A Coda on COV&R in Innsbruck (present and past…)

University of Innsbruck

Bleary eyed after 24 hours of travel from Austria to San Francisco the accumulated work of two weeks away from the Cornerstone Forum office awaits me. Before I dig into the pile of paper, emails, and related chores I would like to reflect on the conference that ended last week and on a prior COV&R conference from sixteen years ago, also held at Innsbruck.

The theme of this year’s meeting, “Imagining the Other: Theo-Political Challenges in an Age of Migration”  highlighted the on going issues facing many countries in Europe and the Americas where large numbers of people from the middle-East, Africa, and also Mexico, Central and South America are moving. There were at least 56 individual presentations including plenary and break-out sessions at this year’s conference. Emphasis on the scapegoating behaviors of some of the countries receiving large numbers of immigrants was prominent in the presentations, as would be expected in a Girardian setting such as this. Also in evidence was a propensity to ‘scapegoat the scapegoaters’ or in at least one instance to make the purported scapegoating behavior appear other than it was in fact, as when in a presentation the 2009 conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) poster of the Swiss flag covered in menacing bayonet like minarets was said to be an example of the Islamophobic scapegoating of immigrants, when in fact it was a faithful representation of Turkey’s president Erdogan’s perspective in 1997, where he quotes an early 20th century Turkish nationalist, saying, “The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our army.” It was therefore reasonable that some within Switzerland felt threatened by the growing presence of mosques in their towns. When this was pointed out to the presenter there was just silence…no explanation, apology for the oversight or appreciation for the correction.

Stams Cathedral

One of the ironies of viewing any concerns about the influence of Islamic immigrants as scapegoating came during the final event of the conference at the magnificent (if overwhelming, to me at least) baroque Stams Stiftsbasilikia where we attended a wonderful and inspiring concert by the Regensberger Domspatzen. It was at this place in 1497 that representatives of the Ottoman Turks signed a peace treaty with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. In the museum at the site this historic event and its consequences was described for visitors, concluding with this:

A lasting peace with the Ottoman Empire was not for long, as the later events (Battle of Mohacs 1526 and the first Siege of Vienna 1529) after the death of Maximilian showed.

The truth of any current or historic situation is complex. Any one observer will surely miss some aspects of the event. Mimetic Theory, as the name implies, understands mimetic desire as the source of conflicts resolved in scapegoating mechanisms. It is a tool enabling us to understand human actions, especially in the collective, describing the myths, rituals, and prohibitions that come out of the conflicts and violence inherent in our species and which help mitigate their destructive effects in the form of religion. And as a tool it is only useful if it ‘works’, if it helps us understand reality,…if it is true.

Below is a poem by Richard Wilbur that deals with our epistemic challenge, or how we often run into difficulties when reality does not conform to our beliefs…and following that a report Gil Bailie gave on the COV&R conference in 2003 also held at Innsbruck, including recorded remarks by René Girard on the importance of truth.


Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

We milk the cow of the world, and as we do
We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.’

by Richard Wilbur

An introduction by Gil Bailie: June 22, 2003, Innsbruck, Austria:

I am writing from Innsbruck, Austria where the Colloquium on Violence and Religion has just concluded its 2003 annual conference. The conference was a rich one, with more than 70 papers delivered. The discussions both formal and informal were wonderful. It was only at the very end of the conference that an issue arose that seems to arise everywhere these days where serious attention is paid to the Gospel and its cultural consequences. In so many places today, pluralism is besieged by people who ardently feel they are defending pluralism. In fact, pluralism is being redefined as the value to which all other values must defer. But in the topsy-turvy world of postmodern thinking, it is precisely postmodernity’s supreme principle of pluralism which cannot be exported to other cultures without violating the multicultural premises upon which it is currently based.

One needs to be reminded that pluralism is not a “truth,” rather it is the social arrangement most suitable to the charitable quest for truth. When and where a doctrinal pluralism censures that quest, it becomes — like so many other late-modern and post-modern “good intentions” — a parody of itself. I say this, all too quickly no doubt (I am pressed for time in these last few hours in Austria), in order to introduce a few remarks that René Girard made at a panel discussion at the end of our conference. I am putting a streaming audio player of the recording below where you can listen to René’s remarks, as well as a transcription.

One of the panelists expressed discomfort with the distinction Girard has always made between “myth” and “revelation,” suggesting that by privileging “truth” Girard and Christians generally set up a conflict with those who might not affirm that truth, thereby contributing to the very violence which they purport to be resisting. René’s interlocutor said that “The message of the market has become the market of the messages,” implying that the free flow of this information-age exchange would be jeopardized by attempts to privilege any one message the way Christians privilege the Gospel and insist on its universality and uniqueness, and the way Girard privileges the mimetic theory as both the product of the Gospel revelation and, in turn, its best anthropological explicator.
René responded with remarks that lasted slightly over four minutes. The recording I was able to get of his response is not of the very highest quality, but I think you will find its mediocre audio quality a small price to pay for the profound but perfectly simple and obvious truth to which he calls our attention.

René Girard:

“You know I find this debate very interesting on a certain level, but unconnected at all with the mimetic theory at other levels To put, in a way, all these messages more or less on the same level without asking the question of truth and falsity is the basis of our entire culture today. So, there the mimetic theory is totally misunderstood in the sense that the mimetic theory is entirely about the question of truth or falsity. Therefore, it has to disregard, in a certain way, the question of whether it’s going to cause controversy or not. I think one has to take a scapegoat example which would be modern enough to still be meaningful to us in terms of being for or even against injustice, and in those cases I always take the Dreyfus case.

“In the Dreyfus case you can see that the anti-Dreyfus theory which triumphed in France for years supported by the government and so forth was a perfect myth in the sense that there was a victim who everybody thought was guilty and who in reality was innocent. The first people who said that this victim was innocent suffered for it in the same sense we might say that the prophets suffered for the truth, Christ suffered for the truth. In the Dreyfus vision of mythology is the exact counterpart of the anti-Dreyfus…they resemble each other extremely. But there is one little difference the importance of which we don’t see in the case of religion and we see very well in the case of Dreyfus. Was the victim really innocent? Did he deserve to be punished or not? The only question is that. Oedipus is supposed to be guilty… this is a myth. Judaism and Christianity always call myths lies and they are right! And Judaism and Christianity say that the opposite, the vindication of the victim, is true, period. Nothing else matters. And that’s all. See what I mean? If you get away from that you’re off course. We are all trying to get along on avoiding the question of truth, and in a way it is very understandable and it’s still the philosophical way. We should avoid talking about religious violence; you know– the Platonic way. We are all for it because our instinct tells us, in a way, it is the only way you can have peace today. But I think at the same time it’s false in the sense that the account of the passion, if you read it, is exactly the truth of these myths which these myths do not give you. I think there is one man who understood this Christological sense, paradoxical, of the Dreyfus case and his name is Charles Peguy and he saw it as a Christological affair, which is very mysterious to a lot of people ? ‘vindication of that Jew’ and so on ‘should we be anti-Semitic?’, ‘we’d be better Christians‘ and so forth….no, only the truth counts. This is it.

“Either the mimetic theory has nothing to do with what I have just said, in that case its pure bunk, and has no interest whatever, or it has something to do with it. And of course, I think it has a lot to do with it, that it is really the same thing.”

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A California Yankee in Innsbruck

The Colloquium on Violence and Religion’s 2019 conference is winding up what seems to have recently become its annual attempt to distance itself from René Girard’s Christian and Catholic sensibilities.

That this is done in the name of Girard’s understanding of the role of scapegoating violence in the human cultural enterprise is not surprising as most of the participants come from academic institutions where the heritage of the (Judeo-Christian) West with its colonialist past of enslaving and expropriating peoples and lands of the non-western world is not just studied but recounted as a kind of mantra in an effort to inoculate themselves against what they perceive as the pernicious hegemonic influences that have produced the horrors of the current western world’s incipient fascist immigrant fearing climate change deniers.

I am grateful for the important work scholars here have done in documenting the suffering of those caught up in the upheavals of violence and starvation that have in recent years precipitated some of the massive movements of peoples from their native lands to the comparative safety and abundance of Europe and America. The desire to alleviate such suffering is not the exclusive purview of Christians, but it is certainly one of the duties of every Christian who wants to follow Christ. I only pray that those who feel free to make use of Girard’s mimetic hypothesis to explicate the perversity of our human propensity to find someone to blame for our problems would appreciate, as Girard did, how our relationship to the cross of Christ is the lens through which, in the West, we perceive the suffering we see around us.

I have been greatly encouraged by young scholars I’ve met here whose faith has informed their study of Girard’s mimetic theory. Their work deserves our support and prayers as they will become, with God’s help, the impetus to heal and strengthen the Church as she travels its penitential and purgatorial path through our world and into the future where only one thing is certain…there will be suffering.

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Found on a wall in the village of Ein Karem

the village of Ein Karem

During my visit to Israel, ahead of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion conference in Austria, I spent two days as the guest of the Sisters of the Rosary in the village of Ein Karem. This is the place traditionally associated with the ‘hill country of Judea’ to which the the Virgin Mary went in haste after her interview with the angel Gabriel (Luke1:39) where she learned of her own and her relative Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy. Here it was then that the two pregnant women, one old, one young, met carrying in their own bodies the infant bodies of John the Baptist and Jesus. So much of my daily prayer life began in these environs, the Magnificat and the Canticle of Zechariah.

While exploring the area I found this poem posted on an exterior wall in an alley way written in Hebrew and English.

Sometimes to reach heaven above
You have to descend
And the valley spread before you
Shall appear as an ancient wonder
From the book of Genesis.
The grass and the colorful flowers
Will seem to you as holy letters
In the handwriting of God
While the wind will guide your heart to the words
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”.
And a young Yemenite shepherd girl
With seven white goat kids dancing around her
Decorate each biblical verse
With dark eyes, golden flute and curls..

by Shoshana Bakarsi

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Patriotism or Hatriotism

In commemoration of America’s celebration of Independence Day Gil Bailie posted a link on the Cornerstone Forum’s Facebook page to a book review written by Tim Rice of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay. I haven’t read the book, which Rice describes as a more thoughtful and fair alternative American history text than what most secondary school students are offered these days. Howard Zinn’s victimology of american self-loathing being one example. However, I have read Walter McDougall’s Freedom Just Around The Corner, which is not a text book overview of American history to 1828 but a Bailie-esque reflection on the people and events that led to the American founding until the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (who both died on July 4th, 1826). It is Bailie-like in that McDougall begins his reflections with a review of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, which I’ve also read, and makes reference to Melville’s novel throughout his work, the title of which is taken from a Bob Dylan lyric in his song Jokerman

I think of all this as I am now visiting friends in Jerusalem. On the 4th of July we attended a ‘festival of light’ in the Old City, a rather strange laser and special effects laden display on the ancient walls attended by many thousands of the denizens of the Holy City and its surrounds. The vibrant energy of the crowd reflected all the various ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and age groups from the Arab security guards checking the attendee’s bags for bombs (my Israeli host pointed out to me the paradox of this) to tattooed youth and Haredi families pushing infant laden strollers. I thought the closest thing to this in America might be New Year’s Eve in Times Square – but this was a warm evening with street buskers and food vendors everywhere.

A relative texted me a question, “How does it feel to be an American on the 4th of July in Israel?” I must say I feel very much at home here in the only democracy in the area. Israel is not without many of the same pathologies of democracy as my home country but the cultural roots that bind the soil to its inhabitants run much deeper here in ways difficult to describe. Freedom…real freedom, and its blessings may always be ‘just around the corner’.

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An intimate conversation

Edith Stein – Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross

The brilliant philosopher, Edith Stein, found Catholicism to be – not the alternative to her Judaism, but its fulfillment. It is conceivable that the genesis of that conversion occurred quite by accident (or was it providence) when she happened to stroll into the Frankfurt Cathedral. There she saw a woman with a shopping basket kneeling for a brief prayer. She later wrote: “This was something totally new to me. In the synagogues and Protestant churches I had visited, people simply went to the services. Here, however, I saw someone coming straight from the busy marketplace into this empty church, as if she was going to have an intimate conversation. It was something I never forgot.”

Perhaps in this time when the Church is being shaken from top to bottom, we her faithful might follow the example of the nameless and humble woman who helped bring the great philosopher to Christ without ever realizing that she had done so.

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The Longing…

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis:

The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country … the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.


Why does it feel like going back? Why does the longing feel like a vague memory? Perhaps the answer can be found in something that the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar regarded as the biographical foundation for a child’s subsequent sacramental experience: the effect on the newborn infant of his mother’s smile. In Balthasar’s view that moment is pivotal, as are its many repetitions in the early stages of an infant’s life. By Balthasar’s account, the mother’s smile gives the child her first experience of the goodness of existence, and it is the origin of her subsequent longing to retain or regain access to the “place where all the beauty came from.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar:

The little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother. … everything – “I” and “Thou” and the world – is lit up from this lightening flash of the origin with a ray so brilliant and whole that it also includes a disclosure of God. … This awareness is joined to the primal experience that one has arrived at participation in the world-fellowship of beings by means of a summons coming from outside one’s own “I”. It is not through the perfection of one’s own power that one has entered this fellowship.

The mother’s smile carries ontological weight. With it the child enters a world loved and affirmed at the deepest and most ineradicable level. Without it, the most promising mitigating efforts notwithstanding, the child’s ontological circumstances are impaired.

The father’s responsibility is threefold: First, his obligation to both the child and the mother is to foster and safeguard an ordered and peaceful domestic environment, one in which the love and promise awakened in the child by the mother’s smile can grow into an enduring predicate for the child’s life. Beyond the task of preserving and protecting the home from whatever forces antithetical to its spiritual tranquility might threaten, it falls to the parents, and traditionally at least to the father of the family, to influence to the degree possible the larger social and cultural environments, with a determination equal to the proximity and spiritual efficacy of these influences. No less important is the need to provide children with a link to their cultural, religious, and family history, their spiritual patrimony. There is nothing inherently either masculine or feminine about this task, save for the danger of turning attention to political and social matters at the expense of those features of the domestic environment that will have greater and more enduring consequences in the lives of the young. On the other hand, the fact that we use the word patrimony for the spiritual treasures received from prior generations should not be dismissed as a vestige of gender inequality.


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Now CDs come with free MP3s

The Cornerstone Forum webstore is now adopting the ‘industry standard’ for online sales of audio materials. All sales of CDs will come with free downloadable MP3  audio files. When a customer completes an order for any CD material from our webstore they will receive an email receipt containing a link to a downloadable MP3 version of the same material.

Not only that – we are making our offer retroactive – anyone who has purchased CDs from our webstore in the past may receive links to downloadable MP3 files of the materials they have purchased. Just contact me at forum@cornerstone-forum.org and request the MP3 version of the CD(s) you purchased and I will email you the link(s).

In the coming months we will be adding more items from Gil Bailie’s Audio Archives to our webstore including Reflections on TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, The Hollow Men, Ash-Wednesday, Murder in the Cathedral, and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. We will also be adding more audio-book titles to Audible and other audio-book vendors.

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Paul Evdokimov

Paul Evdokimov

“Sooner or later, all nihilism destroys itself from within with the frightening question, ‘What for?’ And sexual nihilism with, ‘And then?’ The insane and the maniacs are multiplying; how distressing it is to accept their vision as the norm because of their sheer number. The uniform banality causes even Eros to yawn with boredom.”

– Paul Evdokimov

Benedict XVI

“In the so-necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: to live a faith that comes from the Logos, from creative reason, which, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.”

– Benedict XVI

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Suffering: A New Situation

I gave a short talk at the Good Friday service at my parish on the question of vicarious suffering. I spoke from notes, but I began with this:

In the David Mamet film Heist, the dubious character played by Danny DeVito says: “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.”

We might turn that around and say that nobody wants to suffer; that’s why they call it suffering.

We humans have always suspected that suffering has some uncanny meaning. Many pagans thought it was the work of evil witchdoctors. Until the story of Job called that belief into question, Jews thought suffering was punishment for sin. As the Old Testament began to prepare itself for the New Testament, the Suffering Servant Songs in Second Isaiah introduced the idea of vicarious suffering: one person’s suffering mysteriously became a blessing for others. The prophet shocked his people by announcing that: by his wounds we were healed. 

And finally, as Pope John Paul II said in his 1984 Apostolic Letter on suffering, “with the Passion of Christ all human suffering has found itself in a new situation.”

Occasionally, one catches a glimpse of that new situation. I will mention two occasions when I did.

. . . (I then spoke of an old friend who died in the 1980s and my wife, Liz, who died in 2007, each finding great consolation in offering their suffering for others.)

For Frank and for Liz, suffering was a participation in the Cross of Christ, a sharing in the drama of salvation. Each saw the suffering they experienced as efficacious in the lives of others – whether known or unknown to them.

Hans Urs von Balthasar insisted that to be a Catholic is to know that somewhere someone unknown to me is suffering on my behalf.

Our lives are interwoven into an unimaginable system of exchange, connecting us with others across the expanse of time and space, and within that matrix suffering and grace, sin and redemption, isolation and intimacy become indistinguishable. And the great switchboard where that exchange is forever taking place – the Grand Central Station in that mystery of grief and grace – is the Cross of Christ. And at every Mass we are invited to make that place our true home. For as Paul says in 1 Corinthians:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor 10:16-17)

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Why did it take the resurrection to save us?

Listen to the streaming audio recording of Gil Bailie’s Emmaus Road Initiative presentation given at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in 2009.

Without the bodily Resurrection of Christ, Christianity would not exist, and where this article of faith is diminished – by condescendingly referring, for instance, to Resurrection “experiences” – faith itself slowly dissolves or degenerates into some form of Gnosticism. The antidote to this and the key to rediscovering the gigantic meaning of the Resurrection is to recognize its Trinitarian backdrop, and for that in this session of the E.R.I. we will turn to the Holy Saturday theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.


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