A "Roamin' Catholic" and the Cultural Crisis | Interview with Gil Bailie, Cornerstone Forum | Ignatius Insight | February 25, 2009
Ignatius Insight: For those who don't know: What is The Cornerstone Forum and the Emmaus Road Initiative? Why were they founded and what are some of the activities and projects of your apostolate?
Gil Bailie: The Cornerstone Forum is the outgrowth and institutionalization of work that I have been doing for thirty years. The Forum is a non-profit organization concerned with today's cultural crisis and with rediscovering the Christian moral, intellectual, and spiritual resources with which to assess the crisis, meet its challenge, and address its religious significance. Emphasizing the anthropological uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the unparalleled historical significance of the Christian Gospel, the Forum works to foster an intellectually compelling and theologically orthodox Christian response to the ideological secularism that is today at war with the Judeo-Christian moral bedrock of our civilization, on which, ironically, depends a healthy cultural pluralism.
Though we receive help from many, many people around the country, there are only two of us who work at the Forum's mission every day: myself and my friend and colleague, Randy Coleman-Riese, who is the Executive Director of the Forum. I'm sometimes called a "Roamin' Catholic" and "Road Scholar," but nothing I do could happen without the incredible work that Randy does in the background. Though we live on separate coasts—he in California and I in Massachusetts—we are in daily contact.
In pursuit of our mission, it has been our privilege over the years to work with people of other faiths and with fellow Christians from many different denominational and theological traditions, each committed to its own moral and social priorities and ecclesial vision. Collaboration of this kind has been an important source of inspiration for us, and we welcome the opportunity to work with those who are engaged, as we are, in what can broadly be termed the "re-evangelization" of Western culture. What we bring to this collaboration, however—the source of our hope, the bedrock of our faith, and the touchstone of our apostolate—is the theological richness, anthropological depth, and moral realism of the Roman Catholic tradition. The British historian Christopher Dawson, writing in 1938, aptly expressed the enduring role of this tradition, not only for Catholics, but for anyone who is both grateful for the moral, material, and political achievements of Western culture and concerned about the perils that beset it today.
If Christianity is necessary to Europe, the Catholic Church is no less necessary to Christianity, for without it the latter would become no more than a mass of divergent opinions dissolving under the pressure of rationalist criticism and secularist culture. It was by virtue of the Catholic ideal of spiritual unity that the social unity of European culture emerged from the welter of barbarism, and the modern world stands no less in need of such an ideal if it is to realize in the future the wider unity of a world civilization.Many of Christianity's enemies and most of its friends—whatever their creedal affiliation—have today begun to recognize the point Dawson was making. To appreciate the role "the Catholic ideal of spiritual unity" has played and continues to play in Western cultural life—fully aware of how inadequately this ideal has sometimes been expressed—is to be more, not less, committed to ecumenical cooperation with non-Catholic fellow Christians and to meaningful interreligious dialogue with non-Christians and non-believers. We welcome, as we always have, the opportunity to collaborate with others in bringing Christianity's theological, cultural and moral resources to bear on the cultural confusions of our time.
As we work to explore both cultural and theological matters as creatively as we can, we seek to clarify, never to challenge, the deposit of faith preserved through the centuries in the teachings of the Church. The work of RenÚ Girard, on which we continue to draw heavily, is especially suited to the task as we see it of bringing the truths of Christian faith to bear on the great questions of our day, and to show those who have been taught to dismiss these truths how supremely pertinent to our present predicament they are.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—wrote of the need "to reinvest with some concrete and particular meaning theological statements about the uniqueness and the absolute value of Christianity." Christianity has always affirmed its uniqueness and absolute value, but it has only recently had to do so in the presence of countless people, cultures, and religious traditions, to many of whom Christian truth-claims seem both absurd and offensive. Embarrassed by this new situation, some Christians have chosen the line of least resistance, embracing a sentimental multiculturalism which is a very poor substitute for—and often a parody of—Christian catholicity.
Christianity's truth-claims are not the kind that can be proven by argumentation. The most convincing evidence of their validity is the presence among us of humble and holy Christian saints. Even an imperfectly sanctified life, however, can foster a respect for Christianity by exercising the intelligence which faith awakens and by summoning the theological, cultural, moral, and anthropological arguments that render Christian faith intelligible. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger pointed the way to accomplishing this by suggesting that collaboration between theology and anthropology can lead to "the truly most exciting part of Christian faith."
Drawing on the rich theological tradition for which Benedict XVI is the preeminent contemporary exponent as well as on RenÚ Girard's extraordinary insights into the anthropological and cultural uniqueness of Christianity, the Emmaus Road Initiative is an effort to bring "the truly most exciting part of Christian faith" to bear on the challenges facing the Christian vocation in our time.
Ignatius Insight: When did you first begin reading and studying the works of ressourcement theologians such as Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Henri de Lubac?
Gil Bailie: Commenting on Kierkegaard's observation that it is easier for somebody who is not a Christian to become a Christian than it is for someone who is a Christian to become a Christian, the liberal journalist Leon Wieseltier suggested that the proper attitude toward one's tradition is to be like an actor who has played his part in a scene poorly: "The best thing to do is simply go out and come in again."
I don't believe that for one minute, and I have the moral scars to prove that it's bad advice, but, alas, it's what happened to me.
My early adulthood was a mirror image of all that was foolish in the culture to which I had been inadequately inoculated by my Catholic upbringing. I mean no criticism by this, nor do I intend to shift responsibility from myself to the good nuns who taught me in grammar school and high school. How could they have seen the Sixties coming?
No, I was an all too willing causality of the fated convergence of a flawed interpretation of Vatican II and the upheavals of the 1960s and beyond. When I should have been filling my mind with wisdom from our great tradition I was busily opening it to the spirit of the age. As G. K. Chesterton would put it, the more open-minded I became, the more my brains fell out.
God is good, however, and the result was that I am both a cradle Catholic and an adult convert. I came by my orthodoxy honestly, which is to say the hard way.
So, now: the ressourcement theologians: I began reading them like a drowning man looking for a life raft, which is the best possible way to do so. I can't remember whether I started with von Balthasar or de Lubac, but one led to the other pretty quickly. I might have started with Ratzinger, but—like so many American Catholics—I had regularly been warned away from his masterful theology by the sundry members of the clergy who took every opportunity to steer their flocks away from him.
To alter slightly Ezekiel's dictum about the shift from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, I could say that, having followed a few of the pied pipers of the age, I suddenly discovered that the contact with certain voices of confident clarity—von Balthasar, de Lubac, Girard, Ratzinger and others—transformed my tin ear into a listening and learning one.
After de Lubac and von Balthasar disabused me of these prejudices, I began to read Ratzinger—at first in small doses, in Communio, for instance—but then more systematically. (I use the word systematically loosely, for I am anything but a systematic reader of theology, or anything else for that matter.)
All in all these theologians opened the door for me to the great treasure trove of Catholic thought and Catholic fidelity. Hardly a day goes by that I do not read something from at least one of them.
Ignatius Insight: What attracted you their writings and thought?
Gil Bailie: That's easy: their great creativity combined with their aversion for originality, a fantastic and indispensible combination.
Paraphrasing what Cardinal Ratzinger has written about the liturgy—namely that its greatness "depends on its unspontaneity"—we could say that the greatness of Catholic theological reflection depends on its unoriginality. Sometimes when I lecture or speak at conferences, the person introducing me will indulge in the conventional, and in my case unwarranted, superlatives regarding the speaker's intellectual gifts. Whenever this occurs, I usually begin by saying that I'm not all that smart, and, if pressed on it, I can prove it. The point being that if you let the Gospel do a lot of your thinking—if you think with the mind of the Church—you look a lot smarter than you really are.
I think it was Cardinal Dulles who used Michael Polanyi's term "postcritical" to describe de Lubac's thought, which seems to me to be true as well of von Balthasar, Ratzinger,
I have not always had the theological or exegetical equipment for fully comprehending everything he wrote, but I have found Henri de Lubac to be an impeccable compass needle, not only of Catholic teaching, but of the Catholic sensibility. Given the profound confusions of our time, the proper metaphor might be a gyroscope more than a compass. But in any event the same could be said with equal justice of von Balthasar and Benedict XVI.
Ignatius Insight: What are, in your opinion, some of the most important contributions made by these thinkers?
Gil Bailie: If you mean which books of theirs I have found useful, the list is long. It might start with these:
Von Balthasar: Prayer, Theo-Drama, Elucidations, Mysterium Paschale, Love Alone is Credible, etc.
De Lubac: The Splendor of the Church, The Drama of Atheistic Humanism, Paradoxes of Faith, The Christian Faith, etc.
Ratzinger: Eschatology, Principles of Catholic Theology, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Truth and Tolerance, Called to Communion, etc.
To these, dozens of others could be added.
Ignatius Insight: What are some qualities of their work that are helpful to ordinary Catholics who aren't trained or well-versed in theology or philosophy?
Gil Bailie: One might say their creative obedience. Or perhaps I could just reiterate what I said in response to the question about what attracted me to them, namely, the combination of their creativity and their disinterest in originality. Or, perhaps more subtly, their writings are suffused with something that it isn't always easy to put your finger on, namely, a Catholic and sacramental sensibility.
In the case of Benedict, there is a personal footnote to my admiration for him. I spoke at a conference in Rome just three weeks before John Paul II's death, accompanied by my wife who had just been diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. While there, we attended a small private Mass that Cardinal Ratzinger said, and after Mass I asked him if he would give Liz a personal blessing, which he did with such gentleness and kindness that it left an immense impression on both of us. It was one of the things that sustained Liz in her last months.
Ignatius Insight: Who is RenÚ Girard and how has he influenced your thinking and work?(I changed the sentence from past to present tense, for Girard is still alive.)
Gil Bailie: The best short answer—and it's not that short—is to tell you a story, which I recently recounted in a soon to be published tribute to Girard.
I first encountered Girard's thought in his seminal book Violence and the Sacred. I bought the book without knowing what to expect, but in the first few pages I was convinced that I was in the presence of one of the world's most penetrating minds. (I have now known Girard for 25 years and I have had the privilege to take part in hundreds of seminars with him, and that first assessment has only been confirmed over the years.)
At the time of my first encounter with his thought, however, I knew nothing about him. My days of theological and exegetical dalliance were winding down, but during them I had attended a few of the conferences of the Westar Institute, out of which eventually evolved the infamous Jesus Seminar. The institute was having a conference in Sonoma, California, where I lived for many years. The founder of Westar, Robert Funk, knew of my interest in Girard, so he called me one day to say that a dozen or so of the biblical scholars who were coming to the conference had persuaded RenÚ Girard come up from Stanford University (where he held the Chair of French Culture and Civilization) to join them for a day to discuss the implications of his work for biblical studies. Bob said that he did not have a place to hold this meeting and asked if my office might be available. I was flabbergasted. To this day, I marvel at how providential that phone call was. At the time, I was completely out of the loop. I was not an academic. I did not move in such circles. I don't think I knew whether Girard lived in this country or in France, or even whether he was dead or alive. All I knew was that if someone had asked me for the name of the individual I would most like to meet and from whom I would like to learn, I would have instantly said RenÚ Girard. Literally out of the blue, he was coming to my office to spend the day in conversation with biblical scholars about his work.
There were two moments during the day of our meeting that I have often shared in order to give those who are new to Girard's work some sense of RenÚ Girard himself. The first incident came early in the day of the meeting with the biblical scholars. RenÚ began the day with an informal presentation that lasted, as I recall, about an hour. Though most of those in the room had some familiarity with his work, most were hearing RenÚ himself for the first time. His presentation was a typically marvelous combination of personal humility, intellectual audacity, and a healthy disregard for the ideological pieties afflicting the academy. After his remarks, the dialogue began, and the first question—as accurately as I can recall it—went something like the following: "Professor Girard, what you've been saying is quite extraordinary. It almost appears, however, that you are suggesting that the revelatory power of biblical literature is categorically superior to that of all other literature. You are, after all, a Stanford professor; you're not saying that are you?" RenÚ's one-word response was all the more striking for the momentary pause that preceded it: "Categorically," he replied. The impression one had was that Girard was the only person in this room full of biblical scholars willing to say such a thing.
I learned two things at that moment which I was to learn again and again over the years in personal conversations with RenÚ. First, there is a huge difference between attention to nuance and equivocation, and the explication of nuances begins in earnest only when the principle to be nuanced has been unequivocally affirmed. Second, truth is transmitted through personal witness rather than rational discourse. There was never any doubt that Girard's "categorically" was intellectually well founded and that he was perfectly capable, if challenged, to give a rational account of it. But it was not the implicit presence of a rational defense that made his statement both startling and convincing. It was his personal conviction, made all the more impressive because of his indifference to how his expression of it might be construed by others.
The dialogue that followed gave Girard an opportunity to show the interpretive power of his anthropological theory. And then at the end of the day, another memorable moment came, when someone asked a practical question. Clearly, the panorama Girard had spread out before those assembled was astonishing, and against this backdrop, RenÚ's sobering assessment of the contemporary historical and cultural predicament stood out in bold relief. "Given all that you have said," someone asked Girard, "what is to be done?"
In response, RenÚ was gracious and patient and humble. His answer, as I recall, was something like this: "Well, it is of course an enormous problem, and it does not lend itself to being easily 'fixed.' We are each called to different tasks, so perhaps we should begin by striving for personal sanctity." I could hardly believe my ears. Biblical scholars, whose discipline had been for decades currying favor with the secular academy by renouncing a priori any distinctively religious preconceptions, were being advised on the practical value of personal sanctity.
There are a lot of things that can and should be said of Girard and his work, but this little anecdote tells the real reason for my attraction to RenÚ Girard and his extraordinary work.
Ignatius Insight: What is the role of the laity supposed to be within the Church? What are some ways that lay people can be effective evangelists in a culture so opposed, in many ways, to the Gospel?
Gil Bailie: Seventy-five years ago, T. S. Eliot announced that culture was no longer passing from one generation to the next in the ideal and natural way it had in the past, when one absorbed it with the mother's milk so to speak. From now on, Eliot admonished, if you want a culture, you have to work at it.
Alas things have only gotten more challenging since then. I often say to audiences that the world is now being turned over to those we failed to properly catechize. The citadels of contemporary popular culture have fallen into the hands of those who have either only the faintest notion of what Christianity is and how indispensable it is to the survival of our civilization or who have only thinly disguised contempt for our religious patrimony.
At an earlier stage of our present crisis, Hans Urs von Balthasar, pointing to "the confusion of clerics and theologians," insisted that lay Catholics "have the absolute duty to care for the condition of Catholicity," adding with emphasis, "by protest if need be." For a Catholic sensibility, of course, protest is always a last resort, and there are today enough signs of episcopal and clerical revitalization to make even less justified. But the lay Catholic's obligation—in proportion to his or her respective gifts and competence—to "care for the condition of Catholicity" remains.
As distressing as our current situation can seem, we must keep before us the injunction we receive from the First Letter of Peter, that we must always be prepared to account for the hope we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). We must realize how hopeless a Christless world was and is and always will be. Christianity spread through the ancient world precisely because of the hope it gave to a pagan world desperate for it. At the very moment when civil order seemed to be dissolving, Christians—St. Augustine prominent among them—awakened a hope unlike anything the classical world had known. In the 21st century, under similar circumstances, it will fall to Christianity to supply a hope capable of filling the vacuum left by the na´ve optimism of the modern era and the hollow nihilism of postmodern one.
Ignatius Insight: What are some ways that people can support your work?
Gil Bailie: First, they can join us in it. We now have monthly Emmaus Road Initiative sessions in twelve venues in nine cities. The locations and times of these sessions are on our website. Those living close enough to these sessions are welcome to join us.
Others can find on our website free downloadable audio files of the E. R. I. sessions as well as streaming audio and video files of many of the sessions. We give complimentary CDs of each of the monthly sessions to those who attend them, and these CDs can be ordered from our website for a small fee to cover postage and shipping. Our website has a number of other offerings, so those who might be interested can go there and browse the site. Our website address is: www.cornerstone-forum.org.
To keep our friends abreast of what we're doing, we send out one or two email newsletters a month. So I would especially urge those who visit our site or who might have an interest in our work to sign up for our periodic newsletter. There is a newsletter link on our website homepage.
I also have a weblog—Reflections on Faith and Culture. There is also a link to it on our website. On the weblog I post periodic comments or reflections on social and political events and sundry other matters that I feel worthy of the attention of those interested passing on a robust faith in an increasingly challenging social and political environment.
Of course we rely on tax-deductible donations, and like all non-profits in hard economic times, we are weathering a particularly difficult time now. So some who learn more about our work will perhaps be interested in helping us financially. Again, that is made easy enough on the website.
Many are having financial difficulties of their own, and we certainly understand that, but if they find our work useful they can pray for us and collaborate with us in whatever way they may see fit.
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