Rowan Williams on the Faith beyond Resentment

Faith Beyond ResentmentA review by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

Freud was wrong. The fundamental problem we human being face is not how to negotiate with the voice and image of the Father, but how to stop ourselves regarding our brothers and sisters as displaced “fathers”. We have one real Father, the transcendent source of our identity: a father who is not part of the competitive world in which the power of one means the weakness of another. What we must learn is how to live fraternally with human beings.

The chief task of human maturing, therefore, is to get beyond ascribing sacred authority to other human beings, with all the rebellion and resentment, the longing to invert existing power relations rather than transform them that this involves, and rediscover the inclusive and hospitably eucharistic love — fraternity, in other words — that allows us to live together without murder. This is precisely what Jesus once and for all makes possible by his teaching, his death and his resurrection. This is the Gospel, this is what the sacraments enact.

Faith beyond Resentment is James Alison’s boldest book yet, and in some ways his best yet. Some readers will find it difficult to appreciate this, however, because he links this dramatically lucid account of the Gospel with his experience as a gay Catholic; some who will not bother to read very far or very carefully may dismiss this an an "issue" book, instead of the remarkable miniature summa that it really is.

But the reference to controversy over the status of gay Catholics (and of course other gay Christians) is intrinsic to the whole argument, because this is the human context of Alison’s discipleship and only in concrete challenges can we hear what the Gospel asks. Thus, for a gay person, self-assertion and self-recognition cannot — if it really is a gospel matter — become a new refusal of fraternity. Hence the painful growth “beyond resentment”. And this makes the book quite unlike practically any other recent work dealing with the debates around the standing of homosexual persons in the Church.

As always, the Bible studies are stunningly original and brilliant: chapters 1,2,4 and 6 are classics, chapter 4 in particular, a meditation on Jonah, offering devastatingly witty analyses of the safety of the martyr’s position, and chapter 2 being one of the best summaries I know of Alison’s main themes in all his work to date, with an added personal poignancy which the reader can’t absorb unmoved.

The last chapter, “Nicodemus and the boys in the square”, will shock a few, I suspect, with its evocation of an urban gay street culture not much discussed in theological essays; but read as what it is, a polyphonic improvisation on John’s gospel, Dostoevsky and the Council of Trent (you need to read it, its no use trying to summarise), it once again moves and stirs at depth.

Alison effectively deploys tradition against itself — or rather against traditionalism. What does Trent mean when it says of concupiscence, a condition in which we all share, that is a disordered desire? Doesn’t that put a question against the way some speak now of disordered desires in the context of homosexuality? What do the canonical sanctions imposed on Robert Nugent and Jeannine Grammick, the priest and religious sister involved in ministry to gays, amount to? Certainly, something well short of excommunication for heresy. So don’t assume there is a single hostile patriarchal tradition to revolt against: listen fraternally to the actual language and see what conversation might after all be worked at.

There will be those on the liberal as well as the conservative side who find this delusive; but Alison’s challenge is hard to put aside. How do you speak and act fraternally (and yes, he knows there is an awkwardness about this one-sided vocabulary) in a community that so regularly misunderstands its foundations? There is so much here that simply puts the question of Jesus to the reader, which is why it is both exhilarating and uncomfortable. The very best theological books leave you with a feeling that perhaps it’s time you became a Christian; this is emphatically such a book.


© Rowan Williams. Originally appeared in The Tablet, 10 November 2001.