Christian Practice, A Potentially Controversial Epilogue: The Final Practice?

After I finished my last post on Christian practice something I've been wrestling with surged back into my awareness.

This blog post is going to be controversial to orthodox Christian believers. I myself go back and forth on this topic. But rather than add a big preamble with disclaimers, I'm just going to discuss this particular viewpoint as a provocative theological perspective for you to consider, ponder, debate, or reject. The post is to let you experience one of my current theological struggles.

In the spring, I read a lot of the work of Rene Girard. I'm particularly draw to Girard's theory of the scapegoat and his non-sacrificial reading of the Bible. In the future, I plan to devote some longer posts to Girard. If you are interested in Girard, I'd start with The Girard Reader as it's a good compilation of his work.

In Girard's book, Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World, he discusses how scapegoating is a human impulse and how ancient religions ritualized human aggression and the scapegoating mechanism by inventing the rite of sacrifice. However, in Jesus Girard contends that the mechanism behind the religious sacrifice was exposed: Human violence. That is, two things are observed with Jesus. First, he was scapegoated and sacrificed. Second, the Bible continually witnesses that Jesus was innocent. Thus, in Jesus the scapegoating ritual of sacrifice is exposed for what it is: Ritualized human aggression. Religions ritualize aggression to allow the group to survive. Otherwise, violence spreads through the community. The religious rite of sacrifice allows the group to blame the scapegoat and, thus, focuses the violence upon a target. Without the scapegoat the blame is diffuse and violence spreads from neighbor to neighbor. Eventually, the community disintegrates into warring sub-groups. In short, Girard contends that sacrificial religions up to the time of Jesus were built atop murder and human violence. Religion simply channeled that violence to benefit the group. Stated crudely, religion was violence.

But Girard contends that the witness of Christianity, in the death of Jesus, is the end of sacrifice, the end of scapegoating, and the exposure of human violence. That is, Jesus’ death exposed us for what we are. It exposed religion for what is was (and still is). If we killed God Himself, how can we ever do violence to anyone ever again? How could we possibly trust ourselves? We can’t. If religion killed God, how could be ever trust religion again? Again, we can't. So the violence has to stop. As Girard says, he set out to "scapegoat scapegoating."

But here is the even trickier part. Girard goes on to suggest that most Christians miss this point. They misread the whole thrust of Scripture. They claim that via Jesus' sacrifice they are saved while others are Lost. Thus, two groups are defined, the Saved and the Lost. And the Saved group begins to scapegoat the Lost group. Not all Christians do this, but the history of Christianity generally supports Girard: "Christians" have shed a lot of blood since the time of Jesus. And they have felt justified in this. And that’s the irony Girard points us to: A book that exposes religious scapegoating (to put an end to it) is used to create further rounds of religious scapegoating. Mel Gibson blames the Jews. Other Christians blame homosexuals, humanists, evolutionists, or Muslims.

And so, because of this persistent misreading of Scripture, Girard suggests that there is one final practice of becoming a Christian: The rejection of the Bible, of Christianity. To quote Girard:

"Once again, the truth and universality of the [scapegoating] process revealed by the [Bible] is demonstrated as the [Bible] is displaced toward the latest available victims. Now it is the Christians who say: 'If we had lived in the days of our Jewish fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of Jesus.' If the people whom Jesus addresses and who do not listen to him fulfill the measure of their fathers, then the Christians who believe themselves justified in devouring these same people in order to exculpate themselves are fulfilling a measure that is already full to overflowing. They claim to be governed by the text that reveals the process of misreading, and yet they repeat that misreading. With their eyes on the text, they do once again what the text condemns. The only way of transcending this blindness consists in repudiating-as is done today-not the process that is revealed in the text and can maintain itself, paradoxically, in the shade, but the text itself; the text is declared to be responsible for the acts of violence committed in its name and actually blamed for not, up to now, mastering the old violence except by diverting it to new victims...There is one last trick, one last victim, and this is the text itself...It is the ultimate irony that the gospel text should be condemned by public opinion in the name of charity." (from Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World)

I am both drawn to and repelled by this position. Maybe you are as well. On the one hand, I see Girard's point: The Bible has been and remains a source of violence. Getting rid of it, once we fully get Jesus' message, seems like a good idea. But on the other hand, as a Christian, I'm very apprehensive about "condemning" the Bible "in the name of charity."

The thing that haunts me about this passage in Girard is a different passage in Wittgenstein's Tractatus. It is Wittgenstein's ladder metaphor of meaning. His notion that you use his words as a ladder up to a certain point. And then, to understand correctly, you must discard the ladder. You cannot cling to the ladder. Quoting from the Tractatus:

Tractatus 6.54:
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

This passage in Wittgenstein haunts me because I wonder if something like this must be done, as Girard suggests, with the Bible and Christianity.

In order to fully love the world, to give up violence, to give up scapegoating, and to demonstrate that you understand the Bible correctly, must the final act of the Christian be the rejection of Christianity?

This is what Girard claims.

And sometimes I wonder…

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6 thoughts on “Christian Practice, A Potentially Controversial Epilogue: The Final Practice?”

  1. I'm somewhat familiar with Girard's work. We have a Girard scholar at Brite who is also our librarian. I also am intrigued by his idea of our mimetic desire. At any rate, I think that Girard is on to something here, at least in some limited manner. I think there is much wisdom in getting rid of scripture to the extent that it becomes a limit for future actions by an ever expanding movement of the Spirit who always creates more possibilities.

    I see scripture as a helpful tool to help you understand the nature of God and the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. However, should not our goal simply be to be imitators of the Christ (mimesis again)? That seems much easier than trying to use scripture as if it were written specifically for us as a guidebook for human behavior.

    I enjoyed this post, Dr. Beck. Hope all is well. shalom!

  2. Richard- your courage in this post is to be commended. It should make for some interesting discussions on campus for you in the coming days. My wife and I had a conversation just yesterday about our experience with others that use scripture in an attempt to gain personal control in relationships. I've had to confess to this a great deal, especially to my wife. Nevertheless, your post urges me further along my life path to stop focusing on learning about Christ, but to focus on knowing Christ. And, while scripture plays a key role in that process, it has been my experience that it has significant limitations that "the church" seems quite uncomfortable in confronting. One example of this is gender roles in the church. If you go strictly by scripture you can make some moderately strong cases for women to stay in very traditional and submissive roles (in the church and the home). But, my experience has been that many women in churches have been subject to subtle forms of abuse and manipulation in the name of the scripture. To wit, in a church we attended in the past (which, by the way would be considered very liberal and progressive by most people in ACU-type circles) there was a survey distributed to the men to ask them about things that would improve their worship experience in church. The number one response was that women needed to dress in a more modest fashion because this "distracted" the men from their proper focus. So, to summarize, for the men to have a more intimate worship experience the women would be asked to make behavioral changes. This makes absolutely no sense to me and is a classic example of scapegoating. I'll stop now but really do appreciate your perspectivces Richard.

  3. The Bible has been and remains a source of violence.

    No. Let's think clearly about this: Sin is the source of violence. We depraved humans will take almost any excuse to dominate and terrorize others, and it is pretty transparent (and clichéd) sophistry to claim that those bearing the name "Christian" have had anything like a monopoly on this. I'm a bit disappointed, frankly, that you got suckered into that one.

    Secondly, I'm no Wittgenstein expert, but even if one were to "discard the ladder after having climbed it," I cannot see how that would mean rejection and condemnation of the ladder. Spurious Wittgensteinian connections aside, I can't see how coming to the conclusion that God's message in the Bible is there specifically to be rejected and condemned can be viewed as anything but nutty. Girard sounds pretty full of beans himself, even for a French intellectual; I wouldn't take his take on the Bible any more seriously than I would a Hegelian's.

  4. I'm afraid you've misunderstood Girard, here.

    In the passage that you've cited Girard is describing two kinds of people and two kinds of mistake.

    On the one hand, there are Christians who, "[w]ith their eyes on the once again what the text condemns." On the other hand their are those who espouse what Girard, in I See Satan Fall Like Lightening (and with very pointed irony) refers to as "Superchristianity."

    Superchristians do not espouse Christian beliefs or identify with institutions or communities whose members would explicitly call themselves "Christian." Rather, by "superchristianity" Girard intends a global politics whose fundamental concern is for victims - but always and only those victims for whom we can hold our enemies and moral inferiors responsible, a decadent, resentful, victimary politics that "knows" everything about justice and nothing about forgiveness.

    These Gospel-despising "superchristians" do indeed transcend the "blindness" of Christian mis-readers of the Christian scriptures, but they do so in the only way that is consistent with their self-righteousness and self-promotion. In their own way, then, they are like those Christians who say 'If we had lived in the days of our Jewish fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of Jesus.' In short, as Girard points out (and this is what he intends by the epithet 'as is done today'), they do not repudiate 'the process that is revealed in the text' and which, as in the case of the persistence of scapegoating in historical Christianity, "maintain[s] itself, paradoxically, in the shade." Rather, they repudiate 'the text itself.' True, 'the gospel text' is, as Girard writes, 'condemned by public opinion in the name of charity' - but this is just to say that the condemnation is 'superchristian,' or, again, in a very stunted and ultimately lifeless sense, more-christian-than-christianity.

    In an important respect, then, 'superchristians' do not differ from the Christians that they really despise and to whom they believe themselves superior. Neither group repudiates scapegoating. The only difference - and this is the crux of Girard's point here - is that the victim is 'the text itself.' Indeed, 'the text is declared to be responsible for the acts of violence committed in its name.'

    Girard is engaging in description, here, not prescription: he certainly advocates our 'transcending' the blindness that he confesses (not forgetting that he is a believer) to be a feature of actual, concretely practiced Christianity. But he most emphatically does not advocate our repudiating 'the text,' that is, neither the Gospels nor, more broadly and accurately speaking, any of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. These, rather, as an ineliminable aspect of the historically effectual work of the Paraclete, are constitutive of the very conditions of our ultimate safety (both historically and eschatologically).

    To repudiate these scriptures is, as Girard states clearly, a 'trick' and not, as you seem to read him, the ultimate and ironic requirement of Christian commitment. Certainly, Girard concedes that the repudiation of the scriptures constitutes 'the ultimate irony.' It should be clear, however, that the kind of irony that Girard has in mind here finds its expression in what is really the ultimate hypocrisy: a feigned concern for 'charity,' that is, a supposed love of the marginal and the weak whose truth is a refusal to forgive and a hungering for revenge.

    Again: Girard does not advocate the repudiation which you appear to think that he does. If his claim in the passage that you have cited is controversial - it ought not to be controversial with "orthodox" believers, that is, not insofar as such believers are willing to place even - and perhaps especially - their most precious readings of 'the text' under the eschatological judgment of the Son of Man. In short, to return, finally, to Girard's earlier point, the thing to be repudiated is our shortsightedness or blindness.

    To conclude: it is true that our not repudiating the Christian and Hebrew scriptures might be consistent with hermeneutic practices which give the appearance of such a repudiation to some believing and non-believing observers. In defense of Girard (who, evidently, I do not hold to be 'full of beans,' as one of your other readers asserted): the appearance that he must give of manhandling or even giving up on 'the text' arises from the simple fact that he prioritizes one subset of the scriptures and reads the rest in light of these - that is, he gives absolute priority to those texts which take the perspective of victims of collective, religiously motivated or justified, violence. He gives priority to the gospel's passion narratives above all. Of course, this skews his reading of other texts within the canon - just as a reading of the narrative of Achan's stoning must be skewed by the prioritization (as more faithful, for lack of better word) of the narrative of the Naboth's.

    Is this move arbitrary? No - although its rationality is not obvious. Does it devalue the texts which are thus subordinated? Hardly. The passion narratives, above all, provide the only light in which the fundamental, unprecedented miracle of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as a whole can really be disclosed.

  5. Cameron,
    Thanks for the very well argued comment. Listening to you I think I may have made a mistake and misread Girard here. If so, I appreciate your pointing it out. I'm at work now but will go home to my books to re-read the relevant sections.

    On a personal know, you seem to know Girard well. Are you studying him?

  6. Richard,

    thank you for your generous acquiescence here. I too, however, am no doubt also a mis-reader of Girard from time to time.

    Since you ask: Girard's work is and has been central for my work (my recently completed MA thesis on what Jürgen Habermas calls the 'linguistification of the sacred,' for example) and, on a more personal note, very close to my heart. René Girard, I confess, has put an irrevocable and I hope mostly beneficent stamp upon my thinking.

    Among other effects of my exposure to his work, a salient one (for the present context) has been the grace of my feeling indeed less and less compelled to repudiate the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

    As Girard argues in his "Are the Gospels Mythical," the Christian need not defend the Gospels, in any case, against the claim that these texts resemble myths - particularly not where this claim asserts that they are preoccupied with the relationship between religion and violence. It is precisely at the point where the passion narratives, or the narrative of the beheading of John the Baptist, for example, do indeed resemble myths (i.e., in their narration of collective violence against more or less innocent victims) that their remarkable difference from myths (and, too, later medieval 'texts of persecution')becomes apparent.

    For Girard, the difference in question - as you no doubt know, but other readers may not - is that the Gospel narratives are lucid and, remarkably, realistic (see Erich Auerbach's 'Mimesis' for a compelling, independent assertion of this latter point) in their handling of their subject matter, while myths are as superficial and thin and unfaithful to the 'real' of their subject matter as the most thoughtlessly reproduced gossip.

    Of course, it is at least implicit in Girard's claims about the anthropologically necessary obscurity of these "things hidden since the foundation of the earth" (i.e., the necessity of this obscurity for the stability of cultures and the reproduction of society) that the 'realism' of the canonical gospels (as of numerous texts within the Hebrew scriptures) is a more than stylistic or rhetorical innovation - it is both substantive in its effects and unexpected in its historical relation to the very communities within which these oral traditions and texts emerged, were consolidated, and then cherished.

    The unexpected and anomolous realism of these non-myths suggests a process of transformation in the communities and individuals responsible for there origin and promulgation - a transformation without which the latter would have been impossible. One reason for NOT repudiating the scriptures, then - as riddled with difficulty as these are - is that they bear the marks of the conversion of their human source in a way that no other texts do and so, too, suggest, at least, the illuminating involvement of the one whose coming depended, according to John's Jesus, upon the latter's going to the Father...namely, of course, the Paraclete.

    The only other literary instances that Girard cites with respect to these signs of conversion are the writings of a handful of more or less modern novelists (Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Dostoevsky - etc.?) and one dramatist (Shakespeare). But then, these works would have been impossible in a European milieu that had NOT been exposed for nearly 2000 years to the simultaneously destabilizing and renewing effects of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

    Anyway...enough of that. I don't mean to be patronizing with the foregoing. Perhaps some readers of this thread will find something of interest here - even if others will percieve only the obvious. Sorry for the muddle and the haste.


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