Returning to René Girard on the atonement (see previous post), one criticism made of Girard (and of his disciples, such as James Alison) is that they emphasise the “horizontal” aspects of the atonement to the exclusion of the “vertical”, Godward aspects.
Girard is explicit about this in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, where he writes:
Medieval and modern theories of atonement all look in the direction of God for the causes of the Crucifixion: God’s honour, God’s justice, even God’s anger, must be satisfied. These theories don’t succeed because they don’t seriously look at the direction where the answer must lie: sinful humanity, human relations, mimetic contagion, which is the same thing as Satan. They speak much of original sin, but they fail to make the idea concrete. That is why they give the impression of being arbitrary and unjust to human beings, even if they are theologically sound.
I’m not entirely clear what Girard is saying here. Is he saying that “vertical” theories of atonement (such as penal substitutionary atonement) are to be rejected in favour of his horizontal, “mimetic” approach? Or is it that a mimetic approach to the atonement is necessary in order to give a more concrete understanding of “original sin” and thus rescue the vertical aspects of atonement from the impression of being “arbitrary and unjust”?
Alison makes a similarly opaque remark somewhere about “crudely substitutionary versions of the atonement”, where it is unclear whether he means that substitutionary atonement is inherently “crude”, or whether he is just taking issue with the crude expressions of penal substitutionary atonement that undoubtedly are all too common (and which John Stott also criticises in his staunchly substitutionary The Cross of Christ).
Personally I’m deeply reluctant to lose the vertical aspects of the atonement, the confession that Christ died as a propitiation for our sins. However, I’m equally reluctant to reject the very profound insights of Girard on this issue. What is needed is some way to reconcile the two more effectively.
This is one of those “I don’t know, do you?” blog posts. I think some hints of where an answer might be found can be seen in the final paragraphs of this post at Whosoever Desires (a very Girardian blog name!), while others can be found in the observation someone made on my Facebook page that “the atonement exposes the Satanic mimetic economy, but it also establishes a different mimetic economy in its place”. But if anyone has any other ideas, or suggestions for further reading: please let me know in the comments.