In 1971, René Girard inaugurated a new anthropological conception of the sacred with La violence et le sacré. When I published The Origin of Language ten years later, I had little idea that the “generative anthropology” that would derive from it would require a modification of Girard’s etiology. It was only much later that I came to reflect on the essential connection between the sacred and the Derridean category of différance/deferral that is the foundation of the sign and of human culture. Reflection on the sacred has been part of a reformulation of the originary hypothesis that has evolved over time, as I have sought to conceive the first human event in accordance with the spirit of Occam’s Razor. I have attempted to provide a formulation for the sacred as an anthropological category not governed by the exemplarity of the Crucifixion that motivated Girard to define the sacred as the paradoxical equivalent of violence: la violence ou le sacré.
Given this model of the originary event: a scene centered on a source of nourishment, the cadaver of a large animal, as the original object of a protohuman group’s mimetic contention, but deferred by what is experienced as a sacred interdiction, the participants’ relation to the central animal reflecting both this interdiction and its appetitive attraction—the first desire in the human sense. It is this experience of the sacred that motivates the aborted gesture of appropriation’s coming to be perceived and exchanged as a sign.
No one gives the order to forbid appropriation; its source is the common intuition of the danger associated with the least disturbance of the symmetrical situation of the participants around the object. This sense of danger is experienced as an interdicting force which, under the condition of the success of this originary scenario in peacefully distributing the nourishment, will be preserved by the group as a valuable form of behavior that promotes its solidarity as it sustains the participants: the sacrificial feast. I have spoken of this interdictory force as a “will” forbidding the appropriative action. This is not meant to imply that it need have a human-like subject. Yet we know from history that this force has until recently always been attributed to a transcendental intentionality analogous to that of a human decision.
This passage from the originary deferral to the final feast becomes the foundational model for this community, as it remains to this day on “festive occasions,” both religious and secular. The sharing of the ostensive sign turns the ensemble of individual renunciations of the object into a communal celebration of its significance to all that typically involves the sharing of its benefits as nourishment.
Religion and Negentropy
The structural “survival of the fittest” that allows negentropic systems to arise within an entropic universe is not, in abstract terms, a model of providence. But when this evolutionary process comes to produce creatures capable of reflecting on their own and above all their community’s self-preserving properties, these creatures cannot help noting the analogy between their individual capacity for self-preservation and the sacred interdiction that has preserved their community from mimetic violence. Thus after the successful termination of the originary event, the originary deferral of appropriation would come to be attributed to the “providential” sacred intentionality experienced as the force that preserved the nascent human community from self-destruction.
It is here that Girard’s la violence ou le sacré is misleading. For the ambiguity of the sacred that allows sacrer to mean “curse,” by emphasizing the symmetry between the sacred dread of violence and the violence itself, evacuates the providential nature of the event that makes it an instrument of salvation—and this because, in the Christian Crucifixion/Resurrection, only the infinite power of God, incomparable to that of human intentionality, can transform this greatest of all sins into an instrument of salvation.
At this point, therefore, we must consider how belief in such religious doctrines has contributed to the viability of the communities that adopt them and in consequence to the longevity of our species. Those religions that have survived over the centuries can be understood as the “fittest” in this regard. In our era, when the more socially advanced communities, particularly in the West, increasingly lack any commonly agreed-on set of rituals or beliefs, this lack of common faith is compensated, if at all, on the intellectual plane, by the opportunity it provides us to comprehend religious phenomena in anthropological terms.
Behind this interrogation lies the disquieting realization that deferral is not victory, that the deferral of destruction may only prepare a more total destruction. Might it not be a foregone conclusion that the intelligent creatures generated by negentropy will, as a result of the conjunction of mimeticism and the drive to self-preservation, eventually develop instruments of destruction whose ever-increasing capacity will reach the point—at which we already are today—where a single action might provoke, deliberately or not, the species’ annihilation? Can our sacred and/or secular mechanisms of deferral continue to preserve us indefinitely under such conditions?
Judaism and Christianity
From a Judeocentric perspective, Christianity is a means of transmitting to those outside the Hebrew nation its communal relationship to God. Hence despite the significant difference between the Trinitary Christian God and the One God of the Jews, both Christians and Jews can agree that they worship the “same” God, the God who is One, and that the Trinity is for Christians a necessary extension of this oneness rather than, as some Muslims and Jews would insist, a plurality.
The moral teachings of Christianity can all be found in the Jewish tradition and are in any case not incompatible with it. What then is the significance of the irruption of the sacred into the historical world that the New Testament adds to the Old?
Jesus’ appearance on earth is not comparable to God’s appearances in the Tanakh. God’s interventions in the Old Testament world can all be understood, if not simply as “metaphors,” then as attributions to the sacred of real worldly events; commentators have long noted the rough correspondence between the Genesis creation story and the earth’s early evolution. In contrast, Daniel in the lions’ den or Jonah in the whale use the stuff of legends to illustrate moral principles. Similar details in the New Testament, such as Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, may be viewed in a similar light.
Yet the identity of the historical figure Jesus with a person of God, an idea not formulated in the New Testament itself but accepted as a canonical interpretation of it, is a miracle of another kind. The insistence in the Catholic Church of Christ’s “real presence” in the host, and even its weaker Protestant version as a “symbol” of what must nonetheless be believed as a sign of Christ’s incarnation as a person of God, is not comparable to any Hebrew belief.
If Judaism can arguably be reinterpreted as an anthropological doctrine by substituting for God the Sacred as I have attempted to define it in these Chronicles, this is emphatically not the case for Christianity. The series of miracles that make up the life of Jesus, even before his resurrection, have no parallel in the Old Testament, nor can they be credibly interpreted as “anthropological.”
Faith in Jesus involves the specific attribution of reality to his miraculous birth, whose later extension to Mary’s Immaculate Conception illustrates Christianity’s credo quia absurdum drive to insist on the preternatural experiences of nominally ordinary people like Mary and her mother, Saint Anne. Unlike the miracles of the Old Testament, these are central to the fundamental dogmas of Christianity in all its forms.
The sacred manifests itself in the New Testament as able to affect reality directly in “contemporary” times inhabited by living witnesses, beginning with the Crucifixion, a well-attested historical event, the account of which is followed by the sign of the Resurrection in the empty tomb attested by witnesses. These texts are attributed to Jesus’ contemporaries and near-contemporaries. Our calendars remind us daily that Jesus’ appearance on Earth is a watershed in history, unlike the Hebrew calendar that begins with the origin of the universe.
I insist on this contrast because Christianity gives the sacred a role it does not have in Judaism, one that never allows God’s worldly presence to become implicit. And to this insertion of divine presence into the center of history corresponds an eschatology of the “Second Coming” that will leave all human souls to their immortal destiny in Heaven or Hell. Accordingly, faith in the immortality of the soul plays a far more essential role in Christianity than in Judaism, where one commemorates the death of one’s loved ones without necessarily imagining them as surviving in the “other world.”
That supernaturalism is so prominent a feature of Christianity reflects the fact that its New Testament, being secondary to the Hebrew scriptures, is unlike them obliged to provide evidential proof of its connection to the sacred. Jews are expected to worship God and obey his commandments, but there is no Jewish “credo,” no “confirmation,” beyond that of the Shema that one is obliged to pronounce just before death: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. The bar/bat mitzvah is a demonstration of a young man/woman’s readiness to participate as an adult in religious practices; it does not involve a statement of belief.
The contrast is between a tribal/national initiation that takes inclusion for granted and a “universal” initiation that welcomes the believer into a voluntary rather than biological community. In doing so, it emphasizes the individual’s choice to attach himself, not to an organically functioning society but to a “community of faith” independent of socio-political structures. The emphasis on God’s Kingdom being “not of this world” reflects the detachment of the Christian from the bonds of biological continuity, including, especially in the early centuries, a real tension between Christian belief and family life. Where the Jew sees himself as always-already part of a multi-millennial history, the Christian, whatever his nationality, is above all an individual bearing a personal relationship to the Trinitary God. Such a relationship cannot be mediated by one’s posthumous connection to the ever-surviving Jewish people; it requires living beyond death:
25 Jesus said unto [Martha]: I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
26 And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. (John 11:25-26, KJV).
Christianity’s considerable supplementary burden of belief must be understood as a measure of the worth to non-Jews of finding in one’s soul’s immortality a transcendental substitute for the Jews’ “national” relationship to God—one from which would evolve in the Early Modern era a community of nation-states under the overall aegis of one or another form of Christianity. The successful development of the West, with its breakthrough into modernity, exemplifies the power of what Girard would call in another context the montée aux extrêmes in the service of a not merely “anthropomorphic” but truly anthropological God, one whose very reality includes his incarnation as a human being.
That the sacred is necessarily coeval with the human and its sign-system is most fully realized in the Christian religion that demonstrates this coevality in “real time.” Christian anthropology is founded on the transcendental claim that it is only through the Crucifixion and Resurrection that we discover that, were the One God not also the human Son, as well as the Spirit who allows God and man to communicate, we could never have emerged from our prehuman state to know the sacred at all.
The rest, as they say, is History. It was in the Christian world that humanity discovered the limitless potential of the mastery of the life-world promised to it in Genesis, the wonderful and horrible results of which we know so well. For just as Western civilization’s success was the fruit of Christianity’s “absurd” belief in the Incarnation, so its current failings cannot be understood otherwise than as the long-term effects of this same belief.
The contemporary West’s unholy conjunction of a pusillanimous caste-bound society with the symbolic egalitarianism in which it hates its own firstness—and even more, that of the Jews—is as much the product of Christianity as the creations of the Age of Faith and of the modernity that succeeded it. Yet the West remains the land of freedom and opportunity for those excluded from it. Can it relearn to rejoice in the firstness it has brought to the world, following the example of the One God of the Hebrews?[to be continued]