For René Girard: Essays in Friendship and in Truth
ed. Sandor Goodhart, Tom Ryba, Jørgen Jørgensen, and James Williams. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University, 2009. 300 pages.
For René Girard: Essays in Friendship and in Truth is a diverse collection of retrospectives and essays intended “not to celebrate [René Girard’s] work . . . nor even to explain it . . . but to bear witness to it” (vii). This unique focus lends a very personal quality to many of the contributions to a volume that does not announce itself as a festschrift. In thus “bearing witness,” many of the contributors recall how they became familiar with Girard’s work and with Girard himself in terms often reminiscent of conversion stories. When the contributors avoid, with Robert Hamerton-Kelly, the “swamp of sentimentality and . . . the mountaintop of self-attested success” (169), their offerings portray the breadth and depth of Girardian scholarship and explore profound questions raised by Girard’s theories of religion, sacrifice, mimetic desire, and the scapegoat mechanism.
Given that these twenty-six essays are written in tribute to René Girard, a thinker who transgresses disciplinary and other boundaries with veritable relish, it is perhaps appropriate that this volume lacks a thematic or disciplinary apparatus. While all contributors appear to agree that “the religious scriptural text . . . comprises an anthropological insight about the ways of managing mimetic desire through the sacrificial expulsion of a surrogate victim” (ix), each tracks the ramifications of this differently. The contributions therefore explore topics ranging from religion and religious study to literary study, the philosophy of social science, and psychological studies (viii). The interdisciplinary character of these essays should be taken neither as evidence of a lack of rigor, as certain questions only admit of being asked outside strictly confining disciplinary boundaries, nor as evidence of the lack of a central subject matter, for the contributors share, with Girard, a concern with “anthropos in the full range of the expression” (ix).
The essays in For René Girard do differ from customary research articles in that few of them explore a particular question raised by Girard’s thought in programmatic fashion. The majority of contributors rather trace the way Girard’s thought has influenced or set the terms for their own work, and in this they adhere to the mandate they were given. Some are able, however, to explore the central Girardian questions with laudable clarity even in the course of this retrospective movement.
Eric Gans’s essay probes the value of Girard’s theory for humanists born “too late” (23) to believe that the Transcendent cannot help but be regenerated anew with every act of (immanent) representation. Eugene Webb tracks the potential Girard’s theory offers within a comparative religious frame. He describes the way Girard contributes to psychology’s analysis of desire (Freud and Lacan) and notes the convergences with “Buddhism’s critique of desire” (154). Jean-Pierre Dupuy shows the continued relevance of sacrificial thinking and thus of Girard’s thought in assessing the current geo-political and economic landscape.
Cesáreo Bandera’s excellent essay explores the extent to which the movement of faith is the condition of possibility for one’s transcending of the violence of mimetic entanglements. Robert Daly attempts to describe the phenomenology of redemption at which he sees Girard’s thought aiming and which he sees developed in the thought of James Williams, Gil Bailie, and James Alison. These theological Girardians agree that Scripture moves one from merely recognizing the innocence of victims to a Christic identification with victims. This replaces victimizing mechanisms “with a nonacquisitive, nonrivalrous, non-double-binding mimesis” (108). James Williams and Robert Hamerton-Kelly each describe the advantages Girard’s hermeneutic holds over against those of its modern rivals—structuralism, postmodernism, literalism, the historical-critical approach to Scripture—and they contend that mimetic theory offers a reading of the Cross that unmasks the violence of sacrificial Christianity. Anthony Bartlett and Michael Hardin, both of whom contend that Christian theology threatens to degenerate into myth and that theology can be saved by being viewed through a Girardian lens as “transformative anthropology” (267), also pick up this theme.
Though the volume may have been improved had the editors been more selective, For René Girard will be of value to readers familiar with Girard and interested in the trajectories traced by Girardians and, in particular, by members of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. It also displays what may be called the precipitate of Girard’s work—that set of concepts and base-level assumptions that has come to characterize those whom Girard has influenced. While this volume points to the many questions Girard’s work raises, it also points to how Girard has already changed the way his objects of study are understood.