Let me begin by recalling the GA definition of firstness: priority as a mimetic model that in the overall context of moral reciprocity is a form of deferred equality: the temporarily exclusive possession of what will in principle benefit everyone. The originary example of firstness, as Adam Katz first pointed out, is the conversion of the “aborted gesture of appropriation” to a sign; the unique possession of a sign is the model of a priority that can be transmitted to all with no loss.
Human morality is essentially egalitarian, derived in our formulation from the reciprocal exchange of signs around the originary central object. Hence the essential human ethical problem is that posed by inequality. If the “contract” that holds the society together from the first is the equality of all before the sacred, as embodied in the sign that all can emit, how does this social pact allow for leadership and the acquisition of differential rewards for innovation, merited or not? In a word, how can egalitarian morality admit the extended firstness that the very freedom made possible by the human scene of representation makes inevitable?
Assuming that all accept reciprocal morality as a basis of ethical organization, the problem becomes that of managing firstness rather than inequality per se, since inequality is only compatible with morality if conceived within the category of firstness. This is the conceptual basis for John Rawls’ “original position,” and it may be found as well in the ontology/anthropology, from very different sources, of Sartre, in his well-known affirmation that the status of the most miserable person in the society is its true moral measure. GA allows us to point out that such affirmations, whatever their claims, are best understood as elements of originary hypotheses rather than as practical criteria for maintaining a social order.
Historically, religion has been the privileged locus of originary anthropologies. The persistent centrality of the Jews (and now Israel), famously first (or “chosen”) in the Abrahamic world of Western society, suggests that finding means to ease and defer the resentment that firstness generates remains the key to the evolution of the modern world. The first half of the last century was dominated by spectacularly violent attempts to implement and presumably exhaust this resentment in post-bourgeois social orders. Today Islamism, if not Islam as such, is the chief carrier of this resentment, and the fact that it is represented by societies far more backward than Nazi Germany or even the USSR is little consolation. Given the ubiquity of modern weaponry, the idea of semi-developed Iran or the medieval Taliban blowing up the Middle East and perhaps more with nuclear weapons is if anything more disquieting than the threat once posed by more advanced social systems. Reducing the world to a medieval cultural and economic level—giving rise to perhaps billions of deaths by disease and starvation—would just make the Islamists feel more at home.
Recent attention to Judaism and the two other “Abrahamic” religions derived from it, a subject whose most recent scholarly development is Jon Levenson’s Inheriting Abraham (Princeton UP, 2012), offers an opportunity to clarify how we understand their differences in originary terms, that is, in terms of the absorption of originary firstness into the realm of the sacred and the sign, ending the old pecking-order hierarchy and instituting the reign of reciprocal morality.
I have probably said in recent Chronicles (e.g., 399-400, 405-06, 410-11, 415-16, 421, 425, 429-30, 434) as much as I need to say about the historical Jewish mode of firstness or “chosenness.” Monotheism, as opposed to “henotheism,” the worship of a single god that does not specifically affirm his universality, clarifies the ontological difference between god, or God, and the human. This is not simply a matter of creating an “absolute” separation between the two. The affirmation of the One God is qualitatively closer to an anthropological model of the originary event than the various creation-myths of the Middle East and the rest of the world. In Genesis, God creates the world from words rather than from the body of Tiamat. Language, however “god-given,” is a human phenomenon, indeed, the most characteristic human phenomenon. When God gives his name as a declarative sentence (“I am what/that I am”) in Exodus 3 he is both declaring his independence of any tribal appropriation of a name to command him and at the same time affirming that this message could only be given in a specific human language, that of the “chosen people” he addresses. (We may contrast the return to a pre-Babelian universe in the glossolalia of Acts 2.) This is the foundation of Hebrew/Jewish firstness.
The story of the Hebrews begins, in the Bible, with Abraham. Whatever the latter’s possible historical reality, what is most significant about God’s choice of him as the founder of the “chosen people” is not any quality he may have possessed, but the choice itself, which creates a binary separation of the Hebrews-Jews from the rest of humanity. From the standpoint of etiological myth, the biblical account shows no interest in providing Abraham with prior distinguishing characteristics that would motivate God’s choice. But the thematization of God’s choice is itself the mark of the theme of firstness. Clearly there must have been something different about the Hebrews to have made them the only Middle-Eastern people to have created “monotheism,” however we may qualify this term, and as a consequence to have retained their national identity and the basis for their culture since antiquity. But whatever characteristics contributed to their chosenness, the fact remains that had their innovation been conceived as a reward for ontological superiority or even for “good works,” it would not be what we call “monotheism,” which privileges humanity’s originary relationship with God over any conceivable differences among humans.
The essence of Hebrew chosenness is that it conceives itself as firstness, as the attribution to one group of a priority significant in itself, regardless of how it came about. Hebrew firstness has as its essential content to transmit by example its singular content to the rest of humanity, to be “a light unto the nations.” We can reduce our definition of monotheism to this task: whatever people first becomes aware of the existence of the One God (and symmetrically, One Humanity), this people is chosen by this very priority in a knowledge that the rest of the world within its cultural sphere may be expected eventually to learn from it. As indeed they did: the three Abrahamic religions include the virtual totality of the population of the societies that originated in the Mediterranean area, and they have made inroads in many other cultural areas as well.
Christianity proposes a solution to the resentment inspired by the other’s firstness. This is quite explicit; Jesus is reported as saying in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 20:16) that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. This is not merely a political, or religio-political affirmation that those who are “first” in this world will be damned in the next and vice versa. It applies more significantly both on the ontological level of divinity, where Jesus is a crucified criminal who is also God, and on that of everyday interaction: turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemy are inverted affirmations of firstness in its originary sense. He who turns the other cheek—who is first not to commit violence—turns away violence; loving one’s enemy puts an end to enmity. For an anthropological understanding of Christian theology, to say Jesus is God simply means that he can be relied upon always to embody this inverted firstness, whence the possibility, inconceivable in Jewish theology, of “imitating God” via imitatio Christi.
The idea of gaining power by renouncing power in a kind of verbal jiu-jitsu can become hypocritical and self-serving in the context of an Enlightenment anthropology where society is but a collection of monadic individuals. But as Girard emphasizes, Christian anthropology reveals the centrality to the social order of sacrificial ritual and its commemoration of the originary sparagmos. The episode in John 7-8 of the aborted stoning of the “woman taken in adultery” exemplifies the success of the strategy of foregrounding the crucial role of firstness in a “unanimous” rite such as lapidation. The story is an excellent illustration of firstness at work; the role of the “first stone” is explicitly meant not to exclude other stones or to demonstrate priority over them, but on the contrary to encourage the others to efface the first’s unique status through mimetic action. Conversely, Jesus’ stopping the first stone is exemplary of the inverse firstness practiced by Christianity, which consists far less in implementing the resentful “the last shall be the first” than in renouncing violence in order to set an example for others.
Paul’s entire career as a Christian disciple was devoted to promoting the divinity of Jesus as demonstrated by his status as sacrificial victim (see Science and Faith). Whence the capital importance of experiences of the Resurrection, and in the first place, of Saul/Paul’s own on the Damascus road, the lesson of which is: you persecute me, therefore you worship me. But to put on the same plane of divinity Jesus the victim of persecution and God the creator is to deny the continued pertinence of the Jews’ historical firstness as God’s “chosen people.” Once Christ has revealed the equivalence between persecution and worship, given that all have the psychological, or better, the representational capacity to participate in persecution, all have an equal capacity for experiencing Christ’s divinity. The prior status of having been admitted into God’s covenant becomes a handicap rather than an advantage, a potential source of Jewish “arrogance” that makes submission to the resurrected Jesus less likely.
Today’s “victimocracy,” to borrow a telling term from Katz, is transparently an extension of Christianity: the model of the Holocaust, the resentment of firstness gone mad, is applied to all “oppressed,” “subaltern” people. Victimage is conceived as the result of abusive firstness, of discriminatory ontologies (“racism,” “sexism”). In the process, the envious origins of Nazi antisemitism are either forgotten or universalized out of existence: either the Jews were simply abject inferiors, or all oppression is envy of the oppressed. The ease with which post-Holocaust victimary thinking has turned against Israel and the Jews in general reflects the fact that Nazi race-firstness was itself a resentful caricature of the “chosen people”’s “arrogance.” To replace the Jews in this role was the Nazis’ all but explicit ambition.
Judeo-Christian völkisch nationalism
That the debate is not yet decided between advocates of national firstness à la juive and its negators in the victimary mode is the point made by David Gordis’ recent book The Promise of Israel (Wiley, 2012). Without excessively theorizing the issue, Gordis defends Israel precisely on the ground on which it is commonly attacked, that of being the “last” self-conscious European-style nation-state in an era whose advanced nations are working to dissolve national boundaries or at most reduce nationhood to an “idea,” as in the United States. Although nationalism is a concept put into practice above all by Christian nations, as the Nazi example shows in horribly caricatural fashion, the underlying model of the nation-state was always the “ethnic” and long stateless nation of Israel.
Christianity’s roots lie in a Judaism that had already affirmed firstness above ontological hierarchy, and in political terms, peoplehood over kingship; only thus did the Jewish people survive for millennia without a state. Christianity neutralized the exclusive element of chosenness by demonstrating that the monotheistic revelation could be made available outside the “tribal” community as a radically individual relationship of resentment/persecution/worship. Whether the firstness-preserving community can truly be replaced by the incarnate Word is secondary to the shared revelation by the One God who speaks to the community in its own language.
As became apparent at the Reformation, this radicalism remained a latent resource within Christianity for restoring the individual relationship with Jesus, inherent in the Pauline revelation, that is the essential ethical ingredient of modernism. As for nationalism, as Seth Sanders shows in The Invention of Hebrew (U Illinois P, 2009), Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” go back a long way, notably to the Hebrew experience of a culture preserved in a written language for a people rather than a royal hierarchy. Just as the Protestant reformation was a rediscovery of the Old Testament sources of the individual conscience before God, so nationalism is a reinterpretation of what we may call without irony the völkisch culture of ancient Israel.
The relationship between Christianity and Judaism reflects an internal historical evolution. That of the others to Islam is, in contrast, textual (Ishmael vs Isaac) and ontological. Islam maintains the Hebrew absolute difference between God and man while eliminating the tribal exclusiveness of Judaism.
To take Islam at its word, it is the true religion of which the earlier alternatives are imperfect, man-made copies. It is easy to dismiss such claims as rhetorical gestures of one-upmanship. But in matters of religion, rhetoric and revelation are inextricable. The “uncreated” nature of the Koran is not a conception that could reasonably have originated with the Jews or the Christians; it could only appear in response to the claims of legitimacy put forth on behalf of earlier scriptures, claims founded on historical firstness that could consequently only be trumped by extrahistorical firstness.
Logical niceties aside, the idea of “pre-creation” permits Islam to claim a degree of universality not accessible in the older two religions. Muslims affirm that we are “always already” within Islam and that other religions are fallings-away, not from a cosmic revelation such as the Word-light that shone in the darkness, but very concretely, from Islam itself. This parachronology permits a variant of firstness that lies outside the temporal framework of its alternatives and is therefore never first-in-relation-to them. Where Christianity inherits and expands the Jewish tradition but cannot simply obliterate it, Islam dismisses it as an inferior copy of Islam, mediated by a scripture that is an inferior copy of the “uncreated” Koran.
Conclusion – Originary Abrahamics
We may now sum up the Abrahamic religious complex in the terms of the originary hypothesis.
If we begin with the hypothetical originary scene, the first participants to emit the sign, to conceive their gesture as a sign, are absorbed into the group. The very clarity of their status as “first” is unclear. Katz’s insistence on introducing the concept of firstness into the originary event is less a reflection of a plausible empirical distinction than a logical reference to a necessary element of spontaneous collective action. Someone(s) must have had the idea first, however much of it, however fully expressed. Although we need not imagine anyone self-consciously executing a full-fledged sign while the others are still striving for and being inhibited by the object, our overall understanding of the event nevertheless requires the introduction of the notion of firstness. Hence we may begin by attributing this role in the Abrahamic world of the One God to the Hebrews, and to their direct heirs, the Jews.
Yet in the originary event, the first users of the sign are absorbed into the group without their “chosenness” being retained. That this kind of untraceable absorption is generally not the norm in the broader cultural context of religious evolution that gave rise to monotheism leaves an opening for the Christian revelation that attempts to accomplish the moral equivalent of this absorption when firstness can no longer simply be forgotten. “The last shall be the first” answers to the need to transcend and negate the Jews’ originary firstness. This is a broader category than the revelation of the arbitrariness of sacrifice; it works to mitigate the effects of firstness whether deliberate or involuntary, by affirming that the source of all firstness is the centrality of the sacred victim-divinity. The latter incarnates the Word of human language, attributed not to the periphery, as in GA, but to the center.
If in our originary model, Judaism preserves the memory of firstness and Christianity counters by turning this memory against itself as the firstness of the victim, Islam makes the still more radical move of asserting the ontological and consequently (but only secondarily) chronological priority of the human status of perfect equality over any form of firstness. In the beginning, all were always already symmetrically equal before God. In the scene conceived by the originary hypothesis, all would emit the sign at the same time because they were, so to speak, always already Muslims. What is lost by this move is the anthropological openness of the Judeo-Christian revelation that culminates in the Incarnation. The Jewish One God, so to speak “co-dependent” on his human creation, could be made to accommodate the Trinity; this is not possible for Allah.
The Muslim position is a powerful attraction for the marginal (collectively and individually) and the disaffected. What it lacks, in its obliteration of the anthropological connection between God and humanity, is a way of theorizing the deferred equality inherent in firstness. The Islamist insistence on Sharia is a clear demonstration of the non-reciprocal nature of Islam. Sharia demands submission; “Islam” means submission. We have all heard conservative complaints that feminists in the West find every straw in our own eyes but ignore the beam in that of Islamic societies. But there is a reason beyond political expediency for the difficulty in attacking, for example, Islam’s unequal treatment of women. Whatever the disparities in Islamic society between men and women, or even free persons and slaves, they exist on a base of firstness-free equality. Sharia is “the same for everyone,” as though Islam effectively imposed the “veil of ignorance” that defines John Rawls’ “original position.” Sharia’s defender might well say: “Yes, Sharia distinguishes between men and women. But we all obey it equally. I obey Sharia as a man, but if I were a woman, I would submit to its rules in the same manner.” Only internal political evolution can break down the force of such essentialism, which would not have been uncongenial to Aristotle. The world will then learn whether Islam’s radical solution to the problem of firstness is compatible with the post-Aristotelian beings of the modern world.