Recently some friends of the Cornerstone Forum spent an hour with Gil Bailie in a group Skype call in which Gil shared a short draft excerpt from his current writing project. The excerpt was entitled ‘Conversion’ and introduced two examples. One was the experience related by Bob Dylan in his 2017 Noble prize acceptance speech of Dylan’s adolescent identification with Buddy Holly, and the other described the story of O. E. Parker and the carnival tattooed-man from the Flannery O’Connor short story, Parker’s Back.
Gil’s draft text ended with the quotation below
What is a person without a life-form, that is to say, without a form which he has chosen for his life, a form into which and through which to pour out his life, so that his life becomes the soul of the form and the form becomes the expression of his soul? For this is no extraneous form, but rather so intimate a one that it is greatly rewarding to identify oneself with it. Nor is it a forcibly imposed form, rather one which has been bestowed from within and has been freely chosen. Nor, finally, is it an arbitrary form, rather that uniquely personal one which constitutes the very law of the individual. Whoever shatters this form by ignoring it is unworthy of the beauty of Being, and he will be banished from the splendor of solid reality as one who has not passed the test. Thus, while physically he remains alive, such a person decays to expressionlessness and sterility, is like the dry wood which is gathered in the Gospel for burning. But if man is to live in an original form, that form has first to be sighted. One must possess a spiritual eye capable of perceiving the forms of existence with awe.
We find ourselves back in the same situation as that which the Christians encountered during the decline of the ancient world. Everything depends on whether the Christians … are able to communicate their hope to a world in which man finds himself alone and helpless before the monstrous forces which have been created by man to serve his own ends but which have now escaped from his control and threaten to destroy him.
Thirteen years ago Gil Bailie posted this quote on our old weblog. Today, in reflecting on the ‘forces created by man…which have now escaped from his control’ , all sorts of images came to mind from pollution to weapons of mass destruction to manipulation of human genetic material.
Last week one of the most successful tech billionaires, Elon Musk co-founder of Tesla and SpaceX, unveiled a device developed by his company Neuralink that can be implanted in a subject’s brain allowing for computer to brain wireless data communications and touting the potential for beneficial therapeutic applications of this technology. (Short summary video.)
On the same day Elon Musk was displaying his new device the New York Times published an article entitled The Brain Implants That Could Change Humanity which provides an overview of the research and technological progress being made in this field. One of the themes addressed in the article is the ethical ramifications of the brain/computer interface, mostly focusing on ‘neurorights’ and privacy concerns with an occasional allusion to the possible nefarious uses of this technology previewed in dystopian movies or TV programs.
“People have been trying to manipulate each other since the beginning of time,” …. “But there’s a line that you cross once the manipulation goes directly to the brain, because you will not be able to tell you are being manipulated.”
Today the materialistic basis of modern science is taken for granted. The ability to alter our material substrate without restraint comes with a self-generated (as well as a political and/or economic) imperative to pursue the prospective ‘good’ that is envisioned as the result. History has demonstrated the generally beneficial outcomes from a world transformed by human technology. And the unintended negative effects are considered part of the price to be paid for our comforts and conveniences. But as we enter a time when the material to be altered and ‘improved’ is the human person we tremble at the thought of crossing that threshold. To question the wisdom, not to mention the truth, of the materialist world view is often considered anathema and anti-human both on the left and the right.
But Christians have never been materialists. Creation is received as a gift for which our response is gratitude. We are given the work of nurturing and tending our world making a home fit for human habitation. It has been one of the treasures of the Catholic faith to see in the material world the sacramental infusion of God’s creative power in everything that exists. All of the suffering and injustice heaped up each day by natural disasters and human sinfulness only gives us more work to do. We are not promised victory and success in the material sense. Our hope lies in the One who infuses our world, our lives, and our work with the “power of crucified love”.
Perhaps one day we can download Christian hope directly to our brains…in the mean time I suggest opening our hearts and receiving the sacramental grace to join in the banquet of the Beloved. God help us.
“Since satisfactory answers [to the question of the meaning of human existence] have not been found apart from Christ, there is an attempt today to cancel the questions or at least to rob them of their dramatic quality. We are living in a time marked by nihilism. But it is no longer the same nihilism as in the first half of the century. The earlier nihilism was ideological and programmatic. Following Nietzsche, it aimed to fill the vacuum left by the abandonment of personal and social morality with the will to power; it desired to return to ‘the birth of tragedy,’ to challenge the Lord of history by declaring him dead and dispensable. Its purpose was to overturn the calculating, everyday morality of the bourgeoisie through the dramatic éclat of the hero, who has no model other than his own action and will. The nihilism at the basis of the totalitarian ideologies disguised itself as an enthralling optimism, as the conquest of new goals. It could proclaim, as in Spain, ‘Long live death!’ and appear on various stages of the world as the ideology of ‘the great march,’ the great leap forward. This was true in the economic no less than in the political field, in science no less than in the vanguard of culture. Its last death-rattle was urban warfare, terrorism, the intoxication of violence merely for violence’s sake.”
Pedro Morandé: Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago
From the introduction written by Daniel J. Mahoney:
For the acting human being and the acting Christian, death cannot be the central concern of human existence. All people fear death, and we should not exaggerate the courage of most in this regard. But the acting person, though “naturally afraid of death,” Manent explains, does not do everything and anything to avoid it. He is concerned above all with doing the right thing, with seeking the right action and respecting the rules and priorities inherent in a serious human life. We are sometimes commanded, not by arbitrary authority but by the authority of what is right and good, to put ourselves at some mortal risk. Self preservation can never be the great desideratum for a human being guided by reflective choice and a conscience that honors truth and virtue. The great task of human beings is living well, and not preserving this-worldly existence indefinitely. On this Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, and Saint Paul would surely agree.
Building on Aristotle, Manent shows how no human being can act without deferring to the three great human motives: the pleasant, the useful, and the honorable ( or the just and noble). These are the “objective components of human nature.”
If I am not mistaken, it was Cardinal Lustiger who once said that to be a person of faith is to live in such a way that if God does not exist one’s life has been wasted. I quote it from vague memory, but if it wasn’t Cardinal Lustiger who said it, it was the good Cardinal who gave living witness to its truth. May he rest in peace.
George Weigel has a wonderful tribute to Cardinal Lustiger here.
Gil Bailie, August 6, 2007
George Weigel wrote another lengthy piece for First Things about Cardinal Lustiger in 2010 that is worth taking the time to read as well – The Lessons of Jean-Marie Lustiger
I recall that René Girard was invited to meet Cardinal Lustiger in Paris…to have been privy to that conversation would have been a great gift!
Thirteen years ago after much deliberation Gil Bailie posted the following on our old web blog. In the intervening years the cultural milieu has moved dramatically in regard to the matters of concern in this post. I am re-posting it now because it provides some perspective as an example of how human nature responds to ‘some of the weirdest cultural insanities‘, while also showing the perspicacity and pertinence of Gil’s insistence on the centrality of the creedal affirmation of Christianity’s anthropological realism to our cultural enterprise.
“Shall I uncrumple this much crumpled thing?”
– Wallace Stevens
The wrestling is over. I am posting this weblog entry after overcoming many misgivings. The risk of offending some of one’s best friends and a number of one’s good friends is not an insubstantial risk, but the risk of failing to defend the faith at the point of attack is a graver one.
Bishop Eugene Robinson is the openly gay Episcopalian bishop most likely to go down in history as the man who kicked the stone that started the avalanche that brought the Anglican experiment to an end. It could hardly have escaped his notice, but he seems remarkably unperturbed by the prospect, even at times ebullient. In a recent interview with the Scottish journalist Andrew Collier, Bishop Robinson recalled a life-changing conversation he had with the chaplain at an Episcopalian college he attended.
One day when I was ranting and raving about how much of the Nicene Creed I didn’t believe, he said ‘well, when you’re in church, just say the parts of the creed you do agree with. Be silent for the others. We’re not asking you do so something against your integrity’. And again I thought whew, that’s what one would hope for from a religion – honesty and integrity. And I guess that’s a theme that has carried throughout my life in Ministry – that God wants us to be honest and full of integrity.
Stirring calls for honesty and integrity are hard to resist. Emerson (who spoke a lot of foolishness) once said that something foolishly spoken can be wisely heard. Perhaps there is some honesty and integrity to be found in Bishop Robinson’s puzzling remark if we but take the time to look for it. For, quite without realizing it, he has put his finger on precisely the key issue.
It seems only logical to begin looking for the grain of truth and integrity where Bishop Robinson has often testified to have found it, namely, in the social cause he is most famous for espousing. No, not the Gospel, the other one. (It is a link between the two that I want to explore.)
The process of mainstreaming homosexual behavior has moved inexorably from perfectly legitimate and long overdue early efforts to understand the plight of those suffering from same-sex disorders and to exercise both more compassion and more prudence when trying to the prevent the social and moral damage known to be associated with homosexual lifestyles. And yet these early and appropriate steps, insufficiently guided by the underlying ethic that insured their moral coherence, quickly fell under the gravitational force to which cultures suffering “civilizational exhaustion” are vulnerable. In rapid succession, the declension began: from understanding to tolerance, from tolerance to moral indifference, from indifference to celebration, from celebration to intolerance for any moral objections, from intolerance to legal threats, and finally to teaching seven and eight year-olds the moral and social indistinguishability of homosexual coupling and heterosexual nuptiality. Thus, we arrive at where we are today: in the midst of a culture that thinks of itself as rational, one of history’s great flat-earth theories has so triumphed that few have been able to resist genuflecting at one time or another before its pieties.
Christianity’s empathy for victims has so shaped our moral environment that the historical mistreatment of homosexuals, after it had been as rectified as it is possible for such things ever to be, survived as icon, appealing to a kind of Christ-flavored moral sentimentality which made an ideal battering ram for demolishing the Christian moral realism of which the sentimentality was a parody. It has become increasingly clear to those paying attention – and this is why I come back to this issue more than I would like – that the question that is being adjudicated is not ultimately about sexual ethics; rather it is about whether the religion that taught us the sacramental dignity of the nuptial mystery (and a lot besides) is to lose its place in cultural life and in the education of the young for failing to regard as healthy and virtuous something that any Christian living in any age but ours would have had no trouble recognizing as “intrinsically disordered.”
The fact that many of the Christian faithful and most of the Christian denominations are tying themselves in knots over this issue is no accident. It has been known for some time that putting Christians in what feels to them like a moral double-bind – an empathy for victims, on one hand, and personal and confessional misgivings about the behavior of the “victims,” on the other – was a conscious strategy for dividing and paralyzing those whose moral instincts, if not creedal allegiances, were rooted in Christian principle.
And so, today this dangerous social, moral and cultural inversion finds support, not only among the sexual revolutionaries, moral nominalists, and psychological Peter Pans whose sadly shrunken idea of freedom makes them hostile to the very idea of human nature. Support for this reckless experiment is found as well among those speaking in the name of Christianity and espousing a revised Christian sexual ethic that would be unrecognizable to any Christian or Jew living before, say, 1995.
In the days before the onset of all this a couple of decades ago, one of the implicit and sometimes explicit arguments for overlooking thousands of years of human history and the testimony of commonsense was that, once the moral revulsion with homosexual behavior and the retrograde favoritism too long enjoyed by natural marriage were eliminated, the duplicity and psychological self-deception that even homosexuals themselves found to be a repugnant feature of the homosexual lifestyle would vanish.
Alas, not all the signs are encouraging. Young Eugene Robinson, “ranting and raving about how much of the Nicene Creed [he] didn’t believe,” was given advice that inspired his dedication to truth and honesty. The older – and one would have hoped more mature – Eugene Robinson looks back on the sophomoric advice he was given, only to see it as the moral theme of his entire ministry. The advice? The advice was to play make-believe, to pretend to be faithful to the Creed, but in fact to be quietly altering it to suit one’s own tastes.
“God wants us to be honest and full of integrity.” It’s true. But the mumbled and spiteful rejection of the very creed that one has solemnly sworn to proclaim to the ends of the earth is decidedly not “what one would hope for from a religion.”
Here’s my point: Whether it comes from above – from those in ecclesial robes leaning on a crosier – or from below – from those betraying their own dignity in vulgar public rejections of the very idea of sexual morality – the social and moral revolution to which each is contributing finally comes down to ranting and raving against the Nicene Creed and the breathtaking anthropological dignity to which the Council of Nicaea raised our mortal bodies by insisting that God had come to us in a human body, thereby repudiating the Gnosticism that regards the body as an assemblage of orifices which lends itself to a few passing pleasures but which is morally irrelevant and religiously inconsequential – a Gnosticism of which today’s sexual experimentalists are a very late and very sad manifestation. It is a Gnosticism, however, that is rapidly becoming a mandated feature of Western public education, very much at the expense of the Judeo-Christian anthropology upon which Western civilization was based.
Again, as G. K. Chesterton said: One small mistake in doctrine can lead to huge blunders in human happiness.
Like Christ, whose true mystery the Church began to commit formally to doctrine at Nicaea, the Church will ultimately be loved or hated. History consists of the process whereby the middle ground between them shrinks and those filled with ambivalence must move in one direction or the other. Compared to this, the question of sexual ethics is a small matter, but it doesn’t remain a small matter when the question of sexual ethics becomes the surrogate issue for the determination of the ultimate one.
“Since satisfactory answers [to the question of the meaning of human existence] have not been found apart from Christ, there is an attempt today to cancel the questions or at least to rob them of their dramatic quality. We are living in a time marked by nihilism. But it is no longer the same nihilism as in the first half of the century. The earlier nihilism was ideological and programmatic. Following Nietzsche, it aimed to fill the vacuum left by the abandonment of personal and social morality with the will to power; it desired to return to ‘the birth of tragedy,’ to challenge the Lord of history by declaring him dead and dispensable. Its purpose was to overturn the calculating, everyday morality of the bourgeoisie through the dramatic éclat of the hero, who has no model other than his own action and will. The nihilism at the basis of the totalitarian ideologies disguised itself as an enthralling optimism, as the conquest of new goals. It could … appear on various stages of the world as the ideology of ‘the great march,’ the great leap forward. … Its last death-rattle was urban warfare, terrorism, the intoxication of violence merely for the sake of violence.”
Pedro Morandé, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Catholic University of Chile
“As unbelievers deny [the Christian] Revelation more decisively, as they put their denial into more consistent practice, it will become the more evident what it really means to be a Christian. At the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies. He must learn to exist honestly without Christ and without the God revealed through Him; he will have to learn to experience what this honesty means. Nietzsche has already warned us that the non-Christian of the modern world had no realization of what it truly meant to be without Christ. The last decades [1930s and 40s] have suggested what life without Christ really is. The last decades were only the beginning.”
My thoughts in these troubled times are sober and sobering ones. Ours is a period in history fraught with peril and uncertainty. But it has been in such times as these that our faith has rekindled itself. The world is always fragile, always closer than most realize to collapsing into chaos. But when events bring this perennial state of affairs into our awareness, we are encouraged to see it as an opportunity to revive our faith and our courage. In that spirit, and with my sincere gratitude for your interest in the work of the Cornerstone Forum, allow me to offer for our reflection these two familiar stanzas from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If:
If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
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