Excerpt from René Girard's Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Research undertaken in collaboration with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987, pages 215-223.

The Divinity of Christ

R. G.: The Gospels tell us that to escape violence it is necessary to love one's brother completely -- to abandon the violent mimesis involved in the relationship of doubles. There is no trace of it in the Father, and all that the Father asks is that we refrain from it likewise.

That is indeed why the Son promises men that if they manage to behave as the Father wishes, and to do his will, they will all become sons of God. It is not God who sets up the barriers between himself and mankind, but mankind itself.
 

G. L.: Does not that amount to eliminating any barrier between God and humanity -- which would be the same as making humans godlike, in the same way as Feuerbach and the nineteenth-century humanists did?
 

R. G.: To hold that view you have to believe that love, in the Christian sense of the term -- Nygren's agape (1) -- is like common sense for Descartes: the thing that is, of all others, most common among human beings. In effect, love of this kind has been lived to its end only by Jesus himself. On this earth, therefore, only the Christ has ever succeeded in equalling God in the perfection of his love. Theologians do not take note of the founding murder and the way in which everyone is trapped by violence, in complicity with violence; that is why they are fearful of compromising divine transcendence by taking the words of the gospels at face value. They have no need to worry. Nothing in these words risks making the divine too accessible to humankind.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:25-28).
The two commandments are like one another because love makes no distinctions between beings. Jesus himself says this. And we can repeat it after him with no fear of 'humanizing' the Christian text overmuch. If the Son of Man and the Son of God are one and the same, it is because Jesus is the only person to achieve humanity in its perfect form, and so to be one with the deity.

The gospel text, especially John but also to a certain extent the synoptic Gospels, establish beyond any doubt the fact that Jesus is both God and Man. The theology of the Incarnation is not just a fantastic and irrelevant invention of the theologians; it adheres rigorously to the logic implicit in the text. But it only succeeds in becoming intelligible if we read the text in non-sacrificial rather than sacrificial terms. This is, in effect, the only time that this notion of a fullness of humanity that is also a fullness of divinity makes sense in a context that is as 'humanist' as it is 'religious'. If Jesus is the only one who can fully reveal the way in which the founding murder has broadened its hold upon mankind, this is because at no point did it take hold upon him. Jesus explains to us mankind's true vocation, which is to throw off the hold of the founding murder.

The non-sacrificial reading allows us to understand that the Son alone is united with the Father in the fullness of humanity and divinity. But it does not imply that this union is an exclusive one, or prevent us from envisaging the possibility of mankind becoming like God through the Son's mediation. Indeed, this process could only take place through him, since he is the only Mediator, the one bridge between the Kingdom of violence and the Kingdom of God. By remaining absolutely faithful to God's Word, in a world that had not received the Word, he succeeded in transmitting it all the same. He has managed to inscribe in the gospel text the reception that mankind in its slavery to violence was obliged to offer him -- a reception that amounted to driving him out. If we go beyond this point, we would become involved in questions of faith and grace, which our anthropological perspective is not competent to address.

The non-sacrificial reading is not to be equated with a humanist reading, in the ordinary sense, one which would try to cut the distinctively religious aspects out of the gospel text. Although it brings to light the powerful demystificatory aspect of the Gospels, it has no difficulty in drawing attention to the religious aspects as well and in demonstrating their crucial importance, just as it draws attention to the great canonical statements about Jesus' divinity and his union with the Father.

Far from eliminating divine transcendence, the non-sacrificial reading shows it to be so far from us, in its very closeness, that we did not even suspect it to be there. Invariably, it has been concealed and covered up by transcendent violence -- by all the powers and principalities that we have stupidly identified with it, to some extent at least. To rid ourselves of this confusion, to detect transcendent love -- which remains invisible beyond the transcendent violence that stands between -- we have to accept the idea that human violence is a deceptive worldview and recognize how the forms of misunderstanding that arise from it operate.

This differentiation between the two forms of transcendence appears negligible and absurd from the point of view of the violent mentality that possesses us -- a mentality concerned with detecting the structural similarities between the gospel enactment and the basic workings of all other religions: workings that we have ourselves been concerned to expose. These analogies are real ones, just as are analogies between the evil reciprocity of violence and the benevolent reciprocity of love. Since both surpass all cultural differences, the two structures, paradoxically, amount to very much the same thing, which is why it is possible to pass from one to the other by means of an almost instantaneous conversion. But at the same time, there is also a radical, an abysmal opposition between them, something that no form of structural analysis can detect: we see in a mirror, darkly, in aenigmate.
 

J.-M. O.: Precisely because the revelation of violence has always been greeted with incomprehension, it becomes easier to understand why the Christian text puts before us someone who triumphs over violence by not resisting it, and as the direct emissary of the God of nonviolence, shows his message emanating directly from him.

Within the human community, which is the prisoner of unanimous violence and of mythical meanings, there is no opportunity for this truth to be entertained, let alone to carry the day.

People are most open to the truth at the stage when false differences melt away, but this is also the point when they are most in the dark, since it is the point at which violence becomes even more intense. Whenever violence starts to reveal itself as the basis of the community, it is accompanied by the manifestations one might expect at an acutely violent crisis, when mankind lacks the least vestige of lucidity. It almost seems as if violence is always able to conceal the truth about itself, whether by causing the mechanism of transference to operate and re-establish the regime of the sacred, or by pushing destruction as far as it will go.

Either you are violently opposed to violence and inevitably play its game, or you are not opposed to it, and it shuts your mouth immediately. In other words, the regime of violence cannot possibly be brought out into the open. Since the truth about violence will not abide in the community, but must inevitably be driven out, its only chance of being heard is when it is in the process of being driven out, in the brief moment that precedes its destruction as the victim. The victim therefore has to reach out at the very moment when his mouth is being shut by violence. He has to say enough for the violence to be incited against him. But this must not take place in the dark, hallucinatory atmosphere that characterizes other religions and produces the intellectual confusion that helps conceal their founding mechanism. There must be witnesses who are clear-sighted enough to recount the event as it really happened, altering its significance as little as possible.

For this to happen, the witnesses must already have been influenced by this extraordinary person. They themselves will not escape the hold of the collective violence; but it will be temporary. Afterwards, they will recover and write down in a form that is not transfigured the event that is primarily a transfiguration.

This unprecedented task of revealing the truth about violence requires a man who is not obliged to violence for anything and does not think in terms of violence -- someone who is capable of talking back to violence while remaining entirely untouched by it.

It is impossible for such a human being to arise in a world completely ruled by violence and the myths based on violence. In order to understand that you cannot see and make visible the truth except by taking the place of the victim, you must already be occupying that place; yet to take that place, you must already be occupying that place; yet to take that place, you must already be in possession of the truth. You cannot become aware of the truth unless you act in opposition to the laws of violence, and you cannot act in opposition to these laws unless you already grasp the truth. All mankind is caught within this vicious circle. For this reason the Gospels and the whole New Testament, together with the theologians of the first councils, proclaim that Christ is God not because he was crucified, but because he is God born of God from all eternity.
 

J.-M. O.: To sum up: the proclamation of Christ's divinity, in the sense of non-violence and love, is not in any way a sudden disconnection or a break in the logic of the texts that we are elucidating. In fact, it forms the only possible conclusion to this logic.
 

R. G.: The authentic knowledge about violence and all its works to be found in the Gospels cannot be the result of human action alone. Our own inability to grasp knowledge that has been waiting there for two millennia confirms theological intuitions that are no less certain for being incapable of setting out explicitly their foundations in reason. These rational foundations can only become intelligible if we proceed beyond the sacrificial version of Christianity, and are guided by the non-sacrificial reading which can emerge when the other one has fallen away.
 

G. L.: So theology is not being hyperbolic when it proclaims the divinity of Jesus. The belief is not just an excessive piece of praise, the product of a kind of rhetorical overkill. It is the only fit response to an inescapable constraint.
 

R. G.: To recognize Christ as God is to recognize him as the only being capable of rising above the violence that had, up to that point, absolutely transcended mankind. Violence is the controlling agent in every form of mythic or cultural structure, and Christ is the only agent who is capable of escaping from these structures and freeing us from their dominance. This is the only hypothesis that enables us to account for the revelation in the Gospel of what violence does to us and the accompanying power of that revelation to deconstruct the whole range of cultural texts, without exception. We do not have to adopt the hypothesis of Christ's divinity because it has always been accepted by orthodox Christians. Instead, this hypothesis is orthodox because in the first years of Christianity there existed a rigorous (though not yet explicit) intuition of the logic determining the gospel text.

A non-violent deity can only signal his existence to mankind by having himself driven out by violence -- by demonstrating that he is not able to establish himself in the Kingdom of Violence.

But this very demonstration is bound to remain ambiguous for a long time, and it is not capable of achieving a decisive result, since it looks like total impotence to those who live under the regime of violence. That is why at first it can only have some effect under a guise, deceptive through the admixture of some sacrificial elements, through the surreptitious reinsertion of some violence into the conception of the divine.

The Virgin Birth

R. G.: Let us turn to the gospel themes that are on the surface most mythical in character, like the virgin birth of Jesus as it appears in Matthew and Luke. We notice at once that behind a superficial appearance of recounting fabulous events, the Gospels are always giving us a message exactly opposite to the one conveyed by mythology: the message of a non-violent deity, who has nothing in common with the epiphanies of the sacred.

Everything that is born of the world and of the 'flesh', as the prologue to John's Gospel puts it, is tainted by violence and ends up by reverting to violence. Every man is the brother of Cain, who was the first to bear the mark of this original violence.

In innumerable episodes of mythical birth the god copulates with a mortal woman in order to give birth to a hero. Stories of this kind always involve more than a hint of violence. Zeus bears down on Semele, the mother of Dionysus, like a beast of prey upon its victim, and in effect strikes her with lightning. The birth of the gods is always a kind of rape. In every case we rediscover various structural features that have already been touched upon; in particular, the feature of monstrosity. In every case we find the doubling effects, the mad oscillation of differences, and the psychotic alternation between all and nothing. These monstrous couplings between men, gods and beasts are in close correspondence with the phenomenon of reciprocal violence and its method of working itself out. The orgasm that appeases the god is a metaphor for collective violence.
 

G. L.: And not the other way round, as psychoanalysis would have us believe!
 

R. G.: Monstrous births provide mythology with a way of alluding to the violence which always haunts it and that gives rise to the most varied meanings. The child whose birth is at the same time human and divine is a particularly relevant metaphor for the thunderous resolution of reciprocal violence as it passes into a unanimous, reconciliatory violence and gives birth to a new cultural order.

To put its message across, no doubt the virgin birth of Jesus still resorts to the same 'code' as do the monstrous births of mythology. But precisely because the codes are parallel, we should be able to understand the message and appreciate what is unique to it -- what makes it radically different from the messages of mythology.

No relationship of violence exists between those who take part in the virgin birth: the Angel, the Virgin and the Almighty. No one here is playing the role of the mimetic antagonist, in the sense of the 'enemy twins': no one becomes the fascinating obstacle that one is tempted to remove or shatter by violence. The complete absence of any sexual element has nothing to do with repression -- an explanation thought up at the end of the nineteenth century and worthy of the degraded puritanism that produced it. The fact that sexuality is not part of the picture corresponds to the absence of the violent mimesis with which myth acquaints us in the form of rape by the gods. This idol -- what we have called the model-obstacle -- is completely absent.

In fact, all the themes and terms associated with the virgin birth convey to us a perfect submission to the non-violent will of the God of the Gospels, who in this way prefigures Christ himself:

'Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!' (Luke 1:28)
The unprecented event brings no scandal with it. Mary does not set up any obstacle between herself and the Word of God:
'Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word' (Luke 1:38).
The various episodes around the birth of Christ, make palpable the humble beginnings of the revelation, its complete insignificance from the standpoint of the mighty. Right from the start the child Jesus is excluded and dismissed -- he is a wanderer who does not even have a stone on which to lay his head. The inn has no room for him. Informed by the Magi, Herod searches everywhere for him in order to put him to death.

Throughout these episodes, the Gospels and the Christian tradition, taking their cue from the Old Testament, place in the foreground beings foredoomed to play the part of victim -- the child, the woman, the pauper and domestic animals.

The Gospels can make use of a mythological code in this account of the birth of Jesus without being brought down to the level of the clumsy mystification and 'mystical naivety', which our philosophers customarily see in them.

Our own period's summary dismissal of them is in fact quite revealing, because reactions have become outmoded for the violent mythologies. We may congratulate ourselves on having made some progress but this still leaves the message of non-violence out of account -- among all the others, the Christian message alone is universally despised and rejected.
 

G. L.: So the only religion it is still permissible to disdain and ridicule, in intellectual circles, is also the only one that expresses something different from violence and a failure to come to terms with violence. We can hardly fail to ask ourselves what such a blind spot might imply in a world dominated by nuclear weapons and industrial pollution. Are the beliefs of our intellectuals as out of tune as they themselves like to think with the world that has brought them into being?
 

R. G.: There is no more telling feature than the inability of the greatest minds in the modern world to grasp the difference between the Christian crib at Christmas-time and the bestial monstrosities of mythological births. Here, for example, is what Nietzsche writes in The Anti-Christ, after he has drawn attention, as a good follower of Hegel, to what he terms the 'atemporal symbolism' of Father and Son that in his view dominates the Christian text:

I am ashamed to recall what the Church has made of this symbolism: has it not placed an Amphitryon story at the threshold of the Christian 'faith'? (2)
We could well ask why Nietzsche might be ashamed to discover in the Gospels something he acclaims enthusiastically when he comes across it somewhere else. After all, the Amphitryon myth is one of the most splendidly Dionysiac myths of all. The birth of Hercules seems to me to square very well with the will to power, and indeed it contains all the elements that Nietzsche praises in The Birth of Tragedy and other writings.

It is important to try and explain the reasons for this shame. It tells us a good deal about the double standard that all modern thought -- taking after Nietzsche and his rivals -- applies to the study of Christian 'mythology'.

A great many modern theologians succumb to the terrorism of modem thought and condemn without a hearing something they are not capable of experiencing even as 'poetry' any more -- the final trace in the world of a spiritual intuition that is fast fading. So Paul Tillich dismisses in the most peremptory way the theme of the virgin birth because of what he calls 'the inadequacy of its internal symbolism'. (3)

In Luke the theme of the virgin birth is not all that different, when you come down to it, from the Pauline thesis defining Christ as the second Adam, or the perfect Adam. Saying that Christ is God, born of God, and saying that he has been conceived without sin is stating over again that he is completely alien to the world of violence within which humankind has been imprisoned ever since the foundation of the world: that is to say, ever since Adam. The first Adam was himself also without sin, and it was he who, in becoming the first sinner, caused humankind to enter the vicious circle from which it has never been able to break out. Christ is thus in the same situation as Adam, facing the same temptations as he did -- the same temptations as all humanity, in effect. But he wins the struggle against violence; he wins, on behalf of all humankind, the paradoxical struggle that all people, in the succession of Adam, have always been fated to lose.

If Christ alone is innocent, then Adam is not the only one to be guilty. All men share in this archetypal state of blame, but only to the extent that the chance of becoming free has been offered to them and they have let it slip away. We can say that this sin is indeed original but only becomes actual when knowledge about violence is placed at humanity's disposition.

Notes

1. Eros et Agape.

2. p. 55.

3. Theology of Culture, p. 66.