From the Cornerstone Forum President, Gil Bailie:
I am writing you on behalf of my friend and colleague, Randy Coleman-Riese and the members of the Cornerstone Forum board of directors, to express our appreciation for your support and encouragement during these difficult months of the pandemic. Though we are continually adapting to the many changes in our world and our culture, our fundamental mission has remained unchanged. As we expressed this mission almost 20 years ago:
If the present de-Christianization of Western culture is to be resisted and the uniqueness and history-altering meaning of the Christian Gospel proclaimed afresh, we must learn to account for Christian truth in ways that are faithful to Church doctrine, intellectually cogent, morally rigorous, and anthropologically sound. This will require the collaboration between theology and anthropology which Pope Benedict declared to be “the truly most exciting part of Christian faith.”
What has changed, however, is the cultural and historical situation in which this mission is to be carried out. I want to say a word about that. But before I do I want to briefly mention the inquiry that three of our board members undertook this last summer into how we might be helpful to the growing efforts to find alternatives to an educational establishment that is failing to inculcate in our children the moral and academic wherewithal for fulfilling the promise of the human vocation and for assuming the responsibilities required of moral agents in the civic life of our republic.
As you may recall from Randy’s earlier communications, three of our board members – Randy Coleman-Riese, Rico McCahon, and Alex Lessard – attended two conferences this summer, hoping to learn how we might contribute to the growing movement for educational alternatives. The conferences were sponsored by two impressive organizations: “The Center for Independent Research on Classical Education,” and “The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.” We will continue to explore ways to collaborate with others in the effort to restore dignity to our educational institutions, offering what we have learned from René Girard and others about the critical role of good mimetic models in the well-rounded education of the young.
My own efforts on behalf of the Cornerstone mission have been largely limited to my writing projects. My latest manuscript, The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self: Recovering the Christian Mystery of Personhood, is now in the hands of the publisher. If all goes well, it will be published next year. In the months ahead, both the Covid restrictions and added responsibilities here at home will limit my contribution to the Cornerstone Forum mission to additional writing projects and occasional virtual conferences and collaborations via Zoom or Skype, about which more below.
Neither our evangelical nor our educational efforts can neglect the changes occurring in our cultural and civic life. I would like therefore to say a word about the growing cultural confusions that threaten to undermine both the moral and political integrity of our fragile republic. One of the most quoted remarks of the founders of our republic is a trenchant remark by John Adams: “Our Constitution,” Adams insisted, “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This is another way of recognizing what has almost become a cliché today, namely that politics is downstream of culture. A few years ago the historian Glenn Olsen brought Adam’s insight up to date: “Constitutional democracy,” he wrote, “depends on families, churches, and communities, but these are disappearing under the onslaught of mass culture and consumerism … Standards of civility are far gone.” Ten years after the publication of Olsen’s book from which this quotation is taken, evidence of its validity is everywhere to be found.
So much so, that the multiple crises we now face can be overwhelming and perhaps paralyzing. What we need is both a larger historical frame in which to see our particular moment in history as well as a clearer sense of the responsibilities that fall to us to work toward a reawakening of first principles. A generation ago, the sociologist Philip Rieff was urging his readers to awaken to the dangers of what he called a therapeutic interpretation of reality. For all its apparent empathy and what we now call virtue-signaling, Rieff warned: “The therapeutic is an experiment in the permanent subversion of authority as such.” It declares the “classical ideal of the good as that which involves a sacrifice of self” to be nothing more than “a kind of sickness that must be stopped before it infects our children.”
As for the larger panorama in which Rieff’s concerns might be seen, we can turn to René Girard insistence that what he called “the shock of the Revelation” was destined to be the driving force in human history, moving out inexorably from its epicenter on Golgotha to the outlying cultures and subsequent epochs. Commensurate with Girard’s assessment is the observation of the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, namely, that at its deepest level history subsequent to that Revelation would be characterized by “the reciprocal intensification of the Yes and the No to Christ.”
The tragically mistaken idea that the incalculable moral and cultural blessings of Christianity will survive the loss of the faith that spawned these blessings is the predicate for much that happened in the Christian West over the last few hundred years. The cultural and confessional attenuation of Christianity is proving the validity of Christ’s warning: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). For these words were spoken by Christ to his own followers, and they now apply not only to Christians but even to those whose exposure to Christ has been merely cultural, and who may think the civilization shaped by Christian faith will survive the renunciation of that faith. The most salient manifestation of the nothing of which Christ spoke is the nihilism that is ever more clearly becoming the distinguishing characteristic of the post-Christian world.
Again, what Philip Rieff saw much earlier than most is that this nihilism inevitably dissolves into “the hot, romantic yearning to bring down the roof of civilization.” Evidence of just such a yearning is everywhere to be seen. So much now depends on how our children are educated. Those determined to remake the culture came to that conclusion decades ago. They quickly took control of the educational, entertainment, and journalistic institutions that shape the popular imagination. The result is that the command posts of our culture are today openly hostile to the moral and religious traditions on which our civilization was founded.
Perhaps the foremost question facing us today is how to address the barren and toxic nature of contemporary culture. That is the issue I hope to address in my next writing project. As others – including the historians Christopher Dawson and Glenn Olsen – have observed, culture is embodied religion. If this is the case, what kind of religion do we find embodied in the culture of our time? Is it remotely compatible with traditional Christianity? If not, how must Christians respond?
As I said, I will continue to try to meet my responsibilities at the writing desk. Each of the three books I have written began as little more than an intuition. It was in the writing of those books that I slowly discovered what they were really all about. Under the circumstances, I am reluctant to declare at this point, even to my beloved Cornerstone Forum community, where the next writing project will take me. What I can say is that it has its origin in a lecture I gave at the last in-person annual conference of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. The title of my lecture was: “Bells and Whistles: The Technology of Forgetfulness.” That talk drew on a small portion of research which I now hope to expand into a book addressing the cultural challenges we can expect to face in the years ahead. Of course, that seems – to me and to you – to be an impossible task. I fully expect to be humbled at every turn.
These are indeed trying times, and they demand of us moral wisdom, practical action, and perhaps most of all a deeper appreciation of the nature of the current crisis. At the Cornerstone Form we will remain alert to whatever new opportunities may arise to bear witness to the deep truths of our cultural and religious heritage. We are sincerely grateful to those who have supported and encouraged our work over the years, and we continue to rely on your kindness, your suggestions, and your prayers.
From the Executive Director:
Early in my career assisting Gil Bailie in the work of the Cornerstone Forum (née Florilegia Institute) we were contacted by a woman who was the founder and head of a prestigious private school in Washington DC. She invited us to come to her home and discuss how Gil’s work might be made available to a wider audience. She eventually decided to fund the initial iteration of what later became the Emmaus Road Initiative. That multi-year project brought Gil Bailie to a dozen venues across the country and ultimately came to fruition in the publication of God’s Gamble – The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love. In our conversations with her over the subsequent years she expressed apprehension at the societal and academic changes she saw effecting the education of children and adolescents. Often the identification of the underlying causes of this concern were difficult to pinpoint among all the noise and distractions of rapidly evolving technologies and educational theories, but the evidence was obvious – education was in trouble. When our patroness passed away in 2009 a movement known as Classical Liberal Education was already well underway that would begin to address the underlying causes in primary and secondary schools through a return to basic educational principles found in the teaching of grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium) and arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry (the quadrivium).
Needless to say, this approach is no minor adjustment to the current Common Core educational schema but rather a dramatic deviation and rejection of it. Homeschooling Christian families became interested in this alternative to the secular curricula available from the educational establishment. Today there are many rapidly growing Christian classical schools around the country. Over the summer I along with a couple of Cornerstone Forum board members, Rico McCahon and Alex Lessard, attended two conferences of organizations that facilitate and train teachers and administrators of Christian classical schools as well as homeschooling parents. Both Rico and Alex had already had experience with these groups but it was all new to me.
Alex Lessard had originally contacted The Cornerstone Forum when he heard Gil Bailie’s name mentioned in a talk given by a prominent figure in the classical education field in relation to mimetic teaching. Rico, a long time supporter of The Cornerstone Forum, works for a leading publisher of curricular materials for these schools. With their help Gil and I have been learning how our efforts may align with both classical educators and those training them. We look forward in the coming months and years to exploring ways for integrating our efforts into these educational renewal projects.
Schools have recently become another point of contention in the on going remaking of culture where “woke” elites have felt it necessary to overhaul traditional values and standards in order to instantiate the autonomous cosmopolitan gender fluid ‘new person’ in the lives of school children. It looks as if they may have pushed this too far for many parents who during the pandemic lockdowns witnessed some of this propaganda being foisted onto their children. For many parents this is not acceptable. However, with public schools being funded by property taxes and private schools charging tuition it is difficult for financially struggling parents to find alternatives. Charter schools, some of which have undertaken the classical liberal education model, are one option. Many Catholic schools have begun to transition to the classical model as well. But until parents are given the freedom to choose the school they wish to send their children to by means of some kind of voucher system the government run schools will have the advantage of public funding.
One of the vendors at the conferences we attended this summer has produced a short video about the historical setting of public education in America and the alternative perspectives fostered in classical liberal education. We feel even this depiction, lacking as it does a mimetic understanding of personhood, shows where the work we do can help provide a more Catholic and grounded understanding of the goals of education.
Those who follow our episodic weblog may find in the coming months commentaries and essays from both Rico and Alex, and others along with those Gil and I post. We will be keeping those interested in our work updated on our efforts to bring René Girard’s mimetic theory and the insights of Catholic thought to bear on these important topics. But, as we always say, none of this would be possible without the support we receive from our donors and the prayers of all who find value in our efforts. Thank you for all you have allowed us to do so far.