Readers familiar with Paul J. Griffiths’s work know they must be prepared to encounter provocation in his new book, Christian Flesh, for Griffiths is a provocateur in the best sense, someone who intends to leave the reader uncomfortable and thereby provoke conversation. Griffiths enjoys a good scrap of the clarifying kind, and in this book I think he has invited readers of various stripes to a variety of good scraps.
The fundamental category of Griffiths’s ethical analysis is, as the title suggests, “flesh.” “Body” is reserved for inanimate material (including corpses); “flesh is living body” and “haptic,” constituted as flesh by its ability to touch other flesh and to be touched in return. Two basic categories of touch are identified: the “caress” and the “blow” (or “wound”), but “the gift of flesh is given and received, among humans, principally by caress.” “Caress” includes gestures we normally associate with the word—e.g. the “copulative caress” and other “more intimate” caresses such as lovers “kissing open-mouthed, staring into the darkness of one another’s pupils”—but also gestures called “caresses” by a kind of extension, such as the caress “given by mother to child in the womb,” the “intimate oral caress” young children offer almost everything, and even “strangling—a caress that is also a wound.”
In the “devastation” of the Fall, flesh is fragile, mortal, its very capacity to caress inextricably tied to wounding: “the concupiscent caress…wounds what it touches.” The flesh of Jesus is the great exception. As “the flesh of a divine-human person,” it is not subject to the vulnerabilities of devastated flesh except insofar as Jesus willed. Jesus’ resurrected flesh, in a transitional state, is not available for touch until it has ascended, when it is again available to “lingual and manual caress,” in the Eucharist. Jesus’ flesh is thus flesh “transfigured.” It opens the possibility for our flesh—and the caresses it gives—to be transfigured in and as his own. In baptism our flesh is “cleaved” to Jesus’ flesh.
This creates a new category of flesh, “Christian flesh.” As Griffiths explains, “Those who are Christian…are by definition so in a fleshly sense; there’s no other way they could be Christian. ‘Christian flesh,’ therefore…labels just and only those who are Christian.” Christian flesh has an intimacy with Jesus’ flesh that non-Christian flesh does not. From 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, we learn that Christian “bodies are Christ’s limbs” and Christ’s limbs should not make themselves one flesh with prostitutes. Christians are told to “abandon fornication” and “glorify God in your own body.” Thus, Griffiths writes, “Christians are glued to Jesus’ flesh, stuck on it, brought into it, made participant in it…. Their flesh’s limbs are, now, analogically and participatorily, Jesus’…. What they do with them is what he does with his.” “When Christian flesh glorifies the Lord, it acts in accord with what it is; when it does not,” as in fornication, “it speaks against what it is by what it does.” Since Christian flesh participates in the freedom of Christ’s flesh, “all things are permitted” to Christian flesh, even if not everything is “expedient” (1 Corinthians 6:12). Thus the key question is what is consistent with “Jesus-cleaved” flesh.
Baptism is the paradigm of fleshly gift, and because of that it asks nothing of those who receive it, except that they do receive it, and as fully as possible. The extent to which they receive it is the extent to which they reciprocate it, returning it with appropriate passion; and the extent to which they reciprocate it is the extent to which they do not perform fleshly actions that speak against it.
Since all things are permitted—because baptism asks nothing of those who receive it except that they do receive it—no act is malum in se, evil in itself, at least for Christian flesh: “There are no bans and no precepts and no commandments.” Scripture may seem to have bans, but these are all translatable from the imperative to the indicative: “Don’t have sex with temple prostitutes and don’t eat food offered to idols can be rendered, when thinking theologically about what they must mean, as having sex with temple prostitutes / eating food offered to idols isn’t what Christian flesh does.” Thus, “there are no universal norms binding Christian flesh…with respect to matters of the flesh.” The “preacher, the catechist, or the canon lawyer” may need more, Griffiths concedes, but moral theology should be content with realizing that “there are uses of the flesh that, for Christians, typically involve idolatrous fornication.” But that does not make any of them malum in se, including “sex between adults and children.” I hasten to add that it is clearly not Griffiths’s intention to promote or countenance such behavior. But it does leave this and other acts Griffiths mentions—such as the eating of living human flesh, buying and selling sex as a commodity, and violent pornography—in a kind of uneasy limbo, not to mention cases which go unmentioned, such as the direct killing of innocent human life and rape. Even if one does not regard these as malum in se for Christians, wouldn’t one at least want to say that such acts are never consistent with “Jesus-cleaved flesh”?