There are few subjects that cry out for originary thinking as much as the relationship between religion and cosmology. The other evening I chanced on a National Public Radio (NPR) discussion about whether God just created the universe or whether he “intervenes” in it, making use of quantum uncertainties to avoid breaking the “laws of nature.” Well, I thought, it’s a good thing he planned for those uncertainties when he made the laws in the first place; I guess that’s why he’s God and we’re not. The sheer idiocy of this line of thinking suggests that a version of the uncertainty principle indeed applies to the relation between scientific and religious cosmology: as one becomes more precise, the other becomes more inane.

One would think that if religion had learned one thing from the development of science since the Renaissance, it is that it should get out of the cosmology business. But the Enlightenment rupture between religion and anthropological reflection has led to a regression in religious self-consciousness. The religious population itself seems increasingly divided between moderates whose creed differs little from that of secular humanism and radicals whose beliefs fly in the face of scientific rationality–and common sense. Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum, which originally applied in a strictly interactive, anthropological context–what is absurd is that the abject figure of the Crucified is the Son of God–is now understood without paradox, let alone irony, as requiring us to deny the results of human reasoning about the natural world. Meanwhile, the anointed scholars of religion are no more capable than the believers of articulating religion with science; anthropologically tone-deaf, they mindlessly conflate the human with the natural sciences. The received wisdom, as dutifully echoed on the NPR broadcast, is that although science and religion talk about the same things, they move along separate paths and can never come into conflict. Hostility in the past was regrettable; its persistence in the present is unnecessary. Originary thinking alone seems able to understand that although religion can tell us nothing of interest about cosmology, it has a great deal more to teach us about fundamental anthropology than the positive social sciences.

Only if we consider God strictly in relation to the human can we pose the question of his intervention in the universe in useful terms. We are sign-using creatures and we understand transcendent Being through our understanding of language. For this purpose, if Gödel’s theorem at least provides a suggestive analogy, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is useless. If God is the being that defers mimetic conflict among humans, then his intervention is never independent of human will. In the simplest case, a group on the edge of conflict that prays for peace achieves its wish by the very harmony of its prayer: by the very act of representing the same inaccessible locus of desire they achieve temporary participation in sacred being. God cannot, or will not, protect us from natural disasters, but he is always ready to help us confront our greatest danger, which is ourselves.


But is there not a problem of free will–God’s and ours? Can we deny the Laplacian intuition that tells us that each instant of the universe wholly determines the next? Are the molecules that make up the human body somehow liberated from physical necessity? Or is it quantum uncertainty that allows us to choose between good and evil?

I don’t pretend to have the latest word on quantum theory, but my anthropological intuition is good enough to tell me that whether or not it can one day be reconciled with common sense, it will never tell us anything about either God or the problem of free will. The entrance of God into human affairs, or of man into divine, that marks the origin of the human was not a revolution in physics. God is our name for the Being whose naming permits us to survive by deferring conflict. Our own religious tradition emphasizes God’s ability to create with language. In the tohu-bohu of originary chaos, by saying “let there be light” he creates the differentiating force of light. “Intervention” occurs here as the differentiation of the undifferentiated. This is not far from the originary hypothesis, for which the first human word, the name-of-God, by differentiating the central object as significant from the insignificant world around it, defers conflict among those who enunciate it. The divine intervenes to defer mimetic conflict by transforming an object of appropriation into a referent of sacred meaning. The sacredness of the object makes the sign meaningful; the meaningfulness of the sign makes the object sacred. But the sign is meaningful only because its enunciation is free; the sign is no longer enacted as an unthought index pointing to the object, but mindfully, as a representation of the object.

The freedom of linguistic consciousness, the model for all other freedoms, violates no laws of either modern or classical physics. What does it mean, after all, to say I lift my arm “voluntarily”? In order to make this judgment, I have to think about my act, which is also to say, think about not performing it; otherwise, it is no more “voluntary” than the similar movement of a lizard or an amoeba. But the real point of calling my movement voluntary is not simply that I deliberate whether to make it or not, but that in doing so, I can take into consideration other thoughts about it, such as yours. Thus the simplest definition of a “voluntary” act is one which, if I know you have predicted me to perform it, I can choose not to carry out. Without the scene of representation that defines the human, you cannot think the unfreedom, the determinedness of my act; but by the same token, my access in principle to this scene defines my freedom to act in defiance of any such determination.

Our first demonstration of God’s freedom is his utterance of the word that creates the primordial difference from which all others derive. This difference exists here on earth, but it is guaranteed transcendentally. Freedom is the link between the vertical world and the horizontal one, the world of signs and the world of things, and this link cannot be expressed within the world of things alone. The materialist denies the freedom of the thing-world along with the independence of the sign-world; but his denial is suspect because it is expressed in freely emitted signs rather than “emanating” involuntarily from the material reality whose sole reality it affirms. This does not mean that there is a “spirit world” that intervenes physically in this one. The dualism of originary thinking is not metaphysical, as though the physical universe held the sign in its entrails from the beginning, but historical: the human creates and is created by the sign in order to defer its own self-destruction.

In attempting to discover whether we act “freely” or “deterministically,” we beg the question if we limit our model of action to the physical world. We can create models of determinism; we cannot create a model of freedom, or rather, a model of freedom is precisely what arises when a deterministic model is represented to its subject, who is then free to subvert it. God “intervenes” in this model as the originary guarantee of representation as such.

Generative anthropology is no fideism; it constructs a model of the emergence of the sacred in and with the human. But that the first word is the name-of-God tells us that significance is not a product of disinterested contemplation, but exists to defer the violence of crisis. I can refuse to countenance God’s intervention in my everyday affairs, and tax with credulity the believer in the efficacy of prayer, but I cannot purge the human of its potentiality for mimetic crisis to which sacred deferral is the originary solution. The interventions of the transcendent in the immanent, whether as freedom or as divinity, are ungraspable by physical models that cannot account for the effect of our knowledge of the model on the behavior we are modeling. In one case, this is because we have the luxury of doing the opposite of what was predicted of us; in the other, it is because, in the face of mimetic crisis, we lack the luxury to detach our desire from the object that simultaneously arouses and defers it.

The Enlightenment God who just winds up the world and walks away, leaving us to wonder whether he comes back once in a while to adjust the escapement, is as deluded a picture of the sacred as humanity has ever produced. It is easy to understand why it is contested by religious visions, less sophisticated but more profound; what is harder to fathom is why the general consciousness of the NPR class has not progressed beyond it.

The other day I picked up a survey of social-science religious theory entitled Seven Theories of Religion (Daniel Pals, Oxford U.P., 1996); published twenty-four years after La violence et le sacré, it does not even have Girard in its index. I take this as a sign of the unique power and danger of these ideas. Averting danger, after all, is what the sacred is all about; however stultifying its consequences, ignorance does this a lot more gently than burning at the stake.