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Idolatry and Sexuality

In the comments thread on the McCabe quote I posted yesterday, Charlie directed us to a fantastic article deserving of a close reading by James Alison which deals with the difference between idolatry and worship, particularly as this relates to questions regarding homosexuality and Christian doctrine. It is definitely worth the time to read. Here’s just a couple quotes:

I take it for granted that when we talk about God we are not talking about a god, a large and powerful member of the genus ‘gods’ who just happens to be the only one. We are talking, in the wake of the great Hebrew breakthrough into monotheism in the post-exilic period, of God who is not one of the gods. Of God about whom it is truer to say that God is more like nothing at all than like anything that is, because God is not a member of the same universe as anything that is, not in rivalry with anything that is. God is not an object within our ken; we find ourselves as objects within God’s ken. God is massively prior to us, and God’s protagonism is hugely more powerful than any possible action or reaction which we might imagine. Or, in the phrase my late and beloved novice master, Herbert McCabe, used to enjoy saying: God and the Universe doesn’t make two.

The question then arises of the relationship between everything that is and God who is utterly prior to it. Is that relationship something like a symptom, such that from things that are, including ourselves, we can glean something about the One who brings them into being and sustains them? And if that is the case, do we have any criteria at all for what is a reflection of God’s creative will and power, and what is a defection from it? And this for me is the central point in any discussion about monotheism and idolatry: what is the criterion by which we can learn the difference between idolatry and worship? The answer which the Catholic faith gives me is this: the reason why it is possible to be non-idolatrous is because God has given us God’s own criterion for what it looks like to be non-idolatrous. And that criterion, given that God has no parts or divisions, and in every movement towards us is One, is also God. The criterion took the form of a lived-out fully human life story, that of Jesus, whose meaning was the reverse of all the human criteria that are usually brought into play in such stories. God gave, as God’s own criterion for God’s own power, not the power of Emperors, legislators or Priests, but the ability to occupy the space of losing, curse, shame and death without being run by them, in such a way that that space and the whole anthropological structure of human existence that depends on it, is able to be relativised. Idolatry is seen to be an involvement in the human cultural reality of death from which God longs for us to be free.


  1. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    Why the “reverse”? Why not say that it was different from everyday standards, yet recognizably good nonetheless? Why this fetishizing of reversal for its own sake? It leads you to miss things — like the joyfulness of Christ’s life. He didn’t submit to the cross because that would really fuck with our preconceptions. Right? God isn’t just willfully trying to screw with us because he would be mad if our expectations were too accurate, right? Seriously. It’s perverse, the way so many Christians fetishize Christ’s suffering as though it’s the key to everything.

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  2. kim fabricius wrote:

    That, Adam, reminds me of Hart’s critique of von Balthasar, Jüngel, MacKinnon, and Lash (it would take in Alan Lewis too, but Hart doesn’t mention him): the “consolations of tragedy”. But while you’re clearly right that some Christians “fetishize” Christ’s suffering, with a kind of “blood and wounds” theology, I don’t think these theologians do. And Alison doesn’t even mention suffering in the text. His is certainly not a joyless theology. And he says, explicitly, that “God longs for us to be free” from “the cultural reality of death.” It is idolatry that, unmasked, is joyless. But, yes, for all of them, with Luther, crux probat omnia. Can a Christian theology be otherwise?

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  3. Charlie Collier wrote:

    Adam, were you in bad mood when you read this passage from Alison? I’m trying to understand the vehemence behind this post, which seems to have so little to do with what Alison is saying here and which attacks him for not talking pursuing a different agenda (e.g., talking about Christ’s joy). You seize upon a single word—”reverse”—and then drop the “fetishizing” bomb not once but twice (your own fetish?) en route to damning Alison’s train of thought as “perverse.” I may have missed a legitimate critique here, so perhaps you can restate it in a more accessible form. Perhaps you might also comment on Isaiah 53:5—is there no place for a christological reading of such a text?

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    There’s a much larger context for Adam’s comment that isn’t evident from this post or his reply. Check out his blog for some clarification. I should probably have just let him speak for himself.

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 2:53 pm | Permalink
  5. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    I have expanded upon my remarks.

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  6. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    In explaining my vehemence, it was less a response to Alison as such than to the attitude — displayed by Halden and by many, many others — that made this particular quotation so attractive. The excerpter rather than the excerpted, then, was the target.

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  7. Theophilus wrote:

    A few things that bother me about the article in question.

    First, Alison’s definition of idolatry lends itself rather easily to a theological Mad Lib. “Idolatry is seen to be an involvement in the human cultural reality of death from which God longs for us to be free” just as validly becomes “Sin is seen to be an involvement in the human cultural reality of death from which God longs for us to be free.” This has been one of my recurring burning questions – what, actually, constitutes idolatry? I haven’t found much of anything resembling a cohesive consensus as to what idolatry is; Alison’s description isn’t very useful inasmuch as it is completely redundant.

    Second, I take issue with his argument that “the ‘just is’ of being gay or lesbian is indeed objectively part of a ‘what for’” – that is, that one’s sexual orientation is a central element in one’s identity, one’s raison d’etre. Jesus’ teaching that even blessed sexual relationships will not persist after the Resurrection (Matt. 22:29-32, Mark 12:24-27) makes me wary of assigning a person’s core identity to any aspect of his or her sexual preference or practice. To do so is to tie a person’s identity to a factor that cannot last. This is, no doubt, why love is placed at the top of Paul’s list of the three theological virtues – it alone can persist when the incontestable reality of God is fully apparent. Sexuality, like faith and hope, may be a good part of creation, but it is ultimately destined to be “cast off”. That’s one of the reason why I really liked the Rowan Williams quote from the other day – it recognized that the apostolic writers were not, in fact, concerned with sexuality as a matter of ultimate importance.

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  8. Peter Forrester wrote:

    What I got from Adam’s and Theophilus’ posts — and it probably has nothing to do with their intentions — is that there can be a secret “ressenntiment” at work in some theologies.

    To quote Max Scheler:

    “…in ressentiment morality, love for the ‘small’, the ‘poor’, the ‘weak’, and the ‘oppressed’ is really disguised hatred, repressed envy, an impulse to detract, etc., directed against the opposite phenomena: ‘wealth’, ‘strength’, ‘power’, ‘largesse’.

    Idolatry is too often an empty category into which we toss whatever or whomever we hate or envy: the rich, the suburban, the conventional, the status quo, the ignorant, etc.

    We use the word “idol” too easily, which isn’t to say it’s a meaningless word, just that it often says more about the person using it than it does its referent.

    Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  9. roger flyer wrote:

    Theophilus, Mad Libs are supposed to be funny.

    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 5:57 am | Permalink
  10. roger flyer wrote:

    “God is massively prior to us…”

    Does anybody else think this sounds like it could be one of The Teenage Mutant Turtles’ take on God?

    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 6:01 am | Permalink
  11. Nicholas wrote:

    But Matt. 22:29-32 and Mark 12:24-27 teach that marriage will not persist after the Resurrection, not sexuality. In fact, the idea that sexuality will necessarily pass away along with marriage, just because marriage is the structure in which the practice of sexuality is usually blessed by the Christian tradition in the time between the times, seems presumptuous, especially in light of Jesus’ other teaching in those verses. If God is the God of the living — persons who are physical and material, with resurrected bodies — it seems very strange that an entire aspect of the human body will be rendered pointless in the Resurrection.

    In some form we’ll have mouths, hands, livers, etc., but genitals will have become useless? That seems decidedly strange. Especially since sexuality is the major physical practice whereby physical beings “become one” (in the Bible’s own terminology), and the eschatological community is often envisaged as being a universal communion, a communion made “one flesh” in the Body of Christ.

    Besides, according to certain stories in the Hebrew Bible, angels have sex.

    Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  12. bruce hamill wrote:

    nuh it sounds like a variation on McCabe. Alison always finds creative ways of putting stuff

    Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 12:17 am | Permalink
  13. Theophilus wrote:

    True, but marriage is the prescribed framework for our experience of sexuality at present. The eventual discarding of marriage therefore implies a massive change in our sexual practices at the resurrection. It doesn’t change the fact that even though some form of sexuality may persist at the Resurrection, it will be radically different than our present experiences, and it is unwise to stake our identities to something so impermanent. There are plenty of other aspects of human life – generosity, love, celebration, fellowship, labour, worship, etc. – that we do believe will continue at the Resurrection, and these are therefore much better things upon which to stake our identities.

    To put it another way, some aspects of the Resurrection life are presently unavailable to us, like flying. (1 Thess. 4:17) That’s why I don’t stake my identity on my earth-bound mobility. I know that sexuality will change at the Resurrection, and so I do not stake my identity on my current sexual desires and practices.

    Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  14. Colin wrote:


    Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 11:25 am | Permalink

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