The feverish search for the original cause: Why we have to find someone to blame

Here, Girard describes our deep desire to put a finger on on the author of evil. We keep fighting because we demand “an original cause which could be rectified”.

At least half of the combatants always believe that justice has been done since they have been avenged, while the other half try to reestablish that same justice by striking those who are provisionally satisfied with a blow that will finally achieve their vengeance. The circumstances are so confused that they will only be brought to an end by both sides recognizing the evil reciprocity. It is asking too much to expect them to understand that the relationships within the group not only feed their misfortune but generate it… Everyone is more or less equally responsible but no one will admit it. Even if men were truly aware of their evil reciprocity they would still want to identify the author, a real and punishable source; they might allow that his role was less significant, but they would still want an original cause which could be rectified, as Evans-Pritchard writes, a pertinent cause on the plane of social relationships.

-Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p.86

In our modern world, where we are aware, at least to some degree of our own folly and the innocence of victims, the only one we have left to blame or hate is God. Nihilism (existence has no meaning) is ultimately just another philosophical flavour of hating God. Both of these lead us to pick our weapons back up.

The alternative is trust.

Our crazy double-standard regarding ethnic violence

Ethnologists have known these facts (of horrific violence in past societies) for centuries, ever since the first deciphering on the representations of persecution in the Western world. But they have not drawn the same conclusions. They spend most of their time minimizing, if not actually justifying, among the Aztecs what they rightly condemn in their own universe. Once again we see the different means of measurement characteristic of anthropology when dealing with both historical and ethnological societies…Scholars show an extraordinary reluctance to examine so-called ethnological societies as ruthlessly as they do their own.

-Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p.62

What Girard is describing here is a strange double-standard in modern social science (which includes modern politics). On the one hand, we are so incredibly sensitive to victim’s rights that a person yelling a racial slur in America today can be fired and even arrested and charged with hate crimes. On the other hand, the ridiculous ritualistic murder of tens-of-thousands during the Aztec reign is glossed over as simply an interesting cultural artifact. The forced conversions and ethnic cleansings by Muslims in the middle ages is intentionally kept in the mists of history and no one dare bring it out into the open to demystify the recorded rhetoric of the oppressors. Still today, secularists can’t decide whether atrocities such as honor killings and female circumcision need to be loudly denounced or given a free pass in the name of multiculturalism, diversity, and tolerance. We are incredibly inconsistent. We need better philosophy, better theology.

Finally an “about” page

Yes, I’ve had this blog for nearly four years and I’ve never taken the time to put up a simple description of who I am and what this is all about. I’m sure I’ve left the few people that have stumbled in here scratching their heads. To make amends, I have finally posted a proper “about” page here! It even includes a “best of” list.

Brief reflections on a TV kitchen

I’m waiting at the restaurant, watching the big-screen TV. The food channel is on. The last three commercials in a row all featured a family cooking and enjoying a meal together. They all featured exactly the same setting: an impossibly spacious kitchen in soft-focus, hermetically sealed off from all life forms. Only lab-coated men with graduate degrees after there names are permitted inside once a year on the appointed day. They bring their cameras and conditioned actors with highly conditioned hair. Kiss your “mother”. Hug you “brother”. Gush over the frozen chicken nuggets taken from the beautiful oak fixture freezer drawer.

Don’t be jealous of this family. When the camera switches off, they cease to exist and the spotless granite counter tops return to the cold vacuum of deep space.

A solemn mass

I recall, as a young man of 16, playing Bass Violin with the Oregon East Symphony in Pendleton. One of the concerts for the season featured only one work: Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (Solemn Mass). His last symphonic work, written after the ninth symphony, it takes a full 80 minutes to play and calls for a lot of personnel.

I’ll never forget the long rehearsals, the continuous sawing away and the turning of page after page of music. It must have been 30+ pages long. I remember thinking, even on the day of the performance, more than once, “I have no memory of this page. Have I ever played this before?”. My music education was hit and miss, but that was one of the finer moments: Participating in the generation of a beautiful epic while simultaneously being run through the sight-reading gauntlet. It’s exciting to discover you can properly concentrate on something for that long without a moment’s interruption. I can’t say many other things in life have lent themselves to that.

One late-night rehearsal also comes to mind in particular. It must have been about 10:30 PM. Everyone was exhausted. It was past time to leave. Some of us lived nearly 2 hours away. The conductor sighed and announced, “I think we need to run through the fugue again.” I had never before heard a collective groan (though it was quiet) rise up from a room of adults before.

Like many of my favorite memories, they have virtually nothing to do with my own alleged cleverness, coolness, or other such thing. This one sort of just fell in my lap. Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua.

Critical insight = skepticism?

Many scholars today believe their critical insight develops in proportion to increasing skepticism. texts that were formerly thought to contain real information are now suspect because they have been constantly reinterpreted by successive generations of historians.

-Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p.1

Here is wishing the folks that think the text means nothing would all just quit and go home. It reminds me of these comments on “trivial criticism”.

There often seems to be a competition among higher academics as to who can explain away or demythologize away the most meaning from their topic of study. This would be self-defeating without tenure. Witness Bishop Spong’s comments a while back that the only reason he is still a Christian (on paper) is he doesn’t want to loose his job.

On renaming things to make us feel better

I just started reading Rene Girard’s The Scapegoat. Just a few pages in, it’s proving to be worth the time.

A disease with a name seems on the way to a cure, so uncontrollable phenomena are frequently renamed to create the impression of control. Such verbal exorcisms continue to appeal wherever science remains illusory or ineffective.

-Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p.4

“Verbal exorcisms” is a useful phrase – a handy synonym to “linguistic hand-waving”.

In a somewhat-related instance, I was reading over the documentation on my daughter’s glaucoma medication tonight and came across this line:

The precise mechanism of the ocular hypotensive action of TIMOPTIC-XE is not clearly established at this time.

That’s the long version of “we’re not really sure how the hell it works”.

That’s OK though, because it does work.

Contrast that with this recent statement from the U.S. Federal Reserve:

“To support a stronger economic recovery and to help ensure that inflation, over time, is at levels consistent with the dual mandate, the Committee expects to maintain a highly accommodative stance for monetary policy.”

Which is the long version of “Things are bad, but we’re going to look busy”.

Calling the economic situation in America a “recovery” only makes any sense if it’s former height of growth and glory was REAL and not imaginary markets and numbers on a banker’s letterhead. Calling it a “recovery” is an attempt to establish control over something we do not have control over. Instead, like so much of the world has always known – this is the NEW NORMAL. “Recession” was a better word, though it still granted the former fake glory days legitimacy they didn’t deserve. “Depression” is one that nobody wants to touch with a ten-foot pole but accurately names what people on the ground feel.

Ways to deal with the problem of evil

Alastair’s recent thoughts on the subject caused me to jot down a list of common ways that people deal with the problem of evil.

If God is really all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do hundreds of children starve to death every day? How come there is so much hate and slaughter? Why doesn’t God do something about it?

Some options:

How to deal with the problem of evil:

1. God CAN’T because he doesn’t exist. (Atheism)

2. God CAN’T because he is sufficiently distant from human affairs. (Deism)

3. God CAN’T because he is not powerful enough (Open theism, Demi-theism, Mormonism)

4. God CAN’T because he is sometimes overpowered by the devil. (Dualism)

5. God CAN, but doesn’t because he is evil. (Cult of Cthulu?, Unbelief)

6. God CAN, but doesn’t because he is in fact instituting the slaughter so it isn’t technically evil since he wills it. (Hard Calvinism, Nominalism, Islam)

7. God CAN, and in fact WILL do something about it, just not yet. (Future redemption and undoing, Some versions on the borders of universalism)

8. God CAN, but isn’t because he does not want to interfere with the will of man (or at least some men), which is apparently more important. (Popular non-reformed Christianity)

9. God CAN, sort of, but we don’t really understand what’s going on and are asking the wrong question to begin with. (Philosophical doubt)

10. God CAN, but doesn’t and I’m not sure why and it pissed me off, but I trust him regardless. (Mystery, trust)


At this point, I’m a pretty big fan of #7 above, though #9 and #10 have some merit, despite being naturally unsatisfying. Few of the saints of old were theologians. For most of them, #10 was the norm.

For moderation and diversity (Lewis)

With the family growing from 5 to 6 total, I’ve barely touched the blog or books in the past 3 weeks. I picked up a copy of Lewis’s God in the Dock a while back and have been working through it really slowly. It’s a mix of short (usually 3-5 page) essays on all sorts of topics. Many of the pieces are early, early explorations into what later turned into entire books or at least several chapters worth of material. His thought process is interesting. Lewis is such a clear thinker; I’m always amazed at how little nonsense he speaks compared to other thinkers.

At the same time, It has been a little bit jarring to read a couple of ranting essays that are rather uncharacteristic of him. Some of these were written quickly for the opinion section of the local paper. It’s actually encouraging though to see something from Lewis that isn’t that good.

To keep the blog from growing completely arthritic, I though I would post a few good excerpts from Lewis during the next week or two.

I really like this next passage as an apology for moderation in all things. You can apply this to just about everything imaginable.

The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping.  The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication.  It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens?

Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made. Apparently the world is made that way…You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.

-C.S. Lewis, First and Second Things, God in the Dock, p.280

Language Exhaustion

I can’t say I’ve often felt like the young man in this old Far Side comic. Learning can be hard work, but I always feel like my physical body breaks down into sleep or exhaustion before my mind is satiated. Neverthless, I HAVE felt my brain hurt tonight wrestling with the foreign language of my daughter.

My wife and I learned about 350 Amharic words using flashcards every day for the month preceding her arrival. About 100 of those have come in really handy in understanding her. We’ve been able to add about 20 more to the list now that she is home. Still, there are so many things she insists on saying and repeating again and again that I just can’t understand.

One problem with toddlers is that they aren’t exactly articulate – and I mean in the sense of raw phonetics. Being a bit loose on vowels and replacing an “eh” with an “ih” can suddenly make it nearly impossible to sort out in the dictionary, especially when working with the (still confusing) Ge’ez syllabic script. No, none of the dictionaries use IPA or Latin transliterations (including the online ones). In addition, verbs are conjugated with not just a suffix, but also a prefix. The result is that they sound so different than the infinitive, I often can’t pick out what’s in the middle.

Sometimes we can get her to tell us what something is by asking her “what is it?” and putting her hands on it. It’s nice to know that when she says, “Daddy, wetet chammer, dabo bakka” she mans “More milk please and I’m done with my bread”. Still, I think the word I use the most is just “eshi”, which means “OK”, or, in this case, “OK, Just keep talking little girl.”