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What Rene Girard Saw: An Interview with Dr. Grant Kaplan

Robert Mixa:

Today I am with Dr. Grant Kaplan, author of the book Rene Girard, Unlikely Apologist: Mimetic Theory and Fundamental Theology. His work is essential reading for catechists because Girard’s theories and analysis are immensely helpful in helping people see and understand sin, grace, conversion, a revelation. I have used the work of Girard in the classroom and I found that it resonated with many students. Why do you think that is the case?

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

Yes. I remember talking to a student afterward I taught a class on Girard saying, "Oh yeah, mimetic desire thing totally works." She immediately applied it to her dating life or something. It is like she gor how universally applicable it can be before I did.

One problem is that you have many different aspects to his thought. You have mimetic desire, the scapegoat mechanism, the Christianity part. To tie that together without letting it sink in is almost like drinking from a fire hose. I taught it several times. I am still not totally sure of the right way to teach Girard. But I figured a few things out I think.

The second is just that there is a kind of resistance, sometimes an immediate resistance, to his thought. Does this mean that we are not individuals or we do not have a choice, and so there is that. When people think about it, there is resistance going on. I think of it as sort of a theory of conversion.

It is a great social analysis tool. It is about realizing that you are like this. You are part of it, you are part of the problem. You have these tendencies. It is something like that great Rilke poem on “Archaic Torso of Apollo” that ends, “You must change your life.”

It is hard because if it is true it does mean we must change our lives. All of us are resistant to that for the reasons that have to do with the fall and those sort of things.

Robert Mixa:

Indeed. For those readers who are unaquinted with Girard, as you mentioned already, his main idea is his theory of mimesis. Please describe it for us and how the scapegoating mechanism fits into it.

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

Yes. We have, on a natural level, instinctual or appetitive qualities like hunger, thirst, things like this that we share in common with other non-human animals. And then there that humans are not just natural but they are born in cultures. We learn languages, we learn symbols, these sorts of things.

And so on a cultural level, the human being, according to Girard, learns to desire. Desire is learned and we desire according to the desire of another. One way to think of it is that our intersecting cultures donate to us the sense of who we are and that we do not simply autonomously decide that this is who I am.

On certain levels, this is just obvious. We are given a name, we are given three names. These names already kind of name us. In other things, we learn what is attractive, what is repulsive, and that we gradually learn. We shape our desires according to the desires of others, and specifically the people that Girard calls models.

People stumble on this when they say well, so someone just decides that this is his or her model over there and then just says I want to be like that person. If that is the way you think of it, you are immediately starting off on the wrong foot because then the world is divided between people who are models and people who model themselves after them. It is almost like a Randian distinction between two levels of people. That gets it all wrong.

It is that our parents and siblings already have this formative function on us. We learn things, we pick up accents based on the way they teach, and then we have friends and teachers. There is these natural kind of models and cultural models. If you see your parents admiring someone, you may come to admire them. If you lose respect for your parents or you dislike them for some reason, then you are going to dislike what they like.

But all of this means that we are just in a matrix of social meanings and cues, and that we learn, we discover who we are, based on the sense that, I used the word donated before. But other people donate to us a lot of our desires. Or all of our desires, in different ways. There is something to us choosing models. But in a lot of ways, they are chosen for us in factors we cannot quite foresee.

Before we started recording, we were talking about our wives and how we met them and what drew us to them. For Girard, the wrong kind of desire was called romantic desire. He called this romantic deceit in his first book. The romantic deceit is somehow that there are all these fish in the sea and my spouse or I looked at that and we decided who is the fairest of them all and we picked it out. This was an expression of our individualism, we picked this other person out. We think we decided on our own that this is the fairest of them all. And that we saw in them the qualities that we ourselves determined.

The fact is that there are standards of beauty that we learn, that are donated to us, or attractiveness. Not just physical but different kind of qualities that depend on what kind of desires and interests were donated to you. Education level may be something that is important, or artistic capacity, or you just think of it in terms of the marks of attraction. If you read a 19th-century novel, what made a woman beautiful? Well, she is plump, she is pale, high forehead. These could all be marks. If you have in mind the woman that Anna Karenina was in reality, in Tolstoy's mind, that would never get made into the screen now. If you were tan and thin, it probably meant you were poor and you had to work outside. All of a sudden, Hollywood comes along and it offers us a model that is different.

When we gaze and say this is beautiful, we think we are just naturally attracted to this person. But that standard or whatever is donated to us. It does not mean that you were just slavishly following all these things. But it does mean that we need to undergo what Girard calls a conversion.

We contrast what he calls novelistic deceit with this idea that the true hero sets herself or himself apart and is free from the crowd. We need to get past that and accept a humility about ourselves, in that we see that we are caught up in it like others are too. This is what he calls novelistic conversion.

Robert Mixa:

It is hard not to think of ourselves as products of our culture then. It seems like we are all stuck in this cycle of bad desire.

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

We will go back a little bit. I would say that mimetic desire is not fundamentally wrong or sinful. For Girard, there is this mimetic capacity and it is what distinguishes human beings from other higher mammals.

You get dominant societies where two rams or something, they will fight and they bash heads, and then one is determined dominant and the other just slinks away. A kind of peace emerges. You do not find animals killing other animals in these rituals. Occasionally, you will with chimps, but it is really rare.

Then the question is how we went from a dominant society to a different kind of order. The human being will just never forget. We will lick our wounds and we will come back for more. The mimetic capacity allows for the possibility of an escalation of violence on a higher scale. You will just get a back and forth that goes on.

Jared Diamond wrote this book called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed in which he talks about societies that have collapsed. How did early human hominid societies learn to go from dominance models to something different? Detrimentally, Diamond focuses too much on geographical, environmental things because he wants to preach an environmentalist message.

But this question of how human beings survived and got to the other side is important. It has to do with the mimetic capacity of human beings. That part of us that is imitative is what allows us to learn languages and it allows all kinds of cooperation. It really distinguishes us.

If you take a small child and a small primate, all the problem-solving skills, take blocks and stuff like that, they match pretty evenly. The one part where the human just really take off, though, is language – language capacities and also social cues.

If you are trying to do something over in the corner and you cannot do it, say putting something together or stacking three blocks on top of each other and they keep falling over, humans can distinguish the intention. They can see that you are trying to do something, even if it is not happening.

They are not just imitating a result but imitating the intention. They can read that much better. They read social cues. You can work for a long time with porpoises, dolphins and chimps in language acquisition, but there is a cap on it, whereas with small children, once they get to a certain point there is an explosion of linguistic learning ability.

These are all things that distinguish us as humans from other nonhuman animals. It allows for collaboration and cooperation on an unprecedented scale. If everybody can explain complex ideas to one another, there is team activity, team hunts that you could do much more effectively.

But then the question is can it also lead to escalation? Then what happens? What is the thing that prevents escalation? Girard looked at this in his theory of the novel called Deceit, Desire, and The Novel in 1961. And then he was interested, how did early human cultures deal with this?

He looked at the literature on ethnology and anthropology and archeology and what they were saying about this. He found it all dissatisfying. He wanted a big theory.

There are certain things that you do not observe. For instance, you do not observe gravity. You just observe things falling, and then you need a theory of gravity to explain why things fall in the way they do and how how they move. You do not observe natural selection. You need a theory of natural selection to make sense of all the observable data.

When he talks about the scapegoat mechanism, it is not a thing observed. It is basically a theory about what would have happened to best explain the things that one observes. The most important thing is that it explains religion and it explains culture.

Robert Mixa:

How does his theory do that?

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

No nonhuman animals have religion and every single observable data we have about early human cultures is that they all have religion. They all have this thing in common, religion, and nothing had it before. How do you explain that and then how do you explain these different cultural things that seem odd, that seem weird.

Like the domestication of animals, kingship rituals, and all kinds of taboos and rites are what you have in religions. Girard says that the scapegoat mechanism, the theory that the way groups dealt with problems of escalating violence so that they would not just simply collapse under the weight of an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye for an eye, or an eye for two eyes and then an eye for a head and then one family for another family and then a whole tribe for another family.

Robert Mixa:

Sounds like humans are tending towards complete annihilation.

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

Yes. The way to avoid that power of escalation was that human beings stumbled into some form of scapegoating, where one individual or group would represent for everyone the problems. And then they'd be both the problem and the solution at the same time. But for this to work, humans almost have to be unconscious that it is the thing that is happening.

He was very influenced by Freud, specifically Moses and Monotheism and the idea of the father murder that Freud comes upon. He was influenced by other theorists and he thought that the scapegoat mechanism had this tremendous explanatory function. Humanity is the child of religion and that religion is extremely vital for human beings to get out of that late dominance culture and come into human culture.

Robert Mixa:

Besides Freud, who else was Girard influenced by?

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

Nietzsche. Nietzsche sees the situation very clearly. He cannot stand what he sees and so when he talks about the priest, he will talk about the priest in this very nasty way and say the priest is this vampire of society.

The challenge is to go through the exercise. Imagine you have two societies, primitive societies with equal access to natural resources. They have the same access to water, food, all that kind of stuff. One society is going to be areligious. They are going to say we have nothing to do with religion. We are just going to work; we are going to build our stuff; we are going to hunt; we are going to farm, whatever we do.

The other society is going to be religious. They are going to say we are going to take this 10% of the population; they are not going to work; they are going to tell us that we need to hand in this portion of our animal kills or our grain, and it is going to be burned. Just completely burned up and used for a ceremonial ritual to keep it raining or something like this.

Now, maybe the priest class can fool people for a while; people get caught up in it. But at the end of the day, if you have these two societies next to one another, it seems like the nonreligious society would flourish. Okay? Maybe there could be just a weird thing where no one got sick on one side or the other.

You would have to think that the nonreligious society would be the more advantageous one. Keep in mind that Nietzsche cannot stand priests, but he knows they are there in history. He just cannot admit. But why are they there? Girard notices every human society, every ancient culture we know, has something like religion. Why? Wouldn't it be disadvantageous to have religion? Why is it?

Now, someone like Dawkins will compare it to moths and their evolutionary short circut. They fly towards the nocturnal light, which for the most part was the moon. That is why they fly to the lamp and kill themselves. It seems like a suicide mission. He wants religion to be something like that. It is just something we are genetically wired for, this belief in God. But it is just not of any purpose and maybe it was of use when people were scared and huddled in caves 10,000 years ago.

But these side explanations are nuts! The fundamental task for Girard is to be able to explain why religion emerges. Why religion not only survives but thrives in all these ways. Think about the Egyptians and their pyramids. Well, these are just elaborate crypts for the dead. It is all just about burying the dead. Or think about Aztec society. They expended tremendous energy to hunt people down so they could rip out their hears and hold it up to the sun so the sun god did not turn the lights off on them. It just seems like so much of religion is unproductive.

Prayer is a waste of time, rituals are a waste of time, all these things are a waste of energy and there is this class of priest, the priest type, that is doing non-useful functions. Girard says maybe there is something useful in religion, to figure out what it is. He thinks the scapegoat mechanism is that thing.

Then he gets to the Bible. He was raised Catholic. He said he basically stopped going to church the first chance he could. A typical French family at the time, he was born on Christmas Day, 1923. At the time, for upper middle class family, it was normal for the mom to be religious, the dad to be secular. That is what his family was.

His mother was a pious lady, but he basically stopped going to church. He had all the suspicions about Christianity. When he initially considered the Bible he thought it is like these ancient myths. Full of violence, God seems to be vengeful, and that it is just one more myth.

But the problem he noticed is that Christians do not want to see any similarity between the Bible and myths. Then the problem with seculars is that they just want to see them as identical. You have got this resurrected victim. Right? This is a common mythical theme, a resurrected victim. That is what Jesus is.

Curiously, Nietzsche – and Girard makes a big deal out of this – sees that it is the interpretation that matters. Dionysus and Christ are both victims of mob violence. But Christians interpret it in a certain way. This is what Girard picks up on. He says from the Abel story onwards the stories are told not from the perspective of the perpetrators who commit violence against the victims, but they are told from the perspective of the victims.

You see this classic victims. You see Job, classic victim. Joseph, another classic victim. Compare them to Oedipus, right? Oedipus and Job have a lot in common. But how are they interpreted differently?

Let us go back to Sophocles. What starts the whole thing? It is like the first murder mystery. Everyone is dying in Thebes. There is a plague. No one knows what is going on. They got it 10 times worse than COVID.

Someone must have committed a religious transgression. Oedipus, the king, says let us go find this person. Let us find him. It turns out he is it. But what is the crime? Well, he kills his father, he sleeps with his mother. Two big no-nos. Right?

No go back to Genesis. What is Joseph's problem? Well, he annoys all of his brothers so he gets expelled there. Then he is in Egypt and what is he accused of? Well, not sleeping with his mother but sleeping with the wrong person. He is an outsider. Oedipus, classic victim. He walks with a limp, so he is a classic sign of a victim in ancient literature and myth.

Robert Mixa:

He is a victim in our interpretation, right?

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

Yeah. What we would say is so what if he killed his father and slept with his mother. It has nothing to do with the plague. But for the Thebeans, it absolutely did. Right? Even if Oedipus is guilty, he is still innocent. That is what we would say. Right? And so with Job. Somehow he is gotten too cocky or whatever it was. But there is a key line in there and it is the actual title of the real French book, in English it is just called On Job. But he basically says no, this is not true. This is not really the case. I do not deserve this. With Joseph, it is of course it is a classic story but it has this twist. Girard thinks it was originally a myth and then it becomes part of Biblical revelation. You get God on the side of the victims in the Old Testament Hebrew Bible, and then you have God identified with the victim in the New Testament.

Jesus knows exactly what is going on and he is a victim of these forces all working together. And then he is telling everybody this is what is going on, nobody gets it, they are blind to it, and then they recognize it afterwards.

Robert Mixa:

Is this recognition novel?

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

This is such a radical break from the pattern of archaic religion that it is almost like a new religious wave that is a new way of thinking about religion. It is the reversal of everything about religion. In a way, you can read Biblical religion as a kind of anti-religion. It is against all the things that had been built up. It is always somebody else’s fault, God is on our side, they are the problem, if we can get rid of them then we can have peace again and all of our peace is built upon this victim.

Again, you want to see parallels, well, how was Rome founded but with the murder of Remus. And then you get the same thing with Cain and Abel, but there is a difference in that in one the violence is justified. In the other, it is God – His blood cries out to me from the ground (Gen. 4:10)– who is not going to forget the victim. For Girard, this changes everything. The Gospel changes everything. The resurrection changes everything. It puts us on a totally different course.

Robert Mixa:

But what happens to human society once the scapegoat mechanism is exposed?

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

This is the real crisis and this is why Girard can say some things that sound negative and dark and apocalyptic and not very helpful, hopeful.

Robert Mixa:

He sure sounds that way in his interview Battling To The End.

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

Yeah, you see that pessimism in there. The thing with the scapegoating cultures is it works, as long as people do not know that that is what is happening. But once you can say actually what you are doing here is you are just making me out to be a scapegoat but you are still going to be stuck with yourselves and I am not the fault of everything here, once that can be said and people believe it then it takes out the power.

You need to believe in it. That is what the story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson is about. People have been going back to it, and The New Yorker republished it and Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote an essay where he starts talking about it and how every day on Twitter there is a lottery and you just hope you are not the one. That is what it is.

But when Jackson wrote that story people were outraged. Hundreds of people canceled their subscription thinking this is just a sick story. But it is basically about mob violence, in which people think it works. Otherwise, it does not work.

This archaic religion, this ancient religion, it works. But it is built on a lie. That God is not really on the side of the victimizers. God really truly is on the side of the victims. What the Biblical religion does is it pulls the curtain back on all of this violence, just read Matthew 23.

Robert Mixa:

Is that pulling back of the curtain Is that revelation for him?

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

Yeah. Here is Matthew 23: Woe to you, Pharisees, because you whitewash the tombs and you say if we were in the age of our forefathers we wouldn't have killed the prophets. But of course you would have. It is what you do. Girard's analysis of that, when I read it, just blew me away and I continued to go back to it.

Christianity opens up this possibility. But then the thing is, is do we really want to be this way? And that Christ is the one we imitate. Paul says, "Be imitators of me as I am an imitator of Christ." There you get your passage of imitation. That means that there is another way. Another way is the path of reconciliation. It is a path of recognizing ourselves as sinners. I mean the key thing about the Gospels, the Gospels would not be the Gospels, it was basically the same plot. Jesus gets killed and the disciples and everyone are like we are standing strong with Jesus. It is precisely the Gospel because one denies him, one betrays him, and the other ten basically just run away and hide.

And that when the risen Christ is revealed to them, first they are kind of scared. When they realize we are invited into a community of forgivers, of forgiven ones. We are sinners who have been forgiven.

Robert Mixa:

This comes to mind when the Gospel of John says "He showed them his wounds.

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

We are sinners. It is usually not very pretty. And then you have a community of people who do not think they are sinful at all, which is actually what enables them to commit a bunch of sins because they are like those are the bad people. We are not bad, we are good people. Right?

The church is really a community of sinners who are conscious of being sinners. Precisely they come to this awareness of being forgiven, and that if you are forgiven then you are able to forgive another more easily.

If you think you have never done anything wrong, then the problem is always going to be the wrongdoers. Everything was going perfect, but this person started smoking cigarettes or put a liquor store in the neighborhood or something. We were all good and then that ruined it.

We love those narratives but that is just not Christian. It is not a Christian consciousness. We are aware that we are sinners and then that we are forgiven. The church is that particular kind of community that practices habits of reconciliation.

It figures out ways to nonviolently deal with problems and allows people to become reconciled to one another and to God, nonviolently, peacefully. I would say that the great religious traditions do this. They have figured out this part of it, but the problem is that it is dangerous.

We have seen in the history of Christianity, going back into the old archaic religion and we see this with witch hunts and the persecution of Jews and these sort of things. We see it in milder ways with communities that think like well, we are the ones who show up and our shirts are tucked in and our hair looks nice and we do not have dirt under our nails. We're the decent, good Christian community. And then there are those dregs out there.

James Joyce famously said the Catholic church is basically like here comes everyone. In different ways, we have been unable to live up to it. It is a lot to live up to and we cannot do it just on our own, pulling ourselves up on the bootstraps. But only through these what I just call habits and liturgies of reconciliation and forgiveness. This is what the sacraments are about. Think about what baptism is doing, what the Eucharist is doing, how we are recalling this violent event that we actually took part in. And then we think we are giving something to God at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer but God is actually giving something to us.

Robert Mixa:

Acknowledging ourselves as sinners is the first thing we do at Mass.

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

I think the sacraments are built around this way and that is what the Christian life is supposed to look like. Where we figure out ways to pacifically imitate one another.

Think about the lives of the saints and it is just a chain of people who have figured it out and provide models for us. It is not that we are supposed to somehow be John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila or someone like this. It is that we are supposed to be ourselves, but be ourselves in such a way that we can imitate their holiness in ways that bring us closer to Christ and bring us to a Christ consciousness, sin consciousness.

Robert Mixa:

Why do you bring Girard and philosopher Charles Taylor together in your book?

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

Taylor and Girard kind of both agree with what Karl Jaspers called pre-axial religion. For Girard it is basically just archaic religion. Then you push through to the axial age, which is prophetic Judaism, the Vedas, some of the Chinese religious breakthroughs, including Greek philosophy, where you just have this idea of the Good. It is not just the good of our particular thing but just the Good. Taylor says a story like the good Samaritan is unimaginable in a pre-axial culture. But in an axial age you can see that the good for the stranger is just a good. Here is something beyond my tribe.

Girard would not necessarily call it pre-axial. Actually, he would say something like archaic and then Biblical religion, and then Taylor sees the Secular Age as the third great religious atmosphere or revolution. The axial is called the axial age precisely because it is an axis, it flips. But the secular is an iteration of this Christian point of view, this Christian culture. Girard would see it the same way, that these secular values are basically Christian values. Human rights, the dignity of the individual, these sorts of things. They are Christian values that come out of a Christian moral grammar, even if you wouldn't use that particular language. There is a sense of concern for the victim.

But can human society really survive in such a situation? If you drop a humility and awareness that you are part of the problem and understanding of your own sinfulness, the sinfulness isn't just bad acts that you do but it is an inherited thing, that is both social and individual, without that and then believe that, based just on your own actions you are probably not going to be good so you need God’s grace.

If you get rid of all that stuff, then what are you going to get? He says it pretty clearly in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. He calls it, I think, a hyper-Christianity where it is just people trying to out-victimize one another. It is basically like I am the real victim here, no I am the real victim here, well this person's the victim.

Robert Mixa:

So now the victim has power?

Dr. Grant Kaplan:

You get people wanting to claim the mantle of victim because it has a kind of moral status. The crazy thing is that the right and the left both do this. They both do this obsessively in terms of victim status.

Now, the people of the right is exalted victims are different than the people the left exalts as victims. Basically, the political battle is our victim's a better victim than your victim. It is Black Lives Matter, they are the victims. No, it is Blue Lives Matter.

You could plant it in a million different ways. This person is a symbol of victimhood, this person slain by a police officer. No, this person over here, the Covington kids who were wrongly accused, they are the true victims. And then different media pundits are effective to the degrees to which they can make arguments that convince enough people that no, this is the real victim here.

It just becomes a game of trying to out-victimize one another. The irony of the whole thing is that most human societies and cultures through history have not given a damn about victims. They are not remotely concerned with the victim. If you are a victim, for most of human history it is because you deserve it.

Only Biblical society says that the victim has a value status. You have got this irony of contemporary atheism, a kind of moral atheism. This is not the atheism necessarily of Dawkins. But a moral atheism, like I could never be a Christian because there is persecutions of Jews and women and the Inquisition and all that stuff. It is basically like I do not want to be a Christian because Christianity is not for the victim enough. I want to be more for the victim than the religion that says God is identified with the victim.

Now, yeah, I mean some people want just robust apologetics of Christianity’s never done anything wrong and we will defend every Christian action throughout history as good. Or as simply a kind of victory Christianity. You just have a God on our side apologetics.:

And then you get the apologetic of just we can defeat them. We an have analytic philosophers who are Christian, can come up with a better proof of God and so we will get a real airtight, logical argument. We will go back to Anselm or whatever it is. That sort of philosophical apologetics, which is, I think, a much less harmful version than the other two forms of apologetics.

The Girardian apologetic is not as linear. It is not quite as direct and pugilistic. But I think it is the best response. I think Karl Rahner said in the 1950s, “The Christian of the future will either be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” 50 years later, we can possibly say the Christian of the future will either be Girardian or will not be one at all.

Now, that is an outrageous statement. You do not need to be a Giradian to be a Christian. But I do think that he holds the most promising apologetic for Christians, in that he understands what Christianity is – and Taylor's very good at this too– and he understands its role in the historical development of religion.

It is not just these things that you memorize for catechism, but it is understanding how it radically overturns everything. Flannery O'Connor, she has that line from “The Misfit”: “Jesus thrown everything off balance.” That is right. I think that the apologetic value of Girard is just phenomenal and needs to be read by as many catechists as possible, to get the right kind of approach.

Robert Mixa:

Thank you, Dr. Kaplan.


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