By Matt Boulter
Around 2014 I read a striking repudiation of “Christian family values.” This in itself is nothing surprising, what struck me was that this came from the pen of a Christian thinker. Arguing against the (at that time) “new atheists,” Terry Eagleton writes:
It is worth [noting] that Jesus’ attitude toward the family is one of implacable hostility. He has come to break up these cozy little conservative settlements so beloved of American advertisers in the name of his mission … and he seems to have precious little time for his own family in particular.
In Paul Griffith’s 2018 Christian Flesh, one detects something of a similar attitude. Yet here what Christians —some of them, anyway — are called to disavow is not so much family, but sex, specifically that sexual act of copulation (precisely defined by Griffiths to include, among other criteria, a male and a female partner). In this, Griffiths writes, they pattern their lives not only after Jesus, but also after Mary, to whom Catholics like Griffiths attribute perpetual virginity.
But why? Why do some Christians faithfully discern a vocation to (temporary or life-long) celibacy (clarified by Griffiths to mean abstinence from copulation in the restricted sense noted above)? To trace Griffith’s train of thought, we need to ponder what he says not just about sex, but also about two other ethical domains: that of clothing and that of eating. In each of these two, every human act is tinged with death.
In both the sartorial lives and the gustatory lives of humans, that is, the agents are implicated in the economy of death. After the fall — or what Griffiths vividly names “the devastation” — it is practically impossible to dress oneself or to nourish oneself by eating, without directly or indirectly causing the death of some living creature. (These considerations lead, in the book, to riveting discussions on Christian nakedness and Christian fasting.) Unlike, say, Peter Singer, Griffiths does not single out that set of living creatures that are sentient. Instead, Griffiths thinks that even the death of plants should tinge our rejoicing — rejoicing over good gifts such as a comfortable cotton sweater or a perfectly seasoned vegetable omelet — with lament.
Every single dimension of our haptic lives (our lives of touching and being touched), it turns out, ought to be tinged with lament, for each participates somehow in the economy of death.
Every postlapsarian caress, that is, is also a wound. For, after Eden and before the General Resurrection, every caress is partially concupiscent. Every time I touch or am touched, at some level I am desiring inordinately, or I am wanting to possess or to expropriate the other. Convicting stuff, and I, for one, am guilty as charged.
Again, for Griffiths, every touch participates in the economy of death.
There is, though, one major exception for Griffiths, one haptic, gustatory act in which humans participate that completely escapes the cycle of devastation in the fallen world: the act of eating the flesh of Christ in the Eucharist. In this case, it’s not that no death is caused by the production of the bread or wine (the opposite is true); it’s rather that it is not the bread that is eaten in this act, since in the Eucharist we eat not bread but flesh: the fleshy body of Christ. The Eucharist, then, uniquely, is deathless eating.
The point is not that non-eucharistic eating is bad or forbidden. In fact, one of Griffith’s most frequent refrains in the book is that, for him (following St. Paul), strictly speaking, in the Christian life absolutely nothing is forbidden. Christians should not order their lives, on this view of things, according to rules or what he calls “imperatives,” but rather by attending to Christ, to his flesh that is cloven with ours in baptism and Eucharist. Griffiths argues that such attention makes us more and more comfortable over time: not simply “comfortable in our own skin,” but rather comfortable in and with Christ’s flesh, with which he caresses us without (in baptism) and within (in Eucharist). The more comfortable with Christ’s fleshly caress we grow, on this view of things, the more we will come to pattern our lives in ways that are faithful to God.
Copulation, again, is not forbidden, but like non-eucharistic eating, it is especially implicated in the economy of death. Its specific deformity: procreation, which is connected to death both biologically and theologically. (Griffiths makes all the necessary qualifications here: like eating and touching generally, procreation’s implication in the economy of death does not render it devoid of all good or goods. On the contrary.)
There is another analogy between eating and flesh which flows from the preceding: just as fasting (especially as preparation for the deathless eating of Christ’s flesh in the Eucharist, as has been mandated in Catholic praxis) is appropriate for Christian flesh, so also is celibacy, and for similar reasons. Griffiths rightly points out, moreover, the eschatological dimension of these themes of fasting and celibacy: both are proleptic states of affairs in anticipation of that day when our union with Christ will displace all deathly eating and deathly procreation.
The Eucharist, then, is deathless eating. Is there, then, a kind of deathless erotic caress (a salutary phrase; note that Griffith’s lexicon eschews the murkier “having sex”)? The answer to this question is, perhaps, the upshot of Griffith’s argument, and it is consistent with his controversial First Things review of Richard Rodriguez’s 2013 Darling, as Wesley Hill has discussed.
And the answer, expressed by Griffiths in the form of a “dubium” in light of Catholic magisterial authority, is yes. (This yes applies to masturbation, oral sex, and “sodomy.”) To assume otherwise, Griffiths thinks, is to over-assimilate all erotic caress to copulation, a hermeneutic posture for which there is no empirical or theological warrant. To quote Griffiths:
I’ve already argued that the LORD, in cleaving human flesh to Jesus, asks nothing of it and therefore obliges it, as flesh, to nothing…. This is a controversial position among Christians. If it can be defended, it should apply here, too, and its upshot is that no, there are no caresses forbidden to Christians simply because of their form — or for any other reason.
And yet, for all this laxity with respect to legal proscription, this is nevertheless no moral libertinism, and the force of Griffiths’s thinking leads one to an unexpected conclusion which many readers will inevitably regard as “conservative” or, more tragically, even “homophobic.” Since “sodomy” (Griffiths’s term), like all erotic caress, ought not be evaluated exclusively (or even primarily) by virtue of its (un)likeness to copulation, this has implications for debates around marriage. On this view, homoerotic acts in general and sodomy in particular have their own proper standing, as it were. Much like the romantic act of holding hands, we ought not view sodomy exclusively in some relation to copulation. It is its “own thing,” with its own integrity.
In a brilliant analogy with vocalization, Griffiths shows the absurdity of thinking “that all genital pleasures serve copulatory purposes and should be restricted to them,” for to do so is a bit like “thinking that all vocalization serves the purpose of communicating thought,” when in reality “[o]ur vocalizations include … singing, grunting, humming, exclamation, onomatopoetic imitation, and much more.” In a similar way, “human fleshly desires are radically excessive to any particular caress, even procreative ones.”
If sodomy, then, is not defined in terms of copulation, it seems to follow that the kinds of erotic love relationships shared between, say, two men, ought not to be defined in terms of marriage. Such a conclusion, of course, cannot expect wide-spread acceptance in contemporary American culture, or even in most Christian denominations or churches. If there is an upshot to this line of thinking, perhaps it is that the LGBT movement in the West has been too enamored with a Victorian-style exaltation of nuptial “perfection.” Indeed, many other — and equally faithful — kinds of love relationships are possible, including friendship.
In a related but more explicitly political context, Michel de Certeau (in his lecture/article “How is Christianity Thinkable Today?”) argues that there are two ways of making “the other” disappear: you can simply (try to) exclude them, or you can assimilate or reduce them into a version (or a subset) of the same.
De Certeau’s point resonates with Griffiths’s, for both are in effect questioning the assumed legitimacy of “gay marriage.” Surely, Griffiths seems to argue, it assimilates gay people into the category of “married people.” This is a reduction of two different groups — groups that need each other precisely because they are different — to a single, univocal element: “married.” It effaces and eclipses difference by reducing everything, everyone, to the same. By arbitrarily redefining “marriage,” we have homogenized our political culture: now, more than ever, we are all the same. The suggestion, for Griffiths, is that there is a better way.
And as we attend to this feature of Griffiths’s argument, we ought to bear in mind that he advances it specifically within the context of calling into question copulation. His argument cuts across the grain of traditional endorsements of even procreative, marital heterosexual intercourse. All of our sexuality is ambiguous, no one is exempt from scrutiny, even those to whom conservatives have tended to give a “pass.”
Allow me to close this essay by highlighting a provocation of the book, along with a real strength for which I am grateful.
First, the provocation, or perhaps a “problematizing challenge” of sorts. I refer to Griffith’s presupposition of Catholic Mariology, including her perpetual virginity and assumption into heaven. Again, like non-eucharistic eating, copulation for catholic tradition is not to be rejected or forbidden in general. Yet Griffiths’s goal is to “occlude [neither] the goods [nor] the lacks of the copulatory caress.” Thus, in line with Jesus’ denial of copulation in heaven (Matt. 22), for Griffiths its implication in the death economy renders it “unfitting” (in the sense of convenientia) for the flesh of Mary. Such flesh, according to Pope Pius XII’s 1950 definition of Mary’s assumption, “should be there as [Jesus’] is,” that is, virginally.
For a high church Anglican such as myself this amounts to a stimulating challenge, partly off-putting and partly irresistibly alluring. What if it were to turn out, after all, that the only coherent articulation of a Christian vision of sexuality in the face of its modern deformations required assent to Catholic Mariology? Intriguing to say the least, even if I cannot “connect all the dots” here. This suggestive epiphany alone makes this book a worthy read, in my opinion.
Finally, the overwhelming strength of this text is the force of its analogy from clothing to diet to erotic caress. In this way Griffiths moves from the relatively clear to the relatively more enigmatic, and the thread which runs through each theme is the haptic character of the human being, mystically and actually cloven to Christ, to Christ’s flesh, in his Incarnation. These analogies were not previously unknown to me, but until now, they were woefully undeveloped.
Griffiths’s development of them is both inspiring and prescient in its suggestion of future pathways of thought in these areas. For that, I am thankful.
Fr. Matt Boulter is the associate rector at Christ Church in Tyler, Texas, and recently completed a PhD in medieval philosophy at Maynooth University, Ireland.
 A similar point was made in the excellent Living Church Podcast episode, in Jan 2021, on democracy and socialism.