The Science of Facts & The Epistemology of Truth

Benedict XVI

A number of very smart people have made very conspicuous fools of themselves lately by not recognizing a truth expressed with such lapidary economy by Benedict XVI in his marvelous book, Jesus of Nazareth:

The highest truths cannot be forced into the type of empirical evidence that only applies to material reality.

For an extended meditation on this insight, see Leon Kass’ essay in the April 2007 edition of Commentary, “Science, Religion, and the Human Future” . Two of my most trusted friends, Ron Austin and Tom Olp, recommended Dr. Kass’ article to me.  Benedict gets the nod for succinctness, but Leon Kass draws out the implications of the Pope’s remark.

Leon Kass

“The substantive limits of science follow from certain fundamental aspects of scientific knowledge and from science’s assumptions about what sorts of things are scientifically knowable. They stem from science’s own self-proclaimed conceptual limitations — limitations to which neither religious nor philosophical thought is subject. This is not because, science being rational, it is incapable of dealing with the passionate or sub-rational or spiritual or supernatural aspects of being. It is, on the contrary, because the rationality of science is but a partial and highly specialized rationality, concocted for the purpose of gaining only that kind of knowledge for which it was devised, and applied to only those aspects of the world that can be captured by such rationalized notions. The peculiar reason of science is not the natural reason of everyday life captured in ordinary speech, and it is also not the reason of philosophy or religious thought, both of which are tied to—even as they seek to take us beyond — the world as we experience it.”

Or as Hans Urs von Balthasar put it half a century ago:

“To an epoch in which anthropology has been recognized as the key to philosophy, it is self-contradictory to foster an intelligence that approaches things from a merely rationalistic and technical point of view, indeed it completely misunderstands its own being. … In the anthropological period the highest objectivity can be attained only by the highest personal risk of man himself.”

Balthasar comes close to matching Benedict in succinctness when he writes:

A theory of knowledge that resolutely starts from the case that sets the norm of all knowledge, i.e. the meeting between persons, saves itself a good many problems.

(This is an edited version of a post that was originally on in May 2007)

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Some Thoughts on The Common Good, The Catholic Church and The World…

Jean-Luc Marion

“The common good requires that we offer to all what Revelation has given us—and has given us to comprehend. Today, intelligence becomes a duty of charity. It is up to us, to us and to no one else, to transmit the light that we claim to have received—in vessels of clay, yet we really have received it. When a Church dies in a nation, it is never primarily its adversaries’ doing, but that of its members, who lose courage and faith, and thus intelligence.”

“The often antagonistic relation between what the Catholic Church says and the majority opinions of our civil societies does not imply that Catholicism no longer plays any positive role; to the contrary, its contribution lies precisely in the capability it demonstrates of saying the very word that contradicts the predominant opinion head-on and openly, and at the very least renders society the invaluable service of showing that this opinion is not self-evident, that it involves infinitely serious presuppositions and runs the risk of falsification. Even when the world contradicts Catholicism, it still needs it in order to avoid merely proclaiming platitudes. The world might not even become conscious of its innovations and its declines if Catholicism had not been there with enough courage to awaken its bad conscience—for a bad conscience remains still and first of all a conscience. Catholicism can lay claim to such a role, one that is already as remarkable and respectable as many others.”

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Memorial Day

For the past eleven years just prior to the Memorial day weekend, Saint Vincent High School in Petaluma, California has set aside one day to remember one of its graduates who died August 25, 2005, while serving with the US Army Rangers in Iraq. They call this Tim Shea Day.

Timothy Magnus Shea is the son of William and Mary Shea. William Shea has been a close friend of Gil Bailie and the Cornerstone Forum for over 40 years, serving as a trusted advisor and board member. Until recently I worked for William Shea as his legal secretary and witnessed the undercurrents of grief and sorrow mixing with the love, hope, and faith that have sustained him and his family.

I only met Tim once that I recall but have heard many stories retold by his family and friends of his exploits as a youth, adolescent, and young man. ‘Full of life’ is a phrase that comes to mind when I think of Tim. He and his family remain in my prayers this day along with all those whose names I’ll never know whose lives on earth were swallowed in war. God have mercy.

Randy Coleman-Riese



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Message in a bottle….

Ten years ago Gil Bailie spent time reading University of Pennsylvania scholar Philip Rieff’s works with the following results…

To Whom It May Concern:

[To European culture today — while it can still be spoken of in the singular — and to North American culture in the near future]:

From Philip Rieff:

“A multiculture is an anti-culture. … the historical task of a culture is always and everywhere the same: the creation of a world in which its inhabitants may find themselves at home and yet accommodate the stranger without yielding their habitus to him.”

T. S. Eliot’s “where there is no temple, there shall be no homes” finds its perfect echo in Rieff’s “Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing.”

Lest the word “sacred” trigger in my fellow Girardians a needless knee-jerk reaction, what both Eliot and Rieff are saying is simply that all culture is rooted in cult, and that without reference to transcendence made vibrant and materially manifest in the culture, the culture will succumb to the iron law of both human affairs and physics, namely, that nature abhors a vacuum.

So, finally, Philip Rieff: “As teaching agents of sacred order, and inescapably within it, the moral demands we must teach, if we are teachers, are those eternal truths by which all social orders endure.”

(This was originally posted on in May 2007.)

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A Look Back At – Tradition






The word “tradition” and the word “treason” come from the same root.

The very name “modernity” self-consciously used to describe the period of the last several centuries in Western cultural history clearly exemplifies the spirit that has dominated these centuries, and the “postmodernism” that has lately been offered as its sequel — as its name makes obvious — is nothing more than the same spirit, in Shakespeare’s words, having eaten everything else in sight, at last, is eating up itself.

The spirit that animates both these phases of our cultural history is an anti-traditional spirit, rooted in the assumption that liberation from the past is the key to happiness and progress. This “liberationist” spirit has fostered a remarkable degree of economic and political improvements, but it must be said that the most impressive of these are due more to the residual presence of a Judeo-Christian ethos than to the forces that have insisted on its irrelevance.

Slowly but surely, however, the underlying presuppositions of the modern and postmodern eras have led to a loss of cohesion and cultural integrity, resulting in a situation today in the West which is little more than licensed autonomy enforced with increasingly draconian methods, all aimed at neutralizing or penalizing the public presence of traditional religious or moral judgments: what Pope Benedict called “the dictatorship of relativism.”

All of this plays out as the culture war, which, however reluctant one is to enter its lists, can no more be avoided than can other kinds of war. The bumper sticker which reads: Stop the War, for instance, seems to presuppose that this can be done by simply laying down one’s arms. Which, in a way, is true, for it would simply concede the contest to those who have not laid down their arms, thus bringing the war between them to an end. One doesn’t have to be a political philosopher, much less a member of some neo-con cabal, to realize that war ended on those terms might lead to a very unhappy state of affairs.

So … the unavoidability of the culture war. The passions aroused by that war, however, should not blind us to our responsibility to our descendants. I am even tempted to describe the belligerents in today’s culture war as those who are primarily concerned with making the culture more congenial to their own impulses, desires, aptitudes, and preoccupations, on one hand, and, on the other, those primarily concerned with the cultural, moral, and spiritual needs of those who will come after them. I know howls of protest will be forthcoming about that, but I must say this is exactly how it seems to me.

The precise point I want to make is about the very nature of both tradition and culture. Both are received from the distant past, not concocted in the present or in the recent past. That is why we must try to resolve any differences between ourselves, our contemporaries, our ancestors, and our descendants in favor of our ancestors. Paradoxically, that is the only way we can resolve them in favor of our descendants. For what our descendants will most desperately need is an inheritance, a tradition, a moral, religious, and cultural patrimony that has the weight of centuries of affirmation, reflection, scrutiny, and living experience. Anything less ballasted than that will surely be washed away in the cultural tsunamis which are doubtless coming in the decades just ahead.

To hand on to the next generation a culture cobbled together out of the fashions and ideological enthusiasms of the last few decades is to betray them in the most irresponsible way, for such a culture is no culture at all, and it will do them no good. This is why the New Testament warns against the “spirit of this age,” not because of the peculiar toxins at work in the late-first century Greco-Roman culture when the New Testament was being written, but precisely because every age produces its own unique myths and rituals for warding off the truth that Christians are charged with announcing to the world, and Christians are warned to be wary of them, in season and out.

What makes a tradition a living tradition is not that it has been recently updated to conform to the latest fashions, but quite the contrary, that it brings into play longstandng moral and spiritual realities to which the world will forever be hostile and for lack of which it will become mad and murderous. If such a tradition is to remain alive, it will do so, not by customizing itself to the point of being indistinguishable from its surrounding society, but by delving ever deeper into its reservoir of truth and bringing forth fresh new ways of understanding these truths.

We owe our children and our children’s children nothing less.

(This was originally posted on in May 2007)

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Keeping up with the Cornerstone Forum….

We send out a newsletter to our email list 3 or 4 times a year including our annual Fall Appeal. Our Spring 2017 Newsletter is being sent out today. A link to the latest on what is happening at the Cornerstone Forum appears to the right, just click on the image and read all about it!

As an incentive to reading about Gil Bailie’s latest writing project and Randy Coleman-Riese’s changing duties, we are including a coupon for a complimentary downloadable MP3 file of Gil’s Reflections on Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida Part 1. Use the coupon code ‘spring’ when going through check out in our webstore. (For those too busy to read the newsletter the link to the free MP3 audio file is HERE.)

Also included in the newsletter is streaming audio player of a 1996 interview Gil Bailie conducted with René Girard in the mid-1990’s.

Finally, for those who do not currently receive our episodic newsletter and would like to, here is a link to our newsletter signup page.

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In the Garden…

On Holy Thursday in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we commemorate the last Passover meal the disciples shared with Jesus, their Teacher and Master. Afterward, the whole party retired to the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. There, while the disciples slept, Jesus experienced an agony unknown and unknowable to mere men. In 1980 Bob Dylan wrote a song entitled “In the Garden” that begins:

When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
Did they know He was the Son of God, did they know that He was Lord?

In a filmed recording of a live concert performance in the early ’80s Mr. Dylan is heard to introduce this song by asking the Australian audience if they have any heros, suggesting the names of famous Aussies to which the crowd responds. He follows up by saying he doesn’t care much for any of the ones he mentioned, but that he does indeed have a hero and will sing a song about his hero – launching into a rocking version of “In the Garden”.

More recently Mr. Dylan has been exploring the ‘Great American Songbook’ recording songs by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin among others. In a recent interview exploring his long and varied songwriting career Dylan was asked if he thought there were any of his songs that did not receive the attention they deserved. He named two, one of which was “In the Garden”.

The verses of ‘In the Garden’ are comprised of a series of questions, like the one quoted above. Anyone familiar with the Biblical stories from which this song was taken will sense the ambiguity and uncertainty involved in attempting to answer them. Jesus’ foremost disciple, Simon Peter, had in earlier days declared that he knew or believed Jesus to be the Messiah, the son of the Living God. On this night, however, he abandoned his Lord in the garden and denied him three times in the high priest’s courtyard shouting with curses, “I do not know the man!”. We ask ourselves, ‘Did Peter really know Jesus was the Lord?’. I ask this question of myself even I as tap out the words, knowing of my own betrayals.

As we traverse this Triduum recalling the events leading into the Paschal Mystery of Easter Sunday it would be a profitable exercise to reflect on the questions posed ‘In the Garden’.

The final verse ends with the repeated question:

When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
When He rose from the dead, did they believe?

A blessed Easter to all,

Randy Coleman-Riese

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No Father…No Family…No Faith

Some years ago, a friend of mine and I collaborated as part of a Lenten series of presentations at a Catholic parish here in Sonoma, California. One thing that my friend said had a great impact on me and on those to whom we spoke. He described, as I recall, how his father was a formidable sort of man, not one who wore his heart on his sleeve. But each Sunday when the family attended Mass, he would look over and see his father kneeling in prayer, his head in his hands. At those moments my friend said he glimpsed out of the corner of his eye something about his father that left a deep impression on him. He concluded his reverie about his childhood by saying something to this effect: “If I hadn’t seen father kneeling in prayer like that, I’m not sure what would have become of me, but I doubt that I would be standing here before you today bearing witness to my faith.”

I was raised by a single mother, my father having been killed in the closing days of World War II. There were a few father figures whom I managed to glimpse out of the corner of my eye, and I developed a gift for finding surrogate father figures. But it was chiefly from my mother (and my grandmother) that I received my faith. I am ever in their debt for that gift.

In looking back, however, I realize now that in many ways my mother became my father and the Church became my mother – the Church which was at the time so marvelously represented by nuns galore, most of whom were paragons of selfless fidelity. Those were the days – I entered the first grade in a little Catholic grammar school in 1950 – when such things were possible.

These memories are stirred by a recent piece in the Canadian National Post by Barbara Kay entitled “Men of the church,” in which she cites a fascinating report from Switzerland on demographics and religious practice. She summarizes the report’s findings this way:

A statistical report from Switzerland in 2000, “The Demographic Characteristics of the Linguistic and Religious Groups in Switzerland,” reviewed the results of a 1994 survey of Swiss religious practice, and arrives at a fascinating conclusion about the impact of mothers’ vs. fathers’ church attendance on the future religious observance of their children.

The detailed survey indicated that if the father attended church regularly, and the mother was non-practising, then 44% of their children became regular church-goers. But if the mother attended regularly, and the father was non-practising, then only two per cent of their children became regular church attenders.
Even when the father was an irregular attender and the mother non-practising, a full 25% of their children became regular attenders, while if a mother was a regular attender and the father irregular, only three per cent of the children became regular attenders.

In short, if a father does not attend church, it won’t matter how dedicated the mother is in her observance, only one child in 50 will become a regular attender. But if a father is even somewhat observant, then regardless of the mother’s practice, at least one child in three will become a regular church-goer. The disparity is too stunningly wide to be culturally insignificant.

The rather provocative title of this weblog post is from a comment Barbara Kay quotes in her article. It is a must read. It has been reissued by the Catholic Education Resource Center here.

(this was originally posted in March 2007 on our old weblog

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A Lenten Reflection – The Multiplication Table

The website The Catholic Thing has published a Lenten reflection by Gil Bailie entitled, The Multiplication Table. It is a classic piece of Gil’s work. I especially appreciate the play of the title and the text. ‘Multiplication table’ is not mentioned in the article. And it is not until the Chesterton quote at the end that the concept of enlargement (Church bigger on the inside) comes in. Hopefully, this leaves the reader pondering “What does ‘the multiplication table’ have to do with this”. The Eucharistic altar is the table upon which the Church grows out of the grace of our God haunted predecessor’s lived experience into our present lives and the lives of all who come after us.

The Eucharistic liturgy is also where we bind ourselves to our ancestors going all the way back to Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, and to the first Passover in Egypt and beyond. Turning forward, the Mass is the prefiguration and foretaste of the Messianic Banquet we will celebrate when we enter God willing into full communion with the Trinitarian Life of God.


While doing some recent cleaning chores in the Cornerstone Forum office I came across a couple of old cassette tape albums that contained recordings of presentations René Girard made in Sonoma in 1991 and 1994. I hope to make these available on our streaming audio section of this website in the coming weeks. At the beginning of one of the tapes, after Gil Bailie introduces professor Girard to the audience, René Girard takes a few moments to talk about Gil as a preface to his remarks. I’ve prepared a short excerpt of this below:

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A Remedy for Sentimentality

Mother of Sorrows – Vonn Hartung


A decade ago Elizabeth Bailie, Gil Bailie’s wife, was called from this life to the next. Her passing has left those who know her with both a sense of loss and tremendous gratitude for the gift of her life. A few weeks before her passing Gil wrote the following weblog entry.

I’ve often thought, and several times said that those of us who live with all the conveniences would do well to have to do our laundry at a laundromat at least every once in a while. Perhaps it is my blue-collar upbringing, but I feel at home in a laundromat, almost as much as I do in church. In my case, the danger of romanticizing either is not great. But for a graduate course in subjects that can be studied at the undergraduate level in laundromats, an emergency room in an urban hospital late on a Saturday night is hard to beat.

Complications related to Liz’s illness and the numerous medications she is enduring because of it took us to the emergency room on Saturday night. Crowded conditions and the various procedures and diagnostic tests Liz had to undergo kept us at the hospital until 6:30 a.m. Sunday. While Liz was being diagnosed and given an emergency MRI, I sat in her wheelchair in one of the little curtained-off cubicals trying (against impossible odds) to get at least a few minutes of sleep.

The curtain of the cubical where I sat was opened, and I was able to see and hear the choppy segments of the emergency room drama. To the din of blaring televisions (a ubiquitous curse in most places in the typical hospital today), sirens, intercom staff messages, shouts of patients who were in pain, or on drugs, or drunk, or all three, I tried (largely unsuccessfully) to sleep. (Wheelchairs are not made for sleep.)

At one point, two of the patients, males in their 30s who seemed to be high on something or other, went for each other, triggering an avalanche of testosterone, as uniformed security personnel, men in street clothes and surgery scrubs emerged from every corridor. The shouting died down, and, after milling around for a few minutes, most drifted off to resume their assigned roles.

All the while, I was wondering how Liz was handling the exhaustion and the diagnostic tests, and worrying that her tumor might have gotten into her spinal column. (Mercifully, it had not.)

Back home on Sunday morning for a few short hours of sleep and then a day like most other days, quiet and revolving around Liz’s needs. As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, before dinner each night Liz and I have always had a period of prayer and reflection and personal sharing. We call it “port time” because it invariably includes a glass of port or an equivalent libation. Liz isn’t able to read these days, so I have lately been reading a few paragraphs each night from something of spiritual interest to us. For the last couple of weeks or so I have been reading from Romano Guardini’s The Lord.

As it happened, on Sunday night, when I turned to where I had left off the night before, it was at Guardini’s discussion of the Beatitudes, and more precisely the following paragraph, in which the great German theologian reflects on the Beatitudes as Christ’s manifesto for a new order of existence:

To participate in this new order, man must open his heart. He must free himself from the clutches of natural existence and advance to meet the things to come. He must eradicate the old, deeply rooted claim that this world is sufficient unto itself, the essential and only reality; he must admit that earthly existence even at its best is stained and discredited in the eyes of God. Naturally such self-emancipation is particularly difficult for those for whom the world holds the most delights-for the powerful and creative, for all who have a large share in earth’s greatness and beauty. These are the rich, the sated, the laughing, the praised and honored ones-hence, the woe that threatens them. On the other hand, blessings on the poor, the mournful, the hungry and persecuted, not because their condition in itself is blessed, but because it helps them to realize that more than just this world exists. Need teaches them only too well how inadequate existence is, and once taught, they turn more easily from earth to heaven for something better. [The Lord, p. 72]

Fresh from my long vigil at the emergency room, this marvelous paragraph seemed to me to capture the sum and substance of Christian faith. All the more so is this the case, inasmuch as Guardini took pains to warn against sentimentalizing Christ’s transvaluation of all values. “We must guard against one thing only,” he insists, “sentimentality.” (Something that would survive in the emergency room for about 30 seconds.)

Nothing on earth ever, of itself, guarantees heaven. Poverty can make men greedier than wealth. … Hunger can harden; pain can drive to despair; contempt can inwardly destroy. … But on the whole, Jesus’ “Blessed are you” is correct. He spoke from experience: it was the poor, the suffering, the despised publicans, sinners and harlots who at least attempted to believe. The powerful, the learned, the wealthy, the secure were provoked by his message, or laughed at him, or hated him, whom they considered a danger to the political existence of the nation.

The Church is humanity’s emergency room, where the weak and the wounded, the reckless and the raging, the broken and the frightened are thrown together to be ministered to by others only marginally healthier or holier than those to whom they minister.

At this very moment, as I am tying these words, Liz is sitting on the sofa nearby looking intently at an image of the Mother of Sorrows which was carved by our friend Vonn Hartung and which hangs in our living-room. Mary, with her heart pierced by the sword, is the icon of the Church: the Mother of Sorrows, under whose protection we huddle together with all the other needy ones.

How blessed we are to be under her protection and in the care of Mother Church.

(This was originally posted on in January 2007)

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