Challenging deceptive sacrificial notions in Christianity

The transcript of the Religion Report, a radio programme of an Australian broadcaster, RN

Well British, gay, Catholic, priest theologian, James Alison delivered the Annual Morpeth Lecture last week for Newcastle University, and the cathedral, the Anglican Cathedral in Newcastle.

He’s the author of a number of books, including ‘The Joy of Being Wrong’ and a new book ‘On Being Liked’, and he’s trying to think through a new Christianity, one that doesn’t draw its strength from creating new pariahs and outcasts.

James Alison came into our Melbourne studios the other day and we began by speaking about a thinker who’s been a great influence on him, French thinker, Rene Girard who argues that sacrificial violence is at the heart of all human culture. Why does he think the thought of Rene Girard represents such a breakthrough?

James Alison: I suppose because he brings together a whole lot of things that people have thought better kept in separate departments, as it were. His central understanding, if you like, is that at the basis of human culture is the covering up of a murder and the turning of it into sacrifice. Our process of humanisation includes an involvement in keeping culture alive by violence. That’s not the same as saying that humans are naturally violent, and curiously it’s saying that humans have become culturally violent. And if you like, what it’s trying to overcome if you like, is the sort of dichotomy between the Enlightenment, which sees itself as clear-headed and level-headed, particularly about nasty things like religion, and religion which is supposed to be all about weird things like sacrifice and so on. And showing instead how the religious overcoming of sacrifice has been the most important source of enlightenment in our world. And this is a big claim, and as you can imagine, it’s got quite a number of people running around looking to see whether it might be true or not.

Stephen Crittenden: And is the crucifixion, James, a religious overcoming of violence, or is it more of the same?

James Alison: It’s the subversion from within of the typical human sacrificial mechanism. If you like, it’s the undoing of religion from within. Now whether you call that religion or not is another matter, I mean the tendency of it is the possibility of the creation of what we would call a benign secular. I think that’s one of the key questions which we’re looking at now, in a world that seems suddenly to have got a lot more ‘religious’.

Stephen Crittenden: James, our more conservative religious leaders these days are increasingly on about secularism as the big enemy; are you actually saying that the importance of Jesus lies in the fact that he was creating the possibility of a secular space?

James Alison: Well it’s not only I am saying that, that does appear to be how the Bible presents it. If you look at the Book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem, the city coming down out of heaven, doesn’t have a temple, something which is often not remembered, but that’s the point. The point is that it’s the overcoming of the world of the violent sacred. This has been done by Jesus showing us what it’s really about, enabling us to see murder beneath what we are inclined to call sacrifice, and learn how not to do it. And thus start to be able to live together in non-sacrificial ways.

Stephen Crittenden: And so you’re suggesting that I guess the history of human culture, even up to and including the present day in the Christian churches, is about an oscillation between self-confidence about all of that, and a kind of a fear and a withdrawal into sort of tribal fear.

James Alison: Stop the world, I want to get off, and I think that’s precisely what we’re faced with at the moment. We’re faced with some people who are retreating into religion as a Stop the world, I want to get off, rather than appreciating that what we have been given by Jesus, and this is the central Christian claim, that Jesus was not a god producing a religious salvation cult, but that Jesus was the creator, opening up for us the possibility of being participants in creation.

Now the first Jesus as God doing a salvation cult, that’s a religious package. Jesus as creator, opening up the possibility for us to be full-time participants in creation, that’s the beginnings of the possibility of us becoming the free, happy owners and runners of this place. That’s the being given the possibility of the benign secular. It’s what you’d expect. If this is God’s creation, then when we have got over our own mucking-up of it, it should be possible for us to be able to enjoy it without religious structures.

Stephen Crittenden: James, let’s talk to the issue of homosexuality, which is dividing the churches so much at the moment, and I want to ask you about the issue of gay marriage. Most people I know straight and gay, groan loudly whenever they hear that term. What’s your view?

James Alison: Well it varies so much from country to country doesn’t it? My view is that I look forward to the day when the civil equivalent of heterosexual marriage is available to people regardless of their gender. I think that there’s a very interesting question then arises of what is that going to look like in the religious sphere? I think that it’s important.

Stephen Crittenden: Yes, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s going to look like in the civil sphere, don’t we already?

James Alison: I hope so. Depending. From country to country, it varies. The answer is, one of the things it’s going to look like is not a big deal. In the places where it’s happened, despite many loud prophecies, the world has not come to an end. Heterosexual marriage is not tainted, children are not any more abused than they are in other places, etc. etc. Those things, the, as it were, the hanging chads are beginning to be counted on that one, as it were. I think the interesting question is precisely what it’s going to look like in the religious sphere, and we don’t know. We haven’t had long enough to work out I think what same-sex partnerships look like as blessed entities within communities of life. And that I think is the challenge, what is it for us, those of us who are gay, who are lucky enough to be in partnerships, which is not my case, to make of our shared life a sign that is part of a blessing for the wider group. Now that’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of concentration on our part I think, as gay people. Because one of sad things that has happened over the last 30 or 40 years, as, if you like, the reality of gay has emerged and become more visible, and the churches have retreated into more puritanical mode when faced with this, has precisely been that it’s been much easier for us both gay people and the churches, to live in a world in which there is gay which is naughty but nice, if you like, and then there is good but boring, and the two are in spheres that don’t cross each other. I think the difficulty is going to be for us in learning how something can be gay and good at the same time. And I don’t mean just that in some sort of abstract ethical sense, I mean in terms of a life lived openly in the middle of the community. We’re talking about overcoming our own puritanism.

Stephen Crittenden: It’s interesting, you’re talking about overcoming our own puritanism, and that raises an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: one of the things that’s going on in the churches at the moment, linked to that, linked to the idea that perhaps for want of a better term, a holiness tradition is coming under pressure. I always think about what was that heresy of the early church, is it the donatist heresy where only perfect people were allowed to officiate at the sacrament. The sacrament administered by a sinful priest wasn’t a sacrament, a valid sacrament. Is that something that’s going on at the moment, the holiness tradition, the puritan tradition flexing its muscles certainly, but under pressure.

James Alison: Well again, that’s something that’s much more obvious within Protestant churches than within Catholic ones, because as you know, obviously the whole of the Catholic church depends on the sacramental system. Which is, by definition, something to do with the means to holiness, in other words, it means provided not by us, but by God. So if you like, I think that there is an attempt being made to constantly tighten access to sacraments, and to recreate systems of purity, and these don’t work, and they’re rather fragile. So you’re right, they’re under pressure, and they’re under pressure from reality. The more strident voices get, the more fragile the reality of upholding is, is a general rule. And I think you’re right, there are people who are protesting a loss of world by trying to create a narrow universe in which people can be safe with certainty.

Stephen Crittenden: I want to take you finally to another tradition, I suppose. Going back again to the early church, and to ask you whether a figure like St Augustine who is obviously such a powerful, philosophical influence on the entire Western tradition, and not just in any one way. There’s so many different sides to his philosophy. But do you think it may be that, and this is a question certainly coming from a Catholic point of view, that we’re in the midst of shaking off the Augustinian tradition? Sex is sinful, the split between body and soul, original sin, man is a lump of perdition.

James Alison: Yes, I hope that we’re not in the process of losing St Augustine, because it’s St Augustine’s understanding of desire as being what this is all about, which is one of the most important parts of our tradition. Now there have been exaggerated readings of that, and there are bits of St Augustine as with bits of any great thinker, that get past their sell-by date. But just to give you an idea of how important St Augustine is; recently a friend who works in Islamic Studies, tells me that one of the books that has recently been translated into Persian, at the request of the Iranian Ayatollahs, is Augustine’s “City of God”.

Stephen Crittenden: It says a lot about Islam that they’ve finally got round to it after this long.

James Alison: Well ecco but it’s extraordinarily important. Please remember that Augustine’s ‘City of God’ is the foundation of that place of freedom that we were talking about earlier, because it’s the recognition that we’re talking about two cities, not whole that have got to be together the whole time. And this is the possibility, this is the place from which freedom comes. So let’s not be too speedy about ditching Augustine, there’s an awful lot of tremendously important stuff there. And it is interesting, that actually the teachings of the Councils of the church concerning original sin, of which I’m a great fan I should say because I think the purpose of the doctrine of original sin is not a mat accusation of how awful you all are, but please recognise how all of you are in this together, and none of you is better than each other, therefore none of you can judge each other. That’s the principal purpose of the doctrine of original sin. Now that’s not often the version of it that we get, but that’s the version that the Councils of the church are teaching. And it’s interesting that the Councils of the church do moderate St Augustine, in other words, there are bits of St Augustine that they say, ‘No, we’re not going there’, most notably in the Council of Trent.

Stephen Crittenden: Would you agree that if the 20th century has taught us anything, it’s taught us about human sinfulness, that the doctrine of original sin may be misunderstood but it’s actually quite important.

James Alison: I think that’s right. The doctrine of original sin says Look at those pictures from Abu Gharib, and see yourselves, that any one of us could have been young, white trash soldiers, sent away on a ghastly war for no real purpose, and finding ourselves curiously attracted by being given strange power over people and finding ourselves humiliating them and abusing them in ways which we would never have done at home, as it were. That any one of us could be that. They are not unlike us in that.

Stephen Crittenden: And that is what humans are like?

James Alison: That is what humans are like, people who run the risk of ending up doing that, unless they fight against it. It’s a humbling thought, but otherwise, what we do is we stand back and say Look at them, monsters’. They aren’t monsters, this could happen to any of us and resisting it, or in the traditional language, overcoming our concupiscence, resisting concupiscence, and concupiscence of course does not mean in the first instance, to do with sex, it’s the disturbed pattern of desire, resisting concupiscence is a struggle for all of us. Now that’s what the doctrine of original sin says, and I think that learning to see our similarity with people, and therefore not regarding them as monsters, is a vital learning tool for all of us.