We have all heard hypocrites invoke God to guarantee their selfish ends. In such cases, it is easy to take the superficial Nietzschean view of God as simply a rhetorical trick by means of which the weak can wrest power from the strong. By disguising my own will to power as the expression of God’s all-powerful will, I deal myself a card that trumps any human value.

The grain of truth in this analysis does no discredit to religion; on the contrary, the association of God with persuasion through language provides an insight into the anthropological reality of both God and language. God and the sign of human language are inseparable; there is no reduction of God to language that is not at the same time the subordination of language to God. The flagrant weakness of Nietzsche’s analysis–which has done no harm to its popularity–is that, like all Enlightenment thinking about religion, it begs the question of separating ontology from pragmatics, truth from usefulness. If “we” are gullible enough to accept the rhetorical appeal to God, must there not be something inherent in the human use of language that makes us gullible in this way? Why and how did we acquire this gullibility? Those clever priests who used religion to usurp power from their physical superiors must have had some reason to believe that their ruse would be successful.

Religious traditions are justly preoccupied with experiences of revelation that give historical specificity to God as the Being named by the originary sign. Rituals continually reproduce the public scene of mimetic crisis in which religion originated and whose memory must be preserved for religion to remain alive. In this scene, the polarization of mimetic desire in the center prevents appropriation and thereby defers the rivalrous hostility among the participants. But the modern world, where collective life is more nostalgia than reality, makes us skeptical of serious, let alone critical, public manifestations of desire. We look back to them as the originary crucible of our own humanity, but we no longer find in them the source of our productivity. For the originary deferral of public violence also originated the possibility of private economic activity in which the individual temporarily detaches himself from the community in order to produce goods capable of acquiring value within it. Modernity is nothing but the society that results from the domination of this operation and its regulation through the free market. In such circumstances, creativity is, if not a purely individual activity, a definitely private one; the exceptions to this rule, like sports events or rock concerts, can excite public passions only because of their reassuring marginality.

In these circumstances, God’s presence among humans appears to be essentially a matter for the individual consciousness or “conscience.” The Cartesian moment is a key step toward recognizing the originary constitution of the self through the generation of the sign as “name of God,” but it also lends itself, via the Enlightenment “misreading” of the cogito, to the false consciousness of the self as an autonomous entity whose dependency on human interaction is merely incidental. Even theLacanian “return” to a language-constituted self takes place within the biological ambit of Freudianism, from which the human collectivity (except in the forgotten pages of Totem and Taboo) is altogether absent; the “father” imposes language on the “son,” but there is no concern for the obvious fact that this process could not have originated in the nuclear family. With or without Lacan, the modern self tends to understand God (see Chronicle 118) either as an external “anthropomorphic” being to whom I relate as to a father or king, or, in a more modern vein, as a purely “spiritual” presence within myself. These twin visions of God, apparently so different, are ultimately the same. Both depend but fail to acknowledge their dependency on the deferral of violence that sacred Being inaugurates at the origin of the human–inaugurates as the human. Both symmetrically situate Me before God, the “internal” or “external” nature of whose presence is wholly indeterminate. (The whole point of phenomenology was to do away with this kind of inside-outside distinction; no one considers God to be internal the way a toothache is internal.)

It is no doubt a mistake to see this as a falling-away from revealed truth, the abandonment of a religious Golden Age. The collective origin of the sacred is and has always been successful precisely insofar as it is hidden; for each participant, to see only the central Being is to be preserved from the potentially deadly rivalry of the others. The hiddenness of this collective origin is itself originary; it only appears to increase with the “decline of public man” because the evolution of the exchange system provokes in us a sensitivity to the difference between the public and private spheres unavailable to our ancestors. The premodern individual defines himself in the sacrificial repetition of the originary scene; his lack of a “private” identity makes him less capable of insight into the founding role of human mimesis than his skeptical modern counterpart. No doubt the Enlightenment was, as Eric Voegelin claims, an era of “gnostic” excess, but it is a prerequisite to originary thinking.

How then can we further our understanding of our collective origin under modern conditions? It is for this purpose that I am suggesting that we understand God neither as Being nor even as Language (whether the divine Logos or the fetishized postmodern version), but as rhetoric. The one experience of God no one can avoid is the use of his name in conversation. Believe or not, the rhetoric of God is difficult to refute. The appeal to the transcendental avoids the interpersonal rivalries of this world. What I take from you to give to God I do not give to myself. In order to reject my impersonal reference to God’s will, you must descend to the personal level and accuse me of “bad faith.”

To affirm belief is to affirm what lies beyond language. If RenĂ© Girard is less concerned than some with the identity of human origin and human language, it is because he believes in a Being beyond language. But for believer and unbeliever alike, God is accessible only through the signs by means of which he persuades us of his presence. Tartuffery aside, there are moments marked by crisis and death in which even the “unbeliever” commonly makes use of these signs, moments ranging from the proverbial foxhole (see “The Unique Source of Religion and Morality,” Anthropoetics I, 1) to wholly personal crises. At a funeral or at the bedside of a dying relative or friend, one need not be a believer to comfort a bereaved party with a reference to God’s will or to his loving care for the deceased.

The experience that inspired this Chronicle is the yet more paradoxical case of one who does not habitually make use of divine rhetoric, but is drawn to do so, so to speak involuntarily, in circumstances of great personal significance. One way to describe Generative Anthropology is as an exploration of the minimal conditions of dialogue between “believers” and “unbelievers”–of bringing the anthropology that is religion into the orbit of secular reflection. Hence it is of great interest to me to witness the “presence of God” in my own discourse. What else, indeed, is revelation? The difference between this purely linguistic presence and the great revelations of Moses before the burning bush or Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus–in both of which God manifests himself only through language–is one not of substance but of expression. These public displays, like the visions of the resurrected Christ described in the Gospels, depend on an intimate contact between the public and the private scenes of representation that in the modern era language alone preserves.

Rather than define the difference between “believer” and “unbeliever” as a matter of belief, we may define it in terms of rhetoric: the first habitually uses, where the second does not, the rhetoric of God. That when we find ourselves in “foxholes”–whether of death or of life, of resentment or of love–we all tend to pronounce the name of God suggests that, in extreme moments, believers and unbelievers share a common understanding of what it is to be human. Where they differ is not in their fundamental ontology but in their pragmatic sense of the value of ritual.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is the most powerful historical locus of desacralization, but all religion is in conflict with its ritual. Ritual is the “supplement” that demonstrates its own lack; it is a reproduction that seeks to renew for its participants the experience of absolute originality. The believer nevertheless affirms the social efficacy of ritual and of its linguistic variant, the rhetoric of God. By talking of God, he hopes to bring us closer together in our otherness from him. What belongs to God is neither yours nor mine; we have no need to fight over it. Christians share the sign of the Cross that Jesus suffered for us so that we have no need to inflict it on each other. This revelation of nonagression gives cause for celebration. The churches that are growing today–not only within Christianity–are those that insist less on renewing the originary crisis than on celebrating their divine protection from it. Evangelical ecstasy is not the ecstasy of sacrifice, but that of healing.

The unbeliever is suspicious of ritual’s disconnection from the world of profane creativity: if he disdains to profit from the rhetoric of God in everyday life, he will not make use of it in the temporary community of a church. In him Judeo-Christian iconoclasm is pushed to its limit, the commandment not to take the name of God in vain applied with the greatest rigor. When he does pronounce this name, he reproduces the surprise and the rhetorical impact of its originary use.

To defer the name of God can be the most barren of spiritual acts. But it can also be the the most profound. This deferral is the last word of Christianity and of all religion–the most subtle form of the rhetoric of God.