Friday, October 06, 2006

From Gius to James

Last night, Philly got its second jolt in as many days of James Alison, who's in town on a weeklong swing. This is, of course, a very good thing -- who else would give a group of Anglicans an intro to Mariology?

The celebrated British theologian and lecturer, Alison's on a US tour, his second of the year, in advance of the release of his latest: Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In. In San Fran later this month, his talk at the city's famed MHR will be recorded for broadcast on the BBC, and his international profile's coming up even further with the goodwill and interest of some notable quarters in his work.

In a Tuesday lecture at Villanova University, Alison took on the theme of discipleship within the context of "belonging" -- communion, as we could also say. Here's a snip:
My major undertaking over the last few years has been to try and come up with an adult introduction to the Catholic faith, an inductive, twelve-session course, following the thought of René Girard. I have been attempting to gave an account of our faith in such a way as makes it both attractive and easier to pass on, one that is entirely orthodox, and yet fresh. In fact I have given this course, still in the process of development, in a number of different settings, and hope to do so again before long. And naturally, there would be no point to such preaching and teaching if it did not lead to some sort of discipleship in those who hear it. Discipleship not of yours truly, but of the One at the heart of the preaching.
One of the things which people who have either heard me teach, or read my stuff, sometimes say to me is: “We get the Christianity bit, and we even get the bit about which you are adamant, about how there’s no following Christ which doesn’t bring with it a certain ecclesial belonging. Now can you tell us how to survive the Church that is actually there! We notice that when people belong to anything, they can take seriously the bits that are to be taken seriously, ignore the silly bits, not be scandalized by the really bad bits. That is to say, they know how to love what they belong to and somehow grow in dignity and purpose through their belonging. But how do we do this in the Church nowadays, where the language of excommunication rains down so easily, and where some find it so easy to qualify others as “not really Catholics”? How do we find both the sense of belonging and the capacity to relativize things, to get them in their proper perspective, which is the sign of adulthood? How do we make sense of the bizarre alternative, shrinking, universe of the clergy, the strange double-messages which emerge from the Vatican, or at least are fed to us as if emerging from the Vatican? How do we cope with the information overload which is supposed to be teaching us, and yet which tends just to flatten everything out so that war, contraception, the love of God, clerical celibacy, the death penalty, liturgical translations, and altar girls flow mind-numbingly by like a conveyor belt with game-show prizes which you get to take home if you remember them all? ...

All priests in the English-speaking world have passed down to us like an heirloom Chaucer’s pithy reminder of what a good priest is about in his portrait of the Parson. He received the highest praise any of us could aspire to:

But Cristes loore and his apostles twelve
He taughte, but first he folwed it hymselve.

It would be lovely to be able to say, as St Paul could, “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1), but many of us, lay or clergy, are at least as much obstacles to the following of Christ as we are encouragements. And of course, by our preaching or teaching we are not merely supposed to be passing on ideas, or information. We are attempting to get across that a Happening has irrupted into our world; that It matters; that we are at least beginning to find ourselves altered by exposure to this Happening; and that therefore part at least of the truth of what we are talking about should be able to be detected in the way we are undergoing something. This bearing witness to something by becoming a sign of it having happened, and which points towards it, often in ways of which we are not aware, but which other potential imitators can pick up, is rigorously inseparable from any talk about discipleship.

Now anyone who takes some responsibility for this business of pointing another towards the way of Christ has to become aware that he or she can get in the way of the imitation, can get in the way of the discipleship, can become a scandal, a source of stumbling to the one who would follow Christ. And learning to avoid giving scandal to such potential followers is a great deal of what discipleship is about. Giving scandal is where I am not giving an example which will lead the person imitating into an uninterrupted following of the One who we are all called to follow: the One in whom there was no guile, no double-bind, the One who allows desire to become uncomplicated and untrammelled by fear and death. Instead of facilitating this, I am pointing someone down a route which will lead only to their confusion and unhappiness, their being locked into bumping their souls constantly into double-binds which paralyze them and lead them into fear and death.

What Alison calls the "Happening," Giussani calls the "Event." And that's not the only place where the two share a striking similarity.