When I think of what makes something “spiritual” reading, rather than informational or intellectual, I think of the disciples at Emmaus recalling that their hearts were “burning within” them as they listened to Jesus interpret the Scriptures. That passage from Luke came to my mind when I first encountered the theologian James Alison and picked up a copy of his book Faith Beyond Resentment (Crossroad, 2001).
Alison’s biography is already known to Commonweal readers from this profile by Christopher Ruddy and this interview by Brett Sakeld. He is an ordained priest and a former member of the Dominican order; a scholar of Rene Girard; a gay man interested in working through the obstacles that official church teaching creates for human flourishing among LGBT people. Faith Beyond Resentment caught my attention because it includes several essays on that subject, aimed at talking to gay Catholics about how their presence in the church can make the truth about Christ’s saving work more fully known. He discusses the disconnect between church teaching on homosexuality and the actual lived experiences of gay people, and also explores the scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up then erupting in the church. I am eager to see the church move past the defensive postures that push my LGBT friends and fellow Catholics to the margins, and reading Alison makes me hopeful that the day will come when we can commit more fully to supporting human flourishing for all—not by abandoning the faith tradition we live now, but by embracing its invitation to life more fully.
Beyond his attention to “matters gay,” Alison’s writings in this and other books illuminate the very basics of Christian discipleship for me. Following Girard’s mimetic theory, Alison reveals how accepted interpretations of Scripture tend to implicate God in the violent cycle that traps humanity, to place God “wholly within the framework of human violence and rivalry.” Instead, focusing in this book particularly on passages from the Gospel of John, Alison explains how God, through Jesus, offers a way out of that violent cycle. His readings of the stories from John gave me that heart-burning-within-me sensation of understanding something I thought I knew well in a new and clarifying light. Time and again I found him taking up a passage that I’d always found troubling or obscure and making it seem clear and vital. From Alison I learned to approach the Gospels from what he calls “the space of the heart-close-to-cracking,” to hear how the message of Christ sounds different, both more comforting and more personally challenging, more urgent, when “read from amongst the ruins.”
That the Gospels take on a new urgency for me when I hear what Alison has to say is an important point, because I know how easy it would be for me to be seduced by a take on Jesus’ message that challenged me less than the standard homily, that flattered my prejudices and then let me off the hook. Such a reading would end up leading me further from God by telling me that I’m close enough already. That’s not what I take away from Alison. His books, as Rowan Williams put it, “leave you with a feeling that perhaps it’s time you became a Christian.”