Friday, April 15, 2011

Mimetic Atonement

Yesterday, I provided very brief summaries of some of the dominant theories of atonement with some problems from each. A few weeks ago, I was introduced to the philosophical works of René Girard during a psychology conference at my doctoral alma mater.

Again, in very brief summary, Girard presents the idea of mimetic desire, essentially that humans have the drive to mimic or imitate others. This has plenty of psychological implications that actually seem verified at some level in neurobiological studies.

He argues that as we develop, we want what other have, causing mimetic violence, as we try to take what the others have. Eventually, a scapegoat is sought in order to restore the social order.

Applying this to the Bible (which Girard did, although I'm not sure if he developed an atonement theory--these are my thoughts and application), we can see the violence that continually escalates throughout the Old Testament, culminating in the scapegoat of Christ.

If we assume that the ideas of mimetic desire, mimetic violence, and the scapegoat mechanism are accurate within humanity, then God's introduction of literal scapegoats as sacrifices may not have been as much to satisfy God's need for justice and retribution as much as human's need for such obvious justice. By providing a divinely ordained solution to guilt, God protected his creation from additional violence at the hands of one another.

Such continual scapegoating could only last so long, so eventually Jesus was sent. Through living a perfect life, there was no reason he should be killed or blamed for any wrongdoing. Yet he was condemned, becoming the epitome of an unjust scapegoat.

Through the ridiculousness of the condemnation, further emphasized through the resurrection, the scapegoat of Christ emphasizes the absurdity of scapegoating and violence. With the recognition of its absurdity, those of us who recognize his sacrifice can take on his moral influence and stop violence. Further, since our human drive is for a scapegoat, Christ's death was necessary to prevent additional violence within the world to both other humans and the rest of creation.

The scapegoating of Christ serves as a ransom from the perspective of humans, as it ransoms us from the evil grasp of mimetic violence and greed, which would be at the core of a literal or metaphorical Satan. His death still fulfills the humanly constructed need for justice appeased and satisfied in clear, concrete, and unyielding ways. Yet it also shows us the limitations of our human constructions and the ideal of God's divine thought.

While this is a simple outlined version of an atonement theory based on Girard's mimetic theory, I think it can provide a way to integrate elements of all the major atonement theories into a cohesive whole while also addressing the problems with each. Therefore, it doesn't wholly absorb them, but rather challenges certain elements, like Christ's sacrifice being directed more at humans than at God or Satan. Like Brink argued in his book, most perspectives of atonement place the problems on God, Satan, or the law. This theory places it in us. It is not Satan who requires payment. It is not God who requires payment. It is man. And from what I've read in the Bible and experienced in life, humanity is definitely the primary one who always demands clear, concrete, and sacrificial restitution.

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