Thinking about this a bit more, I wonder if the problem with Girard’s work–at least to the extent that I’m familiar with it–isn’t that his concept of Atonement is too “subjective” but that he’s not working with an adequate (or at least explicit) Christology. I once wrote of my “suspicion that bad atonement theories are often the result of defective Christologies.” Could that be what’s going on here?
Consider William Placher’s objections again:
But does Girard provide us with the kind of forgiveness that we really need? He assumes that once the Gospels have helped us see scapegoating for the fraud that it is we will never again participate in its rituals or believe in its myths. And he does not consider that we might retain some guilt and owe some penance for our evil past actions, even after we have turned away from scapegoating. He seems to assume that once we have understood the problem properly, it practically fixes itself.
This seems right if the “Girardian” reading of the Gospels is simply to point out that the sacrificial victim is in fact innocent.
However, what if we recall that for the New Testament it is God who is participating and present in the sufferings of this innocent man–this man whose life was ordered around a ministry to the outcast, the vulnerable, and the sinful?
In other words, if God is the victim, isn’t that because God is also the forgiver? As Richard Beck recently argued, maybe Christ’s death is not necessary to secure God’s forgiveness, but enacts or expresses the cost of God’s forgiveness.
This may be why those “Girardians” who have a more explicit Christology–such as James Alison and Mark Heim–seem to avoid some of these problems. Alison, for instance, is clear that it is God who is at work in Jesus reconciling us to Godself. The cross isn’t simply a lesson about social ethics, but a “liturgy” of God’s forgiveness.