Wednesday, August 30, 2006

At the Cornerstone Forum Office

The board of directors, after the board meeting.
George Wesolek, Pat Tinker, Bill Shea, Tom Olp, Gil Bailie,
Randy Coleman-Riese (Elizabeth Ely unable to attend)

Cornerstone Forum Board Members at Stanford

Members of the Cornerstone Forum board of directors (Elizabeth Ely and George Wesolek unable to attend) after the seminar at Stanford University Faculty Club.

From left to right: Randy Coleman-Riese, CF Executive Director, Bill Shea, Russ Dieter (retired CF board member), Ellen Olp, Rene Girard, Gil Bailie, Pat Tinker, Tom Olp.

13 Billion Years, give or take …

Some years back, the American astronomer, scientific popularizer, and PBS skeptic-in-chief, Carl Sagan, took great delight in mocking religious thought. He espoused what he called exobiology, and promoted the search for extraterrestrial life, the discovery of which, he casually assumed, would be the death of terrestrial religions. Another young astronomer, Frank Drake, caught the bug, and calculated that in the Milky Way alone we could expect to find 10,000 civilizations capable of interstellar communication. As the New York Times reported in 2000:

Later, Dr. Sagan revised the calculation and raised the estimate to a million alien worlds. Since the cosmos holds hundreds of millions of galaxies, by that analysis the total number of alien societies could be astronomical, one estimate putting the number at roughly 10 trillion.

The eagerness that led to these wildly exaggerated expectations is a species of the naïve misunderstanding of, and contempt for, Christianity that is exemplified by those decals of the fish with legs. Even though the discovery of extraterrestrial life would no more disprove Christian faith than does scientific evidence of biological adaptation, today it is widely accepted that the search for life elsewhere is almost certain to fail. We very well may be alone in the cosmos. But there’s still our utter insignificance. That should be enough to silence those who think God became man on this tiny, unimpressive planet.

One of Sagan’s most famous demonstrations of the insignificance of earthly existence in general and human existence in particular was his “Universe in One Day,” which has since been used by many for the same purpose. Here are the principle calendar events:

January 1: Big Bang

May 1: Origin of our galaxy

September 9: Origin of our solar system

September 14: Formation of the Earth

September 25: Origin of Life on Earth

And so on and so forth.

Humans of course don’t appear until December 31, and only just in time. By Sagan’s calculations, the first humans appear on the cosmic calendar at 10:30 p.m. The first cities appear at 11:59 and 35 seconds; the Renaissance at 11:59 and 59 seconds.

So, you see, humans and their trumped up anxieties are infinitesimal and utterly insignificant in the larger picture. The human race’s attempt to make meaning of its trivial and accidental appearance is itself laughable. Those my age will remember Sagan’s gift for chuckling contemptuously at the thought of religion.


One of the most distinguishing features of Christian faith is the belief that the last will be first; that the least is the greatest; that compared to what was happening in a little cow-shed in the most out-back village of the most out-back province of the Roman Empire, what as happening the columned greatness of Augustus’ Rome was as nothing. Christianity, you might say, exists to transmit to the human race the inversion of values that Christ proclaimed and exemplified. How better to exemplify that message than to deposit it on a tiny planet occupying an utterly insignificant position in the cosmic order? So, we wake up one fine day to realize that we’re living in the most remote and insignificant place in the world, a place like Nazareth, about which Nathanael said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

As for the approach of midnight: If the European Renaissance that happened six hundred earth-years ago in real-time happened only one second ago on Sagan’s calendar, then what are we to make of the Christian understanding that history isn’t going to last forever? Now that scientists have found Sagan’s anti-religious speculations ridiculous, maybe Christians can rescue his reputation by recognizing something implicit in his work.

The Perils of Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer is perfectly designed for sinners like me. It’s short, and it’s repeated incessantly. I say it at least once a day and have most of my life. Given how short it is and how often one is encouraged to say it, there is a statistical probability that at least once in one’s life one will say it with the attention it deserves. No guarantees, of course, but still the prospects are not hopeless.

Therein lies the problem: saying it with the attention it deserves. We’ve all be aptly warned to beware of what we pray for, and the admonition seems especially pertinent to the Lord’s Prayer. I’m thinking now of the phrase “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When we pray for the coming of the Kingdom of God, we pray as Christians, for whom the life, death and resurrection of Christ is the story of the (real) world laid before us in the life history of one man. We may not stop to think of it, but the Kingdom of God is something that happens, in every life and in the life of the world, only on the far side of the Cross, for the “Easter” toward which we are being draw is the culmination of the Paschal drama, not an alternative to it.

So, when we pray for the coming of the Kingdom, we are declaring our willingness to pass through whatever Gethsemane and Golgotha might await us, on the far side of which lies the Kingdom. It is in light of this sobering implication that the next verse of the Lord’s Prayer takes on a special meaning. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In heaven, God’s will is accompanied by nothing but sheer joy; while on earth, and for the sinners who inhabit it, God’s will is very often accompanied by dreadful, fearful, recoiling resistance. Even Christ himself asked the Father to let the cup pass before deferring to the heavenly will of his heavenly Father: “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are preparing ourselves for whatever Cross awaits us, and asking for the grace to recognize it as God’s will for us. It is a way of preparing ourselves, or asking God to prepare us, to take up the Cross that is ours to carry, aware that in doing so we will be playing a role in what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the Theo-Drama of salvation history. Our inability to say Yes to this invitation with the alacrity of Mary or the world-redemptive profundity of Christ is what makes the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer so pertinent to our condition as half-baked but persistent followers of Christ.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Isaac Reopened the Wells

Isaac reopened the wells dug by the servants of his father Abraham and blocked up by the Philistines after Abraham’s death, and he gave them the same names as his father had given them” (Gen. 26:18).

For years, The Cornerstone Forum has had as its principle theme the phrase “Keeping Faith and Breaking Ground.” The term has its value, and we will almost surely continue to invoke it here and there. It comes to mind today, as we are experimenting with the idea of launching a weblog. It seemed only natural to include the phrase on the blog as we have so often included it on other of the things we have done. I am the person responsible for the use of the phrase, but there has always been something about it that didn’t quite sit right with me. In a word: the subtle presumption involved in proposing to break new ground.

It is, I think, unquestionably true that the work of René Girard throws enormous light on what I variously call Christological Anthropology or the Perichoretic Anthropology, and it is likewise the case, I believe, that as we look through the lens that Girard’s work provides we will be able to recognize the universality and uniqueness of Christianity with tools not before available to us and in ways that will contribute significantly to our ability to evangelize our weary world and catechize the young. Speaking from experience, I can predict that those who peer through the anthropological lens Girard’s work provides will experience Christianity and the Christian truth claims as if for the first time. The experience will be a kind of ground-breaking experience. In truth, however, it will simply be another instance of what has happened ever and again throughout history.

Christian faith is ever-ancient, ever-new. As Eliot reminded us, we are always having to return to where we started and know the place for the first time. It was also Eliot who reminded us that this recovery takes places today “under conditions that seem unpropitious.” So my mind turns to Isaac, who was indeed “breaking ground,” but who would probably have omitted the claim to have been doing so, inasmuch as he was simply re-digging the wells of Abraham that the Philistines had filled with the desert sand. What is particularly poignant to me about this one-sentence allusion in the Book of Genesis is the notation that Isaac gave these wells the same names that his father had given them. There is something there for us today, it seems to me; a sense of our humble place in the scheme of things, a degree of anonymity that is proper to the transmission of the mysteries of faith.

Just a thought.

St. Monica and St. Augustine

Sunday was the feast of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, and today the feast of St. Augustine. My affection for Monica is intertwined with the love and gratitude I feel for my own mother, who played a decidedly Monica-like role in my life. Not that my misspent youth was quite as colorful as Augustine’s, but neither was it seamlessly edifying. During the last year of law school, I stopped going to daily Mass. It was, as I recently told a friend, like getting off one’s meds. What followed was a lesson, learned the hard way, in the meaning and mystery of the Eucharist. A few years later, I came to my senses and returned to daily Mass.

As I say, Augustine’s profligate youth was perhaps more rambunctious than mime, but the parallel is there in any case. My father had been killed in World War II, which I was four months old. Augustine’s father had died prematurely as well. Whether those events are related or not, I cannot say, but I can say that my mother’s response to my waywardness was, like St. Monica’s, simply to pray. As I am the beneficiary of those prayers, I have long appreciated the power of prayer. Augustine wrote that his mother brought him to birth twice, and I feel the same way.

I hardly know any parents today who have not known at least some of the anxiety that Monica experienced. However faithful our children and grandchildren might be, the culture in which they must try to find their way is so filled with perils, distractions, and presuppositions antipathetic to Christian faith that concern about their steadfastness in the faith seems altogether appropriate.

So, as I do every year at this time, I think on my mother’s faithfulness and the prayers she prayed on my behalf. There’s a cynical joke: behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. It’s funny, and it contains a grain or two of truth of course. But with far less cynicism one could say that behind every person who has discovered the gift of faith is an exemplar of fidelity to whom he or she owes the greatest possible debt of gratitude.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Cornerstone Forum Blog

With some misgivings, we have decided to start a web-blog, which we hope will play a valuable role in the mission of the Cornerstone Forum.

Launching a web-blog is something we are doing only after overcoming considerable resistance. After all, the whole blogging phenomenon seems a bit ridiculous, and to throw in with the zillions of bloggers more than a little humbling. But Randy Coleman-Riese and I, along with our board of directors and many friends and supporters, feel that the work of The Cornerstone Forum is important, and we have decided that the most effective way to stay in regular communication with those interested in our work is through a web-blog.

We hope you will visit the blog regularly, and stay in touch with us through it.