I have had some distracting computer troubles the last few days so I am behind on my reading. However, I have been thinking about the Rene Girard book, The One by Whom Scandal Comes.
Before I retired, what they payed me for was not being a Bible scholar. I would rather have played a kind of Christian rabbi and I did let what scholarship I made time for feed my preaching and the Bible studies I led.
But what they paid me for was attempting to fix dysfunctional congregations. An important tool for that work was a systems theory about how groups like families and churches work. I used systems theory in my work but I was never good at explaining what it was all about. Practicing systems therapy is more of a creative art than a precise science in that it relies on recognizing patterns rather than straight-line reasoning.
I am talking about this because in Girard I recognize a similar approach. Girard seems to see mimetic violence as a pattern in human relationships. And his thinking seems similar to that of Gregory Bateson whose work you study when you study systems theory.
Bateson used abductive inference as opposed to deductive or inductive inference. The simplest explanation of this that I have found online is here.
Often systems thinking is said to be nonlinear. At first, I thought this meant that it would be cyclical. But actually it is more like a layered approach to reality. Some historians, for instance, see history as strung out along a linear timeline. Others see recurring cycles. But archeologists discover history in layers, one age piled on top of another.
I know a lot of people will have trouble with Rene Girard because his mimetic theory does not follow a linear kind of logic. It depends on seeing patterns in human relationships and it finds these patterns in literature more than in polls or surveys and other sociological data.
But my experience is that this approach is important if you actually want to help families and congregations. Surface issues behind conflict may be things like budgets or job descriptions. But digging down to an underlying layer finds that the real issue may be who gets to say. In other words, the rivalries that Girard talks about contribute to the dysfunction of groups.
Groups where dysfunction gets out of hand often find an unhealthy equilibrium. Did one of the siblings attempt suicide? We pretend it did not happen and try to get back to normal. But this secret is poison for relationships in the family. Did the preacher leave his wife and run off with a soprano in the choir? We bury the incident and get back to a kind of normal. But distrust of preachers and musicians lingers. Satan has cast out Satan.
Talk therapy does not really fix these things. But a new person, like an interim pastor, with an “unhealthy” curiosity about the past can join the group and change the dynamic. This is especially true in a church where the position of pastor is seen as a prize, but the interim pastor renounces that prize and lets another take it, thus modeling a different kind of leaving, a better kind of goodbye, a healthier kind of grief.
This experience is why I am listening to Girard, difficult as he is.