Last Friday I had the opportunity to meet one of my theological heroes, James Alison. Some of you may be asking yourselves, what heroic act has Alison performed? In the comments below, I’ll point out two examples.
Let’s begin with the glaring conflict between the Johannine identity of God as love (1 John 4:7-21) and the traditional theory (in its many variants) of atonement. How does one reconcile an understanding of God as overflowing, gratuitous love with the ultimately vindictive nature underlying substitutionary atonement, which argues essentially that Christ suffered punishment in the place of humanity, thereby satisfying the demand for justice, so that God can justly forgive the sins of humanity? The theological importance of this question is amplified in the context of an inter-relational (over and against an understanding based upon divine versus created essence) understanding of the Trinity (see Catherine Mowry LaCugna’s God for Us). This is to say, if one understands the Trinity as rooted in relationship, the most acceptable theory of atonement (the condition of being at-one with) demands an understanding of the relationship between God and humanity rooted in the identity of God as love. Alison elegantly resolves the conflict by (i) pointing out the laser-focus of the traditional theory on sin, rather than God, and its presupposition that we have “an independent source of knowledge as to what sin is, prior to and independent of any knowledge of salvation.”; and substituting a theocentric understanding of the revelation of salvation in the resurrection of Jesus, which demands that “sin is only and always a term that is ancillary to, or secondary to, and dependent on, an understanding of salvation…sin is ‘that which can be forgiven’.” Thus, by shifting the focus from the egocentricity of sin to the theocentricity of forgiving, we gain an “understanding of salvation which is purely gratuitous, without any element of retribution, and in which forgiveness is a divinely initiated process lived out in our midst with a view to making us participants in something bigger than we are.” Clearly, this simple shift in focus from the sinfulness of humanity to God’s preference for forgiving produces a theory of atonement that enriches both the Johannine identity of God as love and our understanding of the inter-relational Trinity.
Like the feminist theologians who remind us of the patriarchal and androcentric elements of Christian tradition and the liberation theologians who remind us of our role in the structural oppression of the poor and weak, Alison reminds us of our tendency to demonize the created ‘other’. One need only look at today’s characterization of Islam or our historical characterization ofGermanyandJapanduring the Second World War to understand what I mean. As an openly gay clergyman, Alison has heroically strived to reconcile his faith within a church that fundamentally rejects him. In this regard, he challenges the church to reject the characterization of gay and lesbian individuals as “defective heterosexuals” and suggests that over time we might understand same-sex relationships as benignly other, much like our understanding of left-handedness. Thus, just as society once used the Bible to justify slavery, Alison’s hope is that today’s use of scripture to condemn same-sex relationships will seem as anachronistic as a contemporary reading of Genesis 9:20-27.
I admire the theological approach of James Alison because he thinks synthetically and systematically. I admire the person of James Alison because he knows that he is loved as a child of God and, in turn, he loves his church so dearly that he is willing to suffer rejection and persecution in his efforts to illustrate the identity of God as love. On paper, Alison is my theological hero; in person, he is the kind of individual with whom I would be proud to share a beer and discuss the wonders of God’s creation.