Wednesday, September 23, 2009

James Alison at Fairfield University

James Alison spoke at Fairfield last evening, giving a talk titled "Something for Everyone: Gay Catholics as Good News for a Changing Church.''

A systematic theologian, Alison claims that Catholic theology is facing a fundamental shift as it assimilates a new anthropological insight, that is, that homosexuality (he eschews the language of 'orientation') is a real "minority variant." Only in the last fifty years, he notes, have we had a situation in which we can think with some detachment about homosexuality, by employing empirical observations and scientific studies rather than cultural norms that use categories of deviance and disorder. His emphasis is on the "newness" of this anthropological fact, and its reverberations: "We are in the presence of a discovery -- once made, it becomes a fulcrum."

We have before us, therefore, something new in the world of truth, which should be cause for a re-thinking of the Catholic faith, given its profound commitment to truth and rejection of relativism. (One could also argue this anthropological insight on sacramental grounds.) And, in good systematic fashion, he further argues that the knowledge that homosexuality is a "regularly occurring minority variant" calls for a similar recalibration of what "we thought we knew" about heterosexuality. His analogy here is that of the "discovery" of the Americas in 1492, as this discovery didn't simply supply missing information about an empty spot on the 1491 map, rather, "the whole thing was off."

He presses the point, claiming that small accommodations or "incremental moral arguments" are inadequate to the fulcrum shift he describes. Much of his argument rests on his understanding of truth, which seems to stand outside history, while he simultaneously poses an understanding of the "deposit of faith" that is radically open-ended. Too much of the "official" story of the Catholic tradition (particularly in our own day), he suggests, amounts to an ongoing and fearful re-packaging of a very narrow view of its own claim: "God did not do a small thing that we have to cling to, God did a big thing that is still unfolding..."

The best thing, particularly for our many students in attendance, was simply listening to James Alison speak with obvious joy about the Catholic faith, recognizing the points of pain yet refusing to reduce his own experience to a political or ideological position -- and inviting us to do the same. The gifts of a life in the Spirit were on full display.

I link to James' own website above. He also had some interesting (and I think correct) observations about Pope Benedict, that I find in this piece: "The pain and the endgame: reflections on a whimper."

For a quick read to give you a sense of his work, try the Introduction to his book Faith Beyond Resentment. Many have also read, and passed along, his "Letter to a Young Gay Catholic."