Sex, Flesh, God: Towards a Theology of Carnal Life

Wesley Hill on Paul Griffiths

Cover of Christian Flesh by Paul J. Griffiths
Paul Griffiths. Christian Flesh. Stanford University Press, 2019. pp 176. Hardback. $25.00.
Christianity’s central preoccupation is with a tortured body, now radiantly transformed—the human body of Jesus, once crucified and now, Christians confess, risen in glory. Its practitioners are variously concerned with the body’s postures, contacts, discipline, consumption, and, eventually, resurrection. An early misunderstanding of Christianity was that Jesus’ body was  only apparently of the same stuff as that of other human beings. “His body seemed illusory to me,” confessed St. Augustine, one of Christianity’s greatest apologists, prior to his conversion. Of a piece with such Docetism, as it came to be called, was the related misconception that Christians’ bodies had been somehow freed from taking themselves with full metaphysical and moral seriousness. Where St. Paul’s Corinthian converts gleefully predicted the destruction of the stomach and celebrated the doorway to gluttony that such a prediction opened for them, Paul averred, “The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”

To put it mildly, Christianity has a complicated relationship with flesh. The same Paul who declared the Lord’s ownership of the body also bequeathed to subsequent Christian history a disdain for physicality through his—misunderstood, as most interpreters now think, but no less influential for being so—sharp contrast between the life of the flesh and the new life bestowed by and in the Spirit of Jesus. Stark affirmations such as the one he wrote to the Corinthians—“flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”—at minimum lent confidence to later Christian denigrators of the body who imagined salvation as an escape from fleshly imprisonment and, at maximum, convinced generations of Christians that following Jesus ought to entail hating the body.

So it should come as no surprise that one of our most brilliantly creative theologians currently writing in English has turned his attention to the topic of the flesh. That phrase “writing in English” is one I’m intentionally foregrounding, because Paul Griffiths in Christian Flesh tells us at the outset that that is his aim. “Most Catholic theologians,” he laments, “aren’t very good at theology and aren’t very good at English.” Their prose is often turgid, overly dependent on Latinate words and other borrowings, resulting in “a Catholic hybrid of a rebarbative sort.” By contrast, Griffiths says he wants to write theology in plain English prose unburdened with extensive footnotes or exegetical apparatus. The result is predictably and delightfully both down to earth and utterly mesmerizing.


In his last work of speculative theology, Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures, Griffiths mints new terms for old doctrinal loci. The Fall and its effects are termed “the devastation.” The cosmos, both in its original pristine beauty and its devastated state, is “timespace.” Being baptized and ingesting the Eucharist are “being cloven to Jesus’s flesh.” Even the titular phrase “Christian flesh” is an arresting way of expressing a familiar thought: There are certain animate bodies whose identity, through their sprinkling with water in the Triune name, have gained a new, Christ-oriented identity. All these formulations and the others that regularly surprise and charm throughout the book signal what Griffiths is up to when he speaks of his goal as speculation.

Taking Catholic doctrine (though not its process of historical formation) as his guiding norm, Griffiths aims at its theological “extension”—“to speculate,” as he says in Decreation, “about the various things that doctrine might reasonably be taken to mean.” So, to take just one instance, Griffiths defends the proposition that Jesus’s flesh in his earthly life, before his resurrection and ascension into heaven, was “invulnerable.” Any assault his flesh suffered from a virus, say, or advancing decrepitude, he permitted rather than merely endured: “He cannot be damaged in the flesh unless he assents to that damage, and he is in this respect deeply unlike us” (and just thereby, Griffiths thinks, “shows to Christians that human flesh is not intrinsically or inevitably subject to [suffering and death]”). Such a claim is nowhere specifically enunciated in Catholic magisterial teaching, but Griffiths, following that teaching like a buoy line from the shore into the ocean, proposes his claim as a reasonable implication of—or, less ambitiously, a plausible position to hold in the light of—Catholic teaching. That is what he means by speculation. And he performs similarly stimulating and enjoyable thought experiments on various topics related to the identity and behavior of Christian flesh: treatments of fornication, clothing (in various contexts, including liturgical ones), and eating, among others.

Speculation within the boundaries of Catholic dogma, Griffiths says elsewhere, allows Christians to “be moved toward greater intellectual intimacy with the LORD.” And indeed there are passages of Christian Flesh that read as much like spiritual poetry as they do theology. Consider the following representative passage, which is worth quoting at length:

That most comprehensive embrace occurs in the womb: there, the baby’s flesh is embraced at every point, without remainder, by the mother’s flesh. None of us recalls what that was like, but it is hard not to think that it must have been delightful—a cleaving of unmatched intimacy—and that its loss must have been agonizing and fundamentally disorienting. The haptic fleshly intimacy [i.e., marked by touching and being touched] that resurrected flesh will have with Jesus’s ascended flesh will be like that, only more so. Since our births, our wrenching from womb flesh, we’ve had only partial and still more imperfect anticipations of what we hope for. We have, sometimes, been closely embraced by human flesh: we’ve been, if lucky, folded into our mother’s arms, have sucked at her breasts, have been enwrapped by our lovers…. But that’s all. Since birth, and before resurrection, it isn’t possible for every inch of someone’s skin at one and the same time to exchange touch with every inch of another’s, which is the unreachable goal of every caress. Something is always untouched, and the human need, often desperate, for caresses suggests how deep is the craving for fleshly touch that is complete and without remainder. That we can only have from Jesus’s ascended flesh.

Or, as Griffiths’ puts it on the book’s final page, prompting desirous prayer as much as intellectual adventure:

When I can caress [Jesus] and be caressed by him, in his ascended flesh, unveiled, with full and unmediated intimacy, what I seek now in copulation, in orgasm, in the kiss, in the desperate clutch for the other’s flesh, will at last be given.  My skin will be touched by his, and his by mine. That’s part of what the resurrection means: receiving Jesus’s caresses.

It is passages like these that represent the warm heart of Christian Flesh.


But there are also passages of moral speculation, and it is here that many readers are likely to find the book at its most controversial. Perhaps I can explain one of the passages—the one I take to be the most arresting and also the most implausible—in a roundabout way.

Five years ago, the memoirist and journalist Richard Rodriguez published what he called a “spiritual autobiography,” Darling. In it, Rodriguez, a devout Catholic, inveighs against what he considers the Roman Catholic Church’s destructive ignorance regarding gay life. He writes that “the single mother is a greater threat to the patriarchal determination of what constitutes a natural order” than the gay married couple, and yet it is the gay couple and not the single mother who is repeatedly targeted for opprobrium. In a snorting, affecting huff he insists that the Church can keep its heteronormative definition of marriage. “But,” he insists in the absence of marriage, “I want a word.” As a partnered gay man, Rodriguez wants his life partnership to be somehow incorporated into his Catholic existence. “How about ‘love’?” he proposes. Love is what the Church should call the relationship he enjoys with his male partner.

When Paul Griffiths reviewed Rodriguez’s memoir for First Things, the noted conservative journal of religion and public life, he caused a stir. In his review, he maintained that “[i]nsofar as [homoerotic] acts are motivated by and evoke love, they are good and to be loved; insofar as they do not, not. In this, they are no different from heterosexual acts.” To many of his readers’ ears, this sounded like an open repudiation of the Catholic magisterial teaching that homoerotic acts are intrinsically—not just accidentally or occasionally—disordered: always and everywhere wrong, in other words, and not only problematic depending on the circumstances (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 2357).

But Griffiths went further. Appealing to the Augustinian insistence that no human act, however wayward, is entirely without the grace of longing for God, Griffiths opines that it makes little sense to zero in on the disorder of homosexual acts if such focus blinds us to the evident goods the partners who commit those acts enjoy through one another’s mutual commitment. “Gay men should, of course, darling one another,” he writes; “those of us whose darlings are of the opposite sex should be glad that they do, and glad of instruction in love by the ways in which they do. Love is hard enough to come by in a devastated world without encouraging blindness to its presence.”

Predictably, these remarks set the cat among the pigeons, not least since Griffiths dared publish an ostensibly “liberal” position in a noted “conservative” journal. At the time, I along with many other readers wondered whether Griffiths had simply abandoned his Church’s magisterial teaching on this score. But Christian Flesh goes a long way toward explaining why that conclusion is too hasty.

Griffiths’ treatment of homosexuality in Christian Flesh begins with the tragic Augustinian insight, already alluded to above, that all fleshly caresses, this side of Eden, are in some measure idolatrous—and that all of them are, simultaneously, in however misguided a way, efforts to attain a genuine good. The lawfully married Christian husband who caresses his wife cannot ever, until the resurrection, free himself from an inordinate prizing of his wife’s flesh above Christ’s. But by the same token, the man who visits a brothel cannot completely escape or efface the authentic self-giving of which his illicit coupling is a disfigured shadow. We are all gods, resplendent with our God-given dignity; and we are all monsters, marred by the encrustations of pride and self-prioritization.

The second premise of Griffiths’ argument regarding so-called homosexual acts goes like this: “There’s nothing, no class or category of things with which fleshly intimacy might be had, cleaving to which speaks against the condition of Christian flesh.” Or, as he puts it toward the book’s end, “there are no caresses forbidden to Christian flesh simply because of their form—or for any other reason.” Griffiths thinks this conviction is implied in Scripture itself: “If the earth and all that is in it belongs to the LORD as the twenty-fourth Psalm says…, then its contents cannot, in principle, be divided into clean and unclean things. And this must go not only for food, but for anything with which human flesh might come into contact.”

In light of those convictions, the question about what sorts of caresses ought to characterize Christian flesh becomes not one of legality but rather one of what we might call Jesus-cleaved fittingness. Here’s Griffiths.

The remedy for fornicatory [or otherwise damaging] cleavings, whether idolatrous or scandalous, is single and simple. It has nothing to do with forbidding them or banning them. It is only a matter of fleshly attention to the incarnate LORD…. Christians learn to increase the frequency of [caresses that sit well with Christian flesh] and reduce the frequency of [caresses that sit less well] not by attending to codes or precepts, but rather by attending to Jesus, the one to whose flesh they are already cleaved by gift.

In a way reminiscent of Luther or Barth, the Catholic Griffiths recommends gratitude and devotion—resulting from the freedom granted in the gospel—as appropriate motivators of Christian ethical comportment over against principle and prohibition: “When Jesus is remembered, and his caresses received and reciprocated, flesh remembers itself and begins to cease to fornicate.”

When it comes to certain homosexual caresses, of which the most contentious is probably sodomy, Griffiths thinks it is important to approach the matter from a different starting point than the one that usually inaugurates the churches’ present debates. The question, for Griffiths, isn’t about categorical imperatives but instead “about which caresses speak against being cleaved to Jesus and which speak for it.” And contrary to much mainstream Catholic reflection on the topic, Griffiths concludes that no “answers to that question [can] be read from simple observation of the form of the caress.” Those who think otherwise, who say that sodomy is always and everywhere a misbegotten attempt to emulate what Griffiths terms “the copulative caress,” are overestimating the significance or normativity of that caress and, consequently, over-assimilating all other caresses to it, as if those other caresses were always simulacrum of the real thing instead of something with their own integrity.

Better, Griffiths argues, “to see what can be said about particular fleshly exchanges [including so-called ‘homosexual’ ones] without assimilating them to, or considering them in terms of, the copulative caress.” What gay men do to “darling” one another, in short, could be viewed as something entirely different from what a man does with a woman when he seeks full, procreative, one-flesh union with her—and, just so, as in no way what the tradition prohibits when it speaks of “homosexual acts.” What Richard Rodriguez does with his partner could be construed as a failed (because non-procreative) attempt at simulating the copulative caress, but it need not be so construed. Such is Griffiths’ argument.


There are difficulties with this proposal. In the first place, the Catholic magisterial teaching against which Griffiths puts his dubium claims to base itself on Scripture, which suggests that Catholic speculative theology about (certain sorts of) same-sex intimacy ought to be normed by Scripture’s own framing of the matter.

In the book of Leviticus, most famously, a male’s lying “with a male as with a woman” is declared “an abomination.” Less famous but no less important for the Catholic magisterial teaching, Paul’s epistle to the Romans seems to frame both male and female species of same-sex genital intimacy as abortive versions of heterosexual coupling: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” One might say, with Griffiths, that what Paul condemns here, and therefore what is forbidden to Christian flesh, is only one kind of same-sex sexual intimacy—the kind that imagines itself on analogy with the copulative caress. If one doesn’t think of one’s same-sex intimate caresses along those lines, then one presumably can skirt Paul’s prohibitions unscathed. (One might think of the late John Boswell’s attempt in his Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality to see Paul’s condemnation as extremely limited in scope: Far from forbidding all forms of same-sex genital intimacy, Paul judges only those that go against the grain of the participants’ native opposite-sex desire.)

But one might well ask why Paul frames his argument so sweepingly. Romans 1 is studded with allusions to the pre-devastation cosmos, which suggests that Paul’s opposition to same-sex sexual coupling is grounded not in circumstantial particulars of first-century custom but rather in primordial divine design. It isn’t the intentions of the same-sex pair that matter so much as the givenness of their bodies and the lack of correspondence between the caresses those bodies enjoy and the caresses they were intended to enjoy. Shouldn’t this scriptural framing exert more pressure on Griffiths’ Catholic speculative theology than it appears to?

But leaving Scripture aside, what about gay experience itself? Queer theorists have long argued, in a way that might lend support to Griffiths’ speculations, that heterosexual sexuality and marriage are not the right framework for thinking about what it is that lesbian and gay people want and do with one another, and plenty of same-sex partners who darling each another with physical, genital intimacy would happily accept the claim that their caresses bear no relation to their supposed heterosexual prototypes. But, arguably, many more of them would not accept it. Indeed, the most culturally ascendant form of same-sex intimacy is one that explicitly declares itself to be marriage and the kind of intimacy it enjoys to be specifically sexual.

A slogan one frequently encounters these days among LGBTQ people declares, “Love is love,” which explicitly erases any definitional boundary between the caresses that are copulative in Griffiths’ sense and those that are not. It has of course been different in other eras—and indeed is different now, depending on one’s place in the world—but currently in the West, only a tiny handful of persons who know themselves to be lesbian or gay are likely to be persuaded by Griffiths’ argument that the way they love one another need not or ought not to be considered spousal. Which raises an acutely pastoral, if not exactly theological, question: Is it viable in the world or the church in the West today to suggest to a pair of homosexual lovers that the caresses they enjoy are not those of conjugal love, or even sexual love, but merely of friendship? Can the clock really be turned back so easily? At one point in his book Griffiths suggests that the fine distinctions he draws—such as the one I’ve just been discussing—are the bread and butter of the moral theologian but may not at all satisfy the preacher or the catechist. He might have added: Or the lover.

But enough criticism. To watch a mind this capacious and original inhabit the Christian tradition and think creatively within its confines about the nature and behaviors of Christian flesh is to be reminded all over again why one reads theology. And why, for that matter, one is a Christian to begin with.

Wesley Hill is an associate professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. He is the author of a number of books including Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters.