The term ecumenism makes one think of a feel-good “conversation” between a rabbi, one or more Christian churchmen, an imam, a Buddhist… And the kind of generalities that come out of such conversations demonstrate only that religion isn’t really necessary, since the truisms everyone can agree on are self-evident to those with no religion at all.
But we can rehabilitate the term by understanding it as an intellectual enterprise. Just as interdisciplinary projects in the University only bear fruit when the participants can exchange substantive ideas rather than banalities in an “interdepartmental committee,” so we must use the power of our hypothesis to forge a vocabulary that can allow the various religions to clarify their differences and grasp the extent of their underlying unity. As in Adam Katz’s proposal in Chronicle 568 for GA’s role in the social sciences, however revolutionary the originary hypothesis may be, its value will emerge from its contributions to the (re)construction of what human thought has already accomplished in different spheres, not from tearing everything down to start over. This is all the more true in religion. Even in the best of circumstances, mortal life is lived in a foxhole, and any anthropology must respect the means by which humans have come to terms with this condition.
We would not call a set of practices and ideas a religion if it did not involve an existential commitment, founded on the (paradoxical) tension between mortal beings and non-mortal signs. In contrast, on the one hand, scientific “paradigms” may overlap temporarily, but in the long term they succeed each other with no residue. And on the other, things like novels or poems coexist without contradicting each other. Even philosophies can be “synthesized.”
Given that GA offers what I believe to be the only minimalist model of the origin of the human, it should not surprise us that the originary hypothesis both contradicts and yet “includes” all religions. When some day science becomes capable of reproducing an or the originary event, we can rethink the whole question, but in the meantime it is nihilistic to claim that in conceiving the event of human origin we must choose between the various mythical-religious models or none at all. Yet that is what the social-scientific community has decided, as dictated by the sociology of the profession and its underlying ideologies, which include the “Enlightenment” conviction that religion, its moral preaching aside, is a set of consoling fictions of no cognitive value.
If I had it all to do over again, I might decide that a comparative study of world religions would be the appropriate follow-up to The Origin of Language rather than attempting the rich but over-ambitious project of The End of Culture. But at this point, after nearly 40 years of GA, any attempt of mine at a “definitive” work would hardly be useful. I can only offer some basic ideas that will hopefully serve as a stimulus for future researchers. And if the current state of the world poses obstacles to the further development of these ideas, only you can decide whether commitment to them is worthwhile.
It is an act of considerable arrogance to dismiss as paganism all religions outside the “Abrahamic” ones, but Western history has confirmed the correctness of the intuition behind it. Although it is not a useful characterization for Asian religions such as Buddhism and (to a lesser extent) Hinduism or Zoroastrianism, this stigmatization is reflected in the disappearance of all the local religions of Europe, even if many of their rituals, such as “Christmas” trees, have been absorbed into Christianity. The One God of the Hebrews remains the face of the sacred in the West.
From the standpoint of the originary hypothesis, what is distinctive about this understanding of God is not simply his “uniqueness,” since in terms of their role on the scene, all gods are “unique,” but its embodiment of the passage from the original ostensive sign to the declarative, a passage that, as I pointed out in “Plato and The Birth of Conceptual Thought,” has a rather exact parallel in the development of Platonic philosophy. The God “named” by a declarative sentence that affirms his self-identity and self-causality (I am what/that I am) inhabits the same scene as that of the “pagan” gods, but he lets us understand it more minimally and universally. If “God” is the being that not merely occupies but maintains the scene, then the Hebrew God makes his centrality the source of Being, the am-ness of I am, implying that all objects outside this center are reflections of this being as the originary object of the sign.
Whatever the originary sign may have been, it was a specific sound/gesture that thereby named the central object. And in a world of many human groups, there would be a number of such “names-of-God,” each one unique in its sphere but incapable of enforcing its uniqueness except by dint of conquest. What the Hebrew God is presumably the first to have revealed is that, whatever you call him, he has no name; he is who/what/that he is, identifiable only by the predicate of being himself. In contrast with this, other understandings of God are not so much “particular” as incapable of expressing their universality. The God in the center of the scene is always unique, but to refer by name to this uniqueness allows the unanswerable calumny that we are engaging in idolatry, worshiping whatever physical object or “graven image” occupies the center. In the multiplication of gods, rites, and temples that follows the joining of different communities, the unity of the sacred is dissimulated. A Xenophanes could grasp the underlying unity of these practices, but one should not have to be a philosopher standing outside them in order to do so.
The function of religion being to remind the members of the human community of the moral configuration of the originary reciprocal exchange of signs around the scenic center, the Hebrew discovery/invention of the One God provides a more powerful model than any form of “paganism” because it corresponds to a more minimally structured—more resistant, more strongly invariant—figuration of the scene in which God’s transcendental relationship to all humans is made explicit. This corresponds, in accord with Girard’s analysis of the moral superiority of the Judeo-Christian model, to an enhanced valuation of moral reciprocity. If we consider that what we call the moral model of reciprocity is not culture-bound but universal and that it is the fundamental lesson of the originary event, then a religion that makes this more explicit is clearly a “higher” religion. Thus we need not include “paganism” in our ecumenical synthesis.
In a word, what the Torah does is to extrapolate the position of “its” god in the center of the scene to the scene-in-general. To put the worst face on it, we might say that by denying the authenticity of all other gods as centers of the human scene, the Hebrews affirm that they alone are truly human. Certainly hostility to the Jews in antiquity was based on this assumption. But the difference between the Hebrews’ position and that of peoples who sought their god’s supremacy in military conquest was the realization that “their” God’s supremacy had to be detached from mere worldly power and placed on an ontological plane where his uniqueness, and therefore his universality, would be unchallengeable. The “Jewish Barber” must shave himself as well as everyone else. Without this, the revelation of the One God would never have been propagated across the entire West.
The Hebrew One God’s withdrawal from the named state is the transcendence of anthropomorphism, the generalization of the scene of ritual to a virtual scene encompassing all humankind and the universe that surrounds it. Yet this revelation could be made only in one place, through one discourse, which it has been the privilege and the curse of the Hebrews to propagate among the nations.
Although Christianity is a “universal” religion, it is anything but an abstraction from the “tribal” particularity of Judaism. By actualizing the paradoxical being-of-God in an individual human being, Christianity comes no doubt as close as any religion can to illustrating the inseparable unity of the human and the sacred, which must be other than human and yet can be realized only “in” the human mind, which can for that reason be called a spirit or soul. The very nature of Christianity precludes its full realization in the worldly life of its founder. It necessitates the realization in faith of the paradox of combining the “immortal” sign with mortal existence.
What came eventually to be canonized in the triune monotheism of the Trinity is the most complete of all scenic constructions, and it should be no surprise that, although our understanding of the physical world is more complex by many degrees of magnitude than that of the 4th century, no more highly articulated (as opposed to imaginatively ornamented) understanding of the sacred scene has ever been constructed, nor is perhaps conceivable as a religious doctrine.
The key to this articulation is given in the first sentence of the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Logos. The Logos is in the first place a word, a sign, and it is through the sign that humanity discovers itself. The word is both eternal and perishable; signs are eternal, but they can only emerge through instantiation. The death of God is implicit in the death of the sign. The Word is “identical” to the crucified and resurrected Christ.
According to the originary hypothesis, we create a “timeless” sign from the need to designate the perishable animal whose consumption will destroy it while nourishing the human community. The fundamental purpose of the sign is to permit the pursuance of our mortal lives, which requires channeling our potentially violent mimetic tendencies toward dividing up food and other goods rather than dividing up each other. Unlike Girard, I do not see the Christian identification of the sign with the crucifixion as a revelation of “what really happened” in the originary event. It is rather the revelation of the paradoxical nature of this event, of its fundamental fragility, hence of the necessity that we resist our resentment of the center (and of all who partake of centrality) lest it come to enact what the sign was created to defer, violence toward our fellow humans.
As opposed to providing the clearest picture of “what really happened,” the greatness of Christianity lies its revelation of what this happening ultimately implies, so that we may intend its deferral of violence in the knowledge that this deferral is not inevitable—that God, or the scene of representation, cannot protect us from ourselves independently of our own will, that—and this is the core of Girard’s theological intuition—what we resentfully speak of as God’s violence is really our own.
If Christianity thus “perfects” Judaism, why then should it not supersede it? This is not the place to go over the long history of this idea, although we should celebrate the Catholic church’s recent evolution toward seeing the Jews no longer as exemplars of the sad fate of those who refused Christ’s revelation, but as the “elder brothers” of the necessarily prior revelation of the One God. One can profitably meditate on the paradoxical contrast between a “tribal” religion whose One God is described in universal terms and a “universal” religion whose triune God includes an individual human person. Clearly no simple synthesis of the two is possible. Yet the “elder brother” figure expresses an element of human religion that Christ’s individuality makes even clearer: the truth is “eternal,” but such truths must be revealed in time through human experience, and once this experience reaches a certain level, it can no longer be superseded. (If GA is a child of both these religious traditions, it could no doubt only have emerged from a Christian idea taken up by a Jew, just as the modern state of Israel is conceivable only in the context of the nation-states that emerged within Western Christendom.)
The question of Islam is one that I will leave for a future Chronicle, remarking only that my inclination is to share Daniel Pipes’ tempered optimism, considering that despite its difficulties in adapting to a pluri-religious society, Islam is an authentic modern religion that has a potentially constructive role to play in world affairs. (The recent activities and pronouncements of MBS in Saudi Arabia certainly lend support to this thesis.)
Two years ago in Nagoya I gave a talk on Buddhism (see Chronicles 515–516), a reminder of which here is apropos. As I understand it, the appeal of Buddhism in the West, at least before the victimary craze turned former hippies into Social Justice Warriors, comes from its vision of the scene of representation as itself the object of veneration. This is in contrast to whatever presence on the scene may occupy our attention, a presence which the Buddhist understands as ultimately illusory—as are, for Nagarjuna, the apparently evident assertions of propositional language. Hence Buddhist practice consists primarily of techniques that permit us to empty the scene of representation of its worldly objects.
This expulsion of the “passions” that Buddhism facilitates is much more difficult for Westerners, who are asked to regard the desires we must deny as sins, rather than simply putting them away as illusions, as if in accordance with Girard’s critique of mimetic desire. Whence the Western fascination, beginning with Schopenhauer’s generation, for “Eastern” culture.
The emptying-out of the scene would hardly seem to be a formula for earthly success, and yet a number of the East Asian nations that have adopted Buddhism as the or a primary religion have done quite well in the postwar era. This is no doubt because they balance Buddhist otherworldliness with a “Confucian” respect for tradition, resulting in what we might call an Asian Burkeanism—a less conflictive, if no doubt less dynamic equilibrium than that between Old- and New-Testament attitudes in the West.
From the standpoint of the originary hypothesis, Buddhism offers the simplest possible understanding of the scene as the locus where all our intentionalities can converge, provided that they be purged of any object that we must divide and that must consequently divide us. The empty scene belongs to everyone, not merely “equally,” but entirely.
Which is a truly “ecumenical” thought with which to leave the reader of this Chronicle.