Paradox

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”

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A Recent Review of God’s Gamble

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.

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René Girard circa 1962 – A Student’s Perspective

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.

 

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Expecting Advent

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?”

Even He wonders what to expect.

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A Simon of Cyrene Opportunity – Earning a Place in the Story

Gil Bailie recently gave a presentation to the priests and seminarians of St. Patrick’s University and Seminary in Menlo Park. A decade ago St. Patrick’s was one of the stops on the traveling road show of the Emmaus Road Initiative. A link to the Seminary’s website describing the event is HERE. And following is a link to the text of Gil’s talk, A Simon of Cyrene Opportunity – Earning a Place in the Story

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Bells & Whistles and Our Annual Plea for Support

 

 

 

 

The ‘Fall Appeal’, which you may read by following the link,  is our annual foray into fundraising and was once described to me as a “begging letter”. I prefer the phrase, “mendicant missive” myself. Alliteration aside, it is our primary source for the means to continue this work. Many of our friends soon will be receiving our Fall Appeal letter in the mail and by e-mail.

It is fortuitous that today’s lectionary reading (3 John vss 5-8) contains the following:

Please help them in a way worthy of God to continue their journey. For they have set out for the sake of the Name and are accepting nothing from the pagans. Therefore, we ought to support such persons, so that we may be co-workers in the truth.

Co-Workers Of The Truth is the title of a 1992 book of daily reflections by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Gil Bailie presented me with a copy of the book in 2005 when I had been working for the Cornerstone Forum only a few years. My job, then as now, was to enable Mr. Bailie to focus his gifts on his writing and speaking responsibilities by keeping the multiple spinning plates which comprise the facets of our work from crashing to the ground. I encourage you to read our Fall Appeal letter and to become co-workers with us in our efforts by looking kindly on our plea for support and making a donation HERE on our secure website or by mailing a check to us at the address below.

We are offering a printed booklet & digital PDF copies as well as the audio recording (CD & MP3) of Gil Bailie’s recent presentation “Bells & Whistles: The Technology of Forgetfulness”  to those who respond to our mendicant missive. Please see the details at the end of the letter.  You may listen to an excerpt from the presentation below:

Thank you for your interest in our work.

Randy Coleman-Riese
executive director

The Cornerstone Forum – PO Box 269 – Sonoma, CA 95476

 

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René Girard Via First Things

The journal First Things has recently featured on its website a short essay by Peter J. Leithart entitled ‘Clashing Victimocracies!’  The author explores the privileged and problematic position of the ‘victim’ in current social and political debate. In doing so Mr. Leithart invokes René Girard as well as two of Girard’s interpreters Eric Gans and Jean-Pierre Dupuy. Earlier this year a review of a new René Girard biography appeared in the Wall Street Journal of all places. It is encouraging to see widely read periodicals bringing Girard’s work to a larger audience. Our modest efforts here at the Cornerstone Forum have begun a fruitful conversation with the Catholic intellectual and theological tradition. And the Colloquium on Violence and Religion continues to introduce new generations of academics to mimetic theory as well as explore and critique Girard’s work. However, unless one is tuned into specific sites of Girardian interest it is only infrequently that you will hear his work cited.

René Girard

In the early 2000’s during one of Professor Girard’s Friday afternoon seminars on the campus of Stanford University I recall someone asking him what he thought would be the effect of his mimetic theory after he passed from the scene. In his typically self-effacing manner Professor Girard suggested that it would similarly pass from the scene, or perhaps ‘go underground’ (a sepulchral image I thought).  It has only been three years since René Girard departed this life. Even as the ravages of age had taken its toll on his mortal frame in his last years, his humility and gracious manner remained unimpaired. Yet it seemed his prediction was largely correct. The mimetic hypothesis and its apocalyptic perspective on human affairs is given little notice even as the world at large provides daily more evidence for its veracity.

 

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Something Imponderable…

This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of the end of “The War To End All Wars”. The conflict lasted over four years and involved more than 70 million combatants. An estimated nine million soldiers were killed in the course of the war as well as seven million civilians. The Austrian novelist Robert Musil (1880 – 1942) wrote about Vienna in the period just before World War I in his book  The Man Without Qualities Vol. 1: A Sort of Introduction and Pseudo Reality Prevails, from which the following is offered as a Veterans Day reflection…

Something imponderable. An omen. An illusion. As when a magnet releases iron filings and they fall in confusion again. As when a ball of string comes undone. As when a tension slackens. As when an orchestra begins to play out of tune. No details could be adduced that would not also have been possible before, but all the relationships had shifted a little. Ideas whose currency had once been lean grew fat. Persons who would before never have been taken seriously became famous. Harshness mellowed, separations fused, intransigents made concessions to popularity, tastes already formed relapsed into uncertainties. Sharp boundaries everywhere became blurred and some new, indefinable ability to form alliances brought new people and new ideas to the top. Not that these people and ideas were bad, not at all; it was only that a little too much of the bad was mixed with the good, of error with truth, of accommodation with meaning. There even seemed to be a privileged proportion of this mixture that got furthest on in the world; just the right pinch of makeshift to bring out the genius in genius and make talent look like a white hope, as a pinch of chicory, according to some people, brings out the right coffee flavor in coffee. Suddenly all the prominent and important positions in the intellectual world were filled by such people, and all decisions went their way. There is nothing one can hold responsible for this, nor can one say how it all came about. There are no persons or ideas or specific phenomena that one can fight against. There is no lack of talent or goodwill or even of strong personalities. There is just something missing in everything, though you can’t put your finger on it, as if there had been a change in the blood or in the air; a mysterious disease has eaten away the previous period’s seeds of genius, but everything sparkles with novelty, and finally one has no way of knowing whether the world has really grown worse, or oneself merely older. At this point a new era has definitively arrived.

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The Religious Backdrop of the Vote

This past week people across the United States participated in the public ritual of voting. These days, though, it is becoming less of a public act at the polling place and more of a private affair with the advent of absentee ballots. In the city in which I live most people choose to cast their votes by absentee ballot mostly out of convenience. This year for the first time I used an absentee ballot because I was actually absent from my home on the first Tuesday in November. So, instead of actually voting I spent some time thinking about how we came to call what we do the “vote”. For instance, why don’t we call it “electing” or making a “choice”, words more obviously descriptive of the act. Most likely it is because this act is so named in the Constitution. But where did the framers of the Constitution come up with the word?

The Latin root of our word ‘vote’ is votum, meaning a vow, or a solemn promise or wish to a god. Vote came into the English language sometime in the mid-sixteenth century from French where its meaning related to religious vows, and so we derive the forms votive, votary, devote. Shakespeare does not use the word ‘vote’, preferring ‘election’. In the Roman republic voting was a very public, personal and physical affair where citizens would on the appointed election day literally stand next to or close to the candidate for whom they offered their support. This was done on the Campus Martius (the Field of Mars dedicated to the god of war). This act was called in Latin, suffragium. Here is where we derive our word “sufferage”. And again, English received this word from French in the 14th century where its meaning related to intercessory prayer.

I wish I knew where and when the first use was made of the word ‘vote’ in English. It does not appear in Magna Carta, nor would one expect it since this was written in the period of monarchy and Parliament was not created yet. However,the backdrop of religious sentiment is evident in the terminology of our episodic choice of government office holders.

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The Public Atmospherics of Health

Here is a very timely message from the pen of Hans Urs von Balthasar, written decades before the current crisis in the Catholic Church:

“The bold venture of speaking openly concerns everything that must urgently be said in Church and State in order to restore the public atmosphere to health, as an aid for the wavering in spirit and for those who have been terrorized, disgusted, and desiccated by the silencing and repressing of the truth. It must be said without pathos or bitterness, without the will to wound or to take a secret revenge, without servile grumbling or supercilious gloating. Rather, it must be that specifically Christian way of speaking that is close to sacramental confession in its gravity and to a physician’s advice in its objectivity and that finds its clean tone in the at once modest and proud competence of the baptized person who makes his home in the Church and there enjoys the full rights of citizenship.”

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