Christian flesh cleaves to Jesus. That thought animates Paul Griffiths’ Christian Flesh, which I’ve mentioned here previously and which I take up again today. It is an elegant principle, and Griffiths puts it to good use: formation in Christian flesh happens through hagiography, through becoming alive and attentive to the ways in which saints have been attentive to and so embodied Christ’s flesh in their own lives. Such cleaving is not an aesthetic: it does not mark how the flesh looks. Instead, Christian flesh glorifies the LORD through embodying in action the life of Jesus. That’s all good as far as it goes, and as a mode of thinking ascetically about Christian flesh, it goes a long ways: I once upon a time described the mode of Christian fleshly existence as a “holy attentiveness,” a kind of attentive presence to those around us and the communicative possibilities of love their presence makes available and sometimes demands from us. Griffiths’ own language is more evocative, and more illuminating.
Yet it is just at Griffiths’s understanding of the form of holiness that I find myself dissenting. Specifically, Griffiths seems to deny holiness has a form which is founded anywhere besides existing conventions and the intentions of agents. It is possible, Griffiths argues, to cleave idolatrously, to treat created goods as though they and independent of the Creator. Doing so renders them phantasmic, either reducing them to objects of subordination or nullifying them. To do so is to succumb to deception: everything that is created is good, which means that considered “simply as such, cleavings have nothing but good. None can be placed under the ban.” We can also scandalize others, by failing to conform to local customs and expectations. But these socially-determined sins are not intrinsic violations of the form of cleaving to Jesus, but only “occasions of damage to others.”
Within the order of being for the Christian, then, nothing that is prohibited. Even the joining of the body with the prostitute is permitted, even if “not expedient.” Christian freedom, is “radical in the order of being.” “The LORD, in making it possible for us to be cleaved to Jesus, to be limbs of his flesh, asks nothing in return and, therefore, commands nothing, either.” There are no prohibitions, no commands, no precepts. In which realms? All of them: In food, dress, and sex, the Christian is only under the norms of cleaving to Jesus and not scandalizing other Christians. “There’s nothing, no class or category of things with which fleshly intimacies might be had, cleaving to which speaks against the condition of Christian flesh.” Every imperative is “capable of transfiguration into the indicative,” and discernment of the fleshly actions that speak against being cleaved to Jesus is “always indexed to local habits and local norms.”
If this sounds exceedingly permissive—it is. Griffiths recognizes the scandalous possibilities this account opens up, asking the reader’s obvious question of his own view: are there not some cleaving that are banned, “barred in principle for Christians, because the creatures with which they are sought and performed can prompt only idolatrous cleaving, without tincture of glory?” Griffiths’ own example goes for it all: “Isn’t sex between adults and children like that?” His answer: “Perhaps.” Yes, Scripture places many actions under the ban, but a “deeper theoretical consideration still raises doubts.” In the case of fleshly intimacies between adults and children, the child’s flesh is good because creaturely, as is the adult’s. Some fleshly intimacies are doubtlessly permitted (and even encouraged). The “intimacies between adults and children that most legal systems place under the ban aren’t of that kind,” though; they are, rather, one or another kind of violence.” Does that mean Christians ought think it in permissible for adults to have sex with children, provided that it does no violence to the child? Even violent intimacies, Griffiths suggests, are not obviously wrong: because it’s hard to tell which violence counts, “there can be no clarity about which intimacies are in principle to be banned.”
There’s a lot wrong here. Christian flesh without prohibitions oozes into the porous, amorphous, inherently ambiguous material that has more in common with the Platonic conception of matter than any kind of Christian doctrine of creation. There’s a subtle move in Griffith’s claim from the idea that no thing is inherently bad to no act is intrinsically evil. The conflation of the two leads him into a repudiation of norms which reduces ethics to the social significance of action. To put the point differently, that there are many caresses freely permitted between adults and children can be accompanied by the absolute, timeless, universal prohibition on this sexual caress, not only because it causes scandal but because children are just the kinds of ‘things’ who reflect the glory of the LORD in ways that make sexual behavior morally wrong, always and everywhere.
Griffiths wants to carry on this sort of complexity into adult sexual relations, as well. At the heart of his reasoning, he suggests, is a rejection of the idea that there are only two kinds of caresses, one of which is always bad and the other which is “undamaged and beautiful, always appropriate and never to be lamented.” The presence of damage, of sin, in human flesh means that no caress is exempt from damage—and no caress is wholly damage. Every caress, as a result, has “both characteristic deformities and characteristic beauties.” Okay. So they do. But the form beneath the prohibition does not exculpate those who manifest its external character—a man and a woman in marriage—from the presence of sin or damage, nor does it entail that any form of union beneath the ban or prohibition is utterly devoid of goods. If the traditional view is right, it is just for the sake of preserving those goods that the prohibition, the ban, exists at all.