In 1968, Malcolm Muggeridge resigned in protest as Rector of Edinburgh University because of the university’s relaxation of its policy on drug use by students. His resignation speech – delivered from the pulpit of St Giles Catherdral in a service marking the beginning of the university term in January 1968 – includes the following:
“Speaking for myself there is practically nothing that you could do in a mood of rebellion against our impoverished way of life for which I should not feel some degree of sympathy. But how infinitely sad, how macabre that the form of your rebellion should be a demand for drugs, for the most tenth-rate sort of self-indulgence ever known in history. All is prepared for a release of new life. We await great works of art, the spirit of adventure and courage, and what do we get from you? Self-centered folly. You are on a crazy slope. For myself, I always come back to the King, to Jesus, to the Christian notion that all our efforts to make ourselves happy will fail, but that sacrifice for others will never fail. A man must become a new man, or he is no man. Or so at least I have concluded, having failed to find in past experience and present dilemmas any alternative proposition. As far as I am concerned, it is Christ or nothing. Goodbye and God bless you.”
Listening to a symposium on social media and the 1st Amendment hosted by Georgetown University and the Knight First Amendment Institute I heard the above permutation of the ‘Golden Rule’. The entire hour and forty minute panel discussion was interesting but a short part of it near the end caught my attention. One of the panelists, Sarah Jeong of the New York Times, in describing the problems that social media companies encounter in trying to filter out prohibited ‘speech’ made the following observation:
There is something at the foundation of these companies that is quite poisonous, something that feeds off how much human beings love to hate each other. And limiting that instinct instead of promoting it, I think there is a tech solution in that sense. That said, I don’t know, there are bigger political, geopolitical things going on that I think we are all really afraid to talk about, and we would much rather talk about the tech stuff.
What could the “bigger political, geopolitical things” be that we are afraid to talk about?
Sin and human nature.
As the excerpt linked to above shows, Ms. Jeong’s comment was immediately responded to by another panelist with a reflection on the noble and benign intentions at the inception of what has become our digital wasteland that may be viewed as a bizarre and vain attempt at ‘whistling past the graveyard’.
Besides both subsuming and bursting ‘political/geopolitical’ concepts, it is likely such ideas would be unfamiliar to the panelists. However, as long as we avert our eyes from our fallen nature we will continue to be baffled by the perversity of human behavior and bedeviled by its pernicious and protean manifestations. Seeking technological solutions to spiritual problems may mitigate some aspects of human sinfulness but only the grace of confession and repentance available through Christ and his church will lead us out of the tangled webs we have woven. For our modern progressives, like those on the panel, sin and its entrenched place in the human heart is alien and retrograde.
Would that the heads of Silicon Valley social media companies, in lincolnesque fashion, publicly confess their complicity in abetting the darkest instincts of our nature. Where are our Prophets calling them out? Here is something that comes close…
You wanna talk to me, you got many things to say. You want the spirit to be speaking through, but your lust for comfort get in the way. I can read it in your eyes, oh, what your Heart will not reveal. And that old evil burden has been draggin’ you down, bound to grind you ‘neath the wheel. Yonder comes sin.
(Walkin’ like a man, talkin’ like an angel) Yonder comes sin. (Proud like a peacock, swift like an eagle) Look at your feet, see where they’ve been to. Look at your hands, see what they been into. Can’t you take it on the chin? Yonder comes sin.
You see this woman standin’ next to me? She’s foreign to your sight. Well, her eyes may be a different color than mine, but her blood is red and her bones are white. You’ve been seeking them eternal, spiritual things, but your fifty-dollar smile confirms You’re still tryin’ to buy your way into the dreams of them Whose bodies will be food for worms. Yonder comes sin.
(Ready and steady, willing and able) Yonder comes sin. (Standin’ on the chair, standin’ on the table) Look at your feet, see where they’ve been to Look at your hands, see what they’ve been into. Can’t you take it on the chin? Yonder comes sin.
I say: See them six wild horses, honey. You say: I don’t even see one. You say: Point them out to me, love. I say: Honey I got to run My brother’s blood is crying from the grave but you can’t hear the voice. I stand in jeopardy every hour, Wonderin’ what reason you have to rejoice. Yonder comes sin.
(Down on your knees, down into the ditches) Yonder comes sin. (Vomiting up jewels, vomiting up riches) Look at your feet see where they’ve been to. Look at your hands, see what they’ve been into. Enough to put you to tail-spin. Yonder comes sin.
Jeremiah preached repentance To those that would turn from hell. But the critics all gave him such bad reviews Put him down at the bottom of a well kept on talking, anyway. As the people were put into chains Wasn’t nobody there to say “Bon voyage” or shatter any bottles of champagne. Yonder comes sin
(Cracking that whip, just like a feather) Yonder comes sin. (Put a knife in your back while talking about the weather) Look at your feet see where they’ve been to. Look at your hands, see what they’ve been into. Can you take it on the chin. Yonder comes sin
High cost of survival Gets a little higher than you expect. When you’re trying to get along with your enemies And still maintain your self-respect. As a child you knew all there was to know It just couldn’t get expressed. Now it scares me to see what you accept as good. At one you wouldn’t have settled for less than the best. Yonder comes sin.
(Way down deep and dirty, not a day under thirty) Yonder comes sin. (Tasting like peaches, hanging on like leaches) Look at your feet see where they’ve been to. Look at your hands, see what they’ve been into. So masculine, so feminine. Yonder comes sin.
You turn your back on the hard truth Just to fatten up your purse. Sings of an unrighteous world Dare the same thing as a curse. No kingdom made of human hands can stand. Too bad about MacBeth. In order to possess that corruptible crown Gotta make a deal with Mr Death. Yonder comes sin.
(Can you comprehend it, can you understand it) Yonder comes sin. (It rules the airways, it rules the planet) Look at your feet see where they’ve been to. Look at your hands, see what they’ve been into. Take off that sheepish grin. Yonder comes sin
There’s a place down in your soul Where the law can never touch. You do most likely what you please And not think about too much. I’ll be down the line when morning comes. And that I pulled the hood up for you So that you could see real good your uninvited guest. Yonder comes sin.
(It’s a pleasure to meet ya, nice to have known ya) Yonder comes sin. (It wants to kill you, it wants to own you) Look at your feet see where they’ve been to. Look at your hands, see what they’ve been into. Being pulled in all directions by the wind. Yonder comes sin.
– Bob Dylan
(Like many old gospel songs this was based on a secular tune – Ma Rainey’s Yonder Comes the Blues)
At one point, [Orson] Welles – speaking as the elusive crook Harry Lime – proclaims:
“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed – they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
(this was initially posted on our old blog site on September 11, 2006)
My father was killed in the Battle of the Bulge on January 7, 1945 a few months after I was born. I have not been particularly preoccupied with the details of that utterly senseless slaughter, though some years ago I was able to visit with the people with whom my father and his fellow soldiers spent the Christmas of 1944. My visit just happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Europe, and there was considerable attention given to the closing days of World War II at the time. I was received by the local farmers as a hero, as they bestowed on me the gratitude they felt for the sacrifices made by Americans on their behalf.
At no time during my visits with the Belgian farmers, or in what I saw and heard on the various BBC programs dealing with the liberation of Europe, do I recall the word “tragedy” being used. Was it a tragedy that 19,000 Americans lost their lives in a battle that had no chance of changing the outcome of the war? Well, at one level, yes. But the word “tragedy” might best be reserved for things like hurricane Katrina. Tragedies happen. When tanks roll and cannons fire and machine guns blaze and bombs fall, it’s because the decision has been made for those things to happen.
As we commemorate the fifth anniversary of the mass murder that occurred on September 11, 2001, I have already heard the word “tragedy” used several times. No one can deny that the events of that day were terribly tragic for the families and friends of those who died in the attack, just as my father’s death in a German bombing raid was a terrible tragedy for my mother. Use of the word tragedy, however, can reinforce an already prevalent tendency to ignore the fact that those who died in lower Manhattan five years ago were killed by mass murderers, and their deaths were jubilantly celebrated by dancing in the streets in the Muslim world.
CNN’s chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour recently spoke with Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit. Scheuer told her that he had learned that Osama bin Laden has recently been given permission by a cleric in Saudi Arabia to use nuclear weapons against the United States, “capping the casualties at 10 million.” The dumbfounded Amanpour asked Scheuer: “He’s had a approval, a religious approval for 10 million deaths?” “Yes,” Scheuer told her.
We have every reason to vigorously debate the morality of this or that domestic law or policy, on one hand, or this or that foreign policy or military adventure of our nation or any other nation, on the other. We needn’t agree with the policies of our own or any other government; it goes without saying that many will strongly disagree. It would be a very dangerous world if it were ever to be otherwise. That said, however, there is a world of difference between policies aimed at preserving and protecting a society – however misguided these policies might conceivably be – and policies that are explicitly and unapologetically murderous and genocidal.
We may disagree sharply on how to respond to the new forms of genocide that have emerged in our day. The actions of the U.S. and of other Western nations and institutions may at times be unconscionable, and vigilance is the watchword. It is not out of the question that, as in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the West might commit appalling atrocities in its attempt to prevent the atrocities the jihadist are now planning and committing. The powerful mimetic dynamic that operates in such conflict is terribly dangerous and not to be overlooked. But to imagine that a moral equivalence exists today between the West and the jihadists is to forsake reality and renounce the only moral progress for which we can legitimately hope.
What we must never forget, of course, is that we are all God’s children; none of us is immune to the seductions that lead to hatred and violence. But awareness of our moral predicament and the fallibility of our judgment does not absolve us of our responsibility to protect the innocent as best we can from those maddened by racial hatred and pathological forms of religious zealotry. The more clearly we recognize the threats from which we must try to protect the innocent, the more reason we have to remember St. Paul’s reminder that it is not against flesh and blood that we struggle, but rather against spiritual forces to which we ourselves are never immune. That those who have fallen under the influence of these forces are brothers and sisters of ours does not mean that we should not repel them as best we can and prevent the damage they will otherwise cause, but it does mean that we must not loose sight of their humanity and our kinship with them.
For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. (Ephesians 6: 12-15)
Christians and Jews understand that history will all too often be the arena of crushed hopes and broken hearts. Knowing that, however, is the precondition for recognizing one of the greatest gifts of Christian faith, namely, the sure knowledge that where sin abounds, grace super-abounds, and that none of the suffering in history is meaningless, however inaccessible that meaning might be to those in the midst of the suffering. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That such cries are heard by a loving and all-caring God, a God who will in the end wipe away every tear, is the bedrock of Christian hope.
To those who struggled up the stairwell of the North and South towers of the World Trade Center with fire-fighting equipment, and to those, like my father, against whom Hitler’s last mad murderousness spent itself, the world owes its respect and gratitude. In neither case did they die in a tragedy. They died rather in a struggle to preserve civilization and protect the innocent from the barbarians threatening them. We have not seen the last of such things, and we have almost certainly not seen the worst of them. If we are to face today’s historical exigencies responsibly, we will need to summon an uncommon measure of faith and fortitude.
Archeologists in Peru have discovered 227 bodies of children sacrificed by the pre-Columbian Chimu culture to appease the gods of wet weather – the El Niño. “Wherever you dig, there’s another one,” the chief archeologist Feren Castillo said.
We would never sacrifice children because of changes in the weather. Admittedly some of those most alarmed about “climate change” choose not to have children. That’s foolish and sad, but it’s not savage.
On the other hand, what will future historians have to say about a culture that kills between 2000 and 3000 children EACH DAY in THIS COUNTRY ALONE? These historians will know what everyone who watches the first few minutes of Unplanned discovers: the unspeakable truth about the abortion industry, all to appease the gods of sexual license and convenience.
In historical retrospect, the movie Unplanned may be seen as having done for the central moral and civil rights issue of our age what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did in exposing the horrors of slavery in the mid-nineteenth century and what Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail did for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
Despite all the political realignment over the last 50 years, it may not be entirely coincidental that each of these three instances of exploitation of the powerless by the powerful was staunchly defended by the Democratic party.
Unplanned is not easy to watch, but that’s the point: almost a million babies a year brutally killed by medical professionals. God help us. This movie just might be the moment when the comforting euphemisms fall away and we recognize what we have allowed to happen. The first five minutes of the film will change even the fiercest champion of abortion, which is why the abortion lobby and its powerful friends are doing everything they can to keep people from seeing it.
This is the last of Gil Bailie’s Reflections on the works of William Shakespeare – and appropriately The Tempest was the Bard’s final play.
All those who have signed up for our episodic email newsletters (4 or 5 times a year) are receiving with this month’s emailed newsletter complimentary downloadable MP3 audio files for the 3 part series on The Tempest. If you would like to keep up with the goings on of the Cornerstone Forum and also receive an occasional free MP3 or discounts on items from our store please sign up for our newsletter below.
Coming in the Fall will be Gil Bailie’s reflections on the works of TS Eliot including a series on some of Eliot’s early poems The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Geroniton, and Sweeney Among the Nightingales. Later this year we plan to add The Waste Land, and then in the new year The Hollow Men, Ash Wednesday, and Murder in the Cathedral.
Culture: The Canary in the Gemeinschaft
by Gil Bailie
The following is reprised from a blog posting originally made in September 2006. We believe its relevance to our contemporary situation makes it worth re-posting. The impetus for this came out of discussions at the Friday afternoon Girard seminars held episodically on the campus of Stanford University from the late 1980s to 2010.
In a lengthy article in the current issue of The Weekly Standard, Ralph Peters touches on one of the issues I raised at the last Girard seminar at Stanford and alluded to in the last Cornerstone Forum Newsletter. The issue is the erasure of cultural difference that accompanies today’s globalization and what the likely consequences of that erasure might be. Peters says some very pertinent things, for instance, that “there is a worldwide vacuum of purpose that the glittering trinkets of globalization cannot fill,” and: “The conviction that a new man freed of archaic identities and primitive loyalties can be created by human contrivance is an old illusion.” This illusion, having been entertained altogether too naively by the globalizing elites, is now collapsing into new forms of tribalism, which Peters conflates with magic or magical thinking, something he feels is likely to neither disappear nor be understood by the elites who convinced themselves that it would.
There is much merit to the argument Peters is making. It is a specification of the longstanding realization that humans are inherently religious beings, the default position on human religiosity being the primordial forms, from which biblical thought generally and the Christian revelation specifically exist to liberate us. There is a good deal of liberation from these primitive forms of the sacred yet to be done, and, even where the biblical and Christian leaven has been long at work, there remain vestiges of archaic religiosity which, under the pressure of social dislocations, are capable of revival and resurgence. One of the circumstances which favors the revival of these vestiges is the attenuation of a palpable sense of “we-ness,” a sense of social and religious belonging, and it is precisely this loss of social identity that has accompanied the globalization of the last few decades.
The mere fact that people exist “side by side, imprisoned on the same earth’s surface,” Hans Urs von Balthasar insists, does not constitute a viable community, and, if left with no bonds other than that, the soul will eventually rebel, seeking more palpable, visceral, and meaningful forms of communion. The impulse to retrieve such a communion can easily and quite naturally become retrogressive. A healthy sense of communio, von Balthasar argues, will be the precondition for all kinds of lively interactions, arguments, disagreements, and so on, the social container for a give-and-take, not an enforced sameness, which is what is currently being fostered by the globalizing elites wherever they have attained the power to do so.
Contrary to the anthropological naïveté of the social engineers, true community is not a social-contract arrangement. One’s family, or village, or nation are given. As Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it:
Those who are in “communion,” … do not enter into such a social relationship solely on their own initiative, each of his own private accord, determining its scope by the stipulations they make when they establish it. They are already in it from the start, already mutually dependent a priori, as a matter of course, not only to live together and contrive to get on with one another in the same domain, but also to carry out a common activity. … Otherwise, “L’enfer, c’est les autres” – “Hell is other people.”
There is, Ralph Peters argues, widespread “popular discontent with pseudo-identities concocted by political elites.” Globalization, he writes, “enthralls and binds together a new aristocracy – the golden crust on the human loaf – but the remaining billions, who lack the culture and confidence to benefit from ‘one world,’ have begun to erect barricades against the internationalization of their affairs.” We are, he writes, “witnessing the return of the tribes – a global phenomenon, but the antithesis of globalization as described in pop bestsellers. The twin tribal identities, ethnic and religious brotherhood, are once again armed and dangerous.”
However much we might wish it were otherwise, it is nonetheless true that we humans love one another with different levels of intensity and commitment. Cultural realism requires us to recognize this fact. It’s like the law of gravity; ignoring it will not make it go away. Whatever subtle presuppositions might be operating in utopian forms of egalitarianism or meritocracy, the truth is that one always tends to love one’s spouse and one’s children better than one loves others. As Christians, we can and should try to compensate for this natural affective asymmetry, but the first thing one must do in order to compensate for it is to recognize its existence. Of course, most of us recognize the domestic version of it, but we may not realize that the family is simply the inner core of a series of concentric circles of particular affection which quite naturally exist. Extended families, clans, ethnicities, nationalities, religious affinities, and so on and so forth; these things are the bonds that bind us, fostering the social intimacies that make us human. Accepting them and appreciating them is not a synonym for xenophobia. Someone secure in his or her matrix of relationships will meet those embedded in unfamiliar cultural matrices with a good deal more openness than will those floating in a sea of social undifferentiation. If and when these bonds become too attenuated, a hunger for them is aroused which eventually may seek satisfaction by reviving archaic forms of it by way of hatred and violence.
What Peters means by “magic” is more or less what René Girard means by the sacred, using the word with an anthropological, not pious, connotation. To distinguish these contexts, Girard often uses the phrase “the primitive sacred” to refer to the combination of superstition, violence, and ritual upon which archaic societies (past and present) depended for the maintenance of social solidarity and political order. Whether it begins with the southern European Renaissance or its northern variant, the Reformation, the process we now call secularization has been underway for centuries. It was driven by Christian desacralization which it misunderstood and misappropriated. Now that that process has run its course, what is becoming clear is something I’ve been harping on for years: the secular is not a sustainable alternative to the (primitive) sacred. If those are the only two alternatives on offer, a top-down choice in favor of the secular will serve simply as the prelude to a bottom-up demand for the sacred, the ferocity of which will be a measure of secularism’s anthropological naïveté.
It is with this as historical backdrop that we can and must rediscover the absolutely unique anthropological significance of Christian sacramentality. For the true alternative to the (primitive) sacred is the distinctive form of sacramentality which it has been the historical privilege of catholic Christianity to awaken in believers and propose to the world. One is tempted to put it emphatically: Ultimately, the only alternative to magic is the Eucharist.
Again, Hans Urs von Balthasar:
The reality of Jesus’ eucharistic self-communication at his Last Supper and in the communion of those who take part in the meal which is established – not in any case magical, but sacramentally objective and inseparably constituting both communion with God in Christ and communion with one another (1 Cor 10:16ff); this opens out a possibility of living for others which exceeds purely human capacity because it is a sharing in Christ’s vicarious suffering for the Church (and thereby for all men) (Col 1:24), involving sharing a common lot with the Lord …
What is today becoming clear, and what Ralph Peters has seen through a glass darkly, is that the secular is a brief interregnum which will dissolve in due course into a religious revival, the only outstanding question is: around which religious tradition will that revival occur?
Neither ideological secularism nor the ferocious revivals of the sacred that recoil from its banality and vulgarity are capable of inspiring the spiritual and cultural revitalization that our present situation demands. The alternative to the contemporary secular wasteland is not the intoxication and fanaticism of sacred violence but the sacramental forms of religious self-donation that it has been the distinctive historical privilege of Christianity to foster.
Christian anthropology – based on the revelation of Christ and the philosophical insights which that revelation awakened – insists that grace perfects nature. What isn’t apparent until the grace-nature connection is widely abandoned is that not only does grace perfect nature, but grace rescues nature from the gnostic and antinomian corruptions to which it otherwise falls prey – as the developments of the last few decades have shown. The nihilism (the moral nothingness) arising all around us is the anthropological confirmation of Christ’s warning: “Without me, you can do nothing.”
Every effort to rectify this situation that fails to reckon with the revelation of Christ is doomed. Paganism had its virtues, but once exposed to the biblical – and especially the Christian – revelation, every attempt to fashion a post-Christian culture will lead to disaster. We are currently in the midst of one.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, quoting and commenting on observations of the French novelist George Bernanos:
“The thing we still call ‘civilization’ has outstripped every form of barbarism in accomplishing works of destruction. It now threatens to destroy, not only the works of man, but man himself. It is capable of modifying man’s nature profoundly, not by enhancing it, of course, but by mutilating it.” In such a world, the Christian begins to run out of air to breathe and space to move around in. We may even say that this is the goal of a deliberate development: “The main thing is to make the experiment irreversible as quickly as possible by destroying all traces of Christian man. The world of tomorrow must be made as uninhabitable for the Christian as the world of the Ice Age was for the mammoth.”
Bleary eyed after 24 hours of travel from Austria to San Francisco the accumulated work of two weeks away from the Cornerstone Forum office awaits me. Before I dig into the pile of paper, emails, and related chores I would like to reflect on the conference that ended last week and on a prior COV&R conference from sixteen years ago, also held at Innsbruck.
The theme of this year’s meeting, “Imagining the Other: Theo-Political Challenges in an Age of Migration” highlighted the on going issues facing many countries in Europe and the Americas where large numbers of people from the middle-East, Africa, and also Mexico, Central and South America are moving. There were at least 56 individual presentations including plenary and break-out sessions at this year’s conference. Emphasis on the scapegoating behaviors of some of the countries receiving large numbers of immigrants was prominent in the presentations, as would be expected in a Girardian setting such as this. Also in evidence was a propensity to ‘scapegoat the scapegoaters’ or in at least one instance to make the purported scapegoating behavior appear other than it was in fact, as when in a presentation the 2009 conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) poster of the Swiss flag covered in menacing bayonet like minarets was said to be an example of the Islamophobic scapegoating of immigrants, when in fact it was a faithful representation of Turkey’s president Erdogan’s perspective in 1997, where he quotes an early 20th century Turkish nationalist, saying, “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our army.” It was therefore reasonable that some within Switzerland felt threatened by the growing presence of mosques in their towns. When this was pointed out to the presenter there was just silence…no explanation, apology for the oversight or appreciation for the correction.
One of the ironies of viewing any concerns about the influence of Islamic immigrants as scapegoating came during the final event of the conference at the magnificent (if overwhelming, to me at least) baroque Stams Stiftsbasilikia where we attended a wonderful and inspiring concert by the Regensberger Domspatzen. It was at this place in 1497 that representatives of the Ottoman Turks signed a peace treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. In the museum at the site this historic event and its consequences was described for visitors, concluding with this:
A lasting peace with the Ottoman Empire was not for long, as the later events (Battle of Mohacs 1526 and the first Siege of Vienna 1529) after the death of Maximilian showed.
The truth of any current or historic situation is complex. Any one observer will surely miss some aspects of the event. Mimetic Theory, as the name implies, understands mimetic desire as the source of conflicts resolved in scapegoating mechanisms. It is a tool enabling us to understand human actions, especially in the collective, describing the myths, rituals, and prohibitions that come out of the conflicts and violence inherent in our species and which help mitigate their destructive effects in the form of religion. And as a tool it is only useful if it ‘works’, if it helps us understand reality,…if it is true.
Below is a poem by Richard Wilbur that deals with our epistemic challenge, or how we often run into difficulties when reality does not conform to our beliefs…and following that a report Gil Bailie gave on the COV&R conference in 2003 also held at Innsbruck, including recorded remarks by René Girard on the importance of truth.
Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.
We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.’
by Richard Wilbur
An introduction by Gil Bailie: June 22, 2003, Innsbruck, Austria:
I am writing from Innsbruck, Austria where the Colloquium on Violence and Religion has just concluded its 2003 annual conference. The conference was a rich one, with more than 70 papers delivered. The discussions both formal and informal were wonderful. It was only at the very end of the conference that an issue arose that seems to arise everywhere these days where serious attention is paid to the Gospel and its cultural consequences. In so many places today, pluralism is besieged by people who ardently feel they are defending pluralism. In fact, pluralism is being redefined as the value to which all other values must defer. But in the topsy-turvy world of postmodern thinking, it is precisely postmodernity’s supreme principle of pluralism which cannot be exported to other cultures without violating the multicultural premises upon which it is currently based.
One needs to be reminded that pluralism is not a “truth,” rather it is the social arrangement most suitable to the charitable quest for truth. When and where a doctrinal pluralism censures that quest, it becomes — like so many other late-modern and post-modern “good intentions” — a parody of itself. I say this, all too quickly no doubt (I am pressed for time in these last few hours in Austria), in order to introduce a few remarks that René Girard made at a panel discussion at the end of our conference. I am putting a streaming audio player of the recording below where you can listen to René’s remarks, as well as a transcription.
One of the panelists expressed discomfort with the distinction Girard has always made between “myth” and “revelation,” suggesting that by privileging “truth” Girard and Christians generally set up a conflict with those who might not affirm that truth, thereby contributing to the very violence which they purport to be resisting. René’s interlocutor said that “The message of the market has become the market of the messages,” implying that the free flow of this information-age exchange would be jeopardized by attempts to privilege any one message the way Christians privilege the Gospel and insist on its universality and uniqueness, and the way Girard privileges the mimetic theory as both the product of the Gospel revelation and, in turn, its best anthropological explicator.
René responded with remarks that lasted slightly over four minutes. The recording I was able to get of his response is not of the very highest quality, but I think you will find its mediocre audio quality a small price to pay for the profound but perfectly simple and obvious truth to which he calls our attention.
“You know I find this debate very interesting on a certain level, but unconnected at all with the mimetic theory at other levels To put, in a way, all these messages more or less on the same level without asking the question of truth and falsity is the basis of our entire culture today. So, there the mimetic theory is totally misunderstood in the sense that the mimetic theory is entirely about the question of truth or falsity. Therefore, it has to disregard, in a certain way, the question of whether it’s going to cause controversy or not. I think one has to take a scapegoat example which would be modern enough to still be meaningful to us in terms of being for or even against injustice, and in those cases I always take the Dreyfus case.
“In the Dreyfus case you can see that the anti-Dreyfus theory which triumphed in France for years supported by the government and so forth was a perfect myth in the sense that there was a victim who everybody thought was guilty and who in reality was innocent. The first people who said that this victim was innocent suffered for it in the same sense we might say that the prophets suffered for the truth, Christ suffered for the truth. In the Dreyfus vision of mythology is the exact counterpart of the anti-Dreyfus…they resemble each other extremely. But there is one little difference the importance of which we don’t see in the case of religion and we see very well in the case of Dreyfus. Was the victim really innocent? Did he deserve to be punished or not? The only question is that. Oedipus is supposed to be guilty… this is a myth. Judaism and Christianity always call myths lies and they are right! And Judaism and Christianity say that the opposite, the vindication of the victim, is true, period. Nothing else matters. And that’s all. See what I mean? If you get away from that you’re off course. We are all trying to get along on avoiding the question of truth, and in a way it is very understandable and it’s still the philosophical way. We should avoid talking about religious violence; you know– the Platonic way. We are all for it because our instinct tells us, in a way, it is the only way you can have peace today. But I think at the same time it’s false in the sense that the account of the passion, if you read it, is exactly the truth of these myths which these myths do not give you. I think there is one man who understood this Christological sense, paradoxical, of the Dreyfus case and his name is Charles Peguy and he saw it as a Christological affair, which is very mysterious to a lot of people ? ‘vindication of that Jew’ and so on ‘should we be anti-Semitic?’, ‘we’d be better Christians‘ and so forth….no, only the truth counts. This is it.
“Either the mimetic theory has nothing to do with what I have just said, in that case its pure bunk, and has no interest whatever, or it has something to do with it. And of course, I think it has a lot to do with it, that it is really the same thing.”
The Colloquium on Violence and Religion’s 2019 conference is winding up what seems to have recently become its annual attempt to distance itself from René Girard’s Christian and Catholic sensibilities.
That this is done in the name of Girard’s understanding of the role of scapegoating violence in the human cultural enterprise is not surprising as most of the participants come from academic institutions where the heritage of the (Judeo-Christian) West with its colonialist past of enslaving and expropriating peoples and lands of the non-western world is not just studied but recounted as a kind of mantra in an effort to inoculate themselves against what they perceive as the pernicious hegemonic influences that have produced the horrors of the current western world’s incipient fascist immigrant fearing climate change deniers.
I am grateful for the important work scholars here have done in documenting the suffering of those caught up in the upheavals of violence and starvation that have in recent years precipitated some of the massive movements of peoples from their native lands to the comparative safety and abundance of Europe and America. The desire to alleviate such suffering is not the exclusive purview of Christians, but it is certainly one of the duties of every Christian who wants to follow Christ. I only pray that those who feel free to make use of Girard’s mimetic hypothesis to explicate the perversity of our human propensity to find someone to blame for our problems would appreciate, as Girard did, how our relationship to the cross of Christ is the lens through which, in the West, we perceive the suffering we see around us.
I have been greatly encouraged by young scholars I’ve met here whose faith has informed their study of Girard’s mimetic theory. Their work deserves our support and prayers as they will become, with God’s help, the impetus to heal and strengthen the Church as she travels its penitential and purgatorial path through our world and into the future where few things are certain…that there will be suffering is one of them.