For my kick off to Lent I read Sam Harris’, "Letter to a Christian Nation." It’s the new edition released just last month with an afterword–where he reiterates his disdain for moderate religion and gives some thought to the origin of religion…which he was just coming to at the end of the previous edition.
And it’s here, on his ruminations on religion and blood sacrifice, that I want to call Sam up and say, please, please, read Rene Girard …and by the way, it’s okay, he’s not a theologian, he’s an historian, ethnologist, and an anthropologist.
Harris says, "Some researchers have speculated that religion itself may have played an important role in getting large groups of prehistoric humans to socially cohere." Well, Girard, has done peerless research in this exact area, but he has done so much more. He has taken his discoveries and worked forward, showing how the expulsion of a victim, and the resultant "peace," enforces both the belief of the guilt of the victim and the victim’s paradoxical power to bring peace. Social unity is restored over the divinized surrogate victim and a ritual of remembrance (more sacrifices, prohibitions, myths) is encoded into the culture. This is how religion got every ancient human culture off the ground.
Of course to Harris the purpose of religion has long past. And in this important but incomplete understanding of religion he is exactly right. Now if only he could take this research he seems to agree with and stay with it a little longer…begin to sit with the theory that scapegoating, sacrifice of the one for the sake of the all, is everywhere transcribed in antiquity as myth, and that scripture itself in this sense, is also mythological (justifies violence), but is finally revelatory. Revelatory in that we are confronted with the fact that scapegoating is still indelibly inscribed in us. Here’s James Alison:
Professor Girard had assumed that the Jewish and Christian sacred texts would show exactly the same thing as all other ancient texts and myths – the threat of collapsing social unity leading to violence and the emergence of a new peace around the cadaver of the victim. To his amazement he found that although they did exactly that – they really are structured around sacralised violence – there was a unique and astonishing difference: the Jewish texts, starting with Cain and Abel – gradually dissociate the divinity from participation in the violence until, in the New Testament, God is entirely set free from participation in our violence – the victim is entirely innocent, and hated without cause – and indeed God is revealed not as the one who expels us, but the One whom we expel, and who allowed himself to be expelled so as to make of his expulsion a revelation of what he is really like, and of what we really, typically do to each other, so that we can begin to learn to get beyond this.
The forms of Religion railed against by Harris are indeed in need of deconstruction. And if God is a capricious God of wrath and blood sacrifice, then I am an atheist. But a move to the logical positivistic philosophy of Harris will not get at the root of violence. In my thinking, the key for this is in being confronted with our ways of vicitmizing and the acquisitive desire that spawns it. This is the revelation found in the gospel, through which we can see our way free of hatred, abuse, torture, and all forms of violence.