Mimesis and World Building

Berger and Girard on the Sacred

By Per Bjørnar Grande

Associate Professor

Bergen College, Norway

Religion as a Social Construction

If one is willing to regard Girard’s theory as related to the sociology of religion, it must surely be related initially to Peter Berger’s concept of religion as a social construction, designed by humans. In fact, Girard and Berger do not only have, loosely speaking, the same starting point (understanding religion initially as human needs); they also have several central themes in common regarding religion, despite the fact that they speak from different academic traditions. Both Berger and Girard see religion as protection from meaninglessness - despite Berger’s emphasis on religious alienation. Both thinkers deny biological determination. According to Berger, humans have no specific biological milieu. The human situation is open and cannot be stable as regards desire. Humans are the most unfinished species, and its project of world-building is never ending. Human world-building is a consequence of its biological constitution. World-building is a consequence of insufficient instincts. Therefore, world-building becomes acute and absolutely necessary in order to survive.

There are, however, few instances in Berger’s work where mimetic desire is introduced into the act of mediating anthropology and religious beliefs, which is, in my view, the main difference between Berger's and Girard's religious understanding. Berger does, however, claim that identity is created by the individual, who becomes what he is addressed as by others. Also Berger claims that successful world-building, where the norms of society become internalized, is totally dependent upon socialization. Despite there being an interdividual tone in Berger’s research on the human condition, he does not focus on imitation as a fundamental desire. In fact, the notion of desire is hardly present in his theory. He does, however, see religious imitation in the traditional context of representation in that everything here below has an analogy up above. But this kind of imitation is less a drive than a response to social norms. In Berger’s analysis of divine imitation there is no generative drive. The image of divine role models, for example the role of a father imitating the divine father, does not contain mimesis as desire but as representation. It does have a real function, however, as it protects against meaningless. Perhaps one could call both world-building and the strategies of establishing meaning conscious desires, which represent the accepted desires of a community, where the sons imitate their fathers' norms. This means, however, seeing Berger’s theory very much from a mimetic point of view.

The Sacred Emerges Out of Chaos

In Berger’s work there is a great deal of focus on the sacred as protection against chaos. An essential element is the theme that the sacred enables humans to experience meaning and protect them from the unavoidable threat of death. Religion for Berger is on the whole the establishment, through human activity, of an encompassing holy order or holy cosmos which is capable of maintaining order despite the continual threat of chaos. Berger sees death as something that every society is compelled to deal with, and from the problem of death, religion is engendered. Berger’s emphasis on death and all the marginal situations associated with death (war, natural catastrophes, abrupt social changes) differs initially from Girard in that, for Berger, mimetic desire is not decisive in the process of constituting a ‘sacred canopy’. It is the fear of death, not the subversive nature of human beings towards other human beings, which ignites the sacred. On the other hand, on the issue of the sacred, their theories do seem to converge. According to Berger, the sacred deviates from the normal routine of life, and is seen as something extraordinary and potentially dangerous. The sacred is something which emerges out of chaos. And by losing contact with the sacred, humans stand in danger of being swallowed up by chaos. This is exactly the setting wherefrom Girard sees the initial stages of sacrifice; when a society is smitten by chaos, there is a frenzy of violence, differences are abolished and society is haunted by a lack of meaning. It is in such circumstances that scapegoating shows its efficiency, because it restores order and brings the community back from chaos to peace. (And later turns the victim into a divinity). Thus both Girard and Berger see the sacred as something which is established when threatened by death.

In The Sacred Canopy, however, Berger neither connects death nor the sacred to violence. Violence does not have any privileged or essential place in his reflection on the sacred. He sees death more from a traditional metaphysical point of view, where consciousness of one’s own and other people’s deaths make men question ‘normal life’. Clearly Berger speaks exclusively from a contemporary context here, from a Western worldview, where religious sacrifice is not primarily violent, and religious practice is more centred on individual needs. It is this discrepancy in time between Girard’s focus on primitive religion and Berger’s focus on the contemporary which partly makes their theories on the sacred somewhat incongruous – even if Berger operates relatively freely between past and present.

If, however, one were to limit Girardian theory to a contemporary Christian, westernized worldview, the modifying aspects surrounding sacrifice would play down violence to such a degree that religion, despite its mimetic nature, would look similar to a non-sacrificial sacred canopy à la Berger’s description of religious life. This, however, opens up for viewing mimetic theory partly as a theory on modern desacrilized religion as it is manifested within the twentieth-century theological tradition, the same tradition by which Berger, despite operating within sociology and the scientific methods of sociology is clearly influenced.   In Violence and the Sacred, Girard starts with an analysis of violence as such. Methodically, the analysis is based on the premise that primitive religion sheds light on violence. But his latter works show that Girard has a twofold understanding of religion: one anthropological and another based on Christian theology.

I do not think it is stretching the matter too far to say that Girard interprets primitive religion from a Christian standpoint. Especially in his most non-sacrificial phase sacrifice is clearly seen as anti-Christian. Since Things Hidden, false and true religion has been regarded from the perspective of how one interprets the victim. The victimage mechanism is the stumbling block as regards truth in religion, as it can evoke either a violent or a forgiving response. And what reveals the truth is the non-sacrificial interpretation of the Passion.