From Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, Vol. 4, Spring 1997, pages 120-145.


Gil Bailie
Florilegia Institute

Man is after something that cannot be possessed....
Man cannot "have" being, though he absolutely needs
it for living.  (Roel Kaptein)
The anthropological reading of biblical literature which Girard's mimetic theory makes possible sheds new light on many otherwise inscrutable texts. Prominent among these, due to its centrality as well as its elusiveness, is the prologue to the Gospel of John. For the author of this gospel, the "Word" who was "in the beginning," was "the light" without which humanity remained in darkness -- whether it be the darkness of pre-human existence or the moral and mythic darkness of the sacred violence that accompanied hominization. Girard's work helps us realize that humanity generated its own crude forms of illumination precisely by periodically expelling this light. (A vivid symbolic expression of this is the reference to the "lanterns, torches, and weapons" with which the Roman cohort arrested Jesus later in John's Gospel.)

The Johannine Prologue conveys its message in an elusively universal yet specifiable idiom:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who did accept him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (1:9-13)
The ontological theme of these verses deserves attention. If, as Raymond Brown has observed, these verses constitute a "description of the history of salvation in hymnic form," they also contain an anthropological summary of the two, and only two, ontologizing circumstances: the identification, respectively, with the victimizing crowd and with the victim.

However occluded the illuminating Logos might have been prior to revelation of the Cross, the Johannine prologue tells us that it was present from the beginning. How? The most pertinent scriptural clue seems to be the reference to Christ in the Book of Revelation as "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world," the innocent One whose victimization finally broke open the seals on the scroll of human iniquity and, in the process, unfettered that iniquity from its ancient restraints.

One of the great values of Girard's work is that it makes anthropologically explicit what is poetically implicit in these scriptural innuendoes, namely, the link between the Crucified One and all victims slain "from the foundation of the world." Inasmuch as "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" was what made the old humanity possible and, in Christ, what brought the new humanity into being, the third verse of the prologue of John's Gospel becomes anthropologically intelligible:

All things came into being through him, not one thing had its being except through him. (1:3)
Here the explicit claim that all things came to be through him needs to be read in light of the verses that follow in the prologue, but which I have quoted above. Doing so, we are led to consider the radical difference between the crude and fallacious ontology the ancient sacrificial system was able to underwrite by causing its beneficiaries to identify with the victimizing crowd and the ontological renewal born of an identification with the innocent victim -- referred to in the New Testament as a dying with Christ and ritualized in baptism. With equal subtlety, this verse alludes as well to the ineradicable homology between these two forms of ontological sustenance. "All culture is sacrificial," writes Eric Gans, adding:
Culture covers a lot of ground, from bear-baiting to attending a performance of Saint Matthew's Passion, but whether we savagely revel in the victim's sufferings or identify with them in the depths of our soul, culture is the founded on them.
And so is the being of those involved in these two fundamental forms of identification. Corresponding to the moral difference between the ritual experiences to which Gans refers is an ontological difference -- a difference precisely having to do with the "depth of one's soul," the truth of one's being.

The biblical God who creates space-time and materiality out of nothing, brings being out of non-being -- first putting to shame and undermining the dubious and delusional ontology the "world" bestows on the basis of superficial comparisons and at the expense of its victims. An ontological nihilo comparable to the cosmic nihilo out of which the cosmos is created is prefigured in the call of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets -- the call to leave behind all the cultural markers by which they had once known who they were. Was it not, in fact, the kenotic response of the prophets and psalmists to this call that cleared the way for their "coming to be" in a new God-centered way. In Romans 4:17, Paul invokes this theme by referring to the faith of Abraham, noting that the God in whom Abraham put his faith, "gives life to the dead and calls into being that which has no being" -- or has no being capable of surviving the truth (of the cross).

What makes biblical discipleship unique is the confounding, relativizing and destabilizing effect it has on conventional forms of identity. Where the old sacred system is completely intact, the fact of belonging to the social unit and the act of cowering or worshiping before the culture's reigning gods are simply two aspects of the same thing. It is in the biblical world that these two come into tension. It is in the biblical world that one is called out of one's social envelope into the wilderness, there to meet the "I am who am" in self-surrender to Whom one is made new, born again, ontologically reconstituted.

The first response to this "call" to separate from the cultural envelope was the beginning of the humanity's extrication from the system of sacred violence which functioned to keep this call from being heard. Mercifully, the process of breaking down the cultural structures rooted in the old system of sacred violence has been a gradual one. It is part of the bewildering uniqueness of the gospels, however, that they, often telescope this process in a most astonishing way, making it thereby possible to close the New Testament canon without robbing its later beneficiaries of the light it would gradually shed on historical processes which the Gospel itself had set in motion but whose peculiar circumstances would emerge only gradually and in due course. In this regard, the "prophetic" feature of the biblical text -- prophetic in the popular sense of foreseeing the future -- is perhaps one that biblical scholarship has been too quick to disparage.

There are New Testament texts to whose deeper meaning we are only able to fully awaken when the historical process these texts unleashed has reached the stage at which their "prophetic" significance can be retrospectively appreciated. I want to quote and comment upon several texts and explore the ontological theme I feel is embedded in them by approaching them from the point of view of mimetic theory and in light of the ontological issues raised by Jean-Luc Marion in his God Without Being.

In God Without Being, Marion challenges the conventional theological assumption that beings who come to realize how ontologically dependent they are on God must therefore conclude that the source of their being-ness is a Being as such, a Supreme Being. Embedded in this assumption, Marion argues, is a philosophical objectification of the divine that leads to the idolatry that haunts the theological tradition and leaves it vulnerable to its post-modern detractors.

It is not Marion's theological project that concerns me here, however, nor will I try to reproduce his Heidegger-like typographical cipher for it, God with the "o" crossed out. Rather, I want to think through the mimetic, ontological and psychological ramifications of his work, ramifications which seem to me to point toward an ontology of personhood that is at once profoundly biblical, completely resonant with Girard's understanding of the constitution of the person by and in the other, and related to the crisis of psychological insubstantiality from whose many symptoms our culture is now suffering.

Marion retains the bedrock biblical notion that God is the ground of one's being, but wants to locate the ontogenesis not in Divine Being shared from a superabundance, but rather in the Divine Self-emptying Gift-of-being given kenotically to the other with no objectifiable remainder. In passing, it might be noted that there is an echo of Marion's analysis in the Buddhist scholar Masao Abe, who observes: "through unconditional love God abnegates Godself so completely that God fully identifies with the crucified Christ on the cross." Abe's analysis is informed by the same Heideggerian critique of Being, and just as Marion critiques the objectifiability of God by crossing out the "o" in God as Heidegger had crossed out Sein, so Abe crosses out the Buddhist term roughly equivalent to the Christian notion of kenosis, Sunyata. Though by centering his, analysis on "gift," Marion brings out the love of God in a distinctive and authentically Christian way, nevertheless his analysis finds an echo in Abe's insistence that "the kenotic Christ cannot be fully grasped without a realization of the total kenosis of God" (41).

If anything, Abe brings out even more explicitly what is clearly implied in Marion's analysis, namely, that the recognition that the truth about God -- that God is the Love that empties Himself so that the one(s) He loves might have being -- is a truth that breaks in on humanity at the Cross. To speak doctrinally, it is at the Cross and on the Cross where the supreme act of kenotic self-giving occurs simultaneously in both the Father and the Son, an act of kenotic self-giving which Christians, by virtue of their new identity, are prompted by the Spirit of Truth to imitate. Being, from this perspective, consists in always giving one's being to the Other from whom one received it or to others for whom the gift is a standing invitation to participate in the self-giving economy of the "Kingdom."

At the cultural level, the Gospel not only undermines the archaic sacred system on which culture has always depended, but it also shows -- in the life of Jesus of Nazareth -- how to live without the sacred system. That there is a parallel at the psychological level, should not surprise us. For the Christian -- the one on whom the Gospel has had decisive effect -- it is the Cross that destabilizes conventional subjectivity by undermining the system of sacred violence on which it depends, and it is the Cross that reveals the self-giving truth about God -- "self-giving" in both senses: the giving away of self and the bestowing of selfhood as a gift. The Cross is the key to both events. Therefore those most fully exposed to the revelation that destabilizes conventional subjectivity are exposed as well to the revelation of another kind of subjectivity, however enigmatic it might be as the "world" reckons these things.

The kenotic self-giving obedience of Christ on the cross reveals the God whose kenotic act was to take on flesh and die wretched and despised. Again, the ex nihilo of creation and the preliminary loss of prior ontological substance that accompanies metanoia reveal, each at its own level of reflection, not an unmoved mover, but rather an endlessly self-giving gift of self. So much so, that in a Christian context, selfhood is oxymoronic. The key to Christian subjectivity is being subject to the Other. The true self is the giving away of the self to the Other and/or others. It is pouring out one's life, losing one's life in order to find it.

Marion finds special meaning in several Pauline texts dealing, as he insists, with ontological issues, among them this passage from First Corinthians:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor 1: 26-28; my emphasis)
As Marion points out, those who are not -- the non-beings to whom Paul refers -- are certainly not non-beings in the material sense. If by nonbeing Paul cannot possibly mean non-existent, he must be referring to the socially constructed forms of subjectivity whose cultural props Christians are called to renounce. "God," says Marion, "chooses nonbeings in order to annul and abrogate beings" (89). But this abrogation begins with the ontological abdication of those called to this task. "Be it done unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38).

As Marion notes, in an earlier reference in First Corinthians Paul noted that the wisdom of God confounds the wisdom of the world, or, as Marion glosses the passage, "drives it to distraction, 'distracts' it (1:20), as a magnet distracts a compass, in depriving it of all reference to a fixed pole" (90). This image of a magnet distracting a compass is an ironic one, inasmuch as the compass is designed to respond to a magnet in a way that gives the compass its social utility. But here Marion is imagining a magnetic force field that has a disorienting effect. To which we can add that the "fixed pole" of which the "world" is deprived by the revelation of the Cross is the violence of the Cross veiled in mythic justifications. Henceforth, resort to this age-old mechanism for curing social confusion will have the effect of compounding the confusion and further disorienting those it once served to unify, orient and pacify. The clearest textual echo of this in the New Testament, it seems to me, is the quintessentially anthropological verse that speaks of the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death on the cross:

And when all the crowds who had gathered for the spectacle saw what had happened, they returned home beating their breasts. (Luke 23:48)
Read anthropologically, this verse contains the whole problematic of cultural history in light of the expose of sacrificial violence the Cross accomplishes. The reference here to the crowds gathered for the spectacle should be appreciated for its anthropological, not just its social, significance. The crucifixion of Jesus is the kind of spectacle that has been the flash point for social gathering since culture began. It remains so only so long as the participants and spectators continue to misrecognize the event and interpret it according to some myth that justifies the violence. The Lucan leitmotif which functions to keep this anthropological problematic in sight is the recurring reference to gathering and scattering. "Whoever does not gather with me," Jesus says, "scatters" (Luke 11:23).

The Passion recounts an episode of sacrificial or scapegoating violence that has the opposite of its ordinary and intended effect. Rather than bringing about a psycho-social consolidation, it dramatically loosens the grip of the gravitational field at the center of which the victim dies. The term Luke uses for the verb "saw" is a form of the Greek word theoria, and it implies not simple seeing but rather what we might call insight or sudden recognition. Exegetes remind us that the reference to "beating their breasts" does not imply contrition in any specifically Christian sense of the term. Rather it merely connotes moral and mental confusion. As such, it marks the beginning of a scattering process for which Luke insists the only sustainable alternative is the gathering of the new community in disciplined identification with the Crucified One. As for the gathering of that new community, immediately following the verse that so succinctly telescopes the cultural diaspora the Cross precipitates is a verse showing the embryonic Christian community, not yet gathering to be sure, but standing its ground, resisting the dispersion:

But all [Jesus'] acquaintances stood at a distance, including the women who had followed him from Galilee and saw these events. (Luke 23:49)
This passage captures in all its poignancy the moral ambiguity and cultural liminality of the incipient Christian community -- and, by extension, that of all Christians at whatever stage they found themselves in the cultural dispersal, in the latter stages of which we are living. Inasmuch as it can help put the epidemic of psychological instability we now face into anthropological as well as scriptural perspective, the ontological and psychological repercussions of this liminality cries out for further elucidation.

Modest as it might have been at its inception, the relative social independence to which this verse alludes deserves to be noted. While the large crowd wanders off in confusion, the embryonic Christian community is able to remain standing in the midst of its even greater confusion, its attention still riveted on the stark and revelatory fact of an innocent victim who died forgiving his persecutors.

Faint and tentative as it is, this resistance to social contagion is a symptom of a social independence which was soon to flower into acts of courage and commitment which most of us today can hardly imagine, much less replicate. Over the course of the ensuing centuries, those living in cultures where the Cross was gradually becoming the central religious symbol experienced an increasing degree of social independence as a result of the weakening of the sacrificial logic which the Gospel was slowly bringing about. But this resistance to social contagion was not a strictly individual phenomenon, even though it made possible the relative social independence for which hoards of Western individualists would eventually claim personal credit.

Psychologically speaking, the modern age could be said to have begun at the moment when two things happened: first, a relative social independence became widespread enough to become the defining experience of those living in Western culture, and, secondly, this relative social independence was misinterpreted as autonomous individuality, whose indebtedness to the Cross and Christian revelation was no longer taken into account. G. K. Chesterton insisted that even minuscule mistakes in Christian doctrine would eventually lead to huge blunders in human happiness. In misconstruing the meaning of the growing social independence of those living in cultures under biblical influence, modernity made precisely one of those mistakes. The modern world's mistake was the myth of autonomous individuality.

So pervasive did this notion of selfhood become, that it is now the air we breathe. The Cartesian self -- the psychological entity standing alone and surveying the world with its narrowly rational and crudely empirical epistemology -- has been until recently the unquestioned assumption of our world. Few stopped to notice not only that this notion of selfhood was preposterous, but that there was absolutely no biblical warrant for believing in its validity. Selfhood as the biblical tradition understands it is radically dependent. The social independence the biblical self enjoys is directly related to the degree of that self's dependence on the biblical God. That personhood is radically different from the snatching at distinction and self-reliance that passes for modern "personality." Citing a passage from the Gospel of John, Hans Urs von Balthasar remarks on how radically different Christ's being was:

"It is the will of him who sent me, not my own will, that I have come down from heaven to do." ... The meaning of the Incarnation, of Jesus' manhood, is first borne in upon us as a notdoing, a not-fulfilling, a not-carrying-out of his own will.... [A]lways he is what he is on the basis of "not my own will," "not my own honor." (7:18)... If in him "having" were for one moment to cease to be "receiving", to become a radically independent disposal of himself, he would in that moment cease to be the Father's Son... It is indeed this receiving of himself which gives him his "I," his own inner dimension, his spontaneity, that sonship with which he can answer the Father in a reciprocal giving. (A Theology 29-30)
Few have summed up this situation better than Johannes Baptist Metz did when he wrote this of Jesus:
Did not Jesus live in continual dependence on Someone else? Was not his very existence hidden in the mysterious will of the Father? Was he not so thoroughly poor that he had to go begging for his very personality from the transcendent utterance of the Father? (27)
Jesus may have been in a category of one -- the only Son -- but he was also the first-born of a new humanity, by identification with whom others can become "adopted" children of the God who was Jesus' source of being. Precisely as the one who was "one in being with the Father" -- homo-ousios -- Jesus is, in the words of William M. Thompson, "the source of human personhood, a plenitude of personhood" (136).

Though Jean-Luc Marion himself does not deploy it for this purpose, his reading of the prodigal son story in the Gospel of Luke not only stands on its own as a masterful analysis of the ontological ramifications of biblical faith, but it makes it possible to recognize in this famous parable an analogue for the experiment in self-sufficiency which the Enlightenment and Romantic self confidently inaugurated, and which postmodernists are now just as confidently deconstructing. In quoting portions of the prodigal son parable, it is perhaps worth noting that as rich in narrative interest as the story is, and as poignantly as it portrays human relationships, its parabolic -- or, if you will, theological -- purpose is to put into the narrative of human affairs the mysterious relationship between the biblical God, whom Jesus refers to as his Heavenly Father, and those dependent upon God, some of whom decide to "go it alone." The parable begins:

Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living."
Marion begins his exploration of the ontological ramification of this familiar text with the Greek words translated here as "property," and "squandered." The Greek for "squandered" is diaskorpizo, meaning to "cut asunder," the root of which, intriguingly, is skorpizo, meaning to scatter. The Greek word here translated as "property" is ousia, a term which Marion describes as "the philosophical term par excellence." Ousia is derived from the past participial form of eimi, the verb to be (Vine 1100). The Latin vulgate translated this word as substantia, or substance, a synonym for "being." The issue at stake here has been cogently captured in what Henri de Lubac has referred to as the diminishing of "ontological density" in the modern world, a remark echoed by Gabriel Marcel when he lamented the loss of "ontological moorings."

The younger son in the parable has demanded his share of his inheritance, his ousia. The customs and laws of the time gave heirs some control over wealth which they were later to inherit. Such an heir might use his inheritance but not dispose of it; his exclusive right remained encumbered by family obligations during the lifetime of his father. The son, an heir, already had the use of his inheritance, his ousia. What he is demanding is unfettered, sovereign, autonomous control. Writes Marion:

The son requests that he no longer have to request, or rather, that he no longer have to ... receive the ousia as a gift. He asks to possess it, dispose of it, enjoy it without passing through the gift and the reception of the gift. The son wants to owe nothing to his father, and above all not to owe him a gift; he asks to have a father no longer -- the ousia without the father or the gift. (97)
The son soon exhausts his ousia, an eventuality that coincides with a famine, which Marion notes, "symbolically marks this dispersed dissipation -- dispersed in a great 'region,' or rather khora, an empty and undetermined space, where meaning, even more than food, has disappeared" (98).

Reduced to groveling for sustenance and envying the swine he is hired to feed, he decides to return to his father's house and repent of his ways. Determined on this course, he rehearses the penitential words with which he will plead to be readmitted to his father's house, not as a son, but as a lowly hired servant:

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
The father's astonishing disregard for his important patriarchal social status would have been more obvious to Jesus' listeners than it is to us. All that these listeners could have expected, even from a loving and merciful father figure of the time, would have been a man who might wait with strained patience, holding his offended anger and admonitions in check until he has heard his son's apology. Here, however, the father forgets entirely his social status and makes a fool of himself running -- sandals flying off, robes disheveled and losing in the world's eyes all "gravitas" -- before having any indication of the son's remorse. The father's indifference toward his own "ousia" -- his socially superior being -- resonates with Marion's idea of a "God without Being," and the son in the parable is as unprepared for the father's abdication of his social prerogative and status as were Jesus' listeners. Having carefully prepared a speech rehearsed in an earlier verse of the parable, the son begins delivering it, only to be interrupted by his father, whose joy over his son's return sweeps away his son's stiff attempts to mollify his father's righteous anger. Jesus' listeners' incomprehension would have been more or less that of the prodigal son's elder brother, who complains that his faithfulness and long-suffering have never been so rewarded. One of Marion's most impressive contributions to the ontological implications of this parable comes from his interpretation of the father's response to the elder brother: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." For which Marion offers the following reflection:
The father does not see the ousia as the sons see it... Or rather, the father does not see theousia, and indeed the term appears only in the speech of the sons... [For the father], goods, common by definition and circulation, are presented as the indifferent stakes of those who, through them, give themselves to each other, in a circulation that is more essential than what it exchanges. The ousia is valuable to him only as the currency in an exchange of which it can mark, at the very best, but a moment, an exchange whose solemnity of infinite generosity most often is masked by the title of property. (99-100)
Marion refers to the ontological exchange for which the "title of property" is the obscuring misconception. The real property claims to which Marion's rendition of the prodigal son story refers, however, is the property rights asserted with respect to selfhood itself, and it is the son's ontological "substance" (ousia) that is dissipated by his attempt to have it rather than receive it as a gift. As Marion points out:
If the son dissipates his goods in a life of dissipation (Luke 15:13, dieskorpisen), the reason is not the sudden immorality of an heir seized by debauchery. The reason for the dissipation of ousia is found in a first and fundamental dissipation: the ... abandonment of the paternal gift as place, meaning, and legitimacy of the enjoyment of the ousia. (98)
The prodigal son abandoned his ousia as gift in favor of an arbitrary and autonomous right to dispose of it as he chose, on his own terms. (1) The historical analogue for this "cashing out" of one's ousia is the claim of individual autonomy, the vanishing plausibility of which is the defining psychological fact of our time. In words relevant to the contemporary psychological crisis as they are of the prodigal son story, Marion notes:
Possession without gift, possession of that for which no on-going gratitude is due to its benefactor, such possession is doomed to "dissipation," to a gradual diminishing of its significance. All the more so is this the case when that which is so possessed in this way, shorn of its givenness, is one's very self. (100)
As I said, the ontological innuendo Marion brings out is a facet of the important Lucan theme of gathering and scattering -- "Whoever does not gather with me scatters" -- and the prodigal son's dissipation (di-skorpizo) suggests a more profound and ontologically significant form of the social scattering (skorpizo) whose onset coincides in Luke's Gospel with the death of Jesus on the cross.

The dissipation of which the Lucan parable speaks -- what de Lubac referred to as the diminution of "ontological density" -- is not, therefore, an inherent, natural, or inevitable phenomenon. Rather it is related, says Paul, to one's knowledge of the biblical God -- whether that knowledge be the heavily occluded knowledge of which the pagans were capable, the demanding covenantal privileges which Jewish worshipers enjoyed, or the knowledge of God rooted in the revelation of the cross. For Paul, of course, this latter form of knowledge is the culmination of a revelatory history in terms of which, in widely varying degrees, Paul is able to understand both pagan and Jewish religious traditions. Paul's experience confirms, and his exhortations emphasize, what is implicit throughout the biblical literature, namely, that knowledge of God -- in proportion to the power of the revelation on which that knowledge is based -- has a relativizing and destabilizing effect on the socially constructed self, the self whose constituting other is the social unit brought into being by the generative scapegoating event and/or the cult idol born of that event.

On the other hand, of course, in the biblical world one's knowledge of God cannot be conceived in simple objective terms. For Christ and Paul, the prophets and psalmists, the God who is known is first and foremost the God who knows:

O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways. (Psalm 139:1-3)
Being known by God is the true source of biblical subjectivity, the true ground of one's being. Since autonomy is a comforting fiction whose plausibility is vanishing, and since, in Sebastian Moore's words, sin is "seeing my life through other people's eyes," this "walking in the sight of the Lord" -- subjectivity rooted in prayer -- must no longer be dismissed as less realistic than its prevalent secular alternatives.

"Whoever does not gather with me will be scattered," says the Lucan Jesus, in a trope with strong echoes in the social scene which in Luke's Gospel accompanies the crucifixion, when "the crowds gathered for the spectacle . . went home beating their breasts." And so there is a biblical leitmotif suggesting that the revelation of the Cross has the same ambiguous effect at the subjective level that it has at the cultural level. The two are obviously inseparable, but the former has been given far less attention than the latter, and in light of the crisis of mimetic contagion that surrounds us, and the epidemic of psychological insubstantiality that it is producing, more attention needs to be paid to it.

As we know all too well, relying on the sacrificial system after the Gospel has begun to undermine its cultural efficacy is fraught with dangers. There are analogous dangers in clinging either to forms of selfhood that are rooted in the sacrificial system or to the myth of "autonomous selfhood," a myth made plausible by the relative social independence fostered by the biblical tradition. For, as noted above, in First Corinthians Paul asserts that the wisdom of God "distracts," according to Marion, "as a magnet distracts a compass, in depriving it of all reference to a fixed pole" (90). Marion amplifies on this text in a way that brings its contemporary psychological ramifications better into focus:

To be distracted: to become mad or to have a screw loose, to become loose as an idle wheel or a pulley becomes loose, having lost one's grip on reality, free from all actual hold on the axle: mad, unhinged, hence out of true. (90-91)
One of the benefits of Marion's ontological analysis of the prodigal son story is that it makes it possible for us to recognize how the story anticipates and telescopes the historical phenomena that practically define modernity and postmodernity respectively: the assertion of autonomous individuality and then its psychological "dissipation," historical developments which it is now incumbent upon us to better understand. For, perhaps even more than the violence and social disintegration with which we must now grapple, the waning of "ontological density" of which Henri de Lubac warned may ultimately constitute our most serious long-term crisis, the breeding ground for most of the others.

Obviously, the myth of autonomous individuality was a product of what we call "Western" culture -- the latter being simple shorthand for that cultural consortium which has fallen most profoundly, and over the longest span of history, under the influence of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, and the former being a misreading of the relative social autonomy this influence made possible.

Somewhat arbitrary though it might seem, I suppose the obvious place to begin thinking about the way the prodigal son story has worked itself out in history is with Jean Jacques Rousseau, the figure who, more than any other, personified the autonomous self and gave the Western world its most romantic and compelling example of such a self demanding its psychological and social sovereignty. More arbitrarily still, one might begin with a comment from Rousseau's Confessions in which Rousseau undercuts his whole project in two sentences that express the mimetic dynamic in perhaps the most succinct and cogent way it has ever been expressed. Speaking of his childhood and youth, Rousseau writes:

My desires were so rarely excited and so rarely thwarted, that it never came into my head to have any. I could swear indeed that until I was put under a master I did not so much as know what it was to want my own way. (22)
If we regard Rousseau for the moment as the father of modern Western "individuality," and if the above quoted remark can be seen as the onset of Rousseau's colorful career as Europe's most famous individual, then what that remark allows us to notice is that modern individuality surfaces at exactly the moment when the mimetic crisis in the midst of which we now live was producing its first clear symptoms, and it emerges first in those who suffered most from these symptoms. The undeclared "other" in the background of Rousseau's individuality was anyone who excites or thwarts his desire, but especially anyone to whom deference might be due -- anyone who might occupy in some attenuated way the place the father occupies in the prodigal son story. In other words, the true dynamic underlying the individualist posturing that Rousseau so singularly mastered was resentment, for which the socially attractive guise was autonomous self-sufficiency. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the man most responsible for franchising Rousseau's self-absorption in America, bristled, as did Rousseau, at the influence of others, especially any others to whom it seemed necessary to subordinate oneself. As Emerson told the Harvard Divinity students in the summer of 1838: "Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul." The masterminds of the individualist revolution, therefore, were those in whose lives the mimetic crisis was already having its distracting, dissipating, and destabilizing effects.

Emerson was reiterating the defining cliche of the modern world. Uttering this shibboleth in one of its myriad forms rapidly became the prerequisite for intellectual respectability, but its sing-song reiteration hardly qualifies as evidence of its plausibility. Moreover, it is the historical analogue of the prodigal son's demand to have sovereign control over his ousia, "to owe nothing to his father, and above all not to owe him a gift," and above all not if the gift were that of his very self.

Marion's reading of the prodigal son story brings its ontological and psychological implications into focus. I now want to sharpen that focus, or rather to put the psychological distress involved into high relief so that the more subtle forms of this distress might be more readily recognized. The characters in Virginia Woolf s strange and haunting novel The Waves exemplify today's psychological and ontological crisis as perceptively and alarmingly as one might wish. A few passages from the novel will serve to show what de Lubac's diminution of "ontological density" and Gabriel Marcel's loss of "ontological moorings" looks like in the flesh.

To begin at the beginning -- where Rousseau and Emerson begin -- with resentment at those toward whom deference seems due, there is a particularly telling scene that takes place in the chapel at a boys boarding school where the male characters in Woolf's novel are students. At chapel, the school's headmaster functions as chaplain. During one particular service, one of the boys, Neville, seated before the headmaster robed for his religious duties, begins to feel what Rousseau must have felt when he wrote that "until I was put under a master I did not so much as know what it was to want my own way."

"The brute menaces my liberty," said Neville, "when he prays. Unwarmed by imagination, his words fall cold on my head like paving-stones, while the gilt cross heaves on his waistcoat. The words of authority are corrupted by those who speak them. I gibe and mock at this sad religion." (25)
It is true, of course, that the words of authority are usually corrupted by those who speak them, but mocking all authority is hardly an intelligent way to rectify this lamentable, if inevitable, fact. Virginia Woolf's eye for the problematic at hand is keen indeed, for it was the headmaster's "sad religion" which was the flash point for Neville's assertion of autonomy. However Neville might have chaffed at the authority of the headmaster as headmaster, it was as Christian chaplain and in the Christian chapel that the idea of deference toward him became unacceptable. It is no coincidence. The resentment in the background of modern individualism, like the resentment in the background of post-modem multi-culturalism, is most intense when directed toward the revelation that made each these projects both initially plausible and ultimately unsustainable.

Neville renounces the mediation of the Christian tradition and the admittedly clay vessels from which its wine is often poured, invoking by implication his autonomy and individuality. Virginia Woolf was too careful an observer of mimetic effects, whose ravages she suffered intensely, to let her readers be taken in by the empty romantic slogans espoused by her characters. No sooner does Neville declare his independence than he seeks out the mimetic inspiration of someone in his immediate social environment, trading, in Girardian terms, an external for an internal mediator, bartering his religious birthright for an over-spiced bowl of social stew.

"Now I will lean sideways as if to scratch my thigh. So I shall see Percival. There he sits, upright among the smaller fry. He breathes through his straight nose rather heavily. His blue, and oddly inexpressive eyes, are fixed with pagan indifference upon the pillar opposite... He sees nothing; he hears nothing. He is remote from us all in a pagan universe. But look -- he flicks his hands to the back of his neck. For such gestures one falls hopelessly in love for a lifetime. Dalton, Jones, Edgar and Bateman flick their hands to the back of their necks likewise. But they do not succeed." (25)
Neville proudly emancipates himself from the mimetic suggestion of the chaplain only to fall unawares under the mimetic spell of a fellow student, whom he envies, as do his classmates, for his astonishing ability to remain immune to mimetic suggestion! What the characters in Virginia Woolf's, novel allow us to see is how Western culture's prodigal individualism no sooner demands its ousia than it begins squandering it, diminishing all the while its ontological density.

The other characters in Virginia Woolf s novel are caught up in the same mimetic crisis, and each is slowly exhausting his or her "ontological density" as a result. One of the characters, Bernard, says:

"I changed and changed; was Hamlet, was Shelley, was the hero, whose name I now forget, of a novel by Dostoevsky; was for a whole term, incredibly, Napoleon; but was Byron chiefly. For many weeks at a time it was my part to stride into rooms and fling gloves and coat on the back of chairs, scowling slightly." (192)
At least Bernard can still believe in his model. His desire survives. Rhoda, another Woolf character, whose mimetic crisis has entered a later and more desperate stage, has no model, no desire, and no real subjectivity:
"I have no end in view.... you have an end in view -- one person, is it, to sit beside, an idea is it, your beauty is it?... But there is no single scent, no single body for me to follow. And I have no face." (97-98)
In her desperation, Rhoda expresses a need for a mimetic model for which the myth of autonomous individuality has never accounted. The example of Rousseau and Emerson show that this failure is far from merely incidental to the romantic self. On the contrary, the romantic self is born of the attempt to disclaim the need for such models. Given the forms of mediation that came to dominate the modern world, such disclaimers are understandable, but the disclaimers only became possible (and necessary) once the mimetic facts they were disclaiming became palpable enough to require explicit repudiation.

In 1942 W. H. Auden taught a course at Swarthmore College entitled: "From Rousseau to Hitler," a title that surely must have seemed far fetched to many: Might not a parallel course be taught today entitled: "From Rousseau to the Underground Man"? For Dostoevsky's underground man is the literary summation of the resentful, self-loathing and nihilistic psycho-pathologies into which the romantic self drifts as it exhausts what de Lubac calls its ontological density. Today, symptoms -- both mild and extreme -- of this psychological withering are readily at hand. For purposes of illustration, I chose one, virtually at random: that of the American poet Sylvia Plath. It might at first seem that Plath's suffering, her desperation, and her eventual suicide represent something entirely too pathological and idiosyncratic to be of general interest, but think, if you will, of Andy Warhohl's famous quip about the modem world moving toward a situation in which everyone would get his or her 15 minutes of fame. That statement is obviously absurd, but it captures something essential about the psycho-social pathology of modern life. Analogously, Sylvia Plath's suffering, as extreme and ultimately tragic as it was, vividly exemplifies a much more widespread experience -- the experience, in fact, that made it necessary a hundred years ago to invent modern psychology, and which today is making it necessary to call its core premises into question.

Once his psychological substance was dissipated, the prodigal son fell into despair, envying the swine he had been hired to feed. As a spectacular but nevertheless paradigmatic example of what the prodigal son's dissipation of his ousia looks like in the context of today's breakdown of psychological coherence, we have Sylvia Plath's dwindling sense of subjective coherence, of which she writes in her journal:

I am afraid. I am not solid, but hollow. I feel behind my eyes a numb, paralyzed cavern, a pit of hell, a mimicking nothingness.... I do not know who I am, where I am going... (59-60)
Whether using the divine name as a convenient expletive or is murmuring in her desperation a crude and unconscious prayer for deliverance, Plath writes in her journal: "God, where is the integrating force going to come from?" (61) But as Virginia Woolf's fictional character Bernard, at an earlier stage in the diminution of ontological density, rushed to the bookcase for mediation of Shelley or Byron, in her more desperate need, Sylvia Plath turned to Bernard's creator. "Virginia Woolf helps," she writes. "Her novels make mine possible" (168). Plath's relief at having a literary model, however, is tempered by the thought of the model's fateful demise. "Why did Virginia Woolf commit suicide?" she wonders (61). Be that as it may, Plath writes:
I felt mystically that if I read Woolf, read Lawrence (these two, why? their vision, so different, is so like mine) I can be itched and kindled to a great work... I cannot and must not copy either. (196, 199)
Here is the mimetic double-bind, the twin imperative: imitate and be unique and "authentic." This is a tension resolved in Christian spirituality (and where else?) by the Imitatio Christi, the imitation of One whose sole imitable desire is to imitate the kenotic self-giving of the One who sent him. In order to carry on the charade of self-sufficiency, the autonomous individual must submit to a rigorous discipline, an almost Buddha-like monitoring of his or her desire, lest tale-tale signs of imitation belie the whole effort. In truth, the desire to imitate may be the only desire properly speaking that isn't imitative; it is the affective sine qua non of human existence, the ultimate truth about a creature whose bedrock reality, to speak again in the biblical idiom, is having been made in the image and likeness of another. Once this desire has no truly transcendent referent, it will inevitably make idols of those whose social prestige it initially reinforces and eventually resents. As the fact of the idol's lack of true transcendence emerges, and the idol worshipers's (false) ontological moorings crumble, the erstwhile idolater must try to fashion some form of pseudo-transcendence out of whatever is at hand. Plath writes in her journal:
There is nowhere to go -- not home, where I would blubber and cry, a grotesque fool, into my mother's skirts -- not to men, where I want more than ever now their stern, final, paternal directive -- not to church, which is liberal, free -- no, I turn wearily to the totalitarian dictatorship where I am absolved of all personal responsibility and can sacrifice myself in a "splurge of altruism" on the altar of the Cause with a capital "C." (59-60)
Pedro Morandé has observed: "the longing for unconditional self-giving, which constitutes the deepest vocation of the human heart, cannot be rooted out" (152). If that is true, then the only question is: how will this longing be expressed by those made desperate by a withering of their ontological substance? Such a one was Sylvia Plath. "Potential mystics, or mystics in the primitive state," said Henri de Lubac, "are scattered in the world. These, above all, are the ones who must be reached" (cited by von Balthasar 1991, 101). Surely, the Sylvia Plath who wrote these lines can be considered a potential mystic. Our world is full of them.

Jean-Luc Marion analyzes this problem in a way parallel to Girard's early distinction between internal and external mediation: he speaks of the difference between the idol and the icon, and their respective ontological effects. As Marion helps us realize, the secular, rationalistic contempt for and suspicion of idolatry is a weak and attenuated version of a much more robust and subtle biblical assault on idolatry. The problem is that the modern secular forms of anti-idolatry have as their only alternative the self-possessed self -- on whose ontological reliability Enlightenment rationalists depended, about whose prodigious imaginative powers the romantics waxed poetic, and whose implausibility the postmodern deconstructionists have had a field day exposing. With no acceptable escape from the harsh glare of its own caustic critique, the modern aversion to idolatry remains fundamentally resentful; it draws its critical energy and sense of moral rectitude from the very idols against which it rebels.

In sharp contrast, Christian faith is both vigorously opposed to idolatry and mediated by the what Marion calls the "icon par excellence," namely, Christ, the icon of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). Oblivious of the difference between the idol and the icon, and of the human inability to live without one or the other, the skeptical and irreligious forms of anti-idolatry that dominate post-modern thought can only engage in endless spiral of deconstruction, one that enslaves those it liberates and is accompanied by the dissipation of ontological density (ousia) and evolving toward nihilism. Of today's skeptical anti-idolatry, Marion writes:

The radicality of the detestation of idols puts into question the possibility of an icon... Each idol that collapses marks the necessity of an icon, but also the impossibility of ever seeing it... (114)
The detesting (resentful) glare of the iconoclast is spiritually omnivorous, but the more successful it is in toppling the idols before which it once prostrated itself, the more scandalized it becomes and the more iconophobic. The iconoclast's monocular vision -- the Cyclops of postmodern deconstruction -- grows impervious to the iconic gaze of the Other, "the gaze that envisages me" as Marion puts it, the gaze which, speaking biblically, is the source of ontogenesis, the ground of being. The modern skeptic's scandalized gaze, says Marion, "is blinded by its very lucidity" (115).

"There is nowhere to go," wrote Sylvia Plath. Her recourse to a "Cause with a capital 'C'" was what the age of ideologies -- which is now ending -- was all about. Post-modern perspectivism and deconstruction is the last gasp of that dying age. Having no transcendent referent, and bristling with resentment toward the non-transcendent models under whose spell it so haphazardly falls, the modern self had no recourse except to idolize its own individuality and self-possession. Before long, however, the contempt for idols overtakes this latest and last of them. Marion writes:

Thus the alternative no longer consists in deciding between an external idol and self-idolatry, but between the icon par excellence and self-hate. (113)
Here is where the prodigal son story in Luke begins to resonate so powerfully with the vine and branches discourse in the Gospel of John, and where each takes on its greatest contemporary relevance. Read against the backdrop of our present discussion, the discourse can be seen to anticipate the "withering" destined to occur to those whose exposure to the gospel has cut them off from conventional culture's ontological assurances, but who have followed the prodigal path trail-blazed by Rousseau, Emerson and others whom Leo Braudy called the "warlocks of individualism."

In the vine and branches discourse, Jesus tells his closest disciples that he is the vine and his Father the vine grower. His heavenly Father, the vine dresser, cuts away the branches that do not bear fruit and prunes those that do. In both cases, the Father's act negates the status quo. The discourse has apocalyptic ramifications, but not in the ordinary crude sense. Jesus tells his disciples that they have already been pruned by having been exposed to the Gospel's living word. Pruned as such, they have already forfeited their "natural" (cultural) form of existence, to which a complete and safe return is now impossible. At which he says:

I am the vine,
you are the branches.
Whoever remains in me, with me in him,
bears fruit in plenty;
for cut off from me you can do nothing.
Anyone who does not remain in me
is like a branch that has been thrown away -- he withers;
these branches are collected and thrown on the fire,
and they are burned. (John 15:6-7)
There are two initial points about this passage that must be made. The first is that the discourse is being spoken to Jesus' closest disciples, and its apocalyptic implications are directly and explicitly related to the prior "conversion" -- albeit an inchoate one -- which Jesus' listeners have already undergone. The dire consequence to which the discourse refers will befall those who do not remain in Christ, as branches already severed from their original source of sustenance wither and die if separated from the vine on which they have been grafted. To speak in contemporary psychological and ontological terms, it is those who have responded to the call of Christ who are in a precarious situation, risking nothingness ("cut off from me you can do nothing") should they "go it alone." They cut themselves off from an ontological mooring so subtle and mysterious that its indispensability might easily go recognized.

Given the specificity of these verses, however, their relevance should not be thought strictly limited to professing Christians. For the problematic to which the vine and branches discourse ultimately refers is one which, mutatis mutandis, confronts everyone living in cultures destabilized by the revelation of the cross. Whether the "vine" is Christ, in identification with whom a Christian conversion strictly speaking takes place, or, in a more general, generic and secular sense, it is the victim-as-such, in either case, its repudiation is both historically and ontologically perilous. The gospel text refers to this peril in a particularly powerful way, one whose contemporary ramifications are not far to seek.

Anyone who does not remain in me
is like a branch that has been thrown away -- he withers;
these branches are collected and thrown on the fire,
and they are burned. (John 15:7)
To read this verse as referring to the wrath of a condemning God is to miss its immense anthropological, ontological and historical implications. There are, it seems to me, two major historical facts -- precisely the two facts that define our moment in history -- on which this verse sheds its astonishing light. The first is the withering of the form of subjectivity which, like the supernova phenomenon that accompanies the dying of a star, glowed so luminously for the Enlightenment rationalists and Romantic individualists. "It looks as if the self," writes Robert Solomon, "which had been raised to transcendental then cosmic status has now disintegrated into nothingness" (128). Here, of course, is an echo of de Lubac's concern for the diminishing of "ontological density" in the modern world. Of course, both of these references can be understood as addenda to the Gospel metaphor of the withering of those branches which, once cut off from their original source, can do (or be) nothing if they get separated from the vine/victim/Christ on which they were grafted.

The second and related historical phenomenon that so characterizes our age is the rise of collective violence -- accompanied by mythic justifications of the most primitive kinds -- whose sudden and unexpected recrudescence is forcing even its most determined champions to recognize the Enlightenment's moral and religious bankruptcy. Here, the relevant phrase from the vine and branches discourse is that, having been severed from their natural (cultural) sustenance, the withered branches are eventually collected and thrown on the fire. The relationship between the withering -- or, if you will, the diminishing of ontological density -- and the violent conflagrations that have characterized our age is one to which we may only now be awakening, but one which this text written at the end of the first century perceives with uncanny, if parabolic, clarity. Early in this century, William Butler Yeats was able to give expression to these two historical phenomena with these lines from "The Second Coming":

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
What Yeats was less able to see was that what he here terms conviction is rooted in a community's unambiguous certainty regarding the moral wretchedness of its designated convict. What he did see was that the "best" no longer enjoyed the moral luxury of that conviction, while the "worst" still did. Yeats' mistake -- the misrecognition that lends postmodern deconstruction its moral plausibility -- is that he thought of the two categories as political and moral opposites. With the help of the vine and branches discourse and Girard's mimetic theory, however, we are able to see the mutually intensifying relationship -- at both the social and psychological level -- between the lack of conviction and passionate intensity. The vine and branches discourse provides us with the parabolic lens for bringing into focus the linkage between both these phenomena, and for recognizing how each is a repercussion -- at the social and psychological level respectively -- of the "scattering" whose historical epicenter is the crucifixion.

We have unwittingly squandered our ontological substance by claiming for ourselves sovereign control over it and the unimpeded right to "spend" our lives as we choose. The secretly resentful determination to "go it alone," to "do it my way," is a recipe for squandering the gift of being, whose sole demand is our gratitude for it and our willingness to replicate the divine act of self-giving which constitutes the "deepest vocation of the human heart." As the ontologizing power of the old sacred system wanes, and as the autonomous individuality with which the modem world has tended to replace it succumbs to the mimetic hyper stimulation of contemporary life, the Johannine metaphor of the withering branches grows more pertinent. Likewise, the Lucan parable of the prodigal son. The Bible, as Andrew McKenna put it, knows us better than we know ourselves (201). We are the withering branches, the prodigal ones. If we make the homeward journey as the prodigal son did, we might find ourselves one day muttering words of prayerful gratitude such as those spoken by François Fénélon. Of God, Fénélon writes:

There is nothing in me that preceded all his gifts and that could have served as a vessel to receive them. The first of his gifts, the basis of all the others, is that which I call my own "I": God has given me this "I"; I owe him not merely everything I have but also everything I am.... Everything is a gift, and he who receives the gifts is himself first of all a gift received. (cited by von Balthasar 1986, 152)


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McKenna, Andrew. 1992. Violence and Difference: Girard, Derrida and Deconstruction. Springflied, IL: Illinois UP.

Metz, Johnannes Baptist Metz. 1968. Poverty of Spirit. Trans. by John Drury. Paramus, N.J.: Newman Press.

Morandé, Pedro. I996. "The Relevance of the Message of Gaudium et Spes Today: The Church's Mission in the midst of Epochal Changes and New challenges." Communio XXIII, I (Spring).

Plath, Sylvia. 1991. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. New York: Ballantine Books.

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Thompson, William. 1996. The Struggle for Theology's Soul. New York: Crossroad.

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_______. 1991. The Theology of Henri de Lubac. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

_______. 1994. A Theology of History. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

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1. Marion's reading of the prodigal son story is a vivid and poignant reminder that the contemporary world's shift from traditional (religious) structures to the fluid market economy (in political, intellectual, and moral affairs as well as in economic life), and the attendant commodification of desire, involves an inevitable spiritual dissipation whose wider and cumulative consequences are likely to be an analogue to the prodigal son's "famished craving." The spiritual and cultural consequences of this dissipation will in all likelihood, and in due course, far outweigh the real, but modest, benefits of a "market" that constantly deflects desire and defers the violence to which it would otherwise lead.