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Did God gamble everything in the Garden of Gethsemane, the second Adam facing a real, existential, and eternal choice of going through with the Father’s will or backing away from it?

God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of  Crucified Love, by Gil Bailie (384 pages, Angelico Press, 2016)

God's GambleFew thinkers have stormed the post modern world of Western academia more effectively than René Girard. With his blend of anthropology, theology, philosophy, and literary criticism, Girard managed to sidestep the increasingly fractured and partitioned world of scholarship to develop the beginnings of a unified understanding of human development, destruction, desire, and destiny.

His friends and colleagues have picked up the baton and continue to explore the ramifications of Girard’s fundamental discoveries. Gil Balie, founder and president of The Cornerstone Forum, is an independent scholar who uses Girard’s insights to shed light on the theology of Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Ratzinger. In return, these theologians elucidate and illuminate the theological implications of Girard’s thought. René Girard was first to admit that he was not a theologian, and Mr. Bailie, who was a friend of Girard, does him the service of mining the theological vein of gold buried in Girard’s work.

God’s Gamble is a strong sequel to Mr. Bailie’s 1995 volume, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads. Of the numerous theological works based on Girard’s thought, Mr. Bailie’s is the most creative, wide-ranging, and profound. In God’s Gamble, he begins by pondering the emergence of homo sapiens wondering if the moral choices recounted in the Garden of Eden story also indicate the evolutionary step from humanoid to human.

This anthropological exploration raises fascinating questions about free will, the knowledge of good and evil, the fall, original sin, and the subsequent bondage to desire, envy, murder, and Girard’s perception of ritual sacrifice. Is this very dynamic the crux of the matter? Is humanity’s happy fault the crisis that distinguishes us from the apes? Is the knowledge of good and evil both the glory of man and his downfall?

Mr. Bailie then traces the steps from the primeval parents, to the first murder, the compulsion to blame and the emergence of ritual sacrifice in primitive religion. From there he shows how the faith and trials of Father Abraham unlock new understandings of God. He traces the strange history of the Hebrews and the development of religious knowledge, culminating in the breakthrough of the Virgin’s affirmation, the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Christ the Lord.

Mr. Bailie’s captivating title comes from his speculation that the heart of the passion narrative is not only the crucifixion, but Christ’s herculean mystical struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane. Was Christ’s abandonment there and on the cross simply his perception of a battle that did not really exist or was there a genuine break—even for a moment—in the union of dynamic love at the heart of the Trinity?

In other words, did God gamble everything in the Garden of Gethsemane, the second Adam facing a real, existential, and eternal choice of going through with the Father’s will or backing away from it? If Jesus had refused the cup of suffering would the unity of the Trinity itself have been broken? God’s gamble is also therefore in the creation of creatures with free will…. Would the Almighty risk everything to save some knowing that we would also lose some?

Mr. Bailie’s book is an important contribution to the ongoing work of plumbing the depths of the providence and the paschal mystery. In every age it is the work of theologians and mystics to make clear the meaning of the saving mystery of the God-Man’s self sacrifice. Giving a comprehensive overview from the Eden’s garden to Gethsemane’s, God’s Gamble attempts that effort to re-tell the old, old story of man’s fall and God’s plan to lift him back again to a restored glory.

Mr. Bailie’s book is an abundantly packed treasure chest. It is clearly the product of a lifetime of study, thought, and prayer. I have read it and I will read it again, but in the midst of my enthusiasm I have some reservations. First is a comment on style. Like every author, Mr. Bailie wants his book to be accessible, and in many places it is; however the text is loaded with long words, long sentences, and long trains of thought. If only the author had communicated his wonderful insights without quite so much academic jargon! At times also one feels his point could have been made in two pages rather than ten.

While eschewing any impulse to “dumb-down” the theology, it is also desirable to communicate the truths in a way that does not intimidate or tire the reader. One remembers C.S. Lewis’ advice to seminarians that they should “translate their homilies for their cleaning lady.” While a tome of this seriousness will never be an easy or entertaining read, I wish the style had been more down-to-earth only because I wish Mr. Bailie’s powerful message might reach a wider audience.

The second caveat concerns the author’s flirtation with universalism. Like von Balthasar and his mystical muse Adrienne von Speyer, Mr. Bailie tiptoes around the question of universal salvation. He does so with an extended meditation on the events of Holy Saturday—in which Christ goes to harrow hell and preach to the holy souls who existed before the incarnation and his passion. There is a little sleight of hand going on here. If I understand the argument correctly, the theologian proposes that “hell” or the place of departed souls is outside of time therefore it might contain not only those souls who lived before Christ, but also those who existed after him. Therefore, it could be speculated that Christ preached and continues to preach, and therefore to liberate all souls after death.

This speculation takes Mr. Bailie to consider at length what kind of “conversion” might take place after death. At this point there seems to be not only sleight of hand, but some theological gymnastics. Mr. Bailie acknowledges the uncompromising words of Scripture and the catechism regarding the reality of damnation, but then engages in further speculation about what those teachings might really mean.

While I am dubious about the the tendency of theologians to dance on the tightrope of universalism, I appreciate Mr. Bailie’s willingness to explore the question openly. His insights are moving and challenge all positions of self-righteous condemnation. His conclusions echo revelations to Saint Faustina Kowalska, who pondered how the demands of God’s mercy and judgement are met in the afterlife. In her diaries, she suggests that every soul at the point of death meets Christ face to face and hears his invitation to eternal life. Only those who reject his call three times will be given their choice of eternity separated from his love.

While contemplating how all may be saved, Mr. Bailie steps back to acknowledge that there are those “raging rebels” who will refuse all that is beautiful, good, and true and that their rage will increase in an ever-declining, downward spiral. Like C.S. Lewis he admits that the gates of hell are locked from the inside, and like von Balthasar he draws back from explicit or dogmatic universalism, opting for an “open ended eschatology”—which, in ordinary lingo would be “God’s in heaven. He is not willing for any to perish, and he’s all powerful, so let’s hope for the best.”

God’s Gamble is a powerful, profound, and poetic work, and despite my quibbles it is accessible enough for an educated readership even if not for hoi polloi. Mr. Bailie has give us a creative synthesis of Girard and von Balthasar’s thought: an invaluable and unique contribution to the ongoing work of preaching the gospel of light to a desperate and darkened world.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from “Orazione nell’Orto” (“Prayer in the Garden”), by Pietro Perugino (1446-1523), courtesy of Wikipedia.
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