The current issue of the Christian Century has an interview with the Catholic priest and theologian, James Alison. Of course, those who have learned from the work of René Girard will especially wish to read the entire interview. But here are the first three questions (in italics) and answers, and then an even harder question and answer that has to do with 9/11:
Your first book was an examination of original sin—not, for most people, a topic connected with joy. But the title of the book is The Joy of Being Wrong. What joy is associated with original sin?
It’s the joy of not having to get things right. The doctrine means that we are all in a mess, no one more or less than anyone else, and we can trust the One who is getting us out of the mess, who starts from where we are. If it were not for the doctrine of original sin, which follows from the resurrection—just as a parting glance at who we used to be follows from seeing ourselves as we are coming to be—we would be left with a religion requiring us to “get it right,” and that is no joy at all.
How does original sin follow from the resurrection?
In the resurrection of Jesus we learn definitively that being human is not a “being toward death.” Humans are brought into being for something much more than that, and biological finitude is merely one of the contours proper to this sort of created being—which is to say, one of the contours making it possible for this sort of created being to share in a life and a glory quite beyond our making. In the light of the resurrection we can look back and see how up to then the whole pattern of living had been cast in terms of death and its associated fears.
How does original sin characteristically manifest itself?
It manifests itself as a grasping on to security and identity by depending on death—that of others and oneself—to give one’s life meaning. This can take the form of rushing “heroically” toward death, fleeing from it or brandishing it. There are almost an infinite number of ways of seeking fake security. Typically but mistakenly, we regard this grasping as intrinsic to being human (“it’s human nature”), rather than as a sad distortion of that being.
You suggested after 9/11 that people who were quite rightly aghast at the violence were “sucked in” to an effort to find meaning in the event. What did you mean by that? What was the danger?
The danger of “wars and rumors of wars” of whatever sort is that they give us cheap meaning to hold onto, a quick shot of identity, a false sense of belonging, of togetherness, of virtue, of innocence and so on. That cheap meaning is always derived by positioning oneself over against some “other” considered to be wicked. Cheap meaning makes life apparently exciting in the short term; it seems to give a purpose, but in fact it is a mirage, an illusion. There is nothing that can ultimately substitute for the long, slow, patient task of being brought into being as a human.
The really difficult task when faced with an emergent “sacred” such as began to appear in the wake of 9/11 is to refuse to be fascinated and instead to tend to the wounded, to search for and apprehend nihilist criminals, yet not to aggrandize them and their purely negative accomplishments in a way that gives succour to others who might imitate them. Only someone who is grounded in slow, quiet, gentle creation can resist the fascination of nihilism.