René Girard and Raymund Schwager

Correspondence 1974-1991

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Editor(s): 
Scott Cowdell, Joel Hodge, Chris Fleming, Mathias Moosbrugger
Translator(s): 
Sheelah Treflé Hidden
Chris Fleming
Violence, Desire, and the Sacred
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , October
     2016.
     232 pages.
     $100.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781501320477.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The edited and translated correspondence between René Girard and Raymund Schwager is a great gift to those engaged in the study of violence and religion—specifically relating to mimetic theory. René Girard and Raymund Schwager: Correspondence 1974-1991 reveals the context from which an original thinker—Girard—finds a kindred spirit with whom he can develop and tease out his ideas, the Swiss Jesuit theologian—Schwager. Schwager was also a formidable intellect, and this work gives the reader the sense of “a fly on the wall” during their in-depth conversations. The two scholars are concerned about violence and the meaning of sacrifice within religion, yet each approach the subject from a different perspective: René Girard as an anthropological philosopher and Raymund Schwager as a Catholic theologian.

Several points in this book are of particular significance: the helpful timeline provided by the editors, the translator notes, and the themes discussed by the two correspondents. Themes include sacrificial versus non-sacrificial atonement theory, persecution texts within the Psalms and in particular Job, and many other key areas of Girard’s theory. It is fascinating for the reader already familiar with Girard’s major works (Violence and the Sacred, 1972), and (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 1978) to “listen” to a more candid Girard as he discusses his thinking with his friend. For example, his comments regarding Friedrich Nietzsche: "I think more and more that his vision of the difference between the biblical and mythological, Dionysus against the Crucified, is accurate, aimed at the syncretism of the period, but that his moral choice (in favor of Dionysus) is a disaster that drags him toward positions progressively more and more inhumane (see the fragments at the end of Twilight of the Idols) and that his madness is linked to a monstrous kind of wager in favor of the mythological, the inverse of Pascal’s wager" (135-136).

Schwager’s insight into the penitential psalms provides Girard with theological cud to chew. Schwager also challenges Girard to think about the Epistle to the Hebrews in a more positive way than Girard was initially prepared to do.

“There is certainly a sacrificial vocabulary in this epistle,” Schwager writes, “but I think we can demonstrate that it is only the vocabulary that remains sacrificial, and that the content is quite other than this… and I think that the Epistle to the Hebrews is—despite the sacrificial vocabulary—sufficiently clear to allow an anti-sacrificial interpretation (in the OT there is already the phrase “sacrifice of praise,” where the word sacrifice was utterly emptied of sacrificial meaning)” (53).

Finally, it must be noted how important this relationship was to both men. The reader swiftly realizes that Girard lacked a community where he could participate in lively intellectual debate, unlike Schwager, who had the luxury of his religious circle in Innsbruck. “The isolation [dispersion] and often extreme vanity of university life make this indispensable,” he writes to Schwager concerning their correspondence (31). “It would be hard for you to imagine, I think, to what extent university life, of which I am a part … is profoundly closed to research such as ours” (34).

Girard mentions his isolation several times throughout their correspondence as well as the lack of comprehension and/or contempt he received from other academics. As an outlier in his thought and personal belief system, both at Johns Hopkins and Stanford Universities, Girard relied on Schwager’s insight, encouragement, and support. Indeed, Schwager became Girard’s champion to other intellectuals, both in the religious sphere and in agnostic academia.

More than anything, this book is a glimpse into a beautiful friendship.  A poignancy emerges as the reader nears the end of almost twenty years of correspondence, and sees these two thinkers build a true and lasting bond. This is an unusual read due to its nature—a series of letters never intended for publication—and translated from German and French into the English language, but for all of this, the editors and translators clearly viewed their work as a labor of love—and it shows. This reviewer is grateful for Imitatio, a program of the Thiel Foundation, for enabling another great work to be produced in the field of mimetic theory.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kristin Vargas is assistant archivist at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Date of Review: 
May 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Scott Cowdell is Research Professor in the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology at Charles Sturt University, Australia, Canon Theologian of the Canberra-Goulburn Anglican Diocese, and Founding President of the Australian Girard Seminar.

Joel Hodge is Lecturer in Systematic Theology, School of Theology, Australian Catholic University, Australia. He is the author of Resisting Violence and Victimisation: Christian Faith and Solidarity in East Timor (2012) and is current Treasurer and Secretary of the Australian Girard Seminar.

Chris Fleming is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Anthropology, School of Humanities and Languages, the University of Western Sydney, Australia. His is the author of Violence and Mimesis (2004) and is current Vice-President of the Australian Girard Seminar.

Mathias Moosbrugger is Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Systemic Theology at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, where he serves as the coordinator of the research project "Raymund Schwager: Dramatic Theology."

Sheelah Treflé Hidden is Research Associate with the Heythrop Institute: Religion and Society at the University of London, UK. She is the editor of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Mystical Perspectives on the Love of God (2014).

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