The Joy of Being Wrong


Back in the late Spring I found myself reading James Alison, partly from having stumbled into references of him in other books and finally through a friend’s recommendation. I’ve post portions of him here and here. I’m presently reading through his The Joy of Being Wrong (his PhD dissertation), a work of theological anthropology appropriating Girard which “looks at original sin in the light of the Resurrection.” I’m gripped by it and quite moved, not half way through it. This evening I was especially moved by the following passage that zeros in on what ought to be the heart of how we understand the human predicament from which Christ rescues us. Enjoy!

…the sense of the self, the être [“other”]…is always received as a given, when when that preceding givenness, or the reception, is seriously marred by violence of circumstance, or paternal incompetence or ill will. The relationship between the être as received and as acquired by more or less violent appropriation is at the heart of the theology of original sin.

The description I have given leads to an understanding of the human self, the “me” of each of us, as being an unstable structure, one that is changeable, malleable, and other-dependent, whether it likes it or not. The other is always anterior to “me.” It also means…first, that it is desire which engenders the “me” and which brings it, by its movement, into existence; and, second, that desire is mimetic, that is, it moves in imitation of the desire of another.

Since the “me” of each one of us is founded by desire, we cannot say that desire is our own, as though it belongs to some preexistent “me.” It is the other way around. The “me” is radically dependent on the desires whose imitation formed it. This means that there is no “real me” at the bottom of it all, when I’ve scrapped away all the things I’ve learned, all the influences I’ve undergone. Psychology is what goes on between people, not, in the first place, in any particular individual. Having grasped this is what permits Girard…to talk of an interdividual psychology. In more accessible terminology this means that psychological facts have to do with relationships. Psychological problems have to do with broken or disturbed relationships, and psychological wholeness has to do with restoring and mending broken relationships.


We have, then, in any given human being, a self formed by the desire of another. That desire is lived in rivalistic inflection, what I have called desire of grasping or appropriation. We also have the discovery that the possibility of the existence of any desire at all was an anterior desire that is in no sense rivalistic, which we call the creative love of God. The gratuity of God’s love works precisely and only as self-giving; working to produce in each human a capacity to accept—as purely gratuitous—the self-giving other. The permanent self-giving is more than an offer of self-giving, it is self-giving itself, but it can never be lived as self-giving by humans who grasp and appropriate the other. Grace can be lived only as something permanently gratuitously received. The great anthropological transformation, therefore, is of the way in which we move from being constituted by an anterior desire which moves us into deadlock, by grasping and appropriating our sense of being, to being constituted by a self-giving other than can be received only as constantly and perpetually self-giving, as gratuitous, and therefore never grasped, never appropriated, but only received and shared. If it is true to say that it is more blessed to given than to receive, this is because we are the sort of creatures who can only properly (gratuitously) give as part of an imitation of a gratuitous reception. Real giving and real receiving are a mutually structuring reality. We are talking of the person who is beginning to be empowered to move from feeling that society, the others, owe him something, toward being able to be toward other people—to act out for them—what they think is owed to them.


What this means is that the gratuitous self-giving of God is always present contiguous to, and subversive of, any given now, and it is the gratuitous presence which has made itself explicit in concrete human historical circumstances. It is not universal human self-transcendence which makes itself explicit in the events and narrations of salvation, but the universally present self-giving of God, enabling us to become receivers, rather than graspers, of the other which forms us, revealed as purely gratuitous. The problem between intrinsicist and extrinsicist accounts of grace is not a problem, in the first place, of the theology of grace, but one of the anthropology of reception. The dilemma between grace as somehow “owed” to a human and grace as somehow “already imbued in the human” shows that the discussion is taking place entirely within an anthropology of grasping and appropriating and is not focusing on the necessary gratuity of the transformation into gratuitous receivers of what remains lived in gratuity. One of the things revealed by the doctrine of original sin is that it is our capacity to receive gratuitously that was damaged in the fall; not our capacity to receive, because we have to receive in order to exist, but our capacity to receive gratuitously, which is the only way in which we can share in divine life, because that life can never be other than gratuitous. (Bold mine)

Can we then talk of a universal desiderium natural, 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 [Tom: In Alison’s terms perhaps not “natural,” but natural nonetheless in the sense that what Alison says is the “source” of that desire (divine desire/love) is not the past event of God’s having created the world, but the abiding, presence of that desire as God creatively present in sustaining us]. 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.

There are hints in this passage of a more extended treatment by Alison in this chapter that challenges any transcendental reading of desire, the sort of implicit, teleological orientation of desire toward God that one finds defended by David Bentley Hart for example. I’ll do a separate post of Alison’s position on this. It’s one aspect of his anthropology I would disagree with. But overall, Alison has recast the ‘original sin’ discussion for me in a powerful way.