A Theater of Envy – René Girard & The Bard of Avon: an Albertus Magnus Institute podcast

It is always encouraging to find others who are working to make the work of René Girard better known. Of course, sometimes the initial excitement is dimmed by finding the approach to and interpretation of mimetic theory reflects the common secular allergic response to Girard’s privileging of the Christian Gospel and the Hebrew scriptures as vectors of revelation. In this case, thankfully, we find a refreshingly open ended dialogue between the Albertus Magnus Institute’s executive director, John Johnson, and Dr. Patrick Downey. Both teach at St. Mary’s College in California. Professor Downey is currently leading a course on René Girard’s 1991 book, A Theater of Envy through the Albertus Magnus Institute. Perhaps the quality of the discourse is due to the three beers consumed in the course of their discussion, but in any case, I recommend this hour of exploration into one of Girard’s most accessible books to visitors to the Cornerstone Forum’s website. Enjoy!

Three Beers: René Girard’s A Theater of Envy

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In memorium:

As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 news outlets, internet pundits, and all manner of social media will likely be filled with retrospectives from every conceivable angle telling us the significance of the events of that day as well as those 7,300 plus days since. Recently, the withdrawal of US and allied forces and the resulting fall of the corrupt government of Afghanistan to the Taliban seems to have brought these past two decades full circle, absent Osama Bin Laden and the tens of thousands of others, combatants and civilians, who have died in the wars that followed 9/11/2001. The rippling waves of suffering emanating from that day have touched many more than those who have died. Maimed in body and soul, these living carry the scars from unimaginable violence. The car bombing of a girl’s high school in Kabul only a few months ago killing at least 50 and wounding over a 100 or the suicide bombing of those recently attempting to escape Kabul during the US withdrawal, killing over a hundred including 13 American service members, is emblematic of such indiscriminate bloodshed. The reader may know of someone who died or was injured in the attacks of 9/11 or in the wars that followed. The initial shock, anger, and sadness when learning the news attenuates over time but leaves the scar of loss in the empty spaces where the lives lost once lived. To that place of mourning our thoughts readily return when the calendar inexorably makes its annual visit to the date marking the anniversary.

In the intervening years the phrase “the world has changed” has gained ever new, and more apocalyptic meaning. Certainly, we knew of ‘climate change’ before 9/11 but the increasing urgency and shrill warnings from all levels of academia and society have made the monitoring of every change in the weather something more than a topic exchanged as a pleasantry between neighbors. The technological revolution of personal computers and the internet had already begun before the current millennium. Yet the iPhone would not be introduced until 2007. And with the coming of the smart phone followed the now indispensable ‘apps’ that allow us, upon checking the requisite box (where we give up our personal information), to navigate both real world roadways and the virtual/digital world overseen by increasingly pervasive and authoritarian social media titans. And then there is the Covid-19 pandemic which has pulled the rug out from under every aspect of life amid lock downs, social distancing, mask mandates, and quarantines. The ever-changing virus having wrought worldwide sickness and death seems only intermittently and reluctantly to be curbed by medical and social strategies developed to halt its spread.

Amidst this changed world the violence common among the varied Islamist terrorist groups that perpetrated the attacks of 9/11 has spread like a virus around the globe. In the epilogue of René Girard’s last book, Battling to the End, there is a discussion of this new situation:

Today’s terrorism is new, even from an Islamic point of view. It is a modern effort to counter the most powerful and refined tool of the Western world: technology. It counters technology in a way that we do not understand, and that classical Islam may not understand either…For us, it makes no sense to be ready to pay with one’s life for the pleasure of seeing the other die.

The head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nassrallah, has been quoted as repeating a theme used by Islamic jihadists since the 7th century, “We will win because we love death as much as you love life.” The outworking of this death cult is seen not only in the 9/11 attacks but in, suicide bombings, Gazan rocket launchings from the roofs of schools and hospitals, and children used as human shields by Boko Haram.

It was Girard’s mimetic theory which first described how the potentially catastrophic intraspecific violence of early hominid groups, no longer ruled by instinctive dominance and submission patterns, became the source of the all-against-one scapegoating mechanism. And this, he theorized, eventually led to an inchoate image of the scapegoat victim as a powerful bringer of peace to the community through the victim’s sacrificial death, and thus the origin of primitive sacrificial religion. While none of this was a conscious development, it did follow what might be called a natural path. For creatures who, made in the image of their creator, forsaking their creator’s only injunction claimed autonomy for themselves and became resentful of all authority. These early human groups and societies experienced the blessings of a peace that would be renewed with episodic spasms of sanctioned sacrificial violence that proved efficient and economical – “It is better that one die, than the whole people be destroyed”. However, Girard recognized that with the advent of the Hebrew prophets and the revelation of the innocence of these victims witnessed in the Passion of Christ, the reconciling effects of scapegoating violence was being undermined. Now, through the globalized exposure to the West’s Gospel induced empathy for victims our world is losing the benefit of the community restoring powers of sacrificial violence.

Today the resentments and animosities that build up within societies are vented in increasingly random episodes of mob violence that never achieve a socially effective catharsis. Currently only totalitarian surveillance states seem to have a handle on suppressing this random violence by means of the more covert and insidious violence of mass manipulation and coercive social control strategies. In the economically advanced democratic/free-market/therapeutic West, when we’re not attempting to scapegoat our social/political rivals, we seem to be trying our best to either medicate our anxieties or amuse ourselves with virtual reality games and entertainments that are often hyper-violent themselves.

As we relax on this Labor Day weekend ahead of the 9/11 anniversary while gazing at the scrolling screens of our smart phones or zoned out with the latest legalized recreational substance the many tens of thousands of abandoned military weapons left on the ground in Afghanistan will be made available to jihadist terrorists around the world. The coming days, months, and years will no doubt see these lethal devices photographed in the hands of mujahideen as they spread mass mayhem where opportunity avails. In a kind of homage to the ‘defund the police’ mantra of our own 2020 summer of violence the president has declared that the US will no longer be the world’s police force. We are told, and it was true, that the US war in Afghanistan was not a ‘popular’ war. (What a romantic notion that phrase reflects, ‘popular’ war.) So, now, having been chased out of Afghanistan, are we no longer ‘at war’?

Our terrorist adversaries, who love death more than we love life, know we will do anything to not be responsible for the death of innocent victims even as they multiply the body count with every new atrocity. In a 2008 essay in Harvard Law Today, Professor Alan Dershowitz quotes former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir regarding Palestinian terrorists, “We can perhaps someday forgive you for killing our children, but we cannot forgive you for making us kill your children.”

We seem to be coming to the end of a race between the effects of the Gospel and message of the Gospel. For over two thousand years the Gospel has been undermining our species’ ability to come together around the dead bodies of our immolated scapegoats with awe and wonder as we enjoy the peace and camaraderie produced by our deep collective desire for the victim’s elimination. Perhaps because we have become inured to the Gospel’s message, it’s offer of forgiveness of sin upon the recognition of who Jesus Christ is – like the thief on the cross – has so far not produced a vibrant culture of self-sacrifice needed to avoid an apocalyptic ending. The conversion that leads to repentance and transformed lives does not happen overnight. It is the work of lifetimes that must be passed on from generation to generation in the traditions and cultures that honor and nourish the source of salvation with works of self-sacrifice; lives now made supple to the Gospel’s law of love. If we do not strive to live by the commandments to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as our self, it may not be possible to live peaceably in this world at all.

The images of that day when terrorists flew loaded commercial passenger planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the heart of New York City, and into the Pentagon, and into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, is seared into our collective memories. As we pray for the souls of those killed and healing for those maimed, we should also remember to pray for ourselves, our families, and our communities that the violence which continues to inflict death and suffering in the name of Islamist jihad not be the last word in a story of vengeance. Jesus Christ will be the last Word as He is the first Word.

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Coda to Report from the machines…”please hold for the next available customer support representative”

Gil Bailie and I had a short conversation this afternoon with an AI ‘customer support’ assistant developed by our cell phone company to handle most of the mundane chores answering customer’s questions and facilitating simple account matters. In the days before this AI interaction I considered that the easiest way (and my preferred way) to handle the transaction we were contemplating was to go to a physical office of the company, of which there is at least one in every town it seems, and speak with a human being. So, I went to the very office where some years ago we initially opened our cell phone service. However, I was surprised to be told that the store was not authorized to make such account changes and that I would have to call the company’s support line on my cell phone. This is what Gil and I did today and I must say the conversation was a bit surreal. After telling the voice call auto-attendant what we wanted to do, we were told that our call was being transferred to an ‘account expert’. The machine asked a few questions in written text on the screen of the phone to clarify our inquiry and within 10 minutes what needed to be done was done. It is likely that this one program can handle many thousands of calls at the same time and never get tired or need a break. And there was virtually no wait time ‘for the next available customer support’ person.

In the auto industry over the past fifty years hundreds of thousands of good paying US blue collar jobs have been replaced by automation. Artificial Intelligence is now doing the same thing in the service sector to not so good paying jobs. I certainly appreciate the advances in quality, safety, and reliability of automobiles over the past decades. And today I felt a little relief that the anticipated hour long ordeal of getting a simple change to our account was handled so quickly and efficiently. No doubt many of those who used to work in the raucous customer support call centers may also be glad to be out that job. But what do they do now? Here we may get a glimpse of one of the underlying factors contributing to our current societal instability. Whose job will be replaced by a machine next?

Today’s phone call with an AI did not pass my ‘Turing Test’. I knew after the first question I was dealing with a machine. In previous support calls with other service providers when my concerns were at last understood and handled with some modicum of competence, at the end of the call I could say ‘thank you’. Today…how do I thank the programmers?

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A Report from among the machines

Colloquium on Violence & Religion 2021: For over thirty years the Colloquium on Violence & Religion has held a summer conference to allow members to share their research into aspects of René Girard’s mimetic theory. Gil Bailie is one of the founding members of the COV&R organization and has for many years participated in the annual meetings by presenting a perspective on the conference’s theme. (See Christian Virtues Gone Mad – COV&R 2009). Last year the conference was postponed due to the pandemic and was reconvened this year. Also due to the pandemic, the conference was held remotely last week from Purdue University with participants around the world meeting via Zoom. The theme was ‘Desiring Machines: Robots, Memesis, and Violence in the Age of Artificial Intelligence’. Because of Gil’s efforts to bring his manuscript into the bounds of a prospective publisher’s expectations he was unable to join in the various online talks and discussions. I, however, was able to listen to a number of the presentations and was encouraged to hear some of the speakers make reference to their Christian faith in their talks. A couple of them even mentioned how the study of Girard’s works led them to a new or renewed faith.

It was noted that among the participants there was a split between those who actually worked in the field of artificial intelligence (science/technology) and those whose academic focus was in the humanities (literature/philosophy/anthropology). The former tended to have a more positive view of what AI has already accomplished as well as its potential to help humans flourish, while still quite aware of how it has been, and could be, used in ways to harm us. On the other hand, those who worked in the humanities tended to stress the dark side of AI, where its algorithms are used to manipulate us. To mitigate the nefarious uses to which it could be used, it was suggested by one speaker that AI be taught the ‘Golden Rule’.

Ahead of the meeting I was afraid that there would be more voices enthusing over the prospect of a future where AI machines become self-conscious autonomous beings indistinguishable from humans, and biological humans would be able to transmute themselves into silicon-based life forms. Both the scientist/technologists and the humanists, however, agreed that this was not even remotely possible in any world we now know of. This is not to say that simulacra are impossible, only that they would not have souls.

One presenter did offer the prospect of AI machines becoming sufficiently intelligent to understand their own contingent nature as well as that of their creator (humans) to become convinced of the existence of a transcendent being (God) and thus to desire to serve (worship) that god (pace Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God). He is anxiously awaiting calls from Netflix and Amazon for the rights to produce entertaining scenarios from this idea.

Gil’s Manuscript update: As was noted above, Gil continues to work on his writing project, The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self. Negotiations with a possible publisher continue. We will let you know when a tentative publication date is available.

Catholic Classical Schools and Summer Conferences: This summer I along with a couple of Cornerstone Forum board members will be attending conferences sponsored by the Circe Institute and the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. Both entities work to train and support Christian classical educators. Our board members who will be with me have experience in this field and will assist in making contacts with educators and evaluating how best the Forum’s work might be incorporated into materials for use in these schools.

In trying to discern what direction our work might take in the future we hope that our efforts to make Gil Bailie’s and René Girard’s work available to audiences through our website and podcasts will remain. However, given the recent vicissitudes of online platforms one never knows when or if the winds of social change may sweep away ‘counter-cultural’ communication along with other quaint expressions of First Amendment Rights. We might learn from the experience of the Hebrew prophets who in times not favorable to their message placed their words in the hearts of their disciples (students) where it blossomed in the lives of subsequent generations. Parenthetically, we will send to our donors complementary MP3s/CDs of Gil’s Reflections on the Hebrew Prophets from August to October.

Message in a bottle – I recall that Gil, in days past, would refer to the cassette tapes and CDs we produced as akin to ‘messages in a bottle’ that would float about on the currents of human interactions perhaps landing on the doorstep of those who might need spiritual encouragement or anthropological understanding in difficult days. We were unaware in those ‘days past’ just how ephemeral was the media we cast on the waters. As cassette tapes are now museum items and CDs continue to lose ground to streaming audio services a literal message written on paper and placed in a glass bottle with a cork would have been more enduring.

In the wake of the pandemic, we hope and pray that the personal suffering and societal devastation wrought by Covid will begin to recede. And that over these summer days we will find times for solace and re-creation among friends, family, and especially in a return to in-person embodied participation in the sacramental life of the Church. As always, we remain grateful for your interest, prayers, and support.  

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New in our store: Reflections on the Bible: From Slavery to Freedom

Reading the Bible is like looking out of a window and seeing a crowd out in the street shading their eyes and gazing with intense interest at something that we can’t see because of the roof of the building from which we’re peering out.  They gesture and they point and they speak in a language we can’t decipher.  They are very excited about something.  Something is happening or is about to happen, but what is it?    – Karl Barth

This four part series available in both CD and MP3 formats takes the listener through an often imaginative overview of some of the most significant biblical stories. Using aspects of René Girard’s mimetic theory as an interpretive lens through which to see the dynamics of the stories in both anthropological and theological perspectives.

Listen to an excerpt:

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Violence & the Sacred Episode 9: Interview with René Girard 1997

This is an interview Gil Bailie made with René Girard recorded in Los Angeles in 1997.

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Keeping Faith & Breaking Ground Episode 16: Reflections on Flannery O’Connor’s Short Story “Revelation”

Gil Bailie’s Reflections on Flannery O’Connor’s short story Revelation. Recorded in Sonoma, California in 1990.

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Democracy Devoid of the Sacred

The desacralizing effect of the Jewish and Christian revelation which René Girard so masterfully explicated is not to be confused with an ideological agenda which enshrines in the place of meaningful moral and political norms saccharine bromides — tolerance and inclusion — designed to detach political rights from moral responsibilities. The distinguished Italian philosopher Agusto Del Noce understood this.

“In the Western world we have reached a ‘democracy devoid of the sacred.’ Some will reply, resorting to a standard rhetorical device, that this is precisely the [meaning of] progress. This kind of democracy marks the transition to an ‘open society,’ which accepts and respects all forms of thought and enables religion to become purer by separating politics from religion, and so on. In actuality, this democracy ‘devoid of the sacred’ coincides with absolute atheism. But is this new atheism a new foundation of values, or does it mark the impossibility of speaking in terms of values?” 

Agusto Del Noce, 1970
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Website Update: Podcasts & Streaming Media now online…Hurray!

The recent troubles with our streaming media and podcasts are resolved. We have moved our web hosting service to a new company and we’ve received excellent support for the transition. There will no doubt be a few remaining glitches that I would appreciate being informed of if anyone visiting our site discovers something that does not work as it should. Please use the ‘Contact Us’ link to let us know.

We will also be taking time to do some website renovations, especially in the store. It has been six years since our current website and store was constructed. There have been significant improvements made available for sites such as ours and we are looking at taking advantage of these.

Thank you for your patience and understanding as we attempt to make our work more accessible and our website less user grumpy.

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Update: Website Streaming Media & Podcasts Not Working…sigh

We were informed today of the death of Brian Carpenter, the owner/manager of the small webhosting company from which our website and podcasts are made available. This explains the lapse in tech support we experienced with our recent streaming media problems. Brian had always been our ‘go to’ tech support guy when problems arose, and was unfailingly prompt and helpful. I already miss him.

Six years ago we were seeking an alternative to the corporate webhosting company we had been using for some time. We had discovered that they were soliciting pornographers as clients. It is well known that porn is one of the most lucrative and active parts of the internet, so being on the look out for corporate profits, it is understandable that this is an area they would want to exploit. Gil and I, however, felt that this company was not one we or our donors would want to be supporting.

I found Brian’s company stated up front on their website that they would not host any ‘adult content’ on their servers. When I spoke to him about this in our first conversation he asked why this was important to us. I explained the nature of our apostolate and he replied that as Christians we should try to reflect our beliefs and values in our business dealings just as we do in all other areas of life. He said he was a Sunday School teacher himself. We have been pleased to be his clients for these past six years.

What happens next is unclear at present. There has been some suggestion that the company will be sold to another webhosting service. In any event, we will attempt to find a similar hosting service that we are proud to be part of (if possible). It may be another week before our streaming media and podcasts are back in operation. Thank you for your understanding and patience. And please say a prayer for the repose of the soul of Brian Carpenter.

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