In 1988, I gave a talk at the University of Washington entitled “The Anthropological Idea of God,” in which I defined this “idea” as the subsistent center of the scene of representation, the point being that after the animal that had been at the center of the scene was divided among the participants, all that would be left as a “subsistent” signified of the originary sign would be this center, not as a physical locus, but the remembered center of the scene that is both a locus of public interaction and the field of attention of the individual pour-soi, separated by the néant from its objects.
This was a decent first step. But an empty locus is nonetheless a geometrical rather than a spiritual conception. Thirty-odd years later, I think the following comes closer to my original goal.
The previous Chronicle ended with: “Every religion affirms, each in its way, that the sacred and the significant are one. With GA, this affirmation becomes as well the basis of secular anthropology.”
When religions make this affirmation, they can take for granted that the sacred is knowable through their practices of worship. To equate it to the significant is but to reiterate the universal religious message that the sacred being or essence that they worship is the source of all things significant to us, whether in an everyday or a linguistic sense.
GA can define the sacred only in terms of human behavior. The originary hypothesis conceives both the sacred and the significant in the context of the originary scene of language.
The central object of the scene, which we assume to be the cadaver of a large animal that must be divided among the members of a hunting group and their families, is a crucial element of nourishment, hence the object of all appetites, yet given the prior failure of Alpha-Beta serial distribution, all the members of the group fear to access the animal, and their appropriative gestures toward it are aborted.
But one or more of the members come to interpret the aborted gesture as a sign pointing to both the interdiction of the object for them as individuals and its continued importance for the group. The other participants, realizing the value of this interpretation, come to repeat the sign in order to give assurance of their deferral of such gestures and their mutual recognition as equal participants in the scene.
Once the entire group has achieved this state of peaceful symmetry, they can approach the animal in unison, and the scene concludes with its roughly equal peaceful division among the participants. The success of this operation leads to the repetition and elaboration of its scenic configuration, and ultimately, to human culture as we know it.
The source of the universal human conception of a sacred being is understandable only if we include in our hypothesis that the human group does not repeat the scene merely as a result of its success, on the understanding that this egalitarian distribution system is ultimately less dangerous than the former serial hierarchy. The internalization of the scene in the individual members of the group, in conjunction with the recalled originary sign, leads the group with seeming necessity to conceive the sign and the deferral of instinctive action that it embodies not simply as a useful human invention, but as imposed by a sacred being whose existence precedes and dominates that of the newly emerged human sign-users.
Our progress toward the confluence of religion and anthropology, of God-creates-Man and Man-creates-God, requires that we explain this necessity as a feature of the originary event.
In the mid-19th century, Max Müller speculated that the referent of the first word was the sun. He claimed that a name for the sun was “wanted” because of its prominence in the imagination of a “first” human “awakened” by sunlight—without thinking that a newly-emerged human would experience the sun no differently than the proto-human ape he had been before his humanizing experience (see Chronicle 192). Similarly, in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey, the presumed “first men” worship a monolith, which embodies like Müller’s sun, albeit on a smaller scale, the ideas of permanence and power. Whatever its naivete, this reasoning provides at the very least a justification for our conception of (a) god as both essentially permanent/immortal and possessing great power.
In our hypothesis the object of the originary sign is rather a dead animal, one not contemplated in awe by a solitary proto-human, but in the center of a scene surrounded by a group, by whom it will at the conclusion of a sequence of events be divided up. After the scene ends and the cadaver has been parceled out, the sign will remain in the memory of the scene’s participants, not simply as an external object like the cadaver, but as a behavior that they remain free to perform.
The originary sign is an ostensive; it designates, points to, the animal, as its referent. But whereas the sun or the monolith are presumably unaffected by signs of worship and conceived as timeless, our hypothetical scene must lead to the consumption, that is, the disappearance, of the original referent.
What then, in the absence of the dead animal, does the sign, as signifier, signify? What, in a word, is its signified?
To answer this question, we must put ourselves in the place of creatures who had never previously to deal with a “signified.” As animals, their signals, even if quasi-voluntary, did not mean, but simply signaled, as tears signal distress, or blushing, embarrassment—or “ouch,” which is hardly a primal cry, nonetheless signals a sudden pain. How does the first sign, a product of deferral, continue to mean?
The sign is a conscious means of indicating the emitter’s deferral of his appropriative intention toward the object. In our hypothesis, the very notion of intention is born in this act, since previously, aborted acts were not acts of conscious deferral, but the results of what Pavlov called “conditioned reflexes,” one variety of which would inhibit actions whose performance had previously had negative consequences.
The key to the originary idea of the sacred being is the experience of a contrary will. That the gesture of appropriation had come to be intentionally aborted by the entire group, and subsequently intended as a sign of the renouncement of appropriation, demonstrates the oppositional nature of the originary sacred that the participants experience as interdicting their original intention to satisfy their appetites. That is, the sacred interdiction that protects the object at the outset of the scene is experienced as a hostile intention, one that arouses what I have called originary resentment (see Chronicle 333).
Yet it is this original hostility that permits the sharing of the animal in the concluding feast, resolving the problem posed by the breakdown of the Alpha-Beta system of distribution. The imposition of this apparently hostile will results in general satisfaction. Whether a given member of the group feels cheated or benefited by the scene is indeterminable—the former Alpha may not appreciate finding himself on a par with the others—but the overall success of the operation, biological as well as psychological, is not in doubt.
Thus the sacred is first experienced as an apparently hostile will that cannot be opposed, one that emanates from no worldly source, such as the Alpha animal in opposition to his fellows. The only “embodiment” of this will is as the signified of the originary sign, which in turn is the originary source of our conception of a sacred being or divinity. The participants may not “love” the being that has thus operated upon them, but they must recognize, and preserve by their future actions, the collective value of its benefits.
Hence, at the origin, the sacred is not an object of gratuitous adoration, just as the significant is not the basis of a utilitarian means of communication (“the food is over the hill”). Nor is the sign in its origin an expression of joy, even if it may acquire this affect in the aftermath of the feast. Its original performance is imposed on us by the sacred force of the scene, independently of its immanent or transcendental origin.
To the extent that we experience the sacred interdiction as enspirited in an alien will, we may agree that the godly essence revealed here is, in Girard’s sense, the scapegoat for our own mimetic rivalry, which prevented us from equably distributing the meat from the animal in its absence. The hostility behind the violence that proto-humans had in the past visited on each other with the breakdown of the serial system does not simply disappear. It is converted into originary resentment against God, in the knowledge, however frustrating, that God is invulnerable to our resentment, and that his will must be obeyed. It is in this sense, rather than in literally immolating a human victim, that the originary sacrifice anticipates the Crucifixion.
The Abrahamic religions, and most particularly, Christianity, emphasize God’s love for his people and insist on our duty to love him in return. But the reciprocal love of God and man was not typical of the religions of the past.
The last book of the Iliad contains a classic expression of the ancient understanding of the gods. In the poem’s climactic scene, Achilles, touched with sympathy, addresses Priam, whose son Hector he has killed, and whose body he is releasing to him for burial:
ὡς γὰρ ἐπεκλώσαντο θεοὶ δειλοῖσι βροτοῖσι
ζώειν ἀχνυμένοις: αὐτοὶ δέ τ’ ἀκηδέες εἰσί. (24:525-26)
Thus the gods have spun the thread of fate for wretched mortals: we live in sorrow, while they are free from care.
This is, as far as our anthropological reasoning can take us, the origin of our notion of the divinity. It allows us to incorporate Girard’s understanding of Christianity as anthropologically revelatory. His affirmation that the “gods of violence” are false because it is man that is the source of violence and resentment is a giant step toward the unification of religion and anthropology.
Whether the originary conception of God reflected the inchoate awareness of a divine being or was an imaginary extrapolation from the original humans’ experience of a contrary will embodied in the human collective itself, the origin of the sign and of human culture cannot be understood in the absence of the phenomenon of the sacred.