How to Change the Past

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” (Regret, 128). Because these attitudes “lie close to the heart of the Christian life” (128), his guide is specifically theological, indicating how the various modes and inflections of the thought, “I would it were otherwise” might be predicated of the LORD and of his creatures in relation to him.

A book about regret is, among other things, centrally concerned with the past, and so it is perhaps worth noting how much of my recent past is shared with Griffiths. He was my dissertation adviser and by far my most important teacher, which means that the cheerleading typical of reviews would seem more than usually self-serving in this case. Instead, I aim here for a constructive, if at points critical, response to Griffiths’s thoughts about the otherwise-attitudes, confident that this is precisely what he has always invited from his students and readers.

Theology Without a Net

Whatever might be true of other books, you can form some important judgments about Regret even before opening it. Touch tells a deeper story here than sight: the paperback sits lightly in the hand, a mere 130 pages long. The book, as Griffiths puts it, is “a sketch,” with few interlocutors and only a scattering of notes. Engagement with others, he observes, would embellish and so obscure the “clear line” achieved by linking the otherwise-attitudes to core Christian commitments (xii). Griffiths achieves this “clear line” through a “direct and simple method” of writing – boldly and speculatively – about the LORD and his creatures directly, rather than (as I am doing right now) writing about some other theologian’s reflections on them (xii). For better or worse, most of what pretends to be theology today is in fact (second-order) exegesis of another’s theology; Regret, by contrast, is theology itself, performed without an exegetical net.

Regret’s few interlocutors are strongly weighted toward poets and novelists: Austen, Celan, Hopkins, and Dickinson, among others. This is, to put it mildly, unusual among works of theology, past or present, though the discipline would be much improved by following Griffiths’s lead in this regard. He does not offer any explicit justification for this preference for literary sources, but as I read Regret, I found myself thinking of David Gelernter’s explanation of his similar approach in his The Tides of Mind:

An eminent novelist . . . must be a superb psychologist, must see straight to the bottom of human character; that’s part of the job description . . . Psychologists refer disparagingly to “folk psychology,” the psychology or philosophy of the average peasant or serf. But what Shakespeare thought about the mind is not folk anything. It goes as deep as psychology can.[1]

Regret attempts the same kind of exploration of subjective consciousness—viewed under the aspect of the otherwise-attitudes—as does The Tides of Mind, and so it is no surprise that Griffiths too seeks guidance from the truly virtuosic phenomenologists of the human psyche, in the guise of poets and novelists. 

The LORD’s Regrets

The bulk of Regret is a tour of human otherwise-attitudes, ranging from the simplest (lament) to the most complex (penance). The work begins, however, with a meditation on the LORD’s regrets, recognizing that “theology should be, first and last, about and responsive to the triune LORD who is its principal topic” (xi). As Griffiths notes, Scripture both affirms and denies regret of the LORD, occasionally, as in 1 Samuel 15, in the same passage: just after the LORD tells Samuel that he repents of having made Saul king (1 Sam 15:11), Samuel declares to Saul that the LORD “is not a man, that he should repent” (1 Sam 15:29).

Griffiths resolves this prima facie contradiction by suggesting that denials and ascriptions of repentance to the LORD each have a proper place with a distinct order of discourse, in something like the way that rapturous praise of one’s beloved are appropriate to the bedroom and matter-of-fact descriptions of the same beloved are appropriate to a police report (11).

Denials of repentance in God, he proposes, belong to “theoretical discourse” (theological reflection on the LORD’s timeless act of creating all of spacetime), while ascriptions of repentance to him belong to “narratival-devotional” discourse (11). Griffiths insists, then, that from the vantage of any particular time between creation’s fall and ultimate redemption, the LORD really does have regrets, which “flow from creature-induced damage, and introduce new felicities in its wake” (14-15).

Felicitous Faults

Whether for the LORD or for his creatures, regret requires some matter to work on, and these are all “faults” (17), which have a necessary connection in at least some cases with “felicities”: Saul prepares the way for David; Adam brings forth Christ (17). “What you meant for evil,” Joseph tells his brothers, “God meant for good” (Gen 50:20). A “fault” in Griffiths’s sense is simply damage—death and decay in inanimate and irrational creatures, and these plus moral evils in rational ones. Creatures that succumb to any of these faults fall away to some extent from the LORD, the source of all goodness and so of all being. For a fault to become felicitous is for it to occasion some new turning back to the LORD, whether for the subject of the original fault or for some other creature.

Do any creatures subjected to faults receive no felicities from them? In principle, the LORD might have modelled his creation on Ursula Le Guin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which the torture of a single child enables the happiness of every other citizen of a utopian city. Or, as in the still less appealing view of St. Thomas Aquinas, he might have so disposed things that the endless sufferings of uncountably many derelict souls in Hell entered, by some gruesome alchemy, into the joys of the saints in heaven.[2]  

In Regret, Griffiths sketches a different vision of how the LORD brings felicity from fault, though here too, only the barest outlines of an account are given:

If, as I take it, though here without argument, universalism is true, which is the same as to say that after death there is only heaven, even though a heaven that will appear purgatorially to most for a time, then it is the case that all damage, all suffering, will eventually bring felicities with it for those who were damaged (29-30).

The LORD, in short, will draw forth felicity for every creature afflicted by faults: on its face, this is a vision of divine providence far worthier of divine omnibenevolence and omnipotence than the comparatively paltry hopes nurtured by much of the Christian tradition.

Time’s Four-Dimensional Folds

Regret continues with a discussion of time, a major preoccupation of Griffiths at least since he gave the 2013 Stanton Lectures (“The End: An Eschatological Assay”), which eventually yielded his Decreation: The Ends of All Creatures.[3] Ordinary language for and thought about otherwise-attitudes is shaped by a view of time as centered on a present moment, itself suspended between a determinate and unalterable past and an indeterminate and malleable future. On this view, regret is only fully possible for past events (34).

But this “presentist” view of time, intuitive though it is, is incomplete, partial at best, for we might also consider time, Griffiths insists, from the vantage of “the LORD’s act of creation.” As the LORD knows and wills it, creation is less like an unspooling film than a four-dimensional painting, such as Marcel Duchamp’s’ Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2, in which distinct moments of time as well as points of space are telescoped iconically.

All times perdure a-temporally under the LORD’s gaze. But this is not all; as Griffiths argued in Decreation and reprises here, the ascension bunched and coiled time around the resurrected flesh of Christ, who is thus present to all times and all places, e.g., in the Temple at the theophany to Isaiah (cf. Jn. 12:38-40). Griffiths’s Christological telescoping of distant spaces and times indicates that the past, as Faulkner taught us, is not really past; it remains available to act on us, and perhaps—in the sacrament of penance, about which more below—to be acted upon.

Lament and Remorse

The chapters on the LORD, felicitous faults, and time provide a metaphysical framework within which Regret’s exploration of specifically human-otherwise attitudes unfolds. Lament, the first of these attitudes, is not in itself necessarily counterfactual, but is nonetheless ingredient in the specifically counter-factual attitudes (56). While counterfactual attitudes are complex and learned behaviors, lament emerges spontaneously even in newborns: most obviously, infants and toddlers cry in response to their own suffering, and also instinctively lament the sufferings of others. Interestingly, Griffiths directly rejects this view, claiming, “We don’t lament the sufferings of others without being shown, repeatedly, that they are lamentable” (58). On a suitably broad understanding of lament, however, this is simply incorrect: newborns exhibit “contagious crying” and other symptoms of distress in response to the cries of other newborns, while remaining incapable of wishing anything otherwise.[4]

Not only is lament detachable from counterfactual attitudes; in its most pathological forms, Griffiths rightly emphasizes, it actually inhibits the expression of those attitudes. The clinically depressed are frozen in lament, unable to wrench their gaze from the horrors that beset them. Griffiths explores this phenomenon through Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Terrible Sonnets,” written from within the crushing “melancholy” which beset Hopkins for years, ending only with his premature death from typhoid fever.

Lament is transformed into “remorse” with the addition of a simple counterfactual thought: “I wish I hadn’t done that” (68). Just as lament can calcify into melancholy, so too remorse, if it does not flower in contrition, confession, and penance, can become mere despairing rumination, an ingrown mental toenail, festering and putrefying. Griffiths likens remorse’s work to the steady gnawing (mordere, in Latin) of rats; “the endless loop that replays the things you did, the things that it seems, to you, that you ought not to have done, can drive you mad” (75). The terror of remorse lies particularly in our inability to escape it: as Maximus the Confessor put it, “The fight against memories is as much the more difficult than the fight against things as sinning in thought is easier than sinning in deed.”[5]

Contrition and Weltschmerz

Remorse is purely self-reflexive; it composes an “inner theater” (a technical expression for Griffiths, to which we will return shortly) in which reenactments of one’s misdeeds are performed in a restless cycle. But when remorse is turned outward, toward others, it becomes “contrition,” which “is directed outside myself, at the damage done, and in being so directed it wears down and breaks open the closed horizon of remorse” (78).

This chapter includes a lengthy excursus on the possibility of feeling contrition for evils one did not directly cause, such as past genocides or the extinction of the dinosaurs. That we feel often such contrition (rightly or wrongly) seems indisputable. The other day, for instance, I discovered that, during the night, a newborn cardinal had fallen (or, I fear, been shoved—I had already rescued it after a similar fall the day before) from its nest in my yard and had died during the night. As I disposed of its bedraggled corpse, featherless wings askew, I felt a wave of sadness, yes, but also a kind of moral revulsion at living in a world in which tiny things die, cold and crying out for comfort, sometimes at the hands (or claws) of their own parents. I felt somehow contaminated by the experience; perhaps this is what the Germans mean by “Weltschmerz.”

Why do we feel this way? Griffiths offers one standard Christian answer: we feel this way because we in fact possess an elusive sort of solidarity with one another “in Adam,” a kind of collective responsibility for the damage we wreak in our variously damaged states (87-88). Perhaps this solidarity extends all the way back to the early Homo sapiens who burst from Africa and apparently slaughtered the less advanced Neanderthals they met in Europe.

But human solidarity in sin would hardly explain contrition for the death of every baby cardinal, much less of the last Tyrannosaurus Rex, the latter having starved in a post-apocalyptic desert millions of years before any human was gleam in the eye of our rodent ancestors. Nonetheless, Griffiths maintains that animal death, too, and indeed all decay, down to the entropy which is perhaps driving the physical universe toward heat-death, is an artifact of sin—angelic sin, to be precise, which damaged the whole of spacetime in the first instant of its existence.  

This is a position Griffiths develops at greater length in Decreation (131-37), and I take it to be one of his most original and important theological contributions: it offers an elegant account of death as without remainder sin’s artifact that is nonetheless fully consonant with the best of contemporary physics and biology. He is prone to downplay that originality, however (a laudable trait), insisting even in Regret that this account is “in outline (though always with dispute about details), the standard pre-Reformation Christian account” (90). If you squint at that tradition, you can see a resemblance to Griffiths’s account—Augustine does devote some very interesting pages in City of God 11 to the angelic fall, for instance, which he also takes to have occurred in the opening instants of creation. Nonetheless, Augustine does not connect natural evils such as animal death to the angelic fall; rather, he writes,

Beasts and trees . . . received, at their Creator's will, an existence fitting them, by passing away and giving place to others, to secure that lowest form of beauty, the beauty of seasons, which in its own place is a requisite part of this world. For things earthly were neither to be made equal to things heavenly, nor were they, though inferior, to be quite omitted from the universe.[6]

Animals, in short, die by design, if only—as Aquinas would later qualify Augustine’s position—by divine permission. As Aquinas put it, the LORD permits that antelope die so that lions might live.[7] On this view, death is not a creaturely artifact, but a kind of a spandrel, a constraint in which the LORD hardly rejoices, but under which he labored in his ambition to make a world that fittingly expresses his glory.

This is all far from Griffiths’s view; as he rightly insists, God takes no initiative, even secondarily, in the introduction of death and decay into the universe. These are without remainder creaturely artifacts—or rather, creaturely un-makings—and are destined to be brought to nothing in the end (cf. 1 Cor 15:26). In fact, rather than being a species of the mainstream, Augustinian theology of creation and fall, Griffiths’s view of death as a universal artifact of sin belongs to the same family as Origen’s account of the fall in On First Principles 1.4, according to which all suffering and death is also an artifact of sin, in the sense that it, along with all the rest of the material world, came into being with the aboriginal fall of all rational spirits from God. Griffiths’s account of the angelic fall is thus a demythologized or Augustinian Origenism.

Confession and the Inner Theater

Contrition, as we have seen, is remorse turned outward, offering help to those we had harmed. But contrition is a private matter, a creature of the mind; when it swells enough to burst our lips’ dam, it spills out into the world as confession. Griffiths treats confession as a distinctive sort of speech-act, which he calls an “avowal,” and which J.L. Austin termed a “performative.”[8] This is “an utterance” which “at once binds together and mutually transforms the utterer and the object or addressee of the utterance” (95): promises, vows, or judicial sentences do not merely describe some state of affairs, but confer a new status or relationship on the one uttering or addressed (or both).

Confession, in short, is “a verbal performance that changes the performer, and it does so by re-making (refectio)” (100). “Sin is nothing,” as Augustine put, “and when men sin, they become nothing”;[9] sin unmakes the sinner, turning her away from the LORD and back toward the abyss from which she was called into being. Confession, turns the sinner away from her sin and back to the LORD, thus remaking what had been unmade. The nothingness of sin, Griffiths emphasizes, means that confessions, “don’t remove something positive and real and responsive to heavy earthmoving machinery. They remove a refusal which is absence rather than presence, silence rather than speech, denial rather than affirmation” (103). Like a light switched on in a darkened room, a confession changes everything precisely by changing nothing, by replacing its absence, which we reify as “darkness,” with its own luminous presence.

Griffiths concludes the chapter on confession with a sage, no-nonsense guide to examining one’s conscience and making an auricular (personal) confession, paradigmatically to a priest. Confessions, he notes, fall somewhere between two poles: on the one hand, lush productions upon the stage of one’s mind (“the inner theater”), in which the sinner seeks to craft his sins as a dramatic spectacle, complex in motivation and richly embroidered in plotline; on the other, a kind of ship’s log of sin (“Wednesday: ignored an opportunity to give to charity; Thursday: adultery in the heart; Friday: told three lies”), presented in an impartial, external manner, with a minimum of introspective adornment (105).

Griffiths rightly counsels avoiding the former, Proustian style of confession, on the grounds that they are unreliable (we’re quite bad at introspection), superfluous (just apologize and be done with it), and egotistical (“You, like me, are not very interesting and very likely less interesting than you think”) (106-107). A confession as ship’s log drives home (for the sinner and the confessor alike) the essential point that “it’s of the essence of sin not to be interesting because every particular sin is constituted, at its core, by the same gesture, which is the parasitic one of avoidance” (107). Like Milton’s Satan, the sinner is never happier than when talking about himself, and so the Proustian confession amounts to something like a performative contradiction, an implicit insistence on the deep importance of the sins whose nothingness it explicitly avows.

Penance and Time’s Transfiguration

Regret’s final chapter considers the culminating otherwise-attitude, which is “penance.” When I have confessed to someone I have wronged, and she offers forgiveness for the wrong done, it is natural that I make a further response in gratitude for her graciousness; this further response, Griffiths suggests, is penance. The order here is crucial: it is not that forgiveness (whether offered by the offended party directly, or by a priest speaking in persona Christi) is given only to those who do penance, but rather that “the extent to which penance is refused is the extent to which forgiveness isn’t received” (122). Penance does not bring about forgiveness, but rather registers its presence and completes its work.  

Griffiths objects to using debt-talk to characterize this dance of confession-forgiveness-penance, preferring the trope of gift-exchange (121). The principal difficulty here is that the New Testament’s language for sin and its removal is pervaded by debt-talk, owing not least to the fact that a single Aramaic word (chatay) means both “sin” and “debt,” while another Aramaic word (tsedaqah) means both “righteousness” and “alms.” (They are neatly paired in an Aramaic bit of Daniel: “remove your sins/debts [chatayk] by righteousness/giving alms [b-tsedeqah], and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed” (4:27).) Most notably, we ask the LORD to “forgive our debts (Greek opheilēmata, Latin debita) as we forgive our debtors” (Matt 6:12). This trope surfaces elsewhere, particularly in Matthew and in St. Paul’s epistles: none will escape the debtor’s prison “until [he] pays the last farthing” (Matt. 5:26); we have been “bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20); Christ “cancelled the debt-note which was against us” (Col 2:14); and so on.

I take it, then, that the trope of sin-as-debt is unavoidable, but Griffiths is right that it needs to be handled carefully, lest we make God into a cosmic bookie, keen to collect his due, and unafraid to break some bones if needed. The key, as I see it, is to recognize that our debts to God and one another are always, at bottom, debts of love (cf. Rom 13:8). What should be the most joyous gift—the act of love for which we were made, and in which our very existence is a freely-given participation—can only appear as a grievous and burdensome debt to a sin-sick mind, eager to hold the enemy at a distance, above all those “enemies” who are actually one’s victims.

Whether we understand it as a gift or as a debt (and the line between the two is very often fuzzier than ordinary language would suggest), penance, as Griffiths conceives it, brings about a “transfiguration of the past,” healing, not merely the sinner’s perception of the sin, but the very sins themselves (122). Penance does not erase past sin—“what was,” as Bonaventure put it, “cannot be thought not to have been, if it is understood to have been”[10]—but it does “transfigure” it, by “remov[ing] from that (past) action what makes it a sin, which is the turning away from the LORD in it” (124). Through penance, “the damage caused by past sins can be transfigured (not erased) for the cosmos as well as the sinner” (125).

This is a difficult idea, as Griffiths’s almost mystical formulations indicate. What could it mean to say that Rodrigo Mendoza’s act of dragging his armor behind him through a hundred miles of rainforest alters his prior act of murdering his half-brother? (And if you have not seen Robert Bolt’s extraordinary film, The Mission, stop reading and do so at once.) My own preference would be to clarify this peculiar sort of backwards-causation by weakening the distinction Griffiths makes between regret’s transfiguration of a sin’s place in the life of one who regrets it, and its transfiguration of that sin’s place in the cosmos itself (125).

Regret, Griffiths emphasizes, does not simply change some feature of the regretful person’s outlook on a past event; it changes the past event itself. However, as Max Scheler observed, “Since the total efficacy of an event is, in the texture of life, bound up with its full significance and final value, every event of our past remains indeterminate in its significance and incomplete in value until it has yielded all its potential effects . . . ‘Historical reality’ is incomplete and, so to speak, redeemable.”[11] The objective meaning of every past event is determined in part by its sequelae, and these include individuals “subjective” responses to it.

Mark Antony’s first, fateful meeting with Cleopatra took on an objectively new meaning after the Battle of Actium, not simply for the two of them, but for all of us, who live to varying degrees in the world their ill-starred affair helped form. Or, to think counterfactually: if President Truman had responded to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a public display of remorse, repentance, acts of explicit restitution for the innocents slaughtered thereby, and solemn oaths never to employ such weapons again, the effect and meaning of the bombings themselves would have been profoundly different, with far-reaching implications for the present.

The otherwise-attitudes, then, are not simply a matter of subjective import, but lie at the heart of human cooperation in the LORD’s work of healing all of creation’s wounds through his Son and by their shared Spirit. If that cooperative transfiguration were not possible, Griffiths notes in conclusion, we would all do well to become Stoics or Buddhists, and work at detaching ourselves from the suffering ingredient in finitude (130). But if the “Christian grammar” describes the world aright, we do much better to live purgatorially, embracing a “life ordered in significant part by wishing the world and oneself otherwise” (131), in the confident hope that one day it will be.

In the end, Regret traces an impressively detailed itinerary through a large swathe of the psychological territory covered by the otherwise-attitudes. I hope it is not churlish of me, however, to wish that this short book had been extended by another chapter or two, to cover some domains of regret that largely remain terra incognita in it. Griffiths focuses rigorously on what we might call the “agent-dimension” of the otherwise-attitudes, their germination and flowering in the life of those who have committed regrettable acts. Even his discussions of regret for acts not committed are discussion of people who act as if they had committed them, as if they were the murderers of the dinosaurs or the Nazis staffing the death-camps.

But regret has a “patient-dimension” as well as the agent-dimension which Griffiths takes up. The death-camps’ victims wished their situation otherwise, but their regret was not principally the kind which calls for repentance. Many and perhaps most expressions of regret and lament are of this kind, coming from wives and children weeping for their neglect and abuse; from victims of famine lifting bitter eyes to heaven; even from that baby cardinal, crying out in the dark for a mother that never came. We need a phenomenology of this kind of regret as well, dark night of the soul though it might be to compose.

Notwithstanding that omission or the other parts of the argument I have taken exception to, I hope I conveyed what an outstanding book Regret is. Griffiths is an astonishingly gifted thinker, writer, and teacher, and it is always a thrill to receive his latest manuscript in my inbox. If he gets some things wrong, it is because he dares to think, not merely to read and comment, to gaze directly on the sun and not merely seek its reflections in still pools. He only aspires, as he tells us, “to be interesting; it is no part of the Catholic theologian’s remit to be right” (xi). May his tribe increase.

[1] The Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness (New York: Liveright, 2016), 24.

[2] Summa Theologiae Supp. III.94.3. 

[3] For the discussion of time, cf. pages 71-110.

[4] Geangu E, Benga O, Stahl D, Striano T. 2010. “Contagious crying beyond the first days of life,” Infant Behav Dev. 33(3):279-88.

[5] Centuries on Charity 1.63.

[6] City of God 12.4.

[7] Summa Theologiae 1.22.2 ad 2.

[8] Cf. his How To Do Things with Words (Harvard, 1962).

[9] Tractates on John 1.13.

[10] In II Sent. d. 2, p. 1, a. 1, q. 1, fund. 6; II, 62.

[11] “Repentance and Rebirth” in On the Eternal in Man (Transaction, 2010), 40-41. Italics original.  

Featured Image: created by Sirioberati, Beyond the Blue Void - based on the Japanese tradition of repairing with gold (Kintsugi), created on 23 March 2018; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0


Brendan Case

Brendan Case is Associate Director for Research in The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University.

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