Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures
by paul griffiths

baylor, 408 pages, $69.95

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here is much of surprising beauty in Paul Griffiths’s theological “speculations” about last things: death, final judgment, heaven, and hell. He affirms the authority of Catholic doctrine on these topics, asserting that theologians who contradict or ignore it are heretics of one sort or another. But there are many open questions, and this is a book far more at the ­experimental boundaries of the ­Catholic ­theological tradition than at its center. Griffiths proposes—tentatively, humbly, but with the greatest argumentative force his considerable intellectual gifts ­allow—that the Church consider:

1. We now live in the devastation of God’s good creation, a world everywhere marked by the suffering passage toward decay and death. This is not the result of human sin. The world’s metronomic, clock-counting, downward march toward damage and loss precedes and extends beyond the reach of human creatures. Its origin is to be found in the first fall of the angels.

2. Sin is our deliberate choice of nothingness, a choice that, apart from God’s grace, might very well culminate in our ­self-annihilation, a nothingness of our own ­self-choosing. Coming after death, this self-­annihilation is hell, the maximal separation from God.

3. Participation in the liturgy centered on the Eucharistic celebration of Christ’s passion is the closest we get here on earth to heaven. It transforms the metronomic slide toward suffering and death into a systolic give and take in which the outflow of Christ’s love draws us into God in the greatest intimacy of both body and soul.

4. In heaven, it is quite possible that we join not just with the angels in something like the liturgical celebration found now in the devastation, but also with animals and inanimate creatures, which have the possibility of their own intimate relations with God independent of ­relations with us.

These speculations (and many others in this rich book) are ingenious as well as moving. They surely help to bring Griffiths and his readers into closer intimacy with God, as he believes theology should. His theological analysis touches to some extent on almost every important point of Christian teaching—­creation, fall, redemption in Christ—which together outline an entire outlook on life. The book’s final chapter amounts to a theology of political life in modern democratic cultures.

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espite my Protestant inclinations, I agree with Griffiths about a great deal. However, the formal character of many of his arguments renders them suspect. For example, Griffiths holds that the greatest possible intimacy with God is every creature’s end. But he does not make this intimacy the fulcrum of his analysis—for example, by asking what it is about creatures that makes such intimacy their end, how sin interferes with it and how it is yet achieved in Christ and possibly in other humans (and other creatures) by way of Christ, what it might mean to lose all intimacy with God, and so on. This approach is the usual one in the history of theology.

Instead, he focuses on the formal definition of last things as excluding future novelty. This lack of novelty, he argues, has three possible forms: annihilation, simple stasis, or repetitive stasis. By a process of elimination, he concludes that the last of these constitutes the glorious end of creatures, a liturgical cycle in which God’s extending of gifts and the creatures’ return of thanksgiving and praise endlessly repeat, with nothing more or better to come. What seems merely an observation about last things rules out, purely by definition, what church teaching does not: that the end (at least of human creatures) is an endlessly greater enjoyment of the inexhaustible goodness of God.

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his endlessly greater view of our consummation is one of the best speculative alternatives to Griffiths’s position. There may be no greater intimacy with God to come, but there is always more of what one is participating in—always more to God in whom the blessed take delight. This view, like that of Griffiths, distinguishes fallen from heavenly space-time, but in exactly the opposite way Griffiths does. For the endlessly greater view, the futility of the fallen world is systolic. Waves are ever coming in and going out along the shore; a brick mold is constantly being filled and then emptied. This is the sense of futility (vanity) we find depicted in Ecclesiastes. By contrast, consummation breaks the endless cycles and replaces them with progress toward an ever-greater enjoyment of God’s inexhaustible goodness. At issue is something that Griffiths takes for granted: that redemption in Christ restores the good cosmos God originally intended, rather than further transforming creation by way of participation in the goods of God’s very own life.

The same substitution of a formal for a substantive argument also mars Griffiths’s treatment of sin. He defines sin as the deliberate choice of nothing, that is, a deliberate act of a self-destructive kind, which makes suicide for Griffiths the paradigmatic sin. Granted, sin is always self-­destructive by going against God’s will for our own good. Yet we rarely (perhaps never) explicitly intend our self-destruction by sinning, even in cases of suicide. More often than not, when we sin we intend something good but fail to consider the bad consequences for ourselves and for others. Or we overinflate the value of what we choose to do relative to other creaturely goods, and ultimately with respect to the good that only God is. This was ­Augustine’s analysis of sin. If only deliberate choice of nothing—deliberate self-harm—defines sin, then many hitherto ­uncontroversial cases of sin become difficult to explain.

For example, the injustice of enriching oneself and one’s family at the expense of one’s neighbors hardly seems a case of deliberate self-­annihilation. Instead, it fits Augustine’s view that sin involves prizing a lesser good (the slight increase in family happiness that comes from having still more wealth) over a greater good (paying a just wage, perhaps, or contributing to the good of society as a whole). Turning every misguided choice of a lesser good into a deliberate choice of nothing sits uneasily with Catholic teaching that the goodness of the created world remains despite the Fall.

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ndeed, in more than one instance, Griffiths’s speculations are hard to square with mainstream Catholic tradition. The most significant is his identification of hell with self-induced annihilation. According to Griffiths, God does not actively punish sin. Rather, we engage in self-harm by sinning, and the ultimate punishment is self-inflicted annihilation. While Griffiths may be right that there is no extended, fully explicit magisterial teaching concerning hell as a populated place of eternal physical and psychological torment, this may (as Griffiths recognizes) reflect the fact that church pronouncements are often limited to matters of controversy. The widespread traditional view that some people go to hell for their sins and are punished there, not just as souls after their deaths but in the bodies given back to them in the general resurrection, may have long seemed too obvious for the Church to bother saying much about it.

This doesn’t mean that I disagree with Griffiths on the question of hell. What he says makes a lot of Christian sense, more sense than what’s taken for granted in the traditional view. But I have qualms about his overall approach. Griffiths’s divergence from the traditional view is not in principle worrisome to me because I believe it is possible for the Church to be mistaken, even on very fundamental matters of Christian belief—perhaps because I’m a Protestant. Griffiths suggests as much when he sets aside the traditional view of the fate of the damned, opting for a novel definition of hell as the no-place and ­no-time of self-annihilated no-persons. But his own account of the basis for his work makes it impossible for him to admit what seems obvious, which is his role as theological critic of the Catholic tradition where he thinks criticism is merited.

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e presents his understanding of the theological task as fundamentally conservative. Church teaching or doctrine sets the indisputable terms for further theological reflection. As he insisted in a recent address to the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), ­theology properly understood must accept the ­rule-making authority of the magisterium, just as baseball players must play within the established rules of the game.

This means that theologians are limited to explaining official church teaching, interpreting its meaning, and developing its implications beyond topics explicitly defined and addressed. The last allows for considerable daring, as Griffiths’s book amply shows. Page after page brings illuminating insights. But perhaps that daring goes further than Griffiths is comfortable admitting. By my reading, his boldness is just as great as—no more, no less than—that shown by John Thiel in his recent book, Icons of Hope: The “Last Things” in Catholic Imagination. Perhaps Griffiths would not include this past president of the CTSA in his excoriation of the CTSA for playing an unorthodox cricket in contradistinction to his own orthodox baseball. But I rather doubt it, which makes me wonder whether he is being honest with himself about his own role as a church theologian.

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is speculations on hell are not the only reasons for my wonder. Running contrary to his programmatically conservative approach to doctrine are the following, more specific elements of Griffiths’s theological approach. Taken ­together, they allow considerable leeway for a theologian who wishes to reassure himself that he remains an obedient servant of an infallible magisterium, even as he tilts against traditional theologies.

First, Griffiths recognizes that not all doctrines have the same weight, and that what they mean is dependent on how they are read together. Such judgments are not fully ­developed in church teaching itself, and this permits a sleight of hand about whether his particular way of putting doctrines together contradicts church teaching.

Second, and more significantly, Griffiths sharply distinguishes the theological task from the Church’s teaching task—presumably in order to render the latter immune from direct and immediate contestation by the former. But in so doing, Griffiths threatens to turn doctrine into a proverbial wax nose. In his high view of the Church’s teaching authority, that authority works in mysterious ways, coming to conclusions not primarily by theological argument, but by habitual grace informed by the Holy Spirit. Whatever the Church says therefore goes—even if the reasoning behind the teaching remains opaque. If the umpire calls a strike, it’s a strike. The baseball commission sets the rules, not the players, who play within the rules set for them. The theologian is called not to question doctrine, but to reason with it.

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ut if church doctrine is not largely based on theological reasoning, official teachers of doctrine need not have a very developed idea of exactly what they are teaching, and this leaves plenty of room for creative interpretation by the theologian. Griffiths feels quite free to adopt creative interpretations because “no claim, doctrinal or otherwise, exhaustively specifies the meaning of its own interpretation or the conclusions of interpretive acts, and it is part of the theologian’s task to make proposals about these things.” Indeed, one sometimes gets the impression that the theologian alone determines the meaning of church doctrine. “Determining that some claim is doctrinal,” Griffiths observes, “does not by itself yield conclusions about what the claim means.” Among the instances in ­Decreation are “resurrection of the flesh” and “the beatific vision.”

The meaning of doctrinal claims could be clarified, one would think, by attending to the theological arguments found within church teaching or leading up to and informing its promulgation. This is the usual approach to understanding the Trinitarian and Christological ­doctrines formulated in the fourth and fifth centuries. But such ­arguments are downplayed by Griffiths in the effort to keep church teaching and theological inquiry distinct. As the defining characteristic of the proper theological project, such a sharp distinction allows Griffiths to present himself as a defender of orthodoxy, while at the same time limiting the influence of authoritative Catholic doctrine on his own fertile theological imagination. If the only developed meaning of doctrine is the meaning given to it by its theological interpreters, it becomes hard to see when interpretation of Catholic doctrine ends and criticism begins.

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oes the umpire’s call suffice to make the pitch a strike? In the context of the game, yes. But a strike is also supposed to reflect the fact that the ball went over the plate. Granted, the umpire might be in the best position to judge whether it did or not. He may also have a habituated judgment not reducible to arguments, and therefore be unable to say anything that would convince skeptical fans, flabbergasted players, and irate managers who question his call. But bad calls are made, and fans, players, and managers certainly are right to contest them, especially when mistaken judgments threaten to blemish the game.

The same is true for the relation of church doctrine to theology. Some theological arguments are stronger than others, as Griffiths labors to show, and they are stronger for reasons other than simple conformity to authoritative doctrine. Why shouldn’t such arguments be acknowledged as a challenge to established church ­teaching, and acknowledged in a forthright way, rather than disguised as doctrinal interpretation? It’s an approach that would do better justice to what Griffiths offers in this wonderful book.  

Kathryn Tanner is Frederick Marquand Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School.