Saturday, February 23, 2008

Christopher S. Morrissey on Bruce Chilton

Chris Morrissey, who has himself written an interesting critique of Rene Girard - in the recent book edited by Adam Katz (a book no serious intellectual, tired of postmodern academic nihilism, and wanting to know where the truly innovative thinking in the humanities is, should be without) - has come to Girard's defense in a review of Bruce Chilton's new book in today's Globe and Mail.

Chiding Chilton's attempt to explain much of history in terms of a recurring desire for martyrdom, Morrissey reminds us of the great appeal of the Gnostic desire to find hidden and/or ultimate explanations whose unveiling will open all doors to a rational human self-understanding and somehow allow us to overcome the great uncertainties attending our primary concern as humans: human-on-human violence. Starting with the Jews (Maccabees) but extending down to the modern age, Chilton apparently offers a consistent critique of diverse historical actors' desire for martyrdom and the violence it sustains. Morrissey, a Christian who, like Girard, believes in the exceptional lessons of his particular historical faith, responds that violent martyrdom or (self) sacrifice in the cause of a higher or historically innovative, e.g. Christian, understanding of the need to maximize human freedom from violence, is sometimes necessary.

This means, ambivalently, that we cannot reduce all of history to serve primary explanations of the good or evil of human sacrifice. Rather, with anthropological basics in hand, we must embrace the study of history to see how every event will teach us something different about our universal humanity, about the different possibilities inherent in our shared human origins and the sacrificial form of acting and thinking that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Among the consequences of this way of thinking, with its respect for historical contingency, is that we cannot allow ourselves the temptation of pigeon-holing some group as our necessary enemy, except, that is, in particular places and times when he is our necessary enemy. History is forever open as a teacher, for those with the eyes to see the different possibilities inherent in any origin. Even Islam, with its violent origins, suggests Morrissey (in a favorable nod to Chilton) can be read as a lesson on the need to overcome violent origins as contrary to God's nature. If this is plausible (we have to check out Chilton's argument), only history, and our willing engagement with it, will tell us if Muslims will widely adopt such an understanding. We simply cannot yet know and must act accordingly on faith and reason, in respect for the historical sacrifices of our forebears (some of whom had to fight Muslims, some of whom found truth by deferring violence) who have given us our share of these two primary human goods.

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