Gregory Copley has argued in his study of Un-Civilization (2014) that the global human arrangement, a creeping improvisation of the last three or four centuries, nowadays has outlived its ad hoc semi-functionality so that it totters on the verge of a radical spontaneous reconstruction whose survivors will have experienced it as nothing less than a catastrophe. Eric Cline, in his recent study of The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014), underscores the likelihood of such a calamity as the one that Copley predicts. Cline marshals the details of an archaeologically attestable prototype of “systems collapse” that occurred around the date 1177 BC when a vast swath of the civilized Eastern Mediterranean literally went up in flames, inaugurating a “dark age” that in some places lasted four hundred years. That it has happened increases the possibility that it might happen. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, like Copley and Cline, is a student of crises, but unlike them he is primarily a religious thinker, one who takes seriously the insights of the man whom he calls the Albert Einstein of Twentieth-Century social science, René Girard. Dupuy’s title, The Mark of the Sacred (2008; English, 2013), recalls the title of Girard’s seminal Violence and the Sacred (1966; English, 1972). In that work, Girard discovered, in myth, ritual, and tragic poetry, the signs of a “sacrificial crisis” ubiquitously and regularly afflicting archaic societies. In the sacrificial crisis, the social group suffers structural breakdown in rampant, violent mimesis or imitation that resolves itself through the production of an arbitrarily selected victim; the victim’s immolation then promotes him to godhead and generates the basic forms of culture.
One might think analogously of the basic architecture of the pyramid in relation to death-by-stoning: The former results from the latter, concealing the victim under an aesthetically pleasing form that dissimulates its own origin.
As Girard sees it, and as Dupuy reiterates, this “scapegoat mechanism” made humanity, but it also entrapped humanity in the closed epistemology, gory practice, and mendacious rhetoric, stomach-churning to inspect, of the sacred. In Girard’s argument, which Dupuy again adopts, people could not begin to escape the delusion of the sacred until the decisive event of Christ’s Passion, as recorded in the four Gospels. In The Mark of the Sacred, Dupuy explores the implications of this – to him – persuasive view. Those implications entail, among other things, a reassessment of existing normative models of economics, political theory, cognitive science, and, indeed, modernity’s total view of itself. The prideful, deforming error of modernity, as Dupuy demonstrates in a series of five topically various but logically closely-related chapters, is to believe fanatically in its own claim to be thoroughly and justifiably secular, thus licensing itself to reject everything that it categorizes as religious or irrational. In itself, Dupuy’s case is hardly unprecedented. Among others and as early as the beginning of the Nineteenth Century S. T. Coleridge and Joseph de Maistre identified the Revolution, that declaration of an absolute break with all tradition, as essentially religious, but as by no means an advance beyond the Christianity that it condemned. Yet Dupuy, assimilating Girard, takes this argument in new directions.
Taking what his chapter on “Imagining the End” names the “apocalyptic perspective,” Dupuy in his diagnosis of the modern crisis arrives at the conclusion “that humanity is on a suicidal course, headed straight for catastrophe.” Dupuy uses the word catastrophe in the singular, but he insists that he describes no singularity, such as the earth-bound comet or runaway virus of the movies, “but a whole system of disruptions, discontinuities, and basic structural changes that are the consequence of exceeding critical thresholds.” Dupuy constantly urges his readers to overcome the pervasive mythic impulse, one of those marks of the sacred in his title, which seeks the cause of panic and social breakdown in a morally foreign agency that it can root out and which can never imagine that the unwanted symptom is intrinsic to its own activity. The catastrophe that looms just beyond tomorrow will have stemmed from the praxis of today; its origin will have been internal, not external, to the society. Whether the contributing dysfunctions belong to the sphere of technology or economics or politics, they will, in their convergence, generate the stereotypical effects of social destructuration, many times amplified by existing instrumentalities. As Dupuy sees things, “the calamities that we are witnessing today herald an age of unprecedented violence.”
That is to say, the Twenty-First Century will be more violent than the Twentieth Century. The inability of self-labeling secular-cum-rational thinking to comprehend its own role in precipitating the breakdown will in fact exacerbate the breakdown and jack up the levels of panic and mayhem that accompany it.
Dupuy goes so far as to argue that the secular, rational project that nowadays goes under the name of “globalization,” that utopian dream of integrating humanity in a single planned unit, is but a delusional misunderstanding of the impending catastrophe itself. As Dupuy puts it: “Globalization – a cultural ‘valley of death,’ as it may be called – is… less an economic or legal or political phenomenon than it is a religious phenomenon.” To understand just how “globalization,” one of the best terms for the totality of converging short-term miscalculations, is “a religious phenomenon,” one must recur to Dupuy’s Prologue. Reason thinks itself a separate tradition from religion, which it arrogates to deconstruct and supersede. “I shall argue,” Dupuy writes, “that what we call reason preserves indelible traces of its origin in religious experience.” The postmodern mind believes that “nothing of value can be expected from a scientific approach to religion.” Dupuy has nevertheless concluded, with Girard, that “the science of religion and the science of humanity are one and the same.” Dupuy adds the important qualification that he takes after Emile Durkheim in understanding religion “less by beliefs than by actions, less by faith than by ritual.”
The case of ritual bears centrally on Dupuy’s argument. Archaic societies rightly fear outbreaks of violence, which they project as an external agency invading and disrupting the communal order. The very structure of archaic society – and here again Dupuy follows Girard – stems from a primordial response to violence, the spontaneous production of a victim whose conspicuousness polarizes the war of all against all into that degree-zero of culture and necessary minimum of form, the archetypal unanimity-minus-one of the sacrificial circle. Ritual both founded and regularly restores hierarchy. Dupuy writes, “Human societies have always found ways to act upon themselves through some external agency, long identified with divinity.” Approaching the same idea in different words, “Human beings can project themselves, [and they can] go beyond themselves, as it were, to exert a power over themselves.” The sacred is undoubtedly an illusion on one level, just as the logical positivists believe it to be; but the sacred is also an effective praxis, always implying knowledge, even though within the horizon of the sacred that knowledge can never be articulated. Never mind. Logical positivism cannot articulate that knowledge either.
The sacred haunts modernity, whose epistemological nihilism guarantees the sacred’s persistence even though in an attenuated and furtive and therefore less effective form than in pre-Biblical times. Consider, as Dupuy does, the seemingly ineradicable pattern of the market’s boom-and-bust cycle. Dupuy takes as an instance the exchange-panic of 2008, beginning with the collapse of the subsidized mortgage bubble in the USA, which occurred while he was writing The Mark of the Sacred. “The commentaries that this crisis has inspired illustrate the points I have been making more forcefully than I could ever have imagined being able to do myself, for they demonstrate the inability of political and economic leaders to grasp the logic of self-exteriorization.” Girard posits the disappearance of differences or undifferentiation as both the symptom and provocation of crisis. Writing of the 2008 financial panic, Dupuy categorizes it as “marked by a loss of the differences between the levels that characterize hierarchy.” The “apostles of regulation” intervened, but their interventions only further obscured the situation. Dupuy writes, “When an entire economic system reaches the point of behaving like a panic-stricken crowd, there is no alternative but to discard the prevailing doctrine.”
Less harmful it would have been, than printing money to prop up failing enterprises, simply to let the crisis find new equilibrium in “its own external fixed point,” as Dupuy puts it. The panic would soon enough ritually and spontaneously have contained itself. So it is, as Dupuy concludes, that “those who deny the market’s ability to regulate itself are guilty of committing a category mistake: They confuse the market’s capacity for self-exteriorization with the question of whether the consequences of this activity are good for human beings.” The experts claim sufficient knowledge to distinguish between the evil of corporate failures and the evil of devaluing the currency by running the money presses, but devaluing the currency permanently, which each press-run effectuates, is at least as sacrificial as letting this or that big bank or big industrial concern fail, and probably much more so. Similarly, pacifists and idealists have denounced nuclear weapons as evil and pressed for unilateral disarmament for sixty years; yet as vexing as it is to pacifists and idealists the existence of the nuclear arsenals contained the very threat that it constituted. Kalashnikov rifles have killed more people than nuclear weapons ever have. Mr. Kalashnikov had the decency to apologize for his invention before he died. While proliferation undermines security, unilateral disarmament, as demanded by the pietists of the left, would arguably have done so even more. How to distinguish evil?
Dupuy maintains an extraordinarily subtle position. It might seem from the foregoing account that Dupuy justifies the sacred. Rather, as Girard himself carefully does in his most recent writings, Dupuy acknowledges the sacred as the image of social self-containment through the production and regular restoration of hierarchy for most of the known existence of humanity. Revelation from the Hebrew prophets to Christ and the Apostles shattered the claim of the sacred to truth and inaugurated a new view of morality no longer requiring a victim, but in the indefinite meantime, before the exposure of the scapegoat attains universality, a mitigated sacred functions better to preserve order than no ritual restraint whatever. Indeed, in the deferential manner of Girard, Dupuy grasps that in disarming the sacred and depriving persecutors of their blitheness Revelation actually contributes to disorder. In the chapter on “Imagining the End,” Dupuy writes of “the fatal conceit” of the contemporary, gadget-inebriated mentality: “Believing that technology – which has severely impaired all those traditional (that is, religious) systems that serve to curb the tendency to excess, itself inevitably part of a human system – will be able to assume the role that these systems once played.” A scientistic-technocratic order suffers from a prideful “blindness toward the Apocalypse.”
The frenetic activity of the scientistic-technocratic order, which will soon add to its repertory the nano-technologies that will act recursively on the physical constitution of human beings, alters the environment. Alterations of the environment, which are not, however, alterations of reality, have inevitable, usually disruptive social consequences, just as a spreading plague abolishes kindness and decency in its path. The porosity of the USA-Mexico border, a frontier that globalists would abolish altogether, illustrates Dupuy’s idea of the modern moment as a disappearance of differences heralding a slide into proliferating violence. A border is a marker of order; it is a metaphysical principle that only vigilant praxis can maintain. That praxis, however, has proven itself inconvenient to politicians seeking new clients and corporate interests seeking cheap labor. One might think that politics and industry require order, and so it would be in a situation that was still governed by deference to hierarchy. Political and corporate interests now find that they can profit in the short term from disorder. The health and safety of those living in the border region play no role in the cynical calculus underlying the program. That calculus is not Christian; but it is not pagan either, violating as it does the tenets of pagan wisdom. It represents one portion among innumerable others of the price to be paid for the Enlightenment’s bland dismissal of all “sacred limits,” whether those of Homeric epic or the Bible, as oppressive superstitions.
Dupuy’s chapter on “Science: A Theology in Spite of Itself” constitutes a brilliant discussion of scientism as a gross diminution of consciousness – prevailing ubiquitously, because it has become the anti-curriculum of mass pseudo-education, at the very moment when the world desperately needs the clearest consciousness possible. To Weber’s inadequate “disenchantment” theory of how a specifically modern perspective developed, Dupuy opposes Girard’s theory that a post-archaic perspective developed as Christianity achieved an unprecedented “de-sacralization” of nature that cleared the way for an actually scientific, that is to say non-supernatural, view of causality. Weberian “disenchantment” is also, according to Dupuy, “paradoxically itself both a belief and an act of faith.” Weberian “disenchantment” assumes in perfect consonance with the larger Enlightenment that provides its framework that the abolition of religion automatically equals an access of knowledge. Nothing could be farther from the case. As Dupuy argues, the Enlightenment idea of progress still prevails, such that “progressives imagine that the history of humanity could have led only to this outcome, which constitutes the end of history.” Or if it were not quite the end, then its consummation, “Descartes’ dream – of putting man in the place of God,” would be only just around the corner.
The belief of the technocrat-utopians that they can master nature – of which their scheme to reverse the increasingly dubious “global warming” furnishes a superbly ironic example – Dupuy sees as an error of the cock-sure and self-besotted. Such people “fail to see that the technology now taking shape at the intersection of a great many fields aims precisely at non-mastery,” a description that Dupuy omits to apply to the contemporary trend of legislation everywhere in the West, but which he readily might. Dupuy rejects two extreme positions: “The claims of Deep Ecology, which treats nature as an immutable model of equilibrium and harmony, and man as an irresponsible and dangerous predator,” and “the humanist ambition of liberating human beings from nature and making them masters and possessors not only of the world, but also of themselves.” Both positions reject limitation. They both thus participate in the ongoing dissolution of differences that is none other than our fatal crisis. It is a pity that Dupuy never integrates the concept of Gnosticism in his argument because an aperçu or two from the work of Eric Voegelin would benefit The Mark of the Sacred greatly. It is in being so massively anti-religious that the modern ideologies constitute themselves as expressions of religiosity. Ecologists divinize nature; “transhumanists” seek the divinization of man in the looming “singularity.” Political correctness is indistinguishable from a primitive taboo.
After science, Dupuy turns his attention to religion in a dedicated chapter, the subtitle of which is “Natural versus Supernatural.” One constituent of the regnant scientism, the paired ideas that consciousness is the equivalent of an algorithm, and that religion contaminates the algorithm, have become a conspicuous theme in the last two decades in the polemics of writers like Richard Dawkins and Pascal Boyer, whom Dupuy takes as representative. The critique of their thinking in The Mark of the Sacred runs to scathing. Dupuy writes of Dawkins that he “sees ritual as the product of myth, and as something still more enigmatically ridiculous than myth itself.” To do this, however, as Dupuy points out, Dawkins must bracket his Darwinism. If evolution, whether in biology or culture, permitted only fitness to survive, then the survival of religion, with its myths and rituals, would indicate passage through through selective filtration thereby guaranteeing its fitness. Both Dawkins and Boyer make many similar awkward gestures in order rhetorically to get around the obstacles that stand in the way of their zeal to disestablish religion. Classifying Dawkins and Boyer as typical of the prevailing contemporary “cognitivist” view, Dupuy writes: “The original sin of cognitivism… was to assign itself the heroic task of producing a rational explanation for the apparent irrationality of religious phenomena. It does not occur to either Dawkins or Boyer that this irrationality may in fact conceal a great wisdom, a subtle body of knowledge about the human and social world[s].”
Inheritors of the original Enlightenment, like Dawkins and Boyer, seem to Dupuy happily and rather stupidly to exploit errors that should be apparent to sophomores. Myths obviously narrate fantastic events and represent fantastic creatures that cannot be in the empirical world, but, as Dupuy points out, these things are by no means the only elements of myth that cannot be. On the other hand, the many variants of Dawkins’ “flying spaghetti monster” and its feats serve a purpose in the stories by directing the imagination away from those other elements that cannot be. Dupuy offers an example in Euripides’ retelling of the Iphigenia myth, at the kernel of which lies the act of ritual murder. As Dupuy remarks, both the raw myth, insofar as it is susceptible to reconstruction, and Euripides’ tragedy prettify the focal event. In the drama, which Dupuy quotes, Iphigenia walks calmly to the altar and vanishes in a mist. A sacrifice is a murder. In reality, murder victims struggle, onlookers wail, and ugliness and blood stain the place of execution. Dawkins and Boyer can only see the visible improbabilities in sacred narrative; they never even suspect the invisible improbabilities. Dupuy, with his training in Girard’s Fundamental Anthropology, can see them. Therefore he can also see that the order of the sacred both needs ritual and yet needs also to conceal the real character of ritual. At stake is the survival of the community.
Take again the “category error” that Dawkins and Boyer make, following in the footsteps of Friedrich Nietzsche and James G. Frazer, when they conflate Judaism and Christianity, but especially Christianity, with their archaic precursor-religions. The Nietzschean and Frazerian contemnors seek to stain Christianity with the primitivism of the archaic precursor-religions, so as to bolster a prejudicial denunciation. Neither notices the glaringly obvious: That in myth the victim is always guilty, even when the guilt is transferred as in the case of Iphigenia; but that the Passion narrative declares the victim innocent while at the same time showing that the witnesses unanimously and sincerely believe him guilty. Lest the implication slip away, this fact assigns the supposedly sophisticated discourses of Dawkins and Boyer to the category of myth. Like the mythmakers, the deconstructors see nothing and hear nothing. They hunger for a guilty party. Thus where the Gospel sees and hears something, the deconstructors fail to take notice. They invoke a “flying spaghetti monster” so as to conceal what the Gospel reveals.
The Mark of the Sacred, to repeat the description, is an exercise in apocalyptic thinking. The word apocalypse has acquired accretions since its coinage that tend to get in the way of grasping its essential, quite simple meaning. For one thing apocalypse has come to mean the same thing as Armageddon, the cosmic destruction at the End of Days, as described in The Revelation of St. John. Mention the word and people think either of Protestant literalism or the latest science-fiction extravaganza at the Cineplex. At its origin, apocalypse only means lifting the lid (calypton) off the pot; a definition that might justify “discovery” as a better translation of it than “revelation.” Dupuy, like Girard, believes that Christianity is the superlatively apocalyptic religion in that better than any other religion, and better certainly than the myth-religions it has displaced, it discovers human nature – those “things hidden since the foundation of the world” to which the Gospel of Mark refers. It becomes necessary to quote Dupuy, praising Girard, en bloc:
Only a madman or a crackpot, disregarding all the conventions of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, could make the following outrageous claims today: That the history of humanity, considered in its entirety, and in spite – or rather because – of its sound and fury, has a meaning. That this meaning is accessible to us, and although a science of mankind now exists, it is not mankind that has made it. [And] that this science was given to mankind by divine revelation. That the truth of mankind is religious in nature…
That madman is René Girard.
In revealing the age-old, self-concealing scapegoat mechanism, Dupuy writes, Christianity offered to mankind a true intellectual and moral maturity, but at a cost. “Far from being the ultimate guarantor of the social order, Christianity acts as a lethal agent of disruption, a source of turmoil that is bound to destroy all humanly constituted authority, all powers-that-be.” Much of modernity, no matter that modernity ranges itself ferociously against Christianity, consists in the exploitation of fragments of Revelation. The modern sensitivity to scapegoats, beginning with the case of Alfred Dreyfuss, and reaching its outraged consummation in the reaction to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, is Christian, but it thinks of itself as a sophisticated stage beyond Christianity and in its zeal actually lapses backwards into the sacrificial rituals from which the Passion would deliver humanity. This “impulse of denial” works its spell everywhere in modernity, as the exemplary cases of Dawkins and Boyer show.
According to Dupuy, Girard’s interpretation of ancient texts has revealed two essential truths: One is that “the sacred gives birth to societies”; the other is that “Christianity is not a morality, but rather an epistemology,” which “reveals the truth of the sacred and by just this, deprives it of its creative power – for better or worse.” History since the Passion would be the series of paroxysms instigated by rebellious obstinacy (libido dominandi) in the face Christianity’s victimary epistemology. Modernity rejects the Gospel because it cannot wean itself from dependency on the exclusionary gestures of the sacred. Requiring victims, it can only produce them under the claim of victimization. As Girard himself has written in When these Things Begin (2014), “new forms of ‘victimization’ are constantly emerging from the instruments that were intended to do away with them.” A few short lines later: “Revelation… too will keep reemerging… Revelation [is] the spiritual equivalent of nuclear power.”
Dupuy, in his chapter on “Rationality and Ritual,” classifies the forms of democracy as secretive reinstatements of the sacred. “The modern world,” he writes, “has sought to repudiate [the] logic of exteriority, replacing it with a system of thought in which the principles, laws, and norms that regulate civic life are derived from reason alone.” A good example of what Dupuy means by “the logic of exteriority” (although he never cites it) is the formation of the French nation, in a time of simultaneous internal conflict and foreign invasion, by Joan of Arc, whose explicit program entailed the enthronement of the man whom she herself described as God-appointed. Even the American Republic still advertises itself as nominally “Under God,” which no European polity does. Can reason replace exteriority? Dupuy answers in the negative and points to the many areas of dysfunction in modern societies for evidence. In a particularly fascinating sequence, Dupuy shows how modern electoral procedures, in their dependence on quantitative outcomes, in fact introduce chance, an exterior factor, into their results. Supreme Court decisions and recount tallies aside, Dupuy argues that the Bush II/Gore presidential contest of 2000 was ultimately decided by chance because every recount introduced a higher degree of uncertainty into the situation.
Dupuy’s chapter on “Justice and Resentment” is both the most Girardian chapter in The Mark of the Sacred and the most Nietzschean, following in paths pioneered not only by Nietzsche but by Max Scheler and the many novelists who have taken ressentiment for their theme. Dupuy mounts a critique of modern theories of justice, such as that of John Rawls, as unsparing as that which he mounts against the cognitive philosophers: “The fundamental philosophical error of theories of justice (and particularly Rawl’s theory) is to believe that there exists a solution to the problem of justice, and that this solution also disposes of the challenge posed by disruptive passions.” The utopians believe that they can achieve their goal of “abolishing resentment.” Resentment, however, seems to be fundamentally constitutive of human nature. As Girard has argued, difference promotes stability. Dupuy would say that hierarchy promotes stability. The two statements are equivalent. The crisis of the moment stems therefore from the loss of difference (Girard’s “undifferentiation”) or the dissolution of hierarchy. The nearness of the rival, as Girard has argued, exacerbates resentment in the subject. The nearness of the rival is the same as absolute equality, the stated goal of progressives. Thus the farther Western polities move in the direction of mandatory egalitarianism, the closer they come to the point of universal resentment.
Foolish programs of global social engineering; the destruction of traditional forms; the war of so-called reason against so-called superstition; the concomitant complete failure of modern elites to understand religion in general on the one hand and Christianity in particular on the other; actually irrational economic policies; the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and the implacable de-sacralization of the world brought about by Christian Revelation and still unfolding; the seizure by liberalism of shards and fragments of Christian thought, which then reappear without contexts as perversions of their originals; the dissolution of borders and the unchecked migration of human masses in the tens of millions; the denial of sin; the rejection of redemption: All of these things belong to the frightening synergy of the contemporary moment, as Dupuy sees that moment from his apocalyptic perspective.
That the converging disasters are real despite the “impulse of denial” that pretends not to see them, popular culture attests abundantly. Indeed, Dupuy concludes his book with an extended meditation on Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which he finds a subtle analysis both of the problem of “exteriorization” and of the dizzying effect of the breakdown of identity on the human psyche. Vertigo is by now a classic film. Following up an earlier reference to “the Cineplex,” one might well remark of contemporary cinema, no matter that the liberal monolith has bought Hollywood, and no matter that the studios now function collectively as a propaganda arm for government, that about every third movie released in summer, and about every third series released on Netflix, relies plot-wise on an apocalyptic theme in the vulgar sense. In cinema and on television, the world teeters always on the verge of a violent end. More than that, the looming Armageddon almost always incorporates supernatural traits, which, while not usually Christian, are nevertheless religious. Could there be a better illustration of “undifferentiation” than The Walking Dead?
The Mark of the Sacred belongs with a crop of similarly themed books like Copley’s and Cline’s, and with more or less recent books like William Strause and Neil Howe’s Fourth Turning (1997), Richard Koch and Chris Smith’s Suicide of the West (2006), and James Rickard’s more specialized Death of Money (2014). The Mark of the Sacred has the advantage over such books precisely because of its radical religious and apocalyptic perspective, informed not only by the work of Girard but also by that of Hannah Arendt, Ivan Illich, Emil Durkheim (especially his Elementary Forms of Religious Life), and Marcel Mauss (especially his Essay on the Function of Sacrifice). The prevailing global crisis is so intense and the elites are so intent on speeding it to its inevitable climax, which they think will be utopia, that only someone who takes a totally external view of the situation can understand it. The character of that external view has been conditioned by the crisis itself, one essential feature of which is the attempt by the elites to expel religion from the repertory of thought. The external view – Dupuy’s, for example – will necessarily be religious. It will necessarily be Christian, too, although in the East, where the crisis also takes hold to the degree that its nations continue to westernize, a severe Buddhist-based critique might arrive at conclusions similar to those of Dupuy.
This review-article first appeared a few years ago at the now-defunct Brussels Journal.