Here is something Joseph Ratzinger told an interviewer in 1996, before he became pope:
“ . . . the church lives not only synchronically but diachronically, as well. This means that it is always all—even the dead—who live and are the whole church, that it is always all who must be considered in any majority in the church. In the state, for example, one day we have the Reagan administration, and the next day the Clinton administration, and whoever comes next always throws out what his predecessor did and said; we always begin again from scratch. That’s not the way it is in the church. The church lives her life precisely from the identity of all the generations, from their identity that overarches time, and her real majority is made up of the saints.”
This is an immensely important work which has the potential of enriching and deepening the ecumenical conversation. The scholarly density of the text is regularly interrupted by almost breathtaking moments of originality and luminosity.
In the preface to his translation of Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, William C. Creasy sketched the historical circumstances in which the book was written:
“When Thomas wrote The Imitation, he saw a world in deep conflict, a world whose foundations seemed to be cracking and crumbling. The death of Pope Gregory XI on March 27, 1378, set the stage for the Great Schism, that rending of Western Christendom that shattered the Church for two generations. … It was the start of a scandal that sapped the moral and spiritual strength of Christendom like an open, infected wound for nearly forty years.”
Mercifully, we are not now in the midst of a Great Schism, but neither is such a thing any longer unthinkable, for reference is regularly made today to the existence in the Catholic Church of an undeclared or incipient schism, and from such cracks gaping chasms can open. This was not lost on the translator, who thought it worth mentioning that in 1978, the historian Barbara Tuchman published a book about the century in which Thomas wrote the Imitation entitled: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century.
Of course, the Imitation of Christ is a timeless spiritual classic, of pertinence to every age. It begins with these words, in Creasy’s translation:
“’Anyone who follows me shall not walk in darkness,’ says the Lord. These are the words of Christ, and by them we are reminded that we must imitate his life and his ways if we are to be truly enlightened and set free from the darkness of our own hearts. Let it be the most important thing we do, then, to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ. . . . Anyone who wishes to understand Christ’s words and to savor them fully should strive to become like him in every way.”
Whether under its surface our moment in history bears any resemblance to the turmoil of the fourteenth century may be debated, but those words of Christ will not pass away, nor will we ever plumb their deepest depths. The question remains, however, whether our historical circumstances, and the theological and anthropological resources now at our disposal, might make it possible to provide substantiating evidence for the central claim of Thomas’ masterpiece? In the months ahead, I will be devoting much of my time to trying to answer that question in the affirmative.
In an interview in 1985, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – the future Pope Benedict XVI – to his interviewer:
“My impression is that the authentically Catholic meaning of the reality ‘church’ is tacitly disappearing, without being expressly rejected. Many no longer believe that what is at issue is a reality willed by the Lord himself. Even with some theologians, the church appears to be a human construction, an instrument created by us and one that we ourselves can freely reorganize according to the requirements of the moment. In other words, in many ways a conception of church is spreading in Catholic thought, and even in Catholic theology, that cannot even be called Protestant in a ‘classic’ sense. … Thus, without a view of the mystery of the church that is also supernatural and not only sociological, Christology itself loses its reference to the divine in favor of a purely human structure, and ultimately it amounts to a purely human project: the gospel becomes the Jesus-project, the social-liberation project, or other merely historical, immanent projects that can still seem religious in appearance, but which are atheistic in substance.”
This excerpt from the Hoover Institute’s Uncommon Knowledge series in which Peter Robinson interviews René Girard was recorded in 2010. We make it available at this time of year in celebration of the Christmas feast which also coincides with the anniversary of the birth of René Noël Théophile Girard.
And now for something completely different….A Christmas story courtesy of Bob Dylan and Roland Janes:
The story linked to below was posted on the Bob Dylan website in August of 2017. It is one of those rambling narratives reflective of lives that have taken complicated paths and somehow end up at Grace’s house…
In the Gospel reading for Monday of the Second week of Advent Jesus heals a paralytic who has been lowered down through the ceiling of the crowded room where Our Lord has been teaching. It is a well-known story. Luke tells us when Jesus saw the faith of those who lowered the man on the stretcher he says to the paralytic, “As for you, your sins are forgiven”. The Scribes and Pharisees are offended for, they say to themselves, “Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Thereupon, Jesus tells the paralytic to arise, pickup his stretcher and go home, showing that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”. And so he does. The assembled crowd is awe struck saying, “We have seen incredible things today”.
In the Greek text of Luke’s Gospel the word translated as ‘incredible’ is ‘paradoxa’. Without getting into a debate about the relative meanings of cognate words in different languages, I would like to reflect on paradox. At he end of an interview published in First Things in 2008 Grant Kaplan asks René Girard, “How do you think the main theses of your work will be played out in the coming decades?”, to which Girard responds, “I think the question and the paradox of the scapegoat (it is there when you don’t see it, and not there when you see it) is going to be understood better and will play a role in apologetics that it has never played. The view of Christianity is not paradoxical enough. I think that when you read Kierkegaard carefully he is not very far from several of the things that the scapegoat theory can formulate more rationally.Therefore, it can be a tool of apologetics that hasn’t been discovered yet.”
It is interesting that Girard connects the paradox of the scapegoat with a rational apologetic for Christianity. Certainly, among Girardians, there are many who found the interpretive lens of mimetic theory focused on the Passion of Christ opened a profound intellectual understanding as well as a doorway into unexpected spiritual depths, Gil Bailie being a prime example (see the ending of Violence Unveiled). Our work is an outgrowth and development of just this apologetic. The Christian paradox is recalled in Gil’s question from one of his presentations in the mid-1980s, “How is it that we are saved by a hanged man?”. This eventually became “Why did it take the Crucifixion to save us?” in the Emmaus Road Initiative and God’s Gamble, exploring and elucidating the paradox of the scapegoat.
It is well known that the enigmatic and prolific Danish philosopher and preacher was a premier proponent of Christian paradox, but Girard’s reference to Kierkegaard as an ally for an intensified sense of Christian paradox was surprising, however. The following excerpt gives a sense of this perspective:
The Christian fact has no history, for it is the paradox that God once came into existence in time. This is the offense, but also it is the point of departure; and whether this was eighteen hundred years ago or yesterday, one can just as well be contemporary with it. Like the polar star this paradox never changes its position and therefore has no history, so this paradox stands immovable and unchanged; and though Christianity were to last for another ten thousand years, one would get no farther from this paradox than the contemporaries were. For the distance is not to be measured by the quantitative scale of time and space, for it is qualitatively decisive by the fact that it is a paradox.
On Authority and Revelation, page 60-1
The Scribes and Pharisees in Luke’s story from the Gospel were offended that “God once came into existence in time” to forgive sins and bring healing, but some in the crowd saw a paradox and believed. I read recently about Ivan Illich saying that the believer and the non-believer are like two men who are listening to a joke: “Both understand the words, but only one of them laughs and grasps the point of the story”
It has been over two years since Gil Bailie’s book God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love was published by Angelico Press. In that period the book has been reviewed a number of times, most recently by Fr. Dwight Longenecker for the Imaginative Conservative website. To date all of the reviews, including those on the Amazon and GoodReads websites, have been overwhelmingly positive. This is encouraging. Yet, while we did not expect it to appear on the New York Times best seller list, it is no exaggeration to say that the book’s reach has been less than what we had hoped. Also, since the book was published Gil has been offered a number of opportunities to speak to groups that would be receptive to God’s Gamble. Such events put Gil in his natural habitat, in front of a live audience, from whom he frequently receives that magical mimetic energy that enlivens many of the presentations in our audio archives. It is likely that in the coming year there may be more chances for presentations such as these. Alas, this is both a blessing and a curse.
Our plans for 2019, God willing, include having Gil again spend time at the writing desk. The recent discovery of a cache of Gil’s poetry from the past thirty years has been a great and happy surprise. Gil would like to produce a small volume of the best of these poems. This and the continuing work on a manuscript on the ‘person’ (whose working title is The Soul is Naturally Christian: Changing the Subject from Self to Person) will require considerable time and attention to bring them to fruition. Speaking engagements will necessarily take time away from these writing chores. Meanwhile, we are doing our best to be faithful to our calling and of service to those who find our work of value. This last comment is my lead in to another Fall Appeal for your material support and prayers for the year ahead. We are grateful to all who are helping us in this effort. If you want to see it continue please follow the “Supporting Our Work” link at the upper right of this page. And thank you for your interest in the Cornerstone Forum.
The Imitatio website has recently posted a fascinating window into the classroom of then Johns Hopkins University professor René Girard who was offering a class on “The French Novel of the 19th and 20th Centuries”. In the second semester of 1962 Andrew Feenberg, a freshman, was granted permission by Professor Girard to audit the class which was given in French. I suspect Mr. Feenberg may have been a native French speaker from Canada. In any case, he took careful and detailed notes, almost transcribing the lectures into English. Here is an excerpt from Feenberg’s introduction:
I believe this to be an interesting document. It reveals something about Girard’s early teaching, his focus not only on literary interpretation but on what he called the “truth” transmitted by literature which he (and we) considered nothing less than a guide to life.
The season of Advent has always been a time of expectation ever since the first one in that dusty corner of the Roman Empire. The Latin root meaning expresses just this sense of ‘what is to come’. But, what to expect?…that the climate will change, that there will be wars and rumors of wars, that there will be tumults and upheavals social and geological, that democracy will progress…or retreat, that the stock market will reach new highs? Heraclitus understood that change is universal, but he had no wisdom to share regarding how change will be manifest, about what to expect.
The angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she should expect to bear a son – the Son of God. Her ascent to this news as a young girl only recently betrothed certainly gave her something to expect. From the stories of her family and friends she surely knew what lay ahead for a pregnant girl. But this child would be different. What did she expect? Her faith and trust in God and God’s beneficent care flow down to us today through the Church. And the Church provides at the end of each liturgical year, just before Advent, readings from her scriptures that have been understood to reveal in some way what we are to expect. These are apocalyptic writings describing troubling times of judgement at the end of the world. One of these, from Luke 18:1-8, ends with this sentence spoken by the One Mary bore,
“But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”