lds-herm blog

Discussion of hermeneutics, esp. as it pertains to LDS scripture

God in Girard’s anthropology

Posted by Robert C. on July 5, 2007

So it turns out that instead of ordering Girard’s The Scapegoat as an audiobook, I got a CBC Radio 5-part special on Girard (part of a regular feature called Ideas, which has a very interesting list of programs which can be ordered, as audiobooks or as written transcripts). This was a serendipitous mistake, because the series is a very good introduction to Girard’s thought.

The title of the series is The Scapegoat: René Girard’s Anthropology of Violence and Religion, written and produced by David Cayley. My wife’s undergraduate degree is in Anthropology, from BYU. She says that many view this degree as a “high risk” degree in terms of one’s testimony of the Church, which some anecdotal evidence suggests is not a completely unfounded view (I’ve heard something similar about philosophy, at least at the graduate level, though I don’t even have anecdotal evidence regarding philosophy, and I presume the claim applies mostly to analytic philosophy, which doesn’t surprise me because of the tension between faith and reason lying, arguably, at the heart of modernity which of course analytic and Continental philosophy address quite differently—but I’m severely digressing, sorry).

My question in this post is: What are the potential conflicts between anthropology and faith, esp. as it pertains to Girard’s anthropology?

The main tension I see is rooted in the tension between constancy and change. That is, in what sense is God (and his church, and doctrine, and theology, and truth, etc.) dynamic vs. unchangeable (or immutable; I think it’s rather ironic that in these quick scriptural word searches there are many more references in LDS scripture than in the Bible, ironic because LDS believe in an open canon and continuing revelation whereas most Christians don’t…). Girard’s view of the Old Testament seems to be one of cultural progress, and it is this that I think challenges at least a traditional Mormon understanding of scriptural history. Specifically, one problem/tension I see is Girard’s take on the origin of sacrifice. In Moses 5:6, Adam tells the inquiring angel that he offers sacrifices unto the Lord “I know not [why], save the Lord commanded me.” Can we think that God asked Adam to do this, not for some sort of transcendent, metaphysical reason, but (merely) so that society could learn how to overcome mimetic rivalry and crises?

For Girard, sacrifice is something that society comes to use as a means for resolving mimetic rivalry (competition, basically, though Girard’s take on this seems quite intriguing, something we will surely talk about in more depth later; for those who’ve read Derrida’s Gift of Death, this seems intriguingly related to Derrida’s/Patocka’s notion of war, which seems closely related to Levinas’s notion of the Same…). This, however, is only one step in society’s evolutionary attempt at resolving the problem of mimetic rivalry. At first, the scapegoat is viewed as guilty and society is bound together in its focus on this common enemy. Society comes to recognize the euphoria following the sacrifice, and this makes the sacrifice sacred. But society also comes to recognize that the sacrificial victim is not necessarily guilty. This causes a “mimetic crisis” where society has a hard time understanding the difference between sacred and nonsacred violence. It is against this background of mimetic crisis that Girard reads the Hebrew Old Testament. Thus, Girard sees the encounter between Joseph and Judah in Genesis 44 as a key development: Judah’s offering himself in place of Benjamin (v. 33), and Joseph’s subsequent forgiveness of all of his brothers (not just Judah!), transforms society’s traditional understanding of the role of sacrifice. Similarly, Job’s refusal to be a guilty scapegoat for society is taken as evidence that the former view that scapegoats are guilty is being challenged. Similarly, the Prophets’ complaints against sacrifice are taken as an evolutionary step in society away from literal, blood sacrifice, toward a more symbolic kind of sacrifice (like the broken heart and contrite spirit of 3 Nephi 9). Circumcision is also taken as a means of changing the understanding of the purpose of sacrifice (that is, by effectively internalizing the violence; Girard also makes some interesting comments regarding the puzzling incident in Exodus 4:24ff where Moses’ son is circumcised, but I wasn’t very clear on what he was trying to say).

This is, of course, only a very rough sketch of Girard’s view(s) on the origin and evolution of sacrifice, and perhaps a very faulty one at that since I’m basing this only on my listening to two tapes on Girard. My purpose is simply to get us thinking about what will likely be a key issue for us to consider as we take up Girard, viz. to what extent can we view society as evolving, and God interacting with society in an evolutionary way? The problem, of course, is that if God is taken merely as society’s evolving conception of God, there is a strong sense in which this severely challenges a Mormon notion of God who exists independently of or transcendentally above humankind’s evolving conception of him.


10 Responses to “God in Girard’s anthropology”

  1. robf said

    I was also an Anthro undergrad (BYU ’93). I got an excellent education there, and learned many things which have enriched my faith. While its true that anthropology can expose weaknesses in testimonies that may not be fully developed, it also opens the door to wider vistas. How can we follow the admonitions of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to gather up all the truths scattered across the globe without learning how to deal with the many different cultures that have preserved those truths? I look forward to diving into Girard’s book and hope to have more to say on it later.

  2. Joe Spencer said


    You have nailed in a single introductory post what grounds my entire concern with Girard. But I have to wonder to what extent Girard will put this into a temporal or historical framework, since most continental thinkers stress the logical structure of these kinds of things over the actual temporal flow of sequential moments. But I’d like to think about this more.

  3. Cherylem said

    While I was gone last week I managed to reread all but the last 20 pages of The Scapegoat and I am looking forward to a robust discussion. I am planning on writing a post about some of the things I want to say about Girard in the next couple of days.

    Robert writes:
    Can we think that God asked Adam to do this, not for some sort of transcendent, metaphysical reason, but (merely) so that society could learn how to overcome mimetic rivalry and crises?

    I suggest: yes, except remove the “merely.” I believe, in Girard’s way of thinking, that speaking of the continual mimetic crisis and the scape goating mechanism as something small and ordinary is one way we have of keeping this hidden from ourselves. Yet, he posits, all art, literature, etc., cannot help but point to this otherwise hidden, terrible, and magnificent revelation.

  4. Joe Spencer said

    I’ll be very interested to read your post, Cheryl. My reading of chapter 1 (about which I will post early next week) has greatly reoriented me in relation to Girard, and I’m very excited to take this up at some length.

  5. Justin W. said

    I’m looking forward to reading and at least lurking on these discussions.

  6. Robert C. said

    Cheryl #3, I have to admit something I’m very much drawn to thinking that addresses self-deception, and this aspect of Girard’s thought really intrigues me (i.e. what we keep “hidden from ourselves” as you put it). I sort of feel bad for not addressing many of the aspects of Girard’s thought that I’m really excited about, instead rushing directly to one of the potential challenges/difficulties. Surely I’ll get a chance to sing his praise as we continue….

  7. Cherylem said

    I think it would be great for you to write a post on chapter 1. I’ll try to write a general introductory post on Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately I don’t think I can do it before then.


  8. cherylem said

    Robert #6,
    This will be an interesting discussion. Maybe you will never sing Girard’s praises, and that is fine. Just bring your fine mind along for the ride and we’ll see where the journey goes.

  9. music said

    What do you mean ?

  10. Sophie said

    Hi I need help understanding girard. can someone help me? my email id is

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