Satan, the Spirit and personhood

As I mentioned in a previous post, René Girard regards Satan as a symbolic figure representing the mimetic contagion that arises from rivalrous desire. This is reminiscent of Jacques Ellul’s treatment of the “powers and principalities”.

Both Girard and Ellul thus set themselves at odds with the more traditional view of Satan as some sort of “personal being”, in particular as a “fallen angel”. That said, I there is a lot to be gained from their perspectives even within the context of a more traditional view (e.g. seeing mimetic contagion as a means, or even the principal means, by which Satan pursues his aims among humanity).

However, in this post I want to pursue Girard’s perspective a little further, rather than mapping it immediately back onto a more “orthodox” position. This is because Girard (via James Alison) has some interesting things to say about personhood itself.

James Alison’s book The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes sets out a “theological anthropology” based closely on the work of Girard. In particular Alison argues (like Girard) that the origins of “humanness” lie in mimetic desire itself. What’s more, it is not simply that human desire as such is wrong: the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus tell us otherwise. What is wrong is the distortion of human desire into rivalry and conflict, but desire itself – the mimetic desire that is formed by the model of another’s desire – is the essence of personhood. (Please note that I’m condensing here about 25 pages or so of argument, so please forgive any oversimplifications or distortions.)

The implication of this is that human personhood only exists in the context of relationship: we are “interdividual” rather than “individual” (The Joy of Being Wrong, p.50). As Alison puts it:

The basic unit for understanding what it is to be human is not an introspection, but a mimetic “rapport” between two [persons]. (p.51)

Within this “rapport” there is a “constant interchange of desire between the self and the other, and the other is of course a self in constant movement by what is other than it”. Alison suggests that this then provides a model for understanding the Trinity:

The … Father loves his image, his likeness, one who is exactly like Him in all things except being unoriginated. The Son … is the exact image and likeness of the Father, able therefore to receive the Father and, as a perfect likeness, completely reciprocate that giving. (p.51)

In doing so, the Son is a “perfect imitator of the Father”, in an imitation with “no sort of rivalry”. This perfect, simultaneous giving and receiving of love constitutes a “rapport interdividuel” that is so perfect in its imitation of the unoriginated love of the Father and the Son that it is itself a person: the Holy Spirit.

So personhood does not consist in being an “absolute subject”, but in being a “subsistent relation”. In the case of the Holy Spirit, it is the perfect, non-rivalrous, loving mimesis of the Father and the Son that itself constitutes the subsistent relation, the person, of the Spirit.

Those of us for whom reading C.S. Lewis’ account of the Trinity in Mere Christianity was a formative experience will find some of this very familiar (as, I’m guessing, will those more high-minded people who have read St Augustine on this subject!). But I just want to push this out a little further: not to go off into flights of fancy, but into thoughts that I hope can be “mapped back” onto orthodoxy without difficulty.

If the Holy Spirit is a person who is constituted by the perfect, non-rivalrous, imitative desire of the Father and the Son, then this leads me to wonder if we can see Satan as being the corrupted, almost parodic, analogue of this: the person who is constituted by the rivalrous, violent, mimetic desire among human beings. And maybe the fear that this means we are talking about a “symbolic”, “impersonal” Satan arises from our misunderstanding of what personhood itself is.

This also then fits in well with the notion (promoted by both Girard and Alison) that the Holy Spirit as “Paraclete” is our “counsel for the defence”, in contrast to Satan (the “accuser”) as “counsel for the prosecution”. If Satan is indeed a mimetically-rivalrous parody of the Holy Spirit then these “mirror” roles for each would seem highly appropriate.

I haven’t made any attempt to reconcile this idea with the (somewhat limited) biblical data about Satan and his origins, but it does seem to me that this relational understanding of personhood provides a possible way of seeing how Satan can be both “personal” and in some way a synonym for supposedly “impersonal” forces. It would also enable us to see the “personal”/”satanic” explanations for certain phenomena in the Gospels and the “impersonal”/”scientific” explanations we prefer today as being two sides of the same coin rather than in opposition to one another.

Anyway, I’ve waded out far enough into this deep water: your thoughts are welcome in the comments, as usual.

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6 Responses to Satan, the Spirit and personhood

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot, too. In general, I have rejected the idea that Satan and demons are not continuing conscious centers of personality because the readings involved have seemed bad. The Gadarane demoniac is read as being mental illness as described by people with little understanding. Sort of an explanatory myth. But once you leave the text, how do you know what is being explained? Wouldn’t it be just as likely that the story was invented to account for how all those pigs died? Well, Girard is different here. His mimetic idea can account for the pigs as well as the demoniac. He also brings out some words I have missed in the past. When Jesus rebukes Peter calling him Satan, he says that he “thinks like a man.” If this were a literal possession (as many take literal), then why not tell Peter he thinks like a demon? Anyway, lots to consider. Where most such explanations did violence to the text, I wonder if Girard won’t provide a richer reading, and one that honors the text better. But like you, I’m still pondering.

  2. J Random Hermeneut says:

    Strangely enough, I had a good long discussion about this over tea this week with my New Testament colleague. His concern was that students in our circles (no doubt reflecting the ethos of their churches) tend to preach about the person and activity of Satan, you know the Debbil and all his works and ways, as a sort of ubiquitous all-powerful force and personality which essentially pushes things in a dualistic or Manichean direction. (These were his concerns.) He is concerned of wholesale cultural eisegesis – that the N.T. is not really capable of bearing the homiletic use to which preachers make of the Devil. I have nothing to say about it except it was an interesting discussion and enjoyed hearing him voice his concerns.

    I’ll probably follow up the discussion next week (11.00 tea, it’s a religion) by sharing some of Girard’s insights. I’d like to hear what he’d think about them.

  3. J Random Hermeneut says:

    Oh, also this made me chuckle: I haven’t made any attempt to reconcile this idea with the (somewhat limited) biblical data about Satan and his origins,

    Ha!. heh, heh, ha. ha. Tee hee hee.

    Seriously though. Have fun with that project. Then tell it to the church. But put on your pharmakos helmet first.

  4. frank sonnek says:

    First, the text itself reveals alot. In a perfectly good world, the text informs us of only one thing that was not good. It is not good that man should be alone. That being the case, and also being the case that God made the animals in mated pairs, why did he not just go ahead and make Adam and Eve without the drama of running all the animals by Adam and having him name them (and what that means, names being pretty important bibilcally, also could be another interesting thread huh?)

    No. He paraded all the animals before Adam and let him see the different species pairing off. Then he goes to God. This all can pretty neatly fit into what you are saying John eh?

    So why does most exegesis not explore all this? My guess is that we are romantically confusing means with ends. that the point of the story is about Adam getting a hot babe and then the sex part. The fact that marriage (and sex too or not?) will end in the resurrection should invite us to probe this all further. Adam and Eve are the pebble in the pool the concentric waves of society and generations are the purpose, but then there does seem to be something that is existential and therefore beyond purpose: the idea that man is simply and intrinsically not fully human without others.

    The part of all this I just commented can be rather intimately connected to the Blessed Incarnation and so to Jesus. This should be the aim I would think. As for satan and the rest, the part I feel missing here is that the Confessions invite Lutheran christians to see the entire scriptures as being about the Holy Gospel directly or supportingly. Some of this speculation feels uncomfortably like the kind of speculation about a sovreign God that is detached from that teather. This is not really a criticism, but rather just a gut initial reaction.

  5. John H says:

    Frank: thanks for your comment. Good to hear from you.

    As for satan and the rest, the part I feel missing here is that the Confessions invite Lutheran christians to see the entire scriptures as being about the Holy Gospel directly or supportingly. Some of this speculation feels uncomfortably like the kind of speculation about a sovreign God that is detached from that teather.

    Hence my comment about wanting to map this quite quickly back onto orthodoxy – and really I should have said the gospel – rather heading off into flights of fancy. But I think precisely the value of Girard’s perspective on Satan is that it does take us straight back to the heart of the gospel. Satan ceases to be an appendage to the gospel – one that is either ignored, or hyped up into the “ubiquitous all-powerful force and personality” referred to by Pr Hermeneut above – and is restored (or rather, his overthrow is restored) to our understanding of what is going on at the crucifixion.

  6. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Unity and unanimity

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