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René Girard and Secular Modernity

René Girard and Secular Modernity

Christ, Culture, and Crisis

Scott Cowdell

In René Girard and Secular Modernity: Christ, Culture, and Crisis, Scott Cowdell provides the first systematic interpretation of René Girard’s controversial approach to secular modernity. Cowdell identifies the scope, development, and implications of Girard’s thought, the centrality of Christ in Girard’s thinking, and, in particular, Girard’s distinctive take on the uniqueness and finality of Christ in terms of his impact on Western culture. In Girard’s singular vision, according to Cowdell, secular modernity has emerged thanks to the Bible’s exposure of the cathartic violence that is at the root of religious prohibitions, myths, and rituals. In the literature, the psychology, and most recently the military history of modernity, Girard discerns a consistent slide into an apocalypse that challenges modern ideas of romanticism, individualism, and progressivism.

In the first three chapters, Cowdell examines the three elements of Girard’s basic intellectual vision (mimesis, sacrifice, biblical hermeneutics) and brings this vision to a constructive interpretation of “secularization” and “modernity,” as these terms are understood in the broadest sense today. Chapter 4 focuses on modern institutions, chiefly the nation state and the market, that function to restrain the outbreak of violence. And finally, Cowdell discusses the apocalyptic dimension of Girard’s theory in relation to modern warfare and terrorism. Here, Cowdell engages with the most recent writings of Girard (particularly his Battling to the End) and applies them to further conversations in cultural theology, political science, and philosophy. Cowdell takes up and extends Girard’s own warning concerning an alternative to a future apocalypse: “What sort of conversion must humans undergo, before it is too late?”

“Scott Cowdell’s book is the first comprehensive study of modernity and secularity in René Girard’s thought. Cowdell brings Girard’s theory into a fruitful dialogue with leading approaches on secularization like those of Max Weber, Hans Blumenberg, Peter Berger, or Charles Taylor. Scholars and students of theology, philosophy, and sociology will benefit from this wide-ranging overview of the relationship between religion, modernity, and secularization.” — Wolfgang Palaver, Institute of Systematic Theology, University of Innsbruck

“In a stunning analysis, Cowdell shows that Girard’s sustained intellectual pursuit, which began in the 1960s with his mimetic analysis of modern realist fiction, has always been about the (Durkheimian) religiosity of the modern and postmodern social condition, even when it has dealt explicitly with the religious origins of antique culture. Cowdell demonstrates the ‘highly explanatory and predictive’ quality of Girard’s cultural anthropology, within which the ‘secular’ does not (and indeed cannot) escape the ‘religious.’ This is a powerful book.” — Ann W. Astell, University of Notre Dame

“Scott Cowdell is one of the most interesting theological voices of his generation. The themes in Cowdell’s work are always cosmic and vast in scope. This is a remarkable reading of our contemporary situation through the lens of René Girard. Accurate, informed, and illuminating, Cowdell has written a fabulous book. For the person needing a way into Girard and for the person who is already using Girard’s work, Cowdell brings out the implications of Girard for the moment in which we live. An absolutely essential addition to your personal library.” — The Very Rev Dr. Ian Markham, Virginia Theological Seminary

ISBN: 978-0-268-02374-4
272 pages
Publication Year: 2013

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Scott Cowdell is Associate Professor and Research Fellow in Public and Contextual Theology at Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia, and Canon Theologian of the Canberra-Goulburn Anglican Diocese.

“The strength of this book is the chilling clarity with which it explains the origins and the dynamic operations of human civilization as we know it, and the profound internal threats to that civilization that have been developing in secular modernity. . . . This is a good book on a very, indeed vitally important subject.” — AmericaMagazine.org

“An insightful and systematic interpretation of Rene Girard’s controversial approach to secular modernity. A work of original and meticulous scholarship. . . . Highly recommended.” — The Midwest Book Review,

“More than any other study devoted to Girard, Cowdell incorporated Girard’s more recent writings and interviews into a total picture of mimetic theory and brings it into conversation with modern secularism. . . . [His] book deserves a place among the pantheon of works that show the importance of mimetic theory for Christian theology.” — Theological Studies

“Everything is completed by the fact that the three terms of the subtitle interact one with another in an exciting way. This gives the main flavor of the book and, at the same time, its power. . . . Everything is done ably and efficiently, and Cowdell’s text is adorned with strategic references and quotations: key passages and conclusions are provided with the strongest statements by Girard himself.” — Ecclesia orans

“The book has thirty-eight pages of notes, a bibliography and index. It belongs in every library that studies peace, war, and violence.” — Catholic Library World

“Cowdell here continues his exploration of the work of Girard as a resource for Christian theology and for its relevance to the current cultural crisis. . . . This is a serious study in terms of content and a reliable and patient exposition of the basic terms and ideas found in Girard’s long life of writing. For the more advanced Girardian student, Cowdell is not afraid to extend the master’s method and illustrate it in new ways in a rapidly changing world.” — Australian eJournal of Theology

“Cowdell is a flag-waving disciple who really does believe that Girard has found the ‘key’ to unify the human sciences in a way similar to how Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection became the foundational key for the modern life sciences. He explains clearly, simply, and with apposite examples the elements of Girard’s theory, and brings it up-to-date with an emphasis on Girard’s last work.” — The Heythrop Journal

“The work of René Girard would not seem all that relevant to Thomists. … However, in my estimation, Girard’s thought is not just important to Thomists, it is indispensable. Scott Cowdell’s book is a persuasive and erudite argument for why this is the case. It is not only a masterful synthesis of Girard’s entire corpus and intellectual genealogy of his thought, but it is also itself a profound analysis of the genealogy and trajectory of secular modernity in the light of Girard’s work. It brings to bear upon this analysis numerous citations of Girardian scholars, the authors and works most influential upon Girard, and his own voice as an eminent Anglican theologian. Dr. Cowdell’s book is now the standard treatment of Girard’s thought on secular modernity.” — The Imaginative Conservative

“Drawing upon a large and at times daunting pantheon of notable modern figures, Cowdell focuses attention upon a Girardian reading of modernity—specifically, the freedom and autonomy offered by modernity and the process of secularization that are actually a further entrenching of the perils of mimetic desire. . . . Putting Girardian theories in dialogue with recent developments in cognition, neuroscience, developmental psychology, and behavioural studies of animals, Cowdell draws our attention to the way in which Girard’s theories are less individualistic than modern psychological theories.” — International Journals of Public Theology

“In this very-well-researched book, one is introduced to the basics of the Girardian theory, which provides the basis for Girard’s insights on secularism and modernity. . . . Overall, Cowdell’s book is an enlightening, enticing read and will most likely become a must read for those studying, or interested in, theology.” — Journal of Ecumenical Studies

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Apocalypse Deferred

Girard and Japan


Edited by Jeremiah L. Alberg

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René Girard, Unlikely Apologist

Mimetic Theory and Fundamental Theology

Grant Kaplan

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Conventional and Ultimate Truth

A Key for Fundamental Theology

Joseph Stephen O’Leary

René Girard and Secular Modernity

Christ, Culture, and Crisis

Scott Cowdell

 René Girard and Secular Modernity: Christ, Culture, and Crisis
Paper Edition

In René Girard and Secular Modernity: Christ, Culture, and Crisis, Scott Cowdell provides the first systematic interpretation of René Girard’s controversial approach to secular modernity. Cowdell identifies the scope, development, and implications of Girard’s thought, the centrality of Christ in Girard’s thinking, and, in particular, Girard’s distinctive take on the uniqueness and finality of Christ in terms of his impact on Western culture. In Girard’s singular vision, according to Cowdell, secular modernity has emerged thanks to the Bible’s exposure of the cathartic violence that is at the root of religious prohibitions, myths, and rituals. In the literature, the psychology, and most recently the military history of modernity, Girard discerns a consistent slide into an apocalypse that challenges modern ideas of romanticism, individualism, and progressivism.

In the first three chapters, Cowdell examines the three elements of Girard’s basic intellectual vision (mimesis, sacrifice, biblical hermeneutics) and brings this vision to a constructive interpretation of “secularization” and “modernity,” as these terms are understood in the broadest sense today. Chapter 4 focuses on modern institutions, chiefly the nation state and the market, that function to restrain the outbreak of violence. And finally, Cowdell discusses the apocalyptic dimension of Girard’s theory in relation to modern warfare and terrorism. Here, Cowdell engages with the most recent writings of Girard (particularly his Battling to the End) and applies them to further conversations in cultural theology, political science, and philosophy. Cowdell takes up and extends Girard’s own warning concerning an alternative to a future apocalypse: “What sort of conversion must humans undergo, before it is too late?”

“Scott Cowdell’s book is the first comprehensive study of modernity and secularity in René Girard’s thought. Cowdell brings Girard’s theory into a fruitful dialogue with leading approaches on secularization like those of Max Weber, Hans Blumenberg, Peter Berger, or Charles Taylor. Scholars and students of theology, philosophy, and sociology will benefit from this wide-ranging overview of the relationship between religion, modernity, and secularization.” — Wolfgang Palaver, Institute of Systematic Theology, University of Innsbruck

“In a stunning analysis, Cowdell shows that Girard’s sustained intellectual pursuit, which began in the 1960s with his mimetic analysis of modern realist fiction, has always been about the (Durkheimian) religiosity of the modern and postmodern social condition, even when it has dealt explicitly with the religious origins of antique culture. Cowdell demonstrates the ‘highly explanatory and predictive’ quality of Girard’s cultural anthropology, within which the ‘secular’ does not (and indeed cannot) escape the ‘religious.’ This is a powerful book.” — Ann W. Astell, University of Notre Dame

“Scott Cowdell is one of the most interesting theological voices of his generation. The themes in Cowdell’s work are always cosmic and vast in scope. This is a remarkable reading of our contemporary situation through the lens of René Girard. Accurate, informed, and illuminating, Cowdell has written a fabulous book. For the person needing a way into Girard and for the person who is already using Girard’s work, Cowdell brings out the implications of Girard for the moment in which we live. An absolutely essential addition to your personal library.” — The Very Rev Dr. Ian Markham, Virginia Theological Seminary

ISBN: 978-0-268-02374-4

272 pages

“The strength of this book is the chilling clarity with which it explains the origins and the dynamic operations of human civilization as we know it, and the profound internal threats to that civilization that have been developing in secular modernity. . . . This is a good book on a very, indeed vitally important subject.” — AmericaMagazine.org

“An insightful and systematic interpretation of Rene Girard’s controversial approach to secular modernity. A work of original and meticulous scholarship. . . . Highly recommended.” — The Midwest Book Review,

“More than any other study devoted to Girard, Cowdell incorporated Girard’s more recent writings and interviews into a total picture of mimetic theory and brings it into conversation with modern secularism. . . . [His] book deserves a place among the pantheon of works that show the importance of mimetic theory for Christian theology.” — Theological Studies

“Everything is completed by the fact that the three terms of the subtitle interact one with another in an exciting way. This gives the main flavor of the book and, at the same time, its power. . . . Everything is done ably and efficiently, and Cowdell’s text is adorned with strategic references and quotations: key passages and conclusions are provided with the strongest statements by Girard himself.” — Ecclesia orans

“The book has thirty-eight pages of notes, a bibliography and index. It belongs in every library that studies peace, war, and violence.” — Catholic Library World

“Cowdell here continues his exploration of the work of Girard as a resource for Christian theology and for its relevance to the current cultural crisis. . . . This is a serious study in terms of content and a reliable and patient exposition of the basic terms and ideas found in Girard’s long life of writing. For the more advanced Girardian student, Cowdell is not afraid to extend the master’s method and illustrate it in new ways in a rapidly changing world.” — Australian eJournal of Theology

“Cowdell is a flag-waving disciple who really does believe that Girard has found the ‘key’ to unify the human sciences in a way similar to how Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection became the foundational key for the modern life sciences. He explains clearly, simply, and with apposite examples the elements of Girard’s theory, and brings it up-to-date with an emphasis on Girard’s last work.” — The Heythrop Journal

“The work of René Girard would not seem all that relevant to Thomists. … However, in my estimation, Girard’s thought is not just important to Thomists, it is indispensable. Scott Cowdell’s book is a persuasive and erudite argument for why this is the case. It is not only a masterful synthesis of Girard’s entire corpus and intellectual genealogy of his thought, but it is also itself a profound analysis of the genealogy and trajectory of secular modernity in the light of Girard’s work. It brings to bear upon this analysis numerous citations of Girardian scholars, the authors and works most influential upon Girard, and his own voice as an eminent Anglican theologian. Dr. Cowdell’s book is now the standard treatment of Girard’s thought on secular modernity.” — The Imaginative Conservative

“Drawing upon a large and at times daunting pantheon of notable modern figures, Cowdell focuses attention upon a Girardian reading of modernity—specifically, the freedom and autonomy offered by modernity and the process of secularization that are actually a further entrenching of the perils of mimetic desire. . . . Putting Girardian theories in dialogue with recent developments in cognition, neuroscience, developmental psychology, and behavioural studies of animals, Cowdell draws our attention to the way in which Girard’s theories are less individualistic than modern psychological theories.” — International Journals of Public Theology

“In this very-well-researched book, one is introduced to the basics of the Girardian theory, which provides the basis for Girard’s insights on secularism and modernity. . . . Overall, Cowdell’s book is an enlightening, enticing read and will most likely become a must read for those studying, or interested in, theology.” — Journal of Ecumenical Studies