In this issue: The Girard centenary, newly discovered letters, forthcoming events, a book forum, two reviews, and more commentary on the Gaza war.


Letter from the President: Martha Reineke, The Voices of COV&R

Musings from the Executive Secretary: Nikolaus Wandinger, Old Letters – New Discoveries

Editor’s Column: Curtis Gruenler, Peace is the Way

Forthcoming Events

The Porch Gathering, Montreat, North Carolina, March 7-10, 2024

Theology & Peace Annual Gathering, Chicago, June 10-13, 2024

COV&R Annual Meeting, Mexico City, Mexico, June 26-29, 2024

COV&R at the American Academy of Religion, San Diego, California, November 23-26, 2024


COV&R Members Invited to Join New Directory


Phillip Bodrock: Hamas, Netanyahu and Putin: Reflections on Mark Anspach’s Letter from the Negev

Mark R. Anspach: On Undifferentiation in the Gaza War: Some Thoughts in Reply to Phillip Bodrock

Event Reports

Grant Kaplan, COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion

Cynthia L. Haven, His First and Final Home

Book Forum: The Difference Nothing Makes: Creation, Christ, Contemplation by Brian Robinette

Grant Kaplan, Comment

Amy Maxey, Comment

Chris Haw, Comment

Brian Robinette, Response

Book Reviews

Andrew McKenna, How to Think about Catastrophe: Toward a Theory of Enlightened Doomsaying by Jean-Pierre Dupuy

Matthew Taylor, Eliot’s Angels: George Eliot, René Girard, and Mimetic Desire by Bernadette Waterman Ward

Letter from the President

The Voices of COV&R

Martha Reineke

Martha ReinekeIn this issue, Phillip Bodrock offers a thoughtful contribution to a conversation initiated by Mark Anspach in the last Bulletin when he wrote about sacrificial dimensions of Hamas’s attack. What comes to the fore, in these pieces as well as Anspach’s response (also below) and in my daily reading of journal articles, op-eds, Facebook posts, and other social media on the war, is anguish. Notwithstanding that these commentaries emerge from different locations and attest to distinct perspectives on the war, all make readers witnesses to acute pain in the presence of unfathomable levels of violence. I wish to “hold in the Light,” as we Quakers would say, all who are suffering. 

I respond here to only one of Bodrock’s observations. He forcefully laments what he perceives to be COV&R’s “silence,” not only on the topic of this war but also on the war in Ukraine. In what follows, I set Brodrock’s concern within the context of COV&R history. I hope that the perspective I share will prove helpful to those unfamiliar with that history and will support our ongoing reflections on Mark Anspach’s essay and Brodrock’s response. I hope also to spark further reflections, some of which may appear in future issues of the Bulletin. 

In 2016, the COV&R Board was criticized for failing to respond to what some perceived to be an existential political threat thinly veiling violent portent: Donald Trump’s campaign for the US Presidency. The Board considered whether it should speak out on behalf of the entire COV&R membership and take related action. The board asked then, “Is COV&R a single-voiced entity?” If it is not, what is it? If it is, what could COV&R say and what actions might derive from a position statement?  

In the Board’s 2016 conversation, members observed that COV&R is an international organization of around 300 members who are located on all continents except Antarctica. We noted that COV&R members share in common an interest in mimetic theory as a powerful tool for analysis. Our mission statement reflects that commonality: it states that we are “scholars and practitioners from many disciplines dedicated to developing, critiquing, and applying René Girard’s mimetic theory.” Under that umbrella, our members’ professions, faiths, identities, political commitments, and disciplinary affiliations vary greatly. As a consequence, the voices with which we speak about mimetic theory do also. The Board determined that a single response from the entity called “COV&R” would contravene our mission statement.

As members of the Board reflected at greater length, we concurred that, were we to assert a position on specific issues of the day, that statement could be perceived by others as a litmus test for membership in COV&R. If that happened, we asked ourselves, would our capacity to fulfill our mission—develop, critique, and apply René Girard’s mimetic theory—be strengthened or weakened? We determined that members of COV&R would be less likely to achieve the goals to which our mission commits us if members and potential members were to perceive that the board’s position statement sets constraints on developing, critiquing, and applying mimetic theory. We might appear to be open only to contributions conforming to preferred topics, approaches, perspectives, and values. Mimetic theory, we concluded, is strengthened when we gather under the “big tent” described in our mission statement. We issued no position statement.

A comment in the “What is COV&R?” video on the COV&R website by Board member Stephen McKenna underscores the conclusion at which the Board arrived in our 2016 discussion. McKenna states, “We are not a society or association. We are a colloquium.” In Latin, “colloqui-um” means “speaking together,” combining “col” (together) with “loqui” (to speak). In common parlance, a “colloquy” is “a conversation or dialogue.” In my understanding, McKenna points to the defining commitments of the founders of COV&R. Associations prioritize the promotion of common interests of their members. Association boards are known to speak on behalf of their members to protect or advance these interests. Societies further members’ professional goals, enhancing their employment. In choosing “colloquium,” the founders of COV&R established a different priority: conversation. 

Three years ago, COV&R members participated in a year-long series of focus groups in which we discussed whether to create a policy that would describe with greater specificity that defining commitment to colloquy. We considered parameters for the conversations we have with each other as we develop, critique, and apply René Girard’s mimetic theory. Summaries of the focus group discussions were posted on the COV&R website, and the Board drew on them in developing a “Policy Statement on Diversity” which was supported without dissent at the Business Meeting of our 2022 Annual Meeting in Bogotá. The statement confirms that we appreciate the diversity of our members, and it speaks directly to the question of whether a conversational “big tent” strengthens or weakens our mission. We affirmed that “Our varied skills, knowledge, and distinct perspectives contribute to the vitality of COV&R and mimetic theory.” We committed also to create a “community of inquiry in which no one is unwelcome or marginalized.” Our policy describes the “how” of our conversations, not their content. 

Yet, in reading Brodrock’s criticism of “COV&R’s silence,” I hear him saying that we are not living up to our commitments to form an inclusive community of inquiry where “no one is unwelcome or marginalized.” Victims of these wars are speaking to us. Silence in the face of the horrors around us—especially the suffering of thousands of children—is untenable. The world is on fire. The colloquium professes to prioritize dialogue about “violence and religion.” Where are we? 

I hear a summons to accountability in Brodrock’s comments. But is a position statement “by COV&R” the best means to hold ourselves accountable? Up to now, members of COV&R have perceived that multiple viewpoints on contentious issues support the kind of serious inquiry that acknowledges the complexity of the issues and furthers our mission. There are no “multiple viewpoints” on the deaths of children. Still, the causes of those deaths and the pathways to peace are subject to discussion and debate. 

In my past experience with writing position statements, the seriousness of purpose we bring to the task is undermined by the formal constraints of a statement. Confronted with an issue that compels us to speak out, the pictures we draw with our individual voices that challenge assumptions, correct confusions, and describe a path forward appear in grayscale when made to conform to a page. Words lose what has made them compelling. As we struggle to articulate in a few paragraphs something to which everyone can assent, the moral clarity for which each of us aims on critical issues and which we hope to influence others to embrace becomes increasingly murky. 

Of course, members of COV&R may disagree with what I have written here and may wish that the Board, on behalf of the membership, take a different tack than it has taken historically on position statements. 

Even as “COV&R” has not issued a position statement on Ukraine, Israel/Gaza, or Sudan, the contention that COV&R members are silent on the wars and associated violence is, on my knowledge of our members, unfounded. Papers at the annual meeting in Paris addressed the war in Ukraine. A conversation has begun on the pages of the Bulletin about the war between the Israeli government and Hamas and Curtis, in his editor’s column, is encouraging more contributions. Although I have not polled our members, I know that many are speaking out in the public square and in our professional engagements. Most helpful for our members at this critical juncture will be a willingness to share with others what we are doing, in order that all our efforts may be more effective. Do you have a presentation or an article in press that is shareable? If you teach at the high school or university level, what resources are you sharing with students (e.g., novels, scholarly articles and monographs, digital media)? What pedagogical strategies are you finding particularly effective? If you lead or are part of a community of faith, how are you supporting conversations about the wars? Are interreligious dialogues taking place in your community? What training options for dialogue have you availed yourself of that you can recommend to others?  Have you written an op-ed that you could share with us? We can support each other in multiplying the power of our individual voices to respond to the crises we face, by sharing our respective contributions. 

Musings from the Executive Secretary

Old Letters – New Discoveries

Nikolaus Wandinger

Nikolaus Wandinger

For this Bulletin I only want to give a short notice of a very pleasant surprise: When the correspondence of Raymund Schwager and René Girard was edited and published (first in the original French and German by Karin Peter and myself in 2014, then in English by Scott Cowdell, Chris Fleming, Joel Hodge, and Mathias Moosbrugger in 2016), we knew that some letters that had been written had not come down to us. We could only infer from the existing letters that some links of the chain were missing, but we could not find out what had happened to them, and were left to speculate about their whereabouts.

This has changed. When Wolfgang Palaver returned from France, where he attended the celebrations of Girard’s centenary (see Cynthia Haven’s report below), he brought with him five letters that Raymund Schwager had written to René Girard in 1982 and ’83. Benoît Chantre had found them when sorting materials to be given to the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris. These letters were handed over to Wolfgang, who brought them to Innsbruck to be sorted with the other letters of the correspondence.

Thanks to Mathias Moosbrugger, I have a preliminary translation, so that I am able to give a rough overview for the Bulletin.

In May 1982, Schwager praises Girard’s new book (Le bouc émissaire), which he has just received, and discusses the planned German translation of Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde. He wants to persuade Girard to allow a translation that does not reproduce the three-person dialogue form of the original, because in that case, Schwager fears, the publishing house would retract its agreement to publish it. Girard finally agreed, and the first German edition (1983) rendered the book as a monograph by Girard. Only the new edition of 2009 corrected that unsatisfactory move that Schwager urged Girard to accept for fear that otherwise no translation would be available.

Two letters from July and October 1982 deal with discussions going on with opponents of Girardian thinking and conferences Schwager had attended.

A letter from February 13, 1983, contains significant theological arguments. Schwager discusses in it the problem of the difference, almost chasm, between a truly gospel-conforming church and the actual sacrificial Christianity that has existed for so long. His proposed solution is to distinguish between the sacramental structure of the church and its often-misguided application. He then analyzes the structure of the Eucharist into seven steps and argues that these make it the inversion of the logic of scapegoating and exclusion. 

Finally, in April 1983, Schwager reports to Girard that he had talked to Cardinal Ratzinger about the upcoming synod on Reconciliation and Penance in the Pastoral Mission of the Church (which occurred from September 29 until October 20 of that year) and had suggested that René Girard should be invited as an expert to that synod because his work would allow to reconnect the religious language of the church with the language of psychology. Schwager relates that Ratzinger agreed to propose that to Pope John Paul II. As we know today, this invitation was not extended, but it is interesting to read of Schwager’s initiative. The letter ends with Schwager’s positive reaction to the movie Gandhi (directed by Richard Attenborough, featuring Ben Kingsley as Gandhi), which he had seen recently. He remarks that Gandhi’s spiritual and political attitude appears like a third way between a masochistic passivity and an aggressive resistance that is prone to violence. 

Here the circle closes—as Wolfgang Palaver, who has just published a book on Gandhi and Mandela in German (Für den Frieden kämpfen: In Zeiten des Krieges von Gandhi und Mandela lernen), brought these letters to Innsbruck. We will see to it that the letters will soon be translated and published in full and commented on in an enlightened way. 


Editor’s Column

Peace Is the Way

Curtis Gruenler

Curtis Gruenler

I am grateful to Phillip Bodrock for continuing, and broadening, the conversation about the war in Gaza begun by Mark Anspach in our previous issue, and to Mark for responding. I expect we have all struggled with how to bring the insights of mimetic theory to bear on the current conflicts. Especially helpful to me is a recent article by COV&R elder Wolfgang Palaver, “Peace in Times of War: Girard’s Mimetic Theory Complemented by Gandhi’s Ethics of Nonviolence” (pdf available here), in he which briefly recounts his own journey in understanding nonviolence. Wolfgang finds that both Gandhi and Girard affirm the responsibility to distinguish between aggression and defense. “A nonviolent person is bound, when the occasion arises,” wrote Gandhi, “to say which side is just.” Yet both understood how contagious violence is—how, as Wolfgang puts it, “a violent defense can easily be drawn into a spiral of violence that blurs the distinction between aggression and defense.” I find that the work of discerning justice within the blurring spiral is so taxing, and so prone to its own kind of rhetorical and relational violence, that it can distract from the further insight, shared by Gandhi and Girard, into the importance of nonviolent resistance. “We need,” writes Wolfgang, “a culture of nonviolence that must grow from the grassroots level.” (For more from Wolfgang in German, see this recent article and his new book on Gandhi and Mandela from a Girardian perspective.)

Cultivating nonviolence requires persistence, creativity, and imagination, as I have learned also from other COV&R elders, such as Vern Neufeld Redekop. Violent thinking is easy, and models of it, and of the desires that drive it, are pervasive and inescapable. We need to give our attention to models of nonviolence instead. One model I have come to appreciate in my own context is A. J. Muste, an alumnus of the college where I teach and perhaps the leading twentieth-century American advocate of nonviolent resistance, who served a long tenure as executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and mentored Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr. A colleague of mine has recently produced a four-part documentary on Muste, available at, and Hope College will host a free conference on Muste and his legacy March 21-23. 

Of course MLK is always worth our attention. Teaching his last book, Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community, in recent semesters, I have been struck by his steadfast, prophetic, nonviolent imagination while the civil rights moment fractured and his attention broadened to include economic injustice and war. A saying often attributed to Muste would equally apply to Dr. King: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

While we need to be available to public, even heroic efforts of nonviolent resistance and advocacy, its roots will always be private and interpersonal. In a recent issue of unRival’s biweekly letter The Frame, Lyle Enright points to the neuroscience that helps explain why, in seeking to change hearts and minds toward justice and peace, “the most important thing I can do is be a friend.” COV&R is, at heart, a network of friends who nurture each other in the ways of peace. Meeting and interacting with Wolfgang, Vern, and others has been as powerful for me as reading them. I encourage you to take a look at the gatherings listed below, especially our annual meeting in Mexico City, June 26-29, and the COV&R sessions at the American Academy of Religion in November (for which proposals are due Feb. 29). And if you haven’t renewed your membership this year, please consider doing so in order to access all that COV&R offers its community and support its efforts to expand that community.

If you know undergraduates interested in mimetic theory, please encourage them to consider the one-week seminar, “The Thought of René Girard: Understanding the Faith in a Secular Age,” being held on the Stanford campus in July, sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute and led by Trevor Cribben Merrill and Grant Kaplan. Board and lodging are included, and a travel stipend is provided to all students in need of one. Applications are due February 25. For questions, please email Grant Kaplan.

A 20% discount is available to COV&R members on the nine most recent volumes in Michigan State University Press’s two series, Studies in Violence, Mimesis & Culture and Breakthroughs in Mimetic Theory, up through the two just out this year, The World of René Girard, interviews conducted by Nadine Dormoy in 1988 and translated from French by William Johnsen, and Cormac McCarthy: An American Apocalypse by Marcus Wierschem. The others are: Scott Cowdell’s Mimetic Theory and Its Shadow: Girard, Milbank, and Ontological Violence; Alterity by Jean-Michel Oughourlian, translated by Andrew McKenna; Violence and the Oedipal Unconscious, volume 1: The Catharsis Hypothesis and Violence and the Mimetic Unconscious, volume 2: The Affective Hypothesis by Nidesh Lawtoo; The Time Has Grown Short: René Girard, or the Last Law by Benoît Chantre (reviewed here last year by Anthony Bartlett with a response by the author); Toward an Islamic Theology of Nonviolence: In Dialogue with René Girard by Adnane Mokrani; and Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s How to Think about Catastrophe: Toward a Theory of Enlightened Doomsaying (reviewed in this issue by Andrew McKenna). In addition, a 30% discount is available on selected titles from the backlist with a purchase of three or more. For more information, please see this page in the members section of the COV&R website. The same page includes a discount code for ordering through Eurospan, which has better shipping rates when ordering from Europe than ordering directly through MSUP. Looking ahead, René Girard and the Western Philosophical Tradition, Volume 1, edited by Andreas Wilmes and George A. Dunn, is scheduled for July and Martino Doni and Stefan Tomelleri, Playing Sociology: Theory and Games for Coping with Mimetic Crisis and Social Conflict for August.

I am grateful to COV&R and to the Department of English at Hope College for supporting my work as editor by providing funds to hire an editorial assistant, AnnaLeah Lacoss. One thing she will help me with is some of the correspondence involved in putting together the Bulletin, so you may hear from her. As always, we welcome contributions of news, commentary, and book reviews. The list of books available for review on the website is out of date, so until it is, please contact me to let me know of your interest in reviewing a particular title (and receiving a free copy of it) or to find out what is available.

Julie and Tom Shinnick are hosting a read-aloud-and-discuss Zoom group on The Scapegoat by René Girard, weekly on Monday nights at 6:30-8:00 Central Time. It began January 15, but new participants are welcome. Julie writes: “This is the first book we will have read that is actually by René Girard himself. The Scapegoat gives a good overview explanation of Girard’s theories. It includes Girard’s beautiful and illuminating discussions of several key biblical texts: the Gerasene demoniac, the beheading of John the Baptist, the gospel Passion narratives, Peter’s denial, etc. Used copies of the book are available on and (new ones also, but the used ones cost less). For people unfamiliar with the read-aloud format, we take turns reading aloud from the text, stopping for discussion and comments when anyone has a question or comment to make, so progress may seem slow. (Please note: listeners who do not want to read aloud are very welcome.) The read-aloud format provides an opportunity for rich discussion which members have greatly appreciated.  It also helps readers and listeners slow down from our busy lives for a weekly period of reflection in a small community. We only read 10-20 pages a week, so it is easy to catch up if people have to miss a session or two. We record each session for anyone who misses a meeting and wants a copy. The recordings are private, and only sent to members who request them. About a week before the meeting I’ll send out a link for the zoom.” If you are interested, please email Julie.

The videos on COV&R’s YouTube channel are now listed on a page on the website. It’s an extensive collection, including several separate playlists. The most recent addition is a professionally produced reprise of a panel on “Religion, Madness, and Mimetic Theory” from last summer’s COV&R meeting in Paris.

Forthcoming Events

The Porch Gathering

Montreat, North Carolina
March 7-10, 2024

James Alison and Julia Robinson Moore are both featured speakers at this “festival-meets-retreat” dedicated to “transformative storytelling.” The organizers, The Porch, have added an online-only registration option that includes access to livestreams of most sessions and recordings of all of them. James will also lead a separate workshop on Sunday March 10th, 1:30-4:30pm, “for a deeper exploration of questions about finding sanity in a world that often seems insane.” Information and registration are available here.

Theology & Peace Annual Gathering
Chicago, Illinois
June 10-13, 2024

Plenary speakers will include several familiar to COV&R: James Alison, Adam Ericksen, Julia Robinson Moore, and James Warren. Chaplain Ellen Corcella will also share her explorations of the interconnections between faith, spirit, trauma, and resilience.

The meeting will be held at the Casa Iskali Our Lady of Guadalupe Campus located outside of Chicago. For complete information and registration, see the Theology & Peace website.

Desire among the Ruins:
Mimesis and the Crisis of Representation

COV&R Annual Meeting
Mexico City
June 26-29, 2024

Templo Mayor

Registration for the 2024 Annual Meeting opens on February 28. Mark your calendars and make note of the registration link.

Sponsored by Universidad Iberoamericana and hosted at the Colegio de San Ildefonso, COV&R’s annual meeting is being organized by board member Tania Checchi. Complete information, including the call for papers and details about accommodations, travel grants, the Raymund Schwager essay competition, and plenary speakers, is available on the COV&R website. The deadline for proposals is April 1. Participants are encouraged to book accommodations as soon as possible because a Gay Pride festival is expected to bring thousands of visitors to the city at the same time.

Filled with palaces and museums, Baroque churches and Art Deco buildings, Mexico City’s architectural history spans more than half a millennium, and new archeological discoveries are being made almost every year. San Ildefonso is located in the heart of Mexico City, just behind the Cathedral and next to the archeological site of what was the most important Pre-Hispanic religious center, Templo Mayor. Its situation at the crossroads of these two major cultural landmarks makes it the ideal venue for our conference.

The theme, “Desire among the Ruins: Mimesis and the Crisis of Representation,” opens up a dialogical and critical space for discussing what kind of motives, aspirations, and even hopes are inscribed into our need for images, taking into account from a mimetic point of view not only their sacrificial origin and their concomitant problematic status, but also their almost infinite capacity for transformation and renewal. The “ruins” of the title evoke both the actual archeological sites that will surround us during the conference, with their archaic echoes and demands, and the actual “ruin of representation” announced by Levinas à propos the crisis of traditional epistemologies and, most importantly, the crisis of meaning experienced from the 20th century on. Given this situation, we must ask along with René Girard: is desire condemned to walk among the ruins of its mimetic failures or can it open up to the truly desirable, an alterity whose frailty no violence can reduce or silence? And finally, can images be the vehicle of this conversion?

Mexico City offers comfortable accommodations at a wide range of prices. Mexican cuisine was declared a Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010 by UNESCO and Mexico City’s array of all Mexico’s traditional food as well as experimental new Mexican cuisine will make for an unforgettable culinary experience.

COV&R at the American Academy of Religion

San Diego, California
November 23-26, 2024

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

I am both honored and excited to reach out to you as the newly appointed liaison between the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R). AAR, as the largest scholarly society dedicated to the academic study of religion, provides a vast forum for scholars, students, and practitioners to engage in critical discussions annually. COV&R, with its focus on exploring René Girard’s mimetic theory and its implications, has had the privilege of hosting two sessions each year within this vibrant community. As we prepare for our upcoming conference, scheduled for November 23rd-26th in the beautiful and inspiring setting of San Diego, California, I am filled with anticipation for the rich conversations that await us.

This year’s sessions seek to delve deeper into Girard’s insights on mimetic theory, scapegoating mechanisms, and the intricate interplay between violence and religion, inviting contributions that not only reflect on mimetic theory but also expand its application and critique. We stand at a pivotal moment to reflect on how these ideas resonate within our current global context, offering perspectives that can illuminate and challenge our understanding of conflict, transformation, and reconciliation.

In embracing my new role as COV&R’s liaison, I am deeply committed to fostering a space where scholars, students, practitioners, and enthusiasts can come together to share their research, engage in thoughtful debate, and contribute to the ongoing evolution of Girard’s work. Your voices and insights are crucial to enriching our collective journey and pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and empathy.

This conference represents a unique opportunity to contribute to a growing body of knowledge that intersects with Girard’s thought, offering pathways to understanding the complexities of human behavior, culture, and society. For our call for proposals and submission guidelines (please see “CFP and Submission guidelines” at the top of the website) please visit: The deadline for proposals is 5pm, Thursday, February 29. 

I look forward to welcoming you to an engaging, thought-provoking gathering that promises to deepen our understanding and inspire our collective work.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to email me. 

Warmest regards,

Chelsea Jordan King


COV&R Members Invited to Join New Directory

Mack StirlingMy name is Mack Stirling, and I greatly enjoyed meeting a number of you at the annual meeting in Paris this past June. There, I attended a focus group for “mimetic practitioners” (members of COV&R without academic appointments).  We were of the unanimous opinion that a directory of all COV&R members would be very helpful to us and likely also will benefit the colloquium at large. A directory would aid substantially in facilitating collaboration between members and in disseminating mimetic theory.

The proposal to create a directory was approved by the COV&R Board. Members recently received an email [sent February 3] with information on contributing to the directory. If you have not already done so, we urge (beg) you to take a few moments, find that email, and fill it out, including whatever information you feel comfortable sharing with the COV&R membership. 

If you did not receive the email, you are not currently a member of COV&R.  All new members (and renewals) will receive another invitation to contribute to the directory after the annual meeting. The directory will be updated at that time. Thank you for helping to strengthen COV&R. Please email me with any questions about the directory.

I have accepted an invitation to facilitate or co-facilitate another meeting of mimetic practitioners at our annual meeting in Mexico City. We welcome all those without academic appointments to attend to discuss how we can make COV&R more useful to practitioners. For information, suggestions, or questions, email me. 


Hamas, Netanyahu and Putin: Reflections on Mark Anspach’s Letter from the Negev

Phillip Bodrock

Editor’s Note: To view the footnotes, click on “Read More” then click on the footnote number.

Whatever leaves out contemporary historical conditions must necessarily be banal or superficial. –René Girard1
Mark Anspach is to be congratulated for his timely response to the Hamas massacres carried out at four pacifist Israeli kibbutzim on 7 October 2023. His letter (COV&R Bulletin 78, December 2023) is the first interpretation of which I am aware that deals with a real time historical crisis from a distinctly Girardian perspective. Consisting roughly of 5000 words, half the “Letter” is taken up with descriptions of the violence meted out to Jews on non-Arab land, namely Kibbutz Nir Oz, Kibbutz Be’ere, Kibbutz Holit, and Kibbutz Kfar Aza.

These descriptions are followed by an “explanatory framework” for making sense of the massacres as “sacrificial rituals.” I believe that these massacres can indeed be understood as sacrificial rituals. This formulation turns the sacrificial object into a scapegoat, thus providing the rationale for depriving the victim of his right to exist. Hamas’ archaic denial of Israel’s right to exist and Putin’s equally out-of-date denial of Ukraine’s right to sovereignty are instantiations of this. In both cases, the violence associated with ritual sacrifice can be explained as an attempt to re-establish a pre-existing mythical order, and thus to restore harmony and wellbeing to the community. By definition, this attempt to restore order via sacrificial violence is foredoomed, engineered to fail. Further, in Ukraine at least, and probably in the Arab-Israeli conflict as well, to the extent that the purpose of the violence is to establish harmony by eradicating cultural difference once and for all, i.e., to wipe a nation off the face of the earth, it can be interpreted as a genocidal act.

Putin’s war in Ukraine, which has persisted for the past 10 years, is the most serious conflagration to take place in Europe in since 1945. Why has no Girardian seen fit to discuss it? In February 2022, when his forces invaded Ukraine en masse, Putin upped the ante, escalating the conflict to a higher level of violence and cruelty. Russian troops routinely continue to commit atrocities, like kidnapping and the abduction of Ukrainian children. The crimes are far too numerous to list here, much less recount in the same detail with which Anspach narrates Hamas’ atrocities at the four Israeli kibbutzim. COV&R’s response, as far as I can tell, has been total silence. Coming from an organization committed to bearing witness to Girard’s legacy, this lack of attention to a historical circumstance, with such far-reaching and potentially dire existential consequences, is difficult to make sense of, and is deeply disturbing. The crimes against humanity for which Putin is ultimately accountable are virtually indistinguishable from those for which Hamas and Benjamin Netanyahu also bear responsibility. And COV&R has nothing to say. D’ou vient cette méconnaissance?

Besides the ritual acts of sacrificial violence that unite Hamas and Putin, there is a further similarity that connects them, making them doubles, or homologues, of each other. On the eve of 7 October, two-thirds of Gazans had little or no trust in Hamas. The attacks were intended to generate consensus and a positive view of Hamas, and they succeeded in doing so, at least for the time being. When Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, his intention was to swiftly decapitate the Zelensky government and install a puppet regime. Like Hamas in Gaza, one of Putin’s objectives was to enhance his popularity at home in the face of a declining standard of living and an upcoming election in 2024. Though the invasion did not go according to plan, as of mid-December 2023, the time of this writing (approximately 650 days into the invasion), Putin’s support in Russia appears to be holding steady.

Where I part company with Anspach is in his assertion that “it would be a mistake to interpret the current explosion of violence as an ‘escalation to extremes’ of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.” I believe it is precisely an escalation to extremes because the Israeli response is widely acknowledged to be disproportionate, excessive, Girard would say (and I don’t think I’m putting words in his mouth) à l’outrance. He would hasten to add that Netanyahu is only imitating Hamas, striving to outdo his rival, beating it at its own game. By escalating the destruction to higher order of magnitude he is, like Vladimir Putin, turning a futile ritual sacrifice into a hecatomb.

Just as Hamas launched the terrorist attacks on the kibbutzim to bolster its sagging popularity, so Netanyahu is responding with indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population to ensure his political survival. Whether this will work remains to be seen. He failed to protect Israel from the attacks in the first place, and does not have a plan for Gaza (except apparently to reduce its inhabitants to a state of servitude) when the hostilities are over. The only thing we know for certain is that vengeance never leads to a resolution of the crisis, even when the grievance driving it is justified. Netanyahu may survive for a while, but the Palestinians aren’t going away.

In the case of Ukraine, there is little doubt that Putin’s war is a genocidal one. He has declared his intentions publically. He is consciously and deliberately escalating to extremes. He, too, may survive for a while but, barring an ultimate, apocalyptic, world-ending escalation, which he is certainly capable of unleashing, Ukraine will still be there after Putin departs the scene. 

While I wholeheartedly agree with Mark’s thesis that Hamas’ massacres constitute a form of ritual sacrifice, in the present context I am hard pressed to see the relevance of the insight. It’s more like a footnote, or a sidebar. Sacrificial ritual explains the motive that sets these conflicts in motion, but it’s not much help in advising us how to stop the escalation of violence to extremes. The question I keep asking myself is not, “How can I relate the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine to Girardian theory,” but rather “What would Girard say about these conflicts if he were alive today.” Clausewitz would certainly inform his thinking. To me it’s very much about battling to the end. And I don’t think Girard would rule out the use of force. If he saw someone being lynched, he wouldn’t be a passive bystander.

The phenomenology of desire and the anthropologies of primitive religion and the Christian gospel would also be at the heart of his approach to fashioning a thoughtful response to these two crises. The principal reason Girard’s vision was so dark at the end (“More than ever, I am convinced that history has a meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying”2) is that we all share the same risks. All of us are inhabitants of the same precarious metaphysical space as the victims of the kibbutzim, or the victims of Gaza, or the victims of Bakhmut, Bucha, Mariupol, or Kherson, which is just another way of saying that Girardian analysis has its limits.

Ultimately, Girard’s project is religious, and though we are all called to sanctity, few of us are saints. Vengeance leads to death. But, alone, the renunciation of the right to revenge is not sufficient. By itself the gospel is not enough. Humanity needs more. If Girard were alive today, he’d be racking his brain working the space between those two absolutes, looking for a way, if not to resolve these crises, then at least to thwart, however temporarily, the outcomes to which we seem to be destined.

1Conversations with René Girard, edited by Cynthia L. Haven, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, p. 40.
2René Girard: All Desire is a Desire for Being, essential writings selected by Cynthia L. Haven, London: Penguin, 2023, p. 273.

On Undifferentiation in the Gaza War: Some Thoughts in Reply to Phillip Bodrock

Mark R. Anspach

Editor’s Note: To view the footnotes, click on “Read More” then click on the footnote number.

I would like to thank Phillip Bodrock for his generous and thought-provoking response to my article. I would also like to thank Curtis Gruenler for giving me the chance to reply in turn. There is much on which Bodrock and I agree. Inevitably, I must concentrate here on a few points of disagreement.

Phillip Bodrock says he parts company with me when I warn against interpreting the “current explosion of violence as an ‘escalation to extremes’ of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.” My argument was that the broader conflict, far from escalating, had been giving way to a regional peace process. I certainly do not disagree that the massacres committed by Hamas represent an escalation of its own conflict with Israel. Indeed, the whole thrust of my analysis was aimed at understanding the “extreme nature of the violence to which Hamas resorted.” Since I did not address the nature of Israel’s response, I welcome the opportunity to do so now.

I will begin with the question of whether Israel’s response can be usefully framed as mimetic. How exactly is Netanyahu “imitating Hamas, striving to outdo his rival, beating it at its own game”? Netanyahu has not ordered his troops to emulate the Hamas atrocities by gang-raping Gazans or binding them with electric wire and burning them alive. He has not instructed the IDF to beat Hamas at its own game by kidnapping Gazan civilians and trading them for Israeli hostages. There is, in fact, nothing remotely similar in the behavior of Israel and Hamas.

Given the evident qualitative difference between the two rivals, Bodrock turns to a quantitative comparison and charges Netanyahu with “escalating the destruction to a higher order of magnitude.” He says the Israeli response constitutes an escalation to extremes because it is “disproportionate” and “excessive.” He justifies these accusations by noting that their validity is “widely acknowledged.”

There is no doubt that Israel is the target of such accusations coming from all sides. However, as Girardians should be the first to recognize, the near-unanimous character of accusations is no guarantee they are true.

When people call Israel’s response disproportionate, they usually point to the great disparity in the number of casualties on either side. This has nothing to do with what is meant by proportionality in the laws of war. There is no rule that says you may not kill “too many” of the enemy, only just enough to even the scales and gain a reasonable but not “excessive” advantage. In some traditional societies where ritualized vendettas are an institution, such rules do indeed exist. They are characteristic of vengeance, not warfare. Those who accuse Israel of vindictiveness are themselves reasoning in terms of vengeance.

Given the small size of its population compared to the populations of its enemies, Israel has always aimed for the largest possible disproportion between its own losses and the number of enemy soldiers killed. This is a matter of survival for the Jewish state. The laws of war impose no limit on the number of enemy soldiers killed. They are legitimate targets. Even in the case of civilians, there is no absolute limit on how many may die and no obligation to maintain a balance between the numbers of casualties on either side. The principle of proportionality says something else entirely. It says that the number of civilians who die as “collateral victims” of an attack on a legitimate military target must be proportional to the military value of that target.

This principle depends on maintaining a distinction between civilian and military installations. It is a war crime to destroy a hospital with the aim of killing the doctors and patients inside. By the same token, it is equally a war crime to use a hospital filled with doctors and patients as a military base. That is a war crime because it means deliberately putting civilian lives at risk. But it is also a war crime for a more fundamental reason that students of mimetic theory are well-placed to grasp: using a civilian facility as a military base undermines the very structure of differences on which the laws of war depend.

Girard associates undifferentiation with crisis. Hamas puts the laws of war in crisis by systematically storing arms and stationing soldiers in or under schools, mosques, hospitals, and UN offices. It does this deliberately, to gain a strategic advantage, and not as a reaction to any action on Israel’s part. Thus, although Girardian theory is helpful here, an important caveat is in order: the undifferentiation in this instance does not emerge spontaneously out of a reciprocal interaction between the antagonists. In this sense, it does not really fit the model of the sacrificial crisis as analyzed in Violence and the Sacred or the escalation to extremes as described in Battling to the End.

More relevant are the passages in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning on the “modern concern for victims.” This concern, which Hamas does not share, is nevertheless at the heart of its strategy. Defenders of Israel routinely accuse Hamas of using civilians as human shields. That is only half the story. If Israel refrains from attacking in order to spare civilians, then the latter effectively serve as shields protecting Hamas fighters. This is a win for Hamas. But if Israel attacks anyway and kills civilians in the process, this is even more of a win for Hamas because it increases public pressure on Israel to give up the fight.

Both sides understand this dynamic. Israel warns Gazans to evacuate places targeted for bombing; Hamas tries to prevent them from doing so. Hamas seeks to maximize and Israel to minimize civilian casualties,1. The breakdown of casualties by age and gender supplied by the Hamas regime itself shows that they are disproportionately skewed toward military-age males. 2. Israel is not conducting “indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population.” Unlike Hamas, Israel respects the difference between combatants and non-combatants. So how did Hamas convince so much of the world otherwise?

This propaganda victory rests on a beautifully simple ruse. When the Hamas regime reports casualty figures, it fails to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. And presto chango! Israel’s respect for differences is transformed into undifferentiation by Hamas’s accounting methods. Hamas even attributes to Israel the deaths caused by its own rockets, about a tenth of which fall short and land on random locations in Gaza. Most perniciously of all, Hamas jumbles together in the same under-18 category gun-toting teen militia fighters and babies in their cribs. The deaths of these undifferentiated minors are then widely reported as if they were all “children,” thus feeding the narrative that Israel is “murdering kids.”3

Meanwhile, Israel continues to focus single-mindedly on tracking down and eliminating enemy combatants. It regularly releases running estimates of the number of fighters it has killed. These numbers generally correspond to more than a third of the total casualties. That is a remarkably high ratio for modern urban warfare, thus confirming the pains Israel takes to minimize civilian deaths4. The problem is that most news outlets and NGOs dutifully relay the numbers from Hamas and inexplicably ignore those from Israel. This leaves the false impression that all the deaths are civilian deaths. “There is a huge exaggeration here in the number of the killed people,” observes Palestinian peace activist Bassem Eid.5

One can always quarrel about statistics. The bottom line is whether one grants Israel the right to defend itself by fighting and winning a war against its attackers—even at the price of spilling their blood. “Vengeance,” Bodrock writes, “never leads to a resolution of the crisis.” Yes, but victory in war can lead to a resolution. Hamas has promised to repeat its October 7 attack again and again. If Israel lays down its arms now, the conflict will never end.

“Since its establishment, Hamas has one goal in mind, which is annihilating the State of Israel,” recalls senior Hamas defector Mosab Hassan Yousef, who turned against the group co-founded by his father out of revulsion for its brutality. “If we don’t stop them now, the next war is going to be deadlier.”6

Let me close with these lines from Clausewitz: “Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed… Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst” (quoted in Battling to the End, pp. 4-5).

1On the unprecedented steps taken by Israel to protect enemy civilians, see John Spencer, “Israel Implemented More Measures to Prevent Civilian Casualties Than Any Other Nation in History,” Newsweek, Jan. 31, 2024.
2Benjamin Fox, MD, David Langleben, MD and Samy Suissa, PhD, “‘Indiscriminate Killings’ in Gaza? The Facts Suggest Otherwise,” Jewish Journal, Dec. 6, 2023. The authors examine casualty rates in both the 2014 and 2023 wars in Gaza. The skewing compared to a random distribution is more extreme in the limited 2014 operation but still pronounced in 2023. The discrepancy with the 2014 conflict, when there was more independent verification of the casualty figures, is a reason to treat the current figures with caution.

According to a study from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (Gabriel Epstein, How Hamas Manipulates Gaza Fatality Numbers: Examining the Male Undercount and Other Problems, Policy Notes No. 144, Jan. 2024), the evolution over time of casualty statistics in the current war suggests that Hamas is systematically underreporting male fatalities. In certain periods, the number of men reported killed is improbably low or even negative. In one 10-day period, for example, the total death count rose by about 2500 while the subtotal for men actually fell by about 250. These figures were relayed uncritically by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The breakdown of Hamas’s governmental infrastructure in the north has compounded the problem. A little-noticed public health report in Arabic posted to Telegram on Dec. 12 revealed that the Health Ministry has been relying since Nov. 11 on media sources for data on northern Gaza rather than hospital or morgue counts. News reports then attribute to the Gaza Health Ministry data based, in circular fashion, on other news reports. These “are more likely to specify the number of women and children killed than men or combatants due to the dramatic nature of women and children’s deaths and local pressure to downplay Israeli actions against combatants” (p. 8).

3See Kobi Michael, “Hamas’ ‘Numbers Warfare’,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (, Nov. 12, 2023.
4Typically, according to the Center for Civilians in Conflict, “civilians account for 90 percent of the casualties during war” in urban settings (
5Tyler Dawson, “Ceasefire isn’t the answer: Palestinian peace activist weighs in on the Israel-Hamas war,” National Post (Canada), Nov. 28, 2023.
6“‘Son of Hamas’ in interview: Terrorists brought wrath of God with October 7 attack,” Times of Israel, Oct. 29, 2023.


Event Reports

COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion

Grant Kaplan
St. Louis University

From November 17–20, 2023, nearly ten thousand scholars of religion and theology descended on San Antonio, Texas for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. During November, San Antonio provides a pleasant respite for those who come from warmer climes. The Colloquium on Violence & Religion was well-represented, with two panels that were well-attended.

On the Friday evening, several panelists and conveners gathered for a nice meal at a distance from the Convention Center and the touristy vibe of the Riverwalk. There we got to talk mimetic theory and get to know first-time attendees while catching up with veteran attendees and presenters. From there we went our separate ways; I attended a reception. Receptions were a recurring feature of the end of my evenings during my time in San Antonio. 

On Saturday at 9am COV&R had its first panel, on Brian Robinette’s excellent book, The Difference Nothing Makes. It was a well-attended session, with about 30 people sitting and standing during the conversation. Since more is said about this panel and book below, remarks on the panel will be brief. Amy Maxey (Oblate School of Theology) and Chris Haw (Scranton University) provided insightful readings of the text and were able to ask pertinent questions about some of the consequences of Robinette’s argument. I was more interested in highlighting the genre of the book as spiritual theology. Robinette was given time to respond to the three panelists before we opened it up to general audience questions. The rich conversation was characteristic of our panels, as was the open invitation for lunch thereafter. 

On Sunday at 9am our second panel met to discuss the topic of “Policing, Disability, and Conversion.” I presided over the panel, constituting three papers: the first, by Lyle Enright (UnRival Network) talked about the “Eureka Moment” through different conversion stories. Then Susan McEcheran (University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto) presented a paper on how philosophical discourse often marginalizes those with disability to the point of radical exclusion, and the resources offered by mimetic theory to address this problem. Finally, Charles Bellinger, a regular presenter at COV&R and a prolific author, presented on mimetic theory and the training of police officers. All three papers were skillfully delivered and generated numerous audience questions, which lasted about thirty minutes and would have lasted longer if we did not hold our business meeting. 

Normally more would be said about the business meeting, but Chelsea King, the new COV&R liaison to the AAR, has a separate article in this issue of the Bulletin on the upcoming call for papers. A group headed to lunch, but I had another meeting to attend and thus could not join.

I took over as COV&R liaison in 2018 and it has been an immense privilege to serve COV&R by organizing and promoting mimetic theory at the largest meeting of scholars of religion and theology in the entire world. Through this work I have been able to gain many new acquaintances and maintain friendships. I hope I have carried on the torch of my predecessor, the inimitable Martha Reineke, with some integrity and professionalism. COV&R at the AAR/SBL will be in very capable hands as Chelsea King takes over. For those who hope to attend the 2024 meeting in San Diego, the first drink on Friday is always on me. 


His First and Final Home

Cynthia L. Haven

René Girard never sought the spotlight. So how would he have responded to last year’s international centenary events, eight years after his death? Probably with quiet amusement and a quip, before he resumed his reading, writing, and indefatigable news-watching. 

The 2023 round of events in Paris, Washington, Palo Alto, and San Francisco were capped with four indelible days of remembrance in Avignon, finishing a week before the hundredth anniversary of the French theorist’s birth on Christmas Day.

Girard columbariumThe Avignon fête began on December 14 with a concert in the 13th-century Collège des Bernardins in Paris, followed by a symposium at the same site the next day. The theme: “René Girard, lecteur de l’écriture.” Next, the festivities moved to the city where everything began: Avignon, three hours away by train. To go to Avignon is to understand something essential about the author and Académie Française immortel.

Avignon was his birthplace. This ancient city is where he attended school and made his first friends; he walked its streets as a teenager. Fittingly, on the 17th, in the magnificent Palais des Papes where his father had been curator, the renowned Quatuor Girard performed Haydn and Wagner with the Avignon Provence National Orchestra. The performance took place in the “Grand Tinel,” the vast banquet hall where medieval popes dined. 

On these few days, Girards were everywhere—not just the family from the Pacific side of the world with the recognizable tribe of tall grandchildren, but all the Avignonais Girards as well, the great nieces and the great nephews, the cousins and second cousins. So many of them wisely remained in this lovely corner of Provence. The family likeness through generations was impossible to miss. It caused a few doubletakes.

Eglise St AgricoleA thanksgiving mass was celebrated for him at Église Saint-Agricol on Saturday, December 16. The church that now has a glorious baroque altar was built long before, in the early 14th century, on the site where tradition says Saint Agricola had constructed a church in the seventh century.

The Saturday graveside ceremony was the heart of the December events. Cimetière Saint-Véran holds 12,000 tombs; it is the largest in Avignon and many notable dead are buried there, such as economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. Nevertheless, the event was unexpectedly intimate, personal, unforgettable.

After all, few occasions are more intimate than the interment of the ashes of a beloved friend—a reminder that we will join them soon. Father Francisco Nahoe said as much at the funeral mass eight years before in Palo Alto. The Franciscan priest’s words are worth remembering:

“Generally speaking, we would be more comfortable with a funeral understood as the celebration of a particular life, rather than a serious, demanding, elegiac reflection on the universal certainty of death,” he said. “But I never got that impression from Prof. Girard. I never found him to be so saturated with the maudlin sentimentality of our age that he couldn’t stop, thoughtfully and humbly, to consider that one day he would find himself precisely here.”

Cynthia L. Haven is the author of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. The Penguin U.S. edition of her All Desire is a Desire for Being will be out in June 2024.


Book Forum

The Difference Nothing Makes: Creation, Christ, Contemplation
Brian Robinette

The Difference Nothing Makes

Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2023
339 pages

Editor’s Note: The following four pieces, comments by Grant Kaplan, Amy Maxey, and Chris Haw and a response by the author, Brian Robinette, were presented during one of COV&R’s sessions at the 2023 meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

Grant Kaplan


Brian Robinette’s The Difference Nothing Makes offers a highly sophisticated work of philosophical or systematic theology, deeply informed by Girard, yet also written in or at least at the border of spiritual theology. I want to focus my reflections on the genre and method of the book before asking some questions about the ways that mimetic theory comes to bear on religious experience. 

I propose that Robinette’s book lands in the genre of spiritual theology. Here is what Robinette says about the genre and the state of theology in Chapter Two of his book: “It must be admitted that the ascetical and contemplative roots of praxis and theoria are not often foregrounded in the work of theology today as they once were. It is more typical of modern and late-modern works of theology to relegate discussion of ascetic-contemplative practice to the study of ‘spirituality’” (43–44). Later in the same chapter he notes the contrast between the kind of theology produced in the patristic and medieval eras, and that produced in the modern era: “It is nevertheless true that only in recent centuries has the ‘scientific’ character of theology shifted in such a way that scripture, creeds, and doctrines might be regarded as an independent body of propositions to which one might intellectually assent, rather than pointers to and resources for an array of virtues and habits of mind enacted in daily life” (48). If not just philosophy, but theology also can be a way of life, then it must avoid the modern conception described above.

My claim is that Robinette wants to and indeed successfully bridges this gap by writing in the genre of spiritual theology, which is decidedly not a theology of spirituality. Instead, the “spiritual” descriptor that comes before “theology” names a genre of theology that does not grant modern distinction between the head-work of theological scholarship and the heart-work of spiritual writings meant to induce piety. Robinette’s book avoids falling squarely into either category. It does not simply describe how these theological styles might be bridged, but in fact bridges them. 

My insistence on this point of performance comes from the way theologians talk about speech acts. Speech acts do not simply describe, they effect a new reality. It is raining, or The AAR is currently happening simply describe. Such statements are not speech acts. I now pronounce you man and wife, or the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, or, to bring it all home, at least in my household, You’re grounded! make things so. They effect the reality described through their utterance. 

Robinette’s kind of spiritual theology does nothing quite so grandiose as to proclaim that the Kingdom is at hand, but it nonetheless effects a change in the reader. This is the experience that many theologians had of discovering early Christian authors like Gregory of Nyssa, Origen of Alexandria, or medieval mystics like Bonaventure or Julian of Norwich. Even in texts that demand the most of our intellects, these authors compose arguments that contain the capacity to transform the reader. I do not mean merely that they can provoke an intellectual achievement, like a deeper understanding of the Trinity. Instead they work like Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which upon viewing you must, to quote Rilke, “change your life.” Spiritual theology can prompt something affective in the human heart that brings us closer to God or helps us realize our own need to repent. 

Modern and contemporary examples for me include Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Barth, M. Shawn Copeland, the early David Bentley Hart, W. H. Vanstone, James Alison, and Sebastian Moore. The Difference Nothing Makes is this kind of book, and a proper reading of it—for I do not want to fall too prey to subjectivism—invites a contemplative experience and a purgation of false images of God. Books can be written about this very topic and not prompt such a movement: here I think of Michael Buckley’s books on atheism, especially Denying and Disclosing God. While treating some similar themes as The Difference Nothing Makes (and Robinette pays Buckley proper homage in Chapter 5), Denying and Disclosing God does not prompt this movement. (As an aside, Buckley’s final book, culled from his homilies, does do this.) In the case of Robinette’s book under discussion, the genre itself makes it such that the argument forwarded and the mode of expressing this argument converge so that the “text-act” takes place. Again, I believe this convergence is not accidental, and I would invite Robinette to say something about the deliberateness of the mode of expression. 

This topic gets at the heart of René Girard’s appreciation of literature. According to Girard, the truly great novels tell us more about the human condition than any social scientist can do. In the most ecstatic apex of her reading, the reader has the sense not so much of reading as of being read. The biblical text is not so different in that it largely prefers narrative form over discursive explanation. Horace wrote, Quid rides? Mutato nomine et de te fabula narrator? “What are you laughing about? Switch the names and the story is about you.” By indirect method one can come to see the ways that one is entangled in mimetic rivalry, the ways one’s desires have been driven by another. Girard’s impressionistic yet declarative, footnote-averse style frustrates some readers for legitimate reasons, but it also lent the impression, especially in Deceit, Desire, & the Novel, that one was reading something like literature or even a novel. One of Robinette’s most frequent interlocutors, the eminent Girardian theologian James Alison, himself described the effect of discovering Girard as the process of “being read by” the book he was reading. Especially in Undergoing God, Alison contrasts knowing as achievement or grasping with a more passive form of knowledge in which an insight “washes over us,” or an insight seems to emerge like Ignatius’s consolation—without cause. 

Robinette employs arguments from Martin Laird, Sarah Coakley, Sebastian Moore, Thomas Merton, and others who say that contemplation helps engender this experience. He writes, “Contemplative prayer unsettles our managed impressions and conceptual maps and invites us to discover a more fundamental awareness that cannot be exhausted by any of its contents. It is rather like ‘free-falling’ into an abyss, as Sarah Coakley puts it” (45).

The remainder of my time will be devoted to describing how this undergoing works in the context of mimetic theory, as taken up in Chapters 3 and 4 of The Difference Nothing Makes. Here Robinette makes the same point I made above about the biblical genre, but also adds how the Gospels work as a model. He writes, “[The Gospels] are textual performances that would shape how their readers come to know and desire” (113). He later expands on this when he writes, “They are essentially inviting all hearers of the ‘good news’ to imagine themselves as complicit in the all-against-one dynamic resulting in Jesus’ execution. It is not ‘those people’ who have done this, or who continue to do this, but ‘we’ who do it” (143). If one has lived with the impression that those inside the religious edifice (call it “Church”) are the good guys except when one temporarily does something bad, such words sound like a jolt. Girard’s theory is most essentially about conversion, but the novelistic conversion cannot be merely a more sophisticated form of romantic deceit. It surely requires more grace and less grasping.

Robinette helps engender this reminder, in part, by taking his time. He is in no rush to describe all the components of mimetic theory before delivering his payoff, but instead unfolds a beautiful, slow-opening account of Girard’s thesis. He also engenders this reminder by stripping the book of much of the pretension and jargon that often inhabit works of philosophical theology. By this I do not mean to call the book simple, or easy, or non-academic. It required all of my intellectual attention. But there is something inviting about it as well. In describing the process of coming to know God as victim, Robinette writes, “The agapeic dispensation of God takes on a particular shape in our history, and its embodiment is a strange yet welcoming presence that gravitationally lures those who encounter it toward a way of life unbound by mimetic rivalry and reciprocity” (155). One has the sense of being read by a book when one receives the impression that it is about me. Hamlet tells Ophelia, Get thee to a nunnery but I suspect I’m not the only reader of this book who hears, Get thee to a retreat center after reading such passages.

Two pages later, Robinette declares: “God’s redemptive love goes to the heart of our darkness, infiltrates its secret recesses in order to expose and release its clutches from within. It reaches into alienation, shame, and the ravages of party spirit, even becoming victim to them, not in order to give them divine sanction but to unbind and transmute them with love’s releasing power” (157). Here Robinette follows in the footsteps of Sebastian Moore and James Alison by offering not just a mimetic theology, but a specifically mimetic spiritual theology. It is no surprise then, that these theologians emerge as two of Robinette’s most reliable interlocutors.

Near the end of Chapter 4, Robinette uses the writings of Martin Laird and Thomas Merton to demonstrate the need for contemplation in order to fulfill the command of neighborly love. He explains, “I cannot truly know my neighbor in any grasping sense, for such knowing is largely the function of projection, fashioned in the restless shuffle of mimetic proximity. But I may ‘unknow’ my neighbor, as it were. I may ‘release’ him or her from my preconceptions, from my convenient labels, from my overriding schemas, from my need to manage and defend my self-other perceptions” (169). In this passage Robinette pushes the boundaries of academic prose in order to capture something of the rhythm of our sinful patterns and the graced horizon for shedding them. In the next paragraph he explains the role of contemplation in this reversal: “Contemplative practice invites us to witness our thoughts and desires dispassionately, or, as the monastic tradition emphasizes, with detachment. We ‘release’ our limiting thoughts of the other into silent awareness, without judgment or mental commentary. […] We practice, in prayer, the unbinding and unloosing of desire, and this allows us better to witness our desires and mimetic comparisons in real time, to let them go rather than getting caught up on their unending dramas” (169). Robinette then shifts, almost seamlessly, into the imperative—“Let it flow through you. Look over its shoulder” (169). How can one not take this as an invitation to contemplation?

Amy Maxey


As suggested by the playful semantics of his title, Brian Robinette’s The Difference Nothing Makes: Creation, Christ, Contemplation draws deeply from Christian contemplative and mystical traditions to variously probe, deny, and modulate “difference.” The aim, in Brian’s own words, is to “remove any concept, intuition, or principle that might mediate between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’” (xii). This apophatic therapy on creatio ex nihilo illuminates the difference between God and creation in a noncompetitive, noncontrastive mode, an understanding of “difference” that contravenes the typical functioning of that word. Often the ways in which we conceive of “difference” limit our imaginative horizons and solidify separations in the human community. By presenting “difference” differently, Brian suggests that there are other ways of conceiving difference and new modes of relating to difference that can engender human flourishing in concert with the divine. 

As a rich contribution to contemporary efforts to reunite theology and spirituality, The Difference Nothing Makes is not content merely to rest upon the intricacies of negative theology abstracted from creaturely life. Asking “how might this doctrine become a practical and contemplative insight that we can skillfully embody in everyday life” (xi), Brian also considers this doctrine in an existential register. There is a significant insight here to highlight: theological doctrines, even very technical ones such as creatio ex nihilo, can become more cogent through contemplation, and contemplation can nourish our understandings of doctrines in ways which make them relevant to human living.

Brian builds his case by arguing that the practice of contemplation facilitates an attitude of letting-be, of deepened self-awareness, and of awareness of the divine immanent to the self. This attitudinal adjustment serves as the condition in which the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo can be “discovered” in an existential register. Situated within the affective and mental space contemplation affords, the contemplative realizes the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not merely an explanation of the cause of the cosmos but is true of herself, precisely and particularly as she is, and is becoming. This realization becomes the grounds of an invitation to live into a transformed mode of life of agapeic love in a nonrivalrous communion with others, modeled off of the example of Christ (40). 

This account requires a fairly robust vision of contemplation to sustain it, and Brian’s account is in-step with several contemporary currents recovering classic Christian accounts of contemplation from the tradition. References to Thomas Merton, Martin Laird, and Sarah Coakley put him such company. However, there is a suspicion that contemplation may be an “overloaded” phenomenon in this book. The relations among desire, experience, and knowledge are often obscure in mystical theologies—we may think of the long interpretive tradition of pseudo-Dionysius—but I suggest that teasing these dimensions apart raises some questions about how Brian understands the mystical-contemplative dimensions of this doctrine and of the book’s aim to make this existentially relevant. 

I begin by wondering if Brian could clarify how he understands mystical desire, for it is not clear to me that it can be construed neatly on the acquisitive/pacific divide that plays such an important role in his argument. Brian writes that “contemplative practice might well be summed up as a long letting go of desire’s acquisitiveness, without desire itself becoming extinguished. It is the free allowance of God’s own creative and pacific desire to stretch out in us so that we might desire and live accordingly: from God’s desire” (58). This sentiment is not quite the idea of epektasis, the unending desire for God classically rendered by Gregroy of Nyssa, but I wonder if Brian envisions a similar ever-receding horizon of desire when it is modulated by contemplation. Does this mean that a certain kind of mystical eros perdures even after it is worked upon by divine desire, and if so, in what way? Is mystical eros supplanted by the agapeic love that emerges though contemplative practice?

My next set of questions concern how Brian describes the experiential dimensions of contemplation. Brian offers this description of what it means to experience our being created from nothing via contemplation: “To feel the underlying sense of our nothingness, with all the giddiness, confusion, and hopelessness this can stir up in us, is in fact to be in touch with our creaturely contingency […] our immediate dependence upon God for being at all” (181). Because this account bears a family resemblance to Schleiermacher’s classic articulation of religion as the feeling of absolute dependence (see Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christian Faith, trans. Terrence N. Tice, Catherine L. Kelsey, and Edwina Lawler, vol. 1 [Westminster John Knox Press, 2016], 8–27), it seems important to me to re-affirm the apophatic dimensions of Brian’s thinking, lest this point be misread. The feeling of dependence as articulated by Brian seems to be contentless, such that the ways in which we typically sense and speak of “dependence” are inadequate to the experience of this unique mode of creaturely dependence. This leads me to question how adequate it is to speak of this as “experience” at all. Throughout the book, contemplation is freighted with experiential language of awareness, practice, aridity, and silence, to name a few descriptors. Are these terms merely metaphorical, aiming to linguistically evoke what is actually a crisis of experience? Or, do they speak to a crisis of understanding?

And so I come to my major questions, which concern the peculiar epistemology of contemplation. Does contemplative prayer “unsettle[] our managed impressions and conceptual maps” (45), or does it proceed from them? Brian’s methodology of discovery works to great effect in his analysis of the early theologians of the church discovering the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo through the resurrection. But, is creatio ex nihilo discovered by the individual in the same way through the procedures of contemplation? Isn’t the Christian who contemplates already formed by an imaginative horizon shaped by the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (whether understood in the subtle ways Brian proposes or in a more rough approximation)? This is not to drag our discussion into debates about the contextualized or constructed nature of religious experience, but rather to point out that the relationship between contemplation, experience, and understanding is anything but obvious. 

More importantly, I wonder if this account of contemplation collapses mystical knowing into mystical experience in a way that muddies the waters rather than clarifies his account of contemplation. Consider Brian’s statement: “Through repeated acts of availing oneself to God in the simplicity of faith—intentionally, freely, and with a cultivated willingness to let go of one’s need to know God through any concept, any need for security, any demand for experience—the contemplative begins to discern, at the very source of consciousness and will, a fruitful emptiness that is recognizable as always having been there as the inexhaustible wellspring of creaturely being and freedom” (49-50). Allow me to rephrase this statement and raise some questions along the way: contemplation is a practice in which the person prays to God with a simplicity of faith that grasps at nothing—not mediating concepts of who God is, not feelings of security, not even any experience of God. In this emptiness of agenda (or cessation of desire?), the person who prays discerns (or experiences? or understands?) at the base of her self an emptiness. This emptiness is recognized (or discovered? or already somehow known?) as the wellspring of her creaturely being and freedom. 

Questions notwithstanding, the substantial payoff to Brian’s methodology in bringing this doctrine in conversation with contemplation can be summed up in his crucial insight that “contemplation is not a flight from creatureliness, as some may suppose, but its acceptance” (51). Eschewing both a Neoplatonic flight of the alone into the Alone and a modern Romantic aesthetical launch into a spiritualized metaphysics, Brian reaffirms what must be true of a Christian perspective on contemplation. Namely, the transcendence of the contemplative is precisely the kind of transcendence that creaturely intellect and affect is oriented towards as creaturely. This mode of transcendence correlates to the mystical desire to know the beloved as the beloved actually is, and in the case of the divine Beloved, knowing the Beloved reveals the desirer as she actually is, in perpetual relation to the divine Beloved. The truth of this relationship between self-conscious creature and loving creator can be discovered when a contemplative attentiveness provides the contingent grounds for this insight to occur, and the insight, like creation itself, is gratuitously rendered. Authentically appropriating this truth is the matter of a lifetime, of habitual return to and rest in the pacific movement of the life of the Triune God. Brian’s rich account of this graced mode of life reminds me of 14th-century Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec, whose words make an appropriate conclusion: “This flowing of God into us exacts a flowing-out and a flowing-back with all of this richness into the same ground whence the flowing comes” (Jan Van Ruusbroec, “The Spiritual Espousals,” in The Complete Ruusbroec, ed. Guido de Baere and Thom Mertens, trans. Helen Rolfson, vol. 1 [Brepols, 2014], b159-160).

Chris Haw


In spring 2023, I was visiting with the 23 inmate-students enrolled in my University’s prison program. In our cavernous cinderblock auditorium, strewn with plastic lawn chairs, we were discussing how they felt about their classes and the pending graduation for several of them. At one point, we began to contemplate how challenging and queer it was—that we were actually hosting college courses in such inhospitable conditions, indeed nine a year. And the conversation soon swerved into a tone of gratitude, on the almost-mystical un-thinkableness of what they had been experiencing. 

I call it “unthinkable” because they were all variously stating how the dehumanizing context of prison, of reducing inmates to nothing-but-waste, profoundly structures thought. This de-dignification is hard to resist; and indeed, for many, it totally shapes their self-perception and view of the world. At one point, a student said something entirely blunt and simple, about my having started the program: “you didn’t have to do this.” Instantly several others nodded their heads, grunting in agreement—as if the heart of the matter had been named. You did not have to do this. 

He was referring to the program’s bald gratuity: its offering a free college education, to “a bunch of murderers,” with professors gleefully shaking hands, distributing books, offering lectures, grading papers, and proctoring exams, in the middle a New Jim Crow mass incarceration system that, otherwise, calculates everything on certain reasons and technician logic. Everything in that hostile system has a referent and anterior reason—some preexistent chaos that it is only responding to. So, the logic goes… 

the threat of danger requires a system to jump to the rescue; and so taxpayers pay for prisons, courts, and police to keep us safe; and all this provides jobs. And while there are admittedly some bad apples, in sadistic guards and excessive solitary confinement, we must return to the solid ground, that these inmates are monsters. And even if some of them feel debased, too bad: they started it. etc. 

Everything here always has good reasons. It can always be justified. Always. As it might be put in German, it always has a ground—a founding reason.

And while our program might have its “reasons,” it does not—how can I say it?—quite have grounds. One guard even got blunt with me one day, saying, “I am personally offended by your program; it suggests my son needs to rob a bank to get into college.” Now there are certain “reasons” I can offer in reply—about how college in prison reduces inmate violence and recidivism, thereby reducing tax-payer burden, or that we hope to start a program for guards too, and so on. But all of this still doesn’t explain the, shall I say bluntly, absurdity and groundlessness of naively greeting a rapist and murderer with a smile, bracketing those sins, and proceeding to offer him a free associate degree with courses in math, literature, history, philosophy, physics, etc. Let’s be honest about that.

And so underneath this inmate-gratuity conversation, I was brought to a moment of reverie. For I happened to be reading Brian Robinette’s book, that week, on creatio ex nihilo, and it all perfectly fit together. For one of the fastest ways to pronounce the doctrine is to say that “God did not have to do this.” With this simple concept, so much of the Bible and doctrine cascade together: Jesus’ nonviolence, in imitation of our Father, taught us to imitate the sun and rain in an indiscriminate and groundless distribution of love—echoed in the prodigal son, or the parable of equal payment of different laborers. We are commanded to throw parties for those who could never repay us. We are to forgive hundreds of times. We are, unthinkably, to love things before they are lovable; indeed, our Mother loves creation into being every moment—loving things even before they are things. This love is groundless—can we even say “meaningless” (good for nothing, p. 212), for it cannot be explained by some prior need, excuse, or problem? It is a love anterior to reciprocity.

I thus came to see a connection between this doctrine and my prison experience, synthesized in St. John of the Cross: “where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love.” Now, I’m inclined to moderate him, saying, “where you see no love, put love”—for I don’t want to indulge thinking that there is no love in the prisoner, or in any other. But John’s “where there is no love” rhetorically boldfaces the divine motive and meaning of love ex nihilo (matching Brian’s thesis at p. 176).

Now there are some nuances here that Robinette helps us see. For one, the mystical coin of creatio ex nihilo is two sided: while we profess, “God didn’t have to do this,” we are also not wrong to think the God who is said to be love almost “has to” create our cosmos (228). Though words fail here, a God of pure love is almost “bound” to proliferate “others” to love and be loved. With these two sides of free gratuity and bound necessity, we are presented with what Chesterton called a problem wherein, when faced with two truths in contradiction, the wise person should “take both truths and the contradiction with it.” In other words, creatio ex nihilo does not so much explain or resolve anything, as it safeguards the unthinkable, groundless, gratuitous love of God, keeping this mystery from being reduced into one of our tiny, exclusive logical categories. 

Robinette also provides a very helpful, for me at least, corrective to a certain temptation for “weakness” theology, espoused by John Caputo et al. In this view, the idea of a sovereign, groundless Lord is taken to underwrite a cosmic dictator who decrees and rules the “empire of being” arbitrarily, without reason. This onto-theology-God evidently has a lot of obscene mismanagement to account for: namely, a world of virtually endless evils and suffering over which He presides sovereign. Such a deity is not worth worshipping. In the cross, this vision of a dictator-god dies, suffering this godless world with us.

Following this “weak God” means abandoning all notions of theodicy, which de-dignify us, forcing us to bow before a Lord who must have his mysterious reasons for Auschwitz. (Per unbearable “free will theodicy,” perhaps evil is just the price of free will, which undergirds faith that our best of all possible worlds is brought to us by the best of all possible gods.) Pointing us instead to the nonviolent weakness of God in Christ, Caputo sees the disarming and depotentiation of the deity. Caputo thus concludes an appropriate metaphysics should counter the sovereign fiat of ex nihilo by taking solace in a pseudo-literal reading of Genesis 1. There, the quiet god-who-is-to-be hovers over the preexistent abyss and chaos. Avoiding the arbitrary sovereignty of a God who creates from nothing, we now have a Spirit who, in the course of salvation-history, wrestles the chaos into beauty, harmony, and love. 

We might ask if my above prison theodicy relates to Caputo’s antiex nihilo reading of Genesis. For it relies on defining itself with a contrastive ground: a preexistent somethingchaos, to which God merely “responds.” Does Caputo here conflate the unthinkability of gratuitous creatio-ex-nihilo with malignant sovereignty? Robinette indeed argues Captuo’s weak theology ironically reduces God to a competitive relation, in which God and cosmos are “two.” Robinette agrees with Caputo in the need to avoid notions of G-d as “the first being” (64) who is “out there” at the top of a chain of being (16). But, ironically, Caputo’s anti-ex-nihilo turns out to bear a lot in common with the theodicies that know-too-much: they invite the graven image of G-d as (now-thinkably) competitive with the cosmos in interventionist terms (162). 

Instead of rejecting ex nihilo to draw up a theodicy-free weak narrative, as Caputo does, Robinette turns to both Christ’s kenotic love ex nihilo and its associated creatio ex nihilo. Together these teach us to let go of our need to know God through a concept (49) and celebrate, in the Incarnation—per Rahner and Bulgakov et al—the relation between God and cosmos as unthinkable: God and creation are not one (creatio ex deo, per the monists), nor can we say they are two. (Simone Weil, in Waiting for God, regards the “cosmos plus God as less than God.” That is, for her, creation means God in Her fullness is kenotically “removed” of some perfect eternal fullness. Perhaps God still retains Her eternal perfection, in Herself, somehow simultaneous with the “temporal” kenosis that allows the cosmos. Whether this too strongly distinguishes the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity, Robinette’s Nothing differs: “God does not withdraw to create” [77].) 

The Hypostatic Union Crucified is the relaxed lens through which to view all tense antinomies—one/two, necessity/freedom, power/weakness, God/creation, etc. Orthodoxy refuses to “solve” such oppositions with a fixed, fully intelligible, positive thought, and instead celebrates an unthinkable gratuity. Per Augustine, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves; as our souls animate our bodies, God animates our soul; and yet, “I am not what God is.” Avoiding Marx and Feuerbach’s competitive logic, in which “the more we put into God, the more we debase ourselves,” the doctrine of Incarnation proclaims of Christ, “the more of the Father he has in him, the more he is himself, the more freely human he is.” Without conflating the two, we encounter a marriage of mutual acceptance, between seeming opposites, between cosmos and God; a wedding we can celebrate, but not necessarily understand. 

(Indeed, apophatic theology here naturally bleeds into apophatic anthropology, such that the Incarnation makes us re-question what the human is. If creatio ex nihilo protects how we don’t know what this cosmos is, the Incarnation protects how we don’t even know what humans are. Both dignify via groundless gratuity. It is not just the Incarnation but the Cross that dissolves certain competitive and grounded notions of God. For the crucified God, who is no-thing, “freely loses the battle on our behalf” [85]. The one who did not grasp upward but humbled himself to death on a cross is the Way into God’s mystical darkness. Robinette’s defense of ex nihilo thus resonates with mimetic theory’s centering upon the victim—wherein Christ crucified is the way out of the sacred into the holy, the way to G-d through negating the gods, disidentifying God from human projections [170].)

The theodicy connections here are also patent. As Scott Cowdell writes, “The real God is not a metaphysical proposition about how suffering and death can be reconciled with meaning and purpose. This philosophers’ god is another fabricated deity of persecution, erecting stability and meaning over the graves of victims” (René Girard and Secular Modernity, 13, 94, 179). On this front Robinette replaces justification-theodicy with God-suffering-theodicy devoted to the active “practices of justice” (168) and ecological sensitization. Notably, insofar as Robinette holds onto the co-suffering love of God, he does not entirely abandon the questions of theodicy. While trying to avoid overwrought answers in the face of suffering, he ends with strong notes of hope founded on the resurrection. “God is silently present in the suffering…not constantly supervening” (251).

On this point, I voice misgivings. It is not that such hope sounds heterodox; I am the one tempted toward untethered, atheistic, arrested apophasis here. But I ask, with J.B. Metz and Dorothee Sölle in mind, about how to rightly hope on the via negativa. There seems to be a dark, deep, almost unspeakable hope lurking under the sign of the resurrection. This is a hope I find almost betrayed, turned saccharine, through verbalization. This is a topic for exploration in discussion with Robinette. What might be his criteria for what constitutes misguided and idolatrous optimism, presumptuousness, and hope? Is there ever a time or way in which proclaiming the resurrection is insolent arrogance?

One of my other questions is how to situate the via negativa amidst some extra-Christian cognates. I am, for example, particularly inclined to see Lao Tsu and Pseudo-Dionysius as drinking from the same well—if not at least sharing a watershed. What is lost when the Incarnation Crucified becomes the singularly centered apophatic (un)voice? How do we regard apophatic voices outside the Christian confession—those affectionate toward the unspeakable Tao, the Unnameable, the One? I see some gestures, for example, in Christ the Eternal Tao (Hieromonk Damascene, published 1999)—an impressive attempt at synthesizing Taoism with Christianity—but I have some misgivings about a certain Christian supremacism and annexation in such efforts. This is of course not a conversation for Robinette alone, but for our entire Christian tradition.

Similarly, Robinette refers to the resurrection conferring authority (113). I struggle here, wanting some treatment, as Girard did, of parallels and divergences with other seeming resurrections. Consider Girard: “Christ’s divinity, which precedes the Crucifixion, introduces a radical rupture with the archaic, but Christ’s resurrection is in complete continuity with all forms of religion that preceded it. The way out of archaic religion comes at this price” (Battling to the End, pp. xv).  By contrast, Robinette, in another work: “it is of the very nature of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead that we have no stable analogy or historical precedent to help us gain mastery over it,” or, “Jesus’ resurrection is sui generis,” or “unique to him” (Grammars of Resurrection, 23, 71, 372). But would not Robinette’s frequent usage of “Easter” imply that its likeness to the rising god Ēostre warrants at least some attention to how our Event is somewhat analogous to other “resurrection events”?

I’m disinclined to see the resurrection as “the miracle that justifies belief”—as is Robinette, to some extent, in his Grammars of Resurrection (e.g. 18). Intriguingly, Grammars framed the Incarnation as “downstream” of the Resurrection, the primordial root of faith, a virtually-unthinkable saturated phenomenon. By contrast, The Difference centers the Incarnation (20, 231, 239, 253). Not necessarily contradicting himself, Robinette portrays a dynamic relation between Incarnation and Resurrection in both books. Thinking that relation, for me at least, needs time for digestion.

Lastly, I again applaud the desire to replace hand-wringing theodicy with the “practices of justice.” But I draw our attention to the almost ineluctable conflict that comes with any such work. With Dr. King in mind, I detect a modest but remediable deficit among some mimetic theory discourse—and a bit in Robinette’s book—when a certain pacific, dovish tone is struck. I worry this fails to account for Christ as the one “who came to divide.” That is, in The Difference there are strong but vague critiques of things like “exclusionary othering,” “exclusionary violence,” and so on (157, 164, et passim). The adjectives here, for one, seem to turn these phrases into tautologies, only raising more questions: e.g. is there non-exclusionary othering?

Put more substantively, I worry such language delays us in thinking how most “justice practices” engage, to some extent, with the political realm, the containment of violence, thus a realm of decision and exclusion. (Note his attempt to “overcome us/them” [119].) Even the dove-like methods of the civil rights movement won certain legal gains that were, in turn, enforced, at times, at gunpoint. Shall we call that their snake-shrewdness? Any simple renunciation of this ambivalence ironically pre-prohibits the very “works of policy-making” and “justice work” that Robinette lauds. Are my objections here—from Chantal Mouffe and her retrieval of Schmitt’s political—just incapable of thinking the possibility of the non-political being incarnated, just like the unthinkability of ex nihilo? Should I describe my prison program as “exclusionary inclusion”? For the grumbling guard has his point; and there are ineliminable exclusions to practicing justice.

Brian Robinette


I will first respond to Grant Kaplan’s reflection, as the question of genre and authorial intent can help frame responses to other questions posed to me by the panel. In a word, yes, Grant has thoroughly sussed out the deepest aim of The Difference Nothing Makes, and it is beyond gratifying to think that, for at least one reader, it could bridge the gap between “spirituality” and “theology” in the way he describes. It was how I felt when writing the book, even during the tough stretches; and this was no doubt inspired by a host of voices who have had the same effect on me. 

The attempt to bridge this gap is risky business, I admit, because there is a strong pull to default to academic conventions in our work as academic theologians. The discursive habits and incentive structures of the academy are strong—and have their rightful place—but there is something most peculiar about writing theology. To do so is to transgress the text, as Jean-Luc Marion puts it: from words to the Word, and from the Word to words.1

And then there’s Silence. I recall Gregory of Nazianzus who, in a theological oration, asks about the conditions for doing theology. When is the right time for it? he asks. “Whenever we are free from the mire and noise without, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering images, leading us…to mix fine script with ugly scrawling…. We need,” he continues, “actually ‘to be still’ in order to know God, and when we receive the opportunity, ‘to judge rightly’ in theology.”

Now, I’m sure I have contributed my fair share of ugly scrawling in what I’ve written, and perhaps other readers will find the mixed genre of the book, if that’s what it is, strange or off-putting. But what I find so striking about Gregory’s plea is how central the practice of stillness is for the craft of theology. We talk much these days about theological method, and every day it seems we are presented a brand new theory to contend with. But too seldom do we talk about how to become theologians. Prior to the study of texts, languages, doctrines, histories, institutions, and politics—all of which are crucial—is the question: how do we ourselves undergo our theological vocation? Stillness, or a certain quality of attending—of waiting, of abiding, of hearing, and, as it were, relaxing into the source and ground of our being—would seem the principle of principles. In short, we must learn to pray.

Now, mimetic theory is one among many theories roaming about in the noisy marketplace of ideas; and it, too, exhibits considerable ambition in its explanatory reach. It means to give us better theoretical grip on a broad range of phenomena, and to this extent is a research program to help make biblical texts, interpersonal dynamics, historical events, and political developments more tractable. But as Grant rightly points out, mimetic theory is a generative insight into the dynamics of human desire that usually remain hidden to us, and thus encountering it with openness entails something like a process of awakening: a shift in consciousness that calls for a new way of living. It is a theory about desire, but a theory that would provoke a conversion in how we desire. Once you “see” it, it’s hard to “unsee,” and you begin to read all manner of phenomena, including those most intimate in your own experience, by its light. Such has been my experience with it since first encountering René Girard and James Alison in the late 1990s, and it is why I have integrated key features of mimetic theory in much of my writing, as well as my teaching.

I have long believed, however, that while the insights of mimetic theory bear this capacity, there must be ways for further integrating it with other aspects of Christian mystagogy. Grant has summarized my longform attempt at such integration with admirable clarity, and I am grateful to hear it rendered in ways that confirm and even advance my efforts. That he finds the text “performative” in the manner described is hugely encouraging and prompts me to think more about how to widen the accessibility of such efforts in the future. Dare I say it: that there’s room, in the wide, wide world of theology and spirituality for a school of “mimetic spiritual theology” to properly emerge?


I hope my response to Grant thus far has partially outlined how I might answer the question Amy Maxey asks me about “mystical desire.” There are basically two senses of desire operative in the book. The first is mimetic desire, both its creative and destructive capacities. To say that human beings desire according to the desires of others, as Girard puts it, is to recognize that a vast range of desires we tend to think of as spontaneous or “mine” are in fact shared, thereby making the “self” an inherently relational (and unstable) reality. I won’t rehearse the various aspects of mimetic desire here, except to make two points. The first is that the mis-recognition (méconnaissance) of this fact, or the effort to deny it by defining ourselves over and against others—always with the result of self-other reification—is the single greatest cause of human dysfunction and suffering I know. Any approach to “mystical desire” that does not account for its mimetic mediation is doomed, therefore, to severe partiality and even distortion. “My” desire for God implicates me in the desires of others, which is why, in Christian tradition, there can never be a Plotinian flight of the alone to the Alone but only a participation in divine life that is all-inclusive of interpersonal, social, and cosmic reality. My neighbor is not accidental to my desire for God but the site in which communion with God occurs.

Second, while this is a massive implication of mimetic theory, it must be admitted that the transcendentality of the human person—as constitutively oriented towards God in all our acts of knowing and loving—is underdeveloped in mimetic theory to date. And this concerns the second sense of desire operative in my book. Girard rarely talked about the transcendentality of human desire in this way, and many working in mimetic theory could benefit from accounts of the human person as constituted by the “natural desire for God,” as this shows up in our yearning for understanding, meaning, values, and the unconditioned suchness of absolute reality. (“Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?”) We are right to speak of this transcendentality in terms of “eros,” for it is an elemental yearning, an a priori structured drive that animates all aspects of our lives, whether consciously or not. I remain committed to transcendental approaches to theology, as perhaps most evidenced by my extensive engagement with Karl Rahner; and here, too, I think there is important work to be done in integrating mimetic theory with other kinds of anthropologies.

As for the term “mystical,” I must acknowledge some reticence in using it, given the cottage industry around “mysticism” these days, particularly in the academy where preoccupations with unusual personalities, texts, and experiences tend to prevail. I do, however, devote pages to exploring the Pseudo-Dionysian account of mystical eros, and especially his daring suggestion that that “our” yearning for God is, in fact, a participation in divine eros—analogically understood. Elsewhere I develop the Trinitarian implications of contemplative transformation, along with Sarah Coakley, to suggest that in contemplative prayer we grow in the recognition that the Spirit prays “in” us with groans too deep for words, to intone the Pauline theme. In this respect I don’t think that mystical eros is supplanted by agapeic love, to answer another of Amy’s questions. But the main reason I generally refrain from discussions of mysticism is precisely because of the problem she raises about collapsing knowing with some kind of “experience.” I strongly resist any such collapse, as I don’t think that contemplation is about special experiences at all. I often find myself wanting to cut through certain conventions by focusing on contemplative practice, and especially the (typically slow) transformation of consciousness it entails. It is neither a particular experience nor the lack of experience. Rather, it constitutes a deep and abiding shift in how we experience.

Contemplation, as I develop it in the book, entails the discovery of a fundamental awareness—a spacious, luminous depth—that is inherently peaceful, cognizant, and free. It is the pacific source and ground of our being, and thus not an experience or a faculty among others. This awareness is always present to us, though it usually remains in the background, and very often obscured because we are so typically absorbed in our experience, whether sensory, emotive, or ideational. That is, the constant flow of experience is something we are usually caught up in, identified with, attached to—with the consequence that we are mostly reacting in the push and pull of life rather than responding with loving creativity. (This is what “creative mimesis” is more deeply about, I maintain.) We grow alienated from our source and ground, and very often we fear relaxing into it, as it seems to threaten our agendas, our identity-building projects, our schemas of others, even our images of God. But the practice of stillness, of settling into the inmost depths of our being, can help us recognize this silent presence, become more familiar with it, grow more established in it, and flow from it as we live our lives. While this may seem like “nothing” at all to the grasping mind, it is utterly trustworthy. And, paradox of paradoxes, the more we surrender to it, the more we may become ourselves. Contemplative surrender doesn’t turn us into amorphous blobs, and emptiness doesn’t imply ontological lack. Rather, it allows us to ever-more-freshly sense are shared createdness, or our “coming from nothing,” which is to say, our coming from God.

Overall, I sense that I am largely in agreement with the gist of Amy’s questions, including the importance of integrating contemplative discovery within the fabric of our lives. There is a mutually deepening relationship between nondiscursive contemplation and the host of discursive, content-rich frameworks that support and nourish Christian mystagogy, as I hope the book overall makes clear. Where I may have some point of difference with Amy, in the end, is the emphasis I give to the fundamental awareness: the empty, luminous depths out of which all our sensations, feelings, thoughts, and desires arise but which is never exhausted.


Given this emphasis on contemplative awakening, more than one reader of the book so far has wondered about its potential for exploring resonances with other religious traditions, particularly Buddhism. This may speak to one of Chris Haw’s questions, namely, whether the via negativa in the Christian tradition bears parallels with other religious traditions. He specifically mentions the unspeakable Tao, which I found suggestive. As for Buddhist approaches, S. Mark Heim, who has done extensive work in the Christian-Buddhist dialogue in a Girardian key, has suggested in a Syndicate symposium on my book that the theology of creatio ex nihilo I develop opens new possibilities for Christian-Buddhist dialogue to emerge around creation and nonduality. I relish this thought, as I have long sensed deep resonances with Buddhist practice traditions. Christians have much to learn from these (and other) traditions, and I agree with Chris that the work of comparative theology can also enrich mimetic theory. Heim’s most recent book, Crucified Wisdom: Theological Reflections on Christ and the Boddhisatva, is a sterling example.

That said, there is a strong christological core to the book, and this fact relates to other aspects of Chris’s response. Among them is his question about the relation between resurrection and incarnation in my broader work. The best way to characterize this relation is by saying that I understand Jesus’ resurrection as that through which we are granted an unprecedented discovery of who God really is, of what creation is eternally meant to be, and what it shall become. The only reason we know anything at all about the incarnation, such that we could crystallize the whole of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in terms of God’s self-bestowal, is because of the massive shift in imagination and desire that Easter induces. We don’t learn of the incarnation except through the eschatological rupture that is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead; and what the resurrection reveals, precisely in the midst of a brutal execution, where death and power-as-force seem to have the last word, is that peace and mercy and communion are primordial and our ultimate end. God’s word of response from the nihil of death sets in motion an understanding of God’s unconditioned creativity, goodness, and love from the beginning—or, creatio ex nihilo. There is simply no greater “yes” than this!

It is only from the resurrection that we can look back—retrospectively, as it were—to say what God’s originally creative act truly amounts to. The longform argument I attempt in this book and Grammars of Resurrection together is that eschatology and protology are really two aspects of one dynamic reality. The resurrection is the catalyst for new discovery in this regard, but we can develop further understandings to draw out the enormous consequences of this discovery. This is how I see incarnation language: as a working out of the implications of Easter.

Finally, and to address Chris’s question as to whether I remain too “dovish” about conflict in the world, let me say that no problem is more vexing than the shocking incidence of violence and suffering in God’s creation. A robust theology of creatio ex nihilo, so far from relieving this problem, makes it stand out more intensely. Unlike process theologies that view God as undergoing creation in a way that limits divine power to some regional influence, the classical Christian account of creation means, quite precisely, that all things come “to be” from God. Evil is not created by God, and thus has no “being,” metaphysically speaking; but this is painfully hard to square with its parasitic power in our lives. It remains a “surd.” As with Johannes Baptist Metz, whom Chris cites, I want to insist that the refractory nature of evil bends and breaks our theoretical theodicies and elicits from us an “apocalyptic cry” that refuses to rationalize its vitiating presence. It must inspire a protest leading to right action.

One of the most bracing aspects of mimetic theory is its unequivocal affirmation of God’s non-violence and non-reciprocity. It has always seemed to me, since first encountering it, that a coherent account of divine action is paramount—an account that does not suggest divine incapacity in the face of evil, which would only lead to passivity among Christians. To me, there is only way to do this, and that is christologically. Chris is exactly right: Jesus is disruptive. He calls for decision. He provokes response. And in doing so, the human resistance to God’s primordial “yes” of creation gets revealed, exposed, and fights back in its characteristic fashion—through rivalry and violent expulsion. This is the dramatic tension of christomorphic action in a sinful world, and from it we learn two things: first, that God’s characteristic action in Christ is one of challenging and transforming all that diminishes creation; and second, that this action is non-violent and radically excessive to the logic of equivalence that typically constrains our imaginations and wills. Christ’s is a fierce compassion, and it insinuates itself in human conflict by seeking to undo it from within—with justice and mercy, yes, but with the ever-present potential that one will lose their life as a result. Perhaps there are other standards Chris has in mind by which to justify more coercive measures amid conflict. (I am not very qualified to speak of these in the way ethicists and political theologians are.) But to the extent coercive force is operative in these measures, they will always bear the mark of tragedy and can never, in my mind, lay claim to divine warrant. They must remain not-yet-Christian, even if at times we may feel their tragic necessity. Whatever the case, Christomorphic action cannot be mandated; it must be freely chosen. We are forever called to it. And perhaps one day we will truly follow him. Imitatio Christi.

1 Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-Texte, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 1.
2 Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 27

Book Reviews

For inquiries about writing a book review or submitting a book for review,
contact the Bulletin editor, Curtis Gruenler.

How to Think about Catastrophe: Toward a Theory of Enlightened Doomsaying
Andrew McKenna


How to Think about Catastrophe: Toward a Theory of Enlightened DoomsayingJean-Pierre Dupuy
Translated by M. B. DeBevoise and Mark R. Anspach
East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2023
165 pages

Pondering the destructiveness of the A-Bomb, whose creation he masterminded, Robert Oppenheimer testified against development of the H-Bomb, remarking that “Science has known sin.” Science as objective, demonstrable knowledge of sub-atomic reality, and sin, as a moral disposition of human subjects, were henceforth ineluctably entangled to a point where rival and twinned hegemonies, those of the US and the USSR, engaged in a mimetic race labeled Mutual Assured Destruction, abbreviated as MAD. The outcome bore the label “nuclear holocaust,” a biblical term designating a “wholly burnt offering” of sacrifice to Israel’s god, whose apocalyptic agency was now at the disposal of all-too-human fingertips. This threat seemed to recede with the implosion of Russia’s imperium in the early nineties.  

Global nuclear catastrophe is the issue that Dupuy addresses in the closing chapter of this book, but his argument loses none of its urgency in the face of the no less devastating climate change that our planet is undergoing at present—and that one of his sources presaged forty years ago (91). 2023 is reported as the hottest year recorded in earth’s history, and we read daily of snowless ski resorts, of melting icecaps and the thawing of permafrost; evidence of rising seas is unassailable, as if replicating a deluge that only differs from the biblical one for transpiring without divine authorization but owing only to human activity. Once again, we have to consider “the fate of the earth” that Jonathan Schell urged us to contemplate in 1982 when the arms race was in the headlines. Science and sin continue their fraught entanglement. 

The nuclear and climate threats are commensurate, but their contexts are otherwise baleful. Access to the buttons of lethal rocketry was limited to the decisions of a few statesmen (this is decidedly a guy thing), while combating climate change involves each and every one of us as we participate in a globalized economy driven by a consumerist ideology in the name of prosperity, and by technologies that are shared worldwide. The myriad web of interrelations and dependencies are stunningly, not to say scandalously, complex, and absent a universal political will, universal ruin looms large. The most recent climate summit, hosted by an oil-rich monarchy, ended with agreement among the many nations represented there that fossil fuel consumption heating the atmosphere should be curbed; but no binding resolution, no commitment whatsoever to practical implementation, was mandated. One is reminded of the satiric film Don’t Look Up (an avatar of Doctor Strangelove, 1964). In this scenario, scientific confirmation of a world-destroying asteroid hurtling toward us—a trope for inevitable global warming—is met with mindless bickering and systemic efforts to look away. Evidence that the sky is really and truly falling prompts a decision to “step back and assess.”

That’s where we are, but the urgency intended by that film was sidelined amidst exigent measures to control a global pandemic, which seems to have been averted—for now. Since then, economies worldwide have rebooted a race to renewed economic growth, and Dupuy’s argument for an  “Enlightened Doomsaying,” published in France twenty plus years ago, loses none of its immediate relevance, au contraire.

Poetry, in Ezra Pound’s famous declaration, “is news that stays news,” meaning that however remote in time, it addresses our immediate and pressing concerns. As we read Dupuy’s telling critique of the failure of dominant rationalities that have brought us to the precipice, we are persuaded that the same adage applies to the doomsaying we find in biblical prophecy and that we dismiss at our immanent peril. Dupuy is not proposing a religious conversion but a strictly rational ethics for which the Jonah story provides a heuristic model that he aligns, while acknowledging the fortuitous coincidence of proper names, with the future-oriented epistemology of Hans Jonas, as available in The Imperative of Responsibility (1979) and more recently in Pour une éthique du futur (1998).

Nineveh is no more, but Dupuy shows that the narrative logic of its total conversion confronts us today: a call to repentance in the present time is urged against the prospect of total destruction; the catastrophe was averted by a backward glance from the specter of certain doom as a spur to life-saving repentance. The absolute ruin of an entire culture, in which we can imagine our global future, was avoided by attending to its destiny from a future perspective. Future and present, ethics and epistemics, couple and merge in a temporality governed by the future perfect: “we have the moral obligation to forecast the remote consequence of our decisions,” Jonas wrote in 1979, which Dupuy clarifies as “describing the form of a loop in which past and future mutually determine each other” (126). As we now know for sure, “Catastrophe is engraved in our future” (90); we need to see ourselves “on a voyage with a time bomb aboard” (142). We have to “assume the likelihood of harm in order to avoid it” (45): “doom is a destiny we can avert” (35). Climate change is mentioned only in passing, but quite recently Dupuy addressed it directly in a festschrift for Wolfgang Palaver: arguing against the dire fatalism of environmental “collapsologists,” he emphasizes the “self-cancelling” valency of prophecy, if it provokes a commensurate response, as a rationale for hope (“The Prophecy of Doom Paradox,” in Politics of the Gospel, edited by Nikolaus Wandinger, Innsbruck University Press, 2023).

“This is the way the world ends / not with a bang but a whimper” is the epigraph to Dupuy’s “Theory.” In “The Hollow Men” (1925), T. S. Eliot ‘s prescient metaphor, coined in the wake of the WWI’s unprecedented horrors, bemoans not the spectacular violence of malignant wills but the abdication of will, its withering away; he decries the callow dissolution of responsible agency altogether: “Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act / Falls the Shadow.”

“The Hollow Men” stays news in the light of the myriad strategies of denial, which, according to the poet Robert Bly, is an American specialty, doubtless because of the shameful institution—slavery, our “original sin” according to James Madison—at the nation’s foundation. Bly sees the role of literature as a means “to punch a hole in denial.” This is the role Dupuy awards to the logic of biblical prophecy that outshines prevailing modes of thinking, those governed by instrumental, means/end rationality, by cost/benefit calculus, by our confidence in a technical fix to all our problems. This is luminously epitomized in modernity’s “addiction to high-speed transport” (32), whereby everyone’s ability to drive where and when they please effectively guarantees the gridlock of traffic jams that inhibit movement altogether. (And he is writing before the massive incursions of “smart” phones among us; their GPS directs drivers to alternative routes away from congestion, resulting in the snarl of those very same routes.) “The personal automobile is ideally adapted, much more than public transportation, to the purpose of supplying society with an alibi for destroying its space and its time. An unsurpassed embodiment of mendacity and blindness, the automobile manages to convey an image of mobility and independence” that is “contrary to reality” (33). Eliot handily coined the phrase “unreal city” for our vaunted modernity.

The automobile exemplifies the “counterproductivity” of our “industrial hubris” that Ivan Illich was among the first to indict in Medical Nemesis in 1976. (Silenced by the Vatican, he left the priesthood to pursue his prophetic mission.) Dupuy’s capacious critique of all such thinking is heir to Illich’s analysis of ecosystems when he describes what we now call “a tipping point” of irreversible momentum: “Beyond certain critical thresholds,” Dupuy writes, “as in the case of phase transitions in matter, they abruptly tip over into another state, collapsing or else forming other types of systems that may have extremely undesirable properties for human beings” (85). That is a prescient summary of global warming. 

Dupuy rightly excoriates the economic myth of the “rational actor,” whose choices, according to the “liturgy” (33) of our advertising age, are based on available information rather than on imitation. This is a delusion that our best novelists and playwrights deflate, as if realist narrative and dramas were aiming to appeal to those who “have ears to hear and eyes to see.” That it is a “romantic lie” that desire originates within us has ever been the reasoning of René Girard, who is not mentioned in this book, though Dupuy’s invaluable contributions to mimetic anthropology are well known. It is likely that Illich’s holistic purview of interlocking systems involved in human behavior predisposed Dupuy to embrace Girard’s work. Reading him here, one has the impression of “a voice crying out from the desert,” as he deplores the effective desertification of our landscapes and the pollution of our atmosphere. His recourse to religious idioms evoking our ubiquitous idolatries is strictly on point, as when he decries the properly “sacrificial” (15) logic of homo economicus, which tallies up waste and suffering as the “production cost” of our collective well-being. He testifies that the sacrificial reasoning of Caiphas—“You understand nothing, nor  do you consider that it is expedient  for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish” (21)—is our own (the italics are Dupuy’s). 

Baudelaire repudiated the bourgeois ideology of endless progress in his own time as “auto-idolatry.” Here is Dupuy’s canny definition of what the poet was getting at: “The quasi-theological  exhilaration of fabricating an automaton, which is to say a creature that lays down the rules of its own behavior; the overwhelming will to power, manifested by the  desire to lose oneself in the mirror held up by a creature made in one’s own image” (44). Narcissus is reborn as his own nemesis: “If the capacity for making detours is the distinctive mark of intelligence, the industrial society has made itself stupid from a surfeit of intelligence—stupid enough to bring about its own demise” (19), such that “an excess of power has rendered us powerless” (26) on our path-dependent track to annihilation. This idea also complements an earlier prophecy: lamenting ecological depredations in “the new world” in Tristes tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss had already in 1955 derided our global industrial expansionism as a closed vessel in which maggots devour its nutrients and proceed to devour themselves. 

Dupuy reminds us that the Book of Jonah was “regularly used in Hebrew liturgy and particularly on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement in which it occupies a central place” (110). Yom Kippur is Israel’s most important annual feast, and the ritual prescriptions in Leviticus are especially remarkable at the outset for sin and guilt burnt offerings regarding those who transgress “unintentionally” (4.13-5.13). What Israel knows, and we’d rather not, is that in large part we know not what we do. Our smug confidence that we always mean well does not stand up to Dupuy’s assessment of “Common-sense morality,” which, he states, “is also a morality of intentions that reckons the value of an act by its conformity to norms, rather than by its consequences” (19). These days abnormal weather—drought here, flooding there, spring temperatures in the heart of winter—is the norm; common sense semantics is confounded. As we sow, so shall we reap. This timely translation of Dupuy’s prophetic epistemology is a reminder that it is not yet too late to remember our future.

Eliot’s Angels: George Eliot, René Girard, and Mimetic Desire

Matthew Taylor
Kinjo Gakuin University

Eliot’s Angels: George Eliot, René Girard, and Mimetic DesireBernadette Waterman Ward
Notre Dame IN: University of Norte Dame Press, 2022
408 pages (345 pages without notes and index)

The potency of mimetic theory for literary interpretation has been evident since Girard’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel, and there has been no lack of outstanding literary studies by Girard scholars. Yet it is striking how little mimetic theory has penetrated the wider critical world. This leaves the unfortunate impression that Girardians are just talking to each other. Bernadette Waterman Ward’s masterful and meticulous study of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) might be the one to break this spell—or, if it isn’t, it certainly should be. 

Ward shows that the mimetic dimension is essential for fully grasping Eliot’s literary achievement. Eliot’s Angels systematically pursues Girard’s observation that “The great writers apprehend intuitively and concretely, through the medium of their art, the system in which they were first imprisoned together with their contemporaries.” Girard’s premise is particularly apt here because, as a woman in a man’s world, and as a genius in an intellectual world of lesser minds (be they models, mentors, obstacles, rivals, or lovers), Eliot’s own imprisonment takes a form that is crucial for understanding the recurring central figure in her fiction, whom Ward identifies as the “mimetic angel.”

Eliot’s angel is a martyr without a cause, a serially self-sabotaging figure who settles for mediocrity and hopes to transmute thwarted longings and permanent defeat into a kind of moral victory. The angel exists within a mimetic configuration like that of Dostoyevsky’s “eternal husband.” The angelic aspect of Eliot’s “eternal disciple” comes (in the ironic sense), from self-abnegation, which has the misleading appearance of humility, but also (non-ironically) from the very real elevating effect that the character has on others. The angel can be male (Adam Bede, Felix Holt, Daniel Deronda) or female (Maggie Tulliver, Romola, Dorothea Brooke). 

Ward’s angel thesis is compelling and seems indispensable for identifying the moral center and moral tension in nearly all of Eliot’s fiction. It could also have applications beyond; I felt that a number of Austenian characters have characteristics of Eliot’s angel: Elinor Dashwood, Edward Ferrars, Jane Bennet, Jane Fairfax, Emma Woodhouse, Fanny Price, and particularly Anne Eliot. In this sense, Anne seems like a precursor to Middlemarch’s Dorothea, who is the supreme realization of the angel. Beyond this, many readers may sense in themselves some of the peculiar frailties and self-defeating compromises of the angel.

Ward’s study weaves together three major strands: Eliot’s personal history, her intellectual history, and her artistic development. As befits Ward’s literary subject, this is a complex plot with many characters. It includes the intellectual figures who shaped Eliot’s thought (Baruch Spinoza, David Strauss, Herbert Spencer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Auguste Comte, among others), the many people in Eliot’s life, all of her fictional protagonists, and more than a few minor characters. To Ward’s great credit, we can keep track of this immense cast without becoming lost or bewildered as they pop in and out of the story and the ongoing analysis. This is due to the careful groundwork Ward lays in the early chapters, so that recalling people, facts, and ideas becomes unobtrusive later. In the end, we walk away with no meagre education in 19th century philosophy, a valuable introduction to Eliot’s lesser-known fiction, and—though Ward pointedly denies doing literary biography—a good sense of Eliot’s life.

This last was not always a welcome experience, because it came at the expense of my idealized image of Eliot: the sensitive humanist, the morally engaged social critic, the painter of intricate interpersonal webs, the master of interiority, the reluctant atheist who yet remained sensitive to religious feeling and practice. While none of this is incorrect, exactly, it is tempered by the fact that Eliot could be a great deal less compassionate and quite a bit more calculating than I had thought—as much when she was a young puritan fanatic as when she was a mature social engineer for positivist utopia. 

Even making allowances for her era, I was disillusioned to learn that Eliot’s progressivism meant social classes should stay in their place, or that, in Adam Bede, Dinah Morris’s low brow signifies meagre analytic ability (following Eliot’s belief in the “progressive” science of phrenology). The pen name “George Eliot” was less, as I had supposed, a cautionary defense against sexist reader expectations, than a phantom persona Eliot carefully crafted with her mentor and muse, George Henry Lewes. “George Eliot” is a Trojan horse: a thoughtful conservative, likely a cleric, whose reassuring authorial voice would serve to surreptitiously advance an ideology. 

Having wrested herself free from her youthful religious fervor, Mary Ann Evans seems to have spent most of her life replacing it with an amalgam of (to me) half-baked utopian ideals, albeit from significant thinkers, and nurturing misconceptions and coarse prejudices about Christianity. (The theologically informed Ward cannot resist making periodic theological interventions.) One of the most endearing moments in Ward’s book came to me unexpectedly, when Eliot went off the ideological script and wrote the dark, supernatural, and poisonously mimetic The Lifted Veil. Because of this welcome transgression, I was able to start liking Mary Ann Evans again. 

But the real saving grace from Eliot’s programmatic idealism is her profound mimetic awareness. The “novelistic truth” of mimesis gets the better of the ideological mensonge, often against Eliot’s will. The angel, along with Eliot herself, thus constitutes an atypical Girardian subject. In mimetic theory we are used to thinking of the great writers as revealing mimetic desire and the lesser as reflecting it, but Eliot consistently does both. Eliot is her own worst enemy (and one of the British novel’s greatest friends) because she knows too much. She knows mimetic desire: the warping of the individual consciousness, the social webs simmering with resentment, and the sacrificial frenzy of the crowd. The angel figure is the battleground for this contest between Eliot’s ideological mensonge and her mimetic truth, a contest that continues unresolved to the bitter end.

There are a number of things to praise in Ward’s study. At the same time, her approach creates trade-offs wherein strengths can also be weaknesses. I found her second chapter to be an extremely insightful and innovative way to introduce mimetic theory, by way of Eliot references, but some readers might be overwhelmed, finding these references obscure, or premature. Because of Ward’s thoroughness, her book, not short to begin with, can sometimes drag. Some readers could safely skip chapters here and there, and review them later, without hurting Ward’s overall argument. In a similar way, Ward’s method of leaving no narrative stone unturned results in lesser work getting equal time with the greatest, though the two are by no means equally engaging. 

Some might wonder why the minor work really merits so much attention, and some might think the major work merits much more. For instance, Ward gives us a good sense of why Felix Holt fails, but why can’t we learn more of why Middlemarch succeeds? Nevertheless, it is surprising how much gold Ward can mine from some of the lesser works. I expected that the last chapter, on Eliot’s late didactic work Theophrastus Such, would be an anticlimactic tying up of loose ends, but instead Ward uses it as an opportunity to tie together all of the major themes of the book, and with a great mimetic flourish. 

Incidentally, I rate Silas Marner higher than does Ward, who finds it less serious (not even deserving of a chapter of its own) because of its fable-like quality. To me, the mythical framework for the novel works quite well for Eliot. She might have done well to stick with it, at least in proportion to the effort she devoted to narrative verse (e.g., The Spanish Gypsy), which seems much more strained.

In conclusion, Ward’s study is an exemplary model for Girard scholars, particularly in literature. It will be a tremendously valuable resource for lovers of George Eliot, and for students of the British novel and Victorian literature. It should be in every university library. And, as mentioned, I do hope that Eliot’s Angels will expose a broader literary audience to the vast interpretive potential of mimetic theory.

Bulletin 79 – February 2024