René Girard, Unlikely Apologist

Mimetic Theory and Fundamental Theology

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Grant Kaplan
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , August
     282 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


René Girard is without doubt a major figure in the contemporary academic world. Though certain scholars and disciplines may ignore him or downplay his significance, other scholars take him very seriously. Writing books and articles that engage Girard’s thought has become a cottage industry that requires a significant investment of time to keep track of. One key aspect of his thought that is clearly ambiguous is the sense of whether he writes, or does not write, as a Christian thinker. Girard himself tended to say that his central insights regarding mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism were “secular” ideas—a “scientific” hypothesis that could be tested as such—without reference to religious presuppositions. Some commentators have taken him at his word and agreed that mimetic theory is separable from religious philosophy. However, other scholars have said that his theory is not really scientific, but rather a form of crypto-apologetics; and, in fact, the worst sort of apologetics, because it claims the superiority of Christianity to all other religions. Girard himself adds to the confusion by saying, in his later works, that the central drama of human history is the struggle between the Holy Spirit and Satan (while still claiming that his thought is a scientific hypothesis, comparable to that of Darwin).

Author Grant Kaplan wades directly into this thicket of claims and attempts to sort out the issues involved more clearly than Girard ever did himself. He succeeds admirably, writing a thorough and engaging book that treats the question of Girard’s religious presuppositions, and many other topics related to Kaplan’s own area of expertise: Catholic fundamental theology. René Girard, Unlikely Apologist weaves through its seven chapters and roughly two hundred pages critical commentary on the two main interfaces for Girard’s thought: the secular academy and Christian theology. On the academic side, there is a thorough discussion of the non-theological reception of Girard, and also chapters that focus on Charles Taylor’s secularization narrative and Friedrich Nietzsche’s atheistic rebellion against the Christian tradition. A lacuna in the book, however, is the underrated influence on Girard of Kenneth Burke, who was already using the phrase “the scapegoat mechanism” in the 1930s, and doing so from a clearly non-theological point of view. We know that Girard had read Burke, and the fact that Burke was taken seriously as a social theorist and literary critic may have formed the foundation for Girard’s thinking of himself as doing the same sort of thing. Another gap in the book is a lack of attention to Pierre Manent, a major voice in French Christian political thought who did make very specific criticisms of Girard.

The theologically oriented chapters allow Kaplan to assess the adequacy of the responses to Girard by authors such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Sarah Coakley, David Bentley Hart, John Milbank, and Raymund Schwager. The last name in this list was, as Girardians well know, a key conversation partner for Girard, and one who, in crucial ways, shaped Girard’s interpretation of the Bible and his theological formulations. A chapter on the doctrine of revelation allows Kaplan to summarize the views of René Latourelle and Avery Dulles, and argue that Girard’s ideas advance the Christian understanding of revelation beyond the state of the discussion achieved by those authors. Another chapter considers the thorny question of interreligious dialogue, seeking to defend Girard against the notion that he was a triumphalist or supersessionist. The chapter on ecclesiology focuses mainly on the writings of James Alison, one of the most creative and sensitive followers of Girard, to explore and develop some of the implications of mimetic theory for the life of the Church going forward into the 21st century. If Christ is the forgiving victim, and if the Church is the social body brought into existence through the experience of divine forgiveness, then the Church can only truly be the Church to the extent that it teaches, preaches, and lives out in the world a non-reactive, non-resentful reenactment of the experiences of the original apostles. In Alison’s thought we see an alternative to the scholarly nitpicking that would find fault with this or that paragraph in Girard from the perspective of an academic discipline that may view him as a dilettante. Girard is not just another scholar playing the academic game; the implications of his thought overflow the narrow horizons of the academy and lead us to think about morality, social life, and the future of humanity in new ways, that are at the same time ancient ways.

In my view, Girard was indeed a crypto-apologist from the very beginning. As he was writing Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1961), and Violence and the Sacred (1972), he already had in mind that the apparently “scientific” presentation of mimetic theory was actually a Trojan-horse strategy to gain a hearing in the academic world, so that the later overt presentation of Christian ideas would have more impact. Girard himself says as much in response to something this reviewer had written (see Evolution and Conversion, Bloomsbury, 2008, 149-50). The mature Girard, author of The Scapegoat (1982), I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001), and Battling to the End (2009), writes from the perspective of a Christian apologist who has gained a hearing in the academic world precisely because his earlier Trojan-horse strategy worked. It is my contention that his theory was always theological, all the way down, and I find nothing in Kaplan’s excellent book that convinces me otherwise. Girard’s anthropology is derived from the Bible, and it makes no sense to say that a biblical anthropology is non-theological.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Grant Kaplan is Associate Professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University.


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