Of the relatively few students of René Girard who have attempted to build on his work, only Sandor Goodhart and I, to my knowledge, have been Jewish. But Girard himself always insisted on the essential continuity between Judaism and Christianity, understanding Judaism as the ultimate worldly religion—a position that, it seems to me, leaves completely open the question of whether one’s faith in Christ can succeed in “transcending” Judaism in a new religion. This Chronicle is dedicated to René on what would have been his 94th birthday.
The central mission of GA is to find an objective anthropological basis for dealing with such fundamental cultural questions, which otherwise remain enmeshed in the paradoxes that every non-originary perspective on language and culture creates for itself, paradoxes that religions at least have the grace to present in anthropomorphic terms.
My immediate inspiration for this Chronicle is Phillip Cary’s “Luther at 500,” in the November 2017 Catholic-oriented journal First Things (21-26). Cary commemorates the 500th anniversary of the posting of Luther’s 95 theses by a brief but illuminating exposition of what Luther’s theology brought, not to Protestantism as a sectarian faith, but to Christianity as a whole. Given my admittedly limited knowledge, this strikes me as Christian ecumenism at its best, opening the door to a more nuanced understanding of the choices made by different Christian congregations.
But what is of greatest interest to GA is not the degree of confluence between Catholicism and Lutheranism, but the extent to which, as Cary argues, Luther’s theology sees Christ above all as a source of language, and in doing so, corroborates and enriches the understanding of the connection between language and the sacred embodied in the originary hypothesis.
Theology is not a domain where we should venture on an a priori basis. If it is true, as I like to say, that theology is good anthropology (but bad cosmology), then we must dialogue with it rather than “transcending” it. GA is not the authorized story of the Weltgeist, but a minimal way of bringing together the various ways in which humans have thought about the essence of their humanity, a new way of thinking that seeks to clarify their truth without simply replacing them. And it is no coincidence that religious discourse, and above all Christian discourse, is highly resistant to any such replacement, not out of mere belligerency but because of intuitions such as those attributed to Luther in Cary’s essay. This essay is not only an insightful perspective on Luther and on Christianity generally, in the service of reunifying the Church after half a millennium; for our purposes, its focus on God’s/Christ’s word as language offers a perspective on Christianity that greatly facilitates dialogue with GA.
Cary reminds us that Luther’s original point was not to contest the efficacy of the sacraments, but to rid the Church of the materialistic distortion of the sacrament of penance in the sale of indulgences, which claimed, as the English translation goes, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/ The soul from Purgatory springs.” Luther assumed at the outset that the Church’s higher authorities could not possible be aware of such abuse; within five years, he refused obedience to the Pope, having learned that the Church hierarchy was profiting directly from the practice.
Cary emphasizes that in rejecting this commercial debasement, Luther by no means denied the value of the sacraments. On the contrary, being forced to meditate on the importance of the sacrament of penance and on the sacraments in general, he arrived at the conclusion that they were not less but more efficacious than the Church had realized. For in granting the sacrament of baptism, the priest, and eventually the Lutheran minister, was not simply allowing the child to enter the community of the Church, he was conveying the word of Christ that bears salvation.
This is the key to the faith/works divergence from Catholicism of Luther and, with variants, the other Protestant founders. As Cary puts it, Luther would abolish the “performance anxiety” of the faithful, who had striven to fulfill God’s commandments through good works in order to “merit” salvation. On the contrary, God’s grace is conferred by baptism itself, and reiterated by penance and the Eucharist. If we remain sinners, it is not because we have not performed enough virtuous deeds, but because we are unable to maintain perfect faith. But knowing this, Christ forgives us our sins on our promise to renew our faith in God’s promise of salvation. Which is to say that we fight our sinfulness, not by attempting to strengthen our will to resist temptation, but by convincing ourselves that in telling us through Christ that we belong to him and to his kingdom, God is indeed telling us the truth; for otherwise, we “call God a liar.”
The moral point of all this is emphatically not that if we are justified by faith alone, then in the absence of the “good works” performance anxiety, we may act as selfishly as we like; it is just the opposite. If we are so justified,
then works of love serve our neighbors, not our desire to justify ourselves or make ourselves holy. We are holy because Christ claims us as his own through word and sacrament . . . Luther challenges us to recognize that from the beginning of the Christian tradition, this is always how Christ has saved his people . . . Thus justification by faith alone is not new, even though Luther’s formulation of the doctrine is. (26)
Cary emphasizes throughout that Luther’s doctrine of faith finds its guarantee through hearing, through the word rather than any iconic presence. And it is on this point that he makes the essential linguistic distinction on which his ecumenical alliance with Luther depends:
Both the law of God and the Gospel of Christ are God’s word, but the former only gives us instructions while the latter gives us Christ. For the law tells us what to do, but the Gospel tells us what Christ does. . . .
A great many preachers, Protestant as well as Catholic, overlook the distinction between law and Gospel, thinking they can change people’s lives by giving them practical advice—as if telling them how to be inwardly transformed could help them do it. Augustine already knew better. Luther’s addition to Augustine’s insight is merely the glad recognition that there is indeed something preachers can do to help us be transformed: instead of advice, they can give us Christ. (ibid)
The preachers can “give us Christ” in the sense that the wafer “gives us” Christ’s body. Cary points out that Luther was not hostile to the idea of transubstantiation, but considered it unnecessarily literal, since if Christ’s body and blood are truly present in the sacrament, there is no need to require a miraculous transformation of physical matter. For Luther it is enough that Christ gave his word that “this is my blood . . . my body,” and that the repetition of the word in conjunction with the sacrament suffices to remind us of this promise. And in the same sense, the preacher gives us Christ by reminding us of Christ’s “good news” for us.
What for Cary is Luther’s central lesson for Christians, Catholics included, is that “Luther does not aim to see God’s essence but to hear him speak, for it is in his word that God gives himself to be known” (25). Throughout his essay, he is contrasting two aspects of language that correspond, roughly but not exactly, to the contrast between the declarative sentence, which offers “context-free” truths—about God’s law or his essence, or about the atomic weight of plutonium—and what could broadly be called performatives, Christ offering his promise of salvation and having his words repeated to us by his clergy. For Luther, the job of the clergy is not to tell us context-free truths about God and salvation, but to repeat to us Christ’s promise, for to have faith in this promise is to be “justified,” whatever propositions about God’s essence we may or may not be able to affirm.
The opposition between the law and the word of Christ is at the heart of the opposition between Christianity and Judaism. This is not the place to defend the Jewish position, which is certainly not the equivalent of the preacher “telling [you] how to be inwardly transformed,” but rather to clarify the nature of the distinction Cary is making between the statement of the law and what he refers to obliquely as telling us “what Christ does” and “giving us Christ.” What is the precise nature of the linguistic distinction he is making here?
It is easy enough to understand what the preacher should not do: study the Gospels so as to understand the “divine essence,” then attempt to convey to the faithful how this essence should be applied to their own lives. Cary makes no distinction between this procedure and adherence to the letter of the law. He argues on Luther’s behalf that “if God is a person rather than a principle, coming to us in the person of his own Son, isn’t believing what he has to say about himself the deepest and most appropriate way to know who he is?” (25). But this still doesn’t give us a clear idea of what types of statements we are to take as exemplary and how our acceptance of them gives us what he calls “a kind of secondhand knowledge” as opposed to allowing us to “[see] the ultimate Truth for ourselves.” If Euclid tells me that “two points determine a line,” then Euclid remains a person, but the principle he is enunciating is one that I can assimilate fully and not “secondhand.” Whereas the promises of the Gospel are valid only “secondhand,” on the authority of God through Christ.
I think that the distinction Cary is making, which strikes me as essential for understanding religious language as opposed to that of factuality, as well as demonstrating by its very vagueness the ultimate impossibility of finding an “objective” criterion on which to make this distinction, can be clarified by reference to GA’s critique of metaphysics as falsely assuming the “eternity” of the declarative sentence or proposition. The performative language, what Austin called “doing things with words,” that is at the core of Luther’s faith in the efficacy of the sacraments, consists in utterances such as “I baptize you” or “I absolve you of your sins,” in both cases, in the name(s) of the Trinity. In the latter case, for example, he describes Luther as teaching that, given the promise in Matthew 16:19, “Whatever you absolve on earth shall be absolved in heaven,” “to doubt the word of absolution is to call Christ a liar” (22).
These distinctions cannot simply be assimilated to that made in The Origin of Language between the elementary linguistic forms (ostensive and imperative) and the declarative. “I absolve you” is superficially a declarative sentence. But it is not a constative, like the declarative that arises in answer to a failed imperative. On the contrary, its performativity, its doing things with words, answers a need in the hearer by means of the words themselves. And in doing so, it provides the “missing link” between GA’s hypothesis of linguistic origin and the performative language of Western religion.
We should note that we are only assured of the efficacy of these sacraments through our faith in the promises made in the Gospels. The sacramental words do not have a “magical” effect in creating new realities; they operate through the mediation of God’s prior promise, that if these words are pronounced on Earth in the appropriate context, they will be so to speak honored in Heaven. This promise guarantees the link between the words and the thing they do.
Yet what is really “done” by the sacraments that transcends the purely sacramental context? After all, saying that one is “justified” or “saved” or “purged of one’s sins” is ultimately only of significance in relation to one’s life with one’s fellow men. Cary’s whole point in insisting on the relevance of “justification by faith” for all Christians is that as a result, “works of love serve our neighbors, not our desire to justify ourselves or make ourselves holy.” That is, we understand love as a relation, mediated by God, between me and my fellows, not as a mode of self-purification in which I relate uniquely to God. However this may be understood in Judaism, the whole point of Christianity is to emphasize the primary importance of the moral relation with others, as so many examples in the Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere in the Gospels, that put human care above ritual make clear.
In the ostensive language of the originary event, all the members of the group share the sign that represents the central being as what can be possessed by all only once the symmetry of the group is recognized by all. This first ostensive is indeed a word that does things: it creates a human social order where before there was only a pecking order, a queue structure no more integrated than a line in a supermarket. And it does so by the most fundamental linguistic act: the assertion of significance—in this case, at a moment when the very concept of the significant/sacred did not yet exist. To focus the attention of the group on an object that can only be contemplated is to create in our relation to it a distinction between its “idea” or “image” or “signified” and its physical being that cannot be accessed, to make of this “signified” no longer a component of our appetitive drive toward the object, but a being, or Being, in its own right.
The significance of the central object is man’s first experience of the sacred, which is to say that at this stage, the two terms are synonymous. The various attributes that for us identify God, or even “a god,” are derivations from this primordial characteristic of a being that can no longer be accessed from within our world but that is the focus of our desire. Of course God is more than a sacrificial animal, but the separation between the central locus of human attention and the object of the subsequent sparagmos would not yet be realized in emitting the originary sign. Theology, the understanding of God, is nothing but the attempt to define the nature of this sacred centrality.
When John identifies Christ with the logos, the word/sentence/utterance, he identifies the sacred with the emergence of language, which is “with God” because God can only emerge into the human world along with language. Whether we believe that God preexisted language, or that he is a creation of the human mind in its invention/discovery of speech, the two emerge into our world simultaneously.
Hence, to return to Cary’s analysis, Luther’s emphasis on “hearing” is a foregrounding, not of language in its declarative, information-bearing function, but of linguistic performativity, as the central function of language from the beginning. The socially sanctioned performativity of “I now pronounce you man and wife” is only conceivable because language has the power to assign significant meanings to worldly beings, and the significance that these meanings embody has its root in the originary sacred/significance conferred and recognized by the first sign.
What Cary praises in Luther is his restoration to the sign of the full sense of its originary sacrality. The Church had given priests the power to baptize, but in Luther’s view, this sense had been reduced to a kind of licensing procedure, in which Christ gives the new member of the congregation the potential for salvation, whereas if we would not “call Christ a liar,” we must consider that baptism, along with penance and the Eucharist and the other sacraments Luther considered directly grounded in the Gospel, must be understood as actually conferring salvation on the baptized.
Cary does not elaborate on how the latter, through lack of faith, can lose this originary guarantee and be obliged to renew it periodically. But just as the ritual repetition of the originary sign renews the sacrality of the central locus and the being that occupies it, the repetition of the sacrament is necessitated by the inevitable infidelities inherent in earthly existence; even if we know that only one thing is sacred, we cannot survive if we remain entirely focused on it.
But this is a secondary matter. The important message is that the language itself conveys the sacrament because it repeats the promise of God through Christ, and in that sense, renews as well the performative element of the ostensive that is lost in its repetition as “ordinary language.” For if the first use of the ostensive names the referent, in the sense of giving it a name, subsequent uses that repeat the word “name” it only in the sense of recovering its name as a means of identifying it, that is, of signifying it, while taking its significance for granted. But the sacred use of language is never simply the recalling of the name, but always a naming anew.
Thus Cary’s view of Luther’s religious intuition is that the sacrament is only real, and indeed, only of any use whatsoever, if it restores this original performativity that is the originary effect of language, what makes it the source of our sense of the sacred and simultaneously of human communal solidarity.
In the same way, GA’s fundamental purpose, without calling us to religious belief, is to remind us of this fundamental function of language. The ostensive is not just a social “performative,” but the originary performance of the human community’s existence, both in its collective and its internal, individual moments. I cannot vouch for the orthodoxy of Cary’s interpretation either in Catholic or Lutheran terms, but I am wholeheartedly in support of the anthropological intuition that he expresses, in religious form, in this admirably revelatory essay.