I distinctly remember the first time I met James Alison. For a number of years I had been recommending his brilliant book The Joy of Being Wrong to students when I was teaching at Oxford. It is still my go-to book on why the doctrine of Original Sin is such a generous and forgiving idea.
But despite having admired his writing, we had never met. On the back cover of the book is the photo of a tall thin man with big sticky out ears. I imagined him as a bit geeky, shy, awkward. And then, after some correspondence, we met. He came to my house in Putney, and the moment he walked in I realised I had imagined him all wrong. He has that bearing — common among old Etonians and very posh people — that takes up all the space, that pulls in attention from every corner of the room. It is close to arrogance, but it is not the same thing. For want of a better word I will call it presence.
James’ latest essay published this week in The Christian Century shows a theologian at the very top of his game, writing theology as it should be written, as if your life depended on it. For James, theology is always an invitation to a kind of intensified autobiography — the drama of the human relationship with God, and the release that takes place when you discover that it’s not all about the drama.
James’ father was a Conservative politician and Private Secretary to Margaret Thatcher. He was also a profoundly conservative evangelical — which is how James came to be baptised by Rev John Stott, the ‘evangelical pope’. His journey from such beginnings to becoming an out gay Roman Catholic theologian was always going to leave a considerable psychological trace, and one that would need to be reckoned with — though I should not describe him as a gay theologian, because that might be to risk marginalising his significance.
The role homosexuality plays in his work is more as a marker of the universal struggle to be fully and joyfully human before a God that is often unfairly cast as austere and judgmental. He writes so well about this fake God and its malign effects:
Do read this wonderful essay. And maybe even some of his books — he remains the foremost theological authority on Rene Girard. Perfect summer/lockdown material. He reminds me that theology can’t really be done unless it risks some kind of exposure. As St Augustine rightly understood, all theology is a kind of confession. And few people understand this better than James Alison — who remains the most interesting theologian writing in English today.