I am neither a Christian nor a Girardian; however, I very much appreciate the insights of both. I have long been impressed with Girard's Christian anthropological understanding of human history but had wondered how (and indeed if) he could apply that understanding to our thoroughly secularized postmodern world. This book does just that. However, as a non-Christian, this book leads me to considerations that our author could never support. But first a word about Girard and his brilliant book.
Girard began his career with a theory of Mimetic Desire. Not only do we all desire, but we desire what others desire. This leads to conflict. The ancient world resolved this conflict through the mechanism of the scapegoat. One individual is publicly sacrificed so the community might live in (an always temporary) peace. But the Crucifixion ends all that. Today we all know that the scapegoats are innocent. ...So, why aren't we living in Paradise?
That is the tale that this book tells. In these conversations Girard maintains that Clausewitz glimpsed the 'demoniacal' evil of secular progress not as peace, but as war, not without end, but rather as war to the bitter end. - As in the end of us all. I have just recently purchased this and am quite impressed. I know that I was not alone in wondering if Girard could bring his understanding of ancient religious (or mythical) sacrifice, mimesis, violence, and Christianity into the modern world. This book does just that. In a nutshell, it was the Apocalypse itself that Clausewitz glimpsed in his study of modern war. Of course, later commentators paper this over. (Girard is thinking mostly of Raymond Aron and Liddell Hart here.) But it is just this 'Apocalyptic turn' of the Enlightenment project that Girard intends to 'shout to the mountaintops'.
This book is brilliant; but it is by no means a 'pleasant' read. The Introduction ends thusly:
"I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.
'But where danger threatens
That which saves from it also grows.' (p. xvii)"
Of course, this concluding hopeful gesture is unavailable to non-believers... (The quoted text is from Hölderlin's luminous 'Patmos'.) This book is intentionally quite exciting: French Revolution, Clausewitz, Hölderlin, Hegel, Napoleon, France and Germany, the Pope, and looming always, the Apocalypse. And then, salvation, - in spite of everything Girard does not give up hope.
I do fail, however, to understand the necessity of presenting this book as a conversation... Wouldn't a book length essay have been more effective?
But that is a quibble. This book is superb! Five stars for a brilliant account of the necessary violence of our Secular Enlightenment.
Now, most Christians I know are optimistic about the future. 'Optimist' would not be the term I would first pick to describe our author. There are underlying notes of tragedy in this text that are genuinely terrifying and perhaps even irredeemable. It is these that I wish to pursue in the remainder of this review.
"More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying."
Why is it terrifying? Has Christ not Risen? In his Introduction Girard tersely, brilliantly and compellingly describes our present situation and what led to it:
"Christianity demystifies religion. Demystification, which is good in the absolute, has proven bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to shoulder its consequences. We are not Christian enough. The paradox can be put in a different way: Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure. This prescience is known as the apocalypse. (p. x)"
"The fetters put in place by the founding murder but unshackled by the Passion, are now liberating planet-wide violence, and we cannot refasten the bindings because we now know that scapegoats are innocent. The Passion unveiled the sacrificial origin of humanity once and for all. It dismantled the sacred and revealed its violence.
However, Christ also confirmed the divine that is within all religions. This incredible paradox, which no one can accept, is that the Passion has freed violence at the same time as holiness. (p. xi)"
"Our civilization is the most creative and powerful ever known, but also the most fragile and threatened because it no longer has the safety rails of archaic religion. Without sacrifice in the broad sense, it could destroy itself if it does not take care, which clearly it is not doing.
Once again, this does not mean Christian revelation is bad. It is wholly good, but we are unable to come to terms with it.
A scapegoat remains effective as long as we believe in its guilt. Having a scapegoat means not knowing that we have one. Learning that we have a scapegoat is to lose it forever and to expose ourselves to mimetic conflicts with no possible resolution. This is the implacable law of the escalation to extremes. The protective system of scapegoats is finally destroyed by the Crucifixion narratives as they reveal Jesus' innocence, and, little by little, that of all analogous victims.
To make the Revelation wholly good, and not threatening at all, humans have only to adopt the behavior recommended by Christ: abstain completely from retaliation, and renounce the escalation to extremes. (p. xiv)"
"Christ came to take the victim's place. He placed himself at the heart of the system to reveal its hidden workings. The 'second Adam,' to use Saint Paul's expression, revealed to us how the 'first' came to be. The Passion teaches us that humanity results from sacrifice, is born with religion. Only religion has been able to contain the conflicts that would have otherwise destroyed the first groups of humans. However, the Revelation has not destroyed Religion. Mimetic theory does not seek to demonstrate that myth is null, but to shed light on the fundamental discontinuity and continuity between the Passion and archaic religion. Christ's divinity which precedes the Crucifixion introduces a radical rupture with the archaic, but Christ's resurrection is in complete continuity with all forms of religion that preceded it. The way out of archaic religion comes at this price. (p. xv)"
"We can all participate in the divinity of Christ so long as we renounce our own violence. However, we now know, in part thanks to Clausewitz, that humans will not renounce it. The paradox is thus that we are starting to grasp the Gospel message at the very moment when the escalation to extremes is becoming the unique law of history. (p. xvi)"
This horrible escalation of violence in modern times is described and dissected in these conversations on Clausewitz, Modernity and War. Read them if you dare!
But now I would like to turn to some 'Meta-Girardian' considerations if I may. The Crucifixion ends (not immediately, it is the beginning of the end of) the effectiveness of the scapegoat mechanism. It was this effectiveness that allowed Civilization to both arise, increase and endure. Without this mechanism Civilization must eventually destroy itself.
To continue to speak in Girardian terms, the destruction of the scapegoating mechanism has plunged the world into an endless cycle of ever-increasing violence. In antiquity, some poor wretch would be seized and destroyed, and peace (yes, always a temporary peace) would be restored. After the Crucification, I mean after its Truth spreads in an ever-widening gyre, these always temporary respites become ever more brief, and eventually even impossible. Therefore, after His Sacrifice, the civilized world must eventually end in permanent war resulting in its own destruction. To put it as bluntly and tersely as possible, the Christian Savior, insofar as humanity doesn't change itself and learn to forgive, has through His Sacrifice destroyed us all.
For most of us it was Borges who first drew our attention to John Donne's "Biathanatos". Borges argues the possibility that Christ's Crucifixion was also His Suicide.
"Christ died a voluntary death, Donne suggests, and this means that the elements and the terrestrial orb and the generations of mankind and Egypt and Rome and Babylon and Judah were extracted from nothingness in order to destroy him. Perhaps iron was created for the nails, and thorns for the mock crown, and blood and water for the wound. That baroque idea glimmers behind Biathanatos. The idea of a god who creates the universe in order to create his own gallows." (Borges, Biathanatos, collected in "Selected Non-Fictions", p. 335)
Now, if the above speculations of Girard are correct, the Crucifixion might also have been a mass murder! His 'suicide' (eventually, accidentally, but certainly) causes the destruction of civilized humanity.
Merleau-Ponty once said that in order for a policy to be considered good it must also be effective. I agree with the philosophers on this. Is Christianity effective? Does it bring peace or war?
At bottom, this is the issue (as I see it) between the two greatest experts on the ancient Sacred in the modern world: Girard and Nietzsche. What can actually be done? For Girard, there is clearly no going back: after His Sacrifice scapegoating becomes, and must become, ever more ineffective. For Girard, nothing, absolutely nothing, changes this.
Nietzsche is well aware that the secularized modern world, the heir of Christianity, is declining towards ever more lawlessness. To him, Christians (and their secular avatars) are all anarchists, nihilists and disturbers of the peace. Before Christianity, under the archaic religions, there was always episodic peace. Always. After Christianity peace, of any length, becomes ever more impossible. Today we are preparing to fully reap this whirlwind.
Now, one should not leave the impression that Nietzsche considers the life Jesus led to be merely insane. Not only does he think this exemplary life possible, the great atheist Nietzsche concedes with a wave of his hand that the Christian lifestyle is in fact still possible; indeed that it is always possible! But he knows that it can only be possible for a tiny few. And therefore he sets out to destroy it.
Der Anarchist und der Christ sind Einer Herkunft... Nietzsche, Antichrist, 57
Nihilist und Christ: das reimt sich, das reimt sich nicht bloss... Nietzsche, Antichrist, 58
When those remarks were first published people could be forgiven for believing that they were additional proof (if proof were needed) that Nietzsche was insane. Christians anarchists? Christians nihilists! How they all must have laughed... But now, thanks to the brilliant work of Girard, we all understand what Nietzsche was driving at. For Nietzsche, Christianity is the height of lawlessness because it makes (eventually must make) all law impossible. And Girard agrees with this! Mere legality is becoming impossible.
One can perhaps say that Nietzsche and Girard are both students of what Girard calls the 'order of the Sacred' (i.e., sacrificial scapegoating). Nietzsche accepts it, Girard does not. I should also point out that Girard has always considered Nietzsche a great thinker and the origin of his own thought. In this book, Girard says that Nietzsche's genius "was incomparable. (p. 94)" In "I See Satan Fall Like Lightning" Girard says of Nietzsche that "he discovers the truth that I only repeat after him, the truth that dominates this book: in the Dionysian passion and the Passion there is the same collective violence. But the interpretation is different..." A bit later Girard will say, "...myths are based on a unanimous persecution. Judaism and Christianity destroy this unanimity in order to defend the victims unjustly condemned and to condemn the executioners unjustly legitimated.
As incredible as it may seem, no one made this simple but fundamental discovery before Nietzsche - no one, not even a Christian!" ("I See Satan Fall Like Lightning", p. 172)
So you see, Girard's thought and Nietzsche's are inextricably bound. Perhaps one can say that, in a sense, both their projects are impossible. Nietzsche believes we can forget the Crucifixion, that is, forget that the scapegoats are innocent. Girard believes we can all live as Jesus did, forgiving our enemies and not retaliating.
Typically, generous and optimistic people, whether religious or secular, claim that we have or soon will reach a turning point and that History will once again ascend towards Peace and Universality. I certainly hope they are right. But I know that as we swirl round the vortex of History cum Apocalypse, this terrible fate that we all today endure, there is certainly no shortage of turning points; but still, the End seemingly comes relentlessly on...
For the philosophers, however, perhaps even this is no reason for despair. Hegel said that everything happens twice in history. Now, of course, he doesn't thereby mean exactly 'everything'; he means everything essential recurs because the lesson of (the Reason within!) the first occurrence went unlearned. For this particular Philosophy then, history is ultimately a story of triumph; the essential lessons, eventually, will always be learned. Perhaps a new universal religion based on love and holiness will one day rise, and successfully eschewing sacrifice, scapegoating and violence, heal our History and make humanity one. However, as the Hegelians surely know, this bon mot of Hegels regarding recurrence also means that every essential lesson is lost at least once.
Perhaps even the most stoical of philosophers can find some compassion for those unfortunate enough to live precisely then...
From all of the above it is possible to draw the conclusion that in the long run it is both practically futile and personally vain to insist upon bringing the Truth into a world incapable of accepting it. But be that as it may, I do know that this bottomless despair regarding human possibility is something that both Christianity and philosophy will always oppose.
If Girard is right that we cannot go back to the ancient sacred, and if Nietzsche is right that Christianity cannot ever be lived by the majority of mankind then - what? Civilization is doomed and barbarism is our only future.
I am old enough to remember when people, following Bataille, began saying that outside Communism there was only Nietzsche. Perhaps today the Girardians have begun whispering to each other that outside Christianity there is only Nietzsche. That is to say, outside of Christianity there is only Nietzsche and his road to a Revival of the Ancient Sacred.
These Meta-Girardian considerations can only lead us to one choice. And that is to choose between three possibilities: either we all live as Jesus did, or we return to the ancient sacrificial sacred, or we destroy ourselves. Whose side are you on?