Girard on the Paraclete

Last revised: January 10, 2014
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The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

The word “advocate” in the Greek is Paraclete, a word that appears four times in the Gospel of John and only here in the epistle. From this occurrence we can deduce that, for John, Jesus himself is the first and foremost Paraclete. The occurrences of “Paraclete” in the Gospel of John are all spoken by Jesus. The first time, in 14:16, Jesus says he will ask the Father to send “another Advocate.” In the fourth and final occurrence in the Gospel, in 16:7, Jesus says that this other Advocate will not come unless he goes away. (The other two occurrences of Paraclete in John’s gospel are at 14:26 and 15:26.) In John 14-16 “Paraclete,” “Holy Spirit,” and “Spirit of Truth” are all used interchangeably.

The Greek word parakletos began to make sense to René Girard in terms of his exposition of Satan as the Accuser. Paraclete refers to the opposite role of Satan, i.e., the Defender of the Accused. In courtroom language, if Satan is the Prosecuting Attorney, then the Paraclete is the Defense Attorney. The Girardian references to the meaning of Satan and the Paraclete abound. But the place where Girard himself first wrote about it is in his book The Scapegoat, the final chapter entitled “History and the Paraclete.” Here is an excerpt that presents Girard’s explanation of the Paraclete:

Satan only reigns by virtue of the representations of persecution that held sway prior to the Gospels. Satan therefore is essentially the accuser, the one who deceives men by making them believe that innocent victims are guilty. But, who is the Paraclete?

Parakleitos, in Greek, is the exact equivalent of advocate or the Latin ad-vocatus. The Paraclete is called on behalf of the prisoner, the victim, to speak in his place and in his name, to act in his defense. The Paraclete is the universal advocate, the chief defender of all innocent victims, the destroyer of every representation of persecution. He is truly the spirit of truth that dissipates the fog of mythology.

We must ask why Jerome, that formidable translator who was rarely lacking in boldness, hesitated before the translation of the very ordinary, common name of parakleitos. He was literally taken by surprise. He did not see the term’s relevance and opted for a pure and simple transliteration, Paracletus. His example is followed religiously in most modern languages. This mysterious word has continued to put in concrete form not the unintelligibility of a text that is actually perfectly intelligible, but the unintelligence of its interpreters, that of Jesus’ accusation of his disciples, a lack of intelligence that history is slowly changing to comprehension.

There are, of course, innumerable studies on the Paraclete, but none provides a satisfactory solution, since they all define the problem in narrowly theological terms. The prodigious historical and cultural significance of the term remains inaccessible, and the general conclusion is that, if he is truly someone’s advocate, the Paraclete must become the disciples’ advocate with the Father. This solution invokes a passage in the first Epistle of John: “but if any one should sin, we have our advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, who is just” (2:1) . . .

In John’s text Jesus makes himself a Paraclete. In the Gospel by the same author, Jesus effectively is shown as the first Paraclete sent to men:

I shall ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate
to be with you forever,
that Spirit of truth
whom the world can never receive
since it neither sees nor knows him; (John 14:16-17)

Christ is the Paraclete, par excellence, in the struggle against the representation of persecution. Every defense and rehabilitation of victims is based on the Passion’s power of revelation. When Christ has gone, the Spirit of Truth, the second Paraclete, will make the light that is already in the world shine for all men, though man will do everything in his power not to see it.

The disciples certainly had no need of a second advocate with the Father, as long as they had Jesus himself. The other Paraclete is sent among men and into history; there is no need to get rid of him by sending him piously into the transcendental. The immanent nature of his action is confirmed by a text from the synoptic Gospels: “And when they lead you forth to deliver you, do not be preoccupied with what you will say, but say what is given to you at the moment for it is not you who will speak but the Holy Spirit.” (The Scapegoat, pp. 207-209)

For those who might be unfamiliar with Girard’s book The Scapegoat, it begins with a 14th century “text of persecution,” an account by a French poet of the massacre of Jews in France as a scapegoat for the plague of Black Death. Girard uses this text as a model for going back and understanding older mythological texts more clearly. Myths have the same structure as texts of persecution but are less transparent to us as covering real acts of human violence behind their imaginative veiling in stories about the gods. After eight chapters that lay out a “science of myths,” Girard follows with seven chapters that illustrate how the Gospel is a force for demythologization, i.e., how Gospel undoes the perspective of the persecutors by telling the same kind of story of scapegoating persecution from the perspective of the victim. These seven chapters are on the following: the Passion, Caiaphas’ prophecy in John 11, the beheading of John the Baptist, Peter’s Denial, the Demons of Gerasa, Satan divided against himself, and the role of the Paraclete, the Defender of the Accused, throughout subsequent history. The book closes with the following paragraphs:

Of all the texts on the Paraclete, this, finally, is the most extraordinary. It appears to be made up of heterogeneous pieces and fragments, as if it were the incoherent fruit of a mystical schizophrenia. Actually, it is our own cultural schizophrenia that makes it appear that way. It cannot be understood so long as we use the principles and methods that inevitably belong to our world and can neither see nor know the Paraclete. John strikes us with so many extraordinary truths at such a pace that we neither can nor want to absorb them. There is a great risk of projecting on him the confusion and violence that are always to some extent present in us. The text may have been affected, in certain details, by the conflicts between the Church and the Synagogue, but its real subject has nothing to do with contemporary debates on the “anti-Semitism of John.”

Anyone who hates me hates my Father.
If I had not performed such works among them
as no one else has ever done, they would be blameless;
but as it is, they have seen all this,
and still they hate both me and my Father.
But all this was only to fulfill the words written in their Law;
They hated me for no reason.
When the Advocate [Paraclete] comes,
whom I shall send to you from the Father,
the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father,
he will be my witness [ekeinos martyresei peri emou]
And you too will be witnesses, [kai humeis de martyreite]
because you have been with me from the outset.

“I have told you all this
so that your faith may not be shaken.
They will expel you from the synagogues,
and indeed the hour is coming
when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy duty for God.
They will do these things
because they have never known either the Father or myself.
But I have told you all this,
so that when the time for it comes
you may remember that I told you. (John 15:23-27; 16:1-4)

This text unquestionably evokes the struggles and persecutions at the time of its writing. It cannot directly evoke any others. But indirectly it evokes all the others since it is not dominated by vengeance but rather dominates it. To regard it as purely and simply a prefiguration of contemporary anti-Semitism, under the pretext that it has never been understood, is to give in to scandal, to transform into scandal what we are told has been given to us to protect us from scandal and foresee the misunderstandings caused by the apparent failure of the revelation.

Apparently, the revelation is a failure; it ends in persecutions that seem likely to smother it but ultimately bring it to fulfillment. So long as the words of Jesus do not reach us, we have no sin. We remain at the level of the Gerasenes. The representation of persecution retains a certain legitimacy. The sin is the resistance to the revelation. Inevitably, it becomes externalized in the hateful persecution of the one who brings the revelation, in other words God himself, since he is the one who disturbs our more or less comfortable little arrangements with our familiar demons.

The persecutor’s resistance — Paul’s for example, before his conversion — makes the very thing that it tries to hide obvious. As a converted persecutor, Paul is the archetypal Christian:

He fell to the ground and then he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord?” he asked, and the voice answered, “I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me:” (Acts 9:4-6)

I see in this the perfect theoretical recapitulation of the evangelic process that is described in all the texts discussed in the preceding pages. The same process also takes place in history and develops from now on as history; it is known to the whole world, and it is the same as the advent of the Paraclete. When the Paraclete comes, Jesus says, he will bear witness to me, he will reveal the meaning of my innocent death and of every innocent death, from the beginning to the end of the world. Those who come after Christ will therefore bear witness as he did, less by their words or beliefs than by becoming martyrs and dying as Jesus died.

Most assuredly, this concerns not only the early Christians persecuted by the Jews or by the Romans but also the Jews who were later persecuted by the Christians and all victims persecuted by executioners. To what does it really bear witness? In my thinking it always relates to the collective persecution that gives birth to religious illusions. It is to this that the following sentence alludes: “the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” Witch-hunters are encompassed by this revelation, as are totalitarian bureaucrats of persecution. In future, all violence will reveal what Christ’s Passion revealed, the foolish genesis of bloodstained idols and the false gods of religion, politics, and ideologies. The murderers remain convinced of the worthiness of their sacrifices. They, too, know not what they do and we must forgive them. The time has come for us to forgive one another. If we wait any longer there will not be time enough. (The Scapegoat, pp. 210-212)

I See Satan Fall Like Lightning came seventeen years after The Scapegoat. Girard’s work has such vast implications in its anthropological scope that there are many possible points of entry into it. This later book uses a variety of entry points: first, the Gospel language of scandal and Satan. Then, the middle portion of the book takes yet another entry point: “the Horrible Miracle of Apollonius of Tyana,” a 2nd century myth from Ephesus, already aware of the Christian gospel. Girard brilliantly poses this story of a stoning against the near-stoning of the adulterous undone by Jesus in John 8, and he locates this myth as a “missing link” between full-blown myths and “texts of persecution,” the two poles of the spectrum that he laid out in The Scapegoat. Part Three of I See Satan is entitled “The Victory of the Cross,” and takes a careful step-wise argument for the uniqueness of the Bible and the Gospel in playing a role of demythologizing culture, resulting in our modern concern for victims, and posing it against Nietzsche’s brilliant insight into the clear choice between Christ and Dionysus (of which he unfortunately chose Dionysus and went mad).

This book ends, however, in almost the same place as The Scapegoat: with the Paraclete and Paul’s conversion, coupled this time with Peter’s (which is covered in an earlier chapter in The Scapegoat). Here, then, are the closing paragraphs of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (p. 189-193):

What is this power that triumphs over mimetic violence? The Gospels respond that it is the Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit takes charge of everything. It would be false, for example, to say the disciples “regained possession of themselves”: it is the Spirit of God that possesses them and does not let them go.

In the Gospel of John the name given to this Spirit admirably describes the power that tears the disciples away from this all-powerful contagion: the Paraclete. I have commented on this term in other essays, but its importance for what I am doing in this book is so great that I must return to it. The principal meaning of parakletos “lawyer for the defense,” “defender of the accused.” In place of looking for periphrases and loopholes to avoid this translation, we should prefer it to all others and marvel at its relevance. We should take with utmost seriousness the idea that the Spirit enlightens the persecutors concerning their acts of persecution. The Spirit discloses to individuals the literal truth of what Jesus said during his crucifixion: “They don’t know what they are doing.” We should also think of the God whom Job calls “my defender.”

The birth of Christianity is a victory of the Paraclete over his opposite, Satan, whose name originally means “accuser before a tribunal,” that is, the one responsible for proving the guilt of the defendants. That is one of the reasons why the Gospels hold Satan responsible for all mythology. The Passion accounts are attributed to the spiritual power that defends victims unjustly accused. This corresponds marvelously to the human content of the revelation, to the extent that violent contagion permits it to be understood.

The anthropological revelation is not prejudicial to the theological revelation or in competition with it. It is inseparable from it. This union of the two is demanded by the dogma of the Incarnation, the mystery of the double nature of Jesus Christ, divine and human. The “mimetic” reading permits a better realization of this union. The anthropological widening of the Incarnation in no way eclipses theology; it shows its relevance by putting the abstract idea of original sin into more concrete form, as James Alison has powerfully observed. (1)

To highlight the role of the Holy Spirit in the defense of victims, it will be useful, finally, to take a look at the parallelism of two great conversions that occur in conjunction with the Resurrection. The first is Peter’s repentance after his denial, so important that we can view it as a second and more profound conversion. The other is the conversion of Paul, his famous “road to Damascus” experience.

On the surface these two events seem completely different: they don’t occur in the same texts, and one happens at the very beginning, the other at the end of the crucial period of Christianity’s infancy. Their circumstances are very different. The two men are very different. But the profound meaning of the two experiences is nonetheless exactly the same. What the two converts become capable of seeing, thanks to their conversions, is the violent social instinct, the adherence to the will of the crowd, which neither knew possessed him. This is the violent contagion that compels us all to participate in the Crucifixion.

Just after his third denial Peter hears a rooster crow, and he remembers what Jesus predicted. Only then does he discover the crowd phenomenon in which he has participated. He proudly believed he was immunized against all unfaithfulness to Jesus. All through the Gospel accounts Peter is the ignorant instrument of scandals that manipulate him without his knowledge. In speaking to the Jerusalem crowd some days after the Resurrection, he stresses the ignorance of those possessed by violent contagion. He speaks from personal knowledge.

In the Gospel of Luke, just at the crucial moment, Jesus too is in the courtyard, and the two — Jesus and Peter — exchange a look that pierces the disciple’s heart. The question that Peter reads in this look, “Why do you persecute me?” Paul will hear as well from Jesus’ own mouth: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” In response to Paul’s question “Who are you, Lord?” Jesus answers, “I am Jesus whom you persecute.” Christian conversion is always this question that Christ himself asks. Because of the simple fact that we live in a world whose structure is based on mimetic processes and victim mechanisms, from which we all profit without knowing it, we are all accessories to the Crucifixion, persecutors of Christ.

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.

My research is only indirectly theological, moving as it does across the field of a Gospel anthropology unfortunately neglected by theologians. To increase its effectiveness, I have pursued it as long as possible without postulating the reality of the Christian God. No appeal to the supernatural should break the thread of the anthropological analyses.

By offering a natural, rational interpretation of facts formerly perceived as relevant to the supernatural, such as Satan or the apocalyptic dimension of the New Testament, the mimetic reading truly enlarges the field of anthropology. But contrary to non-Christian anthropologies it does not minimize the hold evil has on humans and their need for redemption. Certain Christian readers fear that this enlargement encroaches on the legitimate domain of theology. I believe the opposite is true. By desacralizing certain themes, by showing that Satan exists first of all as a figure created by structures of mimetic violence, we think with the Gospels and not against them.

This enlargement of anthropology occurs, we must observe, at the expense of subjects that current theologians, even the most orthodox, have a tendency to neglect, as they can no longer integrate them into their work. They do not want to reproduce, purely and simply, ancient readings that don’t desacralize violence sufficiently. Neither do they want to suppress the basic texts under an imperative of “demythologizing” that is positivist and naive, in the manner of Bultmann. So they remain silent. The mimetic interpretation opens a way out of this impasse.

Far from minimizing Christian transcendence, attributing purely earthly, rational meanings to themes such as Satan or apocalyptic danger renders Paul’s “paradoxes” of the Cross more relevant than ever. I think that through our engagement with some of the most astonishing texts of Paul we have already found enlightenment for the true demythicizing of our world, and we will find enlightenment even more in the future, as Gil Bailie foresees. (2) This enlightenment can only come from the Cross.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but for those who are being saved, for us, it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” Where is the sage? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since the world, in the wisdom of God, did not recognize God by means of wisdom, it has pleased God to save those who believe by the folly of preaching. For the Jews demand signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews and folly for the Gentiles, but for those who are called, Jews as well as Greeks, it is Christ who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

(1 Cor. 1:18-25, emphasis mine)

Gil Bailie, in Violence Unveiled, elaborates on the Paraclete, as well. He first explains it on pp. 73-74:

Jesus of John’s Gospel declares that the crucifixion will have the effect of turning the Paraclete (the Spirit) loose on the world, and that this Spirit will show the world how wrong it was about righteousness and condemnation (John 16). Just as the word “Satan” implies the “accuser,” the word “Paraclete” implies the “defender of the accused.” The Johannine Jesus declared that unless and until he was crucified, the Paraclete could not come into the world. Whatever perplexity might have surrounded this statement for us in the past, the anthropological meaning of these words is now perfectly clear. (p. 74)

Bailie’s most extensive elaboration comes in a section entitled “The Spirit” (link to excerpt), pp. 225-228.

A more complete bibliography on a Girardian reading of Paraclete includes, first from his own books:

  • Job, ch. 21, “The God of Victims,” pp. 154-68 (Girard once again ends a book with the Paraclete)
  • Evolution and Conversion, pp. 196-97

And from other Girardian writers:

Notes from I See Satan

1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong (New York: Crossroad, 1998).

2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled (New York: Crossroad, 1995).

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