My world was turned upside down when I first encountered Rene Girard’s books in the autumn of 1987. I recall that in the autumn of 1988, this new seminary graduate who had been working through the implications of mimetic theory for a year and was only getting more and more confused and more and more excited at the same time, called Stanford University to speak with Rene. Those were the days when Margaret Tompkins was his secretary. She was an amazing help. Rene invited me to Stanford that March to be part of a group of scholars who would be discussing the mimetic theory. I don’t recall that meeting but it would have been the only meeting I did not make a presentation at for the next five years, beginning that autumn at the AAR/SBL in New Orleans, where my colleague Ed Hallsten and Walter Wink also presented (Walter’s essay became a section in Engaging the Powers, my presentation became part of the JDL).
I encountered Rene this way: first his books, second, by telephone and third in person. I suppose I have now become one of those who will have stories to tell about Rene. I know that others have far better memories than I and they go back even further with Rene, it is their memories we should seek in the coming days. Yet I suspect all who knew Rene can recall their own encounter with him and if there is one thing we could say about him it is this: he was gentle and humble and cared for you and your questions. I can only imagine how mad I must have sounded to him, this breaking faith Barthian Evangelical, with a gazillion questions. And Rene, being Catholic and not Protestant, was very patient with me.
All of my memories of Rene are associated with COV&R meetings or visits to his home in Stanford. I can’t say I am one of those people who spent a lot of time with Rene. Over a quarter century it adds up but there are some who have lived near him or been his students who would have significantly more face time than I ever would. I can say my time with him was quality. Sitting for an evening in the cellar booth of the pub with Rene, Sandy and Schwager, talking all manner of mimetic theory; Lorri and I sitting with Rene and Martha for an evening at Ghost Ranch in 2004, sharing life stories. I will never forget Rene’s beaming face as I presented my paper on ‘Ecospirituality’ at COV&R that year.
In the these past few years I have had the privilege of introducing some friends to Rene in his home. I am so glad for each one who was able to fulfill a dream and meet Rene.
I don’t even know where to begin in all of this. Really, ever since January 2010, when Rene had his first neural incident, it has been tenuous. With Achever Clausewitz he had written his last book. He never did finish his book on Paul, I wonder if he has notes on his computer for this or in some file in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
What do you say about the person of whom you can say they absolutely changed the way one thought about things, about life, about the Gospel, about God? I cannot imagine my life or my theological work apart from mimetic theory. I am not qualified to take the stature of Rene the thinker, Rene the scholar, Rene the paradigm shifter. There are others who can do that and show well that grander intellectual stage that mimetic theory plays on. What has been too long a whisper will soon become a roar. Rene was an ‘Immortal’, a member of the French Academy, a true honor of the brilliance and scope of his work, but in his backyard or at meetings he treated one as a dear friend. He always asked questions about my wife and family. He showed interest in my work on positive mimesis and that gave me the encouragement to eventually become somewhat sort-of an expert at this mimetic theory stuff.
I want to say Rene treated me with favor, but would not be the case; he treated every one with favor. As gracious as he was to us, I never felt patronized, nor did Rene lord it over anyone although he could have except for maybe dear friend Robert Hamerton-Kelly (of blessed memory)! Rene was affable, cheerful and generally quite happy to be with us COV&R members and visitors to his and Martha’s home were treated like family.
It is often said behind every great man there is a great woman. I have to think that this is no more true the case than that of Rene and Martha. Theirs was a genuine affection and respect. I am glad that Lorri and I have come to know them as friends. There is a certain confidence in that. Rene always spoke his mind. I have some memories of being corrected by him in the early years. But later, as our relationship also included personal gatherings, and he was listening with earnest all about Preaching Peace and reading my books and essays, he shared with me his hopes for Preaching Peace. After all, he was the one who initiated it back in 2002 at lunch at a COV&R meeting in Purdue. Yes, indeed, at that lunch the discussion was all about 9/11 and the Bush Afghanistan upcoming war, and Rene declared ‘Realpolitik’ and certified Bush’s retaliatory vision. What????? I could not believe what I had heard (Steve Berry also has this captured on tape somewhere in another conversation of early COV&R members and their memories). How could Rene, who talked about nonviolence so passionately drop the ball. So Fr. Jeff Krantz and I went back to the dorm room and decided if Rene wasn’t going to have a peace theology and a peace ethic we would, and that is how the Preaching Peace website got started in 2002. Five years later it was Rene who suggested to Lorri and I that we speak with Bob Hamerton-Kelly (who was an old COV&R friend) who was helping to start Imitatio. In short, Rene’s fingerprints and influence is all over my life and work, I cannot imagine my life apart from the work of Rene.
It is not a sad day for me, because I believe in the God of Life and I know Rene did as well. My heart says that God proclaims “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” It is not sad not because Rene’s death was inevitable but precisely because the one who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise Rene. I told someone I hope Rene looks up Karl Barth with his wheelbarrow full of books and they have a good long chat. Now I would love to be in on that! I hope Walter Wink wanders in and joins them.
It is not a sad day but a reflective one. A page has been turned. The one who is known as the Einstein and Darwin of the human sciences is no longer among us. His work however will live on because mimetic theory is catching fire. It is amazing the sheer number of people who have discovered mimetic theory this past several years. The work of Imitatio is key in all of this. Rene’s theory will have a greater impact in the coming years than even he could have imagined. It is all going to be very interesting.
So Rene, I talk to you the same I have always talked with you. Bon voyage mon ami. We will meet again in the nonviolent reign of Papa. Thank you for being my mentor, my guide and my friend. I bless the memory we share of you.
Nov. 4, 2015