Bp. Whalon reviews Girard’s latest work


Bishop Pierre Whalon, the Episcopal Bishop of Europe, and not coincidentally a native french speaker, has the first review of Rene Girard’s latest work “Finishing Clausewitz”. (Which at the moment is only available in French.)

I’ve written here before about Girard’s theories of mimetic violence and how he sees them giving a rich and self-consistent tool for understanding the Passion of the Christ. If I have a favorite theologian these days it’s Girard (with perhaps Barth as a near second.)

From Bishop Whalon’s very useful review:

“In Achever Clausewitz, Girard seeks to ‘finish’ Clausewitz, an intentional double entendre. Clausewitz glimpsed in his thinking the possibility of wars of total annihilation, replacing the ‘wars in lace’ (guerres en dentelle) of earlier times. The phrase ‘Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers’ (‘Gentlemen of England, fire first’) from the battle of Fontenoy in 1745 is the classic (if inexact) example of this codified and ritualized warfare. After the French Revolution with its masses of conscript soldiers, the restraints of the old system were gradually thrown off. The specter of a war of annihilation, without rhyme or reason, became apparent.

For Clausewitz, this absolute war is a theoretical possibility, though his treatise, which he re-worked several times while never completing it, argues that war can never actually get to that point. His notion of war is that of a duel (Zweikraft) akin to a wrestling match, and a war is a congeries of these ‘duels.’ For Girard, absolute war has now become a daily possibility, if not certainty, with the capacity we now possess to destroy the planet. The apocalyptic literature found in the New Testament especially is not predictive of the final cataclysm, he says. Rather, it is ‘Christianity predicting its own failure’, he declares provocatively, ‘the only religion ever to do so.’

The premise makes sense: if we as a species rely on violence as a means of communal life (Girard’s essential point), and if we are now controlled by our technology rather than controlling it (Heidegger’s famous thesis), it follows that the extinction of the human race by our own hand is inevitable, as we now have the technology to destroy the planet in an act of war. Furthermore, as Christian apocalyptic literature predicts an ‘end of days,’ this part of the Bible can no longer be dismissed merely as an embarrassment to Christians other than fundamentalists with political axes to grind. Deprived as we are of the archaic scapegoat mechanism by the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been trying to find new ways forward within a transformed religious perspective. These are bound to fail, for war is part of the essence of human life and society, not simply an aberration we fall into.”

Read the full article here.

It’s certainly a word to the world at this moment of perceived scarcity and zero-sum economic solutions. Girard’s idea may also be a hint perhaps about how God intends to heal the world by the sharp two edged words that issue from the mouth of the slain lamb.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. Matthew Moretz says

    I love Girard, too. We have a Girardian reading group among five priests in Westchester. I just bought his “Theatre of Envy”, Girard’s book on Shakespeare. Thank you for posting Bishop Whalon’s Review. I shall have to resuscitate my college French.

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