It has been a few weeks since the passing of French anthropologist René Girard and I am just now sitting down to write my tribute. To be honest, I simply did not know what to put in writing. Other Girardians seemed able to get something out quickly while I was left processing at a painfully slow pace. But, now I feel ready to say what I would like to say.
So, here it goes . . .
The motivation to write something about the father of mimetic theory came abruptly last Saturday in Palo Alto, California, the city where René’s funeral was held. I made the three hour drive from my home by myself, so it gave me time to reflect on just how important Girard’s contributions to humanity are. When I arrived at the gorgeous Catholic church, I was met by my good friends Michael and Lorri Hardin and together, we witnessed a touching service for the late, great theorist.
After the event, I was invited to head back to René and his wife Martha’s private home at Stanford University. To be frank: it was an extremely surreal experience. Here I am—having never met René but having been so greatly impacted both intellectually and personally—standing in his very bedroom. I perused through his immense library and could barely speak. When I did, it was sparse.
Dinner was next and I was graciously invited to that event as well. It was at one of those restaurants where the prices are left off the menu so you know it’s going to be fantastic. And it did not disappoint. Throughout the night, the Hardins and I spent the evening chatting with some of René’s grandchildren, which was quite touching. We heard stories about who René was as a person; his humility, approachableness, and gentle nature, none of which was a surprise. All in all, it truly was a once in a lifetime experience, as bittersweet as it inevitably was.
Now, I would like to personally explain why René Girard and mimetic theory is so important to me. If I think back just half a decade, I easily recall a Matthew Distefano who was riding the fence of agnosticism. I deconstructed my conservative theology so much so that my house became void of any furniture, so to speak. It was an uncomfortable time for me to say the least. In comes mimetic theory and, as the French would say, voilà! Like Neo in The Matrix, down went the red pill.
Personally, the thing about mimetic theory is that, once I “got it,” the Gospel account then made so much sense. It ends up truly being “good news.” And because it explains human culture and religion so thoroughly, it actually helped the Bible—you know, even those cringe-inducing parts—finally make sense. After years of having a love/hate relationship with the good book, that was a welcomed relief!
Frankly, that was my major issue, even as a (struggling) conservative Christian. I could not, in good conscience, call the God of the Bible, as he was explained to me from a “plain” reading of scripture, good. Regardless of the various ways in which he was described, nothing worked. So when I almost salvifically discovered the work of Girard, my mind immediately became satisfied. Since that discovery—which, if I correctly recall, has been roughly three years—I’ve only delved deeper into the theory, which has in turn deepened my conviction that the theory is indeed correct. My mind has only wanted more. But it has not just been about the mind. There is a “heart” element to of all this too.
For me, it was the mind first, then the heart.
That is why I say René Girard has impacted me not only intellectually, but personally. Once things “made sense,” my heart has only been filled with the joy of that revelation. And so, I’ve discovered a whole new side of myself—a more forgiving side. I can’t help but look at others drastically different than I used to. I can no longer ignorantly scapegoat them for now I should full well know better. It has really been enlightening and actually quite healing because I could finally repent of the correct things.
For that, I must say: “Thank you, René Girard!”
I am not exaggerating this when I say that, in retrospect, I predict that René Girard will one day be viewed as one of the most important figures in human history. His work is that important! To be accepted and understood by the masses, if my personal transformation is worth anything, could have profound implications. To find the cure to any problem, one must first understand the underlying cause. René Girard has done humanity a great service in helping us understand the root cause of some of our greatest problems, those that could even have the potential to threaten humanity itself.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut, now is as good a time as any for mimetic theory to be understood by more people. I believe the greatest way we can both honor René Girard and move toward discovering peace in our lifetime, is to spread his work like wildfire. The torch has been passed and so my hope and prayer is that, in community with one another, we carry on and even expand on the work he devoted much of his life to.
Rest in peace, René, and enjoy the comfort and rest in the arms of Papa. Until I join you, I offer thanks and gratitude, and stand in solidarity with all those who yearn for peace.
-Matthew J. Distefano
Image: Screen shot from Youtube. René Girard on Peter’s Denial by Steve Berry.