The New Yorker says Peter Thiel “might be the most successful technology investor in the world.” I’m not sure Thiel himself would say that, insofar as it’s premised on comparison to others. If the job of investing is to do something unique, then the job is in some way incomparable. It's not to beat the best of the pack, but to solve problems the best way you can. Thiel expands on these ideas in his book Zero to One, which is the best…oops, I mean, a unique business book that presents insights I've never seen elsewhere.
Now, let me head off a possible stumbling block: we don't expect successful technologists to have theological chops, but Thiel clearly does, as will be apparent to anyone who watches or listens to my recent interview with him. To find out what someone knows, you listen to them, not put them on some predetermined track in advance, while ruling out insights outside the expected zones.
In other words, listen to the discussion below, and decide for yourself if Thiel has offered something of value.
Thiel's greatest theological influence is clearly the Christian anthropologist (and literary theorist, and historian), Rene Girard. Girard's faith journey took him from cradle Catholic to academic atheist and eventually to a Latin mass attending Roman Catholic.
Thiel weaves Girard's view together with his own views so seamlessly that it's not always easy to tell which is which, so I won't try. Of course, anyone who has read Girard will recognize that the views Peter expressed in this interview all to some degree show the watermark of his mentor, Girard. And anyone who has read Girard deeply will recognize that his views bear the watermark of his Savior, Jesus. But those ideas have been imitated and internalized by Thiel who extends them in his own unique way.
Thiel argues that although we read the Bible, in a very real sense, the Bible also reads us. What does that mean? Well, when moderns read the Bible there is "a conceit that we are above the Bible," and that it is a thing of the past. But in reality the Bible is above us, ahead of us. It tells us something about the future. "If revelation is true, it must have an anthropology, something we would not otherwise have known…for Girard that was something about sin and violence."
A helpful exemplar of the way the Bible reads human nature, and does so better than the paganism it replaces, is the story of Cain versus Abel and the way it differs from the parallel story of Romulus versus Remus. The murder of Abel is addressed by Jesus in the passage known as The Woes against the Pharisees, which was a favorite passage of Girard's.
In this Gospel account, the Pharisees assert discontinuity with their ancestors, but end up repeating the cycle of violence.
The Pharisees think of themselves as better than their ancestors who, they acknowledge, did indeed kill the prophets. Jesus points out that this an admission of continuity. In order to denounce their ancestors as prophet-killers, they must admit that their ancestors were prophet-killers. They read the texts, but they also misread the text, because they didn't let the text read them. The prophets showed the nature of mob violence and victimization, which, if we allow it, reads (decodes, unencrypts) us. The text reads our inner nature and explicates that we sinners, too, and are subject to the same violent temptations as our ancestors.
In my view, the Pharisees put themselves in a competition (what Girard calls mimetic rivalry) with their ancestors. This rivalry pushed them to try to be better, more pure, than their ancestors, which drove a reaction so extreme that they become a kind of symmetrical opposite of prior generations. Purporting to be better than their ancestors, they ended up killing not just "the prophets" but "THE Prophet."
Girard and Thiel also address the nature of the Cross versus the nature of the Resurrection. Girard wanted to make the cross more separate from the resurrection than is often done. Of course, Thiel recognizes that you can't have a resurrection without a death. But there is a danger in failing to put a proper distinction and separation between the Cross and the empty tomb. Ignoring the three days between the Cross and the empty tomb risks obscuring the reality that the crucifixion was an act of evil. The three days of separation give us a space which allows us to see human nature. "After the denials by Peter it is like all truth has gone from the world."
I would add that I think Girard believed that an immediate resurrection would be confused with the pagan "scapegoat mechanism," by which peace was restored in something like a pagan miracle, but built on a lie. The moment some outsider is killed by the mob for a crime they had not committed, the anxiety and hostility of the crowd is purged - so long as the crowd maintains the lie that the scapegoat had been guilty. If the Resurrection, as a sign of peace of God, had appeared right away, it might have been reminiscent of the false peace of pagan human sacrifice.
My own view is that the resurrection is not the natural outworking of the crucifixion, but rather a rebuke to it. The cross is the verdict of lower, corrupt courts such as those of the Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate. The Resurrection is when the Supreme Court reverses the lower ones and in addition writes the most scathing possible rebuke. Think of a corrupt court which sends an innocent man to death. The prisoner is killed. Imagine the case being appealed to the Supreme Court, despite the man's having been executed. The court finds for the accused. The verdict is reversed, but the execution cannot be. In the case of Jesus, however, the perfectly innocent man, not only is the lower courts' (Sanhedrin, Herod, Pilate) verdict reversed, but so is the execution. Both the conviction and the tomb are vacated.
Another way in which the Gospels are different from pagan thought is revealed in the account of the death of Jesus when compared to Plato and Xenophon's accounts of the death of Socrates. When a leader is executed, his followers flee. "Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered," is a quote which Jesus adapts from the prophets. The Bible is realistic and truthful on this point, but philosophy tells a lie: that it is strong enough to resist the mob. The Gospels are honest about human sin in that they show Peter denying Christ – thrice! They show the disciples running away. The Death of Socrates doesn't show that. It’s as though the disciples of Socrates displayed an almost supernatural courage against violence, whereas the Bible shows an honest portrayal of human nature. Plato becomes a mythical superhero of philosophy, whereas Peter is shown as all too human.
It's not just the account of Socrates which contrasts with the Bible; per Thiel’s Girard, the Bible is discontinuous from pagan traditions in general. Thiel points out that there's a tradition in Christianity which emphasizes continuity with pagan philosophy. e.g. Thomas Aquinas. "But if that is right, why do you need revelation at all?" Thiel points to something that he calls "key knowledge," i.e. knowledge which one cannot get to on one's own, but which attests to its truth by its ability to interpret and illuminate human experience. We can't figure out the human condition that we are trapped within, so we need revelation from without. Even if one or two particularly insightful souls possibly had seen the lie of pagan human sacrifice, they were unlikely to speak up and powerless as individuals to change the myth themselves.
I found particularly powerful the conversation around this: "The idea of victims comes from Christianity and nowhere else….If Jesus had told Pilate, 'I'm a victim,' Pilate would have had no idea what He was talking about." Some current thinkers such as Tom Holland have made a similar point, that the ancient Roman world had no moral sense of universal human rights, but Girard delivers a more penetrating insight: that the modern anti-Christian progressive ideologies are unconsciously running on the stored battery power of the Gospels which they despise. So it’s not just that ancient, non-Biblical thought lacked the moral imperative to protect victims. It's that the most virulent anti-Christian ideologies of the modern world are most utterly dependent on a deformed and weaponized version of Biblical ideas about victimhood.
In this sense, although many would call modern ideologies a new form of paganism, they appear to be something more like a mutated form of Christianity, a novel virus of the mind which spreads wildly and kills millions.
Girard sees the modern atheistic philosopher Nietzsche as having greater understanding of this dynamic than perhaps any other modern anti-Christian thinker. He came very close to understanding the difference between the pagan myths and the Gospels, but he took "the wrong moral valence." Nietzsche contrasted the allegedly life-affirming Greek god of orgy and intoxication and mania, Dionysus, the allegedly non-life affirming Jesus. Nietzsche had been signing his letters "Dionysus" but at the very end he signed as "The Crucified One." To me, this suggests that perhaps (emphasis on perhaps) he had come to see that Dionysus and Jesus were in some sense the same one, that the true life-affirming god was Jesus, and that perhaps Nietzsche intentionally went insane to avoid that truth.
The ancient Greeks, in which Nietzsche was steeped, had an idea of "Pharmakoi," used to describe both medicine and sacrificial victims. The pharmakoi were people kept on hand to be trotted out and ritually abused and sacrificed when social tensions were high. They were a kind of social medicine. "Pharmacy" is a modern cognate. This linguistic clue shows how violence was a kind of drug to restore public peace, but it only worked if the people believed the lie, and it takes higher doses to keep working. And it took much higher doses after the Gospel stories, because the story of Jesus weakened the drug. It made the lie harder to believe. Modern fascism and communism increased the "dose" from Girard's "single victim" to "millions of victims."
In this way, Fascism and Communism are somewhat similar; both are bloodthirsty ideologies. They are similar, yet also in ways which many people tend to miss are quite different from one another. Fascism is somewhat backwards-looking while Communism in some sense looks forward. In a strange way, Communism is a kind of ultra-Christianity. It exploits Christian concern for the victims. It particularly taps into Christianity's concern for the poor. Medieval men thought that Jesus' second most important attribute after his divinity was His poverty. Communism takes this Christian forerunner and weaponizes it, saying, in essence, "You Christians aren't Christian enough." This makes Communism a "much stronger move" and a "more dangerous one," than fascism.
Girard sees this "ultra-Christianity" as being prefigured in the Gospels in the Woes against the Pharisees. The Pharisees claimed to be better than their ancestors, but preserved their continuity with the past by killing a prophet. In this sense, they thought of themselves as being "ultra," i.e. beyond their ancestors, more righteous than they. For Thiel, following Girard, this was "also a prophecy about the future." The Pharisees said, "We won't be like our ancestors who killed the prophets," then like their ancestors they endorsed the killing of a prophet. Medieval Christians said, "We won't be like the Jews who killed Jesus," but then they murdered Jews. Atheists said, "We won't be like the Christians who killed Jews," and then killed Christians. The cycle keeps getting repeated.
"Atheist left keeps saying we're better than…more tolerant than" those in the past. But "That's a tell that the opposite is true." Not just true of communism, but also true of "Political correctness."
Girard seemed to believe that this was all leading us towards the Apocalypse. It is especially in his late book, Battling to the End, that Girard turned very apocalyptic. Thiel says that for Girard, prophecies of apocalypse are somewhat scientific, meaning there is an element in which apocalypse is anticipatable within the context of the anthropological framework that we learn from the Gospels without need of specific supernatural visions of the future.
I tend to agree. For example, I think that we see Jesus doing that in the Gospels in Luke 13:1-6 and 23:28-31, but that discussion is probably beyond the scope of this essay.
In this sense, the approach which they both advocate has a high view of science (though not of scientism). For Girard and Thiel, it is clear that in the history of science, we didn't stop burning witches because we invented science. Rather we invented science because we stopped burning witches. This scientific advance leads to technological advances which threaten the entire human race. That makes apocalypse technologically plausible. Anthropologically, there is always the potential to snowball or spiral into limitless violence. This makes apocalypse sociologically plausible.
But for Thiel what we see now in the developed portions of the modern world is perhaps not as apocalyptic as it might appear on the surface: "from an archaic perspective, we are shockingly non-violent."
But will this shockingly non-violent reality hold? The enlightenment optimism of figures such as Steven Pinker tells a story of progress and claims we're getting less and less violent. But for Thiel, "That can't be the whole story…we've got tens of thousands of nuclear missiles," which means though we might have low kinetic violence we have enormous "potential violence." And our current culture is vulnerable to a transition from potential violence to actualized violence because, we're "not sane enough to embrace the Gospel whole heartedly." Which leaves us with what Girard called "sick revenge:" a weak, half-hearted non-violent, but non-forgiving form of revenge.
I asked Thiel whether an apocalypse, such as a nuclear war was inevitable? He says when we ask "the cosmic question it feels like apocalypse is more likely." I asked whether there is an off-ramp. Thiel's view is that Jesus offered an off-ramp to the Jews in his time on earth, and that we are today still offered that same off-ramp. The whole world could embrace the Gospel once everyone has heard it. But for Thiel, that's "probably not what's going to happen." Case in point: Jesus' question, "When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?" suggests that He will not.
I agree with the grammatical point: the syntactical construction suggests a negative answer. But there is a question about whether this is a prophetic account of the end of the world or of the end of Israel, because the word translated as "earth" can just as easily mean "the land." So my view is that this does not necessarily mean that history ends badly. I'm not taking sides, just pointing out that there are different eschatological schools and different hermeneutical frameworks.
Thiel believes, and so do I, that being too sanguine about apocalypse makes it more likely. A good example is Jonah preaching doom to Assyria. "Girard felt like he was Jonah going to Nineveh." The idea is that they believed they would be destroyed at that time and so they repented and therefore they weren't destroyed.
So, are we too sanguine now or not sanguine enough? It's "impossible to have perfectly accurate reading on one's own time," Thiel replies. One the one hand, we have this "crazy form of political correctness which is a deformation of Christianity." But despite the way we talk, we don't act like we're facing apocalypse. Thiel mentions someone he knows who is a conservative Fox News-watching Boomer who kept saying that Obama was a communist who would destroy America, but when asked what he was going to do, he just went golfing.
I think this is a powerful observation. If conservatives really believed that this was Russia in 1916, would we just be making comments on social media? If liberals really thought that Trump was Hitler and that we were close to the last train out of Nazi Germany, would we just be virtue signaling at demonstrations?
Maybe AOC is just a Fox News construct; not really a genuine communist threat, but rather just someone playing a role. Maybe our political polarization is mostly LARPing (live-action role-playing) and Kayfabe (professional wrestling trash-talk); i.e., kinds of play-acting (what Jesus called hupo-crites, acting in a play) which we don’t take seriously.
But then again, there's those 10,000 nukes, and there's this crazy politics and it all can snowball because we no longer use either the pagan (scapegoating), nor the Christian (forgiveness) options.
My final question: "Is there an off-ramp?"
Thiel: "To be continued."