COV&R-Bulletin No. 14 (March 1998)
James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes. New York: Crossroad Herder, forthcoming in 1998.1
Alison, who now holds the T. L. James Chair of Religion at Centenary College, works in two directions with Girard's mimetic model. On the one hand, he demonstrates that through the exercise of human reason and critical use of the model, a new and exciting perspective on the human condition and human potential is gained. On the other hand, his theological concern is to shed new light on the ancient Christian doctrine of original sin. Although a "secular" analysis of human behavior and theological interpretation may overlap and agree up to a point, it is only from the standpoint of the meaning and significance of the resurrection of Christ that a radical view of the human predicament and human possibilities is gained. The mediating concept between a secular analysis and a theological analysis based on divine revelation is forgiveness. Both the realm of secular or natural reason and the realm of faith and theology can agree on the problem of desire leading to rivalry, conflict, and violence and the need for reconciliation of parties in conflict or war. From the Christian theological side, however, forgiveness and reconciliation between human beings becomes actual and constant only through divine empowerment.
As intimated in the first sentence, the title of the book catches nicely the object of the argument, which is that our nature may be changed, we are not simply duped by external forces or imprisoned within ourselves. Real conversion is possible. "Original sin" is not known prior to redemption and resurrection, but is seen and acknowledged "through Easter eyes." The author makes his argument in two main parts, "Constructing a theological anthropology" and "Stretching the shape of forgiveness." The third and concluding part is a much shorter but highly instructive essay, "Is this what the Church believes?" Surveying Old and New Testament texts, creeds and statements of church councils, papal teachings, and the thought of Augustine and Thomas, he maintains that his proposed theological anthropology explicating original sin is both understandable and faithful to Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium, and so should be taken seriously by the church.
One of the greatest virtues of the book is that it brings together and integrates a whole body of Girardian research and writing in the focus on original sin and ecclesiology. As is apparent in his footnotes and bibliography, Alison not only draws upon Girard as "a man who told me all that I ever did" (see "Introduction"), but also Jean-Michel Oughourlian, Eric Gans, Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Andrew McKenna, Raymund Schwager, and others. The work of Schwager and Alison is complementary, and they could profitably be read in tandem. The imminent appearance of two more of Schwager's books in English2 should become the basis of a healthy dialogue, enriching the thought not only of these two theologians, but instructing and stimulating all of those interested in mimetic anthropology as a way of opening up the Christian theological tradition.
Another significant author Alison takes into account at a number of points is John Milbank, particularly for his book Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason. Milbank argues that the most important sociological tradition of the 19th century was actually secularized theology. Alison turns this around and asks about the implicit social theory in biblical and Christian thought. He does not accept Milbank's "postmodern" perspective which carves out a place for Christianity by maintaining that Christian faith is no less rational or irrational than dominant secular positions. Milbank's argument works only if one agrees that faith is not rational, at least outside its own boundaries. Alison, to the contrary, argues for the traditional Catholic doctrine of faith and reason, the natural and the supernatural as cooperating realities that not only do not contradict each other, but imply each other. This is important in his concluding essay in which he argues for the relevance of his contribution for understanding and further developing the interlinked spheres of reason, natural law, and rational political ethics.
This is, in my judgment, a ground-breaking work. It is heavily dependent on Girard's theory of the mimetic scapegoat mechanism. But the author takes this base capital and appreciates it in various and illuminating ways and across a broad range of texts. The appearance of this book and the eventual publication of Schwager's Jesus im Heilsdrama (and, it is to be hoped, his Erbs nde und Heilsdrama) should prepare the way for a new theological movement in the English-speaking world.
James G. Williams
1 Scheduled for publication in March, 1998. Read by reviewer in uncorrected proofs.
2 Both will be published by Crossroad. Dem Netz des Jgers entronnen. Wie Jesus sein Leben verstand is scheduled to appear in March, 1998 as Jesus of Nazareth: How He Understood His Life. Jesus im Heilsdrama. Entwurf einer biblischen Erl sungslehre should be published late in 1998 or early in 1999 as a Crossroad Herder book, under the title Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Sketch of a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption.