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  • Girard ReclaimedFinding Common Ground between Sarah Coakley and René Girard on Sacrifice
  • Chelsea Jordan King (bio)

The reception of the thought of René Girard in theological discourse has been anything but uniform. Some have praised his theory for its simplicity and the scope of its explanatory power, while others have critiqued its apparent negative anthropology and claim to universality. Girard is known for articulating what he has termed “mimetic theory” and, more controversially, for arguing that the mimetic desire particular to human beings leads to violence, which can only be attenuated by a sacrificial system that has arisen alongside human culture. Girard has faced numerous critiques against his theory in general, and has received backlash for his suspicion of and subsequent distancing from, the language of sacrifice. In some Christian circles, this distancing is unacceptable on theological grounds. For both traditionally and scripturally, Christ’s saving work on the cross has been referred to as a sacrifice. In this paper, I examine one such Christian theologian, Sarah Coakley, who seeks to both critique Girard’s theory and offer her own positive construal of Christian sacrifice. In Sacrifice Regained, Coakley critiques Girard’s theory for its apparent reduction of the notion of sacrifice to violence. While admitting that Girard has developed his theory to make room for a more positive understanding of [End Page 63] mimesis and sacrifice, Coakley maintains that Girard ultimately offers us a negative theory of sacrifice.1 After deconstructing Girard’s theory of sacrifice, Coakley puts forward her own, constructive theory. Her claim is bold. She argues that “the latest deliverances from evolutionary biology . . . provide us with an intriguing impetus to re-consider the rationality of Christian faith precisely as sacrificial.” 2

This paper proceeds in two parts. My aim in the first part is to perform a close reading of Coakley in which I argue that she misreads Girard on a number of important points, including the relationship between mimetic desire and rivalry, and Girard’s apparent “ontology of violence.” In the second part of this paper, I outline Coakley’s defense of sacrifice by explaining her appeal to the biological concept of cooperation and altruism. Despite Coakley’s critiques of Girard, I argue that Girard’s scapegoat mechanism serves as a paradigmatic example of the very type of evolutionary cooperation for which Coakley argues. Because Coakley does not wish to regain a notion of sacrifice that perpetuates violence, however, it is my final contention that Girard’s more developed account of sacrifice can greatly enrich Coakley’s defense of a specific kind of sacrifice as evinced in her essay, “In Defense of Sacrifice: Gender, Selfhood, and the Binding of Isaac.”


Coakley’s main critiques against Girard are found in her 2012 Gifford Lecture, “Sacrifice Regained: Reconsidering the Rationality of Christian Belief.” She begins by acknowledging the significant impact that Girard’s theory of sacrifice has had on the wider intellectual culture. According to her, it is oftentimes appropriated without criticism, including Charles Taylor’s own Gifford Lectures.3 Coakley, however, distances herself from this uncritical approval of Girard and claims that his theory “positively bristles with theoretical problems.”4

We must note Coakley’s acknowledgement that there has been a development in Girard’s overall thought. However, this does not stop her from critiquing an earlier version of Girard’s theory that is admittedly obsolete. This acknowledgement of Girard’s development indicates that Coakley’s critique may be focused on the reception of Girard, rather than Girard himself. She writes that early Girard is “what we all remember,” and early Girard argues that there is a “primary violence deeply encoded in the roots of human nature.”5 [End Page 64] She then offers a brief explanation of Girard’s mimetic theory. Because I will be assessing the way in which she critiques Girard, it is helpful to quote her in full:

I want what you want, goes the theory, because all desire copies from others (“mimetic desire”); when this rivalry leads to violent feelings, which it inevitably does, each again mirrors the other in such negative affect (“mimetic doubling”), until a dénouement is reached (“the mimetic crisis”). This showdown...


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