Who, what and how are we?

man2I’ve encouraged friends to read James Alison’s wonderful book The Joy of Being Wrong. I’m not excited about it because I agree with every claim he makes, but because he articulates so well (in Girardian terms) what human (social) nature is, what salvation amounts to, and how this is all best read in light of the resurrection of Christ. Maybe it’s just because of where I am at the present moment, but I find Alison full of insight.

There will be plenty of opportunity to post passages I agree with. Let me start with an aspect of Alison’s work that I disagree with. In working out his anthropology (Ch 2), Alison rejects transcendental anthropology. A transcendental anthropology views human nature to be constituted as an implicit and irresistible orientation of desire for God. Not that God is always what we consciously or explicitly intend, but that desire is God-given and thus oriented Godward, that is to say, to find its fulfillment in God. This orientation of desire derives from the transcendent presence of God as the immediate ground and end of human being and all human desiring, as well as intrinsic teleology of created nature and the scope of every nature’s possibilities. Human rationality and desire are, you might say, hardwired for God. Think of desire as a kind of aesthetic gravity to consciousness, a ‘power of attraction’ that draws desire to its fulfillment. To say we transcendently desire God is not to say we never set our desires on things other than God; it is to say that in all our desiring, God remains the truest end and fulfillment of that desire and that all desire is truly fulfilled when we intentionally make God the end of all we do (Col 3.23-24).

That’s my understanding of transcendental anthropology at least. But Alison is suspicious of such talk. I’ll let him explain why (from various portions of his Ch 2) and then respond with a few reflections in an upcoming post. Alison writes:

This, of course, places us on a somewhat different course from any transcendental anthropology, which sees, as a matter of philosophical truth, the human being as imbued with a somehow experienced orientation toward grace and glory and therefore the concrete, contingent, historical acts of salvation (the prophets, the coming of Christ, the existence of the Church, the sacraments) as merely making explicit the universal availability of grace. In such a view, “the historical events, the human acts and images which can alone be the site of supernatural difference, are here reduced to mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence, always humanly available.

At this point it seems important to try to indicate why the transcendental element seems unnecessary in a fundamental anthropology…

I do not want to deny…that all Christian anthropology must posit that all humans are, just by the fact of being humans, called to participate in the divine life. However, it seems to me that this theological doctrine is an important human discovery made in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and is part of a discovery that we are, in fact, quite different from what we normally think we are. That is to say, the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis is itself part of the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope, in which we hope to become something which we are not, or are scarcely, now.

If we detach the doctrine of the universal vocation to theiosis from the element of discovery in hope of something which contradicts our daily lived experience and turn it into a quasi-philosophical description of what we all are, inescapably, then we merely transform the doctrine of the security of salvation…into a universal philosophical principle. This means, in theological terms, that a subtle form of anonymous semi-Pelagianism, and thus shortcuts the way in which discovery of the universality of the call to theiosis is, for each of its participants, a radical conversion and part of the revelation of salvation.


Let me therefore try to set out the way in which the anthropology I have been trying to set out differs from this (and the answer is, only very, very slightly). The human being is constituted by what is other than himself or herself, and is always utterly related to this other which is anterior to himself or herself. The other I’m talking about is, of course, the human, social, cultural, material, environmental other proper to our planet. It is this other than has forged language, memory, will, and the capacity to relate to the other. So much might reasonably be recognized by anyone, independent of religious conviction. However, that is not to say that the anthropology I have been setting out could have been set out except from a theological perspective. In fact, it was a very particular set of contingent historical actions, lives, and circumstances that made it possible to perceive the role of the victim as foundational to human being, contingent actions involving a reversal of perspective on the relation of any one of us to that victim. That is to say, it was a particular set of historical events which made it possible fully to recognize the other which forms us. And it made it possible to recognize this precisely in the simultaneous act of revealing that there was a different sort of other that could form us in a different sort of way: that is to say, there is a different perspective on the founding murder than that which is connatural to us.

In this way, we can say that every human being is, in fact, constituted by and with an in-built relationality to the other which formed him or her. This other constituted the very possibility of human desire. We can also say that owing to the way in which we are in fact constituted, that desire is rivalistic and builds identity, to a greater or lesser extent, by denial of the alterity, and the anteriority, of the other desire. That is to say, human desire, as we know it, works by grasping and appropriating being rather than receiving it. In this sense, we are all always already locked into the other which forms us in a relationship of acquisitive mimesis, that is, in a relationship of violence which springs from, and leads to, death.

It became possible to understand this (in fact) not from natural rational deduction (though there is nothing inherently incomprehensible about it), but precisely because of the irruption of a novum into the midst of the social other which forms us, a novum which is a revelation of a different sort of Other, and Other that is completely outside any form of rivalistic desire and that made itself historically present as a self-giving and forgiving victim. This self-given victim, from outside human mimetic rivalry, revealed precisely that the death-locked lie of mimetic rivalry flowing from culture’s hidden victims is not the original mode of desire, but a distortion of it. That which was chronologically original (and seemed to us to be simply natural) is discovered to be logically secondary to an anterior self-giving and creative desire.

…The transformation of our “self” via our constitutive alterity happens not through some universal transcendence, but exactly through the givenness of certain particular historical actions and signs, moving us to produce and reproduce just such historical acts and signs.

…Can we then talk of a universal desiderium naturale, natural desire, for God? Well, once again, only as a result of the acceptance of the revelation that the real source of the anteriority which forms us is a purely nonrivalistic, self-giving desire (love). What we have without that faith is a construction of desire that never breaks out of circles of appropriation and exclusion. It would be wrong to call that desire a natural desire for God. We might properly call it a natural desire for being, but an idolatrous desire being, since we are incapable of merely receiving being. So we go to idolatrous lengths to shore up our fragile sense of being, being prepared to sacrifice the other to save our “self.” What we can observe is that, in any given historical instance, our desire is for things which have become obstacles to God precisely because they are desire appropriatively, by grasping. It is in the transformation of our receptivity that our desire becomes a desire from and for God and is discovered to be such not as something plastered over our distorted desires, but as the real sense behind even those distorted desires, as something anterior to them. It is in this sense that we become sons and daughters of God as we discover that our belonging to, our being held in being by, the other is more secure and original a way of being in the world than our grasping and appropriating things. The tourist grasps and appropriates on his way through, because he knows that these things, these sights, will not be his tomorrow. The dweller in the land does not need to hold on to them, because she knows that they will be there tomorrow, and it is they that have formed her, not she who possesses them. The disiderium naturale is “there” as something that can be recovered.

In this sense I am completely in agreement with J. L. Segundo when he insists that it is quite wrong to see any human construction of values as implicitly pointing toward God simply because they are a human construction of values. Human desire is a good thing because it can in principle be drawn into the desire of God, precisely as human desire, and indeed we know from faith that it was for this that it was created. That does not stop the very condition of possibility of our desire of God (the human structure of desire) being lived without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us into receivers of our being. It is possible for human desire to be lived as idolatry, as complete missing of the point (a “falling short of the glory of God”), an exacerbated desire for metaphysical autonomy, and thus a seeking to appropriate (rather than receive) life for the self, a living from death to death – running from our own death and causing that of others. In this way I hope it is possible to see that the theological anthropology which I have been setting out is in fact well suited to the basic insight of the liberation theologians that the choices is not between theism and atheism, but between the true God (the God of life) and idolatry. This is rather better suited, I would suggest, than a transcendental anthropology, which effectively pre-pardons idolatry without transforming the idolater, without giving him or her the chance of a real restructuring of heart.


One can see Alison’s main concerns:

  • First, a transcendental anthropology reduces the historical events of salvation history to “mere signs of a perfect inward self-transcendence” which are “always humanly available.”
  • Second, if grace is constitutive of created nature (defining its end and delimiting the scope of its possibilities), then theosis fails to be “the discovery of salvation as a difficult process worked out in hope” in which we “become something we are not.” That is, Alison believes transcendental anthropologies reduce the gospel to a “quasi-philosophical description of what we all [already] are” which he takes to be Pelagian. What we are meant to become, Alison maintains, requires events (Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection) that intrude within the natural order. They are not truths derived philosophically from what can be rationally deduced from contemplating nature, an “unaided outworking of a human dynamic,” for “nothing human could have revealed the constitution of the human consciousness in human victimization.” A radical novum is needed, a divine act which constitutes salvation as a gracious intrusion from outside the scope or reach of human rationality, as opposed to the natural unfolding of dispositions already present in us.
  • Third, it is obviously the case that we do in fact exhaust our desires idolatrously upon false ends “without even an implicit reference to the pacific gratuitous other which can transform us.”
  • Lastly, Alison suggests that a transcendental grace constitutive of nature would “pre-pardon idolatry” and leave us “without…the chance of a real restructuring of the heart.”

I’d love to hear what folks have to say about Alison’s objections to transcendental anthropology. I think he fundamentally misunderstands what is meant by those who see nature sacramentally as shot through with grace from beginning to end, but I’ll try to explore that in an upcoming post.


3 comments on “Who, what and how are we?

  1. Big thoughts, Tom.
    I can see why Allison has objections. I think chief among these and the one that would resonate most with most Christians is the issue of how it might diminish the centrality of Christ – If this could happen BEFORE Christ as a man then what about the things that the Bible says Jesus about Him needing to come at a particular point in time (dying for our sins etc)
    This does seem to be a sticking point.
    But the Universal, Cosmic Christ has always been and therefore the possibility of seeing truth had always been. However the chances of seeing it were smaller before incarnation. Something unique and vital has indeed happened at incarnation, crucifixion & resurrection. IMO the difference is quantitative rather than qualitative.
    Certainly the rate at which the world’s trajectory to union with God is occurring has accelerated since the coming in body of Christ. This is evidenced by a much more universal awareness (or at least increased observations of its outworking) of the logic of compassion over competition and love over violence than had ever existed prior to this unique moment in time.
    Therefore I don’t see transcendental anthropology as you have described it as a threat to the centrality of Christ’s coming in flesh.
    Looking forward to more posts on this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tom says:

      Hi Lewis,

      I’ll try to say more later. But my response to Alison on the transcendental nature of desire would come from thoughts I shared a while ago over at Fr. Aidan’s place (especially the comments section):


      As I understand the transcendental claim about human desire, it doesn’t at all suppose the things Alison wants to avoid, e.g., transcendental desire doesn’t mean incarnation isn’t necessary, or that theosis is possible by just meditating intently on the givens of created nature. I think Alison just misunderstands the transcendental claim here.


  2. brian says:

    I haven’t read Allison, Tom, but if your presentation is accurate, I agree with your assessment.
    Some Catholic works that deal with this subject include Balthasar’s A Theological Anthropology, De Lubac’s Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, as well as Emile Mersch’s The Theology of the Mystical Body. Orthodox thinkers of note include Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb and Berdyaev’s The Destiny of Man.


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