The Joy of Being Wrong Essays, Part 5--Why Bother With Girard?

The previous posts in this scattershot series have been looking at various issues that come up from James Alison's book The Joy of Being Wrong.  Before diving ahead with that, I figured it made sense to circle back and ask a more foundational question--why bother with any of this Girard stuff in the first place?  Why do we need some outside source to further complicate an already complicated religion that is Christianity?

The simplest answer to that question is that Girardian ideas have provided the best and most comprehensive set of answers to my questions regarding how to be a Christian in our time.  And because it seems that my questions are not particularly unique to me, but questions that lots of people seem to be asking, that means that Girard is providing answers to questions that people are asking.

What are those questions?  I think there are four basic questions.

1.  What Should We Do About the Violence Around Us?  2015 was a year of violence.  We had ISIS beheadings in the Middle East, and we had the ISIS attack in Paris.  According to this compilation, there was more than one mass shooting per day in the United States during calendar year 2015.  The book of the year in the United States, Ta-Nehisi Coates's magisterial Between the World and Me, is basically an extended reflection on the violence in all of its overt and covert forms as experienced by African-Americans.

Both Sarah Coakley (who I have tremendous respect for and whose work I appreciate very much) and John Milbank (for whom neither is really true, for reasons well captured here) criticize Girard for prioritizing an analysis of violence at the heart of his system.  And, indeed, Girard's system is, in a sense, an analysis of violence and its role in human life.  But doesn't that reflect the world that we see?  Coakley and Milbank's insistence on emphasizing an "ontology of peace" (as Milbank calls it) seems to be trying to wish away a reality that we see all around us, every day, in a multitude of ways.  Talking about cooperative behavior as part of evolution, or yearning for a return to some idealized Medieval Europe, doesn't seem to address what is in front of us.  We are drowning in violence, in our own lives and in the world around us.

I have yet to find anything that remotely matches the power and insight found in Girard's analysis of violence.  It "scales," in the sense that it works when looking at the micro level of your own life and the macro level of countries and societies, and everywhere in between.  It also scales in the sense that it links together overt physical violence with all of the more covert and subtle manifestations of violence--and, indeed, exposes all sorts of social structures as having an origin in violence that you wouldn't necessary recognize.  It offers a diagnosis that can be used to empower concrete change, while avoiding simplistic, feel-good remedies or abstracting the causes to a level that are impossible for one person to meaningfully address.  It indicts us in our own participation in the violence around us, without paralyzing us with the kinds of manipulative guilt that often accompanies such "revelations" in modern liberal discourse.

Girard doesn't fix our problem with violence.  But at least he shows us what the problem is, in all of its multifaceted dimensions.

2.  Do I Have to Choose Between My Faith and Everything I Know?  To be a Christian in the 21st Century is often to live a double life.  You go to school and learn many things about the world and how it works, and then you learn a set of things about your faith that are often incompatible with what you learn in school.  We read Biblical stories that talk about Adam and Eve, and we look at fossils in Olduvai Gorge that show that human beings slowly evolved over time from various hominid ancestors--how do you reconcile these things?  Once you become an adult, this problem only intensifies, as you have to balance two often mutually incompatible visions of life and how to live it.  How do I live for six days a week in a capitalist economy that is premised on the notion that greed and self-interest drive human relations, and then go to church on Sunday and hear that greed and self-interest are directly opposed to the Kingdom of God?

The obvious solution to this problem is a reflexive rejection of "the world," in favor of the ironclad truths of the faith.  But that brings with it two major problems.  First and foremost, it cedes the possibility that Christianity is truly founded on the reality of the world as it actually is, turning the faith into an obscurantist, closed sect--i.e., the "Second Temple Judaism" problem, as Alison calls it.  It is, in essence, to give up the idea that Christianity is "truly true," which brings with it some serious theological problems within Christianity itself.  But the second problem is that it causes you to have to give up the many truly wonderful blessings that modern life has provided.  Whatever the very real problems the modern world brings with it, it cannot and should not be ignored that I get to live in a world where I am a free citizen who no longer has to worry about dying from a multitude of infectious diseases, can communicate to all of you via this computer, etc.

So, what do you do?  Do you give up the faith?  Do you toss out penicillin and the Internet and women's rights to hold on to that faith?  Or do you find a way to integrate the two, in such a way that the two can talk to each other, and even critique each other?  Again, I have found nothing that does a better job of the third option than Girard and his disciples.  It begins by taking seriously and accepting the truth to be found in both the physical sciences and the human sciences--not just physics and biology, but psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, and economics.  It recognizes that the discoveries in these areas will necessarily change the way we think about, and particularly explain, the Christian faith.  Still, it asserts that, as Aquinas says "everything that is true, by whomever it is spoken, comes from the Holy Spirit," and that Christianity is ultimately compatible with the true insights that we can gain from those bodies of knowledge.

In doing so, however, we are not captive to the prevailing wisdom of the day, and we can bring the words of Jesus and the Christian tradition to bear in criticizing our world where appropriate.  In particular, I think the Girardian critique of the modern technocratic, capitalistic state, and the way it is in many ways a re-manifestation of the old sacred order in an obscured and in many ways more nefarious form, is profound and on-point (here I am thinking of, in particular, the work of Jean-Pierre Dupuy and his books The Mark of the Sacred and Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith, which are both outstanding.  Dupuy is a particularly interesting figure, as he identifies as an atheist, but views the basic moral claims and world-view of Christianity and Judaism, as understood through a Girardian lens, as true).  Christianity retains its power to critique "the world," and indeed Girard never tires of insisting that Christianity is always the paradigmatic critique of society, without falling into reflexive contrarianism and isolation.

This balance between faith and society is incredibly difficult and complex, and we will probably never get it perfectly right, either on an individual level or on a macro level.  But Girard gives us the tools to try to do this better.

3. Do I Have to Choose Between the Past and the Future?  Related to the problem of faith versus "the culture" is the dichotomy between the past and the future.  Religions are fundamentally conservative institutions, designed to preserve old ideas into new times.   This is not a bad thing, and is in fact good and necessary to maintain some sort of continuity.  But it is also simply a fact that the world changes.  As a result, this process of bringing old ideas into the present is always going to be difficult, leading to the temptation to set up a construct known as "the past" as a clear source of meaning and constancy that can then be wielded against the present, or by extension the future.   Or to trap us in particularized and narrow linguistic ghettos as a way to ward off change.  More seriously, a simple reliance on the past forces us to either cover up or justify some of the terrible legacies of that history --the violence, the misogyny, the discrimination, etc.  As a result, this obsession with the past causes us to lose completely the ability to absorb and incorporate legitimate developments, and remained doomed to repeat endlessly the same mistakes and perpetuate the same dysfunctions.

On the flip side, there is a counter-movement that you might call (awkwardly) "liberal Christianity," which starts from a position of reasonable suspicion of the problematic elements of the Christian past.  But liberal Christianity conceives these elements as so unredeemably toxic that the only solution is to chop them out of the Christian story with a meat cleaver.  The problem is that once you are done chopping out all of these elements, there really isn't all that much left to Christianity, and what is left is not tremendously compelling or engaging.  You are left with a vague, generic self-help system.  Christianity is reduced to Oprah-style "live your best life" platitudes.

What is needed is a formula for contextualizing our Christian heritage in a manner that doesn't force us to have to defend and take on board the problematic legacy of the past, without having to do the "the operation was a success but the patient died" move that characterizes liberal Christianity.  Girardian thought does this by introducing a "progressive" element into Christianity.  Jesus is indeed "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," but Jesus's message takes time to have its effect, both on us individually and on all of us collectively.  Individually and collectively we are on a journey toward that Truth and that Life.

As a result, we can call out the terrible legacies of the past for what they are--tragic but ultimately intermediate steps along the way to our ultimate end--without having to call the whole Christian project into question, or requiring us to get locked into a scandalous rivalry with our past.  This progressive notion is not a crude utopianism, where everything going forward is by definition going to be swell.  This progress is hard, and it will not necessarily be a smooth continuous line.  But the progress is real.

We need options beyond the Benedict Option and the Oprah Option.  Those options can be found when we are able to detoxify our Christian past, allowing us to take what we need and leave the rest.  Girard provides the best conceptual framework I have found for this project.

4.  Is There More to Christianity than Morality?  There is a fundamental problem with the way Christianity is expressed and lived out in the U.S. in 2016, and it is a problem that cuts across all denominations and political orientations.  On the one hand, the Christian believer is presented with a series of basically abstract propositions about God, Jesus, and the way the previous two relate to humanity.  Think, for example, about the Nicene Creed--it is a list of important, but ultimately very abstract, claims about the nature of God and the nature of the Church.  On the other hand, the Christian believer is presented with a series of very concrete moral rules.  In the conservative Christian context, those rules are primarily about sex; in the progressive Christian context, those rules often have to do with various social or political issues.  Either way, it is all about rules of behavior and conduct.

This dichotomy creates two related problems.  The first is that it is very hard to see how the abstract claims about God relate to the concrete moral claims on any level other than "God says you have to follow these rules."  There is no clear line between "the Son became incarnate in Jesus," and "no sex outside of marriage."  This is not to say that it is not possible to draw a line between the abstract theology and concrete morality, but that the line is going to be rather convoluted and not immediately obvious.  This is compounded by the second problem, which is that the abstract theology is abstract, and thus there is no way to measure the degree to which an individual believer actually believes or accepts the abstract ideas (if that is even a meaningful concept).  Since you can't measure compliance with the abstract ideas, and there is no clear link between those ideas and the moral rules, as a practical matter the abstract stuff tends to drop out, or only given lip service.  As a result, Christianity gets experienced by many people as a set of isolated moral rules that you must follow because God says so, surrounded perhaps by a set of difficult philosophical ideas that don't really matter much at the end of the day.

James Alison calls this phenomenon "the death of Christianity," where moral rules and a fixation on those rules choke the life out of the religion.  Christianity as nothing but a scold is experienced as a burden by many, many people, and if given the cultural license to flee from it, many have fled.  And there is a way in which they are right to do so, as it is hard to see this denuded set of moral burdens as any sort of "Good News."  Thus, the problem is not primarily any particular moral rule or principle (at least not in the first instance) but the role of morality and moral theology in the religion more generally.  What is needed is a way to de-center and relativize "morals talk" without destroying the ability to talk about morality at all, and without blunting the extremely powerful, even radical, moral message of Jesus in the Gospels.

Girardian thought re-orients Christianity in a couple of subtle but important ways to begin to deal with this problem.  First, it introduces what I call a "hermaneutic of suspicion" with regard to the very idea of moral theology, by introducing a sustained analysis of the ways in which the application of moral rules can be used as a vehicle of oppression.  This is critical in my view, because almost all Christian discourse begins from the proposition that if the moral rule is X, then everyone needs to do X, without recognizing any intervening problem.  But once you accept the idea that even otherwise valid and appropriate moral rules can be used in a manner that leads to un-Christian ends, you will inevitably de-center and relativize "morals talk," because you can't completely trust even the "good" moral rules.  You need something else to base Christianity on.

A Girardian approach also creates a focus on personal transformation, in keeping with the "progressive" quality I discussed above.  The idea that Christianity is really about personal growth and transformation is certainly not unique or original in Christian thought, but I think it needs to be constantly re-emphasized and presented in fresh ways.  Alison, for his part, does this by insisting that awareness of moral transgression comes after forgiveness and grace, rather than as a precondition for it.  Morality, therefore, becomes something that happens after being transformed by God's love, and not something that can be demanded ex post (as Dupuy puts it in The Mark of the Sacred, "Christianity is not a morality, it is an epistemology.")  Again, this is not a new idea--I think Aquinas's incorporation of Aristotelian virtue theory does much of the same work--but it is something sorely needed in 21st Century Christianity.

A Christianity that does nothing but tell people what they cannot do is lost.  We need a faith that gets away from the crutch of turning everything into moral theology.  And I have found no more compelling way to do just that than through the lens of Girardian ideas.


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