Rene Girard’s basic thesis is well known; human culture arose out of the resolution of mimetic desire. By nature we desire what is desired by others, this leads to conflict and ultimately murder. Institutions and rituals arise out of this act. Girard sees the Gospel texts of the New Testament as a revolutionary exposing of this basic mechanism. However, the church has continued to offer a sacrificial reading of the Gospel which undermines its revelatory potential.
Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World is an excellent and accessible overview of his thought. What I found interesting was his conclusion. At the end of the book Girard suggests we suffer most basically from a lack of meaning. I find this to be a bit dissonant from much of his work. Perhaps he is was still too heavily influenced by the existential angst that seemed to exist in the middle of the twentieth century but I expected him to move in a much more ‘material’ direction in his conclusion. Here are some of his parting lines,
“What is important above all is to realize that there are no recipes; there is no pharmakon anymore, not even a Marxist or a psychoanalytic one. Recipes are not what we need, nor do we need to be reassured – our need is to escape from meaninglessness.
. . .
I hold that truth is not an empty word, or a mere ‘effect’ as people say nowadays. I hold that everything capable of diverting us from madness and death, from now on, is inextricably linked with this truth. But I do not know how to speak about these matters. I can only approach texts and institutions, and relating them to one another seems to me to throw light in every direction.
. . .
Present-day thought is leading us in the direction of the valley of death, and it is cataloguing the bones one by one. All of us are in this valley but it is up to us to resuscitate meaning by relating all the [Judeo-Christian] texts to one another without exception, rather than stopping at just a few of them. All the issues of ‘psychological health’ seem to me to take second place to a much greater issue – that of meaning which is being lost or threatened on all sides but simply awaits the breath of the Spirit to be reborn.”
At which point Girard concludes by quoting Ezekiel 37’s vision of the valley of dry bones.
To be clear, I find this conclusion hugely attractive. I am sucker meaning, as in meaning of life meaning, but when hearing something so well developed as with Girard I can’t help that the truth which fends off ‘madness and death’ is something other than ‘meaning’. And here I have to default to a confessional position and introduce some notion of worship. For all his religious language and even examination of idolatry Girard does not really address the a non-sacrificial sense of worship. In this way I take him to be broadly in line with the death-of-God thinkers who believe we must go far enough to situate the presence and Spirit of God in and only in and only as the life-giving community. Here again, I am deeply attracted. But for the life of me I just don’t know who these people are that believe ‘in the power of humanity’. I don’t see it in myself or much around me. I don’t mean this in a self-deprecating sense but more in a I-have-been-banging-my-head-against-a-wall-for-over-a-decade-trying-to-understand-life-giving-personal-and-social-change way. I just don’t see it to be honest. So we offer works of worship that at our end must be purged of idolatries (here Girard, and Zizek for that matter, are right) but beyond that, hell if I know.
If you want to go the route of ‘meaning’ don’t look to Girard, the Coen brothers do it much better.