James Alison, Broken Hearts, New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal (Book Review)

(Darton Longman & Todd Ltd, 2011, ISBN 978-0-232-52796-4)

Martin Pendergast

The Dominican itinerant preacher spirit still imbues James Alison as he wanders the globe doing theology, reflecting on fundamental issues of faith from a gay perspective. Ever at pains to point out that he does not aim to be a ‘gay theologian’, Alison’s theological vision is therefore attractive to gay and straight Christians alike bringing fresh interpretations of scripture and doctrine to many of those on the edge of fully embracing faith.

James Alison’s way with words is richly creative, sometimes to the point of idiosyncrasy. While readers might often be seduced by such word-craft, in whatever translated language they read his books or website content - www.jamesalison.co.uk - most are agreed that it takes about three readings to begin to understand his points. This is far from an accusation that he is ‘too clever by half ’, but rather that here is a theologian whose prophetic message is to challenge those ‘who have ears, but cannot hear, or eyes but cannot see’.

Alison’s freshness of approach, often ‘deploying tradition against itself – or rather against traditionalism’, as Rowan Williams commented, calls to mind that great Jesuit theologian, Bernard Lonergan’s book, Insight. Here too were traditional categories of language being used to bring faith understanding. It is easy to see why Williams, another great craftsman with theological words, can praise Alison’s ‘very rare gift in making the New Testament really new to the reader’. Reviewing James’ Faith Beyond Resentment, Williams wrote, ‘the very best theological books leave you with a feeling that perhaps it’s time you became a Christian; this is emphatically such a book.’ The same can be said of this latest collection of Alison’s lectures and writings.

Alison remarks in the Introduction to Broken Hearts & New Creations, that its chapters are culled from four years working out ‘ever more fully the fecundity of what Rene Girard describes as his two ideas: the mimetic nature of desire, and the discovery of the implications form hominisation and cultural foundations of the scapegoat mechanism’.

Girard’s mimetic theory has huge implications for psychology and anthropology, but also for theology, and it is Alison’s application of this to the latter which has prompted Girard to describe James as ‘the best exponent of my thought in the English language’. James notes that in this theory ‘the other, the social other, always precedes us, moves us, and gives us to be. In other words, while I may think I have made an independent rational choice to act on my own impulse … there is in fact a huge social powerhouse, a weight of gravity moving one from within to develop that desire, follow that impulse and “find” myself within the experience’.

Theology is not concerned primarily with the social other, but with the ‘Other other’, not part of the social order, but who has brought it into being and maintains it. The self-disclosure of the ‘Other other’ is not simply passing information about itself, but rather communicating a desire which neither rivals nor oppresses us, and which imparts an awareness that not only are we loved, but, as in the title of another of Alison’s books, we are actually ‘liked’.

The ‘Other other,’ named as the Creator God, is at the heart of what James describes as ‘a great reversal’ in the process of creation. His contention is that if we own the true insights of the Council of Trent in expounding creation theology, many of the arguments around human sexuality which paralyse global Christianity, might be avoided. If concupiscence is a condition we all share as a disordered desire, doesn’t this challenge the way in which some speak of disordered desires only in the context of variant sexual orientations or gender identity? Whatever happened to the foundational belief in creation theology that ‘God saw that it was good’ and that all is grace, conditional on human subjectivity embracing the gift?

Creation, sin, redemption, grace, sacrament and sacrifice, discipleship, eucharist, priesthood, violence, reconciliation, forgiveness, are themes which form a theological litany in Broken Hearts & New Creations. Some chapters speak for themselves: Is it ethical to be Catholic? Queer perspectives, Discipleship & Belonging, Is secularity really the enemy?, Living the Magnificat, Letter to a Young Gay Catholic. Intriguing as are titles such as Befriending the Vacuum - not a theology of household chores, but receiving responsibility for an ecclesial spirituality - or Brokeheart Mountain, not a film review, but reflections on monotheism, idolatry and the Kingdom - Alison points to further reflection in some challenging subtitles: On being afraid and its ecclesial shape, Reflections on a whimper, The changes in tone of the voice of God.

Some chapters draw from the participatory reflections which James has developed in a 12-part programme, The Forgiving Victim, an introduction to Christian faith for critical adults. Using audio visual tools for reflection, he hopes to make this available in 2012. Other elements will be found in On Being Liked and Undergoing God. Those who have taken part in ‘trial runs’ of this course testify to the radical way in which James Alison enables individuals and communities to ‘inhabit the text’ of scripture, and likewise ‘inhabit the text’ of faith, moving us on beyond our prized but maybe too cosily secure possessions of religious belief.

If Broken Hearts & New Creations wets your appetite for James Alison’s theology, don’t delay in getting the simpler Knowing Jesus, his reflections on creation and original sin through Easter eyes in The Joy of Being Wrong, or the challenges of eschatology, Living in the End Times – the last things re-imagined (also published as Raising Abel). Don’t be put off by hints of hard graft, understanding Alison’s quick turn of phrase. Rejoice at his wild, occasionally camp, injection of humour in doing theology, but above all take the risk of growing up in faith.

This book review first appeared in The Way – the Jesuit review of Christian spirituality.

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