Traditionalism, Modernism, and the Spirit of the Crowd

By Cole DeSantis

The French philosopher, literary critic, anthropologist, and sociologist René Girard has garnered much attention among certain Christian theological circles. Bishop Robert Barron once published an article on his Word on Fire blog in 2015 in which he described Girard in the title as a “Church Father.” James B. Murphy, a professor at Dartmouth College, said about Girard during a symposium on his thought held at the University of Chicago in April of 2016, “The imaginative power and range of his thought is very exciting to scholars in many different fields.”

Born in Avignon, France in 1923, and spending most of his career teaching in the United States, the starting point of Girard’s philosophy was the belief that all desire is mimetic – that is, everything we desire is born out of the fact that other people also want it. We thus desire something because of others: we admire them, are in competition with them, are afraid of social ostracization, and so on. Since the number of people desiring any given thing quickly becomes much greater than the amount of that thing in existence, things quickly escalate to the point where we are in an all-out war of all-against-all, and this is known as mimetic rivalry.

Mimetic rivalry, Girard believed, is only curbed through what he called the scapegoat mechanism. Something or someone is made out to be the personification of all of the conflicts that are being experienced, and is thus destroyed in a sacrifice-like ritual. As irrational as it sounds, it is actually quite beneficial: firstly, the mimetic rivalry has often been going on for so long that its origins have been forgotten, and even when this is not the case, the situation is still rather complex and difficult to resolve; secondly, it brings the warring parties together against a common enemy; thirdly, it emotionally placates those involved, and thus creates just enough stability for just long enough of a time-period for tenable, long-term solutions to be created.

That the spirit of the crowd can sometimes have a stranglehold on man is something which is clear from history. This was expressed by Girard in an excerpt from a 2012 interview, applies these principles to the story of Peter’s denial. He describes this story as “one of the greatest scenes in the Gospels.” The reason for this? As Girard said, “Peter is all man there. Men cannot resist the mimetic contagion. When you’re in a crowd, you become literally possessed by crowd.”

This is one of the most basic principles of advertising. Make it seem like everyone is doing it; overstate the positive effects of having or doing something, or the negative effects of not having or doing something; appealing to a particular demographic in order to encourage people to keep up with their peers.

This can be manifested in dark and strange ways. How many times do we partake in something or do something because it is popular? How often do we then realize that there is no substance to explain the popularity of this activity or object? Nonetheless, how common is it for us to not voice our opinion for the sake of avoiding social ostracization?

Girard saw a religious dynamic to this. He claimed to notice the psychological phenomenon that lay the basis for mimetic desire, mimetic rivalry and the scapegoat mechanism common in most pieces of classical literature. Yet, the one text that deviated from this greatly was the Bible. In the Bible, a very particular (and peculiar) image of the Divine is drawn: namely, that God actually empathizes with the innocent scapegoats. What is more, what makes the Bible even more radical is the fact that God, in the ultimate act of solidarity with the innocent victims, becomes one.

Thus, within Scripture, what one notices is that God, in Christ, offers THE definitive sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, which in turn fulfills and does away with the sacrifices of the Old Testament. Thus, the founding of Christianity witnesses to the founding of a religion founded on forgiveness, compassion and solidarity. The Christian faith thus calls us to think beyond the mindset of the crowd. Thus, in the aforementioned interview, Girard stated, “The Gospels – one of the things they do, from an anthropological viewpoint, is to show you that the crowd spirit is all-powerful; that only Jesus conquer it.” The spirit of the crowd is all-pervasive, and Girard calls this “disturbing.” The pervasiveness of the crowd spirit is something we see even now, thus leading Girard to say the following bold statement:

Right now, that’s what we are seeing. When people are telling you that Christianity must be modern and follow the spirit of the time, what do they say? Follow the crowd. Follow advertising. What else could they say? That’s what, I think, we must refrain from – following that spirit and listening to these voices however pious they may sound.

For Girard, to “modernize” or to “get with the times” is to follow whatever mentality, whatever fads, are accepted as normative by the crowd in the here and now. Total submission to the spirit of the crowd, at least in its extreme form, could have potentially grave effects which Girard outlines in his philosophy (mimetic desire, then the mimetic rivalry and the scapegoat mechanism which this produces). Christianity specifically sets out to be above this, to condemn the scapegoat mechanism, and to prompt people to think beyond the spirit of the age, beyond what is considered immediately “obvious” by standards of our culture or historical period.

Unfortunately, the opposite of this is what we see today: shallow and cliched moralism; the rise of megachurches and televangelism; polarized political discourse based on political correctness and ad hominem attacks. Society today is defined by the plasticization of faith and morality. It has come to serve the crowd mentality, instead of serving as a critique of it.

One manifestation of this is the attempt to make Christianity “sellable.” Christians, and rightly so, desire to see the greatest number of souls saved. Unfortunately, people have begun to apply the same standards used in more general consumerist culture to the process of evangelization. The number of people in the seats, the number of people tuning in, must mean a greater number of people being saved. There is thus a desire to make the Gospel message as appealing as possible to as many people as possible. This can be seen in the prosperity gospel and the rise of televangelism.

Many people in the Christian tradition will speak of how it is important to meet people where they are at, and presenting the faith in a manner that the people will understand and relate to. Yet, this brings up the larger question of where meeting people where they are at and critically engaging with the larger culture end, and outright appeasement begin?

In the end, ethicists, moralists, faith leaders, and the like, need to remember that no matter how much progress is made, humans never, in this life, reach the promised land, and even if this were a possibility, humans have not reached such a state yet. The Church, moralists and theologians of all stripes, must remain a firm-standing lighthouse, shining light on the good and the bad of society at every and any stage. Humans being what they are often fail to do this; but, given the nature of Christian theology, the nature of theology and ethics in general, this is something that can and must be avoided if they are to live up to their full potential and avoid being sucked into the mentality of the crowd.


  1. This is one area where certain aspects of the secular realm and the religious realm tend to be in agreement.

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