Doran on Lonergan and Girard

Robert Doran, “The Nonviolent Cross: Lonergan and Girard on Redemption,” Theological Studies 71 (2010): 46–61.

Doran correlates Lonergan’s Law of the Cross with Girard’s anthropological insights, arguing that Girard’s mimetic theory provides the psychic, although not the spiritual, data corresponding to the heuristic structure of good and evil provided by Lonergan’s insights.

He begins by correlating Lonergan’s two modes of knowing, through sensibility and through the intellect, with Girard’s two forms of desire, interdividual desire and the good mimesis that depends on discernment and is possible only with God’s grace. For both Lonergan and Girard, the effects of the former can subtly influence the latter, thus resulting in the possibility of unconscious deception (which Scheler (1961) called “organic mendacity”).

Lonergan identifies three movements in the paschal mystery, corresponding to the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ:

– from basic sin to moral evil
– loving absorption of the evil due to sin and the elevation of human response in grace to a level that transcends the cycle of violence even when that response takes the form of resistance
– transformation of the evil into a greater, indeed a supreme, good.

Doran suggests that Girard’s key insights correspond to these three movements:

– from human failure to reject mimetic rivalry to the consequent deterioration of relations and the ensuing violence leading to the focusing of the violence on one individual or group
– rejection of this mimetic cycle through loving absorption of the violence and refusal to return it
– the resulting exposure and neutralization of the victim mechanism, making possible some approximation to the reign of God in human affairs.

He further correlates the key terms (Lonergan=Girard), “the evils of the human race”=”the victim mechanism”, and “converting those evils into a supreme good”=”the reversal of the victim mechanism” . (52)

Doran summarizes the victim mechanism beginning with the triangular nature of desire, with acquisitive or appropriative desire particularly leading to violence; conflictual mimesis emerging from mimetic rivalry; conflictual mimesis spreading through entire groups and intensifying; the unification of the group against a scapegoat; and the resulting myth and ritual. He argues that this state of affairs, repeated over and over again in human societies, including in the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, does indeed comprehensively describe “the evils of the human race.”

He summarizes Lonergan’s notion of the supreme good as God’s self-communication in the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, and the beatific vision; the unity of the church centered on and with Christ; and the resurrection and glorification of Christ and (after the eschaton) Christians. He particularly emphasizes the ordered community that is brought into being when grace enables us to “apprehend wisely and choose in charity the self-transcendent patterns that will offset and overturn the effects of evil in the world.” (56)

This is the reign of God, brought about ultimately by God and proximately by humans in cooperation with God; and it is fundamentally social. It is constituted by transformed relationships which are patterned after the divine trinitarian relationships: “a transformed interdividuation,” constitutive of good mimesis, organized according to “mimetic structures of blessing.” Doran is not here quoting Girard directly, but interpreting Lonergan’s relational goods according to Girardian theory, and drawing on the work of Vern Redekop for the structures of blessing.

Doran identifies “the supreme good into which the evils are transformed” with the new community that results from this transformation, an authentic community which includes the divine persons. This leads him to reason that within Lonergan’s schema, the evils of the human race must be “the distortions of relations of human beings with one another and with God.” (57)

He clarifies that for Lonergan, basic sin is human failure to choose rightly, and “moral evil is the consequence of such failure” (57, ref. Lonergan, Insight 689); he connects this with the traditional Scholastic language of originating and originated original sin, a connection that he describes as “going out on a speculative limb,” but which seems quite obvious to me, as well as congruent with the Orthodox notion of primordial sin as the social set of human relationships distorted by sin into which all humans are born.

After demonstrating the ways in which Girardian theory satisfies the Lonergan heuristic structure, Doran states two reservations. First, he argues that Girard locates revelation in the Gospel texts, rather than the events which they describe. This is inconsistent with my understanding of Girard as insisting precisely that both the myths and the gospels narrate history; although it is not too distant from Kirwan’s presentation of Girardian theory as blurring story and history such that both convey truth and both can be read and experienced in the same way. [1]

Secondly, he is concerned that Girard’s theory is psychological, but not spiritual, and thus lacking a precise correspondence to Lonergan’s higher, intellectual way of knowing that is grounded in human freedom. I am dubious about Doran’s reasoning here; his presentation of spiritual over against psychic, a “failure of freedom” over against “twisted molecules giving rise to imaginal and affective deviations.” (60) This is a surprising and needless turn to spirit-matter dualism (did Girard ever say anything about molecules?), complete with the traditional hierarchy of spirit over matter, if we read “twisted molecules” as both morally neutral descriptions of DNA and morally defective sources of deviation. However, Doran is correct that there is comparatively little in Girard’s theory devoted to “good mimesis”: while he affirms that there is such a thing, and that it is critically dependent on the Paraclete, most of his work is devoted to explicating the mechanisms of conflictual mimesis and scapegoating. This is certainly a gap in mimetic theory and theological anthropology that requires further development. Robinette, for example, argues that we may “discern, negotiate, resist, or cooperate with graciously, rather than acquisitively” the desires which arise within us through mimesis, but only after we “accept the other as constitutive of [our] identity.” [2]

It is worth noting that a number of the ecclesiologists whose work I surveyed in chapter one have been strongly influenced by Lonergan, notably Komonchak and Ormerod. Thus, Doran’s work comparing Lonergan and Girard is particularly helpful to my thesis.


1 1. Michael Kirwan, Discovering Girard (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley, 2005), 120
2 1. Robinette, “Early Christian Monastic,” in Violence, Transformation, and the Sacred: They Shall Be Called Children of God, ed. Pfeil, Margaret R. and Winright, Tobias L., College Theology Society Annual Volume (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011), 134.

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One Response to Doran on Lonergan and Girard

  1. Pingback: Biblical Studies Carnival: August, 2013 | NEAR EMMAUS

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