René Girard was a polymath—not only writing on literature, but bringing his theory to bear on anthropology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and theology. While I greatly admire his work, I would presume to pick a bone with his thought on sacrificial systems in religion.

René Girard

I was first introduced to the French thinker René Girard when I lived in England and would make my retreat at Downside Abbey. The Benedictine theologian Dom Sebastian Moore was a monk there, and he would naughtily knock on my door after compline (when we were supposed to be observing the Great Silence) to discuss Girard. Dom Sebastian was usually armed with a bottle of Scotch to lubricate the god-talk.

I didn’t know much about Girard’s thought at the time, but have come to share Sebastian’s enthusiasm for the great man. Girard was born on Christmas Day 1923 in Avignon. During his education at the Ecole de Chartres in Paris, his original field of study was history and literary criticism. In 1947 he emigrated to the United States where he continued an academic career at Indiana University, Duke, Bryn Mawr, John Hopkins, and finally Stanford.

His seminal concept is “mimetic desire”—the conviction that human beings are formed and motivated first by imitation of, then in rivalry to, others. This rivalry is soon translated into violence, and for society to adhere (rather than falling into chaotic anarchy) members of the society project their animus onto a targeted victim. This transaction eventually becomes ritualized and evolves into sacrificial religion.

Girard’s thought was crucial for my book Immortal Combat in which I attempt to answer the question, “What could a phrase like ‘Jesus died to take away the sin of the world’ possibly mean to a high-tech, religiously ignorant person of the twenty-first century?” Girard’s scapegoat theory along with Max Scheler’s work on the Nietzschean concept of ressentiment provides a matrix of explanation.

In a recent collection of transcribed interviews with Girard, his friend and biographer Cynthia Haven draws together fascinating conversations with the great thinker. In many ways this collection titled Conversations with René Girard is more accessible than his many books. Girard was a polymath—not only writing on literature, but bringing his theory to bear on anthropology, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and theology. The conversations display his wide-ranging knowledge and interests, and we hear him apply his thought to current issues.

Girard’s religious conversion is detailed in Ms. Haven’s biography, Evolution of Desire. Brought up as a Catholic, he became an agnostic as a young man, but through a mystical experience on a train traveling from Baltimore to Bryn Mawr, his heart and mind were reopened to his Catholic faith and he remained a practicing Catholic until his death in 2015.

Catholic theologians Gil Baillie and James Allison are indebted to Girard, and Bishop Robert Barron believes his importance for Catholic theology will continue to increase in the years to come. While I have come to greatly admire his work, I would presume to pick a bone and make a point.

Key to Girard’s thought is that the sacrificial systems in religion are centered around the scapegoat mechanism—that members of a society torn apart by resentment, rivalry, and revenge turn their anger toward an innocent victim who is then ritually murdered. Having done away with the one who is thought to have caused the problem, they feel that the whole problem with its accompanying societal tension is also expunged.

This produces a shared sense of relief—euphoria even. Consequently, when another problem in the tribe arises, the members resort to the same solution, and the scapegoating and sacrifice is repeated and ritualized.

While I believe this is an accurate and insightful analysis, where I part company just a little is with Girard’s belief that the passion of Christ did away with this mechanism of sacred violence. Certainly it reveals a way to understand how Jesus’ death “takes away the sin of the world.” As the divine master, Jesus accepts the role of scapegoat and as the only truly innocent victim reveals to humanity the darkness and deceit at the heart of the diabolical dynamic, and while the passion of Christ may have abolished the old sacrificial religions, the dynamic of rivalry, projection, scapegoating, and victimization is ever present in the human family.

But is the sacrificial economy of salvation abolished? As a priest, I contend that the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection did not so much abolish the sacrificial transaction, but fulfill it and transform it from the inside out. In the Catholic religion we still celebrate the ritual sacrifice but “in an unbloody manner.” The once-for-all sacrifice of Christ is represented in the action of the priest on the altar, and its benefits are applied to those present and for the continued victory over evil.

This understanding brings Girard’s theory into an interface, therefore, not only with theology but with liturgy. The sacrificial aspect to the celebration of the Mass is therefore returned to its primary position (rather than the modern understanding of the Mass as no more than a family meal or a community celebration).

Furthermore, through the celebration of Mass, the same ritual participation and purging takes place in the individual worshippers, the Catholic community, and, I believe, in the wider community as was experienced in the more primitive, archaic, ritualistic sacrificing societies. We say that attending Mass in the right frame of mind and heart “forgives sins.” This is how it does so: by identifying and accepting the saving sacrifice—by being sacramentally plunged into the saving sacrifice.

If my viewpoint is correct, then it also explains why a ritualistic, formal, and traditional form of Catholicism is so powerful in its appeal. The transaction in the heart and soul is amplified and deepened through participation in a more formal and ceremonial style of liturgical celebration. Beauty is the language of worship, and in ceremonial worship the human heart communicates in a language beyond language and so connects more profoundly at a deeper psychic and psychological level than it can with a worship idiom that is merely “relevant,” sentimental, and utilitarian.

Girard’s profound work, therefore, provides a rationale for reverent, traditional worship which is more than a matter of aesthetics, ecclesiastical politics, or personal taste.

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The featured image is “Sacrifice in a Temple” (between 1620 and 1625) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity. The in-text image is of René Girard during a colloquium in Paris “End of war and terrorism” (2007) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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