Climbing the Tree with René Girard

One of the things I love about reading and exploring new ideas is continuing to trace the ideas further and further back. When you find a book or author who resonates with you, take note of who he or she quotes (especially if repeatedly). Then read that author and do the same. This allows you to trace the origin and evolution of ideas and allows you to grasp them in deeper ways.

The merits of this thinking have been explained in different ways, but here is an intriguing way to consider it:

“Chew on one thinker – writer, activist, role model – you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people the thinker loved and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb up the tree as far as you can go. Once you built your tree, it’s time to start your own branch.”

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

One of the “thinkers” whose name has emerged numerous times in my theological studies has been the French philosopher René Girard. Girard died in 2015 at the age of 91. I recently read his book called I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (see: Amazon link). While it isn’t an easy read (possibly because it is translated into English or it’s just really deep), this one offers plenty to chew on.

Girard illuminates the role our neighbor plays in our own thinking. He used the Ten Commandments in particular to draw out these insights.

“If individuals are naturally inclined to desire what their neighbors possess, or to desire what their neighbors even simply desire, this means that rivalry exists at the very heart of human social relations.”

“Since the objects we should not desire and nevertheless do desire always belong to the neighbor, it is clearly the neighbor who renders them desirable.”

“If we ceased to desire the goods of our neighbor, we would never commit murder or adultery or theft or false witness. If we respected the tenth commandment, the four commandments that precede it would be superfluous.”

Girard developed an idea called “mimetic desire,” which explores how imitation shapes what we want and what we do. Thankfully he applies this type of desire to Jesus. How should Christians imitate the person of Jesus?

“What is the basis of imitating Jesus? It cannot be his ways of being or his personal habits: imitation is never about that in the Gospels.”

“What Jesus invites us to imitate is his own desire, the spirit that directs him toward the goal on which his intention is fixed: to resemble God the Father as much as possible.”

One of the repeating themes in Girard’s work is the way he challenges our reliance on violence. As should be expected, mimetic desire plays a significant role in both the violence we participate in and suffer from.

Jesus distinguishes two types of peace. The first is the peace that he offers to humanity. No matter how simple its rules, it “surpasses human understanding” because the only peace human beings know is the truce based on scapegoats. This is “the peace such as the world gives.” It is the peace that the Gospel revelation takes away from us more and more. Christ cannot bring us a peace truly divine without depriving us first of the only peace at our disposal.

The Resurrection empowers Peter and Paul, as well as all believers after them, to understand that all imprisonment in sacred violence is violence done to Christ. Humankind is never the victim of God; God is always the victim of humankind.

That last line is perhaps my favorite, and is especially relevant for a season such as this.

Humankind is never the victim of God; God is always the victim of humankind. @Renegirard1923 Share on X

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Jeremy Jernigan

Speaker | Author | Founder of Communion Wine Co.