we invented science because we stopped burning witches.”

Biblical Revelation as the Source of Science
The apparent conflict between science and faith is the result of our discovery that culture and nature are not necessarily the same. Such an endeavor as modern science would be unthinkable without the insight that our culture may be a source of falsehood. This is precisely the insight that the biblical revelation brought into the world. Without the Bible, Western science would never have been possible.

Although science is the product of biblical faith, science in turn contributes to biblical faith, by accelerating the process of demythologization. Science acts as a powerful solvent to wash away the sacred superstitions that still cling to biblical religion. Science has put an end to our belief in the power of witches’ magic, for example. This is a good thing, because it removes one of the falsehoods that distract us from the message of mercy in the Bible.

Science has confirmed the biblical insight that illness is not necessarily a punishment from God, but a condition that has nothing to do with our moral standing. By helping to lift the moral stigma of disease, science has helped us to be more faithful to the revelation of Christ who calls us to be merciful toward those who are sick.

The scientific worldview made possible the “historical-critical” reading of the Bible, which in turn has liberated our reading of scripture from all sorts of violent superstition.

But science must be careful not to be arrogant in this. The insight that culture can be wrong is a tremendous advance. It has led us to find ways to explore the truth in things that are not influenced by cultural biases and superstitions. We know that an experiment well-constructed can lead us to solid insight. But we must be careful not to conclude therefore that religion is never to be trusted. The rituals, moral standards and narratives of religion contain real wisdom that has controlled human violence for millennia.

God As A Mimetic Force
Scientists should not assume that because the term “god” cannot be separated from its cultural fabric, then the notion of a god is purely false
. Mimetic theory suggests that indeed gods are very real, along with demons, spirits, and souls. But mimetic theory would describe them as mimetic forces, rather than metaphysical or supernatural beings. Science should be working on ways to describe gods scientifically, rather than dismissing the notion of a god as superstitious.

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One comment

  1. Thank you for this clear presentation!



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