Sarah Coakley on Girard

SCoakleyWhile we await another installment of Sarah Coakley’s ‘unsystematic systematics’ or ‘theologie totale’, she continues to expand upon some themes that she has previously covered. During the 2013 Gifford Lectures she highlighted her work with evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak and its importance for a reclamation of a traditional notion of sacrifice. Recently, in October of 2015, she gave the DeBose Lectures (Rowan Williams is slated for 2016!) in which she talked at length about three anti-sacrifical “lightning rods” in our current discourse (Lecture #1, Lecture #2, Lecture #3) that prevent that project. Those obstacles she names as:

A. Sacrifice as Violence   B. Sacrifice as Patriarchy  C.  Gift/ Sacrifice Disjunction

The first anti-sacrificial perspective, sacrifice as violence, she associates with René Girard. Her previous encounters with Girardian thinkers have come mostly through interactions with liberal Catholics (anti-immolationists) but she has been somewhat suspect of the movement as a whole due to its near axiomatization in France. Girardian thought promises to solve a number of problems for theology, but also requires some big shifts in the way the narrative of the Bible is read. Because of René Girard’s increasing influence in theology today, I was all the more interested in hearing what specific arguments a noted theologian might make against his basic assumptions.

In what follows, I will attempt to give a summary of these arguments which are found in Lecture #2 beginning at the 3:55 mark. It should be mentioned that previously, in the first lecture, she describes the “messiness” of the notions we have of sacrifice. Part of this is due to the variety of ways in which the term has been used. It may refer to any number of things such as offering, the warding off of threat, the control of death, substitution, or moral self-giving. Even in the scriptural text, one can detect a number of definitions at work. This “forest of symbols” for sacrifice, or what Farrer calls “tremendous images”, complicates the matter.

Coakley begins with an orientation to Girard for those listeners who may not be familiar with his work. She characterizes it fairly as an enticing account of how we hide our violence through religious ritual. She classifies it as a Freudian psychoanalytic approach for that reason. Culture is stabilized by the scapegoat mechanism. Clearly in the early Girard, sacrifice is essentially violent. In fact, says Coakley, you might get the notion from Girard that the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) is more foundational for Christianity than Genesis 3. That “…it replaces the story of the Garden as the explanation for original sin.” Our task is therefore, according to Girard’s take on the Gospels, to name the dark secret, to unveil the fact that there is a primary violence animating and, paradoxically, holding together the very foundations of our common life.

Coakley refers to Rebecca Adams’ 1993 interview with René Girard where he critiques himself (she refers to it as a “Girard beyond Girard“) Part of that interview was reprinted in The Girard Reader (1996). Interestingly, she seems to think that it is not widely known and deserves to be so. Perhaps among a general readership it isn’t. However, even a passing familiarity with Girardian thinkers themselves shows that they are very aware of it and have worked considerably to incorporate the ideas into a larger picture. In any case, Coakley rehearses some of these reversals of Girard from his previous work that are laid out in that interview. According to Coakley’s summary:

a. Girard admits that any totalizing movement, not just religious ones, can fall into the scapegoating trap.

b. Mimesis now has a positive as well as a negative aspect. Girard appeals to Solomon’s intervention and the case of the two women who both make claims to be the mother of a child as well as to the imitatio Christi. In the case of the latter, she wonders, as does the interviewer, if this imitation is not finally a gnostic one that has its roots in a modernistic version of rationality. The Girardian concept of Atonement, for example, seems to have much in common with an Abelardian theory at least. Moral influence by itself would seem to lack an ontological foundation.

c. Girard retracts his previous view of the book of Hebrews as a mistaken view of sacrifice. He attempts to bring it into alignment with his own anti-sacrificial sacrifice.

None of this is particularly enlightening so far. Girardians have made a number of adjustments based on this that have for some time been incorporated into their picture of the theory. Equally, few Girardians follow Girard on every point. Another typical riposte (to use her own favored term) used in Girard’s defense is to say that he is working in the fields of cultural anthropology and literature, not theology. So Coakley asks if she is flogging a dead horse? She doesn’t think so. Tensions remain.

First, she feels that the theological concern about the primary ontology of violence (John Milbank’s criticism) hasn’t been fully answered, and asks a pointed question. “Was there a pre-fall condition or were we created violent?” She admits that some like James Alison have made useful adjustments to the theory in this matter, but thinks that the question still remains about the need for a primary grace and hope, not just an eschatological one. Girard’s overriding story, for Coakley, is pessimistic and gloomy. Here the link between the view of evolution as “red in tooth and claw” and Girardian primary violence is apparent. The alternative vision of proto-altruistic cooperation in biological evolution noted in Coakley’s Gifford lectures is more in keeping with the traditional Christian doctrine of the Fall from a good creation and is one reason to reconsider the insistence on primary violence. Nature itself, as even Darwin admitted, isn’t completely violent.

Second, according to Coakley, there are some Kantian hangovers in Girard’s view of rationality. Kant wonders, for example, why Abraham didn’t take a stand on ethical principles against the requirement by God to sacrifice his Isaac. “But if modernistic reason has been so signally ineffective in transforming culture and religion up until now, what resources can be brought by Girard to redirect the ever-dangerous proclivities of distorted desire?…It is no good saying to yourself, I must be more reasonable.” She continues, “It is strange that a thinker so interested as Girard, as early as Violence and the Sacred, in the thought of anthropologists such as Victor Turner on the ritual process, might not think to draw at least on these resources to show how desire is most effectively changed, not so much by taking thought but by ritualized redirection of the energies of wayward desire.

A related criticism is given in a later part of the lectures. How can an accidental death (the outcome of human scapegoating) have any real relation to divine exchange? “How could it possibly constitute a saving event in any significant sense or release believers into transformed states of spiritual and moral response? In other words, unless Jesus’ self-gift in death involves a voluntary substitution deeper than the merely vague moral intentionality toward the good of others that Girard and some of his followers seem to favor, then it seems that nothing substantial has changed in the events of the cross…[T]he dark forces of violent sacrifice are not confronted.”

Finally, Coakley asks whether we can conceive of sacrifice as both painful and free of violence–productive, in fact. She locates an example of such sacrifice in the maternal self-giving on behalf of children, especially in childbirth. This at the very least should cause us to reconsider the negative idea that sacrifice is always inherently irrational and search for a more satisfactory view of rationality. Coakley sees an alternative working in Paul’s participatory concept of a “living sacrifice” that is both costly and joyous.

Despite these criticisms, Coakley does take to heart one of the most important messages of Girard’s work. A rediscovery of the classical definition of sacrifice cannot include any room for the justification of random scapegoating violence.

Other resources on the topic:

Sarah has even more recently spoken on the same theme November 11-12, 2015 during the Stob lectures at Calvin (Lecture#1, Lecture#2). A great deal of the material is the same as the lectures above, but there are differences. For example, she includes an extended (20 mins.) positive interaction with Calvin’s view of sacrifice beginning at the 22:00 mark in the second video.

Five Rules for the Evolution of Cooperation (M Nowak):

***UPDATE 2/2016 Sarah recently gave the Boyle lecture at Gresham College on the theme of cooperation in evolutionary biology. This lecture expands on themes from her Giffords.

Readers may also want to consider the early interactions of Rowan Williams with Girard in a 1989 article entitled “Girard on violence, society and the sacred” reprinted in Williams, Rowan and Higton, Mike (ed.). Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007.

Williams appears (in distinction from Coakley?) to have strengthened in his appreciation for Girard over time. Part of this is due to Rowan’s own insistence on the essential non-competitiveness of God. He finds this echoed in the non-violent God of Girard. His recent forward to Antonello’s and Paul Gifford’s Can We Survive Our Origins? (Michigan State University PressJan 1, 2015) shows that he assumes the basic framework of mimetic theory is correct, but more specifically, we might ask if he accepts Girard’s interpretation of the cross as well as the following quote seems to suggest: “Equally, we have lost our familiarity with the myth that exposes the arbitrary and irrational nature of the primitive symbolic concordat- the myth of a voluntary and innocent death that unravels the exclusionary sacrificial illusion, the myth (and fact) of Christ’s cross.” (xiv) As always, William’s interaction with just about any thinker is complex, and he continues to view Girardian thought much as he did before, as a broad theory that needs fleshing out. He seems comfortable with calling it a “heuristic myth” (see video link below),  but I also think it is safe to say that Sarah Coakley and Rowan Williams have different intuitions about the meaning of Girard’s work for theology.

For a conference on the book by Antonello and Gifford, see