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“René Girard, Unlikely Apologist”

April 12, 2021


René Girard was one of the most important religious theorists of the last fifty years, offering insights that resonate with both believers and unbelievers. His ideas continue to be discussed in academic circles, but I believe he needs to be better known by the wider public. Bishop Barron has made efforts in this regard, upholding Girard as a modern Church Father, particularly praising his theory of the “scapegoating” mechanism as a way of helping people see the violence at the heart of society and in themselves. Basically, Girard helps us realize we are sinners in need of God’s grace.

When I read Girard, I am always reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.” There’s always something in his writing that hits me like Mary Grace’s book, thrown at the self-righteous Mrs. Turpin, reminding me of what a warthog I am. But such violence is received as grace, helping me see my need for the Savior. I have found that most people who read Girard, or who are simply introduced to his thought, have a similar experience. It’s like an apocalyptic bomb, shedding light on the human condition. 

Introducing students to Girard was always a delight for me because I got to see a lightbulb go off in them, hearing from them how useful his theories were in understanding the dynamics of every social phenomenon, from dating life to political elections. But I also saw how well it prepared my students to receive the Gospel. Like many of my students, Girard grew up in a Catholic home but eventually fell away from the faith, writing off the Gospel as just one more myth from the ancient world. However, through the study of literature, he came to see how the Gospel differed from those myths insofar as it was an apocalypse—that is, an unveiling. Unsurprisingly, many students have a similar perception of the Gospel as Girard did when he was a young man. But by guiding them along the path Girard discovered, they were better able to see that difference and their need for the Lord. In a word, Girard cut them to the heart, leading them to ask, “What shall we do?” 

Every catechist should be familiar with the basic outline of Girard’s thought because of its evangelical power, and there’s no better place to learn this outline than in Dr. Grant Kaplan’s latest work, René Girard, Unlikely Apologist, because of its exploration of mimetic theory and the significance of this theory to fundamental theology. Dr. Kaplan shows us Girard’s significant value to apologetics, the theology of revelation, religion, ecclesiology, theories on modernity, and atheism. In a post-Christian world that has more or less heard the Gospel but has shrugged it off or found it irrelevant, there’s no better way to shock people out of their assumptions toward Christianity than by sharing what Girard unpacks. 

Girard was not just an apologist though. His thought reaches far and wide. 

During his life, Girard was never fully accepted in any field. Anthropologists were critical of what they took to be his overly theoretical approach; theologians had problems with some aspects of his soteriology (the doctrine of salvation); and literary theorists were not sure if he fit the mold. But Girard was all these things and much more. His mimetic theory might strike some as obvious, but the insight it provides is profound and broadly applicable. Many theologians, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, were at first skeptical but later appreciated his insights, trying to work them into their own thinking about divine revelation. 

Recently, I sat down with Dr. Grant Kaplan to discuss René Girard’s mimetic theory and its importance in theology. His book argues for Girard’s importance in the field of fundamental theology (a border discipline Kaplan describes as “unbelief seeking belief” instead of “faith seeking understanding”). Many religion teachers probably never get to do theology (faith seeking understanding) with their students, since so many are still in unbelief, keeping most of them stuck between borders. Accordingly, Kaplan’s book is immensely helpful in explaining why Girard is crucial here. 

In our interview, Dr. Kaplan appropriates Karl Rahner’s quote that “the Christian of the future will be a mystic or . . . will not exist at all,” paraphrasing it as “the Christian of the future will be a Girardian or not exist at all.” That’s quite a bold statement. But the more I think about it, the more it rings true. And although many theologians still find his thought questionable, it can do great work in the apologetic work of the Church. Hopefully this short exposition into the mind and work of René Girard will whet your appetite for our interview, which we’ll be presenting over the next two weeks. See you then.