In Defense of Desire

The Theology of James Alison

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.

Born in Britain in 1959, Alison was raised as an Evangelical and became a Catholic at eighteen. He entered the Dominicans in 1981, was ordained in 1988, and, after studies in Oxford, completed his doctoral dissertation (on original sin) at the Jesuit theological faculty in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Alison left the Dominican Order in 1995 under pressure from many of its South American leaders (the circumstances are not fully explained in his writings); a few months later, he suffered his lover’s death from AIDS. Apart from occasional teaching positions in Latin America and the United States, he has since been a peripatetic lecturer and retreat-giver—returning, he has wryly commented, to the mendicant vocation of an original Dominican, itinerantly preaching and begging for money.

Inevitably, as a gay theologian, Alison has been a controversial figure. Some detractors condemn him as one of the “lavender spin doctors” who interpreted Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est, as a message friendly to homosexuality—“an invitation for us to work out a Catholic culture of same-sex love,” Alison told a 2006 audience at the (Jesuit) University of San Francisco. But Alison’s many admirers find in him a theological writer of powerful freshness and insight. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls his books “frighteningly profound.” Boston College theology professor Charles Hefling praises the “effervescence” of his writings, citing “a vivacious enthusiasm not commonly found in serious theology.” Alison’s books, comments Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, “leave you with a feeling that perhaps it’s time you became a Christian.”

These books, including Raising Abel (1996), The Joy of Being Wrong (1998), and Undergoing God (2006), treat themes running from Creation to Resurrection, offering what is best described, not as gay theology, but as Catholic theology from a gay perspective. An abiding personal theme has been Alison’s refusal to repudiate the faith that he believes to some extent has repudiated him. (“Give me that old-time religion,” he told a seminarian who asked, at a 2006 talk in Milwaukee, why his approach to theology, as a gay man, was not aggressively revisionist.) And it is true that Alison’s theology, which springs from a discovery of God’s creative generosity in the midst of human violence and death, has much to offer Catholicism and Christianity as a whole. He has a gift for recovering seemingly fusty, marginal topics—concupiscence, for instance, or the Assumption—and bringing forth their relevance and depth. His influence, moreover, is spreading, and was discernible this past summer in Archbishop Williams’s addresses at the Anglican Communion’s Lambeth Conference.

Alison is an engaging writer whose style is at once conversational and convoluted, witty and at times even campy. Take, for example, his account (in the Christian Century) of his first experience of formal theological study, recalling the enormous amount of reading and his sensation of “drowning”:

Day after day, week after week, author after author, opinion after opinion, a sea of words was being poured on me from every angle. They were opening up new horizons and challenging bits of surety in the pit of my stomach—until the little Inquisitor General on his throne in the upper part of my skull could take it no longer. He had been accustomed to sitting there, serenely sifting through such little ideas as my reading and listening had brought before him, routinely and elegantly trashing them from a position of enormous imagined superiority.... It’s not as though all these opinions and words were out to get my poor inner Inquisitor. But he was completely at sea amid the sheer volume and breadth of what was washing over him. He didn’t have the staff or the time to be able to put all these dreadful books right, or the fingers to plug up all the holes in the dike. And so he drowned.

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.

His theology flows from two deep springs: Aquinas and René Girard. Girard, a member of l’Académie Française and emeritus professor of literature at Stanford, is known best for his theories of mimetic or imitative desire and of the scapegoating mechanism. Girard holds that we learn to desire by seeing what others desire; we want to possess what they possess. This leads to rivalry and conflict—think, for instance, of the child who is indifferent to a toy until another child starts playing with it. Ultimately, conflict is resolved through the use of a scapegoat, the reviled “other” who is blamed, then expelled from the community through exile or death. The key to this scapegoating mechanism is divinely sanctioned sacrificial violence: over time, the original violence is forgotten or concealed, the scapegoat is turned into a god, and the sacrifice is ritually reenacted so as to renew the peace created by the original sacrifice.

Christianity, in Girard’s view, upends this violent structure. The Cross, the ultimate revelation of human violence, is also the ultimate revelation of divine love and nonviolence. It exposes and thereby negates both the violence and the lies that structure human communities; think of Jesus’ prayer, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” as well as the subsequent recognition of Jesus’ innocence by the Roman centurion and the crowds that watched the crucifixion. Christ’s true sacrifice—of himself—ends all further sacrifice of others. Violence has been unmasked and rendered impotent by the forgiving love of an innocent victim.

The deeper source of Alison’s thought is Aquinas and his doctrine of creation, which Alison learned from his Dominican teachers Herbert McCabe and Fergus Kerr. Aquinas’s teaching is grounded in what the Catholic priest-philosopher Robert Sokolowski calls “the Christian distinction” between God and creation. Creating everything from nothing, God is not a being, but the source of all being. This “distinction” affirms a nonrivalrous relationship between God and creation, where abundance and openness, not miserliness and self-protection, are the dominant notes. Beyond all rivalry by virtue of his perfection and simplicity, God graces us with the freedom to love and to be ourselves, rather than to be puppets or slaves. Judeo-Christian monotheism thus becomes good news rather than the often-caricatured bearer of intolerance and violence; since God is not a rival of other gods or of God’s creation, the grain of reality is cooperation, not competition; peace, not conflict.

The “distinction” also generates a genuine secularity, granting creation its own integrity, stability, and legitimate autonomy. Creation is truly “other” than God, not a pantheistic extension of God or a plaything subject to an arbitrary divine will. This secularity allows for a de-sacralization of creation, which moves humanity away from idolatry, superstition, and fatalism. Aquinas thus establishes “nature” as a legitimate theological category alongside sin and grace. Salvation respects the integrity of human nature, rather than violating it. Grace not only heals but also perfects nature.

Alison speaks, in this Thomistic context, about being on the “inside” of creation. In his view, the key theological question is not, “How does God deal with sin?” but “How do we enter into God’s invitation to share in the act of creation?” Humanity, Alison suggests, is in “much more of a playground and much less of a war zone than we are inclined to think.” The safe, spacious goodness of God’s creation invites one to relax into God, to give up one’s need to define oneself against another, and to find oneself at home with and in God. One can then, in Alison’s phrase, “undergo” God by letting God give us our identities and shape our desires. In the work of creation, receptivity gives rise to activity.

At the core of Alison’s theology lies a Christology in which the visions of Aquinas and Girard combine. Alison sees Jesus as a revealer of human violence and divine nonviolence. Exposing the scapegoating that structures human societies, Jesus deprives that mechanism of power, even as he reveals, through the Resurrection, a God of life who has nothing to do with fostering violence and death. He is also the priest whose sacrifice of himself reverses the very direction of sacrifice, opening up the space of the new creation. Instead of being something we offer to God in the hope of placating wrath or seeking favor, Christian sacrifice is what God offers to us. Without reservation, Jesus places himself in our hands and absorbs the wrath of our sins, exposing and defeating the cycle of rivalry, scapegoating, and death. We punish God, and he responds with forgiveness.

Finally, Alison’s Jesus is the victim who dares to forgive his victimizers. Appearing after his Resurrection to his followers—imagine the terror that the cowardly disciples must have felt when they saw him!—he offers not vengeance but peace, and awakens in them the recognition of their own lies and violence. Undergoing his forgiveness, the disciples find their hearts broken open—the literal meaning of contrition—to receive the abundance of the new creation. This Jesus is gentle, quiet, deliberate in the face of conflict and lynch mobs, refusing to take the violent bait and defend himself. It is a Jesus who gives new insight into phrases from the Eucharistic Prayers: “A death he freely accepted,” and “the victim whose death has reconciled us to yourself.”

While this Christological vision structures all of Alison’s work, three areas in particular—liturgy, anthropology, and homosexuality—inform current considerations of, and controversies over, his writings.

Alison’s liturgical understanding flows directly from his understanding of Christ. In “Worship in a Violent World,” an essay in Undergoing God, he contrasts true Christian worship with the false worship of the Nuremberg rallies. Where Nuremberg sought to whip up an ecstatic, frenzied uniformity by sacrificing a scapegoat for the benefit of a charismatic leader, true Christian worship effects the opposite: a calm unity in which God sacrifices himself for the benefit of the participants. Nuremberg’s false spectacles of mass worship divinized leaders, demonized scapegoats, and dehumanized everyone. By contrast, true worship according to Alison humanizes all who participate by peacefully transforming their desires. With typical playfulness, he even recommends a soporific liturgy:

When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It’s a long-term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn’t abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbor, but which increases our attention, our presence, and our appreciation for what is around us.

This rather monastic vision of liturgy challenges Pelagian conceptions that emphasize stimulation, performance, and orchestrated community. Neither God nor humanity needs to be manipulated or bribed. God is already present, and the sacrifice already complete in Christ, so true worship should lead believers into the deliberate peacefulness of the forgiving victim.

Alison’s Christological vision also explores human identity through his theology of the Resurrection and original sin. The Christian story is usually told going forward, beginning with Creation, but Alison wants to move backward from Christ’s Resurrection—an event, he writes, that gives us “Easter eyes” to see “God’s deathlessness and human deathfulness.” Blinded by sin, humanity cannot realize how deeply trapped it is in a closed system of rivalry and death; we have come to see violence and death as “natural,” the way things simply are. The Resurrection, however, reveals that God has nothing to do with this death-dealing; we are not in fact made for death. Or for sin. Original sin, as Alison argues in The Joy of Being Wrong, does not belong to us by nature. One can read Alison’s entire corpus as an extended affirmation of the Council of Trent (and Aquinas) against Luther and other reformers, affirming the goodness of human nature (even after the Fall) against those Reformers who held to the radical corruption of that nature. However warped human desire may be by original sin and concupiscence, it nonetheless can lead us to God, and part of Jesus’ saving work is to model and make possible a different, life-giving kind of desire.

Finally, the nature of desire leads to Alison’s treatment of homosexuality (a word he dislikes for its propensity to cast gays and lesbians as “them,” rather than as part of “us”). His thought here has the merit of being theological rather than political, cultural, or legal; he writes not of rights and equality, but of creation, nature, desire, and human flourishing. Alison builds his argument for the goodness of homosexuality by drawing from Catholic teaching on creation, original sin, and salvation. As Trent taught, human nature retains its integrity, even after the Fall. No dimension of human desire is therefore intrinsically evil—that is, irredeemable—because it is capable of being rightly ordered and healed. Salvation is the perfection of human nature, not its rejection.

As Alison lays out the argument, Catholicism has long taught that people are heterosexual by nature, and that homosexual activity is thus unnatural. But this teaching conflicts with the growing recognition that homosexuality is a way of being, not simply a way of acting; unchosen, it belongs to one’s nature or essence. Drawing upon the scholastic axiom agere sequitur esse (acts flow from being), Alison maintains one cannot hold both that the homosexual inclination is natural or involuntary and that homosexual acts are inherently evil. “Either being gay is a defective form of being heterosexual,” he reasons, “or it is simply a thing that just is that way”—a reality, like “rain, or tides, or left-handedness,” as he puts it elsewhere. Alison affirms the latter position, and consequently holds that homosexuality is morally equivalent to heterosexuality. Like rain or tides: arguments from nature, for so long used to condemn homosexuality, now become its greatest support. “Natural Law is our friend,” Alison writes; the gay or lesbian person is saved in the perfection—not the rejection—of his or her homosexual nature.

This theological argument has several practical corollaries. The first is an insistence on truthfulness. The only worthwhile question regarding church teaching, Alison writes, is “Is it true?” In a church filled with hypocrisy and deception on sexual matters, the truth is painful but powerful, and not least in its ability to create an atmosphere of peacefulness. The opposite of such peacefulness—and of truth—is the violence of the closet, in which group belonging comes at the price of self-mutilation and the expulsion of those who refuse such mutilation. Alison calls for truth-telling gays and lesbians to cease from posturing and anger, to live instead in the “long ‘meanwhile’” until resolution comes. Only a “faith beyond resentment” can break the cycle of scapegoating and self-destruction. Embracing such a faith, in his estimate, gives gays and lesbians a privileged place in the church. Called, like Peter in Luke’s Gospel, to “strengthen the brethren,” and standing in a place of shame and scapegoating, they can renew the church by being forgiving victims themselves, overcoming lies with truth and violence with peacefulness.

One need not agree with Alison’s every point—I question, for instance, the relative dearth in his writings of reflection on male-female sexual complementarity—to appreciate the vitality and depth of his theology. His thought invites conversation; and a certain humility adheres to the arguments of someone who converted to Catholicism because he found in it “the gift of enabling me to be wrong, and not to worry about it, of letting go of being right so as to receive being loved.” Alison’s vision is at once comprehensive and simple. It is theological in its confession of the primacy of God over all human words and deeds; Christocentric in its reading of history through the lens of Christ’s Resurrection; contemplative in its stillness and receptivity; scriptural in its attentiveness to seemingly insignificant words that have profound ramifications; traditional in its summoning of centuries of hard-won wisdom; honest in its acknowledgment of the deceit and rivalry embedded in all human communities; and catholic in its embrace of the goodness of creation and the cosmic scope of redemption.

Alison’s early writings, under the influence of Girard, tended occasionally toward moralism: Jesus saves humanity by revealing the scapegoating mechanism and exemplifying a nonviolent way of life. His more recent work has emphasized the priestly role of Jesus: in the paschal mystery, Jesus is, in the classical formulation, the “priest, altar, and victim” whose sacrifice as an innocent overcomes violence and opens up in his own wounded and risen body a world of forgiveness. In other words, while Alison has always emphasized Jesus as the way and the truth, he now highlights more clearly that Jesus is also life itself. This Christocentric vision, joining together contemplation and action, worship and witness, creation and salvation, offers much promise for Catholic life and thought, reminding us, as Aquinas did, that God is other, but not distant; that as our Creator, he is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.

 


Related: Theology as Survival: An Interview with James Alison, by Brett Salkeld
God-obsessed, by David Gibson: a profile of David Tracy
A Bricklayer's Son: Peter Steinfels on Stanley Hauerwas
Radical, OP, by Eugene McCarraher: a profile of Herbert McCabe

Published in the 2009-01-30 issue: 
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Christopher Ruddy is associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.

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