Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Archaic Law: To Recapitulate It or Spiritually Repudiate It?

I have been reading Rene Girard lately and find it immensely stimulating, even though I often feel, like Marx with Hegel, that to be read correctly he has to be stood on his head. Even so, the insights gained are tremendous. Let me cite here simply his definition of religion:

Any phenomenon associated with acts of remembering, commemorating, and perpetuating a unanimity that springs from the murder of a surrogate victim can be termed "religious" (Reader, pp. 26-27).

In this sense, one may indeed wonder whether Buddhism for example, is a religion, but one can be in no doubt that every conquest or revolution is a religious act, and every state founded by revolution or conquest -- and that about covers them -- is a religion in the Girardian sense. Girard tends to avoid the political realm, but it is unavoidable in this connection. When he does touch on it, he produces similarly brilliantly illuminating apothegms:

Political power has been rooted in the crowd since the foundation of the world (p. 214).

In the Secret History of the Mongols, for example, Chinggis Khan's killing of his half-brother Begter, and of his blood-brother Jamugha is a presented implicitly as the sacrifice of a surrogate victim, which produces unanimity and a blessing.

Girard is quite popular with both First Things writers (here, here, and here, for example) and the Reformed Dougs in Moscow, Idaho and their supporters (here, here, and here, for example). I wonder very much about whether they have in fact understood him, since in many ways his interpretation appears to be rather contradictory to Catholic or Refomed theology. Let's note a few things that might cause problems: he acknowledges that he is the first person to read the Gospels in the way that he does (p. 183), that the orthodox "sacrificial" interpretation of the Gospels has obscured its true utterly anti-sacrificial significance from the first years of the apostles (p. 193), that the appropriation of the logic of the Gospel for the defense of culture and social order is in fact the work of Christians who are the Antichrist (p. 207), and that Girard himself rediscovered it solely through reading the text of Scripture (pp. 183-84). Every plank of radical restorationism is in place. Know what you are getting into, if you read him.

And yet, somehow it doesn't feel like heresy. Let's leave aside the extraordinary light he sheds upon his favorite Biblical texts. Let's take his reading of the founding fall. It is not Adam and Eve, whom he virtually never mentions, but Cain's murder of Abel. This is heresy -- or is it? Isn't this the basis for John saying that Satan was a liar and a murderer from the beginning? That instigating murder was Satan's primal intervention into our history? And although Girard seems unaware of the fact, Prudentius's Christian poems also treat Cain's murder of Abel as the real inception of sinful humanity. To rediscover by chance strands of ancient Christian thought long ago consigned to the attic; that is something worth paying attention to.

But the reading of Girard has suffered from inadequate contextualization. What is the context in which we ought to read him; what is his fundamental problem? He began as a literary scholar, reading the nineteenth century novels. He then turned to anthropology, exploring the byways of obscure native religions. Most of his writing now centers on Biblical interpretation and exegesis. However he got there, however, his mature writings are fundamentally an attempt to resolve a single problem: what is the relation of the Old Covenant and the New? Or to put it a bit differently (and perhaps a bit misleadingly for Augsburg Evangelicals): what is the relation of the Law and the Gospel?

But it must be always remembered Girard is a thinker who relates Christian revelation to the full scale of human cultural diversity. Or to put it differently, he emphasizes how the Christian Gospels are the fulfillment and supersession not simply of the Mosaic Law, but of all sacrificial law, all sacrificial "mythology" (i.e. all the historical, yet mysticized murders of innocent substitutes). In short, one could take the python myth of the Venda in South Africa, and show how the life and death of Jesus exposes and unwinds the mechanism commemorated and sanctified by that myth, just as it exposes and unwinds the mechanism commemorated and sanctified by the death of Achan (to chose a Biblical example not addressed by Girard).

Let me put Girard and the Law-Gospel problem in historical context. The religious legacy of mankind goes back to five archaic Laws given to peoples in a band from west to east in Eurasia, and embodied in the scriptures reverenced in continuous line until today. They are Homer, Hesiod and the Homeric hymns in Greek, the Law of Moses and the Former Prophets (Joshua-2 Kings) in Hebrew, the Avestan in Old Persian, the Vedas in Sanskrit, and the Five Classics in Chinese. This is the earliest stratum of the cultural heritage, directly or vicariously, of virtually all of humanity.

What do these have in common? That they are Laws for theocratic states in which the divine will is knowable through divination (urim and thummim, the milfoil straws, entrails), in which the divinity takes pleasure in the sweet savor of burnt animal offerings, in which purity regulations govern all aspects of life, particularly relating to discharges from the body (semen, blood, spit, etc.), in which the duty to procreate is universal and in which both war, the death penalty, slavery, and polygamy/concubinage are accepted without remark as part of the order of life, and in which revelation comes in one sacred language to one sacred people surrounded by barbarian gentiles.

What is the problem of Girard? It is the perennial problem since the middle of the first millennium BC, of what to do with this era of revelation, when so much of it seems so barbaric and primitive, so much superseded by the later revelations of the prophets and sages. Yet those prophets and sages themselves, paradoxically, reverenced these revelations as being the classic patterns of ideal society.

In general, the problem of religious diversity and cultural heritage has been approached by trying to identify which of these five languages holds the truest and the best revelation. What should we take as the text teaching us the true and fundamental pattern of life? The Iliad and the Odyssey? The Law of Moses? The Vedas and Upanishads? Once that is decided, then we decide which interpretation of that Law is the truest. (This is the procedure of Pascal, more or less: start with the Jews who are obviously a unique people, and then ask whether the New Testament makes sense as a fulfillment of the Jewish Law.) But Girard offers implicitly another way of conceptualizing the problem: given that all of these archaic texts share so much, perhaps we should ask, what is the general type of relation which these archaic texts have to the later revelation of Truth? What should our relation be to the Laws for a theocratic kingdom of sacrificial scapegoats and purity laws separating clean insiders and unclean outsiders? Not least because each one of them came under radical attack by foreign conquest, intellectual questioning, and the importation of new teachings and texts.

There are five possibilities:

1) Repristination: to reemphasize these laws and in so doing rebuild the sacral social order. The Confucians were fortunate in having a kingdom still found on the land and in having archaic classics which seems to be among the least "archaic" in spirit (perhaps because large chunks achieved final form only in the first century BC), and at times followed this. The laws of Islam seem also to have the features of repristination of a streamlined and modernized law of Moses. (One of the peculiar aspects of Islam is how a highly "advanced," not to say philosophical, concept of God is yoked to an archaic-seeming law.) The theonomist stream of Puritanism was in some ways another example of this.

2) Rationalist Dismissal: the whole archaic law has no normative value whatsoever, and probably was forged. It is primitive, backward, and superstitious. Stop reading it, and if you read it, dont take it seriously. This position has been greatly strengthened since the eighteenth century by the increasing doubts over authenticity surrounding all the archaic classics.

3) Reinterpretation: Here the archaic Law is seen not as something intended to be applied in real life but to teach us about the control of the passions, or the soul's search for God. Much of later Confucian interpretation of the Yijing, or Talmudic midrash and allegorical readings of the Scriptures would belong here, as would Neo-Platonic allegorical exegesis of Homer and other myths. Much of Vaishnavite and Shaivite Hinduism has this relation to the Vedas, I would guess.

4) Spiritual Repudiation: The old law did not teach the right way of liberation or salvation, which was revealed only later. While many of its basically religious, supernatural presuppositions are still accepted, as texts, the archaic laws are a source only of cultural and historical heritage devoid of normative force. Buddhism largely takes this line toward the Sanskrit scriptures, and Quakerism and Marcionism do the same for the Law of Moses, while Stoicism does the same with the Greco-Roman religious law.

5) Recapitulation: The old law is recapitulated, summed up, in one episode or instance or prophetic life, which is then perpetuated by reenactment. The old law is thus not exactly rejected, but not repristinated either. I don't know enough about Mithraism or Manichaeism to say if this definitedly is, as I suspect, the primary model of how they relate to Zoroastrianism, but this certainly is St. Irenaeus's interpretation of the relation of Christianity to the Law of Moses.

What is Girard saying then? Two things he is certainly rejecting: repristination and rationalist rejection. Likewise allegorical reinterpretation is not on the agenda. Girard wishes to take the archaic law at its word -- it really is about pleasing God and sacralizing the socio-political order by offering up innocent victims in sacrifice. The real question is, then, is he offering a new spiritual repudiationist reading, in which Christ points out the nullity of the old law, or else a recapitulationist reading? Repudiation might seem the obvious choice, except that it seems to lead into rationalist dismissal, which he likewise repudiates. He also sees the Mosaic Law as less clearly archaic than the archaic laws of other peoples: the Law is the message of Christ struggling to get out from a still partly archaic and sacrificial context. Since I believe he is not really correct about this and that the basic features of the archaic law are visible at the heart of the Hebrew classics, one could say that in a sense he is a offering a reinterpretation, along the lines of the wheat and the chaff.

But this is the red thread running so much of human literary, religious, and humanistic culture today: what do we do with the archaic classics and the ideal they present of sacralized theocracy founded on sacrifice and ritual cleanliness? If we don't dismiss them, can we ever get free of war and violence? But if we do dismiss them, do we become strangers not just to our own ancestors, but to ourselves? And if we reinterpret them, aren't we being dishonest? I do believe that recapitulation is the only way to reject the ideal of archaic theocracy but still understand ourselves and our ancestors, and that Christianity is the only viable program of recapitulation, and hence the only point of view from which the archaic classics -- not just the Hebrew ones, but any of them -- can be understood in the twenty-first century (the example of this type of analysis done here might explain what I mean). But that means it is all the more necessary that we get recapitulation, and how it sums up all the archaic classics, right.

Labels: , , , , , , ,