The Sacred and the Human

A version of this essay appeared in Prospect Magazine, August 2007

It is understandable that decent, sceptical people, observing the widespread revival in our time of superstitious cults, the emerging conflict between secular freedoms and religious edicts, and the murderous insanity of radical Islam, should be receptive to the anti-religious polemics of Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens. The ‘sleep of reason’ has brought forth monsters, just as Goya foretold in his wonderful engraving. How are we to rectify this, except through a wake-up call to reason, of the kind that the evangelical atheists are now shouting from their pulpits?

Nor is it surprising that decent, sceptical people should regard last-ditch attempts to retain the belief in God’s temporal concern for us (such as the theory of ‘intelligent design’), as testifying merely to the miraculous ability to believe in the miraculous. Either we leave the field to science, or we take refuge in the inexplicable – which is no refuge from science. For the sceptical observer of the human scene, there is nothing that religion can add to scientific explanation other than the invocation of a transcendental causa sui which, by its very nature, eludes human comprehension.

Somewhat more surprising is the extent to which religion is caricatured by its current opponents, who seem to see in it nothing more than a system of unfounded beliefs about the cosmos – beliefs which, to the extent that they conflict with the scientific worldview, are heading straight for refutation. Thus Christopher Hitchens, in his relentlessly one-sided diatribe, writes as follows:

One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody – not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made of atoms – had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance, and other infantile needs). (God Is Not Great, p. 64)

Now Hitchens is an intelligent and widely read man, who recognizes that the arguments that are most useful to him were already well-known two hundred years ago. His book takes us through territory already charted by Hume, Voltaire, Diderot and Kant, and nobody who is familiar with the Enlightenment can really believe that anything has been added to its stance against religion by our contemporary imitators, whatever new examples they can add to the list of religiously-motivated crimes. However, the thinkers of the Enlightenment, having argued the claims of faith to be without rational foundation, did not then dismiss religion, as one might dismiss a refuted theory. Many of them went on to draw the conclusion that religion must therefore have some other origin than the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and some other psychic function than providing a world-view that consoles those who subscribe to it. The ease with which the common doctrines of religion could be refuted alerted thinkers like Jacobi, Schiller and Schelling to the thought that religion is not, in its essence, a matter of doctrine, but of something else. And they set out to discover what that something else might be.

Thus was born the anthropology of religion. For thinkers in the immediate aftermath of the Enlightenment it was not faith but faiths, in the plural, that composed the primary subject-matter of theology. Hence the appearance of books with titles like Origine de tous les cultes; ou, Religion universelle (C.F. Dupuis, 1795), and hence the busy decipherment of oriental religions by the Bengal Asiatic Society, whose proceedings began to appear in Calcutta in 1788. For post-Enlightenment thinkers the monotheistic belief-systems were not related to the ancient myths and rituals as science to superstition, or logic to magic. They were crystallizations of the emotional need which found equal expression in the myths and rituals of antiquity and in the Vedas and Upanishads of the Hindus. This thought led Georg Creuzer, whose Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker appeared between 1810 and 1812, to represent myth as a distinctive operation of the human psyche. A myth does not describe what happened in some obscure period before human reckoning, but what happens always and repeatedly. It does not explain the causal origins of our world but rehearses its permanent spiritual significance. Myth is a way of understanding deep processes of the human psyche, which cannot be easily described except through imaginative stories.

If you look at ancient religion in that way then inevitably your vision of the Judaeo-Christian canon will change. The Genesis story of the creation is easily refuted as an account of historical events: how can there be days without a sun, man without a woman, life without death? Read it as a myth, however, which recounts the concealed and repeatable meaning of events that we live through every day, and this naïve-seeming text reveals itself as a profound study of the human condition. The story of the fall is, Hegel wrote, ‘not just a contingent history but the eternal and necessary history of humanity’. (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 1827.) It conveys truths about freedom, about guilt, about man, woman and their relationship; about our relation to nature and mortality. A sceptical and scientific mind, such as that of Leon Kass in his The Beginning of Wisdom: The Story of Genesis, can use this text to explore moral and psychological truths that are nowhere else so vividly or succinctly evoked.

Not surprisingly, therefore, among the first effects of the Enlightenment were new ways of reading scripture, and new attempts to square the scriptures with the demands of the rational intellect. Thus was born the science, or at any rate the art, of hermeneutics, whose first conscious proponent, Friedrich Schleiermacher, saw religion as a distinctive activity of the rational soul, rooted in feeling rather than intellect. For Schleiermacher’s contemporary Hegel, the Biblical stories had to be cleared of their merely imagistic nature, and construed as ventures of the spirit, on the path to self-knowledge. Religion, as he put it, is spirit that realizes itself in consciousness – it is the spirit coming to know itself, through the successive forms of human worship. The religions of mankind (which Hegel, spurred on by Creuzer, avidly collected and brilliantly analysed) represent ‘determinations’ of the abstract idea of divinity. But we approach this idea through the path of alienation, and among religious concepts we should include not only those of God, creation, and design, but also those of guilt, unhappiness, atonement and reconciliation – features of the human condition which lead us to see the world from a position outside it, and to search it for the places and times in which freedom can enter the otherwise incomprehensible flow of events. For Hegel, myths and rituals are forms of self-discovery, through which we understand the place of the subject in a world of objects, and the inner freedom which conditions all that we do. The emergence of monotheism from the polytheistic religions of antiquity is not so much an observation of the world as a form of self-knowledge, through which the spirit learns to recognize itself in the whole of things, and to overcome its finitude.

That idealist approach inspired Feuerbach to give a materialist rejoinder. Gods, angels, devils and the rest are, he argued, human creations, projections of the moral life, whose doings in the stratosphere reflect the moral tensions which animate the world below. The only reality here is the ‘species being’ of humanity, which creates these figments out of the raw material of human need. And the downside of religion is that it encourages our complacency, enabling us to place our virtues at an impassable distance from ourselves, by projecting them into that higher, and illusory, realm from which they can never thereafter be recuperated.

Between those early ventures into the anthropology of religion and the studies of Sir James Frazer, Emile Durkheim and the Freudians, two thinkers stand out as setting the agenda for a new intellectual enterprise – an enterprise which seems not to have been noticed by Hitchens, Dawkins or Dennett, but which is nevertheless of some importance to us today. The thinkers to whom I refer are Nietzsche and Wagner, and the intellectual enterprise is that of showing the place of the sacred in human life, and the kind of knowledge and understanding that comes to us, through the encounter with sacred things. Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, and Wagner in Tristan, The Ring and Parsifal as well as in his writings on tragedy and religion, painted a picture that, while rooted in the post-Enlightenment tradition and owing much to Feuerbach, placed the concept of the sacred at the centre of the anthropology of religion. The lesson that both thinkers took from the Greeks was that you could subtract the gods and their stories from Greek religion, and still the most important thing would remain. This thing had its primary reality not in myths but in rituals, in moments that stand outside time, in which the deep loneliness and anxiety of the human individual is confronted and overcome. By calling these moments ‘sacred’ we recognize both their complex social meaning and also the respite that they offer from alienation. Forget theology, forget doctrine and belief, forget all the ideas about an after-life – for none of these have the importance in Homer or in tragedy that attaches to the moment of ritual sacrifice, when the human world is suddenly irradiated from a point beyond it.

Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy was dismissed as an unscholarly fantasy, and cost him his career as a philologist. Wagner’s artistic proof of his own insights remained accessible only to those with ears. While most anthropologists recognized that religion belongs to another category of thought than science, and that it should not be dismissed (as Hitchens dismisses it) merely as a residue of animal fears and childish yearnings, the attempt to understand the concept of the sacred remained where Nietzsche and Wagner had left it. It was not anthropologists but theologians and critics who took the matter forward – Rudolf Otto in Das Heilige, 1917, Georges Bataille in L’Érotisme, 1952, Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane, 1957, and, most explicitly and also shockingly, René Girard in La violence et le sacré, 1972. It is Girard’s theory, it seems to me, that most urgently needs to be debated, now that atheist triumphalism is sweeping all nuances away.

Girard begins from an observation that no impartial reader of the Hebrew Bible or the Koran can fail to make, which is that religion may promise peace, but is also deeply implicated in violence. The God presented in those writings is frequently angry, given to insane fits of destruction and seldom deserving of the epithets bestowed upon him in the Koran – al-raHmân al-raHîm, ‘the compassionate, the merciful’. He makes outrageous and bloodthirsty demands – such as the demand that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. He is obsessed with the genitals and adamant that they should be mutilated in his honour – a theme that has been interestingly explored by Jack Miles in his riveting book God: A Biography. Thinkers like Dawkins and Hitchens leap at once to the conclusion that religion is the cause of this violence and sexual obsession, and that all the crimes committed in the name of religion can be seen as the definitive disproof of it. Not so, argues Girard. Religion is not the cause of violence but the solution to it. The violence itself comes from another source, and there is no society without it since it is engendered by the very attempt of human beings to live together. The same can be said, too, of the obsession with sexuality: religion is not the cause of this, but an attempt to resolve it.

Girard’s theory is best understood as a kind of inversion of an idea of Nietzsche’s. In his later writings, Nietzsche expounded a kind of creation myth, by way of accounting for the structure of modern society. On the Genealogy of Morals (1887) envisages a primeval human society, reduced to near universal slavery by the ‘beasts of prey’ – namely the strong, self-affirming, healthy egoists who impose their desires on others by the force of their nature. The master race maintains its position by punishing all deviation on the part of the slaves – just as we punish a disobedient horse. The slave, too timid and demoralized to rebel, receives this punishment as a retribution. Because he cannot exact revenge the slave expends his resentment on himself, coming to think of his condition as in some way deserved, a just recompense for his inner transgressions. Thus is born the sense of guilt and the idea of sin. The ressentiment of the slave explains, for Nietzsche, the entire theological and moral vision of Christianity. Christianity owes its power to the resentment upon which it feeds: resentment which, because it cannot express itself in violence, remains turned against itself. Thus arises the ethic of compassion, the mortification of the flesh, and the life-denying routines of the ‘slave morality’. Christianity is a form of self-directed violence, which conceals a deep resentment against every form of human mastery.

That ‘genealogy’ of Christian morals was effectively exploded by Max Scheler, in his book Ressentiment: as Scheler argues, the Christian ethic of agape and forgiveness is not an expression of resentment but rather the only known way of overcoming it. Nevertheless there is surely an important truth concealed within Nietzsche’s wild generalizations. Resentment is a fundamental component in our social emotions; it is widely prevalent in modern societies; and there is surely no way in which we might explain either the durability of egalitarian politics or such local phenomena as Islamist violence, if we do not see resentment as a major part of the cause. We may suppose religion to make an input into social violence. But it is surely evident to any observer of the 20th century that you can take away religion, and the violence will usually remain. And the 20th century is the century of resentment. How else do you explain the mass murders of the communists and the Nazis, the seething animosities of Lenin and Hitler, the genocides of Mao and Pol Pot? The ideas and emotions behind the totalitarian movements of the 20th century are targeted: they identify a class of enemy, whose privileges and property have been unjustly acquired and at the expense of their victims. And this class must be destroyed. Religion plays no real part in the ensuing destruction, and indeed is usually included among the targets.

Girard’s theory, like Nietzsche’s, is expressed as a genealogy, or rather a ‘creation myth’: a fanciful description of the origins of human society, from which to derive an account of its present structure. (It is significant that Girard came to the anthropology of religion from his work as a literary critic, a student of Shakespeare, Cervantes and Stendhal.) And like Nietzsche Girard sees the primeval condition of society as one of conflict. It is in the effort to resolve this conflict that the experience of the sacred is born. This experience comes to us in many forms – in religious ritual, in prayer, in tragedy – but its true origin is in an act of communal violence. Primitive societies are invaded by ‘mimetic desire’, as rivals struggle to match each other’s social and material acquisitions, so heightening antagonism and precipitating the cycle of revenge. The solution is to identify a victim, one marked by fate as ‘outside’ the community and therefore not entitled to vengeance against it, who can be the target of the accumulated blood-lust, and who can bring the chain of retribution to an end. Scapegoating is society’s way of recreating ‘difference’ and so restoring itself. By uniting against the scapegoat people are released from their rivalries and reconciled. Through his death the scapegoat purges society of its accumulated violence. His resulting sanctity is the long-term echo of the awe, relief and visceral re-attachment to the community that was experienced at his death.

According to Girard, therefore, the need for sacrificial scapegoating is deeply implanted in the human psyche, arising from the very attempt to form a durable community in which the moral life can be successfully pursued. One purpose of the theatre is to provide fictional substitutes for the original crime, and so to obtain the benefit of moral renewal without the horrific cost. In Girard’s view, we should see a tragedy like Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus as a re-telling of what was originally a ritual sacrifice, in which the victim is chosen so as to focus and confine the need for violence. Through incest, kingship, or worldly hubris the victim marks himself out as the outsider, the one who is not with us, and whom we can therefore sacrifice without renewing the cycle of revenge. The victim is thus both sacrificed and sacred, the source of the city’s plagues and their cure.

In many of the Old Testament stories we see the ancient Israelites wrestling with this sacrificial urge. The stories of Cain and Abel, of Abraham and Isaac, of Sodom and Gomorrah, are residues of extended conflicts, by which ritual was diverted from the human victim, and attached first to animal sacrifices, and finally to sacred words. By this process a viable morality emerged from competition and conflict, and from the visceral rivalries of sexual predation. Religion is not the source of violence but the solution to it – the overcoming of mimetic desire and the transcending of the resentments and jealousies into which human communities are tempted by their competitive dynamic.

And it is in just this way, Girard argues, that we should see the achievement of the Christian religion. In his study of the scapegoat (Le Bouc émissaire, 1982) Girard identifies Christ as a new kind of victim – one who offers himself for sacrifice, and who, in doing so, shows that he understands what is going on. The words ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ are pivotal for Girard. They involve both a recognition of the necessity for sacrifice, if the guilt and resentment of community is to be appeased and transcended, and the added recognition that this function must be concealed. Only those who are ignorant of the source of their hatred can be healed by its expression, for only they can proceed with a clear conscience towards the tragic climax. The climax, however, is not the death of the scapegoat, but the experience of sacred awe, as the victim, at the moment of death, forgives his tormentors. This is the moment of transcendence, in which even the most cruel of persecutors can learn both to humble himself and to renounce his vengeful passion. Through his willing acceptance of his sacrificial role Christ made the ‘love of neighbour’ – which had featured from the oldest books of the Hebrew bible as the standard to which humanity should aspire – into a reality in the hearts of those who rehearse or meditate upon his gesture. Christ’s submission purified religion of the need for sacrificial murder: his conscious self-sacrifice is therefore, Girard suggests, rightly thought of as a redemption, and we should not be surprised if, when we turn away from our Christian legacy as the Nazis and the Communists did, the hecatombs of victims reappear.

Girard’s account of the Passion is amplified by many learned asides, by a vigorous and ongoing engagement with Freud and Lévi-Strauss, and by a conviction that religion and tragedy are (as Nietzsche argued) adjacent in the human psyche, comparable receptacles for the experience of sacred awe. The experience of the sacred is not an irrational residue of primitive fears, nor is it a form of superstition that will one day be chased away by science. According to Girard, it is a solution to the accumulated aggression which lies in the heart of human communities. That is how he explains the peace and celebration that attends the ritual of communion – the sense of renewal which must always itself be renewed. Girard’s vision of the Eucharist is anticipated in Parsifal, and in particular in the sublimely tranquil Good Friday music of Act III. It is anticipated too by Hegel, who writes that ‘in the sacraments reconciliation is brought into feeling, into the here and now of present and sensible consciousness; and all the manifold actions are embraced under the aspect of sacrifice.’ (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion.) Girard, like Hegel, takes himself to be describing deep features of the human condition, which can be observed as well in the mystery cults of antiquity and the local shrines of Hinduism as in the everyday ‘miracle’ of the Eucharist.

There are many criticisms that might be levelled against Girard’s theory – not least, against the idea that human institutions can be explained through genealogies and creation myths. The alleged ‘mimetic’ nature of human competition is underdescribed and underjustified; there are other and more plausible explanations of the ancient ritual of animal sacrifice than that offered by Girard; and the success of the Christian ethic has many other causes besides the mystical reversal that allegedly occurred on the Cross. But those criticisms do not, it seems to me, account for the comparative neglect of Girard’s ideas. Girard’s thesis has been received with the same dismissive indifference as Nietzsche’s in The Birth of Tragedy, and though he has been honoured with a siège at the Académie Française, the honour has come only now, as Girard approaches his ninetieth year. I suspect that, like Nietzsche, Girard has reminded us of truths that we would rather forget – in particular, the truth, which is anathema to the evangelical atheists, that religion is not primarily about God, but about the sacred, and that the experience of the sacred can be suppressed, ignored and even desecrated (which is the routine tribute paid to it in modern societies) but never destroyed. Always the need for it will arise, for it is in the nature of rational beings like us to live at the edge of things, experiencing our alienation and longing for the sudden reversal that will once again join us to the centre. For Girard that sudden reversal is a kind of self-forgiveness, as the concealed aggressions of our social life are abruptly transcended – washed in the blood of the lamb.

Girard’s genealogy casts an anthropological light on the Christian ethic and on the meaning of the Eucharist; but it is not just an anthropological theory. Girard himself treats it as a piece of theology. For him the theory is a kind of proof of the Christian religion and of the divinity of Jesus. And in a striking article in the Stanford Italian Review (1986) he suggests that the path that has led him from the inner meaning of the Eucharist to the truth of Christianity was one followed by Wagner in Parsifal, and one along which even Nietzsche reluctantly strayed, under the influence of Wagner’s masterpiece.

Of course, you don’t have to follow Girard into those obscure and controversial regions in order to endorse his view of the sacred as a human universal. Nor do you have to accept the cosmology of monotheism in order to understand why it is that this experience should attach itself to the three great transitions – the three rites of passage – which mark the cyclical continuity of human societies. Birth, copulation and death are the moments when time stands still, when we look on the world from a point at its edge, when we experience our dependence and contingency, and when we are apt to be filled with an entirely reasonable awe. It is from such moments, replete with emotional knowledge, that religion begins, and the rational person is not the one who scoffs at all religions, but the one who tries to discover which of them, if any, can make sense of those things, and, while doing so, draw the poison of resentment.