James Alison on Truth and Violence
Commonweal’s January 30th issue had Christopher Ruddy’s fine introductory article about the English theologian, James Alison. Here’s how Ruddy begins the article:
It is said that there are two kinds of theologians: those whose subject is theology, and those whose subject is God. James Alison studies God. Best known as a “gay theologian,” for his extensive writings on homosexuality, Alison is a priest no longer attached to a diocese or religious order-in his own word, a “nonperson” canonically.
Alison can also be a frustrating writer. Here is a theology that lifts one up out of one’s chair in excitement and drops one to one’s knees in prayer-and also makes one bang one’s head against its sometimes maddening inability to get to the point. Alison is a master of circumlocution; one must sift to find the golden nuggets, of which there are many, amid the torrents of words and ideas.
Alison’s baroque brilliance is on display in a reflection he posted on his website (my thanks to Robert Mickens for bringing it to my attention). It is a long and detailed analysis of some recent Vatican statements that Alison actually reads as both painful and promising for Gay Catholics.
One need not be convinced by Alison’s arguments to find them helpful, both as the considered expression of a passionately committed Christian thinker and as a spur for refining one’s own discernment.
What is typical of Alison (and here his Dominican heritage and his love for Thomas Aquinas show themselves) is his single-minded focus upon truth. But Alison is also instructed by the work of his other great mentor, René Girard. At the end of his article Alison transcribes a quote from Pascal that appears in Girard’s latest book. It deftly unites Aquinas and Girard:
What a long and strange war it is where violence tries to crush truth! Hard as it may struggle, violence cannot weaken truth, and its efforts only make truth stand out more clearly. Truth, however brightly it may shine, can do nothing to stop violence, and its light only irritates violence even more. When might is ranged against might, the stronger defeats the weaker. When discourse is ranged against discourse, what is true and convincing confounds and dissipates what is based only on vanity and lies. But violence and truth can do nothing, the one against the other. Nevertheless, don’t be fooled by that into thinking that they are at the same level as each other. For there is this extreme difference between them: that violence only has a course marked out for it by God’s command, such that its effects redound to the glory of the truth which it is attacking, while truth subsists eternally, and triumphs in the end over its enemies. Because it is as eternal and powerful as God himself.
To which words Alison utters a heart-felt “Amen.”