An Interview with Paul J. Griffiths, author of “Regret”

The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish Paul J. Griffiths’s book, Regret: A Theology (February 2021). Since 1986, he has published thirteen books as sole author, seven more as co-author or editor, and hundreds of essays, articles, and translations. His two most recent books are The Practice of Catholic Theology and Christian Flesh. He publishes frequently in the Catholic press and we were so pleased that he agreed to talk to us about his new book and more.

When did you first get the idea to write this book? 

I got the idea in 2015, when I turned sixty. I saw that most of my life was now behind me, that there were many things in it to regret (a few to celebrate as well), and that I’d like to give an account, to myself and to the world, of what it means to regret something and of how to do it well. I couldn’t find a book on the topic that pleased me (which isn’t to say that there’s not good writing on the topic: there is), and so I thought I’d better write one: everyone writes, I think, first for themselves; if there’s a book you want to read, and you can’t find it, then the clear answer is to write it yourself. I didn’t get around to writing it until 2018–2019, though.

What can readers learn in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

We Americans have much to regret. Our collective past, like the past of all nations, is littered with atrocities, and our present isn’t free of them either; each of us is complicit in them. In 2020, in a very particular way, we lament the deaths of those who’ve died unnecessarily, and regret, I hope, our individual and collective failings that have made those deaths more numerous than they might have been. Perhaps thinking about what it is to regret and how to do it better might be of help now. But I’m uneasy about the thought that the times we’re living through now are obviously or dramatically worse than other times. Things are always very bad; they’re very bad now; there’s nothing new about that. Active regret is always necessary, then, now as ever.

How did you research this book?

I’m a Catholic theologian, and I’d thought to write principally about the theology of regret and its close cousins (remorse, lament) and outflows (contrition, repentance, penance) – with special attention to the meaning of the sacrament of penance. Some of that is in the book. But I quickly found as I read and wrote and thought, that I needed thicker depictions of what regret is and how it works than can be found in theological writing. The depictions of regret and remorse that moved me most and carried most conviction were those I’d read over the years in stories, novels, poems, and plays, and so I turned to those, even though writing about such materials isn’t something I’d done very much of before. Now, the bulk of the book is about poets (Emily Dickinson, Tomas Tranströmer, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Paul Celan, George Herbert) and writers of fiction (Henry James, Jane Austen). Thinking with, and sometimes against, them proved more productive, for me, than responding solely to theological writing.

How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?

I commented on this briefly in #2 above. I’ll add here that there is a philosophical and theological literature on regret, and I hope to have made a small contribution to it; and that Catholic theologians are, increasingly, writing about things human creatures do (dissembling, writing, dressing, eating, cleaning, cooking, menstruating, building, giving birth, painting, thinking, arguing) that haven’t in the past been central to Catholic theology—not even to Catholic moral theology. I hope that Regret serves as an instance of this kind of writing, too: Catholic thought is, or ought to be, all-embracing, and learning how to write as Catholics about such things is an important task.

What did you learn while writing it?

That it’s hard to write about literature. That regret, like every interesting topic, proliferates, extending itself into topics I’d not thought I’d need to address – such as whether it’s reasonable to be remorseful or regretful about events you had nothing personally to do with; and about how sacramental practice affects the fabric of time (yes, you can alter your past). And much more.

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

I’ll name three. Each is a constant interlocutor. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a North African Catholic writing in Latin; Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) a French Catholic writing in French; John Henry Newman (1801-1890), an English Catholic writing in English. I admire each of them not only as a thinker but also as a writer; and I’m consistently surprised, when I turn to them, at the range & depth of their thought. I as often disagree with them as agree, but each of them is very good to think with.

What is your writing schedule like?

Since I was old enough to know what I wanted to do, I’ve tried to give three hours a day five days a week, usually early in the day before I have to do whatever else I have to do, to reading and writing for whatever my current book project is. For the most part I’ve succeeded in doing this. For me, reading and writing go hand in hand: I’ll read something, get stimulated or provoked or both, write something, return to reading, and so on. Then, at some point, the shape of the project is clear(er), and there’ll come a period of concentrated writing and revision, using the various bits and pieces I’ve already written, and writing more. Then it’ll be done, or at least I’ll decide I’ve had enough of it, and I’ll turn to the next project, usually without much of a gap (the next project begins to percolate in mind usually, sometimes disturbingly and annoyingly, while I’m writing the final draft of the current one). Regret is the thirteenth book written on that model since my first was published in 1986, which works out to about one every two-and-a-half years.

Who would you like to read Regret and why?

Anyone with regrets. That means everyone.

What book are you working on next?

I completed a book on Pascal (Why Read Pascal?) about a year after I finished Regret; it’s in press with the Catholic University of America Press, and will be out sometime in 2021. And since August 2020 I’ve been working on an annotated translation and interpretation of a previously (mostly) untranslated (into English, that is) work by Pascal, the Écrits sur la grâce / Writings on Grace. That, Deo volente, will be done by the summer of 2021 (it has been and remains difficult work). Then … well, perhaps a political theology; or perhaps a book of essays on some of the major topics of Christian theology (Mary, grace, sin, death, writing, Jesus, despair, nakedness, the color blue ….) understood as sketches of a landscape, on the model suggested by Ludwig Wittgenstein in the preface to his Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations: “The philosophical remarks in this book are, as it were, a number of sketches of landscapes which were made during the course of these long and meandering journeys.” But I’m now sixty-five and I can see the end ahead: I don’t know how long energy & health and life will last, and writing will by the end, turn out to have been, as most human activities are, a way of passing the time.

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