Film and Book Reviews

Rene Girard's theological challengers engaged and answered

BookRene Girard and the Nonviolent God, by Scott Cowdell (Notre Dame Press, 2018)

By Sarah Bachelard

April 6 2020 

Scott Cowdell is one of the foremost theological interpreters of René Girard. His latest book is a work of mature scholarship that seeks to address Girard’s most serious theological critics, and to show “that Christian belief need not be bent out of shape to accommodate mimetic theory”. For Cowdell, this is not simply an academic exercise. Girard’s thought has influenced him, he writes, not only intellectually, “but also spiritually and personally”. It’s a matter, therefore, of some moment that what Girard makes available for theology can be understood as deepening rather than distorting authentic faith. As someone who has also been profoundly influenced by Girard’s approach, I opened this book with keen anticipation! 

The first three chapters offer a detailed and integrated explication of Girard’s work. It is a sophisticated analysis that traces the connections between the major elements of mimetic theory, as well as continuities and developments in Girard’s thought over time. Chapter 4 situates Girard among the theologians, and engages questions concerning his methodology as well a major test case for the compatibility of mimetic theory with the tradition. Cowdell maintains that Girard himself was concerned about his Christian orthodoxy while also committed to being faithful to the integrity of his “scientific” method and its resulting insights into the human condition. The final three chapters of the book are then a kind of apologia for Girard as a theologian, showing how his theory can meet the theological criticisms levelled against it, while offering a new way of conceptualising the anthropological meaning and theological ground of our creation and redemption.

The range of this book is enormous, engaging Christian thinkers from Irenaeus and Augustine, to Thomas Aquinas, Simone Weil, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sarah Coakley, as well as doctrinal questions ranging from the nature of revelation, to the necessity of converted reason, to theories of atonement. As the title indicates, however, the book’s central concern and animating conviction is the nonviolence of God. Some of Girard’s theological critics have charged him with “ontologising violence” in his account of hominization, in a way that is incompatible with Christian understanding of human origins. Cowdell argues that Girard not only addresses the charge that he ontologises violence; significantly, and unlike some of his critical interlocutors, Girard’s approach offers a way of engaging the even larger question of how the violent facts of evolutionary history can themselves be integrated by Christian orthodoxy.

The charge of ontological violence emerges from Girard’s account of the formation of human consciousness and culture by means of mimetic crisis. According to the theory, human desire is borrowed desire. We desire according to the desire of another, and the convergence of desire on the same object leads to rivalry and, ultimately, violent conflict. The theory posits that proto-human groups hit upon a way to contain this escalating intra-group violence, by way of the scapegoat mechanism. Someone is singled out as to blame for the conflict, and their violent expulsion or murder constitutes the sacrifice that restores peace to the rest. The murder is then sacralised by myth, ritual and prohibition. 

For Girard, nascent human communities and the evolution of culture rely on the relative stability purchased by these “founding murders”. Not only that, but human consciousness itself evolves as a product of this process, as brain size increases to cope with “the new symbolic power and social complexity” made possible by the scapegoat mechanism (55), and as confrontation with the mimetic double (the rival) leads to the possibility of reflexive self-awareness (98-99). But all this sounds as though humanity arose out of violence and necessarily so, putting in question the fundamental “goodness” of creation and its eirenic origins as posited by Christian orthodoxy.

There are, Cowdell concedes, passages in Girard which seem to justify the ascription to his theory of such ontological or necessary violence. Particularly in his later work, however, Girard shows himself keen to make conceptual room for the orthodox picture, “positing a mimetic state prior to the emergency of rivalrous desire, on the cusp of hominization” (99). In other words, he imagines a moment when humans emerged from strictly animal mimesis, “a primal zone of genuine freedom” (100) in which human beings (like Adam and Eve) could have chosen otherwise, before they fell almost immediately into “the hell of mimetic entrapment” (like Cain and Abel) which has shaped, in fact, all human culture.

This posited state of primal freedom is neither historically nor phenomenologically verifiable, but the importance of this argument for Cowdell, I take it, is that it establishes that Girard’s account of human origins cannot be immediately disqualified as sub-Christian. This opens up the possibility of exploring what light his understanding sheds on “natural and human history as a salvation history” (115). And the fact that this is even a question comes from Girard’s own conviction that in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, there has occurred a breakthrough, a revelation of the ultimate non-necessity of our mimetically entrapped anthropological condition. In the psalms, law and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and most fully in the passion of Jesus, Girard discerns a progressive revelation of the innocence of the scapegoat victim. The violence of the mob and the false sacred is being exposed for what it really is, and this “uncovering” is itself a saving revelation of the “true” God who invites and enables a new way of being human and a nonviolent sociality. 

But is this so-called “true God”, this theological vision of an ultimately nonviolent origin and end for things, really true? Given the facts of evolutionary wastage and animal suffering, and the violent process of hominization and cultural formation that Girard theorises, how is such a vision of God and human possibility to be sustained? 

A category from improvisation in theatre called “over-accepting” proves crucial at this point in the argument. Over-accepting allows for the possibility of difficult or tragic elements becoming part of the overall drama, without them determining the agenda completely nor being excluded or “blocked” entirely. Theologically speaking, Cowdell suggests that over-accepting “is what we would expect from a nonviolent God who neither does violence to the innate logic of nature and history by summarily expunging all harm, nor allows tragedy and evil to have the last word, but who improvises on tragedy and evil in the key of transformative hope” (177). 

Similarly, “over-accepting” marks Girard’s own engagement with what his social scientific project has uncovered about the facts of life on earth. Unlike some of his critics, he is realistic about the violent dynamics of evolution and history, but not resigned to them. He sees them embedded in a larger drama, whose fuller nature and trajectory is glimpsed in and through the world’s cultures and religions, and pre-eminently the biblical tradition, and he testifies to the possibility of our learning a different way of being human, through the transformation of our desire. In exposing the anthropological origins of the “false gods”, the idols created by rivalrous mimesis, Girard points to the reality of the “true” God who works from the within of life, often unrecognised and yet faithfully making possible real peace on earth, although that peace remains to be realised by a humanity resistant to its own liberation. And this in turn leads to new readings of notions of atonement, apocalypse, the relationship between religious traditions and Christology.

As will be obvious, this is a densely layered argument and I am conscious this review barely scrapes its surface. For non-specialists, it may be a challenging read. Yet as René Girard has been one of the most significant catalysts for new theological thinking in the past 40 or more years, it matters that his theological challengers be seriously engaged and answered. This Scott Cowdell has accomplished, and as generously and un-threatenedly as befits one who is being changed by the truth of which he speaks.

The Revd Dr Sarah Bachelard is a theologian, retreat leader and Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University. She is the founder of Benedictus Church in Canberra.