This book is about the last things, the novissima, of creatures and the cosmos. It is not a book about the future. It is not a work of eschatology in the sense of an account of the penultimate events which presage the world’s passing away or the affective responses appropriate to this passing away. It is, instead, a book about the possible ‘inglorious’ and “glorious” final ends of creatures and the cosmos. Griffiths returns to a tradition of calling the final ends of creatures novissima (the newest or latest things) inasmuch as he argues that the last things, or the final ends, of creatures are indeed last and final, there being no new thing or novel event beyond them.
The book consists of seven parts, with each part comprised of several “paragraphs.” The parts run from the grammar (I) and doctrine (II) concerning final things; to eternity and timespace (III); to the final ends of angels (IV), humans (V), and other creatures (VI); and finally to an imagining of what life before the Lord in heaven is like and what this means for life in the world’s current “devastation” (VII). Structurally, then, what Griffiths offers is indeed an account of the final or last ends of creatures and the cosmos. Materially, however, Griffiths covers a tremendous swathe of theological and philosophical ground in order to elucidate these ends, often doing so in ways highly attentive to tradition and dogma and highly creative in its conclusions. For instance, readers are given a primer in theological method; an account of eternity, the temporality of creatures (with a defense of a species of four dimensionalism), and the relation between them; reflections on atonement, the liturgy, and the Trinity; a phenomenology of being fleshly, epistemological judgments upon “the inner theatre,” and a theological account of lament through Augustine’s reflections on tears in the Confessions; and even a brief defense of political quietism. This list of examples does not do justice to the sweeping range of interwoven doctrines and issues covered in Decreation.
In one sense Decreation is a stunning example of systematic theology, and yet its systematic nature is also present in the patient and focused way in which Griffiths outlines and explores different possibilities for the glorious and inglorious ends of creatures. He is clear that what he is offering is speculative and so his positions, while grounded in dogma and informed by doctrine, are simply meant to be reasoned and attractive proposals handed over for further consideration and scrutiny. Briefly put, Griffiths argues that there are three types of last things possible for creatures: annihilation, simple stasis, and repetitive stasis. Annihilation is the creature’s complete unmaking of itself through sin, which leads to the creature’s irreversible and total extinction. Simple stasis, which could be either salvation or damnation, and so either glorious or inglorious, means that post-mortem creatures undergo no narrative, no change, no further novelty. Repetitive stasis, again in either salvation or damnation, describes a cyclical state of affairs which recurs once and again without any change or development. Griffiths lays out his speculative positions clearly and early on in the book: the glorious last thing of animate creatures is a repetitive stasis, the foretaste of which is the liturgy, and the inglorious last thing of animate creatures is annihilation.
Given the scope of Decreation, the timeliness of its attention to annihilationism and universalism (topics which have entered broader and more popular theological and ecclesial contexts), the clarity and originality of its arguments, and its genuinely moving and kergymatic prose and vision, Griffiths has given the church—and our symposium’s panelists—much to ponder and discuss. Holly Taylor Coolman questions Griffiths’ commitments to heavenly life as repetitive stasis over against epektasis and to the dimming of one’s inner theater before the liturgy, a claim also addressed and interrogated in Theodora Hawksley’s contribution. Joe Lenow raises questions regarding the speculative character of Griffiths’ arguments, whether there is a hierarchy of the blessed in heaven, and to what extent the positions in Decreation could serve as an argument for universalism. Robert Saler’s piece examines Griffiths’ presuppositions and claims regarding theological method and speculation from a Protestant perspective. James Wetzel brings up the issue of the book’s title (not addressed in the book itself but hinted at in an epigram from Simone Weil) and offers further riffs on heaven, mutability, and forgiveness. That these contributions are in turn charitable, speculative, interrogative, and moving is a testament not only to their quality but also the quality of the work Griffiths has given us and the numerous proposals and questions it contains and raises.
Holly Taylor Coolman
About the Author
Paul J. Griffiths is Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School.