How did it all begin?
That question haunts philosophers, scientists, theologians and, well, all of us — whether “it” means the universe, humankind or Western civilization.
No single answer satisfies, of course; each attempt at an explanation butts up against the intractable wall of finitude that limits our vision and reason.
Rene Girard remains unbowed, however. One of the most original, provocative and controversial thinkers of the 21st century, he answers the “how” question with a theory that addresses the origins of the human condition, the birth of culture and religion, and the superiority of Christianity to archaic (and violent) mythology.
As with all revolutionary thinkers, Girard faces the prospect that the popular imagination will take decades to fully catch up to the myriad implications of his “mimetic theory.”
Part of the difficulty lies in his cosmopolitanism. Born in France, he lives in California, where he retired from Stanford University in 1995. Best known for his groundbreaking study “Violence and the Sacred,” he garners most of his attention from German-speaking critics, who love to (wrongly) accuse him of promoting a culture of violence.
Wolfgang Palaver, professor of Catholic Social Thought at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, sets out to correct those critics with a systematic, exhaustive (albeit mildly repetitive) analysis and defense of Girard’s worldview.
Palaver’s impeccable examination of the vast scope of Girard’s oeuvre — including works still unpublished in English — makes this volume the definitive introduction to a thinker who proves indispensable to our self-understanding.
Palaver’s task was far from easy, though, considering that Girard’s formidable intellect ranges across the fields of literary criticism, comparative religion, anthropology, philosophy, psychology and New Testament studies.
But Girard has coalesced much of his thinking into three overriding themes: mimetic rivalry, violence against a scapegoat (and the mythology that justifies it), and the Christian alternative to such violence.
The first is by far the most radical concept — mimetic desire. Instead of seeking a type of romantic autonomy and authenticity for our modern selves, Girard argues, the genesis of our identity springs from mimicking the desires of others, who in turn desire the apparent superiority of a model human being or a god.
“The principal source of violence between human beings is mimetic rivalry, the rivalry resulting from imitation of a model who becomes a rival or of a rival who becomes a model,” he writes.
When mimetic desire shifts inward, as it inevitably does in Western civilization, it threatens the social fabric, especially the cohesion of family relationships.
According to Girard, the chief way that archaic societies dealt with such conflict was to invent a religion and mythology based on the scapegoat — pitting the group against one member deemed responsible for the crisis. Death or exile awaited the unlucky victim.
Girard later shows how the New Testament and Christianity repudiate and supplant this archaic mechanism by defending the innocent victim, and advocating nonviolent resolutions to social conflicts.
If nothing else, Girard’s mimetic theory of the origin of human culture demonstrates that an adequate description of our self-understanding requires religious language and metaphor. The transcendent cannot be jettisoned so easily.
And as more of Girard’s work becomes available in English, we can relish the opportunity to cultivate his fertile fields of learning. In them grow the seeds of an answer to how it all began.