In a couple of recent posts, I have made reference to James Alison, a gay Catholic priest and theologian. Not long ago, I first ran across a piece written by Alison, and I immediately became intrigued by his writing.
Though coming out of the Catholic tradition, I thought that much of what I was reading by Alison is relevant to the gay Mormon experience. And, after all, we don’t exactly have any gay Mormon “theologians”, do we? So, my belief is that there is much out there, written by gay Catholic and Protestant writers, that can benefit all of us who have come out of a Mormon tradition.
Alison grew up in an evangelical (Protestant) family in England and converted to Catholicism when he was 18 years old. He entered the Dominicans in 1981, was ordained in 1988, and after studies at Oxford, completed his doctoral dissertation (on original sin) at the Jesuit Faculty in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He left the Dominican order in 1995, and a few months later, his lover died of AIDS. Since that time, Alison has been an “independent theologian,” writing and speaking on topics relating to Catholicism and homosexuality. He has lived and worked in Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile and the United States. He is currently based in São Paulo, Brazil.
I plan to publish posts from time to time about Alison’s writings, starting today with excerpts from a talk given in September 2010 at the Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney, entitled The Shape of God's Affection. The talk was featured on an Australian Broadcasting Corporation program called Encounter, hosted by David Rutledge, who prefaced presentation of Alison’s speech by saying, “It was about faith, and the remarkable outworkings of the idea that God doesn't just love us, but likes us as well.” Imagine.
Relaxing into God’s Embrace
“ … What I'm going to be exploring with you is how the gift of faith is God's way of enabling us to relax into God's embrace. If you think about it, the normal use of the word 'faith', if we take out all the celestial bit, if and when we use the word 'faith' in a normal human setting - if you believe someone likes you, you relax. The masks come down. You're able actually to let go of the tense self-presentation that accompanies being with someone who you're not sure whether they like you or not. So I just want to ask you to hold on to that, what we're talking about when we talk about the gift of faith is a habitual disposition to relax in the presence of someone who likes us.”
“We seem to regard it as obvious, that all religions are faiths. Whereas in fact most of the cultural forms of life that we refer to as religions, attribute either very little or no importance to faith. [For example,] the Hebrew religion … has … at its centre the notion of Torah, a legally given way of life, which is much more important than belief or concentration on the God. It's getting along with the way of life that's the important thing. And very frequently, that's the case with lots of different religious groups [Can you think of one such group?] … [But] the more you relax into the regard of someone who likes you, the less inclined you are to take very seriously the strictures of religious goodness.
“… No, the shape of God's affection is this: 'You're a susceptible bunch, you don't really think I like you. I'm really going to have to prove to you how much I like you … I'm trying to teach justification by faith. That's what it's about; it's the notion of God made present in the midst, as our forgiveness, and as we perceive his love for us [we say], 'Oh, so I no longer need to try.' And as I relax, I actually find myself wanting to respond in certain ways, actually being given another heart, another pattern of desire.”
Spoken Into Being
And that's the very odd experience of faith: you find yourself being spoken into being by someone who loves you. Just remember that we are all spoken into being by those who are other than us. The 'I' of every one of us is a multiplicity of voices, more or less stably held together, but sometimes we can hear little faint echoes, can't we, of the voices of our fathers or our mothers or schoolteachers or politicians, speaking through us. And part of the life of prayer is sitting in a place where we sift through, not being run by those voices any longer, and find that God our Father is able to talk a new 'I' into being. That's part of what goes on in the life of prayer and meditation.
But [it is] interesting, that part of this being talked into being by someone who loves us, has strange consequences. One of them is this: the richer and deeper the faith that is given us, the more secure we are about being insecure. Isn't that an odd truth? Part of the gift of faith is the ability to dwell with a certain insecurity, and a certain realisation that I may not have it right. I may not even be very truthful. I may not be very good. And that[‘s] OK, because it's someone Else's goodness that actually makes the difference, it's someone Else who's doing the hard work, and I who am becoming [is] a symptom of that something else over time, with a lot of kicking and screaming - in my case, anyway – on our part.
Faith, Doubt and Crisis
“One of the reasons why this is important is that it enables us to understand something about the proper place of doubt and of crises of faith within our life. One of the things we would expect if this picture that I've been giving you is true, is that as we relax and find ourselves undergoing this alteration of subjectivity … we find ourselves letting go of certain forms of security, who we thought we were, as we are talked into being.
“One of the things that happens is that we feel often in crisis; we are losing ourselves, and I want to say, Yes, that's not a crisis of faith, that's a crisis of self. And it's exactly what you would expect, if faith is true. After all, we are the symptoms of someone Else doing something. We are the ever-changing object which is the result of someone Else's activity. That's what faith is about, a certain being held.
“Doubt is exactly what you would expect within this certainty, which is someone Else holding us and all our points of reference changing. [We ask ourselves,] 'How does this fit together? How does the world which I thought I understood and in which I thought I knew how to be good and how to behave properly, how does that all look?' In other words, doubt is a proper part of the life of faith. It's how being held accompanies the huge shifts of personality that are going on.”