In the preceding Chronicle, I attempted a schematic originary analysis of the three Abrahamic religions. Here I would like to focus on the distinction between the Jewish and Christian modes of generating meaning, what might be called their “sacred epistemology.” In this regard, we may say that Christianity is monist, understanding what is significant to the human on the basis of a single “substance,” which Girard calls mimetic desire, understanding it not as a relation to an object but as a relation among humans. Judaism, in contrast, is dualist, maintaining the absolute otherness of the human and divine.
Three historical moments are of particular significance:
Girard’s proto-originary hypothesis and that proposed by GA;
the fundamental revelations of Judaism and Christianity (as per Science and Faith);
and, more speculatively: Jewish and Christian visions of state and community in the victimary era of postmodernity.
The categories of monism and dualism as used here designate not natural but sacred and ultimately anthropological ontologies, systems of human ethics rather than theories of the cosmos. My point in opposing them is to clarify the fundamental attitudes that underlie Christianity and Judaism, respectively. These differences of attitude, which cannot be simply confirmed by observing outside reality, constitute the long-term bets on what really matters that are constitutive of the great religions.
The “monism” I refer to here in relation to Christianity is not in conflict with the doctrine of the Trinity. On the contrary, the inclusion within the sacred of both the transcendent “Father” and the incarnate “Son,” as well as the “Spirit” that mediates between the two, is a way of coming to terms with an ethic exclusively focused on human interaction, whether violent or loving, at the expense of humanity’s dependency on the natural world.
In GA’s originary hypothesis, the crisis that leads to the breakdown of the animal pecking-order hierarchy and its resolution via the emission of the sign reflects the dependence of the protohuman community on critical elements of food supply and their distribution. The old animal hierarchy was a means for assuring the orderly distribution of scarce goods, of which large food animals were the most critical. To derive the sign from an “aborted gesture of appropriation” reflects a dualistic view of the human universe; signs are needed to avert human conflict over scarce items in the natural world. The otherness of the original sacred object is derived from its otherness as a material object of desire; the prior existence of appetite, eliciting among higher animals goal-directed behavior involving intelligence, self-control, etc., provides the seed of the dichotomy that eventuates in significance. In this model, the passage from appetitive action to its transcendence in the “aborted gesture” that becomes the sign is not spontaneous or “mechanical” but involves a conscious initiative that begins with the “first” and spreads through the group.
In contrast, Girard’s emissary murder takes place within a group of proto-humans and remains within that group, with no relationship to any appetitive object in the outside world. Whether the crisis be triggered by a plague or natural disaster, or as in GA’s originary hypothesis, by the presence of a highly desirable appetitive object, the process of emissary victimage necessarily involves a turning away from the original positively or negatively valued object to concentrate on the fundamentally imaginary obstacle to it created by the emissary victim.
This monist model generates difference through suppression: the binary zero emerges from the annihilation of the one. In Des choses cachées…, Girard criticizes Lévi-Strauss’ myth analyses in Le totémisme aujourd’hui for their failure to focus on the human violence that produces this “suppression.” But in effect his analysis differs from that of Lévi-Strauss only in its addition of a practical motivation: mimetic violence directed against the arbitrarily chosen victim. It remains the case that it is the killing that permits a new duality between two states of Being(s), the unanimous multitude and the unique victim, which will become the equivalent of Durkheim’s opposition between the profane and the sacred. No doubt the unique significance of the victim can be projected back onto his life, and his death figured in the mythical narration by a more transcendent symbolism, such as flying off into the heavens, but it is only through his disappearance from the world and passage to an elsewhere accessible only through memory that the victim becomes a sacred sign, a Word.
To bridge the gap between the emissary murder and the Crucifixion of the revealer of the victim’s hitherto hidden arbitrariness requires an infinite leap from anonymity to sacred uniqueness. On the one hand, the victim is arbitrarily chosen, unique only qua victim; on the other, he is the Word, the Son of God. These alternatives correspond, in Girard’s perspective, to the two chief moments of human history. The first (which presumably takes place over an indefinite period) is the origin of the human out of a long series of mimetic crises resolved by emissary murders. The second is Jesus’ definitive revelation of the arbitrary nature of the sacred created through emissary murder in the course of this process of origin. In neither case is there any essential dealing with the natural world outside the human community. And not coincidentally, the understanding of the process that Jesus reveals and that is prefigured in the Old Testament is never shown as emerging from within the emissary process itself.
In Exodus 3, Moses encounters the “burning bush,” a sacrificial fire that is not cooking anything but that indicates the presence of God. The One God who gives his name as a declarative sentence (“I am that/what I am”) in the act that may be said to figure the theological origin of monotheism is also the God of a sacrifice that can do without a (nourishing) victim, whose identification is with the sacrificial scene itself, independently of its nutritive function. This is the transcendence of the pagan “superstition” that makes possession of the sign itself tantamount to power over the material world. Pre-Exodic gods have names like the mortals who are named for them and are thus potential addressees of a vocative/imperative. The subsistence of the name-of-God outside the scene embodies a “forgetting” of the act of communal reciprocity in which it was first established, a forgetting that accompanies the usurpation of the sacred center by big-men and eventually by emperors and kings, who usurp along with central power the divine status that made it possible: the pharaoh or Roman emperor “becomes a god.”
The Mosaic revelation is a return to the essential moment of the originary act of signification, which even if focused on an edible animal is qua sign directed at its abstract signified. To convert the appetitive gesture into a sign is not simply to renounce its object on a practical level, but to recognize that what one is pointing to is the shared “meaning” of the object, which is independent of the latter’s worldly presence, for the moment inaccessible. If indeed the sign designates/represents the object as the sacred Other, it should not be able to call to it across the sacred-profane divide. No doubt this divide will be breached in the sparagmos where the sacrificial meal is the gift of the sacred center, and which will provide the model for virtually all sacrificial ceremonies. But to understand the sign qua sign is to recognize its independence from this breach, its dependence on the separation of signs from things. In the Exodus scene, this understanding is figured explicitly by God’s declarative name “I am that/what I am.” God speaks to Moses in a transcendent, “Biblical” universe but cannot be called on within the world, just as the signifier cannot “call” its signified into existential being.
The social-religious background for this revelation remains obscure, but Seth Saunders’ The Invention of Hebrew (Illinois 2009) offers the beginning of an explanation in the Hebrews’ breakthrough in writing down, in a newly standardized alphabetic script accessible to an increasingly literate public, communal litanies, laws, and legends, and presumably reciting and performing them. The Jews as the “people of the Book” were the first to experience God’s universality through his relationship with his people, unmediated by king or emperor, and given permanent presence in the common medium of alphabetic writing. Which is to say that the medium refreshed the people’s intuition of the originary communal nature of sacred language as a return from its usurpation by monarchs. Moses is not given special possession of God’s name, but knowledge of the absence of a name in the normal sense, whence the need for a common faith in God independent of the evocation of his presence. In linguistic terms, God’s presence to Moses is one that can be spoken of in a declarative proposition, but not pointed to in an ostensive.
Like Abraham, Moses is chosen, or in worldly terms, he is first, the leader. This role is reproduced on a national scale in the priority of the Hebrew/Jewish people with respect to other peoples (“light unto the nations”). As we saw in the previous Chronicle, this potentially conflictive but historically inevitable attribute of firstness is rejected by Christianity. Jesus’ words, like God’s in Exodus, are heard by his human disciples, of whom Peter is the “first.” But Peter’s firstness is no more a sign of chosenness than would have been that of the first man to cast a stone at the adulteress. It is no accident that Peter is singled out as the one who thrice denies Jesus.
At the Last Supper, Jesus nourishes his disciples with his body and blood that is also bread and wine. The miracle of transubstantiation demonstrates that the appetitive world is ultimately subordinate to the Word and obeys it, which, translated into anthropological terms, is a way of saying that if we can solve the problems of human mimetic violence, those of the material-appetitive world will take care of themselves. This stands in contrast to the absence of the sacrificial victim in Moses’ scene and the substitution of the sentence for the Name of God; any material satisfaction must be obtained outside the sacred scene of communion.
God’s revelation to Moses of his name/sentence is also a declaration of permanent presence: I shall be with you. No doubt God is portrayed as granting the Hebrews a good deal of material aid in helping them to escape the Egyptian yoke. Girard rightly contrasts the worldly power of the Old Testament God to the non-interventionism of the God of the Gospels, who “lets his rain fall on the just as on the unjust.” No doubt the abstract spirit of universal monotheism is better served by radical monism than by a dualism that remains open to the remains of pagan “magical thought.” But the assertion of God’s material aid reflects a dualism within which the material world retains significance. To abandon “to Caesar” the problems of social and material organization is to risk losing contact with the scenic, communal nature of the social order.
The monistic restriction of the sacred to the world of human interaction that “brackets” the outside world takes for granted the success of human social and material organization once internal harmony has been assured through the deferral of mimetic violence. This is, in its most general terms, the Christian world-view that has uniquely permitted the West to engage in the free exploration of nature, unrestricted by the kinds of laws that might encumber a dualistic system such as Judaism. Science and the Enlightenment are products of Christian monism.
But the problems of today’s “global” world seem to suggest that a new attention should be paid to communal specificity, lest the peoples of the world be forced to choose between the West’s self-deprecating universalism and the rival universalism of Sharia. The exclusively internal human focus of the Christian and post-Christian West has led since the Holocaust to an increasing concentration on the victimary (Girard’s souci des victimes). On the local level, this may come into conflict with the practical operations of social organization. If intergroup harmony (“diversity”) requires “affirmative action” for certain groups, the selection of participants in a project may be less effective than if they were chosen on the basis of an objective examination. More troublingly, victimary monism provokes the West’s familiar oikophobia, the sense of guilt for its scientific and economic firstness in relation to the rest of the world that focuses on the situations of human abuse and on the hypocrisy of attempts at “enlightenment” in the colonial era. No realistic alternative model of cultural transmission is provided; we are simply invited to judge the evil of what actually occurred by the ideal criterion of the moral model of human equality.
Clearly for many, Islam, the religion of “submission,” offers a viable alternative to these modern modes of thought. In the terms of this Chronicle, Islam is neither dualist nor monist but zero-dimensional, since it does not derive the truths of the Koran as revealed to The Prophet from any scene of human interaction. The truth has existed from all eternity, and the only scene relevant to us is that of its transmission; even to think of its creation is inconceivable. Yet Islam has not yet shown itself compatible with the ethical, material, and intellectual advances that Christian monism has brought about.
Christianity reproaches Judaism with its particularism, its valorization of its own specific nation and laws, although the God it has discovered/invented is truly universal. In turn, Judaism reproaches Christianity with using the moral model of human reciprocity as a universal formula, forgetting that human equality is realized within the scenic confines of a specific community. The “cultural” equality of ritual is actuated only within the community that performs the ritual.
As human beings, we are all equally children of Christ, and imitators of Christ. But when we face worldly problems that neither sacred or Satanic unanimity can resolve, we face them as members of particular communities, and the initiatives of firstness are our only recourse. In an era when the privilege of the victim, with its roots in Christian monism, increasingly trumps traditional communal norms by means of the dogma, encouraged by worldwide electronic instantaneity, that the only legitimate scene any longer is that of the abstract “world community,” we might do well to take another look at the “Jewish” model embodied in Israel as a “traditional” nation-state, as proposed in Daniel Gordis’ recent against-the-grain The Promise of Israel (Wiley, 2012). Firstness, Jewish and other, is not something the human world can dispense with. If a “world community” is one day to exist, it must be brought into being; we cannot rely on its virtual existence.*
Rather than despair of the impossibility of resolving the choice of dualism or monism, I think the emergence of GA, along with the continued relevance of Girard’s thought, offers a new framework within which the problems of the post-WWII world can at last be productively discussed. GA as a “new way of thinking” can help us think through the problems of postmodernity.
*Thanks to Adam Katz for making some of these points in our recent correspondence.