Book Notes: Undergoing God

A rarity among Christian apologists, gay Catholic theologian James Alison combines intellectual sophistication with personal vulnerability and sincerity, leaving the reader with the impression that he has truly staked his life on the beliefs he expounds. 

Alison is one of those authors whose writings all spring from a central idea. In his case, the idea is that we fallen human beings try to shore up our selfhood by defining ourselves against a scapegoated group, but Christ voluntarily took on the scapegoat role we are all trying to avoid, and thereby gave us a new identity as the people whom God loves. All comparisons among ourselves are revealed as idolatrous and insubstantial compared to our universal sinfulness vis-a-vis Christ, whose love gives us the courage to face this reality and not be undone by it.

In Undergoing God, a collection of Alison’s recent essays and lectures, he applies this paradigm to the controversy over gays and the church. A few of these essays are available on his website.

Below are some quotes from one of my favorites, “Wrath and the gay question: on not being afraid, and its ecclesial shape”. This piece, not included in the book, is a good introduction to his thought. Alison argues that both liberal and fundamentalist Christians wrongly pride themselves on their attitude toward the gay and lesbian “difference”. The truly Christian response would be to recognize our common humanity and deconstruct all conceptual schemes that make our goodness dependent on the creation of an Other, whether we affirm that Other or condemn him.

…I would like to trace with you the way in which there is both no violence in Christ, and yet the result of his coming includes violence. To trace the process by which “the wrath of God”, something literally attributed to the divinity in parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, becomes the anthropological reality known to Paul as “wrath”, and can even be referred to as “the wrath of the Lamb”.

Let me give you some background: in a classic lynch murder, such as that described in Joshua 7, where “All Israel” gathers against Achan and “stones him with stones”, the wrath of God is simply, and straightforwardly associated with the group’s loss of morale, and the subsequent build up to anger which turns them into a lynch mob. First the anger of God is detected in the collapse of morale, the melting hearts, of the sons of Israel who have just undergone a minor military defeat. So God provides Joshua with a lottery to determine at whose door responsibility for the defeat should be laid. When the lottery achieves its purpose of finding a suitable culprit, all Israel discharges stones, murdering Achan. In their very act of ganging up together, unanimously, against poor Achan, of whose guilt they convince themselves through the liturgical mechanism of the lottery, they create peace among themselves. And in that very moment when their stones are all discharged, then “the Lord turned from his burning anger” (Joshua 7, 26). Of course he did: the shifting patterns of fear and mutual recrimination which had riven the people have been overcome by their triumphant and enthusiastic unanimity. From their perspective it feels as though “peace has been given them”. This is, in fact, peace, in the way the world gives it, the peace which comes from unanimity in righteous hatred of an evildoer. But it is misperceived by the participants as peace flowing from the divinity thanks to the right sacrifice having been offered.

The power of this experience is very real, and can still be detected when human lynching has found its substitute in animal sacrifice. It appears that the role of the priest in early forms of atonement sacrifice was to cover the participants with the blood of the animal so as to protect people from the wrath. It was as though the blood sprinkled over them wove a huge protective covering against wrath. The Hebrew letters כפר from which we get “Yom Kippur” and our word “atonement” designate a form of covering. It does not take a huge stretch of the imagination to see that the freedom from wrath which came with the successful production of unanimity in the murdering of a victim, and which probably involved the participants being splattered with blood, could then be reproduced liturgically. The priest slaughters the animal, sacrificing it to the divinity, and then sprinkles the blood over the people, unanimously gathered to receive the fruits of the sacrifice. In the liturgical unanimity that occurs under the cover of the blood, the assuaging of the wrath is remembered and made newly present.

Interestingly, Israel does not seem to have stuck only with this model of sacrifice, but also had the very special Day of Atonement sacrifice where it was YHWH himself, through the High Priest, acting “in personam Yahveh”, who offered his own blood, symbolized by a lamb, for the people, who were then covered with it, this blood being taken to restore creation from the various forms of ensnarlments with which humans had distorted it. Here we begin to glimpse the notion of the victim performing the sacrifice for the people which will be brought to fulfilment in the New Testament….


…[Jesus] gives himself to the sacrificial mechanism in a way which the Gospel writers point to as being the way proper to the great High Priest, and he becomes the lamb of sacrifice. In fact, he reverses the normal human sacrificial system which started with human sacrifice and then is later modified to work with animal substitutes. Jesus, by contrast, substitutes himself for the lamb, portions of whose body were handed out to the priests; and thus by putting a human back at the centre of the sacrificial system, he reveals it for what it is: a murder.

Now here is the curious thing. It looks for all the world as though Jesus is simply fitting into the ancient world’s views about sacrifice and wrath. But in fact, he is doing exactly the reverse. Because he is giving himself to this being murdered, and he has done nothing wrong, he brings about an entirely new way to be free from wrath. This is not the way we saw with Achan, where the temporary freedom from wrath comes with the outbreak of unanimous violence which creates singleness of heart among the group. What Jesus has done by substituting himself for the victim at the centre of the lynch sacrifice is to make it possible for those who perceive his innocence, to realise what it is in which they have been involved (and agreeing to drink his blood presupposes a recognition of this complicity). These then begin to have their identity given them not by the group over against the victim, but by the self-giving victim who is undoing the unanimity of the group. This means that from then on they never again have to be involved in sacrifices, sacrificial mechanisms and all the games of “wrath” which every culture throws up. They will be learning to walk away from all that, undergoing being given the peace that the world does not give.

So, there is no wrath at all in what Jesus is doing. He understands perfectly well that there is no wrath in the Father, and yet that “wrath” is a very real anthropological reality, whose cup he will drink to its dregs. His Passion consists, in fact, of his moving slowly, obediently, and deliberately into the place of shame, the place of wrath, and doing so freely and without provoking it. However, from the perspective of the wrathful, that is, of all of us run by the mechanisms of identity building, peace building, unanimity building “over against” another, Jesus has done something terrible. Exactly as he warned. He has plunged us into irresoluble wrath. Because he has made it impossible for us ever really to believe in what we are doing when we sacrifice, when we shore up our social belonging against some other. All our desperate attempts to continue doing that are revealed to be what they are: just so much angry frustration, going nowhere at all, spinning the wheels of futility.

The reason is this: the moment we perceive that the one occupying the central space in our system of creating and shoring up meaning is actually innocent, actually gave himself to be in that space, then all our sacred mechanisms for shoring up law and order, sacred differences and so forth, are revealed to be the fruits of an enormous self-deception. The whole world of the sacred totters, tumbles, and falls if we see that this human being is just like us. He came to occupy the place of the sacrificial victim entirely freely, voluntarily, and without any taint of being “run” by, or beholden to, the sacrificial system. That is, he is one who was without sin. This human being was doing something for us even while we were so locked into a sacrificial way of thinking and behaviour that we couldn’t possibly have understood what he was doing for us, let alone asked him to do it. The world of the sacred totters and falls because when we see someone who is like us doing that for us, and realise what has been done, the shape that our realisation takes is our moving away from ever being involved in such things again.

Now what is terrible about this is that it makes it impossible for us really to bring about with a good conscience any of the sacred resolutions, the sacrificial decisions which brought us, and bring all societies, comparative peace and order. The game is up. And so human desire, rivalry, competition, which had previously been kept in some sort of check by a system of prohibitions, rituals, sacrifices and myths, lest human groups collapse in perpetual and irresoluble mutual vengeance, can no lo
nger be controlled in this way. This is the sense in which Jesus’ coming brings not peace to the earth, but a sword and division. All the sacred structures which hold groups together start to collapse, because desire has been unleashed. So the sacred bonds within families are weakened, different generations will be run by different worlds, give their loyalty to different and incompatible causes, the pattern of desire constantly shifting. All in fact will be afloat on a sea of wrath, because the traditional means to curb wrath, the creation by sacrifice of spaces of temporary peace within the group, has been undone forever. The only alternative is to undergo the forgiveness which comes from the lamb, and start to find oneself recreated from within by a peace which is not from this world, and involves learning how to resist the evil one by not resisting evil. This means: you effectively resist, have no part in, the structures and flows of desire which are synonymous with the prince of this world, that is to say with the world of wrath, only by refusing to acquire an identity over against evil-done-to you.


…[O]ne of the symptoms of “wrath” in our world, and it is indeed only one of the symptoms, and a comparatively unimportant one at that, is the emergence in the midst of all of our societies, whether we like it or not, of the gay question.

It is also obvious that one of the ways of dealing with this is to attempt to come up with some such formula as “look, we’re discovering that people we used to regard as weird and even evil are just different. But since they are functional to the way modern society works, just as we are, let us learn to live with our difference”. The key phrase here is “they are functional to the way modern society works, just as we are”. And this means that it is modern society, its structures of desire and survival, which get to run the show, because it is modern social structures, and their financial and corporate systems which get to determine what “likeness” is. And this means the “living with difference” isn’t really living with difference at all. It is really living with a sameness which is dictated by certain patterns of desire. And part of the way we protect ourselves against having to take seriously whether these patterns of desire really come from God, or are the pomps and splendours of this world, is by having decorative “difference” in the midst of all this sameness, and feeling proud of ourselves for being so broad-minded.

Well, I want to say: No! I am not at all interested in being given a post-modern identity which is in fact merely functional to the particular shape of wrath in our time. I am interested in becoming a son and heir to the whole of creation through the arduous discovery of my likeness with my sisters and brothers. I understand how it is one of the delusions of wrath that it is able to point to the growing visibility and public and legal acceptability of gay people and their lives and relationships and see this as an attack on the “family” and the “divinely given order of society”. But it is a delusion of wrath, like that of the Venetians against Shylock, because all it does is disguise from all of us quite how much the unleashing of desire which continues apace in our world, our capitalist, globalizing, technological world, does in fact subvert from within and change every form of relationship, including family relationships. It disguises from us how much we are all already run by these things, and how arduous it is for any of us to receive holiness of life, of desire, and of relationships in the midst of all this. And it sets things up for us to fight about this, rather than to help each other out of the hole.


…[W]hat Jesus is doing is very especially occupying the place of shame, and of wrath. And he is doing so in such a way as to detoxify it for ever. When he pronounces himself the Gate of the Sheep, he is referring to the gate by which sheep were led into the temple for slaughter. He indicates that the Good Shepherd does what the shepherds of Israel never did: he goes in as a sheep with the sheep into the sacrificial space. They are not frightened of him since they recognise that he is the same as them. The Shepherd is thus able to lead the sheep in and out to find pasture, something previously impossible. No one ever led sheep out from the Temple abattoir. It was as one-way a track as the railway line to Treblinka. Only one who was not affected by death could lead sheep in and out of the place of shame, wrath and sacrifice, so as to find pasture. So by himself becoming the abattoir door, the Shepherd makes the sacrificial space no longer a dead end, no longer a trap. He even points out how different this is from the thieves and hirelings, easily recognisable ways of referring to the religious and political leaders who ran the Temple and the system of goodness. Such leaders never went into the Temple through the abattoir door, but rather through another way, and then from above, they took the sheep for sacrificial slaughter (θύσῃ, John 10,10). But when there was any real religious crisis, whenever wrath threatened, or the wolf came, they could be guaranteed not to stand up for their sheep, not to dare to go through the same door as they insisted the sheep go, but rather to flee and leave the sheep to be scattered and the prey of every wild beast. And this of course is true of any system of goodness to this day, such as the ones which give sustenance to those of us who are “religious professionals”.

Well it seems to me that what Jesus is doing in “going to his Father”, “going to Death”, “occupying the space of shame and of wrath”, being both Shepherd and Abattoir door, is making the place of shame, of wrath, and of sacrifice into a pasture. And that means a place where we can be nourished, find wholeness, health and story to live by. The giving to us of the Holy Spirit is then the giving to us of the whole dynamic, the whole power, by which Jesus was able to occupy this place of annihilation, shame and wrath without being run by it. And this does seem to me something very powerful for gay and lesbian people. I wonder whether our ability to be able to sing one of Sion’s songs, to find that in our hearts are the highways to Zion (Psalm 84, 5) does not at the moment pass through our ability to be able to occupy the place of shame without being run by it.

This is a difficult notion, since shame produces flight. To be able to live in the midst of shame, by which I mean of course the space of shame which has for so long been so toxic, without being run by it may turn out to be a hugely positive feat. This is the space where, because one no longer has anything to lose, is no longer frightened, knows that the only thing left that they can take away is your life, and that is already in the hands of Another, because of all this, one can develop a tender regard for those who are like one, and a tender regard leads to a creative imagination, and a playful generosity of heart.

This is where I suspect that the Holy Spirit may be beginning to produce gay and lesbian stories which will turn out to be irrefutably Christian. Where Jesus has made us not ashamed and not frightened of occupying the space of shame. Where he has enabled us no longer to be run by the wrath which has so defined us in past generations, there we will be able to discover our likeness with those others who have needed us to occupy that position because it is the only way they think they can keep wrath at bay.

You see, I’m not sure that anything, any power at all can resist shame held delicately in tenderness. And I’m not sure that anyone can predict what creativity, gifts and life will emerge from such a peaceful place.

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