Theology and Peace:
A Theological Beginning
How do you take a new idea which literally turns the world upside down and fit it within existing frameworks? How do you deal with a thought which has clear and powerful theological consequences while its author consistently declines engagement in the area of theology?
The Need for Theological Focus
These and other questions have nagged at people who are followers of the work of Rene Girard. At the beginning of the 90’s, COV&R, the professional academic organization connected to Girard’s work, was founded. It has a broad purpose—to explore and develop what it calls the mimetic model in its explanation of the relationship of violence and religion in the genesis of culture, and it explicitly invites scholars from diverse academic fields. This organization has done an invaluable job in developing the intellectual network and community engaged in research and application of mimetic theory. Its aims are broad enough to encompass theological reflection, but far too broad to provide the focus which theology requires if it is to find organic growth and development out of Girard’s work. Moreover, although Girard certainly appreciated the theological consequences of his thought, he himself did not seek to follow them through, and this may have had an effect of dampening theological discussion. A number of people began to sense the need for a clear theological focus and an alternative body which might provide it.
The Crisis in Contemporary Theology
On an entirely different horizon, it can be easily appreciated that there is an underlying crisis in theology itself. The circumstances in North America since 9/11 have given considerable weight in public discourse to a war-fighting, mythic-millennial distortion of theology. The nonviolent, Sermon-on-the-Mount, Martin-Luther-King-Jr. version is barely given airtime. At the same time, postmodern thought has brought into question the traditional metaphysical viewpoint on which theology has generally relied. This situation presents both a need and opportunity for an anthropologically based conversation about theology, one that sees God at work in the depth of the human condition for the sake of human transformation. A Girardian-based conversation of this nature may apply equally to Catholic and Protestant traditions, because it subverts many of the polemical issues of the Reformation on both sides, because it is deeply rooted in scripture, and because it is radically sacramental.
The Growing Relevance of Mimetic Theory
The pressing theological relevance of mimetic theory has already been demonstrated by the development and popularity of two websites over the past several years. These sites bring Girardian-based scripture interpretation to a wider public, including especially church professionals. Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary offers a weekly commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary, with links to a range of texts and secondary theological writing working with Girard’s thought. Preaching Peace gives a similar lectionary commentary, with perhaps a more “evangelical” edge, and has the additional feature of organizing occasional conferences promoting theological outreach from mimetic anthropology.
The Need for a Conversation
What was still needed, however, was a community of thought and discourse committed to regular sustained discussion, building a transformed theological landscape. Individual theologians and practitioners with a Girardian perspective certainly represent sustained reflection, and they are an essential resource, but significant growth takes place only through an intentional conversation which continues to evolve (both intellectually and spiritually) and can progressively draw in new participants. What was needed was a theological guild or society working out of mimetic anthropology.
Tom Nicoll, an Episcopal Priest in Larchmont, New York, and Tony Bartlett, professor of theology at Bexley Hall, the then Episcopal seminary in Rochester, first broached the idea in the summer of 2006. Jim Williams, one of the founding figures of COV&R, supported it from Oklahoma by telephone, and Michael Hardin, director of Preaching Peace, became involved as an agent and planner of the new project. Michael and Tony invited a selected group to“a first theological conversation” under the name of Theologia Pacis. It took place in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in January of 2007 and was noteworthy for the participation of members of the peace churches, especially Mennonites. Subsequently Michael and Tony put together a steering committee or provisional board. Its members were Tom and Tony, with Dorothy Whiston, Mary McKinney, and Jonathan Sauder. It was this group which took on the direction of the new organization and began decisively to shape its purpose and spirit. The name “Theology and Peace” was chosen, a successful conference under this name was organized in May of 2008 at Bon Secours in Maryland, a foundational membership group was formed, the organization was incorporated in the state of New York, and application for tax-exempt status got underway. After the Maryland conference Jonathan left the board and new members joined: Tony Ciccariello, Lisa Hadler, Shannon Mullen, Adam Ericksen, and Michael Hardin. Our second conference was held in Chicago in 2009, with James Alison, Andrew Marr and Tony Bartlett as presenters. The meeting was a significant step forward in numbers and the uptick of well-known Girardians attending. We look forward to maintaining this base as well as continuing to widen the range of the conversation, reaching out to new people and communities.
Of all Girard’s work, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World is the place where he seemed to present the theological dimension of this thought in the most natural way, a first delighted breakthrough of theological expression. Here perhaps is one of the most far-seeing passages, which may serve as an epigraph to Theology and Peace. In a comment on the “death of God” Girard has this to say:
What is in fact dying is the sacrificial concept of divinity preserved by medieval and modern theology—not the Father of Jesus, not the divinity of the Gospels, which we have been hindered—and still are hindered—from approaching, precisely by the stumbling block of sacrifice. In effect, this sacrificial concept of divinity must “die,” and with it the whole apparatus of historical Christianity, for the Gospels to be able to rise again in our midst, not looking like a corpse that we have exhumed, but revealed as the newest, the finest, liveliest and truest thing that we have ever set eyes upon. (Things Hidden, 235–236)