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.