To: Bob
From: Gil Bailie
Subject: Re: Feedback Form

Dear Bob, Thanks for signing our Guest Book.

At the 1995 State of the World Forum sponsored by the Gorbachev Foundation, Gil Bailie served on two panels dealing respectively with today's spiritual crisis and the spreading of violence and anarchy. Asked to prepare a brief written summary of his remarks to the panels, he combined his contributions to the two panels into one overview of the points he wanted to ask conference participants to consider.

Below is a slightly edited version of his summary.

If we are to understand either today’s spiritual crisis or the rising tide of violence in our world, we must begin with a clearer understanding of the enormous anthropological shift which has given rise to both these crises and is the key to a meaningful assessment of each of them. Therefore, I am combining into one summary my contribution to the panels dealing respectively with these two issues. In my opinion, we should begin by recognizing the role that violence has historically played in generating the kind of social consensus upon which all cultural life depends, and in fostering the religious myths and rituals whose diminishing power has been accompanied by spiritual and moral confusion and a rise in violence.

Human culture emerged when acts of collective violence of the kind we now call "scapegoating" generated humanity’s first crude forms of intense social unanimity — acts of violence which ancient religions recollected mythologically and re-enacted in rituals of blood sacrifice. In other words, conventional culture itself was founded on acts of violence which archaic religions endowed with religious significance. Lest we scapegoat our ancestors, however, we must realize that these systems of sacred violence were the ancient world’s only tool for preventing the rampages of violence that would have otherwise left the social landscape in ruins, and which are today doing just that in many places all over the world.

For all their social utility, however, archaic religions were able to have their civilizing and edifying influence because of a social privilege which was rooted in the aura and mystique of the violence with which these religions were historically complicit. Consequently, the myths that celebrate a culture’s founding violence and give it religious status cannot be impugned without jeopardizing that culture’s moral legitimacy and social stability. The challenge, therefore, of freeing humanity’s religious structures from their historical complicity with violence and its mystifying power is an exceedingly complex and long-term one, a challenge, moreover, from which both religious fundamentalism and irreligious secularism have taken flight. As I tried to demonstrate in my book "Violence Unveiled," facing this challenge was Christianity’s founding anthropological imperative, the world’s first fully articulated expression of which is to be found in the Christian gospels and the writings of Paul.

Of all the factors contributing to the waning power of the ancient systems of sacred violence, by far the most historically decisive is the demythologizing spirit whose moral and religious epicenter is the spectacle of sacred violence — seen from the point of view of its innocent victim — which is at the center of the Christian New Testament. Not only is the exposé of sacred violence in the Christian Gospel anthropologically unique, but the historical effect of this exposé is unique as well, for Christianity’s constituent events gradually undermine the myths and rituals of sacred violence in ways that are largely independent of the conscious aim or moral wherewithal of Christians believers. Moreover — in contrast to both the superficial secularism of the modern project and post-modernity’s rudderless and doctrinaire relativism — the Christian moral ethos slowly desacralizes and demythologizes its cultural environment precisely by clarifying and heightening, not disparaging, the religious sensibilities of those who fall under its influence.

Aware of how readily both the defenders and detractors of Christianity might misconstrue these matters, I have tried to stress that the role the Gospel is playing in undermining the old sacred system means neither that Christianity is to blame (as Nietzsche insisted) for the crisis of culture we are now facing, nor that historical Christians are exempt from the moral reproach against sacred violence that the Gospel has let loose on the world.

Whether our focus is the roots of human violence or today’s moral and spiritual malaise, therefore, the issue that must be faced is the waning power — for better or worse — of the old sacred systems and the corresponding diminution of our ability to use "holy" violence (or invoke its cultural prestige) to keep "godless" violence in check. As proximity to the Gospel revelation (and the cultures permeated by its moral ethos) continues to undermine the myths of sacred violence, the affected societies, in varying degrees, suffer from an upsurge in the kind of random violence which the old sacred systems existed to preclude. In other words, today’s mounting level of "bad" violence is directly related to the waning of the sacred aura that once surrounded officially sanctioned "good" violence and endowed it with the moral and cultural prestige upon which its power to keep or restore order depended.

The fact remains, however, that collective violence is the most ancient and primitive source of camaraderie, and many of our most powerful social and psychological reflexes predispose us to it. Moreover, when the officially sanctioned forms of violence are stripped of their justifying myths, the social aggravations they once restrained fester, heightening both the propensity for violence and the predilection to believe the myths that justify it. (The intense ethnic conflicts in many parts of the world are vivid examples of this.) But we should recognize this resurgence of violence for what it is: the desperate attempt to resuscitate the crude and fierce solidarity which raw violence engenders and to fall again under the spell of the justifying myths that endow such violence with moral and religious legitimacy.

As for how non-Western and Western cultures have been respectively affected by the de-legitimization of the old sacred system — I would say this: By and large, the myths and sacred structures of non-Western cultures have not heretofore been subjected to the kind of sustained challenge which has practically defined those cultures that have fallen directly under biblical influence. While non-Western cultures have heretofore been somewhat insulated from the New Testament’s demythologizing and desacralizing effects, the modern West tried to provide some insulation of its own by replacing the robust and versatile biblical ethic with a combination of secular skepticism and romantic subjectivism whose moral and intellectual shortcomings have now become glaring. For all its moral swagger, therefore, the modern West’s antipathy for sacred violence — buttressed by little more than skeptical rationalism and a laudable but morally fickle assertion of individual rights — left it vulnerable to the great ideological scourges of the 20th century, and unable to recognize them for what they really were — namely, the irreligious resurgence of sacred violence whose myths were secular and whose appetite for victims was almost insatiable.

The failure of the modern project has now led to the intellectual and moral capitulation which — unable even to name itself — goes by the name of post-modernism, and whose chief characteristic is a doctrinaire equivocation which loudly laments the failures of modernity while at the same time declaring these failures to be incurable.

It is increasingly clear, therefore, that modern rationalism, secularism, and subjectivism, on one hand, and post-modernity’s rigidly enforced normlessness, on the other, are unequal to the historical responsibilities we now face. Our task is to confront the challenge for which these projects lack the moral and intellectual vigor. We must free ourselves and our cultures from the structures of sacred violence upon which we humans have always depended, and we must do so without precipitating the very social catastrophes which the ancient systems of sacred violence existed to avert. As I tried to show in "Violence Unveiled," the best way to begin facing this challenge is to discover or re-discover the deeper anthropological, moral, and religious significance of the New Testament, and to assess its staggering historical ramifications. - - - - -

As far as Gil Bailie's fall speaking schedule is concerned, it changes rapidly and new talks are being added all the time. In general it is this: In September he will be in Washington, D. C. at the Servant Leadership School (Sept. 13th) and a Day Spring Retreat Center (Sept. 13-15); in Dallas, Texas (Sept. 17-18); in Chattanooga (Signal Mountain), Tennessee (Sept. 20-22); in Macon, Georgia (Sept. 22-23). In October he will be in Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University (he and Rene Girard will appear together there on Oct. 10th); in Seattle, Washington (Oct. 11-13); and in Philadelphia (Oct. 18-20); Minneapolis/St. Paul (Nov. 1-3); Amherst, Massachusetts (Nov. 8-10); New Orleans (Nov. 20-24). For more information, or to inquire about having Gil speak in your area, call the Institute at 707-996-4704.
Gil Bailie
The Florilegia Institute
Post Office Box 925
Sonoma, California 95476-0925
Telephone: 707-996-4704
Fax: 707-996-7034
Web Page:


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