A "Roamin' Catholic" and the Cultural Crisis | Interview with Gil Bailie, Cornerstone Forum | Ignatius Insight | February 25, 2009
Ignatius Insight: Who is René Girard and how has he influenced your thinking and work?(I changed the sentence from past to present tense, for Girard is still alive.)I might add that if personal sanctity and acting as a personal witness to the truth is a challenge you can't tackle in a day, if you don't see how to make yourself into a figure of personal or historical importance to others, then you can always put your energies into promoting those who have experiences that can reveal truth to others.
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 René 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 René 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 René Girard himself. The first incident came early in the day of the meeting with the biblical scholars. René 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 René 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?" René'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 René. 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, René'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, René 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 René Girard and his extraordinary work.