Books in Review

The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 89 (January 1999): 45-48.

Original Sin Redeemed

The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. By James Alison. Crossroad. 323 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by James G. Williams

The "joy of being wrong" is the Christian experience of being freed from the bondage to sin and enabled to recognize and confess that one’s way of being in the world is wrong. James Alison has written a ground–breaking book that understands original sin from the vantage point of redemption. He proposes a "theological anthropology": an understanding of the human self and human culture that is supported and explicated in theological terms drawn primarily (though not exclusively) from the Roman Catholic tradition. Using René Girard’s mimetic model of the origin and structure of human behavior, the author reinterprets ancient Christian doctrines and lays out a new basis for the relation of faith and reason. The object of this reinterpretation of ancient doctrine, particularly original sin, is to rehabilitate and defend Christian orthodoxy.

Before turning to Christian orthodoxy, a summary of Girard’s mimetic anthropology is in order. Girard’s mimetic model has two basic elements: 1) the concept of mimetic desire and 2) the observation that sacrifice and scapegoating are universal human phenomena rooted in the way our "pre–human" ancestors sought to control the consequences of mimetic desire. Society and culture are rooted in a nonconscious, precognitive process that begins with one man imitating another—a model—in order to gain something the model leads him to desire. Insight into the formation of acquisitive desire according to the model (and potential rival) is found in many cultural texts and traditions. Jewish and Christian biblical narratives are distinctive in that the consequences of mimetic desire—rivalry, conflict, and collective violence—are so explicitly recognized and emphasized.

Rivalry and conflict over the objects of desire are inevitable given human freedom and the instability of desire. Mimetic rivalry and conflict result in collective violence, which typically takes the form of a mob converging upon a victim. The story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis offers a good example of collective violence against someone who is vulnerable. Through the scapegoating of Joseph the internal dissensions in the Jacob clan are remedied, at least temporarily. (Joseph’s suffering and his forgiveness of his brothers can be viewed from a Christian standpoint as prefiguring Christ in the Gospels.)

After the execution or exclusion of the victim, societies develop interdictions and rituals whose purpose is to prevent mimetic desire from ever getting out of hand again. The victim is blamed for crimes which are never to be repeated (the interdiction), while the community reenacts as a sacrifice the dissolution supposedly wrought by the victim and the overcoming of the chaos that led to the establishment of the community or tradition (the ritual).

Girard proposes that ritual sacrifice and ritual scapegoating have essentially the same structure: the representation of originary violence, followed by selection of a victim, his execution or expulsion, and the subsequent affirmation of peace and stability. This archaic structure is still to be detected in what we now call "scapegoating" in common parlance, even though the obvious ritual features may be missing. Scriptural references to sacrifice and sacrificial law follow this archaic pattern, although many passages in the Jewish Scriptures (particularly in the great prophets) already expose and judge the connection of violence and sacrifice. The archaic pattern of sacred violence is completely disclosed in Christ’s teachings and crucifixion and overcome in his resurrection, as related in the witness of the New Testament Gospels.

Alison works in two directions with Girard’s mimetic model. On the one hand, he demonstrates that through the exercise of human reason and critical use of the model, a new and exciting perspective on the human condition and human potential is gained. On the other hand, his theological concern—on which I will focus—is to shed new light on the ancient Christian doctrine of original sin.

As already suggested, the title of the book catches nicely the object of the argument, which is that our nature may be changed—we are not simply duped by external forces or imprisoned within ourselves. Real conversion is possible. Alison argues that original sin is fully and radically known only through redemption and resurrection; its true meaning and scope is seen and acknowledged only "through Easter eyes." Surveying Old and New Testament texts, creeds (especially that of the Council of Trent), papal teachings, and the thought of Augustine and Aquinas, Alison proposes a theological anthropology that is both original and faithful to Church teaching.

Alison’s interpretation of the work and significance of the Council of Trent is an example of his rehabilitation and defense of orthodoxy. His reading of the canons of Trent offers an exciting orthodox alternative in contemporary Catholic theology. He moves between the extremes of a "liberal" position, associated for example with the name of Karl Rahner, which holds that nature, including human nature, is "already graced" and the world is a sacrament of redemption, and a "neoorthodox" position, associated for instance with Hans Urs von Balthasar, which holds that Christian redemption should be understood dramatically as a unique breaking–in of God’s justice and salvation. Alison’s reading mediates between these positions and appropriates the valid insights of both.

The canons of Trent may be summarized as follows. Anyone is anathema who 1) does not acknowledge Adam’s sin, by which he lost the holiness and justice of his creation; 2) contradicts the effect of Adam’s sin, which bequeaths not only pain and death to the human race, but also the death of the soul; 3) denies that sin is passed on from Adam to all by propagation, not by imitation, and that sin is removed by Christ through baptism; 4) denies that babies and small children must be baptized for the remission of sins; 5) denies that sin is remitted through the grace of Christ that is given in baptism.

Alison’s approach to the canons of Trent is informed by Girard’s mimetic anthropology. If one accepts that we humans are desiring creatures whose humanity is based on being constituted by the other, the question becomes: Which other and what sort of relationship is it? Is it the Father of Jesus Christ who reconstitutes us with peaceful and loving desire? Or is it the other of distorted desire which continues to enmesh us in pride, rivalry, and scapegoating?

Alison’s reading of the meaning and significance of Trent may be illustrated by looking at two of the anathemas, one for which it might appear that mimetic anthropology is irrelevant, the other which appears to contradict mimetic anthropology. To take the latter first, in the third canon we read that the sin of Adam is "passed on to all by propagation and not by imitation." But Girard teaches that we live and learn by imitative desire, apparently the anathematized position. Alison points out, however, that this phrase in the canon has its origin in Augustine’s argument against Pelagius, who conceived of a morally neutral moment in a person’s life when that person could sin or not sin. Trent only attempted to exclude any such morally neutral moment; it did not intend to canonize biological procreation, but, as Alison puts it, to claim that "there is no such thing as a purely ‘natural’ human being." We are not first biological, then cultural, beings, but from conception itself we are "always a completely cultural reality." This is in keeping with Girard’s theory, which holds that "all humans living within a culture brought into being by a rivalistic mimesis are . . . structured from within by that rivalistic mimesis." The only deliverance from rivalistic mimesis is a new pacific mimesis. In this respect the Girardian theological anthropology is close to the neoorthodox pole of the oppositions mentioned above.

A Girardian reading also provides a new basis and clarification of canon 5, in which the Council turns to distinguish itself from the Lutheran version of the Christian story. It asserts against Pelagianism that real salvation, through Christ and Christian baptism, is necessary; against the Lutheran position that the soul cannot be made worthy of heaven except by ascribing a counterfactual worthiness through Christ, it affirms that the essence of sin is removed in baptism. It also "confesses and perceives that in the baptized, concupiscence or a tendency to sin remains; since this is left for the struggle [ad agonem], it cannot harm those who do not give consent but, by the grace of Christ, offer strong resistance."

Alison comments that this canon intends to say that salvation results in a completely transformed life and that it is normal to experience resistance to this transformation because our human faculties have been formed by the distorted desire of original sin. What Trent did, in other words, is to deny that "concupiscientia is sin in the true sense of the word." "Our having been constituted in and [governed] by the other of distorted desire is such that it will take a long time and much effort for the effects of that alterity to be undone by our being constituted and [governed] by the other of pacific desire."

This point is completely compatible with Girard’s concept of desire as having a double valency. It is not synonymous with sin except when it is deviated, distorted, and deflected from the divine love as revealed in Christ. As Alison says, "Girard has provided [not an individual but] an interdividual psychology which shows that ‘being–constituted–by–another’ is simply part of being human, the key question being what sort of relationship to which other." Here we find a point in contact with the liberal pole of the aforementioned oppositions, at least to the extent that desire itself is viewed as the gift of the Creator to the human creature.

I recommend Alison’s book highly as a way of doing theology that is simultaneously orthodox and creative.

James G. Williams is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Syracuse University. He is the author of The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred and editor of The Girard Reader.