Sophie Kicks the Door Down

The Cornerstone Forum writes:

“The process of desacralization … ends up by returning us to a savage sacrality.” – Antoine Vergote

We can, and should, move from the primitive sacred—at the heart of which is violence and superstition—to the sacramental sacrality of sanctification and holiness, but secularity is not sustainable in naturally religious creatures like ourselves. As a religiously edifying sense of the sacred is eliminated from cultural life, it is only a matter of time before primitive forms return: idolatry and child sacrifice.

Readers respond:

Sophie Sommers Mr. Bailie, what is the difference between primitive sacrality and the sacrality of Christianity? How does desacralization return us to sacrality?

Gordon Savage

Gordon Savage

Gordon Savage Sophie, Seriously, to understand what goes on at this forum you need to have read and thought through [René] Girard’s “Violence and the Sacred” and “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World,” as well as Gil’s book [“Violence Unveiled”]. Minimum. If you don’t know how Girard differentiates the primitive sacred from Christianity, you’re simply missing the meaning of most of what goes on here.

Sophie Sommers Gordon, how arrogant of you to assume my question was asked out of ignorance of Girard’s theory. I have read all of Girard’s major works as well as Mr Bailie’s only one. And how ungenerous of you to put down anyone who asks a question about mimetic theory. Not very interested in outreach and education, are you?

Since you have been initiated into the mysteries, maybe you could answer my question, provided you have not taken a vow of secrecy and your fraternal society does not exclude women.

Can you explain the paradox? How does one achieve “desacralization” through human sacrifice, even if the victim is recognized as a victim? If God “sent” an incarnation of himself to be sacrificed for our sins, and that sacrifice was in expiation for original sin, as Catholic teaching holds, how is that NOT a continuation of the primitive sacred? How can the Passion “reveal” the scapegoating mechanism while actually serving the identical purpose that all blood sacrifice serves, i.e., expiating, cleansing of rancor and of sin? The victim is always regarded as a savior/god “after the fact,” and is also sometimes shown to have been innocent. Doesn’t Jesus’s death serve the same purpose for Christians as human and animal sacrifice always did for those who practiced it? It’s a foundational act because without it there would be endless mimetic conflict, making stable societies impossible. Isn’t that also what expiation is also all about? Carrying away sin? Cleansing the society? Washing oneself in the blood of the lamb?

Caroline Gissler Sophie, you are leaning on a particular theory of atonement derived from Anselm of Canterbury and dominant in the west for about the last thousand years but not at all required by the Catholic Church. Girard’s theory gives us a whole new way of looking at what happened at Calvary which frees us from penal substitution theory and our projection of a violent and vengeful God.

Sophie Sommers Caroline, I just did some research, which led me to a site called “Called to Communion,” which appears to channel the teachings of the Church. There I read, “Christ made atonement for the sins of all men by offering to God a sacrifice of love that was more pleasing to the Father than the combined sins of all men of all time are displeasing to Him.” Later, it says, “Christ took our sin in the sense that He willingly bore its consequence, namely, death, because death is the consequence of sin and its curse.”

Is this not the teaching of the Church? Does God not exact retribution for sin? And does Christ’s death on the cross not redeem us?

Gordon Savage Sophie, if you already know all that Girard and Gil have said about “the difference between primitive sacrality and the sacrality of Christianity,” how is it that you feel entitled to demand Gil to restate it here? Must he explain himself to you? Perhaps you know a great deal about Girard, but all that’s visible to an outside observer in your many comments is an obsession with opposing Gil. Why is he such a scandal to you?

Sophie Sommers Gordon, you put words in my mouth. I did not say I knew everything that Girard and Gil had said about the difference between primitive vs. Christian sacrality. You also characterized my request for clarification as a “demand,” when I demanded nothing. How boorish, rude, and arrogant of you to misrepresent me in this way.

And what is your function on this site? Are you the gargoyle keeping away evil spirits? Are you the “heavy?” The bouncer? Defender of the sacred mysteries?

I think it is fair to assume that if Mr. Bailie created a Facebook page dedicated to propagating mimetic theory, then he is interested in outreach, and questions about the theory are in order. If Mr. Bailie doesn’t answer them, then maybe someone else will.

I’ve been a visitor to this site for many months and I’ve read through earlier posts. So far, I haven’t seen much, if any, real discussion of Girard’s work or anyone else’s. I came because of my interest in Girard and all I’ve heard so far is silence, snippy little retorts, and rudeness from the host and obsequious titters of approval from most of the guests. People who do not genuflect before Mr. Bailie or who ask serious and probing questions are sooner or later de-friended. I’ve watched as five or six of them were simply airbrushed out of the picture, and there must have been many others before them.

Since you characterized my “opposition” as a state of being “scandalized” (in the biblical sense), here’s another question for you: Why is your opposition to me not the same? And why are you not “scandalized” at the idea of abortion or homosexuality? Is this one of those patterns of perception—or perhaps of bullying—in which the most negatively-charged words are reserved for either second- or third-person descriptions, as in “I’m passionate. / You’re emotional. / She’s bipolar.?”

Having devoted my life to education, I just have to shake my head at this.

Timothy Brock Gordon, I was struck my two phrases in your initial comment: (1) “Seriously, to understand what goes on at this forum,…” and (2) “… you’re simply missing the meaning of most of what goes on here.”

My two questions to you are: Is this a forum? And is anything going on here?

I keep hoping to find some serious discussion here, but I see very few signs of any so far. The presence of a pit bull in the comboxes certainly doesn’t help matters. Along comes Sophie with a simple little question and you stomp on her, thereby intimidating others who might have liked to respond.

Sophie is an educator. She knows that asking questions is a vital part of learning and that “no question is too dumb.” And, BTW, I thought hers was very intelligent and that her elaboration of it showed an impressive grasp of Girard’s theory.

If this is not a forum, then I presume it is some sort of graduate seminar? If so, the students seem to have absconded and the professor is addressing an empty room.

I think your remarks to Sophie were uncalled for and that you owe her an apology.

Caroline Gissler Sophie, as one happily retired senior high school teacher (history) to another, I suggest you google Atonement Theories and carefully study each one. One of the happiest days of my life was to learn that the Catholic Church does not require us to believe in any particular theory of HOW Christ worked our redemption by his cross and resurrection as long as we believe that He did it. And then came the answer to prayer. I stumbled across Girard in a footnote in a book I was reading and I googled. By approaching the question of the HOW as an anthropologist, Girard gives us remarkable insight into the mystery of our redemption. For me personally Girard’s work and that of his followers such as Gil has been a vastly liberating experience which makes Simeon’s canticle my own.

Sophie Sommers Thank you, Caroline, for your very helpful (and civil) reply to my question. I think some of the gentlemen hosting and guarding this site could learn a thing or two from you.

Russell Jennings I disagree with the assertion that secularity is unsustainable or that mankind is “naturally” religious. Any assertion that cannot be verified but requires an act of will to accept might be termed “religious.” Indeed if an assertion can be verified it ceases to be a matter requiring faith. It’s a secular fact (a refutable fact).

As for religion being “natural”, see Daniel Everett’s “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes” for an ancient hunter/gatherer culture that has empiricism baked into their language. They have no creation myths, no gods, no mythology at all.

Perhaps because the cultures that have been politically and economically dominant inculcated faithfulness to certain assertions by commitment rather than observation, one is tempted to see it as a trait of the species. Ubiquity is mistaken for inevitability.

Sophie Sommers Russell, thanks for your very provocative comment. The possibility of complete secularization has always intrigued me. I think the story of the Passion is, as Girard says, one of the pivotal moments in our history, but I believe that most current-day Christianity is regressive; it has been drawn time and time again back toward the primitive sacred, most often because the “revelation” of the Cross wasn’t understood. If it had been, I postulate that there might now be no remnants of religion as we’ve known it in the West, though some of the Eastern paths of enlightenment might still attract adherents. Judeo-Christianity has had huge anthropological significance, but it should be seen only anthropologically—and my use of that word is very different from Mr. Bailie’s. It should be shorn of its supernatural elements and revealed for what it is—a system of belief that serves a lot of human purposes (including violence management) that could now better be served by other means.

I did a little research regarding the implications of your story about the hunter/gatherers, though I’m not familiar with Dan Everett’s book (yet). Here’s what I was able to conclude, but it’s of course subject to revision:

Scientists who study human behavior are interested in knowing to what extent it is rooted in genes. If they find a genetic predisposition to certain behaviors, and those genetic traits are also invariant in our species, then those are considered to be “human universals.” But an “invariant” behavior is not necessarily one that occurs all the time and everywhere; rather, it has occurred throughout history and in every known human society. Environmental factors may override genetics, as we see in the case of prohibitions against rape. So, human nature is neither good nor bad, but both, in differing proportions that are determined by environmental constraints such as belief systems and pragmatics, or through the influence of other human universals. For example, rape is a human universal, but it is successfully overridden most of the time not only for pragmatic and religious reasons, but also because empathy is also a human universal.

One of the most cited works on invariant human nature is by anthropologist Donald Brown (“Human Universals,” 1991). He identified approximately 400 invariant behaviors, and Russell, one of those is “belief in supernatural/religion.” But this is not to say that mankind if necessarily or “naturally” religious. As Brown’s wording suggests, your ancient hunter-gatherer society may have been superstitious without having ever systematized those superstitions into a religion.

Obviously, one can be moral without religion or belief in the Judeo-Christian god. Millions of people are. The atheists keep publishing books with titles like “Good Without God,” and I think what they are telling us should just be obvious.

My question is, “Can one be even better without God?”

Sorry if this scandalizes anyone. I’m accustomed to speaking freely.

Adam Vega Personally I couldn’t really offer up a satisfactory definition for religion/religiosity or the sacred, but I can identify it when it shows up based on certain repeat behaviors. But beyond any theoretical posits on the matter I can supply some specifics. Perhaps the greatest center of American Public/Religious/Sacred life is our day to day political discourse. I can trigger a religious reaction in almost anyone by criticizing members of any political party for any action that is outside of their stated views/sides/beliefs/whatever. For example, for those that hold our current president in some sort of sacred sense will not like it when I make a criticism like “It was hypocritical of President Obama to “weep” over the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting on national TV when under his orders drone strikes have killed something like 125 children in Yemen, Pakistan, and others countries, among the dead a 16 year old American citizen”. What follows is scandal over the remark, predictably, then a bizarre twist of words to try to alleviate the awful truth of the matter. It becomes a linguistic game of obviation. Why this happens? I don’t know. I think it has something to do with us being social animals. To me there is alot of fluidity in the sacred; it doesn’t always have to involve divinities, myths, or the supernatural, but can be remarkably mundane, and easily visible in others over oneself:

Mural with Great Leader Kim Il Sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il (Children's Palace, Pyongyang)

Mural with Great Leader Kim Il Sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il (Children’s Palace, Pyongyang)

Gordon Savage Timothy and Sophie,

As to being called a pit-bull, heavy, bully, and gargoyle — you forgot monster — for suggesting you haven’t taken Girard seriously enough, have you no sense of irony?

I’m sure the two of you are none of those things; you’re probably very nice people who don’t ever kick dogs. But I find that your comments, both of you, on this site tend to ooze with condescension toward Gil in particular and Catholics in general. If I thought Sophie’s initial question was sincere I would have taken an afternoon off to try put together an answer. Gladly. But her question was manifestly rhetorical, and that was borne out by her follow-up posts quoting a narrow, even gross presentation Anselmian atonement theory that, in her words, “appears to channel the teachings of the Church.” Or are you saying she asked the first question without the slightest inkling that she was going to answer it in her next post as, I paraphrase, “Christianity in fact recapitulates the primitive sacred.” As if to say, “look you silly people, Girard’s work is a mistake, he didn’t check this nifty website that clears it all up.”

Timothy asks: “My two questions to you are: Is this a forum? And is anything going on here?” No, this is not a forum, this is a Facebook page for an entity called the Cornerstone Forum. Its mission statement says it’s about extending the work of Girard along with von Balthasar, Benedict XVI, De Lubac and JP II. And what’s going on? Gil has been posting old material and few extraordinary talks at the Dominican School while he’s writing a book (parts of which we’ve seen). You say you’re not finding any serious discussion here, but somehow you missed the fact we’re partly in agreement: only you find it offense that I’m challenging Sophie (and you) to engage in serious comments. If you want serious discussion, be serious yourself. Show that you’re engaging the material. If I didn’t think you were smart people, fully capable of this, I wouldn’t have said a word.

“I came because of my interest in Girard and all I’ve heard so far is silence, snippy little retorts, and rudeness from the host and obsequious titters of approval from most of the guests.” Sophie, you’re so offended by my words, but can step and see how you’ve characterized Gil (rude, snippy retorts) and the rest of us here (obsequious? at least they’re not gargoyles). Also consider the possibility that others might read your posts and see “snippy little retorts, and rudeness” wrapped in obsequious conformity to the Spirit of this Age. You might be terribly offended by the suggestion that you are guilty of what you’re accusing us of, but at least consider the possibility that all of us are human and capable of such vice. I most certainly am.

For any offense I apologize, but I don’t retract a word of what I’ve said.

Sophie Sommers Gordon, your suggestion that Timothy and I aren’t “engaging the material” only reflects your very cramped idea of how it should be engaged. Your set of rules is stifling. Even if my initial question was rhetorical, why should you see that as transgressive? Rhetorical questions are excellent devices for getting discussions rolling, and I frequently hear them used that way in public debates. And contrary to your assumption, I had not made up my mind about the atonement doctrine (in fact, I found Caroline’s input very helpful and I told her so), but even if my mind is “made up,” the challenge for my interlocutors is to reveal the weakness of my position, whether or not I concede. There’s always the audience, you know.

You’ve also assumed that because I’ve read Girard, I am obliged to pursue certain behavioral ideals consistent with his theory. I don’t see things in that way. I am a critical reader, and I always have questions and issues. I believe that asking questions of other readers—even challenging their own understanding of the text—is a sure path to getting a better grasp of it and of one’s own stance in relation to it. And that stance may not be identical to the author’s.

“Giving as well as one gets” may not qualify one to be a poster child for mimetic theory, but it has stood me in good stead for all these years. I’m not easily intimidated, so be warned.

Apologies accepted. And now I’d like to get on with the discussion that is going on about secularity and the sacred.

Timothy Brock Mr. Gordon, you have challenged Sophie and me to engage in “serious discussion,” but so far I have heard no serious discussion from you. You never addressed Sophie’s question, and while you’ve been brooding about imagined slights to Gil, yourself, and the Church, Sophie has been responding very intelligently to the other conversants on this thread about the topic of the post. Why don’t you take a break, lick your wounds, and come back later on. It would be interesting to hear what’s on your mind (about the topic).

Sophie Sommers Adam, I totally agree with you about all the cognitive distortions that go on in political discourse. I, too, am very disturbed about President Obama’s use of drones. I think we must be very wary about ever throwing our full and unconditional support behind any political leader or agenda. The temptation to do so may spring from the same impulses that propel some of us towards unconditional religious faith. I think you have spotted a very important linkage there.

Why do we want so badly to believe in leaders, institutions, and dogmas? I believe it is because they unite us, give us common purpose, and provide scripts for heroism. The “heroism” factor was identified by several 20th-century psychologists (Maslow, Rank, Adler, and especially Ernest Becker). And it’s not just for guys. Everyone feels the need to make a contribution and to be valued for it. Traditionally, for guys, one popular script was slaying the dragon and rescuing the fair maiden. (as in the myth of St. George). Lately, women have been adopting similar scripts (as in the movie “Hunger Games,” but they’ve always had others as well, usually having to do with maternity.

I remember Girard’s writing that the three components of the sacred were myth, ritual, and prohibitions/obligations. If he is correct, then some forms of political adherence would certainly qualify (the government of Kim Il Sung is a prime candidate.) In that case, what it takes to “secularize” the political sphere is de-mythification, non-observance of ritual, and transgression. I think we all have to be able to manage all three of those at times in order to avoid being drawn back into the vortex of the sacred. Those who are captive to the sacred will of course see de-mythification, non-observance, and transgression as blasphemy, apostasy, and sin. This tension between the sacred and the secular has been gloriously exemplified in this very blog thread.

As you can probably surmise, I question whether any form of the sacred has even residual value in a society that is up to the challenges of secularization. (Those challenges are in the realm of education above all else.) Certainly we do not want to return to the “primitive sacred” of the pagan cults, but neither, perhaps, do we need the modified, updated, and vastly improved sacred of modern Christianity. Unfortunately, secular humanists haven’t yet been very successful in offering attractive alternatives, but that may change. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out. The current turmoils in the Catholic Church may be putting another nail in the coffin of the sacred.

I loved your mural painting of the Holy Family!

The Cornerstone Forum Gordon, as you obviously know, these are complicated matters, but I appreciate your efforts. I especially agree with your criticism about the tendency to casually assume that all those who hold traditional views of these things, and who argue against the grain of the spirit of the age are heartless, etc., etc., etc.

Gordon Savage Sophie, thank you for “laying your cards out” a bit more. This is all I ask. Disagree with Girard or Gil or me, just be respectful enough to show us a little of the intellectual framework behind your view. The only “rule” I want to encourage is: please assume those who disagree with you are your intellectual equals, and that they weren’t simply born Catholic and somehow need to protect their faith from threatening ideas.

It’s one thing to say “after all, isn’t Christianity no more than a reiteration of the primitive sacred?” As if to school us, and to skip over Girard’s massive argument to the contrary. It’s another thing altogether to actually make an argument to that effect. That allows real engagement.

Timothy, a bit thick to imagine someone who disagrees with you as “brooding” over imagined slights. You really think it’s that easy to hurt a pit bull’s feelings?

As to Sophie’s more recent posts: you suggest that most modern day Christianity is regressive, that it dips back into the well of the primitive sacred. But you add “mostly because the revelation of the cross has not been understood.” Okay, now:

(A) In what sense is the cross a revelation? Is it in the sense that a traffic accident reveals sloppy driving habits? I.e., a tragic event that by chance reflects the truth. Or are you suggesting purpose?

(B) Did anyone “get” this revelation? Paul? John? The early church? If they did, what went wrong? If not, how is it that generations handed down something they didn’t understand so that your generation can finally clear things up? And are you really saying that Christianity was not itself the source of secularization?

Following Girard’s categories of Myth, Ritual, and Prohibition, you suggest that secularization comes with de-mythification, non-observance, and transgression, which the unenlightened see as Blasphemy, apostasy and sin. I would quibble with some of your terms, but the point is clear. Yet isn’t this where Girard’s analysis began Deceit, Desire & the Novel: with the man who considers himself liberated from myth, ritual and prohibition, with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. This liberated man has become a slave to his peers, and while clearly mediocre even as men, they have become “as gods” to him. If mimetic desire is simply a physical anomaly, the right solution might be to let it have free reign during childhood, for the sake of education, then find a prozac-like drug to dull it in our adulthood — since “secular” men remain slaves to markets, fashion, crowd contagion, ad infinitum, long after they imagine themselves free. The alternative, of course, is that mimetic desire is as Gil and Girard believe, Deviated Transcendence, that since we’re designed to live in a relationship with a loving, non-competitive, infinite God, the absence of God will always be the exaltation of others in His place?

Jim Swenson Sophie, in connection with what you wrote, I ran across this fragment of a longer piece about human nature that appeared in a West Coast online journal yesterday:

“If religion was necessary in the development of large-scale societies, can large-scale societies survive without religion? Norenzayan [the researcher on human nature] points to parts of Scandinavia with atheist majorities that seem to be doing just fine. They may have climbed the ladder of religion and effectively kicked it away. Or perhaps, after a thousand years of religious belief, the idea of an unseen entity always watching your behavior remains in our culturally shaped thinking even after the belief in God dissipates or disappears.”

Russell Jennings Everett started out as a missionary who intended to translate the Bible into the Piraha language. According to Everett the Piraha tribe do not have a concept of “supernatural” in the european sense. They say that they see, talk to and sometimes become something they call xíbiisihiaba (without blood).

While Everett translates this as “spirit” it is clear they do NOT mean an entity that lives outside nature, is immortal, or invisible.

From his examples it struck me that the Piraha might report seeing a xíbiisihiaba in the jungle. The men periodically would “become” xíbiisihiaba and would speak and dress like someone everybody knew who had died. And in one case the Piraha, including the children said they saw a xíbiisihiaba as they watched something travel through the village at about head height but Everett said he didn’t see anything.

It may be that xíbiisihiaba refers to what many actors experience when “in character” — the feeling of inhabiting or becoming another person (or persona). If asked about becoming xíbiisihiaba, Piraha say “I wasn’t here”.

At any rate, in all cases, the Piraha were eyewitnesses to the events involving xíbiisihiaba they reported. They may accept an eyewitness account from a person they know or even the report of an eyewitness account. But that is as far as they typically go.

When Everett told the Piraha a story about Jesus. They asked him if Jesus was dark or light skinned.

Everett said he didn’t know.

They asked, “Didn’t you see him?”

“No.”

“Oh. You must have heard about it from your father who saw.”

When Everett explained that nobody alive either witnessed the events in the story, and that Jesus lived and died before anyone now alive was born, they lost all interest in the story and dismissed it wondering why he had wasted their time — baffled that anyone would bring up such a thing.

Russell Jennings Adam Vega, I think you’re seeing the phenomenon in which people react emotionally to evidence contrary to their strongly held opinions. Whether it’s a scientist convinced about a hypothesis, a citizen convinced about a candidate, or a believer convinced about a god, the response is the same — people seek supportive evidence, fail to look for unsupportive evidence, react emotionally to unsupportive evidence, and actually tend to forget unsupportive evidence.

Google “Memory Bias” for the Cognitive Science research.

Sophie Sommers Gordon, your card-game analogy doesn’t quite work for me. First, I’m not even sure what “cards” I’m holding, and second, I don’t accept your rule that I must put them on the table for you to see.

As for “protecting one’s faith from threatening ideas,” I have only described what I’ve seen here, and I haven’t observed it nearly as much on some of the other very conservative Catholic sites like “Crisis Magazine,” where almost every posting is followed by a free-for-all running into many thousands of words. So, I assume nothing, but I describe what I see.

I am not impressed by the “massiveness” of Girard’s argument. It could be massively wrong. I am interested in probing it rather than accepting it on faith.

Arguments unfold gradually over time. If you’re expecting some kind of thesis statement, you’re not going to get it from me. So there’s another one of your rules transgressed.

The cross is a revelation in the sense that the story of Joseph and his Brothers is a revelation, but the Passion story is a more complete one and is potentially more powerful because of its roots in enduring myths of the Eastern Mediterranean and as far east as the Indus: Attis of Phrygia, Krishna, Dionysus, Mithra, Isis, and others. The outline is roughly the same, except that the Passion goes behind the myth, much like Dorothy drawing back the curtain on the Wizard, to reveal the mechanism by which the Sacred is generated.

Since the Sacred is revealed as a human fabrication, there can be no divine “purpose” for the revelation of its generative mechanisms. The story is “purposed” by story-tellers, prophets, and writers who, in the spirit of their time, are ready to put words and form to their intuitions about the Sacred, just as Sophocles did with the Oedipus myth, gently prying it apart to expose just enough of the truth but not too much.

As for your second question, I don’t know which of the early NT writers, if any of them, actually “got” this revelation to the extent that Girard has done. They may only have intuited it, and, as Girard as shown, it was already adumbrated in the OT. From what I know of NT writings, early Christians had very little understanding of it, but maybe just enough. It’s impossible to say for sure.

I think our task is to understand the origins of myth, ritual, and prohibition/requirements, and Girard’s work is phenomenal in that respect. But understanding it also changes us in some very important ways, because we may no longer be able to participate in ritual, to sing the hymns, to take the sacrament, to accept the story as true, and to obey the rules. From the perspective of those still in thrall to the sacred, such behavior is transgressive. And that presents a problem.

Well, I don’t think that Dostoevsky’s underground man is the necessary consequence of “kicking away the ladder of religion,” to quote Jim’s author (above). I think that is just the way Dostoevsky saw it, because he framed things in religious terms. His perspective was shaped by his faith.

I think a lot of Girardians have somehow gotten the notion that, absent a (divine) transcendent model for our desires, specifically the Judeo-Christian god, that we become ensnared in conflictual mimesis. I would agree that we need transcendent models, but they do not have to be supernatural ones. And they don’t need to be either perfect or unitary.

Do “secular” men (and women?) remain “slaves to markets, fashion, crowd contagion, ad infinitum, long after they imagine themselves free?” I don’t think you’ve got a strong correlation there. I can think of plenty of secular folks who are not “enslaved” to any of these things and plenty of Christian folks who are. And if you want crowd contagion, you can go to either a rock concert on Saturday night or an evangelical mega-church on Sunday morning.

I don’t agree with your view (and Gil’s, Girard’s, etc.) that we’re “designed to live in a relationship with a loving, non-competitive, infinite God.” First of all, we’re not “designed,” and furthermore, billions of people on this planet seem to do quite well without such a relationship. I think your scenario needs empirical verification; it doesn’t ring at all true to me.

Gordon Savage Sophie: “I would agree that we need transcendent models, but they do not have to be supernatural ones.”

There’s a word for a system of non-transcendent models; it’s called “hierarchy.” Why is mimetic desire anything more than a pathology in a world without transcendence?

Sophie Sommers Gordon, maybe you misunderstood me. As I said, I do believe we need transcendent models, but I am not using the word “transcendent” in the narrow sense that theologians do. Rather, I mean that we need models who can help us “transcend” our limited subjectivity and point us to something bigger and perhaps more evolved than ourselves. That’s not necessarily hierarchical in the sense that the Catholic Church is or the Bourbon monarchy was. The respect that I feel for Girard is earned, it is not absolute, and it is not strongly mediated. I am highly unlikely to become one of his cult followers (and please don’t tell me there’s aren’t any.) I also have great respect for any number of other writers and thinkers whose ideas I value, and I am constantly weighing those ideas against each other. There’s nothing “pathological” about any of this, and I think that’s where some of the Girardians—and maybe even Girard himself—are getting some distortions about reality. You can’t possibly claim that non-belief in the Judeo-Christian god is a pathology or that it conduces to pathology—that is, unless you want to adopt an extremely idiosyncratic and privileged definition of “pathology.”

The process I’ve described is simply a process of critical thinking, and, if anything, it is an antidote to the ravages of runaway mimetic desire. But it does involve transcendence. The transcendence of a supernatural deity is simply unnecessary and may even entail problems of its own. See the “miracle” scene in Fellini’s movie, “8 1/2,” where the mimetic contagion of a crowd caught up in a Virgin-spotting frenzy nearly becomes catastrophic. The urbane intellectuals observing the scene may have mimetic issues of their own, but they at least seem somewhat capable of distancing themselves from it.

Caroline Gissler If the original question was what I think it was and if anyone is still interested in it, I suggest that a meditation on Les Mis, the musical film, would be helpful in seeing the answer.

Sophie Sommers Thank you, Caroline. I haven’t seen either the musical or the filmed version of it yet, though I did see a earlier non-musical screenplay based on the novel. I am just catching up on the award winners. We saw “The Life of Pi” yesterday (in 3-D!) and were blown away by the beauty and the message of it.

Caroline Gissler: Inspector Javert represents the unfortunate continuation even in Christianity of the old sacred system with its projection of human violence and vengefulness onto God with himself, Javert, as society’s appointed avenger. At the end, Javert, confounded by the forgiving victim, Valjean, realizes the bankruptcy of his position but, unable to accept forgiveness, commits suicide.

The good bishop understands and lives the message of the forgiving victim, he represents what Christianity ought to be, and, from his example and with the grace of God, Valjean learns to be a forgiving victim himself.

The revolutionary young people, while they reject the vengeful God of the old sacred system, make themselves into the vengeful gods of a new/old sacred system, which, as we know, metastasizes into our own day. Unforgiving victims breed victims.

The film makers, as one might expect, send out a confused message. By ending the film with an apotheosis of the young revolutionaries, they glorify a renewed cult of violence and vengeance and therewith sentimentalize and effectively reject the way of Valjean, the forgiving victim.

1 comment so far

  1. Demosophist on

    If there were a transcendent model capable of mediating the current situation in the world that we knew about, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. If the issue is the hierarchical authority of the Church, that was surrendered when Anselm conceptualized the doctrine of substitutional atonement and it became accepted by 90% of Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant. So we have the Gospel, but not a Church. I have nothing against being guided by an authentic model (other than personal pride, I guess) but in the absence of such a model we’re just going to have to find our own way. I assume that if we all became cognizant of the circumstances and condition of sin/mimetic desire we would be sufficiently armed to find our way out, eventually. Whether or not that’s true doesn’t matter, it’s all we have. But the same allergy that prevents us from seeing the nature of sin/mimetic desire also allowed the re-establishment the archaic doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Hence, at the very least we are not dealing with an incremental revelation. For most of the period since the Gospel we’ve been moving in the wrong direction.


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