Flesh in the Devastation

“Fleshly creatures in the LORD’s image and likeness”—Paul J. Griffiths proposes this formula as a provisional definition of human beings (Decreation, p. 157). One could easily write a series of books unpacking this definition. In this post and the next, I will focus on Griffiths’s understanding of human flesh as lived in the Devastation.

Recall our glossary:

Flesh: “living or animate body extended continuously in timepsace, and in that distinct from other kinds of body, such as the inanimate, whether or not continuously extended in timespace, and the animate but discarnate.”

“Flesh,” in other words, signifies any and every living creature, excepting angels and discarnate souls. Fleshly beings are alive—in Christian language, ensouled bodies or informed by soul—and therefore are not inanimate beings. Nothing terribly profound here (though it may be terribly profound)—we immediately grasp the difference, even though some scientists, for example, may wonder whether self-replicating crystals qualify as animate or inanimate. Rocks, plywood, and quasars are not alive. The corpse of Uncle Frank is not alive. The Japanese Stilt Grass on my hillside is too alive and has overwhelmed the English Ivy (which I used to think was indestructible). “Distinguishing what lives from what doesn’t, flesh from body,” Griffiths writes, “comes for humans, easily and early, mostly by osmosis supplemented, when needed, by explicit catechesis” (Christian Flesh, p. 3). Yet as easy it is is for us to distinguish the animate and inanimate, when we consider all the varieties of the former (“mammalian flesh, fish flesh, avian flesh, insect flesh, and so on”), we find that they differ so profoundly from each other that “we cannot imagine in the least what ant-flesh or salmon-flesh is like” (Decreation, p. 159).

Fleshly bodies enjoy an intimate, symbiotic relationship with the world. Griffiths speaks of a porosity. The life of the flesh requires assimilation and exchange; inhalation and exhalation; ingestion, metabolism, egestion:

Bounded though bodies of flesh are, they’re also porous to the world in which they find themselves. They don’t only touch it and have contact with it; they also take it into themselves and disgorge their by-products, and sometimes also part of themselves, into it. Ingestion and leakage, that is, are properly characteristic of flesh: it receives the world into itself and gives itself outward into that same world. There’s a constant systole and diastole of exchange with the world without which no fleshly body can live. (CF, p. 14)

All fleshly beings in the Devastation are damaged and deformed. They are not what they could be or perhaps should be, for the world of which they are a part is not what it could be and should be. Flesh inhabits an ecology of violence. As Griffiths vividly puts it:

Mammalian lungs suck air; plants eat light; whales, open-mouthed, harvest phytoplankton; bats, sonar-guided, suck in bloodsucking mosquitoes; sharks, blood-inflamed, ingest even their own flesh when wounded; and humans eat often and indiscriminately, finding a high proportion of the world’s things suitable for ingestion … For most flesh—for all of it, in fact, other than most plants—ingestion is largely of still-living or recently dead flesh … This preference on the part of fleshly bodies for other fleshly bodies when eating means that the economy of the flesh is one of slaughter. (pp. 14-15)

Life consumes life. Needless to say, vegans and vegetarians too participate in the economy of slaughter—they only avoid its bloody aspect. As for the rest of us, we delight in broiled chicken and grilled rare steaks. We are red in tooth and claw:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

~ Tennyson

All bodies, animate and inanimate, are locatable according to their natures, if only by traces. This is what it means to be a body in timespace. This is true for human beings in all of its states. “Being enfleshed as humans,” states Griffiths, “locates us—gives us a place—in the world, whether in this devastated world, in the Edenic one, or in heaven itself. To be flesh is to be here, somewhere particular, not everywhere, and not somewhere else” (Decreation, p. 161). This is also true for inanimate material bodies, but there are differences. In the fallen world the locatedness of inanimate material bodies “is exclusively spatial, and a complete account can be given of it by specifying Cartesian coordinates of space” (p. 161). At first glance this would seem to be the case for human fleshly bodies as well. Wear an Apple Watch and its built-in GPS will place you on a map with perfect accuracy. “But,” Griffiths goes on to say, “locatedness, as flesh, means something more than this.” Something more …

(Go to “Eros and Flesh”)

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3 Responses to Flesh in the Devastation

  1. Grant says:

    What is interesting to think of with this, that in the Devastation, as Griffiths terms it, all flesh made and of it’s nature to be porous to the other and both to take it in and at times give out, can mostly only do so in entrapped dominion of death, an ‘ecology of violence’. When anything takes in something else, for growth, life or sustenance it is to the harm or death some something else, and this is no less with ourselves with any food we eat and so on, is determined by the death, killing or destruction of something else. And this would be something we can see going back in the history of life of this planet through the billion or so years life has been around here.

    And this I think gives a deeper understanding of ‘by death He has defeated death’, as we understand it to have defeated death’s hold on us. But this reminds that this takes it much deeper, that Christ’s Incarnation and giving of Himself has entered the very fabric where death has been woven into warping how death has affected the very nature of our lived existence, and of all life, as well as showing just how much we really were under the enslavement of death. And we can see this new world realized in the Eucharist, there does Christ offer Himself in His Body and Blood to be feed on and taken in, yet there is no destruction, hurt or death but the opposite. There we see what true food and drink is, and a beginning to truly taking and sharing in the life of something as it should be, where there is no violence, no killing, no destruction of the other, but a union and giving of life in love, of creation and interaction founded in the self-giving of love, founded in the Son of God’s self-giving Himself. And thinking on that and further, we can see in the Eucharist the truth to come of the vision of the lion lying down with the lamb, and being to get a vaguest idea of what the true life and ecosystem is and should be, and will be in the Age to come already here in the Eucharist comes in full. And thus when Eastern Christian says ‘by death He has conquered Death’ we can dimly see just with relation to Griffiths above, just how powerful that statement is, nothing really is or will ever be the same again, as well as St Paul reminding us in Romans that all creation groans as if in birth pangs, yearning to be released from futility by the revealing of the sons of God.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thank you, Grant, for this comment. I very much like the way you brought us to the Eucharist in which the crucified (murdered) Christ shares with us the body that was given for us and the blood that was shed for us. God’s act of redemption descends to the depth of fallen creation.

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