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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 13 (Oct. 1997)

Raymund Schwager, Erbsünde und Heilsdrama: Im Kontext von Evolution Gentechnologie und Apokalyptik. Beiträge zur Mimetischen Theorie 4. Münster: LIT/Thaur: Druck- und Verlagshaus Thaur, 1997.

The fourth volume in the Contributions to the Mimetic Theory series is Raymund Schwager's investigation of the doctrine of original sin in the context of modern scientific knowledge, especially the theory of evolution. This dialogue between the sacred and secular sciences has as its background the Innsbruck research program, 'Dramatic Theology', which seeks to recognize and transcend modernity's artificial separation of 'nature' and 'freedom'; but this book is also an illustration of how these themes have developed in Schwager's own writings, as some of the chapters have appeared in previous form, notably the first section (an overview of the doctrine of original sin) and the final one on our understanding the reality of Satan and evil.

The opening section looks once again at the biblical and ecclesial traditions which gave rise to the doctrine of original sin, highlighting especially the work of Drewermann and Ricoeur. An extended consideration of the mimetic theory and of A.Tomatis' research into pre-natal communication help to interpret many aspects of the traditional story, though all these contributions stress the importance of reading the story of 'the Fall' as such--the disobedience of Adam and Eve--in the cumulative context of other incidents in Genesis: Cain's fratricide, Lamech, the flood, the Tower of Babel. Above all, this foundational history is to be more richly understood in the light of the revelation of Jesus, in particular the temptation narratives in the Gospels. Both the Edenic temptation and the testing of Jesus are to do with imitation, with 'being like God', though in the second case the temptation is much more subtle and indirect. A helpful summary of the main themes of this section distinguishes (after Fessard) between three levels of investigation: natural history, the history of human freedom, and supernatural vocation. The common feature in these histories is the concept of mimesis or imitation: in the reproduction of cells and of genetic codes; in the notion of 'inheritance' or transmission of sin through propagation which features in traditional attempts to articulate the human tension between freedom and necessity; in questions concerning the degree of human clarity or awareness of God's majesty (and of humanity's likeness to the divine) before and after the Fall, as well as the problem of theodicy.

In the following sections, Schwager explores these different histories in turn, though the myriad of resonances between them, brought to light by the mimetic theory, show them to be intricately interwoven. For example, the connection between enhanced brain size as a function of evolutionary progress, the consequent increased capacity for mimesis, and the greater tendency towards violence, highlights the ambiguity which haunts both our understanding of progressive evolution and of human freedom. And there are many such comparisons and cross-references. In fact, the problem of freedom is to some extent resolved in two ways: firstly, by understanding violent mimesis to be an 'unnatural' regression to an earlier, 'animal' state (thereby giving a new significance to the figure of the snake in Genesis and the various beasts in the Book of Revelation). This ambiguity of human freedom--our inexplicable fascination with the possibility of our regression to the 'non-human'--recurs in terms of our ability to take control of our future evolution through genetic manipulation; the tendency of those scientists who seem to take delight in stressing the mechanical, non-spiritual--basically 'lifeless'--aspects of human existence, and who moreover seem to be greatly respected by the scientific establishment for doing so, is regarded by Schwager as one of the more sinister developments of modernity.

The second approach to freedom is to adopt a radically intersubjective view of the human person, so that not only my freedom, or lack of it, is in play, but that of others as well; here, Schwager recapitulates his 'dramatic' understanding of the Gospels, in the drama which is the saving proclamation, activity and forgiving death of Jesus. There is an important contrast here between the Old Testament symbolism, which seems to offer many and diverse interpretations, and the New Testament understanding, which is of course tightly-centered on Christ as the principle of unity. Schwager takes up the Pauline themes of the cosmos yearning for salvation and the symbol oft he body as an expression of our solidarity both in sin and in Christ.

Our solidarity in sin is discussed in terms of the figure of Satan. Schwager suggests four principle themes in our understanding of the demonic: the accuser before God, self divinization, the deceiver, and the phenomenon of possession. All can speak of Satan as a collective dimension of evil, though he holds back from declaring the reality of Satan to be no more than this, not wishing to minimize or reduce the full mystery of evil. As for our solidarity in grace: such unity is seen by some to be ambiguous or dangerous (the example of Nietzsche is cited), since any ethical theory which requires of the individual a universal answerability is or can be a temptation or striving after God-like responsibilities. Once again the ambiguity of our graced history comes to the fore; shouldn't such temptation be avoided in favor of more local allegiances?

Schwager's discussion of this objection prepares the way for the political reflection which concludes the book and draws this remarkable range of themes together. Christian solidarity requires, precisely, this universal responsibility of all for one another: and yet any attempt to realize this must recognize the fundamental importance, in Carl Schmitt's term, of what always divides us: the 'friend-enemy' distinction which is the basis of all societies, of all human attempts at solidarity as well as conflict (Schwager acknowledges Wolfgang Palaver's work on Schmitt, and cites Poliakov's assertion in La causalitéé diabolique, that the three great European revolutions--English, French and Russian--were not possible without conspiracy theories and a strong scapegoating element). So deep-rooted is this mechanism that it is not enough simply to recommend an emancipatory anamnesic praxis, as does J.B. Metz (though a chapter on 'the organism as memory' does acknowledge the anamnesic dimension of evolution theory); on the other hand, theologians like Metz understandably shy away from the extreme right implications of Schmitt's line of thought.

In fact, according to Schwager, the mimetic theory of Girard offers a third way between the old and newer political theologies: it takes seriously Schmitt's pessimistic analysis of sinful patterns in human society and behavior, but recognizes the possibility of fundamental alternatives, and of a resistance (especially in institutions such as the Church) to these mechanisms, even when, under modern conditions, their power seems to be as great as ever. "The doctrine of original sin does not solve political problems, but it describes the scale of the exercise. It makes possible a judgement as to which proposed solutions are realistic, and deters us from those which are utopian, counterproductive and laden with bitter consequences; it also makes clear that only a faith which can move mountains is capable of bringing about a real improvement in history". This final declaration sounds comparatively modest: the book as a whole, however, is a remarkable summary and focusing of a great many themes from Schwager's previous work, and a testimony to the range and collective imagination of the 'Dramatic Theology' research project.

Michael Kirwan S.J.