René Girard’s work could help us tackle the politics of scapegoating

René Girard, Unlikely Apologistby Grant Kaplan

University of Notre Dame Press. 263p $50

For some time now, theologians have been more than somewhat reserved regarding the oeuvre of René Girard. On the whole, they have often been tempted to either neglect or hastily dismiss his work on mimetic theory and the scapegoating mechanism said to lie at the heart of almost all social interactions. Alternatively, theologians have been overly attentive to Girard’s scientific, literary focus, leaving the theological elements dormant underneath a theoretical edifice that so clearly calls for the re-examination of all that theology holds dear. It is much to the credit of Grant Kaplan’s latest foray into Girardian thought and its consequences that he goes where remarkably few theologians have gone before. He wades deep into the waters of Girard’s greatest critics and fans alike, while simultaneously fostering a dialogue between Girard’s thought and some of today’s best theological minds.


The book takes a number of paths I found intriguing, most of which are familiar to those steeped in Girard’s work, though with a fundamental theological emphasis that also renders Kaplan’s analysis crisp and inventive. Along the way of his argument, we are greeted with an abundance of insight, including how mimetic theory and the single-victim hypothesis might function as important heuristic devices in the performance of theology, giving the reader a wonderful overview of why Girard’s thesis matters so much in the history of religion and mythology as well. Kaplan is particularly attentive to the way in which mimetic theory calls for a re-examination of the relationship between faith and reason. He tries throughout much of what we read to establish a position that is capable of utilizing reason in order to also reach its limits—the space wherein the human need for grace might be located. Kaplan therefore reconceives of divine revelation vis-à-vis Girard’s interpretation of the transformative and hermeneutic nature of reading Scripture. He also points toward a furtherance of interreligious dialogue in light of Girardian thought that has been much needed, thereby also addressing questions concerning the uniqueness of Christianity and the reduction of scapegoating processes in other global religious traditions.

The latter few chapters, in particular, are highly significant in that Kaplan takes on major questions that Girard’s thought has prompted—questions that Girard encouraged theologians to take more seriously than they previously had. For example: How might we develop a “mimetic ecclesiology” that works alongside the human propensity toward violence and that seeks to reduce it rather than let it structure the church and its accompanying hierarchy? In trying to formulate a self-critical ecclesiology that finds acts of forgiveness and a victimless sacrality at its core, Kaplan also provides us with an almost systematic overview of the work of James Alison, one of Girard’s most insightful theological commentators, and someone whose work should be at the fore of any list of Catholic theological voices that matter today. The book ends with a fascinating juxtaposition of Girard’s views on modernity with those of Charles Taylor, and an assessment of Girard’s views on Nietzsche and atheism in a contemporary context, which had consistently been a staple point of reference for Girard throughout his writing.

There are many reasons why this book comes to us not a moment too soon. First among these must be the fact that, despite the almost ever-present violence that takes place on our streets and in our world today, we are seemingly as incapable of effectively dealing with violence and scapegoating as ever, and the reason for this failure seems to be a structural one as much as it is also, always, personal in nature. Girard’s work offers theologians the chance to say something significant to this perpetually frustrating context in a way that can be permanently transformative, renewing hearts and minds through faith in a source of grace that lies beyond the mechanisms and oppressive institutions that continue to shape how a politics of scapegoating carries on most days.

Learning to see Girard as an “unlikely apologist” for the Christian story is not an undermining of an orthodox faith, as some have seen it, but is rather, as Kaplan reinforces, an extremely viable path forward, a witness standing firm in the midst of so much violence and scapegoating that we are often at a complete loss as to how we might respond theologically. It is an immense gift that Kaplan has given us with his latest work; but it is up to the rest of us to find a way forward, to think theologically alongside Girard and to refashion once again what means so much to us. 

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