What Does Healthy Theological Dissent Look Like?
Over the last couple of months, I’ve greatly enjoyed reading the work of Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (an erstwhile professor at Duke Divinity School). His most recent book, Christian Flesh, is probably the most extensive reflection I’ve read on precisely what it means to be an incarnate being—and more particularly, a baptized incarnate being. And Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures is a sweeping work of speculative eschatology that considers the ultimate destiny of all aspects of creation—from angels all the way down to electrons. (It also contains some of the most beautiful descriptions of heaven I’ve ever read.)
Notably, though, Griffiths sketches several positions that will be startling to readers (like me) of a traditionalist cast of mind. For one thing, he suggests in Christian Flesh that no particular physical acts are sinful in themselves (that is, in a natural-law sense). For instance, thrusting a blade into the chest of another is not inherently sinful: it is sinful if performed by a would-be assassin, but not if performed by a surgeon. Instead, Griffiths grounds the propriety or impropriety of fleshly acts in the significance of what those acts communicate and whether they are proper for Christians. In Decreation, he argues that the ultimate end of a human being who becomes fully and totally alienated from God is, necessarily, annihilation—not eternal conscious torment. That is because to exist, even within the abyss of hell, is to be created and sustained by God—so “hell,” if understood to mean a place of total estrangement from God, must be something other than a distinct domain within creation.
What I find especially interesting about these books is not that Griffiths argues these admittedly controversial positions, but how he does so. Not once does he position his views as necessary revisions of Christian doctrine for a secularizing age, or intellectual steps forward out of a benighted past. Instead, Griffiths always frames his theories as logical extensions of longstanding scriptural and patristic teachings (and, for Griffiths, the councils of the Catholic Church). What’s more, it’s clear that his positions are “held loosely”—one might paraphrase Martin Luther here and suggest that Griffith’s views are always open to being corrected by “Scripture or plain reason.”
This is not a style of discourse one routinely encounters today. The Internet Age rewards commentators for being as absolutist and uncompromising as possible—and for having every answer immediately at hand. In an increasingly poisonous public sphere—and in an academic environment where novelty for novelty’s sake is prized—Griffiths’ restraint is, in its own way, a breath of fresh air.
And perhaps more importantly, there’s a genuine sense of intellectual humility in Griffiths’ work— accountability to a God, and to a history, outside oneself.. At the risk of being uncharitable, I tend to think that among many self-identified “Christian” critics of traditional Christianity, there is almost always a point at which one’s underlying moral criterion shifts—a point at which the immutable God blurs into an amorphous conception of “history” or “progress,” where traditional forms of belief shift almost totally into theological glosses on one’s preferred present-day ideology. This, I think, is what J. Gresham Machen was getting at in his inimitable Christianity and Liberalism.
Such a shift radically alters the range of materials one is willing to accept as authoritative in theological arguments. To borrow the framing of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the move to deus historia is almost always immediately accompanied by the prioritization of “experience” over “Scripture” and “tradition” (“reason” can cut either way). And this has profound consequences for serious and sustained discourse about God and the world. When one no longer considers illegitimate the authority sources to which the church has traditionally appealed (because those sources are historically conditioned, prejudiced, unscientific, and so on), theological arguments become essentially unintelligible: Christian ethics, for one, becomes totally indistinguishable from every other form of post-Enlightenment moral reasoning.
That is precisely the tendency Griffiths avoids. Both Christian Flesh and Decreation engage all the foundations of Christian thought—Scripture, tradition, reason, experience—with profound seriousness, and whether or not one agrees with the conclusions Griffiths draws, there’s no question that his explorations unfold within orthodox parameters.
These are just a few of the thoughts that swirled in my mind in the wake of the United Methodists’ controversial General Conference special session. I wonder how a careful methodological approach like Griffiths’, if more widely modeled, might’ve defused some of the tension—or, at the very least, helped make conflicting positions commensurable to one another. But to the extent that ecclesiastical unity presumes a fundamental theological unity—around a shared concept of God and His relationship to the created order—perhaps such an effort would’ve been doomed to failure nonetheless.
Controversies of the day aside, though, one can appreciate Griffiths’ rhetorical—and doctrinal—example. It’s not emotionally easy to hold one’s arguments loosely, to consistently hedge one’s speculative theological musings with the suggestion that, of course, one might be wrong. But ultimately, that must be the most honest (and God-honoring) route of all.