James Alison, the Roman Catholic theologian, priest, and author, currently travels the world as an itinerant witness for the reconciliation of faith and sexuality. Indeed, he is most well known for his work fostering dialogue regarding lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer (LGBTQ) issues within the larger church community, as well as his application of René Girard’s anthropological theories to the notions of atonement theory and general biblical hermeneutics. In this interview, Alison speaks with us about his work on the issue of sexuality and about how he attempts to create a dialogical space around this topic in his Catholic context.
The Other Journal (TOJ): You speak often of your desire to help unbind the gay conscience. What does this mean, and how do you find yourself living into this unbinding?
James Alison (JA): I hope that what I have expressed is a desire to help facilitate the process of Jesus unbinding our gay consciences—not simply my gay conscience, but any part of any person’s conscience that stops them from living fully into the person they were created to be. I think it’s no surprise that many gay people, specifically with a religious or spiritual background or belonging, not only have some difficulty finding that it’s OK being who they are, but also have trouble moving beyond that difficulty so as to find a positive and creative sense of living out who they are. And it seems to me that this is part of what the gospel’s about: Jesus coming along side us and showing us that we aren’t who we thought we were but, in fact, we are something much bigger and better. And this works through us being unbound by certain traps of desire and of identity and being opened up into people who are able to desire more, imagine better, and love more fiercely.
Nevertheless, this requires a lot of patient little undoing work, to undo little amounts of the things that bind us into being people who don’t live fully into our image and our personhood. Of course, this unbinding is advancing at a pretty hefty pace as the generations move on, thankfully. But the question of how Jesus is unbinding the conscience of people is not peripheral to the gospel—it is the gospel. And what has been important to me, as a Catholic priest and theologian who is also gay, is to insist that we are all a part of the same community, the same community in which all members are working, not simply the gay members, but all members are in the process of letting Jesus unbind their conscience.
TOJ: So how to you find yourself personally facilitating Jesus unbinding all of our consciences within the context of the larger Roman Catholic Church, especially regarding the LGBTQ community?
JA: I try to make sense of the obvious. In a sense, that is all I do in this area: I try to remind people what the most traditional church teaching is on the relationship between nature and grace, which is that, in some sense, nature is perfected by grace. The same one who creates us redeems us. And he hasn’t redeemed us by despising that which he created, but by making it much more perfect. The moment this becomes clear or accepted, that what we call being “gay” or being “lesbian” is not any sort of pathology, either psychological or physiological, but what I refer to as a regularly occurring non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, whether Church authority likes it or not, the teaching will change and has changed. Because the teaching that stays the same is the teaching about grace. So the question isn’t, “must the Church change its teachings?” but given that we have been shown something new, “how will the Church adapt and face up to this new truth?”
To me, that seems like a particularly Catholic response because, as you know, the Catholic Church has a much different way of handling the Bible than the Protestants do. The specific biblical texts don’t weigh on the Catholic conscience in the same way they do on people from the Protestant tradition. In fact, in the Catholic Church, there has always been a good deal of subtlety and freedom in terms of how biblical texts are handled. It is much more a matter of allowing people not to be frightened by the fact that there is something real and good that has been discovered. According to some of the most basic tenets of faith and self-understating, this means that something positive has happened which propels us into a bigger world than we existed in before. It really is more a sense of getting people unfrightened. Now, the Catholic laity has proved very good at getting unfrightened, but not so much the Catholic clergy and hierarchy. They will have to patiently work through the theological and philosophical implications of this, and also—and this is the sad, obvious truth—this is a particularly difficult area of conversation in my church community because the presence of gayness is so huge among the clergy, and yet we’re living in a very closeted world. And traditionally a closeted world is the most difficult world for the truth about an issue to penetrate. So really, the matter of how the Catholic Church will adapt must balance, on the one hand, the need not to scandalize people too much by moving too easily and quickly, and on the other hand, the necessity to heal the deep personal fears and feelings of annihilation and loss of personhood that result from current Catholic belief. And when these factors combine, it creates a peculiar and difficult tension for leadership.
TOJ: Do you see this issue, then, as an analogue to the Copernican Revolution? Is this topic a heliocentric debate, only inside a twenty-first century context?
JA: Yes, I think that’s a good analogy in the sense that Catholic theological discussions have tended to start from the position of humanity being intrinsically heterosexual and everything else being some sort of perversion from it. And if that is where you start from, then yes, your moral astronomy will be very Ptolemaic, and you may get caught up in the Ptolemaic attempt to multiply explanations so as to keep the whole thing going.
TOJ: So how do you find the Roman Catholic ecclesia responding to your work?
JA: Well, of course it’s a huge body, I think about 0.000002 percent have ever even heard of me. But having said that, I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised—I’ve had very little hassle in the last several years. But one of the reasons is because I have no job for anyone to fire me from. And I think that, in and of itself, is quite an important ecclesial statement, because it is far easier to tell the truth about difficult matters if you have nothing to lose. Every now and again I bump into bishops or archbishops who are really quite friendly regarding what I’m attempting to do, who are themselves aware that something’s been shifting around them, and, by and large, I’m not their worst problem. And to them, someone who is willing to speak the truth in love, even if I don’t get it totally right, is a less frightening conversation partner than either a rabid truth seeker who is unwilling to dialogue or, more frequently, a person who is more right-wing than they are, because, remember, typical church leaders, whether on the right or left, tend to spend most of their time surviving attacks from people who are even more right-wing than they are. From that point of view, I am something of a relief to talk to. I really have been pleasantly surprised by how unhostile other leaders are. It doesn’t mean I’m invited to things or spoken to publicly about things or referenced publicly, but I think that the silence is a benign silence. And even if it isn’t, I think it’s important to interpret it as benign, otherwise one gets paranoid.
TOJ: Are you aware of how the Protestant Church reacts to your scholarship?
JA: Well, I am very aware that there are people pleased with the biblical scholarship piece. That’s very much a part of what I get from René Girard: my ability to read the Bible in a certain way. I think people are just pleased to see somebody who is recovering, in fact, what is a very ancient method of reading, but one that can be informed by modern concerns without becoming a feature of Enlightenment flatness. And I think, for me, that is what Girard does: he enables us to hold on to that which is fundamental without being fundamentalists.
TOJ: As a theologian and a scholar, in what direction do you find yourself being pulled? Where do you see your work moving in the next few years?
JA: Ha! The future of my work? What is that joke—tell God your plans and hear him laugh? Much of my life has been spent in the reality of that joke!
I just finished writing up this twelve-session adult introduction to the Christian faith in the light of Girard’s thought. This is a course that has been forming for years, and the idea is to make it available either on DVD or some web or other digital form. It’s composed of film material, text, and a teacher’s guide, and I’m hoping it will become a useful resource. I discuss the Scapegoat Mechanism, Girard’s thoughts on mimetic rivalry, and what hospitality toward the Other should look like in light of the life of Jesus. But the whole point of this is that one can see and experience the work that I have done without me needing to be there. I guess I just hope it’s an encouragement for people who are already thinking in new and creative ways, and also that it’s a way for those who are new to the topic to get a good introduction to the heart of the gospel message and what it means for us in this new millennium.