Christian Flesh
Paul J. Griffiths




IS THERE SUCH A THING as Christian flesh? On the one hand it seems not, because all humans are fleshly, and the fleshliness of Christians is not distinct from that of other humans. Nothing available to the senses marks Christian flesh in such a way as to distinguish it from other human flesh. What makes Christians fleshly, therefore—what their flesh is and appears to be—is just what makes other human creatures fleshly. There is no distinctively Christian flesh; whatever it is that distinguishes Christians from non-Christians has nothing to do with their flesh.

But against this, Jesus was and is flesh, and because of who he was and is he serves as the paradigm of all human flesh. His flesh is fully human, though without sin, and it therefore shows what human flesh most properly is, how it is configured and what it does when it is as it should be. That is in the order of being: all human flesh participates, as human flesh, in Jesus’s flesh; it is given its form and meaning by that participation and is therefore in that sense Christian. Human flesh as such is therefore also Christian flesh. There can be no human flesh that is not also Christian flesh. It is proper to the grammar of the faith to say so, and so saying provides the first meaning of “Christian flesh.”

This is true so far as it goes. But the position so stated identifies nothing distinctive about Christian flesh as a sub-kind of human flesh. Rather, it gives sense to the phrase “Christian flesh” by identifying all human flesh as participant in Christ’s flesh: it redescribes the category of human flesh, but doesn’t subdivide it. Is there a meaning of “Christian flesh” that identifies some humans as bearing it (being borne by it), and others not? And that does so by identifying the distinguishing marks of Christian flesh?

Perhaps. All human creatures are by definition fleshly. Without flesh, no human creature. The separated soul, which Catholic Christians (and some others) affirm can and does exist independently of the flesh, and begins to do so at the moment of the flesh’s return to body in death, while it is certainly something, and while it is lineally and intimately related to the human creature of which it is a proper constituent, is not itself a human creature. To be human is to be fleshly, and that grammatical claim—that it is a misuse of the term “human” to separate what it designates from the flesh, just as much as it is to separate what it designates from the soul—means that to attend to human creatures requires attention to the flesh that in part constitutes them. To think that human creatures might be simply spiritual, simply soulish, makes it possible for them to exist discarnately; but they cannot. To think that human creatures might be simply fleshly, simply contiguously extended in timespace, makes it possible for them to exist as corpses; but they cannot. A corpse is not a human creature, and neither is a discarnate soul. A human creature is living flesh of a particular kind, ensouled (animate) in a particular way.

All humans are fleshly, but not all here below in the devastation are Christian. Those who are Christian, a subset of the whole, are by definition so in a fleshly sense; there’s no other way in which they could be Christian. “Christian flesh,” therefore, as a phrase, labels just and only those who are Christian. “Christian” is synecdoche for “Christian flesh.” Whatever it is that makes Christians here below what they are is also what makes their flesh Christian and themselves, therefore, Christian flesh, fleshly in a Christian sense. If being Christian meant nothing for their flesh, then it would mean nothing for them. It would be surd. The question is not whether there is such a thing as Christian flesh; there is and must be if there are Christians. The question is only what marks that flesh in the order of being, and what marks it in the order of knowing: what does human flesh become when it becomes Christian? And what are the marks by which it can be recognized as Christian?

First, and most fundamentally, Christian flesh is baptized flesh. The baptized are made intimate with Christ’s flesh. The baptismal liturgies and Scripture tend to put this by saying not that the baptized have become members of Christ’s flesh, but that they are now members of his body. This is an instance of the difference, and the tension, between flesh-talk and body-talk in Christian discourse. The sarx/soma and caro/corpus pairs, like the flesh/body pair in English, have different patterns of use, but the differences are not marked with precision, and while it is often not possible to substitute “flesh” for “body” (it sounds, and is, malformed to say “the Word became body,” or that “He became body from the Virgin Mary”), sometimes such a substitution can be made. The baptized are incorporated into him, made members of him, clothed with him, have their flesh touched—embraced—by his—eventually, clearly, when they eat his flesh in the eucharist, for which baptism is a necessary condition, but also already in baptism, when they are chrismated, exsufflated, laved, and illuminated. Christian flesh understood as baptized flesh is, therefore, in the order of being more intimate with the flesh of Jesus than it is with non-Christian (Jewish, pagan) flesh. By distant, but real, analogy: spouses are more intimate with one another’s flesh than they are with anyone else’s. The same is true, though not in the same way, of the relation between a mother’s flesh and the flesh of her children, and, differently again, of the relation between a father’s flesh and the flesh of his children. Intimacy comes in degrees and kinds, and Christian flesh is, according to this line of reasoning, distinguished from non-Christian flesh precisely by the degree of its intimacy with Jesus’s flesh.

Christian flesh is made what it is by baptism: it descends into the water of baptism as one kind of flesh and rises, reborn, as another. Its new status as clothed with Christ is sealed by chrismation and represented by the white baptismal garment. The flesh of the baptized is marked as Christ’s own forever, as many baptismal liturgies have it, and this mark, unavailable to the senses, cannot be erased. Once baptized, always baptized; once marked, always marked; once a Christian, always a Christian. It is a remarkable feature of Christianity that, in this sense at least, there is no exit—no rite that marks exit, and no concept available for the idea of exit. Christianity is, like being the child of particular parents, a condition that once entered upon cannot be left behind. It’s also a condition in which there is no hierarchy and no distinction. That is, all Christians—all the baptized—are equally so. Baptism is a toggle concept rather than a spectrum concept: on or off, in or out, the same for all, Jew, Greek, male, female, slave, free.

But this doesn’t mean that the transformative effects of baptism are equally present, and even much less so that they are equally evident, in all the baptized. To have become something new, and to have become so irreversibly, doesn’t entail that the newness in question is insulated from obscurity, occlusion, corruption, damage, or forgetfulness. The baptized may not know, and may never have known, that they are baptized; they may once have known but have now forgotten; their white garment may have become so soiled by acts that speak against the baptism that gave it to them that its whiteness is no longer apparent to them or to anyone else—other than the triune LORD, to whom it, like everything else, is apparent without remainder. All this means that even though there are modes of fleshly action properly characteristic of Christian (baptized) flesh, and, concomitantly, modes of such action that actively speak against what that flesh now is, and even though an accurate account of what is proper to Christian flesh’s actions in particular spheres often differs significantly from an accurate account of what is proper to non-Christian flesh’s actions in those same spheres, it is not the case that particular Christians always or even usually act in accord with what they are.

So, the second answer to the question of whether there is such a thing as Christian flesh addresses its actions, and is affirmative—unlike in the case of its form, markings, adornments, or coverings. In the order of being, the fleshly acts of Christians are distinctive not because of what they are—the full and ordinary range of human fleshly acts is available to the baptized, and all of them are performed—but because of their double possibility. Some among these acts glorify the LORD by conformity to the nature of the flesh that performs them; and some among them performatively contradict—speak against—the nature of the flesh that performs them. Christian flesh is conceptually distinguishable from non-Christian flesh by the givenness of its participation in and conformity to Christ. Baptism has made it different, and the nature of that difference can be specified.

3.1   Cleaving

Cleaving is an intimate fleshly attachment constituted by touch. Those who cleave embrace, clasp, hug, caress, or ingest what they cleave to; they enter into it, or allow it entry into them; cleavings are a matter of close haptic joining, flesh to body or flesh to flesh. Such intimacies are no light matter; most flesh is kept at a distance beyond touch because cleavings are, and are understood to be, dangerous and important: they hurt those who engage in them as often as they nourish them, and in both cases deeply; and they show, often disturbingly, how deep the need for cleaving is, and how broad the range of things, bodies and flesh, to which cleaving can be sought. Human cleavings need, therefore, close attention and careful regulation, and they receive both. Once formed by the pressures of the social and natural worlds, no one ingests or caresses or embraces just anything; everyone, instead, is observant and careful of haptic intimacy. When cleaving is forced, by violence or other pressures (unwanted food thrust down the throat, unwanted flesh brought close to or inside one’s own), the result is both a sense of violation and an actual violation. Also, because human flesh is given its location in the social world by its cleavings—things eaten, things worn, things caressed—it is constantly threatened with sanction if it cleaves to the wrong things or to the right things in the wrong ways. Punishment, sometimes violent, follows from eating the wrong thing, caressing or entering forbidden flesh, and allowing tabooed bodies or flesh entry into one’s own. Haptic intimacy, cleaving, is carefully guarded, therefore, and especially so when it’s a matter of cleaving, and being cloven, to the flesh of other human creatures.

Cleaving, among humans, can be a one-to-one relation, and when it is it brings into being a couple: clasped, adhering, haptically intimate, in close caress; making love or holding hands; salving the other’s flesh or having one’s own salved; carrying or being carried; bare-handedly strangling or being strangled. It can also be a relation that haptically binds the members of a group, and when it is it brings into being a multi-membered fleshly conglomerate: a conga line, a parent simultaneously embracing several children, the members of a jubilant sports team group-hugging. Cleaving can be violent or loving, creative or destructive. It can nurture and heal and bind cleaved flesh, and it can as easily damage and destroy it. In either case, the means is haptic intimacy: cleaving. The torturer and the tortured are cleaved as much as the lover and the beloved.

Cleaving is, first, a kind of joining. But the verb, to cleave, also indicates division, usually violent, as when one thing is harshly sundered from another. In this sense, the crusader cleaves the infidel’s head from his shoulders, perhaps crying Christus dominus est while doing so; the carpenter’s hammer and chisel cleave a teak board along the grain, making two of one; a sandstone massif is cleft by a river’s millennia-long erosive force causing a cleavage, a valley dividing the redrock landscape. The same (in pronunciation, in spelling) English verb is used for both violent division and intimate haptic attachment. There is a historical explanation for this: two verbs distinct in etymology and meaning came, by the fourteenth century or so, to have the same spelling and pronunciation and, for the most part, the same inflections to indicate tense, mood, person, and number. The verb is a contronym, a word that bears two opposed meanings (there are many of these in English), and dictionaries often treat contronyms as if they were two different words, accidentally homophonic and contingently orthographically indistinguishable, but really distinct.

That is a possible approach. Historians and lexicographers find it attractive. But it obscures the fact that averagely fluent users of English, spoken and written, hear and see echoes of division, more or less violent, when “cleave” is used in the haptic-intimacy sense, and they see and hear echoes of fleshly intimacy when “cleave” is used in the sudden-sundering sense. Cloven intimacy comes with undertones and suggestions of cleft division, as does cloven separation with implications of cleft joining. The cleft stick and the cloven hoof bring the two ranges of meaning together. The hoof and the stick are one, though divided; and their divisions—the stick’s branching, the hoof’s bifurcation—are haptically intimate one with another. The hoof and stick as a whole are divided and joined; and joined exactly as divided.

The first sense of “to cleave” (intimate haptic attachment) is inevitably inflected by the second (sundering of what was once joined) in the order of being, and it’s useful to keep this inflection in mind in the order of thinking. In the human sphere, intimate haptic attachment presupposes and ends in sundering, and sundering requires a prior haptic connection. The child’s flesh in the womb is as cleaved (first sense) as possible to the mother’s flesh; but that cleaving (first sense) is inevitably followed by a violent cleaving (second sense) of the one from the other marked, drastically, by exit through the birth canal and the cutting of the umbilicus. Lovers entwined haptically cleave (first sense), but were previously separated in the flesh and will, sooner or later, have even their most intimate and extended embraces cleft (second sense). The strangler, thumbs compressing the victim’s windpipe, is haptically intimate with the victim’s flesh, and deeply so; but that cleaving (first sense) is rapidly followed by a cleaving (second sense) of the murderer’s flesh from the victim’s as the victim, asphyxiated, falls dead.

Haptic intimacy is shadowed always by sundering. Separation is its point of origin and separation its end, and the felt fabric of fleshly joinings (cleaving first sense) contains the anticipation of the sundering of those joinings (cleaving second sense). The semantic range of the (single) verb “to cleave” in English embraces this situation; it is an especially clear case of what seems at first sight to be sheer linguistic contingency—two separate verbs coalescing by accident—yielding, and perhaps being produced by, a real linguistic and conceptual need. Cleavings, here, are close haptic attachments framed by and intimate at once with the fact of their inevitable sundering and the sense of that sundering entwined already with the sense of what it’s like to be joined in the flesh. That only one verb is needed to do that work is a gift and a delight.

In the sixth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about cleaving (adhaerere) like this:

“Everything’s permitted to me.” But not everything’s expedient. “Everything’s permitted to me.” But I’ll be brought under the power of nothing. “Food for the belly and the belly for foods.” But God will destroy it and them. The body, however, isn’t for fornication but for the LORD, and the LORD for the body; God has certainly raised the LORD and will raise us by his power. Don’t you know that your bodies are Christ’s limbs? Should I then take Christ’s limbs and make them into a prostitute’s? Absolutely not. Don’t you know that someone who cleaves to a prostitute is one body? For they will be, he said, two in one flesh. But someone who cleaves to the LORD is one spirit. Abandon fornication. Whatever sin someone might commit is done outside the body, but fornicators sin in their own bodies. Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you and whom you have from God, and that you aren’t your own? You’ve been bought with a price. Therefore glorify God in your own body.

According to this text, humans have, or are, a body of flesh with limbs (membra)—legs, arms, eyes, feet, hands, head, penis, vagina, belly, breasts, buttocks, throat, tongue, teeth, and so on. If they are Christian, their flesh, as a whole and in its parts, belongs to Christ; it is his because they—they as flesh—have been bought with a price (empti enim estis pretio); and the sense in which their flesh is his and not their own (non estis vestri) is given principally by the verb “to cleave” (adhaerere). “Someone who cleaves to a prostitute is one body . . . someone who cleaves to the LORD is one spirit” (qui adhaeret meretrici, unum corpus est . . . qui autem adhaeret Domino, unus spiritus est). Christians are glued to Jesus’s flesh, stuck on it, brought into it, made participant in it. They are in it and it is in them. They and it—they and he—are, now, having cleaved, one spirit; and that Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is in them—in their flesh and each of its parts—which makes their flesh a temple of and for that Spirit, which in turn is Jesus’s spirit because it proceeds from him as well as from the Father. Their flesh’s limbs are, now, analogically and participatorily, Jesus’s—corpora vestra membra Christi sunt. What they do with them is what he does with his. What he does with his, which now include theirs and them, is partly constituted by what they do with theirs. Their fleshly agency and his are no longer cleanly separable. They, now, should glorify God in their own bodies (glorificate ergo deum in corpore vestro): the verb is imperative, which is to say that they’re being asked (demanded, encouraged, required) to do this, to carry Jesus around with, in, and as, their flesh; but it is possible to respond to the imperative only because what it asks is the case. Their flesh is his; his is in them; they cleave to him with a depth of ingression and an irreversible intimacy that other fleshly ingressions and intimacies (eating, sex, pregnancy, parasitic invasion, symbiotic dependency) can only intimate, imitate, and (sometimes) speak against. Jesus’s flesh is closer to theirs than anyone else’s—closer than spousal flesh, than children’s flesh, than lovers’ flesh, than the flesh of the bacteria in the gut—because Christians are, now, in every fleshly part and in every fleshly action, his and him.

—But, in considering the theological implications of Scripture’s lexical specificities—the presence, in this case, of the verb “to cleave” in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence—isn’t it strange to focus with such semantic intensity on English and Latin? Isn’t Greek the language Paul used in composing this correspondence, and isn’t it therefore better to consider the semantic and conceptual baggage of the words Paul actually used rather than renderings of them into other languages? Isn’t, therefore, this analysis of cleaving fundamentally misconceived? Oughtn’t it be replaced with an analysis of the Greek verb kollaō? Or oughtn’t it at least be acknowledged that the semantic range of adhaerere and that of “to cleave” aren’t the same?

—Not exactly. This objection is based on a faulty understanding of Scriptural authority. Renderings of Paul’s Greek into other languages are also the LORD’s word. It’s a fundamental Christian commitment that the canon of Scripture can be translated without loss of its capacity to address Christians as the LORD’s word—Christian liturgical habits show this to be the case, as when Christians elevate the scriptural book during worship and call it verbum Domini, no matter what language it’s being read in. Reading Paul in Latin or English isn’t second best to reading him in Greek; likewise with attending to the lexical specificities of Paul in English, or any other language. In the case of particular word choices, this is especially true when a particular rendering has a long history and a broad liturgical and ecclesial use, as is the case with “to cleave.”

Paul also, in this passage from the Corinthian correspondence, likens the relation between Christian flesh and Jesus’s flesh to that between temples and the LORD. Temples house the LORD. In housing the LORD, they bear the LORD in themselves; the LORD is their inhabitant, and the LORD’s presence glorifies them inevitably, transfigures them in all their particulars no matter what those particulars are. The flesh of Christians is the same. Transfigured, like it or not; Christ’s, like it or not; a Spirit-temple, like it or not; radiant with the LORD’s presence, like it or not; and all that no matter what its shape, color, size, sex, age, health, and so on. But temples—the LORD’s houses—nevertheless do and should look different from houses that aren’t temples. Scripture certainly suggests this. It gives a lot of attention to the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, and still more to the dimensions and decoration of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. That attention has to do with glorification. The temple’s appearance should glorify the LORD, ought to be at least a pale reflection of the fact that the LORD inhabits it. And these shoulds and oughts mean that temples look different from houses that aren’t temples. As with synagogues, in this respect, so also with churches. They are tabernacles: places where the LORD can be found in ways not true of other houses, places in which the LORD’s flesh lives, eucharistically and in the flesh of the baptized. The LORD’s glory isn’t evenly distributed in the world; the world is rough ground in this respect as in every other.

Extending this thought to the flesh as the Spirit’s—and Jesus’s—temple is difficult, though. There is and should be nothing about the configuration or adornment of Christian flesh that marks it to the eye as what it is. No circumcision, no tattoos, no amputations, no distinctive clothing, no particular hairstyles—nothing at all like that. Christians, in these respects, are unlike Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, and so on, but rather more like Buddhists, whose flesh is also unmarked to the eye. Christian flesh is, while resting and whether naked or clothed, invisible as such to the eye, whether that eye is Christian or pagan or Jewish. But if the temple analogy does any work, there ought nonetheless to be some distinctives. Christian flesh ought to show what it is to the world, ought to make its glorification of the LORD evident: glorificate ergo deum in corpore vestro—glorify, therefore, God in your body. The clue is in the limbs: nescitis quoniam corpora vestra membra Christi sunt?—don’t you know that your bodies are Christ’s limbs? The limbs are the flesh in action: our legs and feet walk and run, our lips and tongues kiss and speak, our hands and fingers make and unmake. When Christian flesh glorifies the LORD, it acts in accord with what it is; when it does not—and that the verb, glorify, is imperative shows that it might not, as does saying that fornication (fornicatio) contradicts Christian flesh—it speaks against what it is by what it does. The distinctively temple-like nature of Christian flesh is evident, when it is and to the extent that it is, not in what it looks like but in what it does, how it acts in the world. Some actions reduce it, making it less; others show it for what it is.

If being cleaved to someone or something means, in part, haptic intimacy, then being cloven to Jesus’s flesh, which is what this passage from Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians treats, means touching Jesus, being close to him in the flesh. This seems odd at first blush. Jesus’s flesh is ascended and sits now at the right hand of the Father, where it can be neither seen nor touched. How, then, can there be haptic intimacy with it, cleaving to it? The answer is twofold. First, his flesh is touched in the eucharist by eating and drinking (2.5); that’s a peculiarly intimate touch and, therefore, a peculiarly intimate kind of cleaving. Ingesting Jesus forms Christian flesh, and does so over time as does all ingestion. The absence of his ascended flesh in any form other than the consecrated elements of the eucharist does not, therefore, prevent haptic intimacies. But there is more. By baptism Christian flesh is placed in a relation with Jesus’s flesh that makes haptic intimacy with him a constant feature of its life. Christian flesh has put on Christ, is clothed with Christ, its (fleshly) members are Christ’s, and so on. These figures all suggest deep and constant haptic intimacy, a cleaving that can be sundered, certainly, but that is real, really fleshly, and, therefore, properly to be labelled as cleaving. This cleaving, that of haptic intimacy with the flesh of Christ, is the deepest and most thoroughgoing that Christians can have; like all cleavings, it is shadowed by violent separation, but unlike all other cleavings, separation can only be brought about by the decision and action of the Christian. From the side of Jesus, which is the same as to say from the side of the triune LORD, no sundering can occur. The baptized are marked as Christ’s own for ever; and this means that haptic intimacy with Jesus’s flesh can never be fully and finally removed even though it can be seriously damaged by sin.

3.2   Fornication

Some fleshly cleavings that Christians seek glorify the LORD and sit well with Christian flesh as Jesus-cleaved. But others speak against that condition, and these are fornicatory cleavings. These are cleavings also possible for Christian flesh, and they come, for Christian flesh, in two kinds: idolatrous and scandalous.

Idolatrous cleavings first. When Christians cleave idolatrously they don’t cleave to real idols, for there are none. Rather, idolatrous cleavings are adverbial: when Christians cleave idolatrously they join their flesh to creatures in ways that speak against the goodness of what they cleave to and against the goodness that belongs to the fleshly intimacies in which cleaving consists. Anything that can be cleaved to—the flesh of another human creature; the flesh of a nonhuman animal; an inanimate object—is, simply by virtue of its existence, a creaturely good. To cleave to any such thing is, therefore, to cleave to a good. Similarly, all creaturely cleavings, fleshly intimacies established by some creature with another, are necessarily good, good by definition. Fleshly intimacy is what flesh is made for; it’s only by exchanging such intimacies that it can be established as flesh. Considered simply as such, cleavings have in them nothing but good. None can be placed under the ban.

How is it then that not all cleavings sit well with Jesus-cleaved flesh? How is it that some, in their performance, speak directly against what such flesh is? If not because of their objects (everything is permitted), and not because of anything wrong with cleaving as such (again, everything is permitted), cleavings that speak against Jesus-cleaved flesh must do so because of the way in which the cleaving is done. To cleave idolatrously is to take what you cleave to as an idol, to cleave to it as if it were a good independent of its creator, a self-standing uncreated good. Any such thing is a phantasm: there are no self-standing uncreated goods save the triune LORD. To seek fleshly intimacy with a phantasm is a peculiarly incoherent act: when you seek to cleave idolatrously with something, the fact that you understand what you’re caressing as an idol precisely guarantees that you can have no fleshly intimacy with it. Caresses given to a phantasm fail as caresses, even when they look like caresses given to real flesh.

You can do some things with phantasms, however. It’s not that they’re altogether beyond the possibility of relation.

One thing you can do is to dominate the phantasm, become to it as a little lord, a dominus on a small scale. Phantasms lend themselves to this. Surgeons, defeated by the scale and intractability of damage undergone by real flesh on the operating table before them, which they try to heal and cannot, may imagine, later, flesh that would have yielded itself to their healing hands, flesh that their hands would have healed. That flesh is a phantasm, and because of that it yields itself perfectly and fully to the surgeons’ fleshly intimacy. Real flesh, too, can become a phantasm in the hands of the surgeon, and it does so to the extent that its creaturely goodness and integrity are taken from it by the surgical gesture. It might be tested to destruction, sliced to death, or fatally infected. Those acts require the caress (now tending toward the wound), but it is a caress directed only in part toward real flesh; what it really seeks is an idol for domination, and when it treats what it seeks to cleave to in that way it fails to establish real intimacy. Its gesture is self-defeating.

Another thing you can do with a phantasm is bring it to nothing. That is not possible with created goods. They are what they are because the LORD made them, and they cannot simply be removed from existence. Animate creatures can be killed and inanimate ones disaggregated or otherwise subjected to damage. But those are not, as Christians see it, acts that bring creatures to nothing; rather, such acts temporarily interrupt the presence in metronomic and map-gridded timespace of the creatures to which they are done. Phantasms, though, have only the existence imagined for them by their idolizers, and that kind of existence can, without remainder, be brought to nothing. If you idolize the flesh of your beloved by imagining it as perfect and perfectly responsive to your desire, you can bring that idol to nothing. When things go well between you and your beloved, and you begin to see the beloved’s flesh as real, which is to say as belonging to the beloved and therefore neither perfect nor fully responsive to your desire, then your idolization of it may begin to vanish before its reality; and if, as almost never happens here below, your cleavings to the beloved become, without remainder, cleavings to a person and not to an idol, then it may be that you’ll have brought your idol to nothing. The process can move in the opposite direction, too, and when it does your beloved’s flesh is progressively overcome by your cleavings to your idol. Eventually, it may be, real flesh is of no more interest to you; you come to want only the kind that is sought idolatrously, and then you’ll abandon or kill your beloved.

Fornications of the idolatrous kind are, then, attempts to cleave that guarantee their own failure by imagining an object with which no fleshly intimacy is possible. Domination and removal are what idolatrous fornications make possible; fleshly intimacy is what they rule out. Short of heaven, and perhaps also the garden before the fall, all actual cleavings are in part idolatrous. None is altogether free of phantasms: whenever an apple’s flesh is bitten into and chewed, what’s in the mouth is always in part treated idolatrously; likewise when the beloved’s flesh is caressed.

What now of scandalous fornications? Those, like all fornications, are cleavings that speak against Christian flesh. They differ from idolatrous fornications by not being, on the part of those who seek and perform them, especially idolatrous. They may be mostly alive to the particularity and reality and recalcitrance of the flesh being cleaved to, and thus only minimally idolatrous. What makes them fornications is something different. It is that in light of local and contingent social arrangements they can move the imaginations of others, those who observe these cleavings rather than those performing them, idolwards. Suppose you, cleaved to Jesus in baptism, are often observed, by those who know what a member of the Ku Klux Klan is and wears, dressing as one; suppose you, likewise cleaved, are seen to eat the flesh of tortured animals by those who know what animal torture is and that this flesh you’re consuming is just such a corpse; or, suppose you’re seen by those who know what industrial-scale prostution is and means, seeking fleshly intimacy with those employed by that very industry. These are all fleshly cleavings: clothing the flesh in a particular way, ingesting matter into the flesh, caressing flesh other than your own. You may or may not be performing these intimacies idolatrously, as fornications of that type. But because of local institutional arrangements having to do with the meaning of uniforms, the modes of meat production, and the methods of commercializing sexual caresses, you are cleaving scandalously.

“Scandal” here means an occasion of damage to others. When Christian flesh cleaves in ways that damage those not directly involved in its cleavings, it does so scandalously. And scandalous cleavings are also fornications because they do not sit well with Christian flesh. They speak against it as cleaved to Jesus because they can cause observers to conclude that the cleavings they’re observing are imitable, when in fact they may be damaging to those who have not (yet) cleaved to Jesus.

Idolatrously fornicatory cleavings can be difficult to discriminate from cleavings that glorify the LORD, and that is because what makes such fornications idolatrous is neither the gestures of intimacy nor the creatures with whom intimacy is sought, but rather the purposive imaginations of those doing the fornicating. Scandalously fornicatory cleavings are still harder to discriminate from glorificatory ones because the scandalous ones become scandalous—give scandal—only when particular local institutional arrangements are in place and are known to be so. Wearing a white hood and mask, by itself, is not at all a fornicatory cleaving to clothes; it becomes scandalous only when there’s been a particular history, and when that history is known. That is why there can be no simple list of scandalous fornications—scandalous caresses (6.4), scandalous eatings (5.6), scandalous modes of dress (4.6). They can be defined only formally: a particular seeking of fleshly intimacy is scandalous when, and to the extent that, it moves the imaginations and actions of those who observe it toward idolatrous cleavings.

Paul’s discussion of cleaving in his first letter to the Corinthians (3.1) also uses “fornication” (fornicatio) to label a kind of cleaving incompatible with cleaving to Jesus. To fornicate, he writes there, is to cleave to a prostitute, a meretrix—perhaps a temple prostitute, one whose sexual services are dedicated to an idol. When Christians undertake this meretricious joining of limbs, they do something that, even if permitted (omnia mihi licent), is not expedient. Why not? Because it speaks against the nature of flesh that has cleaved to Jesus. The one act of cleaving—gluing, sticking, entering, participating—is not compatible with the other. They are noncompossible: Christian flesh, Jesus-cleaved, Spirit-inhabited, speaks against itself when it cleaves to prostitutes, especially those dedicated to the service of idols. The contradiction is fleshly, and paradigmatically so; it’s one undertaken in and with one’s own flesh (qui autem fornicatur in corpus suum peccat—fornicators, who sin in their own bodies), and in this is different from sins undertaken outside the flesh—sins of intention and motivation. Fornicators do not glorify the LORD in their flesh; they occlude the LORD’s glory and indicate, by their action, their fleshly conformity and subjection to something—someone—other than the LORD. So to act is performatively to deny that corpus . . . Domino, et Dominus corpori—the body is for the LORD, and the LORD for the body.

Fornication is cleaving in the sense of close haptic joining; for Christians, it’s also cleaving in the sense of sundering because the flesh that fornicates is flesh already haptically intimate with Jesus, and the intimacies of fornication require separation from Jesus’s flesh. The double sense of cleaving, joining and sundering, is vividly present in fornication because in order to fornicate, sundering is necessary so that a new and noncompossible joining can be performed. Christian flesh is already committed, already haptically joined to Jesus’s flesh; for any flesh in that condition, meretricious cleaving requires sundering, and the verb shows this with precision. The extent to which Christian flesh fornicates, whether scandalously or idolatrously, is the extent to which it relinquishes its cleaving to Jesus.

3.3   Attention and Hagiography

—Are, then, fornications forbidden to Christian flesh? If they speak against the Jesus-cleaved identity of that flesh, surely, they come under the ban. Sex with temple prostitutes, just like other idolatries, and like adultery and eating food offered to idols, are among those fleshly actions Christians are commanded not to do. Doesn’t this place Christian fleshly action under precept, and make learning to act as a Christian should act a simple matter of learning the precepts and abiding by them?

—Not quite. To say that an action speaks against the identity of the one performing it, even to say that it is noncompossible with that identity—that you can’t perform both kinds of cleaving at the same time, and that the extent to which you perform the one is the extent to which you relinquish the other—is not the same as placing that action under the ban. Paul, when he turns to the question of forbidden foods in the eighth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, begins to show the difference:

about food as idol offering: we know there’s no idol in the world and no god but One. . . . But not everyone knows this. Some, even now, have the habit of eating as if making an idol offering; their conscience is polluted because it is weak. Food, however, doesn’t commend us to God; we neither lose if we’ve eaten it nor gain if we haven’t. But take care that this freedom of yours doesn’t offend the weak. For if those with weak consciences see you, one who does know [the truth about idols], reclining to eat in an idol temple, they might be moved toward eating as an idol offering. And then, brother, the weak for whom Christ died will come to nothing because of your knowledge. Sinning in this way against your brothers, and wounding their weak consciences, you sin against Christ.

Here is an opposition between those who know (qui habet scientiam) the difference between idols and the LORD, and those who don’t. The difference is ontological: there are no idols (nullum idolum est in mundo), and there is no god other than the LORD (nullus deus nisi unus). This entails that food cannot, in the order of being, be an idol offering (idolothytum). But in the order of the imagination there are many idols; food can be offered to them, and food can be eaten as if it were such an offering. Those who imagine these possibilities—the weak, the infirmi—are badly habituated, “they have the habit (consuetudo) of eating as if making an idol offering (quasi idolothytum manducant),” and their bad habits further their weakness and make them likely to continue such badly imagined eating if they see others, those who don’t imagine idols in these ways, in idolio recumbens—reclining to eat in an idol temple. If that happens scandal results, meaning an occasion of sin, a deepening of falsely idolatrous imaginings, for those so influenced. The text therefore bans those in the know from acting in such a way as to create a scandal of that kind. This is an instance of fornicating scandalously, and it does seem, at first blush, that it and its like are placed under the ban.

But this is not the case. To see that it is not, there are two essential points.

First, eating, ingesting food, cannot by itself be an offering to idols, and cannot by itself be an occasion for either distance or intimacy between the LORD and the one who eats: Food nos non commendat Deo—doesn’t commend us to God; eating and refraining from particular foods is neutral with respect to the identity of Christian flesh. Particular dietary practices speak neither for nor against that identity. Paul makes a similar point in the tenth chapter of the same letter, writing that Christians may eat any food sold in the market and any food offered them when they eat with pagans, and may do so nihil interrogantes propter conscientiam—asking no questions because of conscientious doubts about what they may eat—and this because of a radical liberty with respect to matters of dietary rule. If the earth and all that is in it belongs to the LORD (Domini enim est terra et plenitudo eius), as the twenty-fourth Psalm says (Paul quotes it in the Corinthian correspondence), 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.

Second, eating is not typically done alone. It is done in the company of those who imagine idols and imagine the possibility of honoring them by eating, even if they know the difference between idols and the LORD. Even those who do know the difference are not free from idolatrous imaginings: no one is, according to the grammar of Christian thought. And so, even when there are no actual idols to whom the food might have been sacrificed and to whose honor it might be eaten, the act of eating can be provocative of idolatry, in oneself and in others with whom one eats. It can be scandalous, an offence to the conscience of others. When that is the case—when, for example, Christians eat with someone else and are told that what is being served immolaticium est idolis—is a burnt offering to idols—then they don’t eat if it seems that doing so will scandalize.

Christian freedom with respect to cleaving is, therefore, radical in the order of being. There’s nothing, no class or category of things with which fleshly intimacies might be had, cleaving to which speaks against the condition of Christian flesh. But matters are more complicated in the orders of seeming and communication. Certain cleavings may, in particular contexts, turn the imaginations of those who do them and see them done idolwards. Christians who care for the sensibilities of others do not perform such cleavings. Paul, and with him (and because of him) many other Christian thinkers and preachers, often speak of such cleavings as placed under the ban. They use verbs of prohibition in the imperative mood, or, excitably, they sweep such actions aside without exception and without remainder: absit, and the like, they say.

In fact, however, whether it is a question of having sex with those dedicated to idols, eating food offered to idols, or dressing in clothes that mark their wearers as idolaters (all these are fleshly actions; they all involve cleaving), there are no bans and no precepts and no commandments. There are only, for Christian flesh, descriptive accounts of kinds of fleshly action that sit well with being Jesus-cleaved, and kinds of fleshly action that speak against it. The LORD, in making it possible for us to be cleaved to Jesus, to be limbs of his flesh, asks nothing in return and, therefore, commands nothing, either. Baptism gives a caress, one that brings those caressed into, inside, the flesh of the one giving the caress. It is the paradigm of fleshly gift, and because of that it asks nothing of those who receive it, except that they do receive it, and as fully as possible. The extent to which they receive it is the extent to which they reciprocate it, returning it with appropriate passion; and the extent to which they reciprocate it is the extent to which they do not perform fleshly actions that speak against it.

The imperatives and subjunctives, the lists of fleshly things-to-be-done and fleshly things-not-to-be-done so widely evident in Scripture and tradition, are, according to this (properly Christian) way of thinking, always capable of transfiguration into the indicative. Don’t have sex with temple prostitutes and don’t eat food offered to idols can be rendered, when thinking theologically about what they must mean, as having sex with temple prostitutes / eating food offered to idols isn’t what Christian flesh does. The extent to which these things are done is the extent to which Christian flesh has forgotten itself and is acting in such a way as to contradict what it is, and thereby diminish itself. And since these forgetfulnesses are never rooted in the order of being, where there are no prostitutes (all foods are clean, all flesh is clean, all clothes are clean), identifying them is always indexed to local habits and local norms. Discernment of which fleshly actions speak against being Jesus-cleaved requires, therefore, thick description of local habits. There are no universal norms binding Christian flesh in these matters; that is what Christian freedom with respect to matters of the flesh means.

If, as the seventy-second Psalm says, it’s good to cleave to the LORD (mihi autem adherere Deo bonum est), then the right question is: what follows, for the flesh, if it accepts the gift of having been cleaved to the LORD in baptism? And what follows if it doesn’t? The answer to the first question is glorification (of the LORD, in the flesh); the answer to the second is fornication (with a prostitute, in the flesh). The task of moral theology is to discriminate the one from the other. That task is prosecuted by descriptive analysis of the extent to which, and the ways in which, particular patterns of action diminish those who perform them by distancing them from the LORD who has cleaved them to Jesus. The prodigal in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel is the paradigm here: he consumes the substance of his inheritance, which is also his own substance, reducing himself (almost) to nothing, which is to say to a condition in which the only thing possible for him is repentance. The prodigal’s self-consumption is an almost pure agent-diminishing action, and while it is only in part a fleshly action, it can serve as an almost perfect icon of how it is that Christian flesh diminishes itself by distancing itself from the one with whom it is cleaved. The prodigal was under no command to remain with his loving father. It would have been better for him if he had, and in not doing so he acted in a way that speaks against his identity as the son of such a father. But the father offered him no punishment because of his transgression, and when he repented gave him at once what had always been his, which is everything, pressed down, shaken together, running over. When Christian flesh acts in accord with what it has become in baptism, then it gets the same: the fleshly blessing. When it does not, it gets what the prodigal also got, which is the fleshly curse, a wandering in the wilderness without hope of home, every caress a wound and every mouthful a poison.

—But may it not yet be that some fornicatory cleavings, whether scandalous or idolatrous (3.2), are banned, barred in principle for Christians, because the creatures with which they are sought and performed can prompt only idolatrous cleavings, without tincture of glory? If there are cleavings like that—and surely there are: Isn’t sex between adults and children like that? May not sex paid for and receipted be like that? Couldn’t eating human flesh be like that?—surely they should be placed under the ban for Christians? Christians ought to be told that cleavings of that sort are malum in se, evil in themselves, and should therefore be renounced by precept and command. And doesn’t this insight explain why Scripture, even the texts under discussion here, is so happy to speak in the imperative and the subjunctive about some fleshly cleavings? It seems stretched and precious to read these texts as though they could be interpreted descriptively, translated to the indicative. And denying that any fleshly intimacies are placed under the ban in moral theology runs the risk of lacking moral seriousness.

—Perhaps. It’s certainly true that Scripture often seems to place particular actions, even particular fleshly cleavings, under the ban, and therefore to treat them, by implication, as intrinsically evil. Recent Catholic magisterial teaching, too, has often advocated this position with respect to some fleshly cleavings. It’s also likely the case that seeking fleshly intimacy with some kinds of creature is impossible without treating them as idols by subsuming them into an idolatrous imaginary. There is, no doubt, catechetical and practical utility in so classifying some kinds of fleshly cleaving. But a deeper theoretical consideration still raises doubts.

Consider an adult seeking to cleave to the flesh of a small child. The child’s flesh is good because creaturely; the adult’s flesh likewise; the caress, understood as fleshly touch providing the gift of flesh reciprocally to those who share it, likewise. Most Christians and most Jews and most pagans think, it seems, that some fleshly intimacies, some cleavings, between children and adults are good and to be sought without the child’s consent. All fleshly intimacies shared between parents and infants are without consent because it belongs to infanthood not to be able to give consent. And yet we, most of us, think these intimacies good. Adult couples bring children into being without their consent, and, generally, we think that good too. The intimacies between adults and children that most legal systems place under the ban aren’t of that kind; they are, rather, one or another kind of violence. They’re intimacies that wound rather than caress.

Are, then, all woundings, all violent cleavings, to be banned for Christian flesh? There are real difficulties here, but the short answer is no, and for three reasons. The first is that it is difficult to determine what counts as violence and what does not, and without such a determination there can be no clarity about which intimacies are in principle to be banned. The second is that some cleavings, some exchanges of touch, that by all usual criteria are violent (the assassin’s death-aimed blow is stopped by force; the child’s running into the path of an oncoming vehicle is prevented by force; the quarterback is hurled to the ground by a three-hundred-pound weight moving at speed) aren’t obviously at odds with Jesus-cleaved flesh. The presence of violence isn’t by itself sufficient to yield the required conclusion. And the third is that there are no fleshly intimacies in a fallen world entirely exempt from violence. Even the most tender caress has the possibility of violence very close to it. The view that there are patterns of fleshly intimacy to be banned in principle to Christian flesh typically ignores this by a Manichaean gesture that identifies some cleavings as pristine and perfect and others as violent and vicious; the former are permitted and encouraged, while the latter are banned and vilified. This is not a defensible position.

The most that can be said when speaking in a theoretical register (different things might properly be said in other registers) is that there are uses of the flesh that, for Christians, typically involve idolatrous fornication. These, when they occur, should be taken as evidence that those doing them have largely forgotten the condition of their flesh as cleaved to Jesus and replaced the flesh of those they’re trying to cleave to with an idol of their own making. Certain kinds of fleshly intimacies offered to children by adults come under this head. Thinking of them, and others that might be candidates for the ban, in this way does all the work that moral theology needs to do on the question. It may not do all the work that the preacher, the catechist, or the canon lawyer needs to do.

The remedy for fornicatory 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. Christian flesh lives as what it is—Jesus-cleaved—when, and only when, it’s attentive to the one to whom it cleaves. When its attention wanders elsewhere, toward the things that are not, fleshly cleavings wander also, and become idolatrous. Caresses are offered to what cannot return them; they then wound the one with whom fleshly commerce is being had, or trail off into the void of self-pleasing, as Jesus is forgotten. When Jesus is remembered, and his caresses received and reciprocated, flesh remembers itself and begins to cease to fornicate. The prohibition and the precept offer only illustrative guidance here; they don’t get at fornication’s root. Hagiography is more effective: writing the holy, showing how Christian flesh comports itself when attentive to the LORD to whom it cleaves, can show what fornicators need, and thus remember them. Prohibitions produce a striving toward a standard; hagiographies write that standard on the flesh.

Consider, for example, torture as an instance of violent fleshly cleaving. Those attracted to the thought that there is a type of act referred to by the word, and that every token of the type is malum in se, typically proceed when writing and talking about torture by defining the type and then offering argumentative analysis intended to show what’s wrong with every token. This is a possible approach, but it suffers from the usual conceptual weakness, which is that it turns out to be impossible to specify with clarity sufficient to prevent debate the conditions necessary and sufficient to make an act torturous. And since the power of the position rests largely on its promise to be able to do that—to divide human acts neatly into those that constitute torture and those that don’t, and to place the former under the ban—the fact that it can’t deliver weakens it significantly. The upshot of that weakness is endless debate both about marginal cases (waterboarding? sleep deprivation? etc.) and about whether what’s supposed to be wrong with tokens of the type (objectification of the flesh of the tortured? treating the tortured simply as a means? corruption of the torturer? etc.) in fact applies with equal force to every putative instance. Neither the Church’s magisterium, nor the jurists of national and transnational courts, nor the formulators and glossators of transnational conventions governing conduct in time of war have managed to overcome these weaknesses. Striving toward a standard fails exactly to the extent that the standard isn’t clear, and in the case of torture it isn’t very clear. This isn’t to say that forbidding torture by definition and precept is useless; neither is it to say that there are no contexts in which this is the right approach to take. Even for Christians, preachers and catechists might sometimes reasonably take this approach. Certainly, the Church often has. For moral theology, though, the approach is dubious.

Hagiography—writing the holy, showing in words the lineaments of a life suitable to Jesus-cleaved flesh—does better as a stance in moral theology. It is a stance committed to showing what is good and what is not, how the saints act and how they do not, without commitment to the thought that there is a code to which the saints conform, or a demand to which they give their consent. The saintly act, the fleshly life responsive to Jesus, is one best characterized as a matter of the attentive Jesus-cleaved gaze. That gaze, faced with flesh, offers the caress rather than the wound without having to decide exactly where the boundary between the two is drawn. The moral theologian who knows how to use hagiography writes, in the case of torture, a life in which holiness is evident exactly in refusing the demand to inflict systematic violence on the flesh of another for reasons of state; or in which an otherwise holy and exemplary life—for example, that of Thomas More—is shown to be blemished by involvement in the use of such methods. To show, narratively or iconically, what it is like to refuse use of the thumbscrew, the rack, the genital electroshock, or the progressive mutilation of the flesh, even when there are the usual apparently good reasons (protecting the innocent etc.) for doing such things, is hagiographic. Such showings provide clear cases of what saints do and don’t do, and they do this without resort to the categories of demand or ban or duty. Hagiographies perform and promote only one thing: attention to Jesus as the gift’s giver, and attention to those whose flesh participates in his, whether by baptism’s cleaving or by the image given in creation. They show the state of things and the state we’re in, and in that way they’re formative of those who attend to them.