Of Scapegoats and Apocalypse
It is unlikely that René Girard’s essay “On War and Apocalypse” is of a sort that would appeal to many Anchor Rising readers — that would appeal to any given group, really, except perhaps theologians. But he does make an interesting point about sacrifice and the advancement of knowledge:
We cannot refasten the bindings because we now know that the scapegoats of sacrifice are innocent. Christ’s Passion unveiled the sacrificial origin of humanity once and for all. It dismantled the sacred and revealed its violence. And yet, the Passion freed violence at the same time that it freed holiness. The modern form of the sacred is thus not a return to some archaic form. It is a sacred that has been satanized by the awareness we have of it, and it indicates, through its excesses, the imminence of the Second Coming. …
By accepting to be crucified, Christ brought to light what had been “hidden since the foundation of the world”—the foundation itself, the unanimous murder that appeared in broad daylight for the first time on the Cross. In order to function, archaic religions need to hide their founding murder, which was being repeated continually in ritual sacrifices, thereby protecting human societies from their own violence. By revealing the founding murder, Christianity destroyed the ignorance and superstition that are indispensable to such religions. It thus made possible an advance in knowledge that was until then unimaginable.
Freed of sacrificial constraints, the human mind invented science, technology, and all the best and worst of culture. Our civilization is the most creative and powerful ever known, but also the most fragile and threatened because it no longer has the safety rails of archaic religion. Without sacrifice in the broad sense, it could destroy itself if it does not take care, which clearly it is not doing.
Perhaps because he views his surroundings from the path of theological theory, Girard’s narrative becomes, it seems to me, incoherent as he strives to fit it into a religious idea that appeals to him mainly on the grounds of its poetry. It’s certainly interesting to suggest that the Passion revealed the strings behind sacrifices and scapegoats, but it erroneously follows a thread of religious thought that assumes that people ever actually thought their sacrifices were guilty.
Holocausts and other sacrificial offerings in ancient Judaism were to be “without flaw.” Moreover, they were animals. The actual scapegoat in Leviticus wasn’t thought to be guilty, explicitly not so, but was more a vessel for community confession. The priest was to whisper to it the transgressions of the people and then whisk them far away into the desert. Indeed, reading Girard one would expect the cliché to be that the community would pluck its sacrifices from its dregs.
It’s no small point. In order to present Christ as destroying superstition, in this sense, one must discard the stronger narrative of His fulfilling intuition. The scapegoat carried the community’s sins into the desert as an offering to Satan explicitly to take those sins away; the Israelites wandered through the desert, facing tribulations, on their way to the Holy Land; Jesus went into the desert to face the devil… and returned to where he’d been. Girard has the worthy intuition that Christianity “demystified” religion, but the revelation isn’t that the scapegoat was innocent all along — we knew that. Rather, the revelation is that there is no mysterious elsewhere. No magic transformation in the desert. Only progress within the reality that we already know; the mystery is not an outlier, but underlying.
Girard goes on to speak of a “trend to extremes” building toward the apocalypse, but he doesn’t actually describe such a trend. He describes the existence of extremes, but examples of piety and irreverence, purity and depravity — which are much more significant, in religious terms, than the existential extreme of nuclear weapons — have arguably been more pronounced in the past.
Again, there’s a worthy intuition, here. The extreme danger of total annihilation realized in modern technology juxtaposes conspicuously with the extreme safety provided by faith, but utter destruction has always been conceivable. The difference, in the past, was that natural and supernatural forces would be the cause. Technology hasn’t introduced the possibility of the result, but humanity as its source.
The “paradox,” here, is that the more we come to understand God’s nature by that which he created — that is, the broader our comprehension of creation — the greater our capacity to assume the powers of God. We’re demystifying reality, in other words, and the crucial lesson of Christianity is that we do not thereby obviate religion, much less disprove God.
In Girard’s construct, “history has meaning,” and “its meaning is terrifying.” History is meaningful, certainly, but its meaning just is. God is who is. The interpretation that Girard puts forward is that Christianity has “foreseen its own failure,” but that can only be said to be so if one takes as the religion’s objective to transport us somewhere unreal, somewhere beyond our humanity. The security of faith, which ought to keep us all from being terrified, come what may, derives from the realization that the whole great show — whether the drama is a personal battle with disease or a global struggle against nuclear holocaust — is not what matters, at all.