For the better part of the last few centuries Christianity has been on the intellectual defensive. If we take the view that what happens in the culture largely proceeds downstream from various intellectual currents, then we can take significant hope that we are living in a period of time that precedes a theistic Christian renaissance. The torchbearers of modernity, or more properly postmodernity, have been often been cited as Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and without doubt we have all inherited much of the background of their ideas and currently live in a world profoundly shaped by them. At present, however, that entire intellectual inheritance is in the process of being soundly refuted, and new horizons and intellectual foundations are being shaped that create a much different background from which we can all view the world.
The single most important figure in the refutation and reinterpretation of all of the phenomena supposedly brought to theoretical unity by each of those thinkers, and all of their disciples and iterators, is that of René Girard, who developed the mimetic theory of human culture, psychology, and religion. Girard’s central thesis, which has recently and subsequently received substantial empirical verification, is that human beings, human desire, and psychology are fundamentally mimetic in nature. This means that our desires are copied and borrowed, automatically, from other human beings. This simple insight, like the apple that fell in the quadrangle and inspired Newton, explains a whole universe of phenomena.
If I want what you want, merely because you want it, then our desires are naturally going to converge and we are going to come into conflict. Our conflict, again through reciprocal intensification, is also going to escalate, and in order for human beings to exist at all we are going to need to find some means through which to control and resolve our conflicts. Long in the past of humanity, long before the discovery of agriculture or writing, we discovered a means by which to resolve, and to prevent, these mimetic crises from breaking out and destroying our communities; we discovered the technology of sacrifice. Sacrifice was first discovered when the accusations generated by primitive conflicts were all focused, mimetically, upon a scapegoat. One member of the early tribe became the bearer of all of the antagonism and hostility of all of the members of the tribe, and in killing that scapegoat, the early community was moved from intense violence, to violent unanimity, and then to peaceful unanimity, forged together through their shared participation in that horrible and evocative event.
In this the discovery of sacrifice was good, in that it enabled human culture to develop and persist through time; being able to expand in size beyond kin groupings and to move early humans to become a (eu)social species, it was able to develop rules and prohibitions that were communicable and capable of being imitated by all of the members of the tribe, and through these rules—backed up by sacred violence—channel desire into productive cultural enterprises that created the possibility of human civilization. All of this was constantly maintained by sacrifice, which in ritual unity could be used to both ward off and prevent outbreaks of conflict, and also as a ready tool to resolve conflicts that might break out. But of course the kind of sacred that emerged from this kind of religion also contained a horrifying core—the demand for lies and scapegoats in order to perpetuate itself—and it is into this ubiquitous sacred landscape, which made gods and idols of its victims and objects of desire, that the living God intervened.
Mythology and sacrifice was always structured from the point of view of who we can now call the persecutors, rather than from the point of view of the victim or scapegoat. It was only natural that it be written from the point of view of the survivors, as well as essential—from the point of view of violent unanimity and the effectiveness of sacrifice. Without unanimity of accusations, sacrifice can backfire and plunge the community into a continuation of the same crisis. The shared understanding of every particular culture around the world, since they were all operating by the same misunderstood lie and mechanism, was that of the sacred—the gods—on the side of the sacrificers as opposed to the sacrificed. Into these lies, and slowly generating the knowledge that would lead humanity out of this captivity, is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who unlike the gods of Osiris and Set, or Romulus or Remus, or any of the other ancient gods, demands to know of Cain where Abel, his brother, is. God, for the early Israelites and Hebrew peoples, is the God of the widow, the orphan, the outcast, the marginalized, defeated, and persecuted; he is the God who loves and vindicates all of our scapegoats.
Biblical revelation, from the point of view of anthropology, is structurally different—almost a mirror image—of all of its pagan contemporaries. From the story of Cain and Abel, Noah, Joseph and his brothers, down through the Psalms—many of which are directly written from the point of view of the victim—through the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, and most completely to Our Lord, the God-Man suspended on the cross of Cavalry and victoriously rising from the empty tomb, the Bible deconstructs and completely upends the old world order of sacred violence, and retransforms it into true worship of the living God who is love. By his command and through taking him as a model, we are invited into the imitation of Christ, and through our creative imitation, able to go out and bring this transformation into our own lives and out into the world, continually, liberating humanity from its imprisonment from all of its forms of misrecognition, lies, pride, and violence.
Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and all of their followers, and every other modern thinker, from refusing to look at the scapegoat can only do what humanity has always done from necessity as a result of its condition of precarious pride and lack of being: search for and offer up scapegoats. For Marx it was the capitalists and the bourgeois; for Nietzsche it was the weak and the herd; for Freud it was the subconscious or our parents. Every modern ideology is just one form or another of an attempt to reconstitute and make meaningful the search for scapegoats—a lie that might seem persuasive for a while, especially where we can find real persecution and victimization taking place (since we live in a world fundamentally modified already by the Gospel revelation and identification of God with the “least of these”), but whose lie is quickly undermined when it is psychologically and structurally revealed as nothing more than an attempt to find, yet again, another scapegoat.
From the point of view of scientific discovery, anthropology, and neodarwinism, religion was one more problem—a pressing and central one—to be solved. But it always evaded solution, and we can see from the point of view of history why it was so difficult. In order to theoretically unify religion, all religion and culture must be brought under the same theoretical aegis, but among the world religions there was a singular and unique difference structurally with the Judeo-Christian tradition. It was only by going in through sacrifice, which has been nearly completely dissolved and transformed into a completely different kind of sacrifice in our own time (from sacrifice of the other to sacrifice of the self), that we were able to bring religion to theoretical unity, and through the same investigation, coupled with historical investigation, we find that Christianity forms the singular pivot from which we are able to scientifically understand our ancient past and modern history. From the point of view of the secular Darwinists, a scientific theory of religion was desirable, but a scientific theory with God in the center of it was certainly not.
Girard’s research also brings into clear focus the makeup of our own psychology, and it is too much for me to go into here, but with all of these phenomena finally brought into theoretical unity, and with Christianity providing the core basis from which to go out and understand everything else that we see at the level of the human, we should feel strongly emboldened by the fact that no matter how long it takes to saturate, and how much resistance the truth is met with, and through whatever further discoveries and iterations of mimetic theory take place, that we are in very exciting times intellectually and theologically, and with all of this touching every element of human culture, and providing hope and method for dispersion and transmission, that we can very well join in the vision of Saint John Paul the Great who foresaw a New Springtime, the first fruits of which are already visible. From recent discoveries in cosmology, cell biology, philosophy of mind and cognitive science, moral philosophy, and from many other disparate sources, there is a massive intellectual convergence of insights that can only point to theism and the reasonableness of faith. It is, if one is intellectually honest, becoming more difficult not to believe than to believe, and while we might continually groan and sigh at whatever sins and disappointments we see around us, we should be very hopeful and rejoice at all of this wonderful intellectual groundwork, while only quietly noticed thus far, taking place.