In Memory of René Girard: The Truth about Life and Death

Many scholars have claimed that René Girard’s mimetic theory is one of the most important insights of the 20th century. But those of us who have been highly influenced by René know better. For us, it is not an overstatement to state that René’s explanation of mimetic theory is the most important discovery of human nature in the last 2,000 years. That is, since the Gospels.

This morning brought the news that René has passed away at age 91. “Girardians,” as we are called, have been on social media sharing our sorrow at his passing, but also our profound sense of gratitude for this giant among human beings. We stand on his shoulders. And our vision is all the clearer for it.

As I reflected upon the news, I was struck by the fact that René taught us so much about death. Specifically, about the scapegoat mechanism. René confronted us with the truth about being human. We all have a propensity to manage our conflicts by blaming someone else for them. We find unity against a common enemy. In good sacrificial formula, all of our conflicts and sins against one another are washed away as we unite in expelling or sacrificing our scapegoat. Temporary reconciliation and peace descends upon the community, but it is only temporary. For the expulsion or murder of our scapegoat never actually solves our problems. Our conflicts re-emerge and the scapegoating mechanism continues.

But if René taught us about death, he also taught us about life. The solution to our natural inclination toward scapegoating is found in the Judeo-Christian tradition, specifically in the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ death. “Christ agrees to die,” wrote René in his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, “so that mankind will live.”

Many progressive Christians who do not know René’s work will bristle at that statement. Indeed, without reading René’s books, it could sound like a form of penal subsitutionary atonement theory that claims Jesus allows humanity to live by saving us from the violent wrath of God.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The truth that René revealed throughout his career is that wrath doesn’t belong to God. It belongs solely to humans. In anthropological terms, what was revealed by the death of Jesus was the human scapegoat mechanism. Once you read René’s works, you realize how obvious it is that the violence at the cross had nothing to do with God, but everything to do with the human propensity to scapegoat.

Still, at this point, we should warn ourselves not to scapegoat penal substitutionary atonement theory. After all, if René taught us anything it’s that humans have been projecting our own violence onto God since the foundation of the world. We justify our violence and hatred against our scapegoats in the name of God or peace or justice or whatever we deem to be a important to our well-being.

René taught us that to truly live is to stop scapegoating our enemies, and to stop justifying it in the name of God. Once at a conference, René was asked what would happen if mimetic theory became wildly successful. He answered, “There would be no more scapegoating.”

To end scapegoating and to truly live we need to follow Jesus by turning away from violence and turning toward our neighbors, including those we call our enemies, in the spirit of love and nonviolence.

René not only taught us that truth, he lived into it. I met him once at a conference for young Girardian scholars. I was struck by the fact that René wasn’t interested in teaching us, or making sure we had his theory “right.” What he wanted more than anything was to talk with us. He wanted to learn about our lives and what interested us. He had a special humility about him – instead of taking glory for himself, he gave glory to others. For example, I remember sitting across the table from him. He smiled as he looked me in the eyes and said, “I’ve watched your Mimetic Theory 101 videos. They’re good.” That’s the way he was. He affirmed all of us and encouraged us to follow the truth, no matter where it led.

René always gave the last word to the Gospels. It’s where he found the truth about life and death. It’s only fitting that I end with this quote that sums up René’s theory about God, violence, and love,

The following is the basic text, in my opinion, that shows us a God who is alien to all violence and who wishes in consequence to see humanity abandon violence:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45, Things Hidden, 183)

May our brother René Girard rest in peace and rise in the glorious love of God.

Image: Screenshot from YouTube.

17 replies
  1. Jacques-Jude Lépine
    Jacques-Jude Lépine says:

    Thank you for sharing your insights and memories, Adam. Keep up the good work, that’s the best way to honor René

    Reply
  2. Frances Fuller
    Frances Fuller says:

    I wish I could have met him. Even more I wish I had known about his insight sooner. But thanks to The Raven Foundation for introducing his thinking to me and helping me to understand the implications. I have shared it with others and find my own work constantly influenced by it.

    Reply
  3. Jake bosch
    Jake bosch says:

    As I follow the ravenfoundation I have come to enjoy its principles and direction. But as a new kid on the block you seem to avoid the volence of God. The character of God as “other” must include this as part of his otherness. To many people have placed the period at gods violence and throw the baby out with the bath water and all teaching stops. In Hosea God does catch himself after a rant about his people’s choose ness and uses a mothers image with her child to say ” what am I doing? “. He is ready to do his people in, he is fed up with the adolescence behaviour of constant distractions. Is it Moses who chances Gods mind after the golden calf event? It sounds all to human! And perhaps it all fits if you start with the well known and primary teaching that we are made in the image. That honesty actually preserves the mystery of existence. Is that not the boundary that we need to come to each and every day. Yes I am violent in one hundred and one ways each day. The worse thing I can do is to use God as a scapegoat. But to finish with my rant is to come to the wonder of God and claim the story of the gentile Naaman as my own with two bags of dirt and the permission to go into the temple with my secular friend is to meet the contradictions head on and be healed of my leprocy by grace as a wonder and a profound mystery. Is that not the layer of existence that is missing to meet God at the crossroads of His holiness that inspires my honesty and discover the rest of a down to earth jubilee? Does mimetic theory include the voience of God? What is the Hebrew prophet all about if it is not about coming to the boundary of complete loss of human/divine honesty and out of that emptiness and humility to receive the freshness of grace today? Is it not like having your daily bread and passing the waste of misunderstanding and lost hope each day and coming to the honesty that I am violent but resisting to place the period there? Gods volence is not the last word and thank God it is not mine.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Hi Jake! Thanks for the comment. It’s always good to struggle with these concepts and I am grateful that you allow me to do that. You hit upon something that is so important, and that is the “otherness” of God. In Girardian terms, and James Alison does a great job of picking this up too, God’s otherness from human beings is the fact that God isn’t violence. Violence belongs to humans. Jesus reveals that God is completely other and outside of the human economy of violence. If God were violence, God wouldn’t be other. Instead, God would be just like us – full of violence. But in Jesus we find that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all, as 1 John states.

      It’s true that we were made in the image of God, and in the Genesis creation story, there is no violence within God. The other ancient myths of the world all have the gods killing other gods in order to create the world, but the ancient Hebrews told the creation story differently – with a nonviolent God creating the world. That’s the image of God we were created in. But then we became violent with one another and projected that all too human violence upon God.

      As Christians, if we want to know who God is, and this I think is what Rene is pointing us toward with the quote I used to conclude, then we must look to Christ. Christ is the revelation of what it means to be fully God and fully human. Jesus never killed, never harmed any person. He stood up to oppressive systems and he healed those who were sick and he included those who were excluded. Jesus went to the cross to show us that God would rather take violence upon God’s self than to violently defend himself. God would rather forgive than to condemn. I would say that God’s violence doesn’t have the last word because God’s word is always one of love and forgiveness.

      Grace and peace,
      Adam

      Reply
      • Jake bosch
        Jake bosch says:

        Adam
        Thank you ! Please tell me if Rene deals with the violence of God? You say that the otherness of God is that he is not violent. Are you not ignoring the Hebrew text in respect to violence? I to enjoy the texts that you quote but the text does include the violence. For example ” the lord is a man of war ” and that is mild. Have you heard what Mendelssohn did with that text to music? Does mimetic theory deal with gods violence? Does it handle the contradiction of violence and love that issues from the one God. In other words does the theory teach in all honesty and ask ” is that even possible? ” that is what I mean by otherness. Only in the otherness of God is this possibe. Please talk to me about the apparent paradox because intuitively it is alive and well as coming from one source but academically cannot be reconciled.

        Reply
  4. Cliff Jones
    Cliff Jones says:

    Dear Suzanne and Adam.
    This is truly a sad day
    . I am thinking of you both at the moment. I have never posted on this site, but have appreciated your vison and work over recent years. Adam, I remember those early videos that Rene mentioned. Back when an online search for anything related to Rene’s mimetic theory online was scarce. Thank you for persevering over the years through raising a family and career changes and forming the Raven Foundation with Suzanne. A big Thank you to both of you and your loved ones who support you in the background.
    I still remember listening to the CBC documentary on Rene Girard as I drove in my car one night 15 years ago and having to pull over to the side of the road as the significance of what I was hearing hit me.
    Take care fellow Girardians

    Cliff

    Reply
  5. Carolyn
    Carolyn says:

    Just purchased on of Girard’s books to read.
    The description here is very interesting.
    I’m no theologian and no intellectual, but I always thought of the Crucifixion as God’s identification with the suffering of creation, an At-One-Ness with us in all things especially suffering.
    I don’t think that is incompatible with the mimetic and scapegoating aspects of human psychology, but will leave it to better thinkers than I to figure out how it ties together.

    Reply

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