Interesting Interview with Theologian James Alison

Over at Commonweal.com you can read a very interesting interview with the British theologian and priest Fr. James Alison, which resulted from an online conversation between the interviewer (Brett Salkeld, a doctoral student in Canada) and Alison. Commonweal has published an abbreviated version of the interview with the full text of the interview to follow on several websites (see links in the original post). Here is the opening discussion:

Brett Salkeld: You were not born a Catholic. What drew you into the Catholic faith? What drew you to religious life? What drew you to academic life?

James Alison: I was brought up in a hard-line Evangelical Anglican family—the sort of ambience that would be familiar to Americans as “the religious right.” I wrote about what drew me into the Catholic faith in my most recent book, Broken Hearts & New Creations:

What brought me into the church was a mixture of two graces. The first was having fallen in love with a Catholic classmate at school some years earlier. He was and is straight, but I perceived a certain warmth of personality in him which seemed untypical of the world of Protestant schoolboys in which I lived, and I associated that warmth with his being Catholic. The second was a special grace at a time when I was at a very low ebb, having just started to “come out” as a gay man in a very hostile conservative evangelical environment, shortly before going to university. This grace I associate absolutely with the intercession of Padre Pio, since it came at a time when I glimpsed something of the link between his stigmata and the sacrifice of the Mass; and I then knew, and have always since known, the Mass to be no mere memorial supper. This grace, which was accompanied by an astounding joy, literally blew me into the church.

I’m not sure, at this stage, what led me to attempt to join a religious order. On the positive side: the lucidity, intelligence, and serenity of the Dominicans I encountered, the legacy of St. Thomas, the lack of fussy piety—all these gave me some hope that I could emerge from the sense of annihilation that came with my background. On the negative side, I’ve come to see that in my case, joining a religious order was a decorous way someone who considered himself worthless could throw himself away without committing suicide. I had come very close to doing just that while an undergraduate in the late 1970s.

I’m also not sure that I’ve ever been drawn to the academic life as such. Theology has been a matter of survival for me. If I have a carapace of academic presentability, it is thanks to the wonderful teachers I had, among both the Dominicans in England and the Jesuits in Brazil. Even more than these, it is the thought of René Girard and that of some of his closest followers and friends that has given me, and continues to give me, something big to gnaw on, something organic from which to work out an intelligence of faith.

Salkeld: Can you tell us a little about your work in theology? What excites you? What questions do you pursue?

Alison: What has excited me ever since I came across René Girard’s thought has been the fecundity for theology of Girard’s mimetic insight concerning desire and violence. Thanks to Girard’s insight into the scapegoat mechanism at work throughout human culture it has become possible to make sense of Jesus’ death as being salvific for us in a way that is entirely orthodox and takes us away from imputing any vengeance or retribution to God. Girard has also opened up for me a very rich hermeneutic for Scripture, one that avoids the temptations to Marcionism on the one hand and Fundamentalism on the other. These three areas, God, Salvation, and Scripture, are the areas I pursue most relentlessly. The paradigm shift Girard enabled for me has led me to develop an adult introduction to the Christian faith, a course of twelve sessions that some friends are working to make available to a wider public. I hope this will be a contribution to the New Evangelization to which we are called—one that is genuinely good news and not bogged down in moralism.

I’ve also been trying for some time to make the case that the church can indeed, from within its own resources, move out of a false, and often a hateful, characterization of and set of attitudes toward gay and lesbian people. I’m convinced that no new evangelization will get very far while its principal proponents, apparently unaware of the power of the gospel they preach, remain hobbled by this sacralized taboo. More and more young people seem to pick this up very quickly.

Read the rest here…

6 Responses to “Interesting Interview with Theologian James Alison”

  1. Matthew M Says:

    While I disagree as a scholar of Blessed JPII “Theology of the Body” teachings (Man and Woman, God Created T, which build upon his “Love & Responsibility” and is a continuation of the Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae”, he does bring up some interesting thoughts, to which require further research to develop counter-arguments and further discussion.

    I would however, submit that on a not so superficial level, I did not fully understand his argument regarding celibacy. Would not following/choosing a celibate life, should it be one’s vocation, be the higher calling, and not contingent upon one’s possible “orientation” (of course I do not support the prenatal argument with relation to “orientation”). Would not being the spiritual father, the salvation of souls — bringing the Word Made Flesh through the Eucharist — be more important than “defining” oneself. And, this need not be solely within the confines of the ordained priesthood, as there are plenty of religious who live in community or alone as consecrated who serve the people of God at various levels.

    Would not it be better to only recognize each and everyone of us as fallen, struggling to fulfill a life graced by the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit? I recognize my limits as a simple layman, and may fully understand Mr. Alison’s concept regarding original sin, but I do believe that our call to holiness trumps the “definition” of oneself.

    • My impression of his attitude toward his vow of celibacy was that it was given under duress (too strong a word but I couldn’t think of anything else suitable) precisely because he viewed ordination so highly important. He seemed to believe it was questionable whether the vow could be viewed as gifting his life to the Church (“leaving a good for a good”) because of his previously existing obligation to a celibate life. Therefore, the vow could be viewed as an escape of sorts (“leaving an evil for a good”).

      • Matthew M Says:

        That part I too understood, and I appreciate the reinforcement. However, perhaps my challenge is at a higher level than our base nature. Whether one is “straight” or struggling with same-sex attraction, or somewhere in-between, it should not matter. What is important is that commitment to chasity and celibacy (depending on the profession of vows). If the argument is an “escape” (which do also recognize), then how therefore does the “wicked man turn from his ways”? How does the woman at the well go forth and sin more? Therefore, I do not fully accept the evil for good trade-off. We are ALL called to turn away from sin (and fail miserably mind you), especially that of the flesh.
        **I am not nieve to the fact that many priests and religious have used their vows as an “escape”, but commend (that too is a little strong), for perhaps hearing their vocation.

        Furthermore, since I do not fully support his idea of prenatal, and believe that nurture (both at home and societal) plays a crticial role on the formation of a person, especially that of gentle soul”, the person does have a choice to sacrifice his biological fatherhood per se. Additionally, I would also challenge the more humanistic, utilitarian viewpoint vice the divine nature of conjugal love, in which we are co-creators with God of a life.

        I recognize that Mr. Alison is trying to call awareness to a very sensative issue, and as I caveated, there are many points which need further discussion. What I find challenging is why does someone NEED to “come-out?” If we are all called to fulfill the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit, is not vain-glory counter to that of humility? Is not the vow of poverty about having nothing for self, and that of obedience placing everything in hands of God?

        These are just a few points and thought, that have not been fully formed.

    • If one’s call to holiness trumps the “definition” of oneself, then who , pray tell, is called to holiness? One’s “undefined” self? Isn’t self-knowledge an integral component of the call to hoiliness? Teresa of Avila states that even in the heights of contemplative awareness, one must constantly return to it.

      • Matthew M Says:

        I believe this to get into the vicious cycle of relativism. However, I believe that self-awareness should and always be based on Imago Dei, ergo inherently good, because God is good. Now, are we perfect? No, we are a copy of the original. What I believe to be our call of holiness is not a temporal journey of “self-realization” and “love-fest” of the new age Oprah-cons, but that of obedience and daily self-sacrifice to achieve the holiness, recognizing, “I” can do notihing on my own. It is not (IMHO) succumbing to the libertine definition of “freedom”

        Jesus, the Son of God, was perfect. And from the moment of His conception, He had a specific mission. Did he have complete self-awareness at His birth? Some say yes, and some say no. When did He come to full awareness of His self and salvific mission? After His wilderness journey and tempations, or His Baptism? I believe His mission was revealed to Him according to the Father’ will and time.

  2. Matthew Myers Says:

    I think James Alison is a remarkably well-balanced fellow. He offers many little jewels during this interview — but I am struck by his response to the question, “Are there things that Catholics who support your view on homosexuality do that drive you crazy?”

    Alison’s response is “The silence of those in positions of influence in the church who know, or have a strong suspicion, that being gay is a nonpathological minority variant in the human condition drives me crazy, far crazier than I am driven by any loud-mouthed purveyor of hateful nonsense.”

    I often wonder — how can we (I speak as a Catholic layperson) empower our Catholic leaders to break the silence to which Alison refers?

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