Today's date:
Summer 2005

Ratzinger Is Right

René Girard, a prominent Roman Catholic conservative and author of the seminal book Violence and the Sacred, is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Stanford University. His more recent books include Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Recently NPQ editor Nathan Gardels spoke with Girard at his home near the campus.

NPQ: When Pope Benedict XVI recently denounced what he saw as the "dictatorship of relativism," especially in European culture, it caused great controversy. Is the Pope right that we live in such a dictatorship?

René Girard: Yes, he is right. This formula—the dictatorship of relativism—is excellent. It is going to establish a new discourse in the same way that John Paul II’s idea of recovering "a culture of life" from the "culture of death" has framed a whole set of issues, from abortion to stem cell research, capital punishment and war.

It makes sense that this formula comes from a man—(the former) Cardinal Ratzinger—whose specialty is dogma and theory.

This reign of relativism which is so striking today is due, in part, to the necessities of our time. Societies are so mixed, with such plurality of peoples. You have to keep a balance between various creeds. You must not take sides. Every belief is supposed to be accorded equal value. Inevitably, even if you are not a relativist, you must sound like one if not act like one.

As a result, we have more and more relativism. And we have more and more people who hate any kind of faith. This is especially the case in the university. And it hurts intellectual life. Because all truths are treated as equal, since there is said to be no objective Truth, you are forced to be banal and superficial. You cannot be truly committed to anything, to be "for" something—even if only for the time being.

Like Ratzinger, however, I believe in commitment. After all, we are both convinced by the idea that responsibility demands we must be committed to one position and follow it through.

NPQ: For all the controversy Pope Benedict’s comment caused, it was really in the stead of the late John Paul II’s encyclical "Veritatis Splendor," which criticized "postmodern" society as becoming indifferent to values—disbelief—in the name of tolerance. His fear was a new nihilism that could plunge the world into dehumanizing will-to-power episodes akin to the fascist and communist disasters of the 20th century.

Girard: Postmodernism is dramatic in saying there are no absolute values, that there is no Truth, that language can’t reach the truth. Like Pope John Paul in the encyclical you mention, Pope Benedict is engaging this battle head-on by attacking this vogue of disbelief in the world today, especially in Europe. Like John Paul II, he knows from personal experience that, without religion, societies go to the dogs. And he doesn’t hesitate to say it.

I hope his message resonates. His challenge to relativism is important not only for the Church and for Europe, but for the whole world.

NPQ: Even Jean Baudrillard once agreed that "the whole world, including China and Japan, is implicated in the postmodern fragmentation and uprootedness that leaves values behind. There is one exception: Islam. It stands as a challenge to the radical indifference sweeping the world."

Isn’t it true that Islam remains the only civilization fully based in faith, and thus is in conflict with our secular postmodern culture the same way Ratzinger is? After all, despite Pope John Paul II’s determined efforts, the drafters of the EU Constitution rejected any mention of the Christian heritage of the West. Every state in the Islamic world mentions Islam as its cultural foundation.

Girard: Western civilization is, no doubt, predominantly on the side of secular relativism. That is not true in the Islamic world, where faith dominates. This victory of relativism is precisely why Pope Benedict has made defending the Christian Truth his central mission.

Having said this, I should also say that American secularism—which arose in defense of freedom of religion—and French laicite—which arose from the Jacobin opposition to the Church—are more similar than most people recognize because they are experienced in the same way at the personal level.

I feared that, after 9/11, the project of integrating Muslim youth into French society would break apart. Many predicted that banning the head scarf for girls in French public schools would cause endless turmoil. It hasn’t. Young girls have adapted, carrying on their religious belief in a way that doesn’t conflict with the state. They are really at the nexus of integration, finding ways to live in both worlds. In France, and I think in Muslim societies generally, women are more on the side of the West.

NPQ: It is not only the Pope who doesn’t like the relativism he sees in Europe, where the churches may be empty but the mosques are full. It is also the radical Muslims like the young Moroccan who slit Theo Van Gogh’s throat in the Netherlands, possibly the world capital of relativism.

Girard: This conflict, you are right, is most acute in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, where the postmodern idea of equality of cultures has been most enshrined in policy. God knows they are so liberal, which is why this violence should not have happened.

In America, there is not really a recognition of how far things have gone—that, in France, for example, one child out of three is born a Muslim.

At the same time, again, when you see these Muslim girls with their head scarves debating on French TV, their cultural level is high. They are brilliant and articulate. I wouldn’t give up on integration, even if the dynamics today are in the opposite direction. It is our only hope. What would we do if Europe went Muslim?

NPQ: Just as there is clash within Islam between tradition and modernity, doesn’t Pope Benedict’s crusade against relativism also announce a clash within the West? But the issue in the West is not about accommodating faith with reason. It is about resisting a culture of materialism and disbelief by insisting on values, as the Pope has put it, beyond "egoism and desire." Figuratively, the conflict is between the Pope and Madonna (the pop singer).

Girard: It is a culture war, yes. I agree. But it is not Ratzinger who has somehow changed and suddenly become reactionary and conservative. It is the secular culture that has drifted beyond the pale.

Remember, Ratzinger was a supporter of the Vatican II Council that reformed the Church in the 1960s. He opposed the idea that the Church should stand still in a modernizing world. For him, to be a Roman Catholic is to accept that the Church has something to learn from the world. At the same time, there is a Truth that doesn’t change the Gospel. Today, he is just reaffirming his position. He is just standing his ground.

Ratzinger is an intelligent conservative. He wants to avoid the fundamentalism of some Muslims and Christians—no change at all—but also avoid this idea that whatever is new is better than what is old. He wants to resist this dissolving of the Church in whichever direction the world goes. In this sense, I am pro-Ratzinger.

NPQ: Shortly after 9/11, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a Catholic, was widely condemned for saying that Christianity was superior to Islam. When Ratzinger said a few years ago that Christianity was a superior religion, he also caused controversy. In 1990, in the encyclical "Redemptoris Missio," Pope John Paul II said the same thing.

It should not be surprising that believers would affirm their faith as the true one. Perhaps it is a mark of the very relativist dominance Pope Benedict condemns that this is somehow controversial?

Girard: Why would you be a Christian if you didn’t believe in Christ? Paradoxically, we have become so ethnocentric in our relativism that we feel it is only OK for others—not us—to think their religion is superior! We are the only ones with no centrism.

NPQ: Is Christianity superior to other religions?

Girard: Yes. All of my work has been an effort to show that Christianity is superior and not just another mythology. In mythology, a furious mob mobilizes against scapegoats held responsible for some huge crisis. The sacrifice of the guilty victim through collective violence ends the crisis and founds a new order ordained by the divine. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.

It is true that the structure of the Gospels is similar to that of mythology in which a crisis is resolved through a single victim who unites everybody against him, thus reconciling the community. As the Greeks thought, the shock of death of the victim brings about a catharsis that reconciles. It extinguishes the appetite for violence. For the Greeks, the tragic death of the hero enabled ordinary people to go back to their peaceful lives.

However, in this case, the victim is innocent and the victimizers are guilty. Collective violence against the scapegoat as a sacred, founding act is revealed as a lie. Christ redeems the victimizers through enduring his suffering, imploring God to "forgive them for they know not what they do." He refuses to plead to God to avenge his victimhood with reciprocal violence. Rather, he turns the other cheek.

The victory of the Cross is a victory of love against the scapegoating cycle of violence. It punctures the idea that hatred is a sacred duty.

The Gospels do everything that the (Old Testament) Bible had done before, rehabilitating a victimized prophet, a wrongly accused victim. But they also universalize this rehabilitation. They show that, since the foundation of the world, the victims of all Passion-like murders have been victims of the same mob contagion as Jesus. The Gospels make this revelation complete because they give to the biblical denunciation of idolatry a concrete demonstration of how false gods and their violent cultural systems are generated.

This is the truth missing from mythology, the truth that subverts the violent system of this world. This revelation of collective violence as a lie is the earmark of Christianity. This is what is unique about Christianity. And this uniqueness is true.

NPQ: Leszek Kolakowski, the Marxist humanist philosopher who late in life wrote "The Revenge of the Sacred in Secular Culture," made a distinction between "pluralistic tolerance"—the respect for other beliefs—and "indifferent tolerance," which refuses to believe there can be any superior Truth. One can be opposed, as you and Ratzinger are, to value indifference, but must that imply a kind of theocratic intolerance?

Girard: That would be foolish. Christians cannot turn others into scapegoats in the name of the innocent victim! You don’t have to approve of Charlemagne converting the Saxons by force or the Crusades to be a good Christian. Ratzinger is not for that.

NPQ: Unlike his predecessor, who was seen as ecumenical, Benedict is seen as a sectarian who will not reach out to other religions. Don’t such strong views against relativism limit an ecumenical approach?

Girard: I did not find the famous Assisi meeting scandalous—when John Paul invited other religious leaders for dialogue and kissed the Koran—as some conservatives did. I see no conflict between Benedict strongly affirming his Christian beliefs in the presence of others who believe as strongly in their own faiths. No one should imagine that ecumenicism means giving up your belief in the superiority of your faith.

NPQ: Pope Benedict has also criticized globalization as spreading the secular relativism he sees as such a great threat around the world. Do you see this link?

Girard: Yes, I think so. It is very difficult for Christianity to defend itself, to resist the demagoguery that says you must go to the extreme and give up the superiority of Christianity because, after all, it is what every other cult in our global civilization says about itself.

In this global information age, Christianity doesn’t have the protections against knowledge that archaic religions have. It favors the truth. It is rational. It opens up to science, as John Paul II showed, for example, when he said there is no problem with evolution if you conceive it in a Christian context.

NPQ: One of your most famous theories is of "mimetic rivalry"—that it is not differences that drive conflict but the desire to possess what the other possesses. Isn’t globalization "mimetic rivalry" on a planetary scale—pure competitive rivalry unmediated by respect for the dignity of the person conferred by Christianity? Is Ratzinger also right to worry about globalization from this standpoint?

Girard: Yes. We live in a mimetic world. A century ago, those great world expositions in Paris or London anticipated globalization by envisioning a world in which everyone was the friend of everyone else. Today, we are more realistic. We are aware that globalization doesn’t mean global friendship, but global competition and, therefore, conflict. That doesn’t mean we will all destroy each other, but it is no happy global village either.

One can say that globalization started in the 15th century when the Portuguese sailed around Africa to get to Asia, but now the process is complete across the world. It is a consequence of Western civilization and, as such, it was Christianity that unified the world. But if the world is not unified for the greater responsibility of making peace, it endangers itself.

NPQ: As you suggest in your theory, the dilution of difference doesn’t end conflict. In some ways, becoming the same intensifies rivalry. Look at the recent problems in Asia now that China is modernizing like Japan.

Girard: Exactly. This is a bit scary, and it is a rivalry in which the West is not involved. It has resulted, in my view, from China’s self-assertion. What has happened to Japan is a mystery. The West was always criticizing it for being too competitive. Now it no longer seems to want to compete. Isn’t there some wisdom there?

NPQ: What do you think of the rise of the religious right in America?

Girard: What we see in America today is more the rise of the Republican Party than the religious right. I don’t think there are more Christian fundamentalists in America today than 30 years ago; it is just that they have become politicized. Republicans have focused on issues that bring them to the ballot box. And that is a big change indeed.

The problem with the Christian fundamentalists, though not as much as with the Muslims, is their view of the violence of God. They often talk these days about the Apocalypse. And there is certainly reason to be concerned about where the world is headed. But the violence will not come, as they suggest, from God. I find that incredible. It is we humans who are responsible. That, in many ways, is one of the key messages of the Gospels.

The whole point of the Incarnation is to say that the human and divine are interrelated in a way that is unique to Christian theology, unthinkable in any other religion and, in my view, absolutely superior.

Whether in the case of Muslims focused on martyrdom or the fundamentalist Christians focused on the Apocalypse, the old Greek conception of a God apart from man is not enough. That is really the meaning of all my work.