More thoughts on Girard, Atonement, and Christology

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.

Placher on Girard on Atonement

When it comes to re-thinking the doctrine of the Atonement, many contemporary Christians are attracted to the work of literary theorist Rene Girard and his account of the “scapegoat mechanism.” In Girard’s telling, what the crucifixion narratives in the gospels do is reveal this mechanism whereby we kill the innocent to create social peace as the basis of much of our religion and culture. This unmasking of the scapegoat mechanism allows us to perceive the innocence of victims and to put an end to scapegoating. Part of what appeals about Girard’s account is that it seems to offer a way of thinking about the cross that avoids the implication that God in any sense required the sacrifice of Jesus.

However, the late William Placher, in an important article on the Atonement, offered some criticisms of Girard that still seem pretty telling to me:

Christians will naturally find such a brilliant scholar’s admiration of the gospel flattering, and Girard gets much right from a Christian point of view, from his insistence on the innocence of ritual victims to his call for a new kind of society based on mutual forgiveness. Yet he also breaks radically with most Christian interpretations. He repeatedly insists that nothing in the Gospels or Paul permits us to think of Christ as a sacrifice. The letter to the Hebrews, he believes, began the tragic wrong turn of Christian theology, for it falls back into thinking that it was somehow a good thing that Christ died, that the sacrifice of one victim really can redeem others—-just the kind of thinking whose fraudulence the gospel ought to have exposed once and for all. As a result, Girard thinks, Christians have continued the kind of society in which social cohesion is based on finding scapegoats—most notably and tragically of all singling out Jews as “Christ killers.”

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.

The dominant Christian tradition has been less optimistic. At least since Augustine, Christian theologians have insisted that recognizing sin’s evil does not necessarily end its seductiveness; sometimes it can even increase it. Moreover, even if we do not continue making scapegoats and sacrificing victims, we have all, as Girard himself emphasizes, been complicit in such practices for much of our lives. Culture and religion in all previous forms rest upon them. Is it enough to say, “Oh, now I get it, and I won’t do it any more,” and go our way? Perhaps we can forgive other victimizers, and for the sake of breaking the cycle of violence we should forgive them. But can we simply declare ourselves to be innocent? Whatever its problems, the language of sacrifice which so disturbs Girard does speak to the condition of people who find themselves still falling into sin, and sense the depths of their need of forgiveness. Perhaps it deserves a closer look.

I think a lot of the truth in traditional theories of atonement–however much we may want to qualify or reinterpret them–is that there is a profound alienation between humanity and God and that simply revealing the fact of sin is insufficient to overcome it. This has always been the most potent criticism of “moral example” theories of atonement, and Girard’s theory as it stands looks like a more sophisticated version of this type of theory. For the other dominant tradition in atonement theory–that of “satisfaction” or “vicarious atonement”–the alienation between humanity and God (and its attendant guilt) is not something that we can repair on our own, even once we see what the problem is. This is why it requires God to step into the breach. But because it is a problem of human alienation from God, it is something that must be healed through human nature. Hence, following St. Anselm’s logic, the need for the God-man.

Yet another perspective on atonement

This one’s from Clark Williamson, whose work I’m a fan of. The article is called “Atonement Theologies and the Cross.” Williamson surveys some of the main atonement theories and defends a semi-Abelardian view by way of Luther and with a tip of the hat to Girard and process theology. He emphasizes that the cross is the revelation of God’s unchangeable love for us and God’s identification with a suffering creation. Personally, I have always found this to be the most devotionally meaningful way of looking at the cross, even though I recognize intellectually that there’s something to be said for other perspectives.

I don’t agree with everything in the article, but he makes a strong case and identifies some important questions we need to ask when thinking about this. For example, does Jesus constitute our reconciliation with God “such that we cannot be reconciled to God without him,” or does he “disclose to us that we have always been reconciled to God?” And does our atonement theology “place a foundational act of violence at the center of Christian ideas of salvation”? Williamson maintains that our atonement theory will depend in large part on what we are willing or unwilling to affirm about God. Worth a read.

Girard on war and apocalyptic

Via bls comes this review of a new book by Rene Girard (not yet translated into English, it appears) wherein Girard critiques Von Clausewitz’s On War and discusses the prospects for humanity’s self-annihilation.

Girard turns to the Revelation of John, the apocalyptic passages in the Epistles, as well as the “little apocalypse” of Mark 13 and its parallels. Christ said he did not come to bring peace. It is, says Girard, the “old world he came to destroy.” And this by kicking out from underneath our legs the crutch of the scapegoat. Sacrificial violence now becomes ineffective, because God in Christ has submitted to it and broken its power to deceive by creating numinous but idolatrous peace through sacrifice. Our age is only the witness and locus of the intensification of violence, free-floating because it is no longer able to make peace at all. Now that technology is reducing dramatically the “friction” that restrained total war, and politics has lost its control over the means of war, as terrorism becomes the warfare of choice for all concerned, absolute war as realistic planetary catastrophe looms. The destruction of the environment is the mimetic double of this escalation to war’s ultimate extreme. What the apocalyptic literature predicts is that the preaching of the Gospel by the Church will fail to convert enough to stop the process.

Sounds cheery!

2008: The year in book blogging

I’m not going to provide a best books of the year list, but here’s a sampling of those that got their hooks into me enough to generate some more or less in-depth blogging (needless to say, most of these weren’t published in 2008):

Andrew Bacevich, The Limits of Power

“Empire of dysfunction”

Evelyn Pluhar, Beyond Prejudice

Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4

Jay McDaniel, Of God and Pelicans

“Creation and omnipotence: a process perspective”
“More thoughts on omnipotence and creation”

Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation

Index of posts here.

John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6.

Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation

“Initial thoughts on Gutierrez’s Theology of Liberation”

S.F. Sapontzis, Morals, Reason, and Animals

“What kind of equality?”

James Alison, On Being Liked

“An end to sacrifices”

John Gray, Straw Dogs

“John Gray contra humanism”

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

“Against the globalized food chain”
“Pollan on the ethics of meat eating”
“More on Pollan and vegetarianism”

“In my view the question is whether one believes or not in the Incarnation and the divinity of Christ”

First Things interviews Rene Girard.

The sacrifice to end all sacrifices

Here’s a very thoughtful post on the Atonement from the fine blog Sub Ratione Dei. I wouldn’t call myself a “Girardian,” but I’ve definitely learned from the Girardian perspective, especially via James Alison‘s work. I’m hoping to get my hands on a copy of Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice soon too.

An end to sacrifices

I just finished reading James Alison’s Undergoing God, and the more I read of him the more I like him and think he’s onto something important. Alison, to recap, is a student of anthropologist/literary theorist Rene Girard, who has proposed a rather daring new interpretation of Jesus’ death on the cross.

For Girard human selves and human desire are structured by what he calls mimesis, which means that we learn to want things by seeing other people want them. The problem is that mimesis all to often takes a rivalrous form: I want what you want which creates competition and potentially conflict.

This conflict can threaten to unravel the fabric of human society, but societies have found a way to defuse that conflict, at least in the short run. They do this by means of what Girard calls the scapegoat mechanism. When rivalrous conflict gets out of hand, the members of a group will settle on someone who becomes the focus of the group’s “wrath.” This someone – the scapegoat – is “expelled,” often murderously, and this expulsion restores harmony by creating the feeling that the source of conflict has been banished.

What Girard argues is that the history of myth and religion repeatedly display attempts to cover over these expulsions of the innocent. The myths and rituals of sacrifice to appease god or the gods invest the scapegoat mechanism with sacred legitimacy. Thus we invest the victim with sacred power and authority, since the expulsion is that which reestablishes harmony. We cover up our crime of killing the innocent by turning it into a “necessary” part of a divinely ordained order.

However, says Girard, the Bible “unmasks” this sacred lie by presenting the victim as unambiguously innocent. The death of Jesus, as recorded in the gospels, most clearly reveals the mendacity of the scapegoat mechanism. When the Roman and Jewish authorities come together to kill Jesus the gospels leave no doubt that it’s an act of murder, even though it’s rationalized by various parties as a means of restoring order (see especially Girard’s excellent I See Satan Fall Like Lightning).

Alison elaborates Girard’s line of thought in more explicitly theological terms. He contends that Jesus’ death and resurrection defeat the powers of violence and scapegoating by displaying those powers’ ultimate impotence. God, who comes to us in Jesus, is completely “other than” the death and violence according to which we have structured our life together. Jesus’ death, for Alison, doesn’t satisfy God’s wrath, but shows a God of unconditional love who is willing to occupy the place of utmost shame and weakness in order to break down our stony hearts. He absorbs our wrath.

One of the reasons I find Alison’s approach is so appealing is that it shows the gospel as something genuinely new and radical. God isn’t caught up in the same economy of payback and tit-for-tat that we seem to be. He has nothing to do with that retributive scheme. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are an intrusion of a fundamentally different order into the one we have built for ourselves. And this intrusion, which is followed by the gifting of the Spirit, allows us to learn to participate in this new way of being.

Jesus, who comes to us as the “forgiving victim,” enables us to live in a way that doesn’t depend on defining ourselves over against others. And doesn’t depend on sacrificing others to our desire for security. When we live with the understanding that God is unconditionally for us, we can gradually learn to let go of the fear that makes violence and sacrifice seem necessary in the first place.

As an anthropologist and student of texts, Girard seems to see the implications of his theory being primarily for human society, ethics, and politics. And Alison more or less follows him here; the “new creation” that we’re being invitied to participate in seems chiefly characterized by transformed relationships between human beings. As a gay Catholic, Alison deploys these insights to powerful effect in thinking about how the church has victimized gay people but also about how all Christians can begin to live together in ways that don’t depend on defining “in” and “out” groups.

Important as this work is, I’d also like to see this line of thought developed in a way that takes into account our relationship with the non-human world. After all, if God is the creator of all that is, his redemptive action presumably has implications for the entire world, not just us. Moreover, it’s no secret that the victims of sacrifice have often been our non-human fellow creatures. The scapegoat was originally, after all, a goat. Is there good news for him here too? And for us with respect to our felt need to dominate the non-human world?

It’s more than a little ironic that we in the “enlightened” modern world subject animals to suffering and death on a scale that might well have made priests of the most blood-soaked cults of the ancient world blush. For us, animals have long represented both the “base” part of our nature (instinct, lust, violence) and, paradoxically, pure unspoiled nature. Consequently, we project both our fears and desires onto them, investing them with a kind of mythical power. At the same time we reduce them to commodities in our industrial systems of food, entertainment, and science. On a Girardian reading, we inflict violence on them because it’s what we think we have to do to get by in this world, to suppress our fears of our own violence and to assuage our fears of death and of being victimized.

But if Girard and Alison are right, then the death of Jesus shows us that there is no “necessary” violence. Because God loves us unconditionally, and because that love has the last word in a universe seemingly characterized by confict, enmity, and the struggle to get ahead and be on top, we can learn to let go of the need to secure our place in this world by means of violence. We don’t need to sacrifice animals to the “gods” of appetite, safety, health, and science. We can trust that God will hold us in being and that we can even occupy the “place of shame” without losing ourselves. Moreover, as the theologian Stephen Webb has argued, we can be free to make friends with the animals. Just as Jeus is the agent of reconciliation among humans, he is the agent of reconciliation between humans and the rest of creation.