It has been a couple of bittersweet days of memories since getting the news of René Girard’s death. I have the feeling that many of us are cybernetically sitting around the fire sharing memories. Here are some of mine.
For many years, pretty much ever since I became a Benedictine monk (Episcopalian, not Roman Catholic) in 1972, I fretted about the close proximity of religion and violence. Given the teachings of Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tze and others, it didn’t make sense. Thomas Merton’s polemics against violence written from his hermitage at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky inspired me and assured me I was fretting about something worth fretting about. This concern eventually led me to René Girard. It took a few years and the help of others such as James Williams to realize that Girard provides the most cogent hermeneutic for understanding scripture as the unveiling of a loving, nonviolent God. More important, his anthropological insights impressed me with their explanatory power as to why religion had been connected with violence from the start and why it still happens. As a sidelight, during the 80’s, I was searching for a sense of direction as to how I was to evaluate postmodern thought, especially deconstruction as a Benedictine. I talked to the abbot of St. John’s Collegeville about visiting to meet with some of the Benedictine professors in the college, but I dropped that when I grasped Girard enough to realize that he gave me the sense of direction I was looking for and that many companions on the way were at hand. A couple of times, I heard Girard put that sense of direction in a nutshell when he told deconstructionist type thinkers that the solid reality under the deconstructive flux is the reality of the victim.
I first met René close to the turn of the millennium in San Francisco at a meeting of the AAR/SBL when he read what has turned out to be one of his most important papers: “Are the Gospels Mythical?” I was in the process of writing a lead review essay on Girard for the Anglican Theological Review and I was hoping to meet René and ask him some questions. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God.) I got more than I expected. I was introduced to René after the lecture by James Williams, who had helped me with logistics for getting to the meeting, and I was invited to lunch along with several other people. I was placed across the table from René so that could discuss his ideas and get the clarifications I was looking for. When a question was outside his areas of expertise, he referred me to others who could help me. Over the years, as I managed to attend several meetings of COV&R while René was still at large, I had stimulating conversations with him, some short, some longer. There was a lot of friendly competition to get bits of time with René but he was amazingly approachable for a person who had become an intellectual leader for so many and one could talk to him in a relaxed way because that is how he talked.
Inspired by Girard and my Benedictine tradition, I wrote a book called Tools for Peace: The Spiritual Craft of St. Benedict and René Girard. I sent an advanced draft in manuscript to him for comments. When I received a letter a month later, I thought it was an amazingly prompt response. Yet René apologized for the delay, explaining that he had just gotten home from Avignon and he read the MS. first thing. His comments were generous and helpful.
I came to see, not surprisingly, that there was nothing unique in the way he treated me; it’s the way I’ve seen him treat everybody. I have seen him encourage everybody who works with his ideas whether or not he is personally sympathetic to their direction. I get the feeling that he knew his theory was much greater than him and it wasn’t anything he “owned” by a long shot. Along the way, I realized that Girard does not have followers; he has colleagues. That’s how he treated people. And not only colleagues, but friends.