Discovering the work of theologian René Girard

by Bill Tammeus

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I read theology for fun. I've done it for years. Well, maybe fun isn't the right term, but I prefer it to most fiction and to much else that the publishing world offers -- sometimes even to my own books.

So it's unusual for me to run across someone -- considered a major player among contemporary theologians -- about whom I know almost nothing. But I was surprised recently when a friend introduced me to the theological and philosophical work of René Girard. I'd heard of him in passing but that's about it.

Within two weeks of my introduction to Girard, a native of France who taught for years in the U.S., he was dead. He died Nov. 4 at age 91. I'm sure that was just coincidence, and that if you introduce me to other important, aging people of whom I know little, they won't immediately die, too.

Girard, a Christian in an academic world full of skeptics, is most closely associated with something called "mimetic theory." The piece in The Week to which I've linked in the previous paragraph says that theory "is like a flash of lightning on a dark summer night, suddenly illuminating everything in a strange new light."

British theologian, priest and writer James Alison writes that more than a decade after he was introduced to Girard's thinking, "I am still struggling to put into words the fecundity of what continues to be a completely unexpected and extraordinary access to Christ that is absolutely concentric with, and illuminating of, the central tenets of the Catholic faith."

So is there a way to describe mimetic theory briefly so as to connect it to Christian faith? Well, the article about Girard in The Week says that "Mimetic theory, which Girard first hit upon teaching French literature and reading the great novelists' psychological analysis of their characters, is the idea that our desires are imitative. In other words, most of the things we want, we want because others want them."


So this mimetic desire leads to the destructive practice of scapegoating. Girard found examples of this everywhere he looked. But in the Bible scapegoating was exposed for the evil impulses it represented. That, he decided, is especially true in the story of Jesus.

To quote The Week again, "the Cross exposes scapegoating as a lie and thereby, if it is heeded, empties it of its power."

Well, as you can imagine, I have only peeled back the top onion skin of Girard's thinking. And I have yet to process what it might mean for my own Christian faith and my home in the Presbyterian Church (USA). But you may find this Girardian lectionary site and this Weekly Standard piece helpful in grasping what this remarkable man's intellectual and spiritual explorations have to do with your own faith.

As I think about my nation and the brainless materialism of the culture around me, I suspect that Girard's mimetic theory (I've begun to think of it as describing unexamined lust for what others own) also may help me see why things are the way they are in America.

What I don't yet know is how Girardian thinking might lead to a deeper understanding of systemic racism, economic injustice, the frequent unwillingness of religious institutions to embrace healthy change and an environmental ethic that puts on to future generations burdens that we ourselves would never stand for if we had to pay those costs now.

There's also much exploring to be done to see how Girard's thinking matches or conflicts with the biblical witness about Jesus' own thinking. Are they in harmony or can I find areas of conflict?

This all sounds like a lot of work, however fascinating it may be. I wish I already had the knowledge about Girard that my friend who introduced me to him does. If acquiring it is all too much work, I'll scapegoat her.

[ Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at]

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