Peter Leithart, via his blog, has turned me on to the work of Philip Jenkins. I’ve poked around a read a few interview in the past couple days. This guy’s work on church history is blowin’ my mind. Rockin’!

Misc notes on Young Man Luther

It’s been several months ago since I read Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther. If I don’t blog about something right away, I sometimes forget exactly why I found a certain passage of interest. So I’m just going to dump the rest of my notes here with a few comments. Keep in mind that Erikson is a secular author and many of his ideas are not exactly friendly to orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I appreciate some of the psychological insights.

On indoctrination and why some monks are great men and other monks really pathetic.

Any indoctrination worth its ideological salt also harbors dangers, which bring about the unmaking of some and the supreme transcendence of others.


On how the central organized  core of a movement can always disavow responsibility for the fringe elements. Think the Taliban vs. most Islamic states or the Christians who murder abortion doctors. The disavowments don’t do anything to make the fringe go away though. They don’t reach below the surface.

As in the case of all terror, the central agency can always claim not to be responsible for the excessive fervor of its operatives; in fact, it may claim it has dissuaded its terrorists by making periodic energetic pronouncements. These, however, never reach the lowly places where life in the raw drives people into being each others’ persecutors, beginning with the indoctrination of children.


On the demise of the Roman Catholic church’s dominance due to many, many things. Luther was only a small part of the puzzle.

The masses could participate only as onlookers, as the recipients of a reflection of a reflection. This parasitic ceremonial identity lost much of its psychological power when the excessive stylization of the ruling classes proved to be a brittle defense against the era’s increasing dangers; the plague and syphilis, the Turks, and the discord of popes and princes. At the same time, the established order of material and psychological warfare (always so reassuring a factor in man’s sense of borrowed godliness) was radicaly overthrown by the invention of gunpowder and of the printing press.


On why monasticism is probably not the best thing for a young person.

Some monastic methods systematically descend to the frontiers where all ego dangers mut be facd in the raw – were an overweening conscience is appeased through prayer, drives tamed by asceticism, and the pressure of reality is itself defeated by the self’s systematic abandonment of its identity. But true monasticism is a later development and is possible only to a mature ego. Luther knew why he later said that nobody under thirty years of age should definitely commit himself to it.


On how life is different for the young person whose thoughts are dominated by theology. I can raise my hand to some of this. It makes childhood shorter for sure.

This integrity crisis, last in the lives of ordinary men, is a lifelong and chronic crisis in a homo religiousus. He is always older, or in early years suddenly becomes older, than his playmates or even his parents and teachers, and focuses in a precocious way on what it takes others a lifetime to gain a mere inkling of: the questions of how to escape corruption in living and how in death to give meaning to life. Because he experiences a breakthrough to the last problems so early in his life maybe such a man had better become a martyr and seal his message with an early death; or else become a hermit in a solitude which anticipates the Beyond. We know little of Jesus of Nazareth as a young man, but we certainly cannot even begin to imagine him as middle-aged.



From the oldest Zen poem to the most recent psychological formulation, it is clear that “the conflict between right and wrong is the sickness of the mind.”

-Quoted from Seng-ts’an, Hsin-hsin, Ming, p.263

I loved the last paragraph of this book where the author suddenly brings us into his study overlooking a town in Mexico:

The area of nearby Lake Patzcuaro is dominated by an enormous statue erected on a fisherman’s island. The statue depicts the revolutionary hero Morelos, an erstwhile monk, his right arm raised in a gesture much like Luther’s when he spoke at Worms. In its clean linear stockiness and stubborn puritanism the statue could be somewhere in a Nordic land; and if, in its other hand, it held a mighty book instead of the handle of a stony sword, it could, for all the world, be Luther.


Our need to personify beliefs

All realism, in the medieval sense, leads to anthropomorphism. Having attributed a real existence to an idea, the mind wants to see this idea alive, and can only effect this by personifying it. In this way allegory is born. It is not the same thing as symbolism. Symbolism expresses a mysterious connection between two ideas, allegory gives a visible form to the conception of such a connection. Symbolism is a very profound function of the mind, allegory is a superficial one. It aids symbolic thought to express itself, but endangers it at the same time by substituting a figure for a living idea. The force of the symbol is easily list in the allegory.

The Church, it is true, has always explicitly taught that sin is not a thing or an entity. But how could it have prevented the error, when everything concurred to insinuate it into men’s minds? The primitive instinct which sees sin as stuff which soils or corrupts, which one should, therefore, wash away, or destroy, was strengthened by the extreme systematizing of sins, by their figurative representation, and even by the penitentiary technique of the Church itself. In vain did Denis the Carthusian remind the people that it was but for the sake of comparison that he calls sin a fever, a cold and corrupted humour – popular thought undoubtedly lost sight of the restrictions of dogmatists.

-Erik Erikson quoting Huizinga, p.187, The Waning of the Middle Ages

I’d love to explore this stuff further at some point. I think Girard could be bought it in to assist with some mimetic theory. The benefit would be a combing through theology to make sure we aren’t falling into this psychological trap. Or, perhaps, from the other end, a combing through theology so as to make it more incarnation. As far as our need for anthropomorphism goes, God was definitely throwing us a bone when he sent Jesus Christ. Cool.

Be an apocalyptic hero!

This should be my last note on Battling to the End.

My big excuse is eschatology. Is eschatology compatible, as you would like it to be, with heroic resistance to the course of events?

Stop and digest that one. “Heroic resistance to the course of events”. This is essentially striving to “change the world for the better”. When Sam says (in the movie, NOT the book) “There’s some good in this world. And it’s worth fighting for!” Is this just a sham? No Girard says it’s worth it:

Yes, in so far as it can produce examples that can be imitated, but they will always remain “invisible to the eyes of flesh,” as Pascal says. No man is a prophet in his own land.

When asked in a recent interview what we can do, his answer was: “We can behave like Christians.”

We are mimetic. We cannot transcend this. What can be done? We can find good models to imitate. This begins with the imitation of Christ. We can also BE good models, first to our children and then to our neighbors.

…why was there no eschatology in the Christianity of the seventeenth century? It is very interesting to wonder about the various contexts that Christianity has had. In the Middle Ages, it had apocalyptic periods in which Christians realized they were in the process of completely failing. However, Christianity has always been too young for eschatology. Perhaps it is ready now, for what is threatening us has become tangible.

-Rene Girard, Battling to the End, p.106

It’s true that theologians of all stripes have cared more about the apocalypse in the last 50 years than in seeminly all of human history. Whatever their reasons, perhaps the time is finally ripe. Not necessarily ripe to happen as we think, but a ripe time to consider it. It will languish on the back shelf no longer.

Peace as holiness

Sin consists in thinking that something good could come from violence. We all think this because we are all mimetic, and we stick to our beloved duel.

-Rene Girard, Battling to the End, p.105

Christ is not a soothsayer but a prophet

This is as close as Girard ever gets to talking directly about the apocalypse in the fashion that most authors spend hundreds of pages doing.

For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the word and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:23-24)

All the exegetes want to see this as an allusion to the destruction of the Temple by Titus in A.D. 70, and they conclude from this that Luke’s text is later than the three others. These theories are completely uninteresting because the fall of Jerusalem does not mean only A.D. 70, but also 587 B.C. The Evangelists were continuing the Jewish prophetic tradition, which was attentive to “signs of the times.” Here too human history is caught within that of God. The fall of Jerusalem is thus primarily an apocalyptic theme: Christ is not a soothsayer but a prophet. One of the wonders of the texts is that they make it impossible to know whether or not they are speaking of Titus. However, historians mix everything up without even realizing that the mixture is part of what they are talking about, and that what they are talking about could not care less about them.

There is no doubt that the apocalyptic passages refer to a real event that will follow the Passion, but in the Gospels they were placed before it. The “time of the Gentiles” is thus, like the seventy years of servitude to the King of Babylon in Jeremiah, an indefinite amount of time between two apocalypses, two revelations. If we put the statements back into an evangelical perspective, this can only mean that  the time of the Gentiles, in other words, the time when Gentiles will refuse to hear the word of God, is a limited time. Between Christ’s Passion and his Second Coming, the Last Judgment, if you prefer, there will be this indefinite time which is ours, a time of increasingly uncontrolled violence, of refusal to hear, of growing blindness. This is the meaning of Luke’s writings, and this shows their relevance. In the respect, Pascal says at the end of the twelfth Provincial Letter that “violence has only a certain course to run, limited by the appointment of Heaven.”

-Rene Girard, Battling to the End, p.111

I think we end up using a too-generic definition of prophet when talking about figures in the bible. They didn’t know the future like someone gazing into a crystal ball and surfing the internet news sites for next year. Instead, they had specific messages to deliver, to warn the people to forsake their violence and idolatry. John the Baptist, and then Jesus Christ, (when he talks about the future) is still doing the same thing. I’m sure someone has developed this idea more somewhere else, but I’m not sure where.

As or what this says about the mechanics of the apocalypse, I guess Girard can be placed in the “getting worse before it gets better” camp which would seem at odds with post-millennialism, but perhaps the two can still be reconciled.

“The time when Gentiles will refuse to hear the word of God, is a limited time” is certainly a hopeful statement.

Getting better or worse?

We have to maintain the force of the Scriptures because the apocalyptic texts have gradually been forgotten, just when their relevance is more and more obvious. This is incredible. The joyful welcome of the Kingdom, which the texts describe, has been smothered by a double trend: catastrophic darkening on one hand, and indefinite postponement of the Second Coming on the other.

The constant, slow distance in relation to the Gospels casts a shadow on what was supposed to be luminous, and delays it. The anti-Christianity that we see today thus reveals this in a striking way as the next step in a process that began with the Revelation. The “time of the Gentiles” that Luke [21:14] describes suggests the Judgement has been delayed, and this has gradually imposed a new perspective on the Gospels. It has injected an insidious, growing doubt about the validity of the apocalyptic texts.

-Rene Girard, Battling to the End, p.110

This “double trend” regarding the apocalypse is easy to see. On one hand, we have the “catastrophic darkening” characterized by conspiracy theories about mark-of-the-beast microchips, oppressive one-world government, and nuclear holocaust.

On the other hand is the “insidious growing doubt about the validity of the apocalyptic texts” found in our modern day gnosticism. Recall point #3 from this list of the identifying characteristics of gnosticism:

Christian eschatology is implausible.

In many circles then, the end of the world is largely dismissed.

Girard would have the apocalyptic texts bought back to the forefront, this time to underscore how they line up with his theories.

Violence produced law (which is still violence)

Girard is often challenging some of my long-held beliefs, or at least ways of organizing psychological and theological ideas.

In this case, I guess I had always been taught that the purpose of the law was to, in some sort of tangible, codifiable way, reveal the nature of God. That is, it is an attempt to explain what his holiness looks like. And it does do that, in a round-about way by defining sin (and condemning us as sinful in the process).

Here though, Girard sees law (in general) as an attempt to bring peace to society. It is a way of putting the stops on mimetic rivalry. Religious law further formalizes the sacrifice and scapegoating process so it is less dangerous to the people. In the case of the Jews then, the primary purpose of the law wasn’t to tell us something about God, but an attempt to keep our own violence at bay. An attempt that God KNEW would fail. That it reveals further the Godly delineation of right and wrong is a side effect. This information was already built into our consciences.

All of my intuitions are really anthropological in the sense that I see law as springing from sacrifice in a manner that is very concrete and not philosophical at all. I see this emergence of law in my readings in anthropology, in monographs on archaic tribes, where its arrival was felt. I see it emerge in Leviticus, in the verse on capital punishment, which concerns nothing other than stoning to death. This is the birth of law. Violence PRODUCED LAW, which is still, like sacrifice, a lesser form of violence. This may be the only thing that human society is capable of. Yet one day this dike will also break.

-Rene Girard, Battling to the End, p.108

Is the church set up to fail just like Israel?

The Gentiles are new, and…they have to be given time to experience Christ. Paul said that the same thing in the Epistle to the Romans: the Jews failed everything despite the prophets, and the Christians have to be careful not to do the same thing. What is the Holocaust if not that terrifying failure?

Rene Girard, Battling to the End, p.112

Look at the adulterous wife of Hosea. He loves her even though he knows from the get-go that she will cheat on him constantly. This is a picture of God’s relationship with the Jews. But isn’t Jesus’ relationship with the Church the same deal? We don’t have the prophets to warn us now that he has sent the Holy Spirit. That’s an improvement. He wants to present us as a spotless bride, but what in fact are we? Dirty and full of violence. Yet he loves us still.

“The church will succeed where Israel has failed” is an idea I seem to hear implied sometimes, but one that I really don’t think you’ll find anywhere in the Bible.

I think what you really find is “God will remain faithful, even though _____ (Abraham, Israel, Peter, the Church, fails).”