Christian Flesh

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Paul J. Griffiths
Encountering Traditions
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , September
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Christianity is a religion of flesh and bodies—at its center is the Word who became flesh and shares this flesh with the community drawn into one body by the Spirit. Although embodiment is increasingly receiving positive treatment in Christian theology, it is less common to see an extended discourse on the meaning of flesh per se in light of Christianity’s constituting convictions and practices. Paul Griffith’s Christian Flesh is a single coherent meditation on the meaning and purpose of flesh that takes seriously Christ’s enfleshment and the nourishment of the church with bread and wine made flesh and blood.

The book’s argument initiates with three chapters that establish the broader theological and theoretical framework, which is then extended in the later chapters concerning more explicitly ethical matters. In the first chapter, Griffiths establishes the meaning of flesh in our current “devastation.” The extent to which his analysis is peculiar to the devastation—by which Griffiths names the fact that “human flesh . . . is neither what it could be nor what it should be” (1) and which in other contexts might be termed “the fall”—varies depending on the point Griffiths is developing. The distinction between devastated and undevastated flesh only comes into focus in the second chapter’s discussion of the flesh of Jesus. Much that is said of human flesh generally is also true of Jesus’ flesh. Illustrative of Griffiths’ concision combined with systematic, elaborative attention to his subject is the way he develops two central features of flesh in the first chapter: the distinction between flesh and body and flesh’s haptic nature. These two features are connected: “flesh” is body alive, and it is constituted as flesh by the touch of other flesh (human and nonhuman). The remainder of chapter 1 follows logically from these coordinated propositions. Characteristic of devastated flesh is the dual nature of all fleshly touch (which becomes relevant again in chapter 3 concerning the dual nature of fleshly “cleaving”): flesh is constituted by touch, and every touch is also possibly or actually wounding. “Such [fleshly] touches aren’t accidental to flesh. Without them there’s no flesh. It’s only in being caressed and wounded by other flesh that flesh is given, as gift, the capacity itself to caress and wound” (5). One of the main benefits of the form and content of Griffiths’ analysis here is the level-headed focus on what is proper to flesh while simultaneously giving voice to the ambiguity and imperfection of actual flesh.

Considering the flesh of Jesus, Griffiths’ interpretation of flesh takes a more exclusively Christian turn, and is notably inflected by his Roman Catholic commitments. In Jesus’ flesh, we learn to see not only what flesh looks like when joined to the triune Lord but also what all human flesh participates in and could become. Here Griffiths proceeds mostly by way of commentary on representative biblical texts (using the Latin Vulgate), distinguishing (in order to unite) Jesus’ natal flesh (the flesh given by the womb-caress of Mary), and his transfigured, resurrected, and ascended flesh. In chapter 3, Griffiths considers how Christians are identified by being baptized into Christ’s flesh; therefore, being “Jesus-cleaved” is central to Christian flesh. This guides Griffiths’ moral analyses in the next three chapters on clothing, food, and caresses. In each of these contexts, the double-nature of “cleaving” (in the devastation) is attended to: “cleaving” connotes both joining and separating. And cleaving to Jesus is always transfiguring as well as sanctifying.

The chapters on clothing, food, and caress speculate on what is proper for Christian flesh in light of its identity as Jesus-cleaved. Griffiths interprets and then proceeds according to Paul’s distinction that all things are permissible but not all are beneficial (1 Cor 6:12). No fleshly act is by nature banned for Christians, but many fleshly acts speak against the Christian’s identity as Jesus-cleaved. In each chapter, Griffiths development of this grammar produces surprising results, especially in its contemplations of the extent of Christian liberty.

Christian Flesh possesses an integrity and exhaustiveness that evades condensed representation. There is much to recommend its reading, and I would struggle to find any reservations for recommending it. The writing is approachable, even when dense, and its honesty and transparency are commendable. There are, no doubt, places where points of analysis might be profitably questioned, though in general I think this signals a strength of the book and not a weakness. For instance, Griffiths distinguishes between idolatrous and scandalous “fornication” (which covers all acts that offend the Christian’s Jesus-cleaved identity), and some of his judgments about whether a particular act counts as idolatrous or scandalous could be analyzed differently. To my mind, treating the devastating conditions of transnational food production as scandalous rather than idolatrous seems to be only partially correct, and hence to have undersold the need for Christian resistance to such practices. However, what he does say is helpful and illuminating of why such practices should offend Christians.

One of the most striking effects of the book is that in emphasizing Christian liberty—that all fleshly activity is permissible—Griffiths has shifted the weight in Christian moral discernment. While he questions many established proscriptions in moral theology, he neither denies that there may be need for local forms of proscription nor does he relinquish personal moral responsibility. In fact, concerning the latter the opposite seems to be the case. Recognizing the centrality of the flesh for Christian identity and the radical intimacy of our flesh with Christ’s flesh increases responsibility for care and adequate comportment. That the Lord does not make this union conditional upon particular activities does not diminish the reality that some fleshly acts do in fact speak against it. This book is recommended for theologians, ethicists, and philosophers, could be approached by upper-level undergraduates, and should be read by academic theologians.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan M. Platter is an adjunct instructor at the University of Cambridge, Nazarene Theological College, and London School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul J. Griffiths is Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University and the author of The Practice of Catholic Theology (2016) and Decreation (2014).



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