Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Rereading Lent with Rene Girard

I've been reading a lot lately written by or inspired by Rene Girard, the recently deceased thinker (and Catholic convert) who discovered in ancient literature (specifically myths from world over) what he considered the violent origin of all human culture, an origin represented in a disguised and sacralized fashion in natural religion. Call it the cultural testimony or remnants of the original sin.

Analyzing his findings, Girard noticed that even the most basic human expressions, starting with language itself, are built on the unsteady framework of imitation—he used the term "mimesis" to prevent the concept from being understood in too external a fashion. The child who says "Dada" or "Mama" acquired that word through imitation of the very one the word represents. Every step of early human development comes about through mimesis, but so also do the values that the child acquires: the scales for measuring beauty and comfort and status (and what-have-you) are all acquired in a mimetic way. The entire advertising industry is built on the socialized way we pick up on what is cool and what is not; what is respect and what is scorn; who is in and who is out. Unfortunately for us, it is not enough for us to feel in sync with our own cultural group by adopting the common value system. Just as in a neighborhood when everyone tries to keep up with the Joneses, mimesis engenders rivalry, and rivalry tends to disrupt the ties of communion and threaten the stability of the family, or clan, or team, or political party.

Enter Satan, the disrupter of communion par excellence, to propose a solution to the impending explosion. It is enough to determine who is to blame for the upset—the persons or religious sub-group or social class  or unassimilated strangers who provoked the current state of malaise. "Expel them," Satan suggests, "and harmony will be restored."

The murder of Seth (in the form of a hippo) by
his rival, Horus (whom Seth had molested)
is one of innumerable myths that fit the
pattern Girard discerned in world religions.

Looking at the standard religious myths of non-biblical literature, Girard realized that all of them told the same basic story: a story of rivalries that reach a dangerous crescendo, but which are resolved when the guilty party (often an unknown visitor or a misfit or the perpetrator of some hideous or unnatural act) is permanently and efficiently expelled by a united action on the part of the majority. (Stoning was a favorite mode and even left a memorial pyramid on the site!). The concord that is born from the unanimous mob action amazes the community, and they come to believe that a god has been among them. The next time disharmony threatens, the group re-enacts the expelling (perhaps slaying a prince or a prisoner of war in the place of the fallen-and-risen god). Their unity of purpose, and the rightness of the cause demonstrate that the accusation is clearly true, and the violent mob of lynchers are really noble priests of the peace-bestowing god.

I know, this is a hard sell for an unfamiliar take on society, and I'm probably not rendering it properly at all. After all, I've only been reading this stuff for the past year or so. But bear with me.

Girard thought he had discovered a hither-to unknown insight about human society. The universality of the myth-pattern and the invariability of the stages and the way they became structured in religious practice seemed to confirm what he was recognizing. At first he may have thought the stories in the Bible were just more of the same.

Except for one thing.

In the myths, the unknown visiting "god" was always considered the real, if mysterious, cause of the community's woes as well as of its restoration. The community which expelled him (through brutal and unanimous murder) was completely justified in its action. In the Bible, though, the victim of mob action (whether his name was Joseph or Job or Jesus) was clearly innocent, and the crowd (of brothers, or of accusing "friends," or of the priests and people in the Praetorium courtyard) was clearly guilty. To his surprise, Girard found that the Bible refused to follow the standard pattern. Beginning with some of the very early books of the Old Testament, the Bible had already begun to name and thus undo the sacralized violence that characterized society and religion since the beginning. (Remember that Cain, who murdered his own brother out of rivalrous envy, was "a founder of cities.")

The weft and warp of society turns out to be rivalry and murder, and Divine Revelation the antidote, administered drip by drip over the course of centuries.

Coming Next: "Divine Revelation's Remedy for Rivalry" and "Is it I, Lord?"

1 comment:

mrsd said...

Wonderful insight. Thanks for sharing your reading.