In Defense of Desire: The Theology of James Alison

By Ruddy, Christopher | Commonweal, January 30, 2009 | Go to article overview

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 . 

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

In Defense of Desire: The Theology of James Alison
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.