I don’t think I’ve read a more aggravating book recently than Paul Griffiths’ Christian Flesh.
It’s full of fascinating descriptions of our bodily lives that stir up the theological imagination in the best kinds of ways. But it’s also maddeningly vague at crucial points, and implausible (at best) in its description of the ethics of Christian flesh.
Griffiths writes in the introduction that theology’s first task is to respond to the Lord. It should “then seek to be interesting; it is no part of the Catholic theologian’s remit to be right.” Which I suppose is good news for Griffiths because he is at crucial points very wrong.
Curiosity is concerned with novelty: curious people want to know what they do not yet know, ideally what no one yet knows. Studious people seek knowledge with the awareness that novelty is not what counts, and is indeed finally impossible because anything that can be known by any one of us is already known to God and has been given to us as unmerited gift.
It is difficult when writing about old subjects to make them sufficiently interesting in a world dominated by intellectual novelties. There is little that seems less interesting than what has already been said, especially when we assume that what has been already said has been adequately understood. It is tempting and delightful to indulge in the possibility of luxurious intellectual transgression, of teasing out and playing with the boundaries of acceptable thought and opinion. Milo is one version of it such perpetual subversion: the intentional decadence and offensiveness of queer theology is another.
Griffiths’ approach in Christian Flesh is neither of those: he’s an exceptionally disciplined thinker, unlike the others, and not particularly interested in offensiveness for its own sake. He seeks the depths of our bodily life in Christian Flesh, moving behind and beneath the surface appearances and seemings of our bodily life. In that way, the book shows considerable continuity with his formerly developed understanding of intellectual appetites, which refuse to be distracted by spectacles in their disciplined pursuit of the fullness of truth. Yet some of the depths he discovers are shocking departures (I think) from so-called ‘traditional’ accounts of bodiliness and sexuality. Yes, he endorses gay marriage—but he also seems to suggest that clothing is an aberration for the Christian, worn only out of deference to local norms. He is concerned about scandal—but he also thinks that there’s a kind of prophetic transgressiveness that is sometimes needed to disrupt ossified presentations of the flesh.
Consider, briefly, an opening salvo about how lovers transform the flesh of the beloved. Griffiths suggests, rightly, that the sexual acts of teenagers are not obviously ordered or determined by procreative action. What such lovers “want from one another is both vastly more and (often) vastly less than that.” Their caresses are in “dramatic excess” of pure copulative intimacy, as they “eroticize the whole” body of the beloved, and not simply reproductive parts. And they want less than procreation, as they might reject the copulative act. His conclusion: it is “far from reasonable” to think that all such intimacies “are to be assessed in terms of the relation they bear to those very particular caresses.” (23)
In keeping with his emphasis on the social dimensions of moral norms, Griffiths suggests that norms regarding eros are formed “by catechesis provided in accord with local norms about fleshly caresses.” Those norms eventually harden the flesh, giving it a “statue-like rigidity” in which its tastes become “effectively fixed.” He proposes that, conservatively, more than “ninety percent of all caresses exchanged by adult humans have nothing obvious (in the order of seeming) and nothing in fact (in the order of being) to do with the copulative caress.” (24)
All that is well and good, except the very interesting move from the order of seeming to that of being. There’s a considerable gap between nothing obvious and nothing in fact about the way the procreative dimensions of human existence structure caresses of a sexual kind (even if non-copulative kind). That few people’s caresses are intentionally or consciously structured by the possibility of reproductive coital activity does not on its own entail that such caresses are not structured by such a possibility in the ‘order of being.’ And Griffiths himself seems to recognize as much: he suggests that the procreative caress of coitus “begins to be sought, knowingly or not, by many, perhaps most, human creatures not long after it becomes possible for them” (emphasis mine) (22). He recognizes the possibility of desiring something without being aware that we desire that thing: yet he takes the conscious experiences of desires by young people as determinative for the order of being.
Griffiths has amply succeeded in being interesting, and my critique is by no means decisive. I’ll consider other dimensions of the book (and this argument itself, which he returns to later in the work) in future newsletters.