Sorry for Your Loss

‘Regret’
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When the Catholic theologian and Commonweal contributor Paul J. Griffiths resigned from his faculty position at Duke Divinity School in 2017 following a conflict over an anti-racism workshop, his colleague Thomas Pfau told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I profoundly regret his decision and, indeed, have conveyed to him that I regard it as a mistake.” Pfau’s statement—that he regrets something another person did—is a grammatical oddity, a bit like the semi-apology, “I’m sorry for your loss.” We say things like this all the time, and we understand what they mean as long as we don’t analyze them too carefully. 

In his new book, Regret: A Theology, Griffiths performs just such 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. Regret, to Griffiths, is not just one thing but a spectrum of “otherwise-attitudes,” epitomized in the statement, “I would it were otherwise.” The spectrum begins with lament, sorrow over the state of things, though lament is not quite a species of regret because it does not necessarily wish things otherwise. Beyond lament are remorse, contrition, confession, and penance. Penance—particularly sacramental penance—is the “culmination” of these attitudes that together are indispensable to Christian life. “Someone who has no regrets is someone not fully human and not much formed as a Christian,” Griffiths writes. 

The heart of sacramental penance is being sorry for your own sins. That’s why regret on behalf of another’s actions is so conceptually strange. But Griffiths argues that you can regret something you are not responsible for because you have a degree of solidarity with the person who is. Parents regret the actions of their children, Americans today regret the actions of their forebears, and so on. You can even regret the extinction of the dinosaurs, even though no human is to blame. (Griffiths contends that the dinosaurs died because of the sins of angels, with whom humans have solidarity as fellow creatures.) Solidarity as a fellow scholar, a colleague, or a friend may well have been the source of Pfau’s regret on Griffiths’s behalf. Perhaps he wished he could have undone Griffiths’s decision himself, like an anxious parent who grabs the steering wheel from his teenage child, willing the otherwise into being. Or maybe Pfau was only lamenting a loss. (Griffiths does not comment on his departure from Duke in this book.) 

“Someone who has no regrets is someone not fully human and not much formed as a Christian,” Griffiths writes.

The explanation for why it’s possible to regret the demise of prehistoric species, or what someone else has done, is one of this book’s many fruitful insights about a feeling our culture says we must avoid. Even theologians have rarely addressed this topic. (At least, not in terms like Griffiths’s; more on that in a moment.) Griffiths begins with a puzzle from Scripture: How can we understand God’s evident regret over making Saul king (1 Sam 15:11), given that Christians believe God exists outside of time? He answers by showing how Christians have to speak of God in two registers, the metaphysical and the historical. In the latter register, God’s intimate relationship with humanity entails responding to our actions. As they change, so does his judgment. In another chapter, Griffiths meditates on the notion of felix culpa, highlighting that regrettable events, such as a failed marriage, nevertheless often include non-regretted felicities, such as children. We shouldn’t weigh felicities against faults, but rather allow the good to “transfigur[e]” the things we wish otherwise.

 

I was once a theology professor, too. I resigned a tenured position both because I had burned out and to move with my wife for her new job. My regret over my career is complicated. I wish the job had been different: less taxing, more rewarding. I wish I had been a better scholar and thus a stronger candidate for jobs elsewhere. I wish I hadn’t merged my identity with my work. I sometimes regret going into academia at all, but when I consider the felicities that trailed that decision—friendships, accomplishments, the joy of seeing students learn—I also regret leaving it.

This act of wishing my career otherwise is what Griffiths calls remorse, the “deformed sibling” of the other forms of regret. Remorse, he asserts, feels like rats chewing at your flesh. (The word stems from the Latin mordere, “to bite.”) The problem with remorse is its self-focus, according to Griffiths. It is hopeless dwelling on your own suffering. This is why, in a poem Griffiths analyzes, Emily Dickinson named remorse the “Adequate of Hell.” We need to get past our own pain, he contends, and become contrite for the pain we have caused others.

I’m not sure anything beyond remorse is possible when it comes to a lost career, though. The higher forms of regret—contrition, confession, and penance—don’t quite fit such a case. Sure, I was unkind to colleagues and students while I worked as a professor, and those wrongs demanded atonement. But I don’t need to apologize for embarking on the career in the first place, or for quitting. My regret is not about finding and removing the obstacles between me and other people, or between me and God, which is for Griffiths the whole point of confession. Rather, my regret is a part of removing obstacles between my past and present selves. By thinking counterfactually about my past, I am not just wallowing in bygone pain but looking for continuities between it and the present. I am looking for who I might have become but never did. And in doing so, I hope to find the thread of who I am.

Our culture’s strong bias against regret arises from our perpetual drive to cut that thread. Just look at our recent president, a man who claimed he never sought forgiveness for any sins. To him, and often to the rest of us, the past is all sunk cost. Our one task is to survey present conditions and then act to our advantage. Survey, then act, always looking ahead. As a result, our past selves are alien to us. Regret, including the kind that terminates in remorse, knits the old and new selves together. It gets you to recognize your solidarity with a stranger: the stranger you were, who was thoughtless or malicious or whose life was just complexly unsatisfying. Making those connections enlarges the self; it’s a necessary component of moral growth. 

 

Griffiths’s account makes good sense of regret over the kind of actions Catholics are supposed to confess: acts of personal moral wrongdoing. Indeed, he thinks that in the sacrament of penance, we need only confess the general category of sin—theft, adultery, envy—and not get too deep into specifics. Our desire to narrate “the gorgeous detail of our sense of ourselves as the center of the cosmos...is an artifact of the Fall, and bringing it to nothing is, in essence, what confession’s avowal does.” 

This is good advice for the sacrament (if nothing else, it keeps the line to the confessional moving), but not for our larger project of moral development through self-narration. That may not matter to Griffiths, because for him, “The linear model [of time], commonsensical though it may seem, is incorrect.” Cyclical, liturgical time alone is “real.” But we leave the booth and go out into the world, having vowed to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Sometimes, by the grace of God, we even do a bit better. Linear time may be unreal, but it’s a useful fiction. It allows us to say, “I won’t break this promise like I did the last one.”

Griffiths’s focus on sacramental penance also makes it hard to say what we should think about failings both smaller and larger than the ones we confess through the screen. Our days are filled with small errors, from burnt toast to wrong turns to forgotten bill payments. They are regrettable, yet they paradoxically also constitute our character. At the other end of the scale, Griffiths takes an overly modest view of what it means for Christians to do penance for the structural violence and exploitation they are involved in as citizens of nation-states. Following Augustine’s outlook in The City of God, Griffiths writes that “the inhabitants of the LORD’s city learn, over time and always imperfectly, to lament their implication in and inextricability from the violence that marks the human city.” Beyond that, they can hope and pray for God to “deliver” them from these conditions, recognizing “that such delivery won’t come until the end.”

But we can do more than just lament social sin. What Griffiths says about individual faults—that words and actions can “transfigur[e] the past” and bring it “into the divine economy of the gift”—is also true of violent and unjust social realities. We can put otherwise-thinking into hopeful action. True, I am in no position to change U.S. foreign policy, but in communion with others, I can make local headway against structural evils like racism. 

Recent theologians have said little about regret, but they have said quite a bit about repentance. For example, my friend Jennifer McBride places “confession unto repentance” in public life at the core of Christian discipleship in her 2012 book, The Church for the World. McBride anchors her vision of repentant discipleship in Protestant Christology. “Through the crucifixion,” she writes, “God takes responsibility for sin and makes right for eternity all that is not.” To follow Christ, then, is to acknowledge your complicity in societal injustice and then, as a consequence of that metanoia, to work in solidarity with others to end it. 

Does regret play a role in such repentance? Did John the Baptist call for regret, for adopting an otherwise-attitude, in his preaching? This is where Griffiths could have said much more in this short book, even within the bounds of his “grammatical” aim “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.” Part of the trouble is that Griffiths does not say what his “particular construal” of the archive is. He cites very few theological sources explicitly, instead training his attention on passages from poets and novelists: Paul Celan, Henry James, Jane Austen, and George Herbert among them. Granted, Griffiths has written multiple books on theological method, but it seems unfair to expect non-specialist readers to know them. It is frustrating that a writer as skilled as Griffiths leaves his methods obscure in Regret; would that it were otherwise.

In the book’s preface (a nearly-verbatim repeat of the preface in his 2018 book, Christian Flesh), Griffiths writes that theology first of all must respond to God. After that, “it should seek to be interesting.” Regret certainly is. Griffiths’s writing often prompts disagreement, his interlocutors frequently calling him “provocative.” American culture and the Catholic Church do not have well-formed theories about regret, and those who live by the “no regrets” maxim are unlikely to read this book, so it may not spur a vehement debate. The conversation it provokes may be quieter than what Griffiths has provoked in the past, but we need it nevertheless. 

 

Regret
A Theology

Paul J. Griffiths
University of Notre Dame Press
$30 | 152 pp. 

Published in the February 2021 issue: 

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