158 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: February 2021
- ISBN: 9780268200268
- Published: February 2021
- ISBN: 9780268200251
- Published: February 2021
- ISBN: 9780268200275
- Catholic Media Association Book Award: Theology, Theological and Philosophical Studies, Third Place
In this brilliant theological essay, Paul J. Griffiths takes the reader through all the stages of regret.
To various degrees, all human beings experience regret. In this concise theological grammar, Paul J. Griffiths analyzes this attitude toward the past and distinguishes its various kinds. He examines attitudes encapsulated in the phrase, “I would it were otherwise,” including regret, contrition, remorse, compunction, lament, and repentance. By using literature (especially poetry) and Christian theology, Griffiths shows both what is good about regret and what can be destructive about it. Griffiths argues that on the one hand regret can take the form of remorse—an agony produced by obsessive and ceaseless examination of the errors, sins, and omissions of the past. This kind of regret accomplishes nothing and produces only pain. On the other hand, when regret is coupled with contrition and genuine sorrow for past errors, it has the capacity both to transfigure the past—which is never merely past—and to open the future. Moreover, in thinking about the phenomenon of regret in the context of Christian theology, Griffiths focuses especially on the notion of the LORD’s regret. Is it even reasonable to claim that the LORD regrets? Griffiths shows not only that it is but also that the LORD’s regret should structure how we regret as human beings.
Griffiths investigates the work of Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Tomas Tranströmer, Paul Celan, Jane Austen, George Herbert, and Robert Frost to show how regret is not a negative feature of human life but rather is essential for human flourishing and ultimately is to be patterned on the LORD’s regret. Regret: A Theology will be of interest to scholars and students of philosophy, theology, and literature, as well as to literate readers who want to understand the phenomenon of regret more deeply.
1. The LORD's Regrets
“Griffiths’s book is a theological reflection upon regret—a concentrated meditation upon the theological meaning of the desire that things might have been otherwise. It is both brilliant and wonderfully idiosyncratic, as is the case with all of Griffiths’s writings.” —David Bentley Hart, author of Theological Territories
“Paul Griffiths’s Regret is very well written, and composed in a highly readable style. It is a brilliant piece of analytic phenomenology, taking the reader through all the stages of regret. The discussions about the permanent residue of the regrettable are brilliant, and Griffiths’s fine analytic thinking cannot be too highly praised.” —Francesca Aran Murphy, author of God Is Not a Story
“In his new book, Griffiths performs . . . an analysis on a range of statements about regret, many of them drawn from literary works, in an effort to see what Christians can say about the topic. . . . Griffiths writes that theology first of all must respond to God. After that, ‘it should seek to be interesting.’ Regret certainly is.“ —Commonweal
"Paul Griffiths’s Regret: A Theology offers a concise itinerary of what he calls 'the otherwise-attitudes, with penance as their culmination, lament as their entry point, remorse as their deformed sibling, contrition as their heart, and avowal as the beginning of the transfiguration of what’s regretted.' . . . Griffiths is an astonishingly gifted thinker, writer, and teacher." —Church Life Journal
“Paul Griffiths’ Regret: A Theology probes what it means to be in situations that we wish were otherwise, and the attitudes—regret, as well as remorse, contrition, and penance—that surround them. A Catholic theologian’s task, he tells us with a wink, is not to be right, but to be interesting.” —The Way
“Avoiding the simple distinction between shame and guilt, Griffiths thinks theologically about regret in a manner that gestures toward Easter. He shows how regret can be the first tool in a technology of the heart, one that works repentance. In this way, he identifies how the feeling with which many now wrestle is, in fact, necessary for their being made whole by the gospel.” —The Christian Century
Self-deceit can, of course, be practised. There are people, and perhaps you are one, who say that the world as they find it is, to them, entirely satisfactory. There's nothing in it they wish otherwise, they say and think. If that's your case, you are a complacent fool; a cure for your foolishness might be attempted by repeated visits to and extended contemplations of, abattoirs, deathbeds, torture-chambers, concentration camps, places where abortions are performed, and devastations produced by fire and flood. If those don't work, if, on seeing them, you embrace them as just how things should be, then you are beyond argument and will find correction when the pain of your own life yields, for you, the hope that it might be otherwise, and in that way rebuts your once-born optimism – which, eventually, in one way or another, it will. Even Gautama Śākyamuni, as the story goes, though sheltered by riches and protective parents from any knowledge of suffering and old age and death, did eventually come to see and know these things, and when he did was moved by the sense that this is not how things ought to be and that a remedy for them must be found.
There are others, more subtle and thoughtful, far from foolish, who acknowledge that the world doesn't seem, to most of us most of the time, satisfactory, and that for most of us, including themselves, there are elements or aspects of it ordinarily wished otherwise. But, they say, they've learned better, or are at least on the way to learning better; they've adjusted themselves to the world as they find it, have permitted themselves to be disciplined by it, and have learned that preferring things otherwise when they cannot, it seems, be otherwise, is a waste of time and energy. (Different things would have to be said about states of affairs that can be made otherwise: Seneca's suicide is prompted by something inevitable, as it seems to him, something incapable of change, namely disgrace and an emperor's anger; suicide wouldn't, even for a high-octane Stoic, be an appropriate response to easily-remedied hunger – why kill yourself when there's a grape to hand for peeling?) Such wishes ought, they think, be reduced as closely as possible to zero; life will then be calm; acceptance of its vagaries will be possible; and the futility and childishness of raging against them may be transformed into mature acceptance. They have, perhaps, adopted the practices and attitudes of some kinds of Stoicism and Buddhism (there are similar strands in some versions of Christianity, too), methods that attempt the discrimination of what cannot be controlled or altered from what can, and that move toward eliminating otherwise-wishes directed toward the former. Like Edith Piaf, they hope to be able to say that they have no regrets, or at least none for what isn't susceptible to change – which includes the past in its entirety. Death is the test case here: if its inevitability is accepted, then it won't, on this view, be lamented or regretted or wished otherwise.
This is a defensible view, or, better, family of views, even if not a true one. But its defensibility depends upon the thought that there are states of affairs that can't be transfigured by preferring them otherwise, and I've shown, in the course of this book, why that assumption doesn't and can't belong to the grammar of Christianity. To be Christian involves the view that the past is also present, and that it can be transfigured. It involves, as well, the thought that even death will at last be transfigured. Otherwise-attitudes, then, for Christians, are essential, and they are widespread, too, and properly so among pagans. If there are human creatures completely without them, they are vanishingly rare, and of interest principally for clinical reasons. The otherwise-attitudes may, though with difficulty, be disciplined toward removal: you may, for instance, learn to say, when hearing of the death of your child, that you already knew you'd begotten a mortal, and so you are not moved, you regret neither having begotten your child nor the fact that they've died. But it's difficult to undertake and maintain such discipline, and doing so involves commitment to assumptions, such as that noted in the preceding paragraph, whose truth is far from obvious.
But this is not to say that regret and its kin are an unmixed good in human, or Christian, life. The otherwise-attitudes can, like all goods, be malformed, and a good traditional label for their most characteristic deformity is scrupulosity. Scrupulosity, in its extreme forms, is life's collapse under the burden of an over-developed awareness of sin and damage. Death is everywhere, it's true; no action that we humans can undertake is free from ambiguity and implication in sin, it's true; our own particular sins are, it seems, ineradicable, it's true. And so on. Just as lament's characteristic deformity is despair, so that proper to all the otherwise-attitudes, and especially evident in remorse in its extreme forms, is a scrupulosity that deletes joy, and deletes, too, the possibility of participation in the sacramental life. The pious Catholic so burdened by his sin that he is unable to confess it because he cannot avow perfect contrition is a stock figure in Catholic literature. He, like those who find nothing in the world or themselves to regret, is a fool. If the cure for them is close contemplation of the world's horrors and their own contribution to them, his cure is close contemplation of the traces of glory in the world, and of his own participation in and contribution to them. Such traces are everywhere, and are to be celebrated. Those traces are signalled always in the texture of the sacramental life, the very existence of which is among them; and the cultivation of the otherwise-attitudes is, though essential, in the end a subaltern part of the Christian life, as is evident in the fact that the sacrament of penance transmutes those regrets and laments and contritions into the certainty of forgiveness. A life lived without regret, outside the otherwise-attitudes, is sub-Christian and less than human. But a life lived without hope, outside the glory of the gift, is altogether un-Christian and, in the end, not possible.