Paul Griffiths’s earlier book, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, was a speculative theological essay about what might be said from within the boundaries set by the Roman Catholic tradition about the eschatological fate of creatures. Christian Flesh, similarly, is a speculative theological essay about what might be said about Christian flesh from within the same boundaries. Griffiths remains rooted in the deepest sources of the Roman Catholic tradition about what it means for Christian flesh to be flesh that is cleaved to Christ, while pushing beyond the boundaries of magisterial teaching in surprising ways.
The panel engages Griffiths’s powerful work from a number of viewpoints and from a number of different ecclesial locations. David Cloutier, who believes that Catholic theology must speak to the whole tradition wonders if Griffiths has pushed his points beyond what the Magisterium permits. Rev. Jason Evans, rooted in an African American Baptist tradition, quires Griffiths’s seeming inattention to the color of Christian flesh. What does it mean to think about the racialization of flesh, both in the present life and in the eschaton? Brandy Daniels, in a vein similar to Evans, asks about what it means for bodies to take transgressive stances in relation to dress, something that Griffiths takes up in his discussion of sartorial marking. While appreciating the space he opens for difference, she notes that different configurations of identity makes transgressing these boundaries carry different levels of risk for different people. She wonders what Griffiths’s theology would look like if it talked not about a “theology of the flesh” but an “enfleshed theology.” From within the Anglican tradition, Scott MacDougall asks if we can truly understand bodies if we look to lost glory of Eden rather than to the transfigured bodies of the eschaton.
The myriad of responses, both appreciative and critical, from such diverse places shows just how provocative and rich Griffiths’s work is.
Paul Griffiths has withdrawn from this symposium and has declined permission to post his replies to the essays below. The panelists, who have agreed to post their essays without Griffiths’s replies, have been encouraged to respond to one another instead. -Sean Larsen
Whose Christian Flesh Is This?
In the late Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Beloved, a remarkable scene unfolds: on a warm Saturday afternoon in “the Clearing,” an open space in the woods, the enslaved community gather together for solace, healing, joy, and restoration. Away from the daily brutalization which they endure—if only but for a moment—the “unchurched preacher” Baby Suggs, holy, calls the community of the enslaved out from hiding among the trees into the Clearing so that they may enact a sacred ritual, affirming their humanity by, to borrow words from Catholic systematic theologian M. Shawn Copeland, enfleshing their freedom.1 Baby Suggs, holy, first exhorts the children to laugh, the men to dance, and then the women to cry; “and then it got mixed up,” the narrator explains. The men stop dancing, sit down and cry; the women cease from crying and begin to dance, and the children shift from laughter to dance. And then the women laugh and the children cry; with the exception of the preacher, all whip themselves into a Dionysian frenzy to the point of exhaustion. Finally, the congregants collapse to the ground in sweaty, glorious ecstasy. After the sheer silence that ensued, Baby Suggs, holy, arises from her perch and “offer[s] up to them her great big heart” by proclaiming the following words:
“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. . . . This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver—love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”2
What is remarkable about this scene is that in an unremarkable place, the enslaved community gather to affirm themselves as flesh—living body—beyond the watchful, mean eyes of slavocracy. Reminiscent of the hush harbors and brush arbors where the members of the “invisible institution” gathered in secret, the Clearing signifies a place where Black flesh can freely dance, cry, laugh, and do a host of other things that flesh does. In the Clearing, the enslaved community enacts what theorist Ashon Crawley calls “otherwise possibilities”—alternative modes or strategies of being that already exist (as opposed to being new) in a violent world.3 In resistance to “the peculiar institution,” the community hallows that open space in the woods with the presence of their unloved, much-despised flesh. In the Clearing, the enslaved remember themselves as fully human over against the pornotroping of their flesh—Black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers’s apt term to describe the commodification, (over)sexualization, and reduction of Africans to mere flesh for the malevolent purposes of white slave captors.4
This scene from Morrison’s Beloved alludes to the fact that, for generations, African Americans have created hallowed spaces—churches, masjids, dancehalls, ballrooms, juke joints, bedrooms, dining rooms, kitchens, barbershops, hair salons, and so forth—to affirm their flesh. In so doing, they engage in everyday resistance to the racial regime that marks their flesh as primitive, pagan, animalian, enslavable, sub-Christian, unknowable, grotesque, lascivious, criminal, dangerous, and therefore extinguishable. The Clearing scene in Morrison’s Beloved reminds me of two unrelenting truths: first, Black flesh is not reducible to the subjugation, pain, and suffering that such devastation brings. Despite exploitation, commodification, abuse, lynching, misogynoir, and queer-antagonism, Black flesh weeps, laughs, dances, loves, plays, sings, shouts, touches, fucks—and worships! Second, place matters for the affirmation of Black flesh. In a world wracked with antiblack racism and white supremacy, Black flesh gathers in places of refuge and solace to (re)affirm their flesh as good, loved, and sacred. In short, this memorable scene in Morrison’s Beloved beautifully and masterfully attends to matters of the flesh.
I find this somewhat lengthy reflection on Morrison’s Beloved a necessary preface to and entry point of engagement with Paul Griffiths’s Christian Flesh. Like Griffiths, I am concerned with matters of human and Christian flesh in relation to the triune God revealed in the incarnate Word. As a constructive and systematic theologian (well, at least as one in training), I am also concerned with the ways that human flesh is marked by race, gender, and sexuality. Concomitantly, I am interested in the ways in which Christianity, particularly Western Christianity, is implicated in both the formation and violent reinforcement of these categories upon dehumanized flesh, specifically Black flesh. Moreover, my theological task is to inquire into the mystery of the Christ and explicate what difference Christ makes in the lives of human flesh in general and Black flesh in particular from the perspective of one rooted in the soil of the Black Baptist tradition, and more broadly, the Black Church in the United States. Therefore, I stand within a Christian tradition that imagines the God of Jesus Christ beyond and in resistance to the violence that white supremacist cis-heteropatriarchy inflicts upon Black flesh in the devastation (to borrow Griffiths’s apt word for the Fall).
Given my immediate ecclesial location, my theological orientation, unsurprisingly, differs from Griffiths’s Catholic perspective. For instance, my view on the eucharist (or, in my tradition, holy communion or the Lord’s Supper) is somewhat eclectic—I lean towards a Zwinglian-memorialism inflected with a sense of Christ’s real presence.5 While Black Baptists are doggedly opposed to transubstantiation (unless you are my Baptist mother!), we receive the elements of bread and wine in anamnesis of the Lord’s sacrifice and earnestly pray that we meet the Lord at the Table. Moreover, intimacy with the Lord is not restricted to the rites of baptism and holy communion. Given that Black Baptists observe the dominical ordinances (to use Baptist nomenclature) on a monthly basis, Black Baptists weekly gather as one body in the house in expectation to feel a “touch from the Lord.” In other words, the Lord’s ascended flesh is mediated through the Holy Spirit as she descends upon those gathered in worship. So, for me, reading Christian Flesh at times felt much like I was eavesdropping on a conversation held among Catholic friends. Nevertheless, I find Griffiths’s theological moves in Christian Flesh to be provocative, instructive, illuminating, and stimulating to my own thinking on matters of human flesh.
The central question that I come to ask of Griffiths’s Christian Flesh is simply this: whose Christian flesh is this? By raising this question, I aim to draw attention to a matter left unstated in Christian Flesh, namely the matter of human flesh as “raced” flesh. Two questions haunted me as I read Griffiths’s Christian Flesh: “How does one rightly love Black flesh under white supremacist cis-heteropatriarchy?” and “Where can Black flesh find refuge in a world that continuously proves itself unsafe for Black lives?” Such questions colored my reading of Christian Flesh. As much as I appreciate Griffiths’s creative theological gestures that, in my view, may prove beneficial for the thriving of Black/queer flesh, I find the absence of any discussion of race raises the question of whose flesh is signified by the name “Christian.” For my purposes, I will first share my appreciation of Griffiths’s theological moves found in Christian Flesh and then attend to the question at hand.
In Christian Flesh, Griffiths clearly states that his task as a Catholic theologian is to give an account of human flesh in general, and, in particular, Christian flesh (xi). As a work of speculative theology, Griffiths’s Christian Flesh seeks to provide the Church ways to make its dogmatic claims concerning flesh clearer to both non-Catholic Christian and non-Christian observers alike. Griffiths’s theological method is simple: he employs a grammatical approach in order to flesh out (forgive the pun) the meaning of the word as it is construed within Scripture and Catholic tradition. Of course, such an endeavor requires a level of abstraction. And yet, Griffiths aims to situate human flesh as living body within spatiotemporal reality in haptic relation to inanimate bodies, other animate flesh (plants, animals, single-cellular organisms), to itself, and in erotic relation (in various levels) to other human flesh—in the world marred by the devastation (1–26).
Griffiths’s speculation on Christian flesh stands out as the most intriguing. “Is there such a thing as Christian flesh” (57). At face value, the answer this question would be rightly “no.” However, to leave the matter there would be a failure of Christian theology. The question demands a careful explication of how Christian flesh relates to Jesus’ own flesh. In the order of being, Griffiths contends, all human flesh is Christian flesh insofar as human flesh participates in Jesus’ flesh (57). Jesus’ flesh is paradigmatic of all human flesh. “His flesh is fully human,” Griffith writes, “though without sin, and it therefore shows what human flesh most properly is, how it is configured and what it does when it is as it should be” (ibid.). Here on this christological ground, Griffiths affirms that, on one hand, what separates Christian flesh from all other human flesh cannot be described in ways that separates out Christian flesh as a species of the genus human. On the other hand, the reality remains that, under the devastation, Christian flesh is distinct from all other human flesh in a certain sense. In order to make this distinction known, Griffiths raises two questions which pertain to both the order of being and the order of knowing: “What does human flesh become when it becomes Christian? And what are the marks by which it can be recognized as Christian?” (58).
The first answer lies in the Christian rite of baptism. For Griffiths, Christian flesh is distinguished from Jewish and pagan flesh by its incorporation into Christ’s own flesh in baptism. This intimacy which Christian flesh shares with Christ is made clearer in the rite of eucharist as Christians ingest Christ’s flesh. And nonetheless, baptism is the necessary condition that marks permanently (or eternally?) the distinction between Christian flesh from all others. “Christian flesh understood as baptized flesh is, therefore, in the order of being more intimate with the flesh of Jesus than it is with non-Christian (Jewish, pagan) flesh” (59). Signified by the adornment of the white baptismal garment and the reception of the chrism, “the flesh of the baptized is marked as Christ’s own forever” (59). Furthermore, baptism signifies the inclusive nature of the Christian faith. In Christ, there are no divisions, hierarchies, and distinctions (59, cf. Gal 3:28).
The second answer to these questions about what distinguishes Christian flesh as Christian addresses fleshly action. In baptism, human flesh is made something new. But “to have become something new,” Griffiths writes, “and to have become so irreversibly, doesn’t entail that newness in question is insulated from obscurity, occlusion, corruption, damage, or forgetfulness” (59). Considering this, Christians can and have, lamentably, acted in ways fundamentally opposed to what they actually are in Christ. On this point, Griffiths names the “double possibility” that distinguishes Christian fleshly acts from all others, namely Christian fleshly acts can either be in conformity to or speak against Christ.
Given this “double possibility,” Christian moral life for Griffiths must be grounded in the haptic intimacy Christians share with Jesus, signified by the fleshly act of cleaving. “Christians are glued to Jesus’s flesh, stuck on it, brought into it, made participant in it. They are in it and it is in them” (63). Both Christians and Jesus are joined together in one body, sharing fellowship in the unity of the one Spirit. In their flesh, Christians jointly are the body of Christ. As the temple of the Holy Spirit, Christians fleshly act in ways that glorify the Lord or choose ways that contradict their identity and fellowship by engaging in what Griffiths calls fornicatory cleavings. On this point, Griffiths offers a provocative reading of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that potentially challenges the received sexual norms of both Catholic and (Afro-)Protestant traditions.
From his reading of the sixth chapter of Paul’s letter, Griffiths discerns two types of fornicatory cleavings: idolatrous and scandalous. Idolatrous cleavings occur when Christians cleave to a creaturely good in such a way that devalues its goodness as a creature. Or in other words, “To cleave idolatrously is to take what you cleave to as an idol, to cleave to it as if it were a good independent of its creator, a self-standing uncreated good” (67). Because idols in of themselves are not real, but phantasms (for the triune God alone is the true God), then Christians incoherently join to them seeking fleshly intimacy, which is impossible. As a result, Christians either dominate the phantasm or reduce it to nothing. Scandalous cleavings are those which bring or cause damage to others. In certain contexts, scandalous cleavings “can move the imagination of others, those who observe these cleavings rather than those performing them, idolwards [sic]” (69). For instance, while “particular sartorial ensembles and conventions are adiaphorous for Christians,” there are certain occasions when Christian transgression of sartorial norms, specifically gender sartorial norms, may prove scandalous and thus speak against Jesus-cleaving (96–97). The point, however, is not to absolutely restrict or ban such engagements but to describe fleshly actions that may have, in certain contexts, deleterious effects upon those who observe Christians’ actions.
Concerning these two types of cleavings, Griffiths makes a stunning move. If we are to understand that the restriction against fornication (Christians’ cleaving to temple prostitutes) and eating food dedicated to idols indicates ways Christian flesh can engage in action that speaks against their Jesus-cleaving, then, because of their freedom in Christ, there are no prohibitions and commands against either cleaving to temple prostitutes (there are no such persons in the order of being). Such actions named fornicatory are discerned considering local norms and customs. Griffiths advises, “Discernment of which fleshly actions speak against being Jesus-cleaved requires, therefore, thick description of local habits. There are no universal norms binding Christian flesh in these matters; that is what Christian freedom with respect to matters of the flesh means” (73).
This theological move is striking for two reasons. First, Griffiths contextualizes the meaning of fornication to specifically convey the sexual joining of one to a temple prostitute, a meaning which many English translations of the Bible notoriously evade (e.g., NIV translates the Greek porneia with the vague term “sexual immorality”). This is an important insight for contemporary readers of the Bible. For many contemporary Christians, fornication generally means “sexual intercourse outside of heterosexual marriage.” Fornication loses its contextual meaning and rendered somewhat egalitarian. Moreover, temple prostitution is uncritically mapped upon any discussion (if such discussion is had) of contemporary sex work industry. Second, Griffiths’s theological move also aids with developing a christological ground rather than a biblicist one for Christian sexual ethics. Many contemporary Christians simply have a disconnect between how their Christian faith commitments relate to their sexuality. For evangelical and conservative Black Protestants, a Christian sexual ethic is constructed on biblicist grounds. By centering Christians’ haptic intimacy with Jesus, Griffiths nudges Christians toward a christological basis that not only affirms our flesh as created good by God, but also grounds our deliberation of sexual matters on the union of the church with Christ.
Much insight can be gleaned from Griffiths’s Christian Flesh. However, I am struck by Griffiths’s lack of attention to race. This raises the central question to which I now return: whose Christian flesh is this? Or, to pose the question more strongly: is this white Christian flesh? I would have liked Griffiths to consider how race continues to not only pose a theological problem for Black flesh, but also for all human and Christian flesh.
African American Christians—both Catholic and Protestant—are constantly aware of how racism insinuates itself in the church and society. As the scene of the Clearing in Morrison’s Beloved suggests, enslaved African Christians were not permitted to worship—to freely move their bodies, to lift up their hands, stomp their feet, and lift their voices in praise—for fear of reprisal. Many teach their children that Jesus, despite the predominant European depictions of him in Western art, is not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed man. Many Black pastors and theologians defend Christian faith against charges of promoting a “white man’s religion” despite white Christian theologians’ failure to reflect upon race theologically. Even now in the twenty-first century, their Black flesh still poses a threat to the white cis-heteropatriarchal order of the United States. Black Christians face the constant implicit questioning of their faith by European American Christian standards. How might Griffiths’s inclusion of race (re)shape his understanding of human and Christian flesh? Or to put it more strongly: what would it mean for Griffiths to reflect upon human and Christian flesh considering the premise that God in Christ is Black flesh?6
I would like to leave these questions open, but I would also like to reflect on them myself. Another question worth consideration: what if Griffiths’s inattention to race proves scandalous for Christian theological reflection? In a context where white supremacy and antiblack racism persist, Griffiths neglects to show that racial inequality within and outside the church speaks against Jesus-cleaving. Such neglect may prove damaging for those who perceive Christianity in toto to be an irremediably racist religion. Race is reinforced through doctrines, liturgies, images, practices, assumptions, and (discriminatory) policies. In addition, race as a master category shapes even our views of gender and what sexual choices we make.7 By leaving out any discussion of race, Griffiths’s theological arguments are liable to reifying the white European cis-heterosexual bourgeois male as the normative given.
Moreover, by not attending to race, Griffiths neglects the fact that, under Western settler colonial subjugation, nonwhite human flesh experienced their genders and sexualities in ways that have been death-dealing. For instance, as Hortense Spillers convincingly argues, enslaved Black women, Christian and otherwise, were not afforded the subject position of “woman” that their free white female counterparts shared. In institution of chattel slavery de-gendered Black women which made them virtually the same as Black men. Their flesh was reduced to a thing, or what Spillers calls “being for the captor.”8 As Baby Suggs, holy, memorably states: “Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despite it.”9 Consequently, Black women were subjected to the utmost cruelty; their flesh experienced the constant blows or wounding caresses of white slave holders. The effects of chattel slavery continue to reverberate in the contemporary situation. Specifically, Black women continue to ward off racist sexualized stereotypes (e.g., “Jezebel”) that are often perpetuated both in and outside of African American congregations.10 Despite the continuing cruelty of white supremacist cis-heteropatriarchy, Black female flesh gather in spaces to find joy, solace, healing, and community.
By centering Black women’s lived experience as human flesh under the constant threat of dehumanization, I think Griffiths’s reflection on human flesh would be more complete had he engaged the literary theoretical work of Spillers, Morrison’s Beloved, Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom, and the work of other Black feminist and womanist writers, scholars, and theologians. Their work provides the relevant social, cultural, and historical context for anyone writing about theology and flesh in the United States at the present moment. Moreover, Black feminists and womanists have also powerfully demonstrated how race, gender, class, and sexuality are intersecting systems of power that shape the lived experiences of Black women.11 Engaging this sort of work along with other scholarship on race would situate Griffiths’s project by attending more specifically to how, in the devastation, human flesh is marked by social realities that undermine the thriving of some for the benefit of others. In another way, Griffiths’s Christian Flesh would have yielded a more complete picture of not only human flesh, but also Christ’s own flesh had he grounded his reflection in the quotidian experiences of those whose flesh are marked as “Other” under the racial regime.12
“In this here place, we flesh.” This simple affirmation from Baby Suggs, holy, brilliantly captures what I believe Griffiths’s Christian Flesh aims to take into account, namely that despite inhabiting a world devastated by the Fall, human flesh—as living body—is fundamentally created good. These words are a balm not only for the imagined enslaved community in the Clearing, but also for those actual readers of Morrison’s Beloved who are the descendants of those enslaved in antebellum America. Under the racial regime, Black flesh has been captured, tortured, exploited, abused, and put under surveillance. Black flesh is disproportionately policed, tried, convicted, and incarcerated. Black flesh is constantly viewed as a threat to the State. With a barrage of cultural messages and social, political, and institutional actions proving inimical to Black lives, how do Black people love the flesh which God made them? Where can Black flesh go to find refuge? Suggs’s words disrupt the story that white supremacy and antiblack racism continues to tell concerning Black flesh. In Christian Flesh, Griffiths admirably shares in the task of declaring a good word for all human flesh. But in order for it to do so most effectively, Griffiths must theologically reckon with the legacy of race.
M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, Being (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009).↩
Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Vintage, 2004), 102–4.↩
Ashon T. Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017).↩
Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17.2, “Culture and Countermemory: The ‘American Connection’” (1987) 64–81.↩
Despite their differences with Catholic doctrine, Baptists are not completely averse to holding a more “sacramental” view of baptism and the Eucharist. For a recent discussion on this matter, see Anthony R. Cross and Philip E. Thompson, eds., Baptist Sacramentalism, Studies in Baptist History and Thought 5 (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2003).↩
Here I’m invoking the memorable claim of the late father of Black theology, James H. Cone. See his God of the Oppressed, rev. ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), 122–26.↩
Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 106, “We assert that in the United States, race is as a master category—a fundamental concept that has profoundly shaped, and continues to shape, the history, polity, economic structure, and culture of the United States.”↩
Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 67.↩
Morrison, Beloved, 103↩
Tamura Lomax, Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).↩
Of course, Griffiths’s Christian Flesh would benefit from engagement with any theological and humanist scholarship and literature that centers any racialized minoritized group. However, for my purposes as indicated in this essay, I center the experiences of African Americans.↩
M. Shawn Copeland, Knowing Christ Crucified: The Witness of African American Religious Experience (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2018); Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response, American Academy of Religion Series 64 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1989); JoAnne Marie Terrell, Power in the Blood? The Cross in African American Experience (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1998; reprint: Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005).↩
As a “low church” Protestant, I am not exactly the primary intended audience of Christian Flesh, which is written primarily in conversation with Roman Catholic tradition. While the Christian tradition is certainly important for my theology, how I have it “in mind” differs, as it shares the stage with Scripture, reason, and experience (and I suspect I weigh and configure these various sources differently than Griffiths does). Moreover, what I consider as Christian tradition, and what falls under its purview, is admittedly broader, or, at least, less defined. And while I share in Griffiths’s overarching assessment of the topic and task of theology—that it is and should be “about and responsive to the triune LORD”—I strongly suspect that the contours and configuration, again, differ for me (xi).1 I situate myself in advance as, while not entirely an outsider, certainly not an insider. However, though I indeed have some questions that stem from my position as a somewhat-outsider, the vantage point from such a position affords not only puzzlement and critique, but also commendation and clarity. Which is to say, I found Christian Flesh to be stimulating, thoughtful, productively provocative, and theologically rich.
While my ecclesial and theological landscape differs in important ways, I do share an investment in theological considerations and claims about the flesh. The prevailing theme framing my theological career thus far has been that of “difference.” What differences are noticed and marked as divergent? What theological logics, methods, and sources shape those determinations? Is Christian theology that is both faithful to tradition and takes difference seriously possible? What theological resources might speak to these questions?
My interest in questions concerning difference have tended to constellate around what one might call “fleshly matters.” What fleshly particularities, activities, and exchanges—to use Griffiths’s language here, what “caresses” and “acts of wounding”—are marked as different? Why, how, by what logics, and with what effects are those differences noticed and evaluated? In the course of offering a speculative theological depiction of (Christian) human flesh, Griffiths’s writing struck a range of chords for me, many of which were resonant and enjoyable, some dissonant and perhaps even painful, many that fell somewhere in between those poles, and more still that exceeded or escaped the “melodious-or-not” spectrum altogether—experimental or atypical configurations that were somehow neither concordant nor cacophonous, that were confoundingly both pleasant and jarring.
Griffiths’s reflections offer a great deal of space for difference, particularly through his claims about Christian freedom. “There’s nothing, no class or category of things with which fleshly intimacies might be had,” Griffiths writes, “which speaks against the condition of human flesh” (72). Since the fall, there is no kind of caress that is either exempt from damage nor is there any kind of caress that is damaged entirely. As such, “the question changes” from whether a caress is or is not forbidden to: “What are the goods in this kind of caress, whether in form or in its observed or conjectured effects, and what are its deformities?” (142). Griffiths explores and emphasizes the freedom of the Christian [insert bad joke about Luther here] with regards to a range of fleshly caresses and cleavings, amongst them clothing, food and drink, and “erotic caresses.” For instance, to turn to a topic that has been of interest to many readers, Griffiths (re-)considers three examples of erotic caresses that are often depicted as forbidden to Christian flesh—masturbation, cunnilingus, and sodomy. He argues “that they need not be so depicted—that there is nothing in their form that makes them per se inappropriate for Christian flesh” (139). Distinguishing copulative caresses from other erotic caresses (many of which are often associated with but by no means only practiced by same-sex sexual partners, such as sodomy and cunnilingus), Griffiths argues that much of speculative, especially Catholic, theology overestimates the importance of the copulative caress and thus over-assimilates other caresses to it. Erotic caresses may not be copulative, but that does not say anything about the extent to which they “contribute to a mutually supportive intertwined life of a kind intimate with Jesus’ love for the Church.” The point, Griffiths argues, “isn’t the sex, or gender, of those exchanging caresses; the point is the extent to which the caresses they exchange comport well with their condition as Jesus-cleaved” (144). Griffiths thus offers a dubium to the teaching of the Catholic Church on homosexuality, opening up space, at least theologically, for the assimilation of same-sex caresses.
While Griffiths points to the radicality of Christian freedom, he also considers how some cleavings risk leading others astray and should thus be avoided. One arena where Griffiths explores this distinction is in clothing. While most matters around clothing are adiaphorous for Christians, there are some exceptions to this general principle around liturgical clothing and around “male and female clothes” (4.5; 92–96). Rooting his reflections in Galatians 3:28, Griffiths writes that “Christians are, finally and deeply, clothed with Jesus, and that clothing overcomes—puts off—any and all other clothes” (92). What, then, is the Christian to make of and do with gender-specific sartorial norms? When gender-specific sartorial norms become more than local conventions that are abided by for local utility—when, one might say, gender-specific sartorial norms become normativized—then the matter is no longer simply adiaphorous, as it speaks against being Jesus-cleaved. When “the reframing of such dressing by Jesus is ignored,” Griffiths argues, it causes people to think that there is something Christian about such norms, and leads “towards active support of pagan modes of thinking about those norms as intimate with the natures of men and women and reflective of the order of being.” Given this, Griffiths argues that it would be more Jesus-cleaved “to adopt styles of dress that signal the subordination of sartorial gender marking to sartorial gender transfiguration,” which could be accomplished by a fluid mixing of local norms (94). Griffiths offers a small handful of examples relevant to a contemporary Western context—e.g., men sometimes painting their nails and wearing skirts, women sometimes wearing neckties or not shaving their legs.
Griffiths’s consideration of exceptions to adiaphorous dress was, at least for me, a surprising twist. Caveats, considerations, or calls for constraint in the context of discussions on Christian freedom are far more often deployed against non-conformity, against difference, than on behalf of it. It wasn’t until after I got to the twist—to Griffiths’s assertion that “observing local sartorial norms without transgressive gestures (not necessarily dramatic ones) is to begin, in dress, to speak against the Jesus-cleaving of one’s flesh”—that I realized how on edge I had been, not until I breathed a sigh of relief that I noticed I had been holding my breath (94). I have been long-conditioned to assume a defensive posture in theological conversations, especially concerning fleshly matters. No longer feeling a need to be on the defensive broadens one’s range of vision a bit, freeing one up to step back and take stock. Which is to say, while Griffiths’s reflections on Christian flesh and freedom opened up space for difference in ways that I often found surprising and exciting and relieving, it was precisely at those points in Christian Flesh where my questions and concerns, my “on the other hand,” emerged.
As is made clear early and throughout, Griffiths is interested in Christian speech not just about human flesh in general but also about Christian flesh in particular. As the blurb on the back of the book succinctly puts it, Christian Flesh “shows us what being a Christian means for fleshly existence . . . analyzing what the Christian tradition has to say about the flesh of Christians.” In a review essay on Linn Tonstad’s Queer Theology in which he addresses many of the same themes as Christian Flesh, Griffiths asserts that “human flesh comes in three kinds, which are really distinct, distinct in the order of being: Jewish, Christian, and pagan.”2 These are three sortals regarding human identity—perhaps the only three?—that Griffiths holds as having “natural-kind purchase in the order of being.” For other matters, Griffiths understands himself to be “a firm anti-essentialist.” Tabling, for now at least, questions around why these three sortals are natural kinds (a question Tonstad poses in her response essay, as these sortals are invoked in relation to Gal 3:28), the main questions I have are simpler ones: Why, and to what degree, does this kind of distinction matter? How does this distinction relate to other distinctions of and about the flesh?
Griffiths considers what marks flesh as Christian flesh, exploring this question within the order of being and the order of knowing (58). While these are interesting and important inquiries, where I found myself getting stuck was at the analytical abstractions of and about Christian flesh, the ways that Christian flesh can be so clearly distinguished and differentiated. While I have questions about some of the epistemological assumptions at play in Christian Flesh, and the authority and weight they hold, what I’m especially hesitant about is not merely the primacy of the ordering of Christian vs. Jewish vs. pagan flesh.3 More fundamentally, I am apprehensive about how those distinctions are made in relation to other fleshly particularities. For Griffiths, it appears as though baptism—the rite through which human flesh becomes Christian—renders all other fleshly particularities insignificant, if not void.
Reflecting on how the relation between Christian flesh and Jesus’s flesh is likened to the relation between temples and the Lord in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, Griffiths writes:
Temples house the LORD. In housing the LORD, they bear the LORD in themselves; the LORD is their inhabitant, and the LORD’s presence glorifies them inevitably, transfigures them in all their particulars no matter what those particulars are. The flesh of Christians is the same. Transfigured, like it or not; Christ’s, like it or not; a Spirit-temple, like it or not; radiant with the LORD’s presence, like it or not; and all that no matter what its shape, color, size, sex, age, health, and so on. (64–65, emphasis mine)
While this could certainly be read as radically equalizing for Christians, thus opening up space for difference, I’m unconvinced. I am deeply concerned here about what epistemological and ethical imports are presumed and (re-)produced.
While the distinctiveness and prioritization of Christian flesh shapes Griffiths’s ethical vision and creates some space for difference vis-à-vis Christian freedom, difference is ultimately overlooked; it is subsumed into a kind of Christian sameness that is presumably unimpacted by other fleshly markers or forms of difference due to its “natural-kind purchase.” Griffiths’s discussion of male and female clothing is illuminative here. The clothing of Christ that we put on “overcomes—puts off—any and all other clothes” (92). As discussed briefly above, this leads Griffiths to some surprising conclusions about adopting styles of dress that embrace a fluid mixing of gendered sartorial norms in ways that, again, open up space for difference. That being said, apart from a brief acknowledgment that “local sartorial norms that distinguish male from female . . . often present themselves as, first, not to be transgressed on pain of exclusion or violence,” Griffiths does not address the risks involved in the transgressions of sartorial gender-marking norms. These risks differ depending on different particularities of one’s flesh, as well as different cultural contexts.
It is one thing for me as a highly educated, middle-class, middle-aged, white, cis woman who works as a university lecturer in Charlottesville, Virginia, to not shave my legs or to wear a tie when I teach. It is something rather different for a young black trans woman in rural Georgia to wear a dress to her high school dance. It is something different still for a rather tall, white British male, a retired professor who has held chaired professorships at elite universities, to perhaps teach a class with his nails painted. (I would actually be very curious to hear more about how Griffiths himself has adopted styles of dress that fluidly mix local gender norms and what he experienced/noticed while doing so.) It is not that those differences can be neatly placed on a single-dimension spectrum—I don’t think they can. The ways that “sartorial norms for gender badging have become hardened and enforced by violence against or social exclusion of offenders” vary, across multiple vectors of difference, which is precisely why acknowledgment of and attentiveness to our manifold fleshly particularities and contexts are so important (94).
In arguing for fluid mixing of sartorial gender norms, Griffiths suggests that Christians have “often engaged in sartorial transgressions of local gender-marking norms,” as most of the sartorial markers of priestly office or of membership in religious orders “desex those who wear them, and stand at odds with local sartorial gender badges” (94). While I was struck by the quick shift from fluid mixing to desexing (by the ways in which they seem to function as similar, if not synonymous, and I would be curious to hear more on that), what stood out to me even more was the presumed distance between theory and practice. Though I can understand a theoretical argument about liturgical clothing signifying a kind of gender fluidity or neutrality that reads as transgressive, I am cognizant of how this is not often the case in practice. By and large, religious garb has not protected Protestant clergywomen from being sexed and sexualized, objectified, harassed, critiqued, judged, etc.4 Again, attentiveness to fleshly particularities (or lack thereof) has real effects—on how one might interpret what sartorial transgression might mean or look like (how one might apply or even understand such an exhortation), as well as on what one’s understanding or application might lead to, how others might respond in turn. Christian flesh is abstracted, classified, and privileged in ways that falsely presume or perpetuate a kind of epistemological neutrality, obfuscating or overlooking particularities in ways that risk ethical harm.
Clothing is not the only topic in Christian Flesh where fleshly particularity is overlooked or subsumed by Christian flesh, nor is gender the only or most notable particularity overlooked. Underlying this pattern—discernable across different arenas and with regards to other fleshly particularities—seems to be the notion that because Christian flesh is the fleshly form/marker that has “natural-kind purchase in the order of being,” it is the only form or marker of flesh that matters. It becomes the only kind of flesh that is truly real, over-and-against other fleshly particularities that are a product of social norms and conventions, which are non-essential, culturally constructed. But the fact that our fleshly particularities take forms—race, gender, sexuality, etc.—which are socially constructed does not in any way mean that they are not real (a point that I and many others who research, write, and teach on these matters have to explain often). They’re very real, with real histories, real experiences, real effects. They form us in real ways that shape how we view (and act in) the world and how we are viewed by (and are acted upon by) the world. I don’t think that we have access to any notion or kind of Christian flesh apart from those realities, and I’m concerned about the consequences of frameworks that presume that we do.
While reading Christian Flesh, I could not help but think about another book about the flesh and Christianity: Michel Foucault’s Les aveux de le chair (Confessions of the Flesh). Initially completed in the early 1980s but not published until over thirty years after Foucault’s death, the fourth volume of his History of Sexuality series “treat[s] the experience of the flesh in the first centuries of Christianity, and the role played by hermeneutics and the purifying decipherment of desire.”5 Foucault considers how we got to the point where the subject is constituted by an obligation to tell the truth of their sexuality, tracing how this obligation stems from and is shaped by relations of obedience determined by the church via practices of confession and penitence. Discussing Christian thinkers from the second to the fifth centuries—from Justin Martyr and Tertullian, to Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus, to Augustine and Cassian—Foucault traces how the flesh is understood as “a mode of experience” that transforms the self’s relation to itself (“mode de rapport de soi à soi”) via a specific relation between the cancellation of evil and the manifestation of truth. The problem of the flesh, Foucault explains, becomes a “mode of subjectivation” (50–51). At the end of Confessions of the Flesh, Foucault summarizes that a “recomposition thus took place around what might be called, in contrast to the economy of paroxysmal pleasure, the analytic of the subject of concupiscence. It is there,” he writes, “that sex, truth and law are linked, by ties that our culture has tightened rather than relaxed” (361). The processes through which the flesh is confessed and also understood as that which is to be confessed—this mode of subjectivation where conduct of the flesh becomes truth of the flesh—is a process through which flesh is contained, constructed, and ultimately renounced. I worry about the ways that the isolation and abstraction of Christian flesh as such—the ways in which flesh is categorized as and by its Christian-ness—operate by renouncing the realities of our enfleshed existences, thus constricting our vision and restricting our fleshly freedoms and experiences with others, with ourselves, and with Christ. While Griffiths emphasizes freedom, and aims to affirm enfleshment in notable ways, in failing to take account of the ways certain fleshly differences can’t but matter in our world, does he participate in this process that Foucault narrates? Does Christian Flesh, on some level, covertly (inadvertently? paradoxically?) work to renounce the flesh?6
In an encomium to the life and work of Marcella Althaus-Reid, Susannah Cornwall points out that what underpins all of Althaus-Reid’s work is spelled out in the introduction to Indecent Theology. “The significance of ‘selling lemons whilst not wearing underwear’: in other words,” Cornwall translates, “allowing our literal and metaphorical bodily fragrances and sited locations, even where they are not traditional areas of sacred reflection, to intermingle with ‘issues of theology and economy.’”7 I want to amend Cornwall’s interpretation ever so slightly. There is an allowance, certainly, but also a basic acknowledgment that “our literal and metaphorical bodily fragrances and sited locations” do intermingle with theology.
“The theological scandal is that bodies speak, and God speaks through them,” Althaus-Reid writes.8 While I was energized and challenged, chastened and encouraged, by many of the theological speculations Griffiths offers about the flesh, I wanted to hear about what flesh might say to and about theology—what we might learn from and about “God, as found in the complexity of the unruly sexualities and relationships of people; God, as present in the via rupta of previously unrecognized paths of praxis, that is, paths carved with machetes in jungles, as paths of experience (and of people at the margins) usually are.”9 This is the approach to Christian flesh that I wanted more of from Griffiths—a theological analysis of and approach to flesh that grapples with the ways that the realities and experiences of our flesh, in its particularities and differences, impact theology; not just a theology of flesh, but an enfleshed theology.
The grammatical differences between British and American English might serve as a, well, grammatical corollary here—the language as well as the broad grammatical structure is the same, but there are notable differences, some of which have real implications on the meaning of a text. Or, if that presumes more closeness then is there, one could say we are both speaking Germanic languages, which have more variation but nevertheless share a great degree of lexical and grammatical similarity then, a Germanic language has with a Romance language, or, certainly with an Indic or Uralic language.↩
Paul Griffiths, “Is Queer Theology Christian Theology?,” Marginalia: Los Angeles Review of Books, January 18, 2019, https://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/queer-theology/.↩
Put differently, I’m not clear about how it’s possible to make such claims about the order of being, distinctive from the order of knowing—how can we say with analytical certainty and/or clarity what it is precisely that baptism does to the flesh, and how, and why, is that the primary (most significant?) sortal? Of course, we can turn to and talk about revelation, but the breadth of the analytical claims and classifications seems to overrun that theological locus. Moreover, how does our condition in light of the fall mark and manifest in our flesh, not only through material actions and effects but also through our epistemological frameworks? Who makes the determinations about who falls into what category, and on what grounds? How firmly can such determinations be held this side of the eschaton? “When we establish a considered classification . . . what is the ground on which we are able to establish the validity of this classification with complete certainty? On what ‘table,’ according to what grid of identities, similitudes, analogies, have we become accustomed to sort out so many different and similar things? What is this coherence—which, as is immediately apparent, is neither determined by an a priori and necessary concatenation, nor imposed on us by immediately perceptible contents? . . . Order is, at one and the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront one another, and also that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language; and it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression.” Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Routledge, 2002), xxi.↩
For a glimpse/small set of examples, see “#HerTruth,” “Women in Ministry,” and “Seriously?,” videos from the North Alabama and Western North Carolina Conferences of the United Methodist Church (both produced with support from the UMC General Commission on the Status and Role of Women), and from the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Following the release of “Women in Ministry,” Christi Dye, the chair of the UMC Western North Carolina conference’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women, commented: “You will not find a female pastor—even a young one, I venture to say—who has not experienced some level of objectification, sexualization or gender-biased comments.” See Sam Hodges, “New Video Calls Out Harassment of Clergywomen,” UM News, June 25, 2019, https://www.umnews.org/en/news/new-video-calls-out-harassment-of-clergywomen. See also Ruth Pidwell, “The Word Made Flesh: Gender and Embodiment in Contemporary Preaching,” Social Semiotics 11.2 (2001) 177–92.↩
See Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité 4: Les aveux de la chair, ed. Frédéric Gros (Paris: Gallimard, 2018). The quote cited above is from the internal loose-leaf flyer, the “Prière d’insérer,” included in the original edition of History of Sexuality, vol. 2, The Use of Pleasure, in 1984. For more on Les aveux and the details surrounding its publication, see Stuart Elden “Review: Foucault’s Confessions of the Flesh,” Theory, Culture, & Society, March 20, 2018; Sverre Raffnsøe, “Review Essay: Michel Foucault’s Confessions of the Flesh,” Foucault Studies 25 (2018) 393–421.↩
I’m particularly grateful to Sean Larsen for helping me frame and further think through this question.↩
Susannah Cornwall, “Stranger in Our Midst: The Becoming of the Queer God in the Theology of Marcella Althaus-Reid,” in Dancing Theology in Fetish Boots: Essays in Honour of Marcella Althaus-Reid, ed. Lisa Isherwood and Mark Jordan (London: SCM Press, 2010), 98; Marcella Althaus-Reid, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics (New York: Routledge, 2000), 2.↩
Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God (New York: Routledge, 2003), 34.↩
Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, 33–34.↩
On the Whence and Wither of Christian Flesh
Commentators on Paul Griffiths’s constructive theological work note its depth, creativity, inner coherence, and self-consistency, and remark that, while it is rigorously argued, is also a pleasure to read. These characteristics are not only applicable to Griffith’s books individually, but across his corpus. For this reason, while I pose questions here about his newest book, Christian Flesh, I do so while making reference to his previous volume, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures.1 Partially, this is because my own work on Christian bodies—individual and corporate—is eschatologically inflected,2 and I hope that by posing these questions for Griffiths I will learn something valuable from him for my work. Less selfishly, it seems to me that Griffiths’s eschatological perspectives in Decreation are of a piece with the proposals regarding embodiment he articulates in Christian Flesh. I hope a conversation about the implications carried by this consonance across the two volumes provides Griffiths an occasion to state more explicitly his views of Christian flesh’s theological value in light of its eschatological ultimacy. Certainly, one gets a strong sense of this from reading Decreation and Christian Flesh, either separately or together. In asking for his further thoughts, I hope to check my reading of his work against his views, to continue thinking with him.
My overall question concerns whether what one might call Griffiths’s restorationist-liturgical eschatological schema attenuates the significance of bodies in his theology, and in so doing undermines his intention of demonstrating the importance of taking the actual present fleshiness of flesh seriously when raising questions about the Christian life. Underlying the queries that follow is the central question of whether Griffiths’s account of where flesh has come from and where it is going result in an overly constricted imagination of the embodied lives of Christians.
Where Has Christian Flesh Come From?
For Griffiths, Christian flesh derives from Jesus’ primordial flesh. To the extent that human beings bear the likeness of God (the image is for Griffiths a different question that I do not address here), it does so because the flesh of God’s incarnation is the same as our flesh, connecting us to God by the fact of our shared fleshliness. Griffiths maintains the incarnation occurred in time, but that it is not a time-bound event. It is a trinitarian reality transcending chronological time. Because of this, all human flesh—whether alive previous to, contemporary with, or subsequent to the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth—bears the likeness of God in its consonance with “the paradigmatic human flesh” of Jesus.3 What makes human flesh in general Christian flesh in particular is its becoming “baptized flesh.” Being made incorporate in the body of Christ in baptism and then living fleshly life with a different orientation than other ways that fleshly life might be lived, Christian flesh is human flesh that “cleaves” to Jesus’ flesh in ways that cannot be prescribed in advance but are discerned within the context of given circumstances.4
Several questions arise at this point. Why should the theological significance of human flesh be rooted in the past? Even granting for the sake of argument Griffiths’s contention that the incarnation stands in an important way outside of or apart from time and so is not, technically speaking, something in the past, if we are to understand that what makes human flesh significant is that it is isomorphic with the flesh of a historical individual who, in point of fact, lived prior to us, we seem to be granting that, for us here today, human flesh is theologically significant because of something that has already happened, something we can name and specify and in some sense know. There is a model for it.
I wonder, though, if what gives flesh its theological significance is not what it was or even what it is, but what it will be and what, even now, it is pointing us toward. Perhaps flesh is theologically meaningful because, as Griffiths readily observes, flesh is required for communication, for communion. If we focus on flesh’s capacity to give and receive communication, above all but not exclusively from God, are we able to identify flesh as theologically salient because now, in the evolutionary course of things, human flesh is a wonderful, mysteriously complex, and thoroughly contingent way that God’s good creation receives the divine self-disclosure and is enabled to make an appropriate response to it in keeping with its present form and capabilities?
Is to say that Jesus’ flesh is paradigmatic for human flesh, then, to say too much? A paradigmatic (that is, established) rather than properly eschatological (that is, tensively futural) treatment of the meaning of fleshliness may prematurely close off an imagination of the openness of the flesh, making it out to be less than that in and through which human beings are called ever forward into the promise of relational communion—with God, with one another, within individual selves, and between humans and the rest of creation—a full flourishing envisioned by the prophets, proclaimed by Jesus, and sealed by the bodily resurrection. Such communion is certainly to be imagined as bodily. It is so, however, in a way that defies any precise articulation. Perhaps this means that the significance of human flesh stems not from conformity to an existing model but lies along its mostly unknowable and largely unspecifiable relational trajectory toward God’s promise? Is identifying the theological meaning of human flesh in its participation in Jesus’ primordial flesh as a paradigm, rather than in the eschatological future Jesus preached and performed in and through his flesh, a too static and almost substantialist account of flesh’s meaning, one that could be better imagined in a more dynamic, relational, and vocational way?
For Griffiths, Christian flesh also comes from—though in this instance not in the sense of origin or derivation, but in the sense of legibly arising on account of the context provided by—what he calls throughout both Decreation and Christian Flesh “the devastation.” With characteristic precision, he marks a terminological distinction between what he calls “the cosmos” and what is named “the world.” The cosmos is the original, aggregated panoply of all created things, which Griffiths defines as “all there is other than the LORD; and it is surpassingly beautiful.” The world, on the other hand, is the cosmos in its postlapsarian state, characterized by death, destruction, and chaos. The world is, quite simply, the devastation of the cosmos. Griffiths writes that in the devastation, “traces of the cosmos’ surpassing beauty remain, some evident to human creatures and some not. But for the most part, the world appears to human creatures as it is [i.e., as the devastation]: a charnel house, saturated in blood violently shed; an ensemble of inanimate creatures decaying toward extinction; a theater of vice and cruelty.”5 The devastation is where human flesh is located. It is also a disordered regime that Christian flesh counteracts when it cleaves to Jesus’ flesh in its habits and behaviors. When Christian flesh does this, it can be said to be, in Griffiths’s terms, bodying forth not the world but the prior, created, cosmic order within and to the present, devastated world.6 Christian flesh, then, comes out of the devastation by enfleshing its contrast, by showing the world the cosmos that it once was, most truly is, and will once again become.
If I am reading Griffiths correctly, this view raises questions for me that are structurally similar to those I mentioned above. The imaginative gaze of the theology in play here seems largely to be cast backward instead of forward. Certainly Griffiths does not maintain that the eschatological future is simply the reestablishment of the prelapsarian condition. He takes the traditional view that Christians are bound for heaven rather than Eden.7 Even so, one might ask: if his controlling image for the present is “devastation” (fall from a previous good condition) and his controlling image for the future is “healing” (return to a previous state of healthiness), the weight of the argument rests heavily on the notion of restoration. If one contends that human beings currently inhabit a reality that is less than the created perfection it once was (as cosmos) and so can only be properly characterized as the devastation, given that perfection can denote one and only one thing and still be perfect (however that “one thing” is formally specified), wouldn’t the prelapsarian cosmic perfection and the ultimate reestablishment of that harmony require that those two states be identical in a qualitative sense? Wouldn’t that mean, in turn, that whatever comes next is accurately called a restoration? Indeed, Griffiths maintains that the renovatio mundi—the renovation of the world—is “a nonnegotiable part of the doctrinal schema of the last things.” He defines this “as the world’s healing, its restoration to the condition of being a cosmos, a beautifully ordered whole participating in harmony with the LORD, its creator.” While using all of these retrospective images, however, he contends that the only thing this doctrine supports is the possible eschatological preservation of entities beyond the merely human.8 Strangely, the fact that such language appears to rely on an imagination of the re-instantiation of a prior condition is not even mentioned by Griffiths. Does such a set of concepts, though, inevitably conjure up a retrospective gaze, despite Griffiths’s denial that it points to anything specific?
I think it does. And I think this matters. If the world is a devastation, what it ought to be has already been in its past and so the present is properly inhabited in the mode of lamentation and mourning, as indeed Griffiths’s definition of the devastation says it is. But if creation has never been perfect because it has in fact never been finished, if it is an incomplete, ongoing divine project (not process) by which God’s continual donation of grace—from creation arcing through to perfection—via the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit is drawing us toward a perfection of relational communion in creaturely forms we are only able to glimpse dimly in the Pauline glass, then the present—tragic and brutal though it be—is properly inhabited in the mode of hope, hope in the ultimate, promised (though neither inevitable nor specifiable) arrival of such a “beautifully ordered and gorgeously ornamented ensemble of creatures” (as Griffiths describes the cosmos),9 ordered by communion as the telic logic (logos) by which creation is created. This is not a condition that has previously existed, one we can look back on and survey with the pain of loss. It has always been an object of hope.
It seems to me that the difference between each of these views has tremendous existential implication for the lived lives of those holding them. What is it to be Christian flesh? Is it to be a Jesus-cleaved instantiation of a cosmic order attested to and modeled by the Edenic world, one that is no longer but that will eventually be re-instantiated, even if differently? Or is it to be a Jesus-shaped anticipation of a still-coming, indescribable but partially glimpsed perfection of communion that has never yet been, one sealed in the resurrection promise and sustained by the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit? The former seems to be a more retrospective, guardedly certain, and heavy-hearted conception of Christian flesh, and the latter to be to a more prospective, judiciously agnostic, and hopeful imagination of Christian embodiment.
I will detail why the difference is crucial in my final section. First, I turn from questions of where Griffiths thinks Christian flesh comes from (in a couple of senses) to where he contends it is headed, in order to pose additional eschatological questions about Christian embodiment.
Where Is Christian Flesh Going?
As has already been mentioned, Griffiths maintains that Christian flesh (at least Christian flesh, though possibly more than just that) has a heavenly destiny.10 Unlike Paul, perhaps, Griffiths does think flesh can “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50), though this may not be an argument with Paul’s soma/sarx (body/flesh) distinction so much as an indication of Griffiths’s rejection of such terminology as analytically imprecise11 and of his reliance on dogmatic attestations to the bodily ascension to heaven of the resurrected Jesus and of his mother, Mary, as reliable warrants for claiming the presence of human flesh in heaven, “a timespace label for the there/then of a mode of fleshly relation.”12 This definition of heaven, its futural and relational character, and the fact that flesh can be “located” in it seems promising as a point of consonance between Griffiths’s view and the alternative I began to sketch out in the previous section. To determine whether this is the case and, if it is not, what difference the difference between them might make, let’s first look more closely at Griffith’s conception of eschatological ultimacy.
Heaven is only one aspect of eschatological fulfillment, an implication of the five doctrines that limn the contours of what, for Griffiths, is a robust eschatology: eternal life, the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the flesh, the renovation of the world, and the beatific vision.13 What seems missing, here, in a way that might be curious of a perspective that affirms bodily resurrection and the eschatological perdurance of flesh, is any talk of that which would normally be treated in eschatology under the heading of “the new heaven and new earth.” For Griffiths, eschatological talk of the new is only coherent when it is talk of the newest occurrence or state in a sequence and, so, this can only mean for Christian eschatology, the final end state of any given thing, after which comes nothing, nothing even newer.14 The absorption of the concept “new” by the concept “last” certainly seems to cohere well with a restorationist perspective, which features no urgent need for the former category. The contrast of this with a view of the eschaton as the arrival of a condition that has not heretofore obtained, though, is obvious. In that case, newness is of the utmost importance. I am curious why, for Griffiths, the new cannot itself be the last. That is, is it impossible that the advent of something we might call the new heaven and the new earth might also be the coming into being of the last heaven and the last earth, the final state of creation in its ultimate, perfected, finally completed form?
For Griffiths, there are three possible ultimate states for a created entity: annihilation, simple stasis, and repetitive stasis. That is, an entity might be “brought to nothing,” temporarily or permanently, like a trashed computer file deleted from a digital spacetime; or it might be frozen, like a screenshot of the final moment of a long computational process that is captured and archived on the eternal servers of digital spacetime; or it might the same archived not as a still image but as something like a GIF—an image that cycles endlessly through a limited set of actions without change, variation, or novelty.15 As this last notion, representing repetitive stasis, is Griffiths’s view of the heavenly state, it becomes even less surprising to find that, for him, newness recedes as a matter of importance.
Further, anything new—as in, anything subsequent to the last thing of Christian flesh—would, in Griffiths’s estimation, undermine the repetitive stasis that simply is the final human condition, which is the eternal and changeless worship of God in the fleshly relationship we name “heaven,” a God who is at last visible to fleshly eyes in the beatific vision, and this carried out in the harmony of the original created order. In the repetitive round of this everlasting liturgy—of which our earthly eucharists are an anticipation and to which they habituate us—our individual senses of ourselves, the qualia by which we experience God, others, and self, are stilled and fall away. In repetitive stasis as the last thing of Christian flesh, we cease to have subjectivity.16 We are raised as truly ourselves, but with no awareness of being a self at all, without it “seeming to us that we are us.”17 This, of course, is entirely consistent with stasis. Consciousness in any meaningful sense requires motion. No movement means no consciousness.
Griffiths himself names several objections that have been raised to his eschatological schema.18 “The first, and most obvious,” he writes, “is that this vision of heavenly life is not attractive to most who hear it.”19 In his estimation, the reason it is often held to be unattractive is that it claims that maintaining self-identification is inconsequential. Certainly, this is no small problem. I wonder, however, whether the deeper issue is that this perspective is, despite Griffiths’s contention to the contrary, utterly non-relational.
If we turn again to the view of flesh as a mode of relatedness with a vocation to communion, and of creation itself as a material response to the communion that God is and promises, then the loss of the self is not an objection to this picture simply because, in it, I lose my I-ness, but because in losing my I-ness what I really lose is the promise of the fourfold relational perfection: unconstrained communion between myself and God, with my fellow human beings across space and time, within my own shattered and fractured self, and between myself and all that God has made, values, and brings to its fulfillment. If what God promises is a new heaven and a new earth in which the flourishing of life—judged, converted, reconciled, and rightly ordered—finally becomes a reality, then ongoing change—change as motion, not change as a vacillation between qualitative states, such as loving or not loving, in communion or out of communion—is not an eschatological impediment but a requirement. As Griffiths desires, in this view, there is no “new thing” that follows the “last thing.” But the last thing, here, is not figured as the cessation of movement but the achievement of God’s ends in having created—namely, communion, which is then full. Within that final state of perfect relationship, movement still happens, allowing there to be anything even approximating the eschatological delight that is ingredient to the divine promise, allowing multiple intersecting forms of relationality to have the promised temporal extension of everlastingness, and allowing there to be anything worthy of the name life. How can something static—simply or repetitively, it makes no difference—be alive? It may have bare existence in a kind of suspended animation, frozen or repetitively looping. But it is not alive. It is possible that I am missing something key to which Griffiths can enlighten me, but presently I fail to see how eternal life characterized by stasis is not a contradiction in terms.
What Is Christian Flesh Now?
Of the many illuminating views Griffiths advances in Christian Flesh, one of the most welcome is also the most basic and sustained throughout the book: the argument that, in the devastation, how Christian flesh—flesh properly cleaved to Jesus’ flesh—is appropriately marked from other kinds of flesh is never something that can be known in advance of a deep analysis of extant conditions, which allows one to discern a form that Christian flesh can legitimately take in order to become legible in that time and place. This is not at all reflective of moral laxity or unthinking relativism on Griffiths’s part. What is advocated is demanding work, undertaken with careful attention to the particularities and needs of a given context, surveyed in the light cast on them by rightly formed Christian commitments. There is much to admire in a fleshy ethics like this.
Such a view of moral life in the flesh is amenable to both of the eschatological schemes that have been treated here. The reason why each might champion it, however, differs. And it does so in a way that might allow more present possibility in the flesh to be found in one than in the other. This makes evident the lived difference between the two views that I hinted earlier I would describe in the final section of the essay. I turn to that task now, concretizing the specific difference I take all of this to make in offering a test case that also serves as a conclusion and the occasion for posing a final slate of questions.
Early on in Christian Flesh, Griffiths makes the not only biological but phenomenological case that human flesh is constituted by the fleshly touch of body by body, which brings it into being as flesh, as opposed to some other kind of matter.20 Loving or erotic touch, which Griffiths labels generically as “caress,” is touch that not only brings fleshliness about, but always wounds the one it touches, as well, in any number of ways. This was not the case before the devastation and it will not be the case after it. Once restored, touch can be “pure gift” again, never self-seeking, expropriative, or violent.21
Few, I think, would argue that touch can ever be completely free of the negative taint Griffiths describes. How this reality is to be understood, however, varies. Griffiths maintains this is the result of a devastation that has robbed humans of the possibility for touching one another that way, one that will be restored hereafter. Another perspective might maintain that this relational alloy is the result of imperfect communion, and that this is part and parcel of life within a creation in via toward the realization of relational perfection. Why might it matter whether one takes one of these views over the other? Because in the first instance, to construe imperfect touching as the result of a cosmic loss that is irremediable this side of heaven leaves us with no room to imagine and, so, to experience it as being otherwise, whereas maintaining that the capacity to touch without wounding is never something we had but is a subject of God’s promise and is an object of our hope keeps us attentive and watchful for its proleptic inbreaking—all good eschatological concepts—in such a way that when experiences that gracefully anticipate that condition, without ever fully instantiating it, dawn upon us, we can recognize, celebrate, and give thanks for them, for reorienting us to the promise, for breaking us open or converting us to it.
For example, Griffiths argues that human eros is the manifestation of wanting to know and be known in a deep and meaningful way, not only by others but by God.22 The problem for Jesus-cleaved flesh in following the bodily manifestations of this desire into an act of sex lies not for Griffiths in its breakage of some ancient moral code but in the fact that, often, one’s orgasm is “the temporary obliteration of the flesh of the other as other.” He continues, “Orgasms, like sneezes and pains, tend to close the flesh’s horizon in upon itself and thus to make the presence of the other at best ancillary and at worst irrelevant.”23 This is a recognizable reality, whether the phenomenon is characterized by an imagination framed by the devastation or by imperfect communion. The difference is that, in the second case, there is openness to the possibility of it being experienced otherwise.
Even if never fully gift, is Griffiths arguing that reaching orgasm with another person can never be the occasion in which the other is experienced as other in an irreducible and mysterious way, one in which the self is grasped not as monadic but as flesh intersubjectively interpenetrated by other flesh, one in and through which the joy of heavenly communion can be tasted? Is he saying it can never be a bodily event in which the eschatological promise of communion glimmers, redirecting us to the living plenitude Jesus invites his followers to approach precisely in and through attending to the O/other? Is it not fully self-consistent that a view of Christian flesh as a devastation on the way to liturgical stasis is (despite Griffiths’s denials of this) a closed body, unavailable to the anticipatory inbreaking of new life—newness itself being a theological category with little to no salience for him? Is it true that, for Griffiths, the only form by which such an anticipation might come is through eucharistic worship, the taking in of Christian flesh to constitute and fortify Christian flesh? Is this the only way eschatological promise approaches from the future? Is this the only way present Christian flesh can live toward its created vocation for communion?
I am truly grateful for this chance to interact with Griffiths’s important work and look forward to learning more from him in his replies to these questions.
Paul J. Griffiths, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014).↩
See Scott MacDougall, “Bodily Communions: An Eschatological Proposal for Addressing the Christian Body Problem,” Dialog 57 (2018): 178–85, and More than Communion: Imagining an Eschatological Ecclesiology (London: Bloomsbury / T. & T. Clark, 2015).↩
Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 27–29; Decreation, 169–71, quote at 170.↩
Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 58.↩
Griffiths, Decreation, 4.↩
See, for example, Christian Flesh, 60–66.↩
Griffiths, Decreation, 61.↩
Griffiths, Decreation, 51.↩
Griffiths, Decreation, 4.↩
See especially §24 of Decreation, 215–40.↩
Griffiths, Decreation, 158–59.↩
Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 49–56, quote at 54.↩
Griffiths, Decreation, 45.↩
Griffiths, Decreation, 7–8. Griffiths interprets the original usage of novissima, literally “new things,” to have been a reference to the eschatological “last things” from its appearance in the fifteenth century. Even if this is the case, however, this cannot be the decisive reason for Griffiths’s own usage, as his willingness to redefine terms is well demonstrated. There is a theological rationale in play, here, not a simple historical determination of conceptual meaning. Moreover, there are patristic (and, indeed biblical!) resources that one can draw on to establish quite another eschatological viewpoint, one that highlights newness. The choice to begin with fifteenth-century Latin treatises is precisely that: a choice.↩
Griffiths, Decreation, 15–17; 19–20.↩
See, among other places, Griffiths, Decreation, 222.↩
Griffiths, Decreation, 263.↩
One I will not address directly here is his insistence that heaven requires beatific vision and that this be fleshly vision with fleshly, functioning eyes (Decreation, 220). Candida Moss’s Divine Bodies: Resurrecting Perfection in the New Testament and Early Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019) is only the most recent contribution to a growing body of work questioning whether what we currently label “disability” is best imagined as requiring eschatological correction, given what this implies about the status of those bodies in the here and now and the eschatological preservation of personal identity. Though beyond the scope of this inquiry, amplifying the critical conversation between positions such as Griffiths’s and those of disability theologians working on eschatological themes is crucial.↩
Griffiths, Decreation, 237.↩
For details, see Christian Flesh, 5–12.↩
Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 123–24.↩
Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 20–24.↩
Griffiths, Christian Flesh, 137.↩
Dancing in Heaven?
There are countless rich insights in Paul Griffiths’s beautiful and brilliant Christian Flesh, a book aiming at a grammatical explication of the theological significance of the body, or more precisely the “living body,” which is what Griffiths means by the term “flesh.” The book is speculative, in the sense defined so carefully in his The Practice of Catholic Theology. That is to say, it draws out what might be said about human and Christian flesh based on what must be said about it. While he suggests in the book’s preface that many “Anglophone theologians aren’t very good at theology and aren’t very good at English,” his claim that he includes himself in that number and that his attempt in the volume at an “improvement” is one that “fail[s]” isn’t very credible (xii). If it were, why would one waste one’s time reading the book, much less writing above it? To the contrary, one could only wish for more such virtuoso performances in the Christianity section of one’s local bookstore (if one is fortunate enough to still have such things). The book certainly succeeds in Griffiths’s aim to be “interesting.”
While disavowing any pretense to be “right,” such speculative theology presumably invites argument and disagreement—and presumably about whether Griffiths is “right” or not. But the category “right” is a blunt instrument. It would be better to say that Griffiths’s depiction of “flesh” is partial and distorting. And since the most valuable aspect of saying why I think so is to hear the author’s response as to the mistakes I am surely making in reading him, I will get straight to the point.
The overall trajectory of the work is decisively shaped by a couple early linguistic choices: to define living flesh primarily in terms of touch, and to then designate “caress” as the term most frequently used to speak positively about this touch. The book could be summed up by saying flesh seeks the caress of the Lord as its genuine end. While it is the case that “caress” more conventionally defined (as it is sometimes used, for example in the final chapter) is a key aspect of human embodiment, it is distorting to give it this much attention, and the distortion is heightened because of the disproportionate attention given to touch more broadly. “Flesh” quite quickly becomes “skin,” and other bodily (fleshly?) senses are assimilated or analogized to it (8–11). While Griffiths wants to maintain that this appeal to “a haptic fundament” for all the senses “doesn’t reduce them to it,” his example of reductionism as involving a claim that sight is simply “patterns on the retina” isn’t very enlightening. Possibly more helpful is his reference to Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, which classifies living things in a hierarchy along which they “add” senses—and “at the bottom of the hierarchy come living things with only one sense,” touch. Certainly that makes clear that the first distinction between living and non-living flesh is touch. What this doesn’t clarify is why this “fundament” should also be placed first in a ranking of importance. That humans must breathe to be alive does not thereby make breathing the most “characteristic” of human activities.
Some examples might clarify. On the simple level of everyday practice, it is far more characteristic of, say, infants and dogs to build relations primarily through fleshly touch than it is for adult humans. Perhaps, Griffiths might reply, this is where we find ourselves in “the devastation.” But in that case, we might expect redeemed or transfigured flesh to engage in practices that simply appear more like those of dogs or infants. Yet, if anything, Scripture, Christian worship, and moral tradition all seem to lean in the opposite direction. It might be further replied that this is a distortion in the tradition. But if so, it seems a pretty deep one, and one certainly need not take the opposite tack—anti-body dualism—to defend the limits of touch as characteristic of human and Christian flesh. This limitation, as Griffiths points out, can be a matter of honoring touch and respecting its potentially-dangerous power, curbing possible abuse (60–61). However, my concern is not to malign touch or even question its real significance; rather, it is to claim that our existence in the flesh is far, far more than touch—and quite certainly more than the sort of touch necessarily insinuated by appropriating the term “caress” for a wide range of haptic contacts to which it is not ordinarily applied in English. All sorts of delights of the flesh—I think especially of singing or sport—involve crucial haptic elements, but an awful lot of fascinating and distinctive fleshly activity of the other senses, too.
From all this, it is not surprising that the book reaches a kind of climax in its final chapter, about sexuality. To be fair, the final chapter—specifically entitled “caresses”—is not simply about sexuality. In looking for a “pure caress” that is not also wounding, he tries out breastfeeding and French-kissing, before suggesting that organ donation might the “best example” of a non-wounding caress. Surely this is an odd example, given how highly mediated organ donation has to be and the inconvenient fact that the body’s natural response to the donation is to reject it! But the language of his general conclusion contains little sense of either organ donation or the experiences of touch that Jesus’s “natal flesh” actually displays in the Bible. Rather, it proceeds from the chapter’s final treatment of sexual acts, and should be quoted at length:
Such a desire for resurrection must go beyond vision (after all, the separated souls of the saints have that), and “that can only be touch. We expect the Lord’s caresses, skin to skin. That is the culmination of the Christian life.” That is Christian flesh’s “full tactile intimacy with its Lord” (145–46). This daring eschatological vision follows reasonably from his earlier commendations of nakedness in baptism (clearly we are naked in the resurrection), but also his stark dichotomization of ordinary eating in the present economy of death with Eucharist eating (clearly the “heavenly banquet” must not mean anything like what we now think of as a banquet). However, the heavenly marriage will apparently be quite palpably analogous to (though far surpassing) our erotic intimacy here and now. To not want this, Griffith suggests, is to fall back into Platonism. Do we not want exactly that full, skin-to-skin caress with Jesus?
Frankly, no—at least not under this description. The problem here isn’t a matter of touching the Lord’s flesh. I hope to touch Jesus, too. But the language Griffiths is using clearly points to sexual intimacy as the paradigm instance of “unveiled touch.” I see no reason why the eschatological imagination should be formed that way, under threat of Platonism. The image of eschatological marriage I’m familiar with from Scripture is that of Christ and the Church, an image whose communality certainly suggests the bending of the sexual analogy because of the presence of those pesky “other human beings” . . . whose presence need not somehow distance touch, but can enhance it. The marriage feast, rather than the marriage bed, seems the better imaginary. Thus, even in using the eschatological marriage analogy, our imaginations ought to be formed by the delightful forms of touch we find in communal settings.
Perhaps dance is one of the best analogies of a robustly embodied, communal activity of haptic unity. It seems to me that typical late capitalist Western cultures lack a developed culture of shared dance, involving all sorts of touch, generating solidarity, unity, and affection . . . but not likely best characterized by the one-on-one isolation and eroticism in Griffiths’s imagery. Our wedding feasts still typically center on dance, but the usual repertoire—generic hopping around most of the time, slow dances for couples swaying, and line dances like the Macarena—could use some haptic revitalization. Even so, we do have communal touch at important get-togethers, involving the familiar embrace, the supportive hand squeeze, and the like. Moreover, it strikes me that these are the sorts of communal haptic experiences that Catholics are trying to echo when they spontaneously join hands for the Our Father at liturgy or take an extended time (for touch, and not for a head nod or a hand sign!) at the sign of peace. Are such touches erotic? Following Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est, they should not be anti-erotic, but rather should represent a kind of purified eros. Such purified touch does not lack warmth. Indeed, more liturgically strict Catholics seem to dislike such haptic liturgical innovation precisely because it displays such warmth, for some reason believing that such warmth is somehow irreverent or distracting. This seems to me a distortion of the eschatological imagination that the liturgy should call forth. In such action we should imagine a genuine joy at being in communion with others, something celebratory and uplifting . . . but at the same time purified especially of the need to possess and consume. Indeed, in such settings, insertion of the erotic (e.g., by calling such acts “caresses”) is precisely what disrupts the community that is being produced.
What does such eschatological speculation have to do with the Christian moral life? The book’s reflection on particular moral acts is decisively shaped earlier on in the text by the choice of Paul’s extended casuistry on eating meat sacrificed to idols as the framework for the book’s treatment of food, clothing, and sex (71–73). The framework allows Griffiths to argue that “meretricious” acts for properly Christian flesh are to be analyzed under the two headings of “idolatrous” and “scandalous”—thus, questions of Christian behavior are sorted in terms of these two possibilities. This is really interesting and imaginative—Griffiths is right that the complex treatment of the idol-meat case could play a far larger role in thinking through Christian action, particularly as we return to an era where, like Paul’s Christians, we are acting in highly pluralistic public settings. But once again, the insight is threatened when it is made to take over everything. For example, Paul’s language about fornication is neatly fit into this framework by relating it to temple prostitutes. In particular, Griffiths likes the idol meat example because it underscores the idea that “everything is permitted” to Christian flesh—which is a very ingenious targeting of any claim of this or that instance of eating, dressing, or sex as being “intrinsically evil.”
But there are questions. Besides the tricky question of whether the biblical text “everything is permitted” is best read as merely a Corinthian slogan that Paul himself would not accept, it is simply not clear that the idol meat story is the right model case for all questions about the flesh. For example, it may be neither idolatrous nor scandalous for a Christian to consume poisonous mushrooms—but in that case, is it “permitted”? Cases of eating poisonous mushrooms are, I might hazard, cases dealing with what is good and bad for human flesh, not simply Christian flesh. The case against eating poisonous mushrooms involves reasoning that has nothing to do with idolatry or scandal, but has to do with reasons that apply to human flesh—and (presumably?) still apply to Christian flesh, even after it is cleaved to Christ in baptism. Another way of problematizing the idol meat case is that, while it is appropriate to say “we all know that idols do not exist,” it is not appropriate to say that created human nature “does not exist.” Indeed, it is precisely that nature that is taken up and renewed in the redemption. Couldn’t such claims also be made about human sexual nature? Maybe one could argue creatively for the conclusions that Griffiths wants on the grounds of a renewal of sexual nature. But the framing use of the idol meat example “renders all things clean” in a way that ignores the reasonable differentiation, as Aquinas roughly makes it, between the ceremonial and the “moral” in the New Testament’s complex treatment of law.
Perhaps Griffiths means to contest claims about sexual nature—claims that ordinarily go under the heading “natural law,” claims that are certainly more complicated and contestable than ones about poisonous mushrooms. But here, a question arises that is even more fundamental: how Griffiths understands the authority of the tradition in which he is working. It seems to me—though I am open to hearing what is wrong about this—that “Christian flesh is bound by the precepts of the natural law” and this because created flesh and its purposes are not abolished in the redemption, but renewed and uplifted—these seem clear and authoritative teachings of the Roman Catholic magisterium. From this claim, the magisterium has explicitly drawn certain conclusions about specific acts, conclusions that Griffiths, carefully yet clearly, means to contest. There is, it must be admitted, some ambiguity here: he suggests such teaching may have “catechetical and practical utility” (75) but that “in a theoretical register” one can only say that a particular act “typically involves idolatrous fornication.” This seems to leave some room to reinterpret authoritative teaching as belonging to a certain register, but one that should ultimately give way to a practice of moral theology that is “hagiographical,” that instead narrates such acts in terms “Christian flesh . . . attentive to the Lord to whom it cleaves” (76). Such a strategy would be satisfactory, until such point as a hagiographic approach is used to draw conclusions that appear to conflict with “catechetical” bans. And this does seem to be where Griffiths finally ends up.
So arises a further question about the book’s choices: what is his account of his scrupulous maintenance of certain aspects of authoritative teaching—say, Mary’s Assumption, or strict beliefs about separated souls—and yet his seeming willingness to contest/evade others? I’m not saying such an account can’t be given; I’m just saying I don’t see how he’s given such an account, or how he would understand such a division, in light of his understanding of Catholic theology. No doubt it’s correct to say that Jesus did not die so that we could defend the concept of “intrinsically evil acts,” but that’s not the real issue. The real issue at stake is the relation between created and redeemed as worked out in Catholic moral theology, which seems to be authoritatively given as at least a zone in which creative arguments must occur.
In raising this question, I am nevertheless very appreciative for the hard thinking forced by his arguments. Many defenders of magisterial teaching can be lazy (or worse). In particular, Griffiths is at his devastating best when he articulates with great precision the full and rich Catholic meaning of what he terms the “copulatory caress” (139–40), but then points out that arguments against other “caresses” often rest on an understanding of them “as an inadequate substitute for copulation” (140)—a “line of reasoning, if it can be dignified with that label” that “much speaks against” (141). He is right to say that this “overestimation of the importance of the copulative caress” is “no part of the deposit of faith,” and that “non-copulative caresses” do much to “bind lives together” empirically. The tradition is extraordinarily weak in developing its moral reflection on sexual practices other than “the marital act.” Insofar as Griffiths opens a richer discussion on such caresses, it’s all to the good.
Yet this further discussion is made more difficult because of the other concerns already raised. Such a discussion cannot simply turn to the overly-simple single criterion of “the extent to which the caresses [people] exchange comport well with their condition as Jesus-cleaved,” and then exclude only idolatrous and scandalous ones. (This is almost like a new fundamental option theory, but with “scandal” adding a social dimension to it!) Further, the reflections remain clouded by the earlier prejudices introduced by the unnecessarily erotic skewing of his treatment of embodiment. The whole account thus seems predisposed to a very “high sexology,” one that too quickly assumes the positive character of various sexual acts. It is a striking contrast: Griffiths’s analyses of food and clothing are often acutely aware of how Christian practices can “scandalously” feed into dominant cultural idolatries (for example, his somewhat playful recommendation of various transgressions against “sartorial gender marking” when these, as they often do, get treated as more than local conventions [94, 101]). But likely the greatest idolatry of late capitalist society—if it is not money—is our society’s tendency to make an idol out of sexuality and our supposed “need” for sexual contact itself. As pervasive as factory-farm slaughter is in our food economy, we do not sing endless popular songs about the abattoir nor shape our political battles around symbols dedicated to the free expression of violence against animals. (Almost) no one worships the factory farm, but there’s plenty of narrative fodder for the idol-making people do rooted in their sexuality. And in public, the factory farm is (significantly) treated as an embarrassment; it is hidden away in large, windowless buildings, and disguised by cheery images of a different reality on supermarket labels. Is all this morally bad? You bet it is. But contrast this with a public discourse about sexual expression that not only demands rights, but outright celebration. Surely the latter signals a much more likely danger of idolatry. And Griffiths’s choice to indulge in this language of “high sexology” might—scandalously?—lead “weaker” others to support this idolatrous preoccupation, especially insofar as he “leans in” to the privileging of erotic touch, rather than seeking to qualify our constant preoccupation with it.
In short, it is quite good for Christian flesh to seek haptic delight, but Griffiths might consider any number of other examples. I’ve already named some, but one in particular came accidently to mind: in order to get my head and eyeballs out of the screen, I ended up drafting this review by putting pen to paper, allowing the words to pour out in glorious black cursive—uniquely my cursive—gradually filling up and curling the edges of the reused white paper from old printouts. Maybe our alienation from the physical joys of writing—an alienation furthered by our bizarre ability to seemingly command a universe with a touch of the smooth-screened idol ever in our pockets—is itself part of our desperate preoccupation with sexual touch, our desperate attempt to reconnect with our created physicality somehow. (Of course, that touchscreen idol may be destroying even our fascination with real sexual touch, if some reports are to be believed!) Our deliverance from the idols will not come because I am preoccupied with the “caress” of my pen compared to the wounding of the “devastation” so evident in the virtual world. Christian flesh should challenge the cultural preoccupation with sexualizing all touch, especially when at the same time we are deprived of so much other potential fleshly delight in God’s creation being renewed in the Spirit. I wish Griffiths had fought more stoutly against that idol. Let’s take dance lessons instead. But I remain grateful that, as in all his work, he keeps taking the field to demonstrate to us the fruitfulness of rigorous, tradition-based Christian theology, even in pushing the boundaries of that tradition . . . and even if he is not “right.” Because, God knows, I might not be right, either.