We are stuck in the middle of history ourselves

You cannot view [history] from above or get an eagle-eye view of the events. I myself though that was possible when I was writing Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (1978), in which I imagined Christianity provided the point of view from which we could judge violence. However, there is neither non-sacrificial space, nor “true history”.

I’ll admit that when I read Things Hidden I found his passages on the “non-sacrificial” view of history completely confusing. It is pleasant to discover that he has now thrown most of this out.

I reread my analysis of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, which was my last “modern” and “anti-Christian” argument. The criticism of an “historical Christianity” and argument in favor of a kind of “essential Christianity,” which I thought I had grasped in a Hegelian manner,m was absurd. On the contrary, we have to think of Christianity as essentially historical, and Clausewitz helps us do so. Solomon’s judgment explains everything on this score: there is the sacrifice of the other, and self-sacrifice; archaic sacrifice and Christian sacrifice. However, it is all sacrifice.

We are immersed in mimetism and have to find a way around the pitfalls of our desire, which is always desire for what the other possesses. I repeat, absolute knowledge is not possible. We are forced to remain at the heart of history and to act at the heart of violence because we are always gaining a better understanding of its mechanisms. Will we ever be able to elude them? I doubt it.

-Rene Girard, Battling to the End, p.35

A communion of saints

Many of Girard’s books are written in the form of a conversation with one of his friends or colleges. Indeed, sometimes they are only slightly edited transcripts.

He mentions this in the introduction.

Conversation’s blessings include surprises and new connections. Little by little, we came to see that various authors, poets and exceptional people were crucial to our discussion. A whole constellation of writers and thinkers finally merged with our thinking. I consider this a little like the communion of saints.

-Rene Girard, Battling to the End, p.xvii

I have not encountered this before. It can be a bit meandering, but pleasantly unpredictable as well. I am accustomed to reading essays that are highly polished, with all the blemishes of the author under wraps. It is fun to find passages like the following.

Girard’s conversation partner, Benoit Chantre asks about an idea that was just brought up and suggests that a lot may be gained by comparing it to the philosophy of Hegel. Girard replies:

You are asking me to take to its logical conclusion an intuition that came to me while we were speaking. That would require philosophical knowledge that I lack.

If everyone is certain of guilt, watch out

A sacrificial resolution is no longer feasible [to resolve our social conflicts]. Sacrifice no longer works now that Christianity has revealed the mechanism of unanimity. Archaic religions were based on a complete absence of criticism regarding this unanimity.

Even though Jesus Chris is the chief way that Satan’s scapegoat mechanism is revealed, the Jews were givin this revelation throughout their history as well, though it is not as pronounced. Still, there were able to see it operating clearly at times.

This is why in one of his Talmudic readings Levinas says that if everyone agrees that an accused should be convicted, then he should be released right away, for he must be innocent.[!!]

-Rene Girard, Battling to the End, p.23

Introspection is rigged

Mimetic theory contradicts the thesis of human autonomy. It tends to relativize the very possibility of introspection: going into oneself always means finding the other, the mediator, the person who orients my desires without my being aware of it.

-Rene Girard, Battling to the End, p.10

To someone who has a high view of introspection, this is rather chilling. I’m afraid he’s completely right though. One of these days I’ll hash out the details of how this relates to Larry Crabb’s “cone” model of discovering the motivations and underlying causes of our emotions and conflicts. My initial impression is that mimesis fits in at the “image” stage, early in the chain. The image of ourselves is based largely on our image of others in many ways we don’t realize and even actively repress from realizing.

Girard on Left Behind theology

Girard laments the fact that a theology of the apocalypse, (or rather a _____ (fill in the blank ology) of the apocalypse has slipped out of most conversations. My first thought was, “What? I hear about it all the time.” But alas, it is usually a “mythological conception” of the end.

The only Christians who still talk about the apocalypse are fundamentalists, but they have a completely mthological conception of it. They think that the violence of the end of time will come from God himself. They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. The have no sense of humor.

-Rene Girard, Battling to the End, p.xvi

Girard’s view of God insists that there is no violence in the trinity. Violence comes from man and our rivalry. I think most of the Bible can be read this way with only some shift of perspective, but there are some sticky spots. I haven’t processed this whole idea myself. It depends on a particular definition of violence. For example, the flood isn’t what we are talking about. The commands to kill the pagans in Canaan don’t count either. Through the lens of Girard’s “Escalation to Extremes” though, the idea that God needs to intervene directly at the end of time to cause lots of nasty stuff to happen to man doesn’t fit at all. We have everyone we need to make a big mess right at our disposal already.

Battling to the End

I just finished Rene Girard’s latest.

Lots of good stuff buried among some pretty detailed early 19th century European history that I knew (and still know) almost nothing about.

I get the sense even more strongly with this work than with the last thing I read of his: this is only the beginning. There is a TON of work to be done in developing these ideas, applying them to other fields and communicating them in a graspable way to everyone else. This is top on my list of a book to write, if I can ever get my brain cells properly alligned and my act together.

One other note. I LOVE it when authors show some humility. I swear nobody does this near often enough. It would cause people to take them MORE seriously, not less.

Early on, he makes reference to several chapters of his 1970’s work Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World (the first book of his that I read) and he admits that he’s completely rethought some parts of it and tossed out some his earlier conclusions. I see writers and theologians change their mind about stuff all the time, but very few who will dare to mention it. Geesh.

In several spots he also refuses to explore a topic because of his own lack of knowledge. Girard is a huge brain, but he is hesitant to discuss Hegel’s philosphophy in much detail for fear of making mistakes. The same goes for Islam. In contrast, pundits on TV seem unfraid to spout off about, well, you freakin’ name it.

I’ll write up some more notes on this later.

Why I don’t buy rapture theology

Here’s the real short edition:

1. Occam’s Razor

Which answer is more simple? That the narrative of Revelations describes an intricate political conspiracy that can only be illumined through cryptic numerology from prophecies of Daniel where every time he says “weeks” it is actually supposed to mean something else (years, generations, 7 years, etc.) to make everything fit? Every few years a new full-length book comes out explaining how this is supposed to all line up.


That all but the last couple chapters of Revelation describe the early persecution of the church, the folks John was actually writing to?

2. Defeatist Strangeness

I believe the gospel is the story of Jesus Christ redeeming all of creation. Letting it all go to hell for a few years in theatrical fashion just doesn’t jive with the theology of the victory of Christ, pretty much anything Jesus spoke in the gospels (check the red letters), and plenty of other more solidly grounded theologies. When you look at the big picture view of the Bible, with all it’s promises and God dealing with man, the rapture/tribulation looks like something somebody duct-taped onto the right-hand edge of a mural.

3. Recent novelty

The rapture is a young idea. It’s virtually unheard of before the 19th century. Even today, internationally, it is largely a contemporary American belief.

4. Smart guys think otherwise.

Pick your favorite apostle (they never articulated it), early church father or reformer. Origin, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, etc. Despite its popularity in some circles, plenty of smart (and completely orthodox) guys today (N.T. Wright, etc.) think it’s ridiculous.

So there you go. I’m too tired to go into details. I’m also pretty wary of ever bringing this up in real conversations. Smile and nod is the standard practice most of the time.

Master of fate

Man may be master of his fate, but he has a precious poor servant. It is easier to command a lapdog or a mule for a whole day than one’s own fate for half-an-hour.

-Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome, p.299

Slicing up man different ways

Theologians, philosophers, and psychologists slice man in different ways, and there is no use trying to make the sections coincide.

That is a great quote and true to boot. All three disciplines and their associated words and phrases can be helpful. However…

Psychologists should be wary of dabbling in theology, lest they bite off way more than they can chew.

There have been great Christian psychologists, but not when they got their theology and psychology too mixed up.

Theologians should not be dismissive of psychology, nor scared of it.

Theology and philosophy intersect a lot, but again, they can become too mixed up. Calvin’s Institutes are pretty good when he sticks with the Bible, but can go south at times when there is too much Plato.

Philosopher’s should make themselves a bit more useful by incorporating (or at least being aware of) some psychology. They should also do their homework before talking theology. That homework would include prayer.

After this quote, Erikson goes on to comment on Luther’s theology:

The main point to be made here is Luther’s new emphasis on man in INNER conflict and his salvation through introspective perfection. Luther’s formulation of a God known to individual man only through the symbolism of the Son’s Passion redefined the individual’s existence in a direction later pursued in both Kierkegaard’s existentialism and Freud’s psychoanalysis – methods which lead the individual systematically to his own borders, including the border of his religious ecstasies.

Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther, p.214

An outsider look in

I found this to be a rather fascinating passage from Erikson’s Young Man Luther as it offers a window into what an astute outsider sees when examining Christianity. Some of the his observations are disturbingly accurate while in the same breath completely miss the point. Here it is with a few comments along the way.

Christianity also had its early organizational era. It had started as a spiritual revolution with the idea of freeing an earthly proletariat for victory in another world after the impending withering of this one.

Well, I don’t blame him for coming to this conclusion. Just look at where Left Behind theology has gotten us regarding the “withering of the world”. This doesn’t jive with Jesus’ message about the redemption of all creation, or the New Jerusalem in John’s vision, or the Christus Victor perspective of the early church, or the last two millenia. What he is assuming is a gnostic position that might look compatible with the 1st grade Sunday School version of Christianity, but not much else.

But as always, the withering comes to be postponed; and in the meantime, bureaucracies must keep the world in a state of preparedness. This demands the administrative planning and the theoretical definition of a double citizenship: one vertical, to take effect WHEN; and one horizontal, always in effect NOW.

Is that why the church was increasingly institutionalized? The “delayed parousia”? That explains most of it I think.

The man who first conceived of and busily built the intersection of the horizontal and the vertical was St. Paul, a man converted out of a much too metropolitan identity conflict between Jewish rabbi, Roman citizen, and Greek philosopher not to become an empire-builder and doctrine-former.

Though it may not be accurate, I love that introduction to Paul. What other conclusion about the personality of Paul could a non-believer come to if he were to take a close look at the NT?

His much-traveled body reached Rome only to be beheaded; but his organizational testament merged with that of Christ’s chosen successor, the sturdy Peter, to eventually establish in the capital of the horizontal empire of Rome a permanent anchorage and earthly terminal for all of man’s verticals. (Luther, in his first theological restatements, was identifying with Paul’s evangelical identity: he did not know, until it was to be foisted on him, how much he was preparing to identify with Paul’s managerial fervor, his ecclesiastic identity, as well.)

Here, secular Erikson sees Peter as Jesus’s “successor”, which if you see Jesus as a political or social figure (Erikson also wrote a biography of Ghandi) then I guess that makes sense. Even if you believe Peter was meant to be the first pope, I don’t think this is the language you would use.

The sacrifice, in whose blood the early gnostic identity had flourished, was gradually sacrificed to dogma; and thus that rare sublimation, that holiday of transcendence, which alone had been able to dissolve the forces of the horizontal, was forfeited. Philosophically and doctrinally, the main problem became the redefinition of the sacrifice so that its magic would continue to bind together, in a widening orbit, not only the faith of the weak and the simple, but also the will of the strong, the initiative of the ambitious, and the reason of the thinking. In each of these groups, also, the double citizenship meant a split identity: an eternal, always impending, one, and one within a stereotyped hierarchy of earthly estates. For all of these groups an encompassing theology had to be formulated and periodically reformulated.

-Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther, p.180

The double-citizenship, bringing together the weak and strong in submission to Christ – he’s hitting on so many important features but the hammer is slipping off the head of the nail.

the main problem became the redefinition of the sacrifice so that its magic would continue to bind together” – This is another outsider view, this time looking at the mass in particular and other Christian dogma in general. Could this phrase not be used to critique our contemporary “worship experience” church gatherings as well?

At the same time, Erikson doesn’t really believe in the magic behind the “magic”. He is treating Christianity as an interesting social phenomenon, not something earth-shaking that really happened. He denies that it has any real power beyond that “binding together” of community and the psychological impact inside the individual. But we say those things are in fact, secondary to Jesus’ originating action.