In Defense of Desire: The Theology of James Alison
Ruddy, Christopher, Commonweal
It is said that there are two kinds of theologians: those whose subject is theology, and those whose subject is God. James Alison studies God. Best known as a "gay theologian," for his extensive writings on homosexuality, Alison is a priest no longer attached to a diocese or religious order--in his own word, a "nonperson" canonically.
Born in Britain in 1959, Alison was raised as an Evangelical and became a Catholic at eighteen. He entered the Dominicans in 1981, was ordained in 1988, and, after studies in Oxford, completed his doctoral dissertation (on original sin) at the Jesuit theological faculty in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Alison left the Dominican Order in 1995 under pressure from many of its South American leaders (the circumstances are not fully explained in his writings); a few months later, he suffered his lover's death from AIDS. Apart from occasional teaching positions in Latin America and the United States, he has since been a peripatetic lecturer and retreat-giver--returning, he has wryly commented, to the mendicant vocation of an original Dominican, itinerantly preaching and begging for money.
Inevitably, as a gay theologian, Alison has been a controversial figure. Some detractors condemn him as one of the "lavender spin doctors" who interpreted Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus caritas est, as a message friendly to homosexuality--"an invitation for us to work out a Catholic culture of same-sex love," Alison told a 2006 audience at the (Jesuit) University of San Francisco. But Alison's many admirers find in him a theological writer of powerful freshness and insight. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls his books "frighteningly profound." Boston College theology professor Charles Hefling praises the "effervescence" of his writings, citing "a vivacious enthusiasm not commonly found in serious theology." Alison's books, comments Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, "leave you with a feeling that perhaps it's time you became a Christian."
These books, including Raising Abel (1996), The Joy of Being Wrong (1998), and Undergoing God (2006), treat themes running from Creation to Resurrection, offering what is best described, not as gay theology, but as Catholic theology from a gay perspective. An abiding personal theme has been Alison's refusal to repudiate the faith that he believes to some extent has repudiated him. ("Give me that old-time religion," he told a seminarian who asked, at a 2006 talk in Milwaukee, why his approach to theology, as a gay man, was not aggressively revisionist.) And it is true that Alison's theology, which springs from a discovery of God's creative generosity in the midst of human violence and death, has much to offer Catholicism and Christianity as a whole. He has a gift for recovering seemingly fusty, marginal topics--concupiscence, for instance, or the Assumption--and bringing forth their relevance and depth. His influence, moreover, is spreading, and was discernible this past summer in Archbishop Williams's addresses at the Anglican Communion's Lambeth Conference.
Alison is an engaging writer whose style is at once conversational and convoluted, witty and at times even campy. Take, for example, his account (in the Christian Century) of his first experience of formal theological study, recalling the enormous amount of reading and his sensation of "drowning":
Day after day, week after week, author after author, opinion after opinion, a sea of words was being poured on me from every angle. They were opening up new horizons and challenging bits of surety in the pit of my stomach--until the little Inquisitor General on his throne in the upper part of my skull could take it no longer. He had been accustomed to sitting there, serenely sifting through such little ideas as my reading and listening had brought before him, routinely and elegantly trashing them from a position of enormous imagined superiority . …