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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.

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.

1. The LORD's Regrets

2. Faults

3. Time

4. Lament

5. Remorse

6. Contrition

7. Confession

8. Penance



Publié par
Date de parution 15 février 2021
Nombre de lectures 2
EAN13 9780268200275
Langue English

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University of Notre Dame Press
Notre Dame, Indiana
Copyright © 2021 by the University of Notre Dame
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this book is for the regretful
The past may or may not be a foreign country. It may morph or lie still, but its capital is always Regret.
What she [Anna Karenina] did she now finds insupportable, because she could have been justified only by the life she hoped for, and those hopes were not just negated, but refuted, by what happened. . . . [T]he constitutive thought of regret in general is something like “how much better if it had been otherwise.”
Herein lies the rub of the antithetical thread: envisaging how other choices might have constructed the life you’ve actually lived. Years could atrophy in the ciphering of it.
CONTENTS Preface Acknowledgments ONE The LORD’s Regrets TWO Faults THREE Time FOUR Lament FIVE Remorse SIX Contrition SEVEN Confession EIGHT Penance Bibliography Index
I N THIS BOOK I OFFER A SPECULATIVE THEOLOGICAL DEPICTION of what it means to wish things otherwise, and of how best to engage in that complicated activity. I write as a Catholic theologian who has in mind the deliverances of the teaching Church on the matters I write about; sometimes those deliverances surface, more often they don’t, but they remain a constant informing presence. I intend, principally, clarification and speculative extension of the grammar of Christian thought and talk about regret, remorse, contrition, and associated topics. That purpose entails the unlikelihood that all the positions I entertain and defend in this book are true. But since one of the theologian’s tasks is to sketch patterns of thought and argument that grow from orthodox Christianity but are not (yet) part of it, that isn’t a problem. Theology should be, first and last, about and responsive to the triune LORD who is its principal topic; it should then seek to be interesting; it is no part of the Catholic theologian’s remit to be right.
I build here upon theological positions taken in earlier works, specifically Intellectual Appetite (2009), my commentary on the Song of Songs (2011), my eschatological treatise Decreation (2014), and Christian Flesh (2018). I’ve learned a good deal from criticisms of those works, and I have modified some of the positions entertained in them and dropped others. But in many cases, the positions offered in this book have roots in and presuppose sketches and arguments given in more detail in those earlier works, and for this reason I here refer readers to them. A few phrases and sentences from one or another of those works appear in this one.
The method adopted here is direct and simple. It’s grammatical: I attempt to write what can be written about wishing things otherwise using the lexicon and syntax provided me by a particular construal of the Christian-theological archive, which is to say the library of texts significant for the Christian tradition. There are a few arguments in the book, but mostly it’s a depiction of what might reasonably, if speculatively, be taken as well-formed utterances of a Christian sort about regret and its kin—and, concomitantly, a depiction and rejection of ill-formed utterances about them. Apart from engagement with some passages of scripture, I largely eschew explicit engagement with texts from the Christian archive to pursue these purposes. That’s not because I’m indifferent to such texts or think there’s nothing to be learned from them. Quite the reverse. Much of what I’ve written here is stimulated by what I’ve read from that archive, and there are, as the knowledgeable reader will easily see, many echoes of, disagreements with, and affirmations of what’s to be found there. I choose not to quote or engage in exegesis mostly because the lines of a sketch are easily obscured by doing that, and what I hope for is a clear line.
In addition to scripture, I often quote and discuss works of fiction and poetry that have to do in one way or another with wishing things otherwise. Some of these works are by Christians, some by pagans, and some by Jews. I treat them as artifacts of Christian-theological interest because theological thought can be provoked by works that show something, lapidarily and gnomically, just as well as by those that expound or argue. Poetical and fictional depictions of regret very often do a better job of such provocation than do analyses in theological treatises.
Some conventions to note: LORD, uppercased, represents the divine name. When I use “god,” I lowercase it, initial and all, unless I’m quoting someone else who doesn’t. The reasons for this are provided in my Decreation . I quote and elaborate upon scripture always and only in the Latin of the Nova Vulgata ; all translations from that text are my own. The justification for this is given in my “Which Are the Words of Scripture?” ( Theological Studies , 2011). Lastly, about pronouns. “We” means one of three things: you and me, reader, the two of us working together; or, we Christians—you may not be one, and if you’re not you can eavesdrop; or, we human beings. “You” picks out the one reading these words now. “I” indicates the one writing these words now. I don’t use pronouns for the LORD, but I do for Jesus, gendered masculine. Eschewing pronouns for the LORD, and writing the divine name thus, leads, when the LORD is being discussed, to a costive and clotted English prose. That’s good. It makes clear that writing and reading about the LORD doesn’t come easily. Language and thought go on holiday when they attempt that task, and their vacancy is evident.
I’ M GRATEFUL TO THOSE WHO’VE HELPED ME TO THINK THROUGH the matters treated in this book by way of face-to-face and epistolary conversation. Most important here are Brendan Case, Del Kiernan-Lewis, Philip Porter, and Lauren Winner. An important initial stimulus was provided by Sheryl Overmyer, who has herself been thinking about some of these matters for a good while, and who was kind enough to provide me with her working bibliography on regret and associated questions; she was also, supererogatorily, kind enough to read an early draft of the whole and to provide comments and questions that have significantly affected this final version. I’m also grateful to those, living and dead, who’ve helped me by writing on these topics. I couldn’t have written this book without their work. The more important among them are listed in the bibliography at the back of this volume.
I also acknowledge publishers who’ve been gracious enough to grant permission to quote copyrighted material: For Paul Celan, excerpts from “Mapesbury Road,” translated by Michael Hamburger, from Poems of Paul Celan . Translation copyright © 1972, 1980, 1988, 1995 by Michael Hamburger. Reprinted with the permission of the publishers, Persea Books, Inc (New York), . All rights reserved. For Emily Dickinson’s “Remorse,” as it appears in The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition , edited by Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, copyright © 1998, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955, by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965 by Mary L. Hampson. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press. For lines from George Herbert’s “Confession,” as these appear in Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert . Reprinted by permission of Cambridge University Press. For Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “I Wake to Feel,” reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Province of the Society of Jesus. For lines from “Vermeer” by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton from The Great Enigma , copyright © 2006 by Tomas Tranströmer. Translation © 2006 by Robin Fulton. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. For lines from “Vermeer” by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Patty Crane. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books. For some phrases and sentences from an essay of mine on Paul Celan published in Commonweal in 2015, by permission of the editors of that journal.
The LORD’s Regrets
C HRISTIANS WRITING THEOLOGY SHOULD BEGIN BY WRITING about the LORD. It’s therefore appropriate to begin a study of the otherwise-attitudes—that is, the attitudes that have what’s expressed by the sentence “I would it were otherwise” at their heart—by writing about the oddity that the LORD, like us it seems, exhibits those attitudes. The LORD, too, is shown in scripture to wish otherwise things that have happened, including states of affairs the LORD has brought about, and to act upon those wishes. How is this to be interpreted?
It’s something close to dogma for Catholic Christians that the LORD is timeless, in the strict sense that no temporal properties are the LORD’s. This is one entailment of understanding the LORD as simple, which is to say think

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