In order to emphasize the sacredness of the words of language, beginning with the first, I have adopted the custom of speaking of the originary sign, the key innovation of the hypothetical originary scene, as the name-of-God. The sign is a gesture of representation, but calling it the name-of-God reminds us that the deferral of appropriation may just as easily be seen as an act of worship, a sign of respect to the “numinous” quality of the central desire-object that is in our anthropological analysis the product of the desires of the group.
The first sign is ostensive; its point is to defer the object’s presence to the appetites of the signers. Yet once the sign becomes associated with the object in the originary event, the sign becomes undecidably a vocative-imperative call as well as a designation; the sort of pointing movement we can imagine the originary sign to be “communicates” indifferently to the others and to the object itself, all of which are potential sources of danger, the situation of deferred desire in which the participants find themselves.
And following the schema of The Origin of Language, this imperative “call” will evoke in reply a declarative sentence as soon as the idea of a direct response by the designee is removed from the realm of possibility, so that the word/name/noun designating the object can only function in a predication that tells us something about it in a “fictive” world constructed in language.
How are these linguistic relationships to the central object related to religion? We can make very schematically—or to put it more flatteringly, parsimoniously—the following rapprochements:
- Name-of-God as an Imperative-vocative, like a real name = “paganism”
- Name-of-God as a Declarative (“I am/will be that/what I am/will be”) = Judaism
- Name-of-God as the name of a (divine/human) person, Jesus = Christianity
I define “paganism” here as the worship of a “named” God, one who as God may be called on by name for help in a crisis. The association of paganism with polytheism can be retained if we include in it “henotheism,” or the worship of one god but in the “pagan” mode, as in effect the local divinity of a powerful nation. Akhenaton could enforce henotheism in Egypt, but a tribe like the Hebrews could not insist that our god is the one real god in a world of more powerful entities unless it renounced the specificity of the naming-relation, that is, adopted true monotheism.
The refusal of a vocative name as well as of the sacrificial animal/feast that we see in the Exodus 3 “burning bush” scene is a passage to a higher level of universality. The point is not to claim that “our” Hebrew god is the only god, but that our understanding of God as expressed in our rites and litanies is that God is unique and universal. It is the uniqueness of the Hebrew idea of god that gives rise to the sense of chosenness.
As the configuration of the Exodus scene suggests, the signifier-name is no longer understood as a source of power for the believer. Rather than Moses evoking God, it is God’s voice that calls to Moses from the sacred locus. The permanence of this represented locus guarantees the permanent meaning of the sign, but God’s name as given is not a source of evocative power but a reminder of God’s permanent presence in the underlying configuration, which is in essence communal.
If paganism is a religion of the signifier, relying on the coercive collective power behind the sign-name as evidenced in the originary event, monotheism/Judaism gives the center itself an existence not merely chronologically but ontologically prior to the sign, and consequently independent of its evocations. The “objective” nature of the declarative reflects the sacred signified’s independence from the signifier. Before the sign there was the sacred object of desire, and once there is the sign, what it signifies is no longer a specific object but the unique subsistent source of the sacred. This One God is a subject of language more unambiguously than the “pagan” god designated by the sign/name, a God who speaks first and refuses to give a name in the normal sense. Moses’ desire to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt requires that he conceive the source of the community’s unity (and ultimately of its language and rituals by which its communal values are communicated) as a subject, but if it is a subject, it is the unique subject, since the configuration of center and periphery is that of all human communities. This is the great intuition, or revelation, of monotheism.
The Jewish model maintains the desire for a name and its deferral/disappointment, which is surely the psychological atmosphere of the conversation in Exodus 3. For there is an unresolved tension between the abstract configuration and the abstract declarative “name” it receives, and the specific rites and customs that this configuration has given rise to in the community of the Hebrews. The intuition that there is only one way in which the sacred could have arisen (the anthropological basis of the monotheistic intuition) cannot provide a basis for a specific set of customs. The Law that is the Hebrews’ guarantee of the universality of their intuition is too clearly bound up with the history of their specific community to apply to all, even if the One God is the God of all. The rite of circumcision is the physical guarantee of this exclusivity. Or in other terms, Jewish firstness is not merely a historical accident, it is inevitably perpetuated by the religion itself.
The Christian gesture in its simplest (but not its earliest) form is the transparent equation of God with the sign (“In the beginning was the logos“). This radical identification of the Son with the sign obscures the scene of language on which the sign originally appeared. Where in the Hebrew Bible God creates by means of (human) language (“Let there be light!”), Christianity makes God himself the sign; taking originary language further away from humanity defers firstness and brings peace.
In Science and Faith, I chose Saul’s revelation on the road to Damascus as the originary moment of Christianity, the originary model of the worship of Christ as divine. This scene, like that of Moses in Exodus, is not collective but individual. But Moses hears God’s word in the ritual context of the “burning bush,” a reminder of the originary event, whereas Saul/Paul’s celestial vision of Jesus is expressly cut off from any earthly context. As I observed in Science and Faith, Saul learns that he has unwittingly served to consecrate Jesus’ divine status by persecuting his followers, and more generally, that all humanity has participated in the Crucifixion and by that very fact consecrates Jesus’ divinity. But whereas John’s logos, which belongs to a generation later than Paul’s vision, equates Jesus with the sign, the only sign available to the persecutor is a gesture of aggression, from pointing at the victim (and thereby bringing him to the hostile attention of others) to striking or lapidating him. There is no “good sign,” and to the extent that emitting the sign is always to some extent an act of firstness, that is, a voluntary act that goes beyond a mere mimetic reflex, as we saw in the previous Chronicle, it is always in the Christian context to be deferred. Yet the violence of human language and action only proves all the more Jesus’ divinity, and prepares us for the conversion in which we, in GA terms, sacrifice our firstness to Christ. If we let Him always be first, violence will be deferred forever and disappear.
Thus both Judaism and Christianity express in different degrees a mistrust of language as a collective phenomenon, the easy assent to which is characteristic of “paganism” and risks leading to the forgetting of the sign’s originary purpose: the deferral of violence.
Simple assent to the sign makes its emission appear a magical act that seems to embody divine power to transfigure the originary breakdown of order into its sparagmatic resolution in a common feast. The Jewish solution is to leave the signified without a nominal signifier, requiring the renunciation of a name by which the sacred can be evoked. But the Christian objection to this solution is that for this solution to operate, the ritual center must remain as the mark of the sacred, and with it, the community’s laws and customs, which are in tension with the universality of One God. The Christian solution is to do away with the (Saussurean) sign altogether, to equate its “meaning” with the Other toward whom we must renounce all acts of firstness, including the collective participation in the originary “aborted gesture.”
That Christianity suspects such gestures of being mere avatars of acts of aggression, Girard’s radical Christianity makes obvious: the Girardian originary scene is not a renunciation but a paroxysm of aggression in which the gesture is not aborted but acted out. Deferral remains the key to the originary scene in Girard as well as in GA, but it is a deferral of the appetitive (alimentary) to the benefit of the aggressive, Eros to the benefit of Thanatos.
This méconnaissance is already implicit in the Jewish méconnaissance of the absence of a “name.” But the absence of a name, as Jews are continually reminded in every situation of prayer, is a call to respect the inhabitant of a higher sphere, which anthropologically (but not theologically) is the sphere of the sign. In Christianity there is no such ontological split; what is required is love not as community but as communion, the taking-into-oneself of the Other, with Jesus the one-who-can-be-taken-in, eaten as it were without violence, the one with whom we share the renunciation of firstness which Girard is radical enough to equate with méconnaissance. The world of the sacred and of human relations that is assimilated to it is thus, as we saw in the preceding Chronicle, “monistic,” leaving the natural world aside while we “reconcile ourselves with our brother.”
How does this discussion help clarify the always delicate question of determining where anthropology ends and where religion begins?
- The “pagan” finds the power of the sign in the formal specificity of the sign, name or “magical” gesture; this makes understanding its originary anthropological configuration impossible, since the sign appears to be a supernatural gift.
- The Jew finds the power of the sign in the entire originary configuration that God’s declarative name connotes; God is who/what defines his/its own permanence through language. But is the source of the human a permanent Subject or, ultimately, just a configuration? Can the “permanence” of human historical memory be understood as the residue of a continually manifested configuration without conceiving it as a Subject?
- The Christian sees this dichotomy as painful and artificial; a person is an Other like ourselves and therefore we too are persons. We cannot know a God who cannot/does not incarnate himself as a person. What defers violence is not a sign but the Other who is himself a sign. The configuration that preserves humanity is not that of the human but of the divine Word, the Word that relieves us of our need for aggression, for firstness, as does Jesus’ (written and spoken) language at the stoning of the “woman taken in adultery.”
Once more, a brief suggestion concerning Islam. The uncreated sacred text is, unlike the Tanakh or the New Testament, explicitly not the product of a divine will analogous to that of a human subject. The very ordering of the suras in the Koran by length attests to the absence of “organic” analogy between Allah and us. I somehow doubt that in Islamic schools of interpretation one finds examples of the kind of “arguing with God” that is common in Talmudic schools. One is merely seeking to make clear what one is to submit to; there is no human-like Subject to dialogue with. But I am sure that these questions have been taken up within the Islamic tradition in far more sophisticated ways than I can speculate on here.