November 06, 2023
Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Director of Programs at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship Luke Burgis spearheaded the NOVITATE Conference. (Catholic University/Patrick G. Ryan)

Scholars, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and faith leaders gathered in the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center on Nov. 3 for the first-ever NOVITATE (newness, in Latin) Conference to discuss how to break free of stifling social pressure to conform to the world and renew spheres as diverse as business, media, politics, and education to better promote human flourishing. 

Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Director of Programs at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship Luke Burgis, author of bestselling Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life, told a packed Great Room that he organized the sold-out conference as more than an academic conference but a forum for worlds to collide to create unexpected and enlightening conversations on big ideas that impact everyone.

The goal of NOVITATE was to take a dive deep into the far-reaching implications of the daring ideas of a distinctive thinker. The international interdisciplinary gathering honored the 100th anniversary of the birth of Catholic social theorist René Girard, best known for his theory of mimesis (imitation) as the driving force for human behavior. During his opening remarks, University President Peter Kilpatrick explained the conference drew on Girard’s ideas in conversation with Paul’s call in Romans 12 to “be not conformed” to a fallen world. 

 The keynote speaker was arguably Girard’s most famous and successful student, billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel. He described his professor as a prophet of the dangers of mimetic desire, or the impulse to imitate, when left unchecked by insights from Christian revelation. Thiel explained the self-destructive rivalries it can inspire have led to world-destroying technologies, such as nuclear bombs. 

Billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel gives the NOVITATE keynote address at the Great Room. (Catholic University/Patrick G. Ryan)

During the address, Thiel posited a new paradigm where fears for the future due to multiple existential threats that have emerged since the dawn of the nuclear age including climate change, war, artificial intelligence, and looming totalitarianism have given way to a deep malaise. 

“Man is not mad enough to bring about the apocalypse, but not sane enough to acknowledge the kingdom of heaven,” said Thiel. “This shift from the world of atoms and atom bombs to the world of bits can be thought of as a shift to interiority — a loss of interest in the external world in favor of inner or virtual worlds.” 

Thiel said an “expansionary” vision is needed to increase the drive to build a better world rather than escape it. 

“There has to be some way in a Christian context and a Catholic context for us to do things that are quite ambitious in this world that make a difference in this world,” said Thiel. 

 A lunchtime discussion titled “Architects of Desire: Building Brands, Teams, and Culture,” brought together Christian Dior North America head Alexandra Winokur, Miami real estate developer Craig Robins, and NBA Phoenix Suns assistant general manager Ryan Resch to discuss how Girard’s ideas have made an impact on how they approach their worlds. 

The University’s own Andreas Widmer, director of the Ciocca Center and associate professor of business; Assistant Politics Professor Jon Askonas; and Associate Professor and Department Chair of Sociology Brandon Vaidyanathan led breakout discussions to discuss the impact of Girard’s ideas. 

From left to right: Hollis Robbins, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes, and Lester Spence gather on stage for a panel discussion titled “Double Consciousness, Double Blind: Race and Cultural Desire Through a Girardian Lens.” (Catholic University/Patrick G. Ryan)

Other notable speakers included Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, and Girard’s son, entrepreneur Martin Girard.

“I wish to extend my heartfelt thanks to all of you for your interest in his ideas and the energy you bring to them,” said Girard, describing the day’s discussions of his father’s work as “exciting.” 

During an evening awards ceremony, Burgis gave the inaugural NOVITATE award to Girard biographer Cynthia Haven. Word on Fire contributor Father Elias Carr, who has written a soon-to-be-published beginner’s guide to Girard’s mimetic theory, gave the keynote speech at the gala dinner. 

The conference, initially scheduled for October, providentially aligned with Girard’s death on Nov. 4, 2015. Eight years to the day of his passing, a memorial Mass was held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. 

NOVITATE was made possible by The Busch School for Business’ Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship, The Institute for Human Ecology, Word on Fire, and the Mercatus Center of George Mason University.