Scott COWDELL, René Girard and Secular Modernity: Christ, Culture and Crisis.  Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013.  Pp. xi + 300.  $34.00.  ISBN 978-0-268-02374-4.  Reviewed by Benjamin BROWN, Lourdes College, Sylvania, OH 43560


                      Scott Cowdell in René Girard and Secular Modernity captures an aspect of Girard’s work that is not as well known as other elements, while at the same time providing a good overview of Girard’s system for those who are unfamiliar with it.  Thus, this book can be understood and appreciated even by those who are new to Girard.  (However, for the purposes of this review, I will assume that the reader is generally acquainted with his thought.)

            After a helpful introduction, Cowdell divides his treatment into five chapters.  The first two provide an overview of the two main aspects of Girard’s anthropology, the mimetic nature of desire and the scapegoat mechanism, respectively, as well as discussions of how these help to explain modernity and secularism.  Cowdell tells the Girardian story of the origins of culture, religion and the sacred as well as how the same processes are in play at the origins of the modern world, albeit in a different way.

While chapters one and two discuss the origins of modernity, chapters three through five offer a deeper analysis of our situation.  Chapter three focuses on Girard’s reading of Christianity as the only religion to have fully unmasked “the sacred” and scapegoating for what they really are.  Chapter four examines the ways in which modern institutions have taken the place of archaic religions in controlling violence in pseudo-religious ways, but much less effectively.  Chapter five looks to the future as Cowdell discusses Girard’s apocalyptic vision of the end of history as a result of the ever-increasing violence stemming from the failure of modernity to really check violence.

Girard’s analysis of modernity has many points of contact with other scholars (e.g., Charles Taylor) and is rich with insights in the way that he turns the commonly accepted ideas on their heads.  For example, he suggests that real secularism is actually the result of Christianity, and that the modern world is not truly secular, but rather actually represents a return to archaic religion.

How does Girard arrive at such a counterintuitive position?  The state of affairs in which the archaic sacred has been unveiled for what it is and largely removed from the culture, Girard calls true secularism; that is, secularity is opposed not to religion in one sense of the term, but merely to archaic religion, which means religion that arises as a result of the scapegoat mechanism and continues to mask it.  He argues that before modernity Christianity had made tremendous progress in desacralizing the world, that is, in checking mimetic desire, which so easily gets out of control, and the rivalry and scapegoating that arise from it.  Thus, Christianity was the major force leading away from the false sacred and towards the true secular.

As Europe moves into the Renaissance and even more so into the Enlightenment, several key shifts occurs.  First and foremost, there is a gradual loss of class differences and a greater sense of equality, which among other things, also decreases differentiation and thus opens up a space for unmitigated desire.  Because desire operates mimetically, with one person’s desires following those of others “‘democracy is one vast middle-class court where the courtiers are everywhere and the king is nowhere’ – hence ‘men will become Gods for each other’” (25).  Such a situation is pumped full of “internal mediation,” in which everyone is socially close enough to be a potential model, or source of desire, such that they also become hindrances to the fulfillment of each others’ desires and thus rivals and enemies.  Envy, rivalry and conflict are everywhere in the air.

Secondly, the rise of the modern state and the public marginalization of religion means that all of the functions of religion to restrict unmitigated rivalry and redirect desire are decreased or even removed.  This can only occur if something takes the place of archaic religion, which is precisely what the modern state does, both with its sacrosanct laws and “blind” justice which stand above individuals and communities and are thus not subject to rivalry from internal mediation, as well as its consumeristic attempts to satisfy all the desires that are continually fostered.  But because modernity continues to foster unmitigated desire, addressing only the symptom (violence), not the cause (desire), it is highly volatile.

Cowdell’s explanation of Girard’s thought is clear and well-organized, as he brings together ideas from many parts of Girard’s writing.  Though not without its flaws – e.g., after explaining the problems that arise from lack of differentiation, he then argues that if only we were more undifferentiated in wealth, then the United States would magically become as happy and peaceful as places like Sweden – Cowdell’s analysis of Girard and his attempts to extend Girard’s thought to fill in some of the holes are helpful.  In the process, he addresses a wide variety of issues from terrorism and mirror neurons to consumerism and homosexuality, all of which are worth careful consideration.  This is definitely a book that every theological anthropologist and social ethicist should read.