This original work of theological anthropology looks at original sin in the light of the Resurrection, and shows how forgiveness has become the way of transformation.
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René Girard's Mimetic Theory
A Shift in the Story Line of Original Sin
The story line within which the doctrine of original sin is traditionally situated is very familiar. First God created the world as good. Then Adam and Eve, part of that good creation, fell from grace by committing a first sin, and so inaugurated the history of sin within which we live. God, wanting to save us, sent his son Jesus, who, by his death, atoned for that sin. The grace that was lost by Adam is restored in those of us who appropriate that saving death by baptism, and if we can but hold on to that grace by obeying the moral law and frequenting the sacraments, we will eventually inherit heaven. This immensely powerful schema, teaching us to inscribe our stories within a fall and a resurrection, seems to be the paradigm which underlies Christian orthodoxy.
I have come to understand that this view of original sin — whose crude version is "the world is in a mess, Christ is the solution" — is seriously inadequate. Let me suggest why. If the door of your house is wrecked, you remove the pieces, measure the frame, and buy or make a door to fit it. Your solution — the new door — depends on your prior assessment of the damage to be rectified. So, with our typical version of original sin, the sort of solution offered by Christ is rigorously dependent on the sort of mess he is thought to have come to sort out, a mess which we are supposed to know about independently of his coming because of the story of Adam and Eve. The controlling factor in the story of salvation is the sin, and what Christ did fits in with that, just as the controlling factor on your trip to the hardware store is the size of the frame, and the door fits in with that.
For the traditional story line to work we have to have an independent and prior assessment of the nature of the mess. But in the case of the Christian faith there is no such prior and independent access to the mess. What the mess consists in is not self-evident; it is not accessible to archaeological investigation; and there is no Jewish doctrine of original sin for Christians to inherit. Christian doctrines exist at all only because of the resurrection, and it is only from the resurrection that it has become possible to look back at human origins and tell a story about them as involving an original sin. Now look at what this means with relation to your door: first you are given, and come to perceive the size of, a door, and you are so delighted that you start to build a door frame and a house around about it. The "solution" turns out to be the controlling factor, while the "mess" (in this case, your gradual realization of what a poor house you had prior to being given a door) is something of which you become aware only as you take on board the novelty of what you have been given. But this story, starting from the door and working back to the construction of a more appropriate house, is a very different story from the one which begins with the need for a new door to fit a previously measured frame. One is the story of Jesus filling a space left in an old wineskin with just the right amount of new wine; the other is the story of the gradual fabrication of a new wineskin able to hold the new wine which is suddenly made available, a wine which dictates the terms of the fabrication.
What I would like to suggest is that, while it is easy enough to point out the inadequacy of the old story and to indicate the resurrection as the proper starting point for a new one, the old story has in fact a very much more powerful hold on us than might seem to be the case. It dictates the terms of reference within which we understand who God is: someone who is first pleased with creation, then angry with sin, then pleased with his Son's sacrifice; it dictates the understanding of the sort of atonement offered by Christ, and thus of his life and ministry; and it dictates the parameters of the sort of struggle with which we engage in our moral lives. The new story offers a strikingly different perception of the same realities, but a perception that has to be very slowly and carefully elaborated as it gradually becomes available.
There is something both frightening and exhilarating about the collapse of an old and familiar story and the emergence of a new one. Frightening, because the old provides a space which we know how to negotiate, a story within which we can make sense of God, creation, Church, sacraments, good and evil. Exhilarating, because in the new story it is the discovery of the deathless and unambiguous nature of God made available at the resurrection which leads to our being empowered to move beyond an unfinished creation, one which we tend to snarl up. At the same time we are permitted a parting glance at what we are in the process of leaving behind as we come to construct a way of being human that is to have no end. However, leaving the security of the old story and embarking upon being swept up into the new leaves us vulnerable to a highly disconcerting perception of the violence and evil that there is in the world, and of the depth of our complicity in that. This is the difference between a story which protects us from aspects of human reality, and one by which we lose our innocence and gradually learn to take our responsibility in the construction of a new reality.
It is because I am finding the change of the underlying story line to require so much more than it seems that, rather than set out the doctrinal consequences of understanding original sin from the perspective of Easter in a didactic manner, I have opted to introduce you to the understanding of desire which has made it possible for me to begin this journey. In other words, rather than simply sharing "results," I am attempting to share a process of discovery. This is because none of us can really learn about original sin except as we begin to become aware of our involvement in it. For this reason I begin my exploration of the doctrine of original sin with an account of René Girard's understanding of desire, for it was this which opened up for me the perspective I am seeking to offer to you.
René Girard's understanding of desire is known by the name mimetic theory. It is the coherent theorization of what seemed like a small insight but turned out to be an objective discovery about human relations. Girard realized early on in his research that this insight was not something he had invented; rather he had hit upon something of which many other thinkers had become aware, usually as the result of an arduous process of creative conversion while writing. Cervantes, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Proust, and Dostoevsky can all be shown to have reached a more or less conscious grasp of the mimetic nature of desire, along with an awareness of the anthropological significance of this desire as structuring, and structured by, human violence.
In a nutshell, Girard has discovered that human beings desire not lineally, as most thought presupposes (i.e., a subject desires an object — Tarzan, he love Jane), nor even, as Hegel, interpreted by Kojève, thought, by desiring the desire of another (i.e., what I really want is that you should want me — Tarzan, he want Jane to love Tarzan). Rather we desire according to the desire of the other (Visiting Hollywood Director fancies Jane, and Tarzan, suddenly, he find Jane fascinating). All desire is triangular, and is suggested by a mediator or model. This imitative desire leads to conflicts, which are resolved by a group's spontaneous formation of unanimity over against some arbitrarily indicated other who is expelled or excluded, thereby producing a return to peace. In this way we humans create and sustain social order. The mechanism of the creation and maintenance of social order by means of the expulsion of the arbitrarily chosen victim depends for its success on the blindness of its participants as to what is really going on: they have to believe in the guilt or dangerous nature of the one expelled. What has made it possible to discover this mechanism has been the presence in human culture of certain divinely inspired happenings and texts which make clear what really has been going on: the victim is hated without cause. Humans thus begin to be enabled to break with the dominant forms of social structuring and to move instead toward forms which un-cover (dis-cover) victims and make possible a real peace, not one based on sacrifice and murder.
So mimetic theory has three "moments," each of which can be understood from this "lite" version. The first moment is that of imitative desire: I want a leather bomber jacket because I saw Tom Cruise wearing one in Top Gun. So far, so good. Tom Cruise is a long way away, I've never met him, and am not going to fight with him over his jacket. Anyhow, clever manufacturers have risen to the occasion by swamping the market with leather bomber jackets, so I needn't fight with the mediator of my desire. Closer to home, however, after seeing Top Gun a friend and I go shopping for a leather jacket; he wants me to go with him to say if his choice suits him. He spots a "Top Gun"–type jacket with a fancy design which he likes, but he doesn't have the cash. Mysteriously, none of the 378 other jackets in the store will do for me. I have to have that one. I sneak back later with my credit card and buy it. When I meet my friend later for a drink, he is not amused. We quarrel violently: "You pinched my jacket," he says. "I saw it first." "That's nonsense," I say. "I always wanted it," hiding from myself and from him the fact that it's really because I like him and want to be like him that I had to get it. And anyhow why was the idiot so keen that I admire it with him if he didn't want me to go for it? (If my friend were very clever, he would feign losing interest in the jacket, instead beginning to admire another one, in the far corner of the bar. It would be a sure way to get me to lose interest in the one I've bought. For the sake of the story, he's not so clever: our quarrel and mutual suspicion deepen.)
Now we are on the frontier between the first "moment" of mimetic desire and the second, the moment of the unifying expulsion. Neither of us can afford a really serious quarrel, because the sports team on which we play depends on our working together. We have to find a way of getting our act together. If either of us were at all humble we could each go to the other and admit that our desires were modeled on each other: my friend needed my approval in order really to want the jacket; I couldn't resist fixing on the jacket which he suggested to me. I'm sorry, he's sorry, we're friends again. However, we aren't models of humility. If, despite our lack of humility, we were really quite lucid we could sit down and say, "Why are we fighting? It's all the fault of that b*****d Tom Cruise. If he hadn't been showing off in Top Gun, none of this would have happened." Over a drink we can then excoriate Tom Cruise and movie stars in general. We would in fact be treating Tom Cruise as our scapegoat, and he would quickly have undergone all the permutations of sacrificial religion, from Icon to Victim to Evil Deity, in one afternoon. Luckily, he's not going to be much hurt by this sacrifice (laughing all the way to the bank, in fact), because he's far away. However, let's suppose that we aren't that lucid, and that the violence of our mutual envy remains, as it so often does, half-buried. We still have to make peace and are scarcely aware of how violent our antagonism is. Without our realizing it, over the next few days, the Mexican guy on the team, who had seemed harmless, if a bit of an outsider — little guy, funny accent — seems to us to become unbearable (a bit of gossip can fuel this nicely), and a wave of opinion rises up among team members to get him dropped from the side. We suddenly feel really passionately about what a disaster he is and campaign until he is dropped. My friend and I were shoulder to shoulder in that vital campaign. The bomber jacket forgotten and the Mexican gone, we're friends again.
So much for the unifying expulsion. The third moment, if we're ever lucky enough to get there, is that of revealed discovery, arduously acquired insight into what we have been doing all along: the discovery of our complicity in scapegoating violence and of the roots of that violence in our envious desire. It's when, years later, I begin to look at the incident not from the point of view of leather jackets, or of my friendship skills, or of the camaraderie of the team, but start to realize that maybe the person whose story it really was, apparently the least important person, was the Mexican. It is the story of how the Mexican got dropped and how I allowed myself to get swept up into the mechanism which led to that. Maybe I start learning sensitivity to the sort of mechanism in which I was involved, trying out alternative dynamics in my family or place of work. Maybe I start becoming wary of the currents behind my sudden enthusiasms for whatever (or whoever) has replaced Tom Cruise's bomber jacket in my affections. The point behind this third moment is Girard's understanding that it has in fact been the work of biblical texts, culminating in those produced around the death and resurrection of Jesus, that have opened up "what we're really doing" in our social and cultural lives, made it possible for us to detect the innocence of our victims, and nudged us into trying alternative forms of creating human togetherness.
Notes on the Words "Mimesis" and "Desire"
I hope that you found my example banal. It was meant to be. Heaven and hell open out from the banality of the locker room. Before looking at how Girard understands the coming into being of the human race ("hominization") and of the human self of each one of us, I would like to offer a note on the words "mimesis" and "desire," words which will occur too frequently not to demand some explanation. Girard uses the word "mimesis" because the word "imitation" is normally used to refer to an exterior and conscious type of imitation, by which someone does, or buys, or wears, something like someone else. This is only part of what is meant by "mimesis." Mimesis also involves the less recognizable ways in which we are constituted as human beings by receiving physical being, a sense of being, gestures, memory, language, and consciousness through being drawn into imitation of others. Mimesis is therefore interior to the constitution of humans and not merely something external added on to an already independent being. This, as will be seen, is immensely important for the theology of original sin: Pelagius thought imitation important for doing good (or ill), while for Augustine our very will is corrupted and needs saving by grace. As will be shown, a theological anthropology building from Girard will rescue Augustine's insight within an interpersonal vision of what it is to be human: Girard's mimesis is emphatically not the same as Pelagius's imitation. There is a further reason why "mimesis" is used in preference to "imitation": Girard will make it carry a weight of conflictivity that the normal use of the word "imitation" cannot easily bear.
There are various modalities of mimesis to which Girard refers. By modalities I mean different valencies of one and the same functioning of desire, whereby we desire not lineally, from subject to object, but according to the desire of the other, in a triangular fashion. The modality which occupies most space in Girard's treatment is acquisitive mimesis. This is the desire whereby I imitate the desire of someone else for an object and so enter into rivalry with that person for the object. Elsewhere in Girard's oeuvre this desire is referred to as possessive mimesis. It is important to indicate at this point that it is but one modality of human desire as understood by Girard, because some interpreters have treated mimetic theory as though Girard postulated an ontological acquisitive mimesis as human desire. Girard's thought is much more subtle than that — as is the Church's doctrine of original sin.
"Acquisitive desire divides by leading two or more individuals to converge on one and the same object, with a view to appropriating it." There follows conflictual mimesis (elsewhere referred to as antagonistic mimesis). This is the moment of desire when, as the frenzy of desire causes the original object of rivalry to lose importance, while the mutual imitation of all in conflict continues to grow, at last the same imitation unifies the rivals against some arbitrary other whose expulsion brings peace. In this way Girard shows the working of the great mystery of desire, which in how it works is both concord and discord, and changes from one to the other, and back, without any apparent reason. Girard's study of Shakespeare shows how the playwright understood and explored the working of exactly this mechanism of mimetic conflict, which functions identically at interpersonal, erotic, and political levels.
Excerpted from "The Joy of Being Wrong"
Copyright © 1998 James Alison.
Excerpted by permission of The Crossroad Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Sebastian Moore,
Part I CONSTRUCTING A THEOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY,
1. René Girard's Mimetic Theory,
2. The Search for a Theological Anthropology,
3. The Search for a Soteriology,
Part II STRETCHING THE SHAPE OF FORGIVENESS,
4. The Resurrection and Original Sin,
5. The Intelligence of the Victim and the Distortion of Desire,
6. Original Sin Known in Its Ecclesial Overcoming,
7. The Trinity, Creation, and Original Sin,
8. Hope and Concupiscence,
9. Reimagining the Symbol of Original Sin,
Part III IS THIS WHAT THE CHURCH BELIEVES?,
10. Is This What the Church Believes?,