René Girard — “Battling to the End.” — Quotes

These are my top quotes from René Girard’s, Battling to the End (2009).

It is a dense book, but one of my favorites, and was highly influential on me.

“My hypothesis is mimetic: because humans imitate one another more than animals, they have had to find a means of dealing with contagious similarity, which could lead to the pure and simple disappearance of their society. The mechanism that reintroduces difference into a situation in which everyone has come to resemble everyone else is sacrifice. Humanity results from sacrifice; we are thus the children of religion. What I call after Freud the founding murder, in other words, the immolation of a sacrificial victim that is both guilty of disorder and able to restore order, is constantly re-enacted in the rituals at the origin of our institutions. Since the dawn of humanity, millions of innocent victims have been killed in this way in order to enable their fellow humans to live together, or at least not to destroy one another. This is the implacable logic of the sacred, which myths dissimulate less and less as humans become increasingly self-aware. The decisive point in this evolution is Christian revelation, a kind of divine expiration in which God through his Son could be seen as asking for forgiveness from humans for having revealed the mechanisms of their violence so late. Rituals had slowly educated them; from then on, humans had to do without.

Christianity demystifies religion. Demystification, which is good in the absolute, has proven bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to shoulder its consequences. We are not Christian enough. The paradox can be put in a different way: Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure. This prescience is known as the apocalypse. Indeed, it is in the apocalyptic texts that the word of God is most forceful, repudiating mistakes that are entirely the fault of humans, who are less and less inclined to acknowledge the mechanisms of their violence. The longer we persist in our error, the stronger God’s voice will emerge from the devastation. This is why no one wants to read the apocalyptic texts that abound in the Synoptic Gospels and Pauline Epistles. This is also why no one wants to recognize that these texts rise up before us because we have disregarded Revelation. Once in our history the truth about the identity of all humans has spoken, and no one wanted to hear it; instead we hang ever more frantically onto our false differences.” (pg x).

“The apocalypse does not announce the end of the world; it creates hope. If we suddenly see reality, we do not experience the absolute despair of an unthinking modernity, but rediscover a world where things have meaning. Hope is possible only if we dare to think about the danger at hand, but this requires opposing both nihilists, for whom everything is only language, and ‘realists,’ who reject the idea that intelligence can attain truth: heads of state, bankers and soldiers who claim to be saving us when in fact they are plunging us deeper into devastation each day.” (pg xiii)

“I am convinced that we have entered an era when anthropology will become a more relevant tool than political science. We will have to radically change our interpretation of events, stop thinking as products of the Enlightenment, and finally envisage the radical nature of violence; this will produce a quite different kind of rationality as required by events.” (pg 2).

“We have to maintain the force of the Scriptures because the apocalyptic texts have gradually been forgotten, just when their relevance is more and more obvious. This is incredible. The joyful welcome of the Kingdom, which the texts describe, has been smothered by a double trend: catastrophic darkening on one hand, and indefinite postponement of the Second Coming on the other. The constant, slow distance in relation to the Gospels casts a shadow on what was supposed to be luminous, and delays it. The anti-Christianity that we see today thus reveals this in a striking way as the next step in a process that began with the Revelation. The ‘time of the Gentiles’ that Luke describes suggests the Judgment has been delayed, and this has gradually imposed a new perspective on the Gospels. It has injected an insidious, growing doubt about the validity of the apocalyptic texts. The ‘time of the Gentiles’ is nonetheless an extraordinary period, that of a civilization that is incommensurable with others and that has given humanity power that it had never had before. Thus, if we exaggerate a little, we can say that that time has gradually confiscated the Revelation and used it to its own ends, to make atomic bombs… The ‘time of the Gentiles’ is thus, like the seventy years of servitude to the King of Babylon in Jeremiah, an indefinite time between two apocalypse, two revelations. If we put the statements back into an evangelical perspective, this can only mean that the time of the Gentiles, in other words, the time when Gentiles will refuse to hear the word of God, is a limited time. Between Christ’s Passion and his Second Coming, the Last Judgment, if you prefer, there will be this indefinite time which is ours, a time of increasingly uncontrolled violence, of refusal to hear, of growing blindness. This is the meaning of Luke’s writings, and this shows their relevance.” (pgs. 110–111).

Reality is not rational, but religious. This is what the Gospels tell us. This is at the heart of history’s contradictions, in the interactions that people weave, with one another, in their relations, which are always threatened by reciprocity. This awareness is needed more than ever now that institutions no longer help us and we each have to make the transformation by ourselves. In this we have returned to Paul’s conversion, to the voice asking, ‘why do you persecute me?’ Paul’s radicalism is very appropriate for our time. He was less the hero who ‘rose’ to holiness than the persecutor who turned himself back and falls to the ground.” (pg 112).

“The ‘time of the Gentiles’ can be defined as a slow withdrawal of the religious in all its forms, a loss of all guides and markers, a questioning without answers, even an ordeal, especially for the elect, who find no comfort anywhere.” (pg. 115).

“It is because Christ deprives them of Scapegoats that the Powers and Principalities will be destroyed. People will escalate violence in reaction to the Revelation because they will be increasingly unable to find an outlet for their mimetic struggles.” (pg. 118).

“The relevance of the apocalyptic texts is therefore absolutely striking when we finally accept their meaning. They say paradoxically that Christ will only return when there is no hope that evangelical revelation will be able to eliminate violence, once humanity realizes that it has failed. Christians say that Christ will return to transform the failure into eternal life. Nonetheless, we should not understimate the insertion of the Spirit into history, nor exceptional individuals, nor the opening of groups to the universal. The Spirit has been incorporated, but the process has failed. The positivity of history should not be eliminated, but shifted. The rationality that mimetic theory seeks to promote is based entirely on the shift. Saying that chaos is near is not incompatible with hope, quite the contrary. However, hope has to be seen in relation to an alternative that leaves only the choice between total destruction and realization of the Kingdom.” (pg 119).

“The imitation of Christ provides the proximity that places us at a distance. It is not the Father whom we should imitate, but his Son, who has withdrawn with his Father. His absence is the very ordeal that we have to go through. This is when, and only when, the religious should no longer be frightening, and the escalation to extremes could turn into its opposite. Such a reversal is nothing more than the advent of the Kingdom.” (pg. 120).

“God’s withdrawal is thus the passage in Jesus Christ from reciprocity to relationship, from proximity to distance… Christ questioned [God’s] silence on the cross, and then he himself imitated his Father’s withdrawal by joining him on the morning of his Resurrection. Christ saves humanity by ‘breaking his solar scepter.’ He withdraws at the very point when he could dominate. We in turn are thus required to experience the peril of the absence of God, the modern experience par excellence, because it is also a redemptive experience. To imitate Christ is to refuse to impose oneself as a model and to always effaced oneself before others. To imitate Christ is to do everything to avoid being imitated… The death of the gods, which so frightens Nietzsche, is simply the same thing as an essential withdrawal in which Christ asks us to see the new face of the divine. Mimetic theory has allowed us to conclude that the purpose of the Incarnation was to finish all religions, whose sacrificial crutches had become ineffective… The more God’s silence grows, the more dangerous violence becomes, as the vacuum is filled by purely human means though now devoid of the sacrificial mechanism. And, by the same token, the more holiness emerges as a distance from the divine.” (pg. 122).

“Imitating Christ thus means thwarting all rivalry, taking distance from the divine by giving it the Father’s face: we are brothers ‘in’ Christ… As he sank into the withdrawal of his Father, Christ invited each of us to model our will on that of his Father. To listen to the Father’s silence is to abandon oneself to his withdrawal, to conform to it. Becoming a ‘son of God’ means imitating this withdrawal, experiencing it with Christ. God is thus not immediately accessible, but immediately: through his Son and the story of Salvation, which as we have seen takes on the paradoxical appearance of an escalation to extremes.” (pg. 123).

“Whatever its origins, Nietzsche’s madness certainly derives from the constant, increasingly accelerated switching from ‘the Crucified’ to Dionysius and from archaic religion to Christianity. Nietzsche did not want to see that Christ had taken Dionysius’s place once and for all; that he had both appropriated and transformed the Greek heritage. Nietzsche thus allows himself to be swallowed up in violence’s fight to the death with truth… One must not hold Hellenic religion over Christianity, but hold both at the same time, and accept the idea that Christianity could have transformed the Greek view on the world.” (pg. 125).

“We imitate Christ less than we identify with the one who, in the apocalyptic texts, will have been Christ. To imitate Christ is to identify with the other, to efface oneself before him: ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Identification supposes a special aptitude for empathy. This explains the constant reminder in these texts of the danger of Antichrists, the danger that they will increasingly present, for Christ alone enables us to escape from human imitation.” (pg. 133).

“Only Christ makes it possible to find [the right] distance. This is why the path indicated in the Gospels is only one available now that there are no longer any exempla now that transcendence of models is no longer available to us. It is up to us to re-establish transcendence by resisting the irresistible attraction that others exercise upon us, and that always leads to violent reciprocity… To imitate Christ by keeping the other at the right distance is to escape the mimetic whirlpool: no longer imitate in order to no longer be imitated.” (pg. 134).

“Christianity is also a historical current that finally led Pope John Paul II to an act of repentance during his visit to Yad Vashem and the Wailing Wall. It is a religion that very quickly returned to old sacrificial reflexes. In short, it has not lived up to its message, to the radically new information that it revealed: definitive knowledge of the mechanisms of violent foundations and radical demystification of the sacred, of the social organizations which it sanctions, Christ plunges us into knowledge of mimetic mechanisms. He thus indeed brings war not peace, disorder not order, because all order is suspect in a way: it always hides the one whose blood was shed in order to reconcile us. To denounce this, to chip away the paint of the ‘whitewashed tombs,’ was to disrupt the sacrificial mechanism forever. The death of Christ will never have been a founding lynching, and the resistance that people put up to the only possible model that He offers them will cause the acceleration of history of which they will be the first victims. Clausewitz is a steadfast witness of this blindness at the dawn of the catastrophes that are awaiting us.” (pg. 141).

“In a way, the victim is always the one who succeeds and fails at the same time. The victim wears contradictory badges. Its sacred nature comes from this very oscillation.” (pg. 149).

“Clear thinking is rarely forgivable.” (pg. 152).

“Nationalism is essentially mimetic: what it criticizes about others concerns it also, so it criticizes itself. National pride is always host to complexes of this kind. We have to think about it as revealing national rivalries in which boasting is the surest symptom of self-hatred. Here we again find bipolarity, the oscillation characteristic of an unstable world, and the essence of romantic falsehood.” (pg. 165).

“Even well-meaning readers still fail to follow me in my conviction that Judeo-Christianity and the prophetic tradition are the only things that can explain the world in which we live. There is a mimetic wisdom, which I do not claim to embody, and it is in Christianity that we have to look for it. It doesn’t matter whether we know it or not. The Crucifixion is what highlights the victimary mechanism and explains history. Today, the ‘signs of the times’ are converging and so we can no longer persevere in the madness of mimetic rivalries that we find on the national, ideological and religious level. Christ said that the Kingdom was not of this world. This explains why the first Christians were waiting for the end of the world, as we find in the two Epistles to the Thessalonians. We thus have to accept the idea that history is essentially finite. Only this eschatological perspective can give time back its true value.” (pg. 196).

“The Enlightenment was the triumph of a certain kind of reasoning, and Catholicism after the Revolution promoted another. The clear culmination of this movement is Pope Benedict XVI’s recent speech at Regensburg. The goal of mimetic theory is to bring this rationality to the forefront.” (pg. 197).

“Christianity reveals the central role of religion in the genesis of culture. Christianity truly demystifies religion because it points out the error on which archaic religion is based: the effectiveness of the divinized scapegoat. The Revelation deprives people of religion, and it is this deprivation that can increasingly be seen around us, in the naive illusion that we are finished with it. Those who believe in the defeat of religion are now seeing it reappear as the product of that very demystification, but what is being produced is something sullied and demonetized, and frightened by the revelation of which it was the object. It is the loss of sacrifice, the only system able to contain violence, which brings violence back among us. Today’s anti-religion combines so much error and nonsense about religion that it can barely be satirized. It serves the cause that it would undermine, and secretly defends the mistakes that it believes it is correcting; it frightens religion without managing to control it. By seeking to demystify sacrifice, current demystification does a much worse job than the Christianity that it thinks it is attacking because it still confuses Christianity with archaic religion.

People thus have to be immersed in untruth in order to have a little peace. This relationship between falsehood and peace is fundamental. The Passion brings war because it tells the truth about humanity, and deprives it of any sacrificial mechanism. Normal religion, which creates gods, is the one with scapegoats. As soon as the Passion teaches people that the victims are innocent, they fight. This is precisely what scapegoat victims used to prevent them from doing. When sacrifice disappears, all that remains is mimetic rivalry, and it escalates to extremes. In a way, the Passion leads to the hydrogen bomb: it will end up exploding the Powers and Principalities. The apocalypse is nothing but the incarnation of Christianity in history, which separates the mother from the child. In the Gospels, even miracles cause fights. Look at the great apocalyptic scenes in The Possessed by Dostoyevsky: you find there everything but syrupy reconciliation.

If the Kingdom is absolute peace, relative peace will be less and less possible owing to this growing empire of violence. Humanity cannot face its own truth without falsehood: this is the implacable truth of Christianity. The truth is now coming, and it is destroying everything by depriving us of our enemies. There will no longer be any good quarrels. There will no longer be any bad Germans. Total loss of sacrifice will necessarily provoke an explosion because sacrifice is the political-religious framework that sustains us. Without this elementary peace and all the ensuing justifications, humanity will be led to the apocalypse.” (pg. 199).

“Western reason has everything to lose from this amputation, which it imposes on itself owing to some incomprehensible masochism. It urgently needs to reintegrate the divine as its essential dimension. Only this kind of rationality can deal with the returns of the corrupted sacred, which are attacks on reason. We urgently need to rethink the articulation of reason and faith. If Vatican II did one essential thing, it was to assert religious freedom, for if there is one single thing that Christianity cannot violate, it is the freedom to reject Revelation.” (pg. 199).

“It has taken over a thousand years to wear away the imperial model and establish the universality of Christian truth.” (pg. 200).

“The pope is alerting us to the fact that Greek reason is disappearing, and that its disappearance will leave the way upon to rampant irrationality. He was putting his finger on an essential point. Rationalism’s disdain of religion not only turns reason into a religion, but makes for a corrupted religion. We know about the war that reason waged against faith, and we have seen that it did not win, that faith still resists.” (pg. 207).

“What drives history is not what seems essential in the eyes of Western rationalists. In today’s implausible amalgam, I think that mimesis is the true primary engine.” (pg. 213).

“The unity of Christianity in the Middle Ages resulted in the Crusades, which were permitted by the papacy. However, the Crusades are not as important as Islam thinks. The Crusades were an archaic regression without consequences for the essence of Christianity. Christ died everywhere and for everyone. Seeing Jews and Christians as falsifiers is the most irremediable thing. It allows Muslims to eliminate all serious discussion, any comparison among the three religions. It amounts to not wanting to see what is at stake in the prophetic tradition. Why has Christian revelation been subject to the most hostile and ferocious possible criticism for centuries, but not Islam? There is an abdication of reason here.” (pg. 216).

“There is an indissoluble link between global warming and the rise in violence. I have repeatedly emphasized the confusion of the natural and the artificial, which is perhaps the strongest thing in apocalyptic texts. Love has ‘cooled down.’ … However, charity is now facing the worldwide empire of violence. Unlike many others, I still think that history has a meaning, the one that we have never stopped talking about. The trend towards the apocalypse is humanity’s greatest feat. The more probable this achievement becomes, the less we talk about it.” (pg. 216).

“I have always been utterly convinced that violence belongs to a form of corrupted sacred, intensified by Christ’s action when he placed himself at the heart of the sacrificial system. Satan is the other name of the escalation to extremes. What Holderlin glimpsed was that the Passion has radically altered the archaic world. Satanic violence has long reacted against this holiness, which is an essential transformation of ancient religion.

It is thus that God revealed himself in his Son, that religion was confirmed once and for all, thereby changing the course of human history. Inversely, the escalation to extremes reveals the power of this divine intervention. Divinity has appeared and it is more reliable than all the earlier theophanies, but no one wants to see it. Humanity is more than ever the author of its own fall because it has become able to destroy its world. With respect to Christianity, this is not just an ordinary moral condemnation, but an unavoidable anthropological observation. Therefore we have to wake up our sleeping consciences. Seeking to comfort is always to contribute to the worst.” (pg. 217).

And again, René Girard’s, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre.