I've been involved in a long-running debate with an old friend about the theories of a French intellectual named Rene Girard. Girard was originally a literary critic, but he's tried to apply his theories to religion, and has gained a small but devoted following as an idiosyncratic Christian apologist.
In his books, notably "Violence and the Sacred," he argues that the myths of pagan cultures reflect an unending cycle of violence reflected in the sacrifical practices of the people. Cultures, Girard believes, begin with a "founding murder" of a scapegoat. In the effort to cover up the murder, out of guilt, the victim becomes deified. Eventually the actual murder is forgotten, re-enacted unconsciously in rituals which have no power to permanently end the social tensions brought on by what Girard terms mimetic desire -- wanting based on seeing what others want.
Christianity, Girard argues, is different. The death of Jesus "reveals the innocence" of the scapegoat, rendering pagan religions inoperative (somehow.) In order to make this argument, Girard has to dismiss the traditional interpretation of the death of Jesus as a sacrifice to God the Father and instead argues for a "non-sacrificial reading" in which the crucifixion is really about demonstrating that the person murdered is in fact innocent. (This is why I described him as "idiosyncratic.")
I have ably, if I say so myself, argued against Girard, demonstrating that he doesn't understand the pagan view of sacrifice and doesn't really address actual myth -- his examples of myth largely come from Greek dramas by Sophocles and Euripides.
Girard doesn't seem to have a lot of critics -- instead, he's apparently admired within the small cult that's grown up around his work and ignored by almost everyone else. He does have at least one vocal critic, however, another French intellectual named Rene Pommier. In an essay titled "Rene Girard: The Squib Who Thought He Was A Lighthouse," Pommier deftly dismantles many of Girard's conceits. (A squib is "a small firework, consisting of a tube or ball filled with powder, that burns with a hissing noise terminated usually by a slight explosion," or "a firecracker broken in the middle so that it burns with a hissing noise but does not explode.")
One of the best passages (Google-translated from the French and cleaned up some by me):
But where Girard was probably at the farthest bounds of the presumption and arrogance, it was when he tried to explain to Christians that only he could shed light on the essence of their religion. If he was, in effect, converted late in life, he was soon to discover he was the first Christian to have really understood what constituted Christianity and the deeper meaning of the Gospels. "The Christians,” he says, “did not understand the true originality of the Gospels." To all those who have been taught that Christ sacrificed himself on the cross to redeem mankind from original sin, a sacrifice unceasingly renewed in the celebration of Mass, Rene Girard is not afraid to say that this is a huge mistake, the most phenomenal mistake of all time: "This sacrificial reading of the passion [...] must be criticized as the most paradoxical misunderstanding and the most colossal of all history, and at the same time the most revealing of the radical inability of humanity to understand its own violence, even when it is served in the most explicit fashion.”
But fortunately he hastens to reassure them, telling them that, thanks to his theories, the Christian revelation is now unambiguous, and that for the first time henceforth and forever, it became perfectly clear, complete and consistent: "They are,” he says, “all the great canonical dogmas, I am convinced that a non-sacrificial reading makes it intelligible by articulating a more coherent way than has been done so far. " And furthermore, "In light of this [non-sacrificial] reading, one can finally explain the idea that the Gospels are of their own historical action, the elements whose presence seems contrary to the evangelical spirit. Again, this is the results we're going to judge the reading that is beginning to sketch. By refusing the definition of sacrificial love we end up reading, the most direct, the simplest, clearest and the only really consistent, one that can integrate all the themes of the Gospel into a seamless whole.”
Girard was born on December 25. It can not be a coincidence. How can we not see a clear signal sent by divine providence, to make us understand that Girard was meant to complement and refine the message that She had, over two thousand years, its charge only son to bring to men? It should therefore seems to me that now all Christians should celebrate as eagerly, or with even greater ardor, the birth of Rene Girard along with that of Christ. Further that the Pope convoke as soon as possible a new ecumenical council, which could finally integrate into the Christian revelation the essential contribution of Girard's theories. And, instead of putting on the altar beside the Bible the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas as was done at the Council of Trent, the Church should, of course, put the complete works of René Girard . Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit would do well to suggest to Benedict XVI to make Girard a Doctor of the Church.
In all the exchange -- which appears to be winding down, though it could resume -- has changed no minds but has helped me sharpen my own arguments and deepen my knowledge.
(By the way, thanks to John Michael Greer, Christopher Plaisance and Alaric Albertsson for offering ideas along the way.)