How Girard’s Mimetic Theory Can Help Us Understand the Relationship Between Science and Religion, by Britton Johnston

How Girard’s Mimetic Theory Can Help Us Understand the Relationship Between Science and Religion, by Britton Johnston

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Metanexus Anthropos. 2004.10.25. 4,995 Words.

“Mimetic theory, if it is correct, offers a fresh and clear path for usto understand how science and religion are radically interdependent.” Inthis essay, Britton Johnston examines the mimetic theory of Rene Girard,offering it as a more than adequate anthropological theory, as well as auseful methodology for science and religion research and dialogue.According to Johnston, “The ‘Mimetic Theory’ of Ren� Girard opens newavenues for exploring the relationship between science and religion.Girard, a retired Stanford professor, is a “literary anthropologist” whohas discovered that human beings get their desires from each other,leading to conflict over the object of desire, and ultimately toviolence. Religion exists as a mechanism to keep our own violence fromdestroying us. Science is born of the Bible’s recognition that there isa difference between “cosmos” and “culture.” Mimetic theory reconcilescompeting claims between science and religion regarding the origin ofthe cosmos, and regarding the nature of ‘spiritual forces.'”

Rev. Britton W. Johnston is a Presbyterian minister living in Santa Fe,New Mexico. He was born in 1957 in Anchorage, Alaska, where he grew up. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in “Mythology and Theater” at WorldCollege West in Marin County, CA. His Master of Divinity is fromMcCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, class of 1990. He recentlycompleted 13-years as Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in SantaFe, New Mexico. He was organizer of the annual meeting of the GirardianColloquium on Violence and Religion in June, 2004.


=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=–How Girard’s Mimetic Theory Can Help Us Understand the RelationshipBetween Science and Religion


Britton W. Johnston

The question of the relationship between science and religion, like manyother leading concerns of theologians today, has to do with therelationship between culture and truth. It therefore seems appropriateto approach these theological issues anthropologically. Unfortunately,the field of Anthropology tends to be dominated by a “politicallycorrect” suspicion of religion in general, and of theology in particular.

Fortunately, there is a new anthropological theory emerging. This newtheory is congenial to theology, promising to give us powerful newconcepts and tools to finally resolve these vexing theologicalquestions. This theory is the “mimetic theory” of Ren� Girard. It hasbeen around for about 30 years, though it has made little progress amongtheologians and anthropologists until recently. What I would like to dowith this essay is to introduce the basics of Girard’s theory, and tosuggest how this theory might supply us with a fruitful new approach forreconciling science and religion.

Ren� Girard is what you might call a “literary” anthropologist — thisdespite the fact that his formal education was in neither literature noranthropology. His Ph.D. is in history. His doctoral dissertation wason the subject of Franco-American relations after World War II. Althoughhis “outsider” status might lead us to question the validity of histheories, in fact a lack of official credentials is common among thosewho bring revolutionary new ideas to a field of study.

Girard was born in France in 1923. He came to the United States in1947, working on his doctoral dissertation at Indiana University. Theyput him to work teaching French literature, something for which he hadlittle training beyond the fact that he was a Frenchman. In fact, hewas often just barely ahead of his students, reading some of the novelsfor the first time, two chapters ahead of the class assignments. In theprocess of teaching literature, he began to notice certain patterns inthe great novels, in their treatment of human desire

His first book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, was published in French(with the title Mensonge romantique et v�rit� romanesque) in 1961, afterhe had become a professor at Johns Hopkins University. In that book heargues that great literature reflects awareness that human beings gettheir desires from one another. We are “mimetic” creatures, meaningthat we internalize one another through imitation. A crucial aspect ofthe mimetic process is that it is the means by which we acquire ourdesires. Human desire therefore is not innate; rather, we “borrow” ourdesires from those we imitate. This brings us into conflict with thoseothers. The person who is our model also becomes for us the greatestobstacle to getting what we want. Great literature, Girard argued,depicts its protagonists’ entanglement in these mimetic webs of desireand rivalry — but often with liberation at the moment of the hero’sdeath or expulsion.

Girard continued to examine the theme of expulsion, in ancientliterature and primal myths. He found that every ancient myth containedtraces of a pattern of expulsion. Every ancient myth, that is, exceptfor the Bible. In 1972, he published La Violence et le Sacr�, in whichhe argued that all religious myths are disguised accounts of actualhistorical events, specifically expulsions, the sacrifice of scapegoats. Even the Bible follows this same pattern, but with one importantdifference: the Bible is the first narrative to present the expulsionfrom the point of view of the scapegoat.

Girard went on to develop his mimetic theory in subsequent books, suchas Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (English edition,1987), The Scapegoat (1986), To Double Business Bound (1978), and I SeeSatan Fall Like Lightning (English edition 2001). In these books andothers, Girard and his followers have demonstrated that his theory hasamazing power to clarify issues in anthropology, theology, biblicalinterpretation, psychology, political science, economics, linguistics,and on and on. It is truly a “grand theory,” simple yet powerful. Suchtheories are not in fashion in these postmodern and multicultural times;they are in fact regarded with suspicion. So far, there have been nogrand theories that have worked. So far.

A thumbnail sketch of the “mimetic theory” of Ren� Girard:

The preeminent characteristic of human beings is that we imitate eachother (thus the term “Mimetic Theory”). This mimesis is not meremimicry, but an instinctive and preconscious impulse. Even ourdesires–especially our desires–come from the imitation of others.Because we want the same things that others want, we come into conflictover who will possess the desired object. This rivalry is in turnimitated so that it escalates into violence. The rivalry does notremain limited to the first individuals involved, but others imitate ituntil it spreads to the entire community, generating a mimetic crisis.Violence threatens to destroy everyone involved, unless a solution is found.

The solution that our species stumbled upon was the mechanism ofsacrifice. One individual is singled out by the community as thescapegoat whose death absorbs the violence in the community, deliveringthe community from this threat. The community mistakenly believes thatthe scapegoat was at once the cause as well as the all-powerful cure forthe chaos of the mimetic crisis. The pagan concept of the gods emergesfrom this misrecognition. The deliverance brought about by sacrificialviolence is the basis for the primitive sacred. It is also the basis ofarchaic religion and the foundation of human culture.

Human culture extends the power of sacrifice by creating myths andidols, which remind the people of the sacred event of the sacrifice,damping down the fires of the mimetic crisis. The function of a myth isto preserve and obscure the historical event of the sacrifice. Bypreserving the experience of the sacrifice, a myth reduces the need forfrequent repetitions of it. But it is also important that myths obscurethe murderous reality of the sacrifice, because to speak openly ofmurder is to risk triggering a new mimetic crisis.

Human culture inhibits the development of the mimetic crisis by alsoputting in place taboos, laws, and other forms of sacred differentiationso that the effects of mimesis are reduced, thus slowing the developmentof mimetic crises.

The biblical revelation (in both the Old and the New Testaments) breaksthe power of this sacred violence by revealing it for what it is, thecollective murder of an innocent victim. The voices of the prophets, andespecially the revelation of Christ on the cross, demythologize humanculture by forcing us to acknowledge our sacred sin. Because the sacreddepends upon denial, the biblical revelation renders sacred murderunworkable. The Bible brings the workings of the sacred to an end. Thisis why Jesus is described in the Gospel of John as “the lamb of God whotakes away the sin [singular] of the world.” (John 1:29)

The loss of the sacrificial mechanism would result in ourself-destruction, if some alternate form of functioning were notprovided. Fortunately, the Gospel also gives us new means to avoidmimetic rivalry, supplanting the old taboo systems, by calling us toimitate Christ. When we imitate Christ (“Set your minds on things thatare above” Col 3:2), we are possessed by a desire for the well-being ofour neighbors, in place of the old desire to have what the neighborwants. This process of acquiring new desires transforms humanity andleads to a new and better non-sacrificial culture.

One of the things that are hard to get used to with this theory is theidea that the “sacred” is a bad thing. It’s not as bad as the mimeticcrisis, but it is nevertheless fundamentally bloody and violent.Violence seems to inhere in the sacred object like an electrical charge. Whoever draws too near runs the risk of inciting the crowd to attack.

Girard argues that without religion human beings could not exist. Thegreatest threat to our existence has never been starvation or predation,but our own violence. The origin and purpose of religion is to save usfrom this threat.

The advantage of Girard’s theory is that it gives us a clear and simplescientific hypothesis for the origin of culture and religion. With thisas an analytical tool, we can unpack theological problems in fresh ways,when they have to do with culture and violence. Most of the reallydifficult theological problems can now be taken apart in a few quicksteps, like an encoded message that becomes easily readable once the keyfor the code is discovered.

Science and Religion

According to Ren� Girard, the sacred is inseparable from the practice ofsacrifice. In fact, the word “sacrifice” literally means to “makesacred.” This is “sacrifice” in the ancient sense, meaning takingsomeone (a person or an animal) and ritually killing them. The sacredcomes into being with the spilling of reconciling blood.

For example, belief in witches is typical of the workings of the sacredin society. In virtually every primitive culture in the world, there isa belief in witches. Whenever things seem to be going wrong, whenresentments build between people, and sickness seems to be everywhere,the primitive culture will posit that a witch is at work causingproblems. The community sets to work identifying the witch. When theyidentify someone (usually whoever has the fewest friends in thecommunity) in such a way that everyone believes the accusation, they putthe witch to death. Upon the killing of the witch, the buildup ofhostility in the community is discharged, and things seem to return tonormal. It seems obvious that therefore the witch indeed was the causeof the problem. This in turn reinforces the belief in witches. Thisscenario could never function without a fundamental misrecognition ofthe situation. The “plague” that the witch supposedly caused was reallya mimetic crisis. The witch was only a scapegoat, blamed and punished tohelp the community regain its harmony.

This cycle of crisis, execution, and renewal tends to reinforce thesuperstitious belief in witches, because experience seems to show thatit works. People feel “deep down” that it is obviously true; that theworld is filled with magical powers and that witches are a grave dangerto society.

The biblical narrative deconstructs these superstitions by presentingthe familiar story of the witch from the point of view of the “witch.”Jesus occupies the same cultural location as the witch; but thenarrative reveals that it is the crowd that is guilty, rather than theinnocent – and forgiving! – victim. As a result of this revelation,humanity begins (dimly at first) to realize that the founding “Truth” ofculture is in fact a lie.

The historical and cultural project known as modernity, building on theinfluence of the gospel, is designed to demolish superstitiousworldviews. Modernity begins with the assumption that what is purelycultural or purely a matter of what people feel “deep down” is notsufficiently trustworthy. Modernity applies principles of truth that itconsiders beyond culture, i.e., what one can observe in nature or whatis consistent with the principles of logical reasoning.

Modern science is the result of the discovery that there is a differencebetween “culture” and “cosmos.” All archaic or “primal” cultures assumethat the natural world is an extension or expression of their culture.They make no distinction between “culture” and “nature.” Animisticreligions believe that every rock, tree and stream has its own “spirit”with its own will and power, and that this spirit must be treated withrespect, even awe. The belief in spirits comes from cultural andreligious experiences. These concepts are projected onto the naturalworld, so that the primal culture considers them intrinsic to nature.This is a confusion between culture and nature.

The reason that primal cultures have this confusion relates to whatmight be termed the “mythological imperative”: the sacrifice of thevictim must be remembered (for its reconciling benefits), but it mustalso be forgotten (so that speaking directly of collective murderdoesn’t generate violence). The description of the victim’s death isforgotten, but the spiritual power of the sacrifice is remembered,because the victim is said still to be present in the rocks, trees, orstreams.

Or the stars. Many cultures, especially agrarian ones, put a lot ofeffort into the contemplation of the stars. This is useful becauseobservation of the movements of celestial bodies is the best means oftiming the changing of the seasons. The timing of the seasons isimportant especially in agricultural societies as the means of assuringa good harvest; an early thaw is less likely to tempt you to plant tooearly, if you know how to watch for the spring equinox.

It seemed as though the stars controlled the seasons. Did they controlother things as well? The product of the sacrificial altar came to beprojected onto the stars. The planets and constellations were said tocontain the spirits of sacred beings — gods, monsters, and thehero-priests who killed them. These figures in the sky came to be seenas guiding life in society. The culture was written in the sky by peoplewho believed that somehow the sky was writing itself into their culture.Thus did astrology — that entertaining but pathetic superstition –come into being. This confusion of culture with cosmos is common to allarchaic cultures (and to a large extent it is found in Westernmodernity, even Western science, as well).

The biblical revelation is the force in human history that has madehumanity aware that there is a difference between cosmos and culture. Ithas brought about this change by revealing that the sacrificial victimis not the cause of the society’s problems. Jesus, the crucified victimof the crowd, is revealed to be innocent. It is the crowd that isguilty. As the sacrificial myth is thereby demolished, the other mythsand superstitions of the culture begin to follow one by one. We realizethat we can’t trust ourselves to be right about what causes the rain tofall or how the stars influence our lives. So we begin to explore waysto know things apart from the influence of culture. Science, the effortto insulate our inquiry from cultural influence, is born. The rest ofmodernity emerges at the same time. Modernity challenges and tests ourcultural assumptions about our world. Culture is regarded with aconsiderable amount of suspicion. Culture and cosmos begin to separatein our thinking. As Ren� Girard has said, “We didn’t stop burningwitches because we invented science; we invented science because westopped burning witches.”

The apparent conflict between science and faith is the result of ourdiscovery that culture and nature are not necessarily the same. Such anendeavor as modern science would be unthinkable without the insight thatour culture may be a source of falsehood. This is precisely the insightthat the biblical revelation brought into the world. Without the Bible,Western science would never have been possible.

Although science is the product of biblical faith, science in turncontributes to biblical faith, by accelerating the process ofdemythologization. Science acts as a powerful solvent to wash away thesacred superstitions that still cling to biblical religion. Science hasput an end to our belief in the power of witches’ magic, for example.This is a good thing, because it removes one of the falsehoods thatdistract us from the message of mercy in the Bible.

Science has confirmed the biblical insight that illness is notnecessarily a punishment from God, but a condition that has nothing todo with our moral standing. By helping to lift the moral stigma ofdisease, science has helped us to be more faithful to the revelation ofChrist who calls us to be merciful toward those who are sick.

The scientific worldview made possible the “historical-critical” readingof the Bible, which in turn has liberated our reading of scripture fromall sorts of violent superstition.

But science must be careful not to be arrogant in this. The insightthat culture can be wrong is a tremendous advance. It has led us tofind ways to explore the truth in things that are not influenced bycultural biases and superstitions. We know that an experimentwell-constructed can lead us to solid insight. But we must be carefulnot to conclude therefore that religion is never to be trusted. Therituals, moral standards and narratives of religion contain real wisdomthat has controlled human violence for millennia.

Scientists should not assume that because the term “god” cannot beseparated from its cultural fabric, then the notion of a god is purelyfalse. Mimetic theory suggests that indeed gods are very real, alongwith demons, spirits, and souls. But mimetic theory would describe themas mimetic forces, rather than metaphysical or supernatural beings.Science should be working on ways to describe gods scientifically,rather than dismissing the notion of a god as superstitious.

It might be helpful here to give an example or two of how mimetic theorycan reconcile the claims of science and religion. Let’s explore theissue of creation, and the question of the existence of spiritual beings.

The question of Creation is fundamentally a question of the distinctionbetween culture and cosmos. Archaic cultures, being unable todistinguish the two, use material realities to express cultural ones.The creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, is not a text aboutphysics or biology, but about cultural origins — one that stands incontrast to pagan creation myths.

For example, in the ancient Babylonian creation myth known as the EnumaElish, the warrior God Marduk forms the world from the dead body of hismother Tiamat after he has slain her. He hews her body into two pieces,and with the upper half of her body he forms the heavens, and with thelower half he forms the earth. For the ancient Babylonians, this is thestory of the foundation of the world. From the point of view ofGirard’s mimetic theory, this myth is a disguised account of an actualmurder (or, more precisely, of a series of ritual murders). The murderwould have taken place as Babylonian culture was forming for the firsttime. There was a mimetic crisis, which was resolved only when one ormore people were killed by the mob, bringing order out of the socialmadness. This originary murder rescued these Proto Babylonians from astate of acute mass psychosis. As they emerged from the psychosis, itappeared to them as though the cosmos itself had been re-created. Theydescribed the event as best they could, given that they were emergingfrom a condition of total delusion; so what amounted in actuality to alynching, came to be described as a divine event, a divine drama playingitself out in the heavens. Historically, there were probably more thanone of these collective murders. This lynching was reproduced insacrificial rituals. These ritual sacrifices came to be understood asre-enactments of the original divine event, enriching and refining thenarrative into a creation myth.

All creation myths seem on the surface to be about the creation of thematerial world; but they are really about the origin of human culture.It would be natural to ask at this point, why cultures don’t justdescribe their origin literally and factually? Why don’t theBabylonians simply say, “we were in a crisis and we saved ourselves bylynching a member of our community.” Why the elaborate narrative? Whythe obfuscation?

There are two reasons for this: first of all, as I indicated above,these events are generated on the boundary between psychotic delusionand sane reality; therefore, myths have a dreamlike, semi-delusionalquality. Secondly, the culture has a stake in disguising the originalmurder. Every culture knows that murder must not be spoken ofapprovingly, because murder invites revenge and revenge escalates,plunging the whole society into bloody madness. Therefore the societymust pretend that it is innocent of murder. Yet still the originalmurder must be remembered, because it brought the benefits of socialorder. Myths have this dreamlike quality because they are the result ofa double-bind: they must simultaneously recall and hide the crime theytrace.

The creation story in the first chapter of Genesis is not a literaldescription of the origin of species or of the origin of the planets;rather, this is a story which uses the concept of species and the imageof the planets as symbols to describe something which was much morepressing to the ancient Israelites than the matter of scientificexplanations. This is a story of the origins of human culture andconsciousness. In this way it is not unlike the creation myth of theBabylonians. Yet it also differs sharply from the Babylonian story (andvirtually every other creation story from ancient culture): it containsno sign of a murder!

In fact, scholarship has revealed that the first chapter of Genesis wascomposed while the people of Judea were in exile in Babylon! The firstchapter of Genesis was the Jews’ response to what their captors insistedwas the origin of the world. In their refusal to go along with the ideaof a founding murder, the Jews became the first culture in the historyof the world to claim that violence is not essential to the cosmic order.

There is no murder in the first chapter of Genesis. There is only apowerful God working hard to establish a place for everything and to puteverything in its place. The language of creation in the first chapterof Genesis is the language of establishing boundaries. There’s aboundary between the light and the dark. There is a boundary betweenthe dry land and the sea, there is a boundary between the differentkinds of plants and animals. The story has the quality of thestorekeeper taking care of his inventory, or of a housekeeper picking upclutter. Instead of a warrior God carrying out the sacred execution,the Jews revealed to history a worker God who establishes order not bykilling somebody, but by cleaning house!

The principle of creation in the beginning of the Bible is the principleof difference. In the first chapter of Genesis, we do not have adescription of a creatio ex nihilo, but an account of the imposition ofdifference on the primordial waters of chaos. The day is separated fromthe night; boundaries are set between the sea and dry land; the plantsand animals are separated out, “each according to its kind.” Theoriginal creation was the ordering of chaos through the establishment ofdifferences.

Why is this important? According to Girard’s mimetic theory, theprimordial waters are an archetypical image representing thepre-cultural mimetic sacrificial crisis. The (pre)human community is ina state of crisis brought about by the imitation of everyone byeveryone. This has produced a confusing maelstrom of desire, rivalry,hostility and violence within which life is impossible. Like a swimmertossed in the chaos of a riptide, everyone finds it impossible todistinguish up from down, left from right, light from dark.

According to Girard, the first strategy to resolve this crisis is humansacrifice. But in the Hebrew scriptures, humanity begins to move awayfrom human sacrifice. In order to defer the sacrificial crisis, theHebrew strategy is to put in place a strong system of sacred difference.

Difference defers or delays the sacrifice by blocking the development ofmimetic rivalry. It works because when boundaries are drawn betweenpeople, they tend to imitate each other less strongly. We are moststrongly mimetic toward those whom we perceive to be like us. If we seethe other as different, we are less likely to want what they want,return their insults, and so forth. Thus we are less likely to come intomimetic rivalry with people who are different (violence against thosewho are of a different ethnicity or who are differently abled is nottechnically mimetic rivalry; it is a kind of scapegoating thatdischarges mimetic rivalry and unifies the community).

Consider an ice cube tray, the kind that has the removable dividers. Ifyou fill it with water without the dividers and try to carry it acrossthe kitchen, chances are that the water will spill. But if you insertthe dividers into the water before carrying it, you find it is mucheasier to carry it without spilling. Differences in culture areanalogous to this. They prevent the free flow of mimetic rivalry frombuilding up to a chaotic loss of control.

The first chapter of Genesis is a projection onto nature of preciselythis concern for difference. As a subtle anti-Babylonian polemic,Genesis 1 substitutes a structure of differences for the violentstructures built on human sacrifice. This is an enormous advance inhuman consciousness. The fact that it retains the archaic confusionbetween culture and cosmos should not be grounds to dismiss it. Afterall, we owe our very awareness of that difference to documents such as this.

Science still has some things to learn from Genesis 1. The theory ofnatural selection itself depends on the notion of the selfishcompetition for survival as essentially a “creative principle of thecosmos.” Numerous critics have pointed out that this idea is far toomuch like the Malthusianism and “social Darwinism” (which is misnamed -Darwin borrowed it from Malthus and Spencer and applied it to biology)to be entirely independent of cultural bias. Even in our scientificendeavors, we may be too susceptible to the tendency to project ourculture onto nature. Perhaps science should stay a little closer to theinsights of the Bible after all.

A Theory of Spirits

Mimetic theory opens up a new category for describing reality thathasn’t been available until now: “mimetic forces.” Such forces arerecognized by every culture, but they are not described, merely named -spirits, angels, ghosts, demons, etc. These are forces with real powerbut that are unseen and hard to measure. Mimetic theory gives us themeans to actually describe them.

A “mimetic force” exists in the relationships between people. A simpledesire is a mimetic force. According to Girard, if one person makes anacquisitive gesture toward an object, another person nearby will tend tofocus on the same object, with an impulse to make a similar acquisitivegesture. The original gesture, by stimulating a mimetic response in theneighbor, could be said to be a kind of “force.” The force draws peopleunder its influence. They in turn add their own energy to the mimeticforce, causing it to strengthen. One person wants the object,generating a weak mimetic force in the next person, who likewise comesto desire the object; now the mimetic force is twice as strong, so thata third person will desire the object even more readily than the firsttwo people. The force propagates through the population, gaining powerto affect individuals as each additional individual is affected.

If the desire so propagated is a desire for the well-being of others, itcould be called an “angel”; on the other hand, if the mimetic force is aspirit of resentment, it will be called a “demon” – that is, after itsviolent denoument is done.

The definition of demons, spirits and angels as mimetic forces accountsfor all the characteristics attributed to them. They are invisible, more”felt” than seen. They are personal, yet not contained within a body;they affect people to the point of taking over the human will; and theycan be invoked or exorcised by ritual and prayer.

Such mimetic forces doubtless play a huge role in illness and disease.They can affect the functioning of the body and mind in profound ways.The “science” of managing such forces exists almost exclusively withinreligious traditions. It could be an extremely important advance inmedical technology if we were to begin to explore the means by whichsuch forces can be managed. If scientists are to learn how to do this,however, they will have to become students of religion.

Mimetic theory, if it is correct, offers a fresh and clear path for usto understand how science and religion are radically interdependent. Ihope that those who read this article will be motivated to explore thisnew and potentially fruitful avenue of inquiry into the relationshipbetween the two.

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