Renewing the Tradition: The theological project of James Alison
James Alison belongs on any short list of the most important living Catholic theologians. He has met and perhaps exceeded the high expectations that arose from his first book, Knowing Jesus (1993), and his most substantial work of constructive theology, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (1998). For a theologian under no tenure constraints and without a university position, Father Alison has managed to produce steadily and predictably. He has written seven books, and his style has changed from academic to almost breezy, as if he simply transcribed his lectures. His writings suggest a man in no great hurry; he often lingers for pages with an image or analogy to help unpack a biblical text.
Accompanying this shift in style has been a turn toward the theology of sexual orientation, beginning with Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay (2001). His three subsequent books—On Being Liked (2004), Undergoing God (2006) and Broken Hearts & New Creations (2010)—have given considerable space to the underlying assumptions of official Catholic teachings about same-sex attraction and actions, and have a created a new and devoted readership. The commitment of Father Alison to a kind of popular theology has made his more recent work accessible without sacrificing depth or theological creativity.
Father Alison’s lack of university affiliation has led many readers to wonder about both his biography and his current location. He grew up in an evangelical family in England, where his father worked for the Conservative Party. After converting to Catholicism in 1977, he joined the Dominicans in 1981 at age 22. He subsequently wrote his dissertation under the supervision of the Jesuit faculty in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He left the Dominicans in 1995 and since then has remained mostly in Brazil. He is still a priest.
Father Alison’s understanding of the human person has been deeply influenced by René Girard, the French anthropologist and literary theorist. Girard developed what he called “mimetic theory,” the belief that human desires are learned from others rather than forged within a person, and this results in discontent, rivalries and conflicts. In response to this social tension, according to Girard, the community identifies and rejects a scapegoat, and the pattern continues. Girard has applied this theory to Christian theology, and many others have followed in his footsteps. Even before Father Alison took on this project, there was Raymund Schwager, Gil Bailie and Robert Hamerton-Kelly. Yet the capacity of Father Alison to highlight the urgent relevance of mimetic theory for self-understanding has no parallel, and his ability to gain converts deserves generous reporting. (Indeed, a recent writer on Girard noted making three “false starts” with mimetic theory before everything came together upon a chance encounter with Father Alison’s On Being Liked.)
Mimetic theory remains the central axis around which Father Alison’s theology turns, although his time with the Dominicans, especially Herbert McCabe, O.P., has left a certain “Thomist” residue in his thought. (Christopher Ruddy made this observation in Commonweal in 2009.) Perhaps the best way to position his work as the mainstream, moderately conservative theology that he claims it to be is to highlight its parallels with another astute observer of the human heart, St. Augustine. The deep and continual introspection that made Augustine the great forerunner of the modern self also marks Father Alison as a great beneficiary (and critic) of this legacy.
The Place of Sin
Mimetic theory, especially as Father Alison has elaborated it, offers perhaps the most interesting support for Augustine’s theology of original sin, which the Catholic Church more or less adopted wholesale at the Council of Trent. At first this link seems unlikely, given Augustine’s insistence that original sin is transfused propagatione, non imitatione (“by propagation, not imitation”), implying an almost genetic transmission. For Augustine this meant that we share in Adam’s sin as a physical inheritance rather than as a shared experience.
If mimetic theory teaches us anything, it is that we do not begin with a blank slate. Further, our larger communities, built on victims hidden from sight, maintain traces of an original violence. Thus our desire, ordained by God as pacifically mimetic and fundamentally good, becomes the conduit for actual sins on account of the sinful communities that donate to us our sense of being. We are far too communal and too inclined to be locked into others to avoid being infected, ontologically, by sin. Throughout his work, Father Alison offers examples both trivial and serious to demonstrate the fundamental, Augustinian truth about our inherited identity and communal sinfulness.
Father Alison also argues that the resurrection of Jesus as the forgiving victim makes the doctrine of original sin possible. It is no surprise that the expulsion from Eden (Genesis 3), though largely ignored in the Old Testament, receives serious attention in the writings of St. Paul. Augustine, the great inheritor of Paul, struggled intensely to understand the relationship between the old Adam and the new Adam. It is only after the salvific revelation of the risen Lord that humans have the capacity to understand how deeply enmeshed they were in the proclivities and systems of violence that led to the death of the sinless second Adam. There is thus no chasm between the development of the Western doctrine of original sin and the message of the Gospel.
The church calls Augustine “the doctor of grace.” No contemporary Catholic theologian remains more tethered to an understanding of grace as gratuitous than does Father Alison. The very language he uses to describe an authentic encounter with Jesus contrasts “undergoing” with “grasping” (see especially Undergoing God). If God’s gift is always a self-gift, then Father Alison correctly deduces that any real encounter entails a kind of passivity. Like the jolt of falling in love, it happens to us. This necessary quality of religious experience follows from an anthropology that describes the disinclination of humans to relate peacefully to others. We experience the divine in a radically different manner because Jesus, the forgiving victim, comes to us in a way so unlike our expectations of divine justice. Grace, freely given, reorders the universe and remakes the community we call church. Unlike previous communities in which the bond among members forges itself through those it excludes and scapegoats, the gratuity of the resurrection allows for a community shaped by forgiven-forgivers.
Father Alison asks his readers to linger with images, or passages from Scripture, in a way that makes the shape of reading such passages conform to the shape of a graced “undergoing.” Even biblical formulas require deconstruction of the different ways that we perceive faith as a kind of work and thus miss the massive shift God calls us to undergo. Perhaps Eph 2:8 is the hidden verse informing the work of Father Alison: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” If a person regards faith—either the coming into it or the maintaining of it—as some kind of achievement, then the person remains beholden to an economy without grace. The anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine, which even his enthusiastic readers often eschew, show the same urgency to understand grace in the right way.
Like Augustine, Father Alison understands the pressing need to free Scripture from being a source of scandal for believers. Both argue for a particular hermeneutic to aid ordinary believers and preachers of Scripture. Augustine lays out a set of principles in On Christian Teaching. Perhaps the most important of these comes at the end of the first book, where he commands readers to locate the twofold love command within any particular passage in order to understand it properly. Father Alison talks less reverently of Scripture, speaking of it as “the big bad book” and of certain passages as “texts of terror.” Significantly, he does not run away from difficult passages like Judges 3 and Romans 1, in which God punishes disobedience by handing people over to violence and sexual impurity, respectively. Instead, he uses the hermeneutical principle given by Jesus on the road to Emmaus, in addition to context provided by historical and earlier biblical writings, in order to illustrate the deeper meaning of scandalous texts that many of us would rather pretend do not exist. As a constructive theologian, he models a creative and imaginative reading of Scripture that offers great fecundity for present and future Alisonians, should they take up this mantle.
Father Alison is also an underrated ecclesiologist. Perhaps his greatest legacy as a theologian will not be his Girardian rereading of the doctrine of original sin or of the Resurrection, but as one who helps us imagine a new way of being church, particularly through his category of “aristocratic belonging.” According to Father Alison, the people of God should understand themselves as “aristocratic” in the sense that God loves them unconditionally and showers gifts upon them. Maybe it requires a Brit via Eton and Oxford to tell Americans how to be aristocratic Catholics. Central for any healthy ecclesial being is finding a way to exist in the church without being dominated by the forms of belonging that divide between “good” and “bad.” Some people in the church have justified a deeply rooted notion of who is good and bad in the church by focusing on the disproportionate power wielded by the bad people, defining themselves or their group over against another.
This kind of psychology finds no room in Father Alison’s musings on the church. He exposes the patterns of belonging that undo ecclesial bonds instead of fostering them. Father Alison suggests the image of aristocrats at a dinner party who refuse to think that the wait staff matters in any real way. He does not mean that we adopt an attitude of superiority, but rather that as we grow in realization of being truly liked by a God who loved us first, we can become less reflexively reactive to every statement and pronouncement from the “mediators” of faith (bishops and theologians, for example), which can at times seem like a stumbling block. We can instead learn to relax into a space given to an heir, not a laborer, and learn to form a real community of reconciliation and generosity. If it took an Augustine to rid the church of an inclination to rigid perfectionism and asceticism, then perhaps it will take a little more Father Alison to wean the church from a violent sacred to which it has been tethered, in large and small ways, for far too long.