Raymund Schwager’s Maieutics: “Mimesis and Freedom” and the Transformation of René Girard
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Raymund Schwager’s Maieutics
“Mimesis and Freedom” and the Transformation of René Girard

I

In a letter to Raymund Schwager from October 1991, René Girard arrived at a very critical verdict concerning his 1978 book Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World—the very book about which he had written almost one and a half decades before, that it contained the “essence of what I have to say” and “clarified and dissipated former misunderstandings.”1 The reason for this change of mind was Raymund Schwager himself, who had sent him the manuscript of a paper on “Mimesis and Freedom” he had presented seven years earlier, in 1984, at a symposium on Girard’s thinking in Provo, Utah.2 For Girard, who had actually attended the Provo symposium, this text as such was, naturally, not new. And it was not new for him either that Schwager’s reasoning in this text was in some respects quite different from his own. Already in September 1984, Schwager had communicated to him that in this paper he developed an approach to the relationship between mimesis and freedom, “which does not altogether accord with what you said”3 on this topic in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World.4 Nevertheless, it took as long as 1991 until Girard, [End Page 55] after having read the paper once again, could finally fully appreciate what Schwager had accomplished in it. He reacted enthusiastically: Schwager’s reasoning in the Provo paper was, he wrote, “inspired from beginning to end, and for the first time the power of its thought comes home to me.”5 Girard drew the conclusion that this meant nothing less than reevaluating and even correcting some of his former assumptions that had been very dear to him for years, if not decades.

It is quite well known that the Austrian theologian Schwager, author of magisterial books like Must There Be Scapegoats?, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, or Banished from Eden,6 was deeply inspired by Girard and his anthropological theory. He was the first to systematically adapt Girard’s thinking for theological issues. In Must There Be Scapegoats? he wrote explicitly that this book was, in the end, “the product of a team effort”7 with Girard, whose thinking was the decisive inspiration for the thoroughly new interpretation of the biblical scriptures he developed in this book. Schwager was convinced that using notions and insights from Girard’s cultural theory was quite helpful for developing a theology profoundly relevant for present day humankind, because it focused on what he, being a committed member of the peace movement, regarded to be the major problems of his time, the era of the Cold War: collective violence and rivalry.8 Girard’s thinking must have been a real eye-opener for him, because from it he learnt, that these were the major problems not only of his, but probably of every time in human history.

But there is more to their intellectual relationship. Reading their extensive letter exchange, which, fortunately, has been preserved for the time between 1974—its very beginning—and 1991, it becomes quite clear that their intellectual friendship was not a one-way-street at all. Schwager’s influence on Girard went well beyond his successful and, among Girardians,9 well-known attempts to convince Girard that the traditional theological term “sacrifice” was quite appropriate and meaningful to explain what Jesus had done on the Cross to bring about salvation.10 Actually, Schwager not only changed Girard’s terminology, but, in a way, redirected a deep current of his thought. The effect his paper “Mimesis and Freedom” had on Girard illustrates this profound influence quite powerfully. The main result of this paper was twofold: First, “the biblical texts speak clearly about freedom,” and, at the same time, “expose a quasi-mechanistic or compulsive element in human affairs” leading to what Girard called mimetic rivalry and, consequently, to the “enslavement of the innermost spiritual freedom of man.”11 Second—and for Schwager this second point was even more [End Page 56] important than the first one—in spite of this fatal mechanism in human life, the Bible still argued...


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