A look at Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith by Gianni Vattimo and Rene Girard
What happens when you have a debate between two devout Catholics who both, more or less, look forward to the dissolution of metaphysics in religious thought? What happens when you have a debate between two men and one of them greatly influenced the other’s system of thought? It would seem, in the case of Christianity, Truth and Weakening Faith—which comprises a series of debates concerning religious thought between Italian philosopher, Gianni Vattimo and French anthropologist, Rene Girard—that you would end up with something very much like a tickle-fight.
Vattimo is popular for the concept of ‘weak thought.’ ‘Weak thought,’ to put it roughly, centers around the idea that, in a world where we can no longer accept the metaphysical explanations of the world through various institutions (Marxism, Atheism, Communism, religion), we must rely on Being, interpretation relative to history, and hermeneutic interaction with culture in order to form a more relevant concept of ‘reality.’ Girard is popular for ‘The Scapegoat Mechanism’ and the ‘Mimetic Rivalry.’
In this series of debates, the two go head to head, or is it butt to lips? The latter would seem to be the case, given how seldom they seem to disagree to any real consequence, and when they do, how sorry and almost apologetic they are for having to do so, and how repeatedly sure they are to pay one another high admiration. Vattimo even says in the beginning, ‘First of all, I ought to state that Rene Girard has helped to inspire my own conversion …’ But he must quickly add, ‘although I’m not sure how pleased he would be to find out what he has converted me into!’ ‘I may have oversimplified Girard’s thought in my opening statement,’ he later says. ‘I certainly didn’t mean to make him more papist than he may appear to be.’ —Because that would be awful, at least for these two. It’s not hard for one to gather, after reading some of their writing, that their Catholicism is hard on its capital C. In an interview, Vattimo once referred to himself as ‘moderately anti-clerical,’ and is often accused of having (or flat out admitting) heterodox views.
If there is a measureable, hard disagreement between the two, it has to do with vocabulary and interpretation, mainly in Vattimo’s more open interpretation of what was originally meant to be a quite rigid, fixed set of phenomena in ‘The Scapegoat Mechanism’ developed by Girard. They spend a lot of their time saying very similar things but arrive at different conclusions. Both agree that the person of Christ was the very first figure in all of history to subvert mankind’s association of the divine with guilty victimhood, since he was quickly recognized as an innocent victim, despite the mob’s (which included his friends) quickness to join in violence against him. Throughout all of history, the sacrificial victim was recognized as guilty even by the writer. Vattimo and Girard both seem to agree that a large function of The Gospel message was to contradict mankind’s need for violence to achieve social order. Where they differ is that Girard seems to think that history is constantly on the verge of forgetting this message and oscillating back toward violence (which could bring about something that would resemble the apocalypse). Vattimo, on the other hand, seems to think that the message made by Christ is a historical event that transcends the kind of exclusivity that one group would claim over another, and that our modern understanding of love is an ever-growing, inescapable product of a constantly reasserting revelation. Vattimo seems to think that Girard is too violent on history and Girard seems to think that Vattimo is too soft on history.
Perhaps one of the harsher things spoken by these, tickling, slapping chums is by Girard, who says of Vattimo’s school of thought and the establishments associated with it, ‘For them, history doesn’t really mean a lot. The key term for defining this school could be “game.” Everything is lucid.’ Vattimo, in response, says, ‘Just as I exaggerated Girard’s traits at the outset, now he’s painting me as a fun-seeking gamester.’ This might sound harsh, but he follows it up with, ‘Indeed it’s true that I don’t take myself as seriously as other Italian philosophers, and perhaps I ought to behave a little more solemnly.’ They take each other’s words with a grain of salt, which almost seems unnecessary given how often they give each other words with a pinch of sugar.
Girard later goes as far as to say, ‘I believe that Vattimo is perfect as he is, and I’m certainly not trying to moralize him or give him advice of any kind.’ Vattimo later says, ‘What Girard has said appears to me significant and surprising. In a certain sense, he seems to have become more optimistic than me.’ (Tickle-tickle).
The book finishes with an essay by each thinker. Vattimo’s essay focuses on the relationship between the thought of Heidegger and Girard in relation to the revelation of Christian interpretation. Girard’s essay is a summary and reassertion of his attachment to ‘The Scapegoat Mechanism,’ though written in direct response to the thought of Vattimo, in which he argues that ‘it is not just interpretation … There are facts too.’
One can’t help but think—after reading the long introduction to what is already a short book—that this is, ultimately, a Vattimo book. For instance, in this introduction written by Pierpaolo Antonello, Vattimo is commended for teaming up with the ‘untimely’ figure, Rene Girard, painting Vattimo up to be, not only the more progressive of the two, but someone willing and careful to pull goodness from what is no longer fashionable.
Walking on eggshells, tickle-fighting, kindly disagreeing, this book is sort of like a slumber party with friends … More accurately, one could say it is like a lunch outside over wine among friends who inquire freely, admonish quickly, contradict carefully and shrug to no conclusion. It is worth one’s time if one wants a refinement of the thought systems of both men and how they weigh against one another. Those interested in religious thought will be challenged by Vattimo’s playfulness with religious vocabulary and symbolism and perhaps intrigued or spooked by Girard’s hyper-anthropological assessment of sacrifice, violence and divinity as history. What you will not find is nastiness or intellectual over-compensation. After all, when one is done tickle-fighting, one has only to catch one’s breath—an effect, at least I believe, similar to that of the reader who gets drunk on thought alone and relishes much stimulating conversation.