It is not the Bible that I reject; it is certain ways of reading it. Protestant Christianity today, in essence, has placed its faith in the Bible (as opposed to Jesus) as the revelation of God, and as a result has had to spend much of its intellectual effort defending this claim. In a very real sense they believe that in defending the Bible, they are defending God. It is this misplaced conception of divine revelation that I believe will ultimately spell the end of Protestant Christianity. Because the doctrine of the Bible as the inerrant word of God is, I believe, an intellectually indefensible position to take (it must be rejected if approached rationally), its adherents tend, when challenged, to retreat into religion: resorting to ad hominem attacks on the challenger or ignoring the challenges altogether. But we no longer live in a world where such religious answers suffice. The Protestant church will continue to hemorrhage members so long as it rigidly refuses to revisit problematic theological constructs.
Sadly, many of those who leave the church because they see the flaws in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura do not see that they are offered more than the binary choice between believing in the Bible or dismissing God altogether. I see why they might think that – it is how Protestantism has defined faith – but it is not the case. So I want you to see that when I challenge the doctrine, I am not rejecting the Bible; I am rejecting certain ways of understanding it. I do believe that the Bible contains unique insight into spiritual questions; I just do not believe that one finds those insights quite as easily when one’s framework requires one to turn the whole thing into a divine love letter from God to humanity.
By way of example, I want to look at the story of the Fall in Genesis. I recently joined an online discussion group of people who have been treated poorly by the church because they questioned the theological paradigms, but who nevertheless see that ‘following Jesus’ is a worthwhile pursuit. We are in the process of relooking at the concept of atonement, and all of the theological constructs that support that: What is sin? What does it mean to be saved? What does God’s justice look like? How have we been taught to understand these things? How might a Jesus-centric as opposed to Bibliocentric theology shift our understanding?
Now I do not take Genesis literally. But then I do not believe that all truth has to be arrived at empirically. That is a lie of the Enlightenment age. We have constructed truth as a concept to be grasped, an idea to be acquired. I have come to understand truth differently: it is a way of relating, of being-with in the world. As I have said before, I do not require The Lord of the Rings or A Handmaid’s Tale or Lighthousekeeping, or any of the novels and poems and paintings that have shaped my thinking about myself and the world, to be real in the empirical sense. It doesn’t matter if orcs and elves exist: stories can show me being-with truths in ways that empirical data will never be able to. So I am dismissing neither Genesis nor God when I say that I believe Genesis to be mythological. Being mythological is not the same thing as being ‘devoid of truth’.
I look at Genesis through Girardian eyes, with the aid of scholar Gil Bailie, whom I will quote extensively here. And what I see offers sensible insight into pressing theological questions around the problem of the existence of evil. It is a story that has profound ramifications for our modern world.
At this point, a (woefully, inadequately) brief reminder of Girard’s key insights might be necessary here, so that you can follow my logic when I engage with the text. René Girard notes that desire is fundamentally mimetic in nature. That is, after our basic needs have been met, we don’t really know what we want. So what becomes desirable to us are those things that we perceive to be desirable to those around us. Our desire is always mediated through others. The result of this, because we focus our desire on the same objects as those around us, is that others become mimetic rivals, obstacles to be overcome if we are to attain our desires. This causes escalating tension that is only really diffused if one party relinquishes the desired object, or if one party kills the other. The competition often becomes so fierce that rivalry itself becomes more important than the object that causes it.
Let’s say, for example, that in trying to figure out what I desire, I watch a guitarist perform. His skill seems to make him very popular and I decide that I want to play the guitar like him. In making him my role model, I also make him my rival. I desire what he has, but in some sense, what I really desire is to be him. The closer I am to him, in terms of ability, physical proximity, relational proximity – in other words, the more I am like him – the fiercer the rivalry will become. We cannot both be the best guitar players. Until one of us is removed from the scene, whether voluntarily or by circumstance, the rivalry will continue. And in the absence of the rivalry, even if the actual desirable object has been obtained – I am an accomplished player – I will feel that something has been lost. That is because the rivalry has never actually been about the desired object, but about mimesis – imitating the other. In the absence of one to imitate, what is left?
As the escalating mimetic tension threatens to destabilize social order, we seek to relieve it through scapegoating. We manufacture social peace by projecting the blame for the tension onto a relatively arbitrarily chosen third party, and directing the violence we feel at this surrogate, from whom the threat of reciprocal violence is substantially diminished. Then we justify this use of a “lesser” violence to ward off the “greater” one by constructing a mythology around the violent act.
Mimetic theory has extraordinary explanatory power when it comes to understanding human behavior, and the origins of human religion and culture. Thus it is key to understanding the Fall of humanity, as illustrated in the Genesis story (and I choose the word ‘illustrated’ deliberately: for me, the truths in Genesis do not lie in the fact that the characters are historical, but in the fact that they are illustrative of the common human condition). The key insight is this: the Fall is not in the first instance a problem of disobedience. Rather, the problem of evil in the world , as illustrated in the Genesis myth, has its origins in our mimetic nature (and later I will argue that this is what Jesus redeems).
The problem in the story starts when the serpent awakens mimetic desire in Eve. Note that the fruit has not, up to this point, been desirable to Eve. The tree is there, God has told them not to touch it, and Adam and Eve are fine with that. It is only once that serpent points out that eating the fruit will make Eve like God, and that preventing this is why God forbade eating it, that Eve displays any interest in it. In other words, the serpent sets God up as a mimetic rival: behind Eve’s desire is the desire to be God-like. And the desirable “object”, what we need to master in order to become God-like, is set up as “knowing good and evil”.
What that means practically is that humans will always, in mimetic terms, try to be better than God in terms of “knowing good and evil”, and I think that is a profound insight into why we so easily divide the world into the “righteous” us and the “unrighteous” them. And that, I think, is part of what Jesus undoes when he offers a new mimetic model: that we be “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5: 48) not in terms of moral purity, but in practising love for our enemies; that we become servants like him: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).
Anyway, in the Genesis narrative we see that even in circumstances where there is no need unmet and where there is only one Being against whom our mimetic rivalry can be set, we still become resentful and rivalrous. This mimetic rivalry leads us to see threat, even where there is none: Adam and Eve cover up their nakedness. In a world of mimetic rivalry, sexuality carries ominous undertones.
And then the scapegoating begins. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, and God – realizing that this state of being will destroy us – kicks humanity out of Eden and blocks access to the tree that would lock us into this state of being forever.
I need to remind you that I do not believe these are historical incidents and real people, but the point of the narrative is no less profound for that. To draw out the mythological truth here: once mimetic rivalry enters our relationships, and once our perceptions of the world are filtered through a mimetically rivalrous ‘knowledge of good and evil’, we are royally screwed. Our quality of life has been diminished beyond our capacity to repair it. We will become mistrustful and duplicitous, and that is not a recipe for happiness for an interdividual species.
If we accept that we are interdividuals, becoming who we are through others, then because there are no other beings present in Eden, Adam and Eve are only able to form their identities around God. The lesson, as Bailie notes is that: “We are creatures “made in God’s image.” Consciously or otherwise, we shape our lives according to our experience of God or whatever functions as a god for us. It is a truth we may deny, but we will never be able to keep from behaving in ways that validate it”. Our ethics ,our sense of self, our relationships with other people and with the earth at large, will all be given their shape by what we believe God to be. But the dark side of being in the image of God is that once we have descended into mimetic rivalry, God will invariably become our enemy. And mimetic rivalry only ever ends when one party withdraws from the rivalry or when one party dies. It may be deferred through scapegoating violence directed at a third party, but mimetic rivalry is not ended that way.
Since humanity will not – cannot – end it (we do not even see the problem), God, through Jesus, does so; Jesus reconciles humanity to God. And he does it in several ways. First, he withdraws from the mimetic rivalry and ends it by his death, claiming that nobody takes his life but instead he lays it down of his own accord (John 10:18). God lets us win by relinquishing the mutually desired object (or the perceived mutually desired object) – the knowledge of good and evil – to us:
For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son,” (John 5:21-22)… “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set.” (John 5:45)
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19)
Speaking as the new Adam, but also as God, the incarnated Jesus is in the unique position to pronounce judgement on behalf of both humanity and of God: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. And in so doing, he finishes the whole sordid rivalry. God simultaneously relinquishes the knowing of good and evil to humanity and humanity pronounces its judgment. It is – as far as the mimetic rivalry between humanity and God goes – finished
Of course, humanity still has no clue what has happened, so as far as we are concerned, nothing has changed. The awakening to this truth will be progressive, over millennia, and in the meantime we will do what we always have. So Jesus elects to become the final scapegoat. After Calvary, we have no recourse to look to anyone else to blame for any mimetic tension between us and God (as we perceive the relationship) because we have already blamed it fully on Jesus. In a way that demonstrates a profound understanding of mimetic rivalry and the scapegoating process that we use to achieve peace, God reconciles us to Godself by allowing the innocent Jesus to become sin for us.
Finally, recognising that we cannot transcend our mimetic natures, and that simply providing a scapegoat would not allow full reconciliation, Jesus provides a new mimetic model, one where ways of relating centred around rivalry can be replaced by relationships characterised by self-giving love; relationships, in other words, where we are always the ones to diffuse mimetic tension by opting out of the mimetic rivalry. You see, you cannot simply strip away the scapegoating process without also addressing the greater issue of what the scapegoating process protects us from: the potential violence that stems from our mimetic natures. To do so leaves us naked in the face of a monstrous violence that would rip society apart. Gil Bailie notes it this way: “The purpose of sacrifice is to prevent what happens when it fails…The story of Cain shows what the history of the twentieth century shows, namely, that if we dispense with the sacrificial structures upon which religion and culture have for so long depended without at the same time renouncing the mimetic passions that made these structures necessary in the first place, then sooner or later we will become murderers”. That is the story of Cain and Abel, and that will be the subject of next week’s discussion.