James Bernauer on Foucault and Christian Technologies of Confession

I have recently been introduced to James Bernauer’s excellent work on Foucault and want to share the following passage from Bernauer’s essay, “Confessions of the Soul:  Foucault and Theological Culture.”Image of Confession

“Christian practices produced an interiorization or a subjectivization of the human being as the outcome of two processes.  The first is the constitution of the self as a hermeneutical reality, namely, the recognition that there is a truth in the subject, that the soul is the place where this truth resides, and that true discourses can be articulated concerning it.  The Christian self is an obscure text demanding permanent interpretation through ever more sophisticated practices of attentiveness, decipherment, and verbalization.  The second process is both paradoxical and yet essential for appreciating the unique mode of Christian subjectivity.  The deciphering of one’s soul is but one dimension of the subjectivity that relates the self to the self.  While it involves ‘indeterminate objectivization of the self by the self-indeterminate in the sense that one must be extending as far as possible the range of one’s thoughts, however insignificant and innocent they may appear to be’, the point of such objectivization is not to assemble a progressive knowledge of oneself for the sake of achieving the self-mastery that classical pagan thought advanced as an ideal.

The purpose of the Christian hermeneutic of the self is to foster renunciation of the self who has been objectified.  The individual’s relation to the self imitates both the baptismal turning from the old self to a new-found otherness, and also the ceremony of public penance that was depicted as a form of martyrdom proclaiming the symbolic death an everyday event.  All truth about the self is tied to the sacrifice of that same self, and the Christian experience of subjectivity declares itself most clearly in the sounds of a rupture with oneself, of an admission that ‘I am not who I am’” (p. 561).

Although in other writings Foucault is critical of Christian confessional practices and highlights certain dangers in these “technologies,” his archeological findings have unearthed certain truths to which Christians ought to be attentive and develop further.  For example, could not the Christian, whose identity is in Christ, agree that engaging in confessional practices is an (on-going) acknowledgment that s/he is not who s/he is?  In other words, unlike the Cartesian view of the self which demands a self-transparency and full grasp of the self, the Christian self  is in a very real sense always ahead of itself, always in process, always striving to live harmoniously and authentically the life of new creation—an in Christo existence.  Yet, we are aware of how unlike Christ we are, and this unconformity to His image is experienced as both existential and eschatological dissonance—or as Bernauer put its, “the Christian experience of subjectivity declares itself most clearly in the sounds of a rupture with oneself, of an admission that ‘I am not who I am.’”

One thought on “James Bernauer on Foucault and Christian Technologies of Confession”

  1. Cynthia,

    A good conference of Foucault and Christianity. I just wanted to point out that in fact Cartesian self is only ‘transparent’ in a few–albeit important–respects, such as its existence as a thinking thing and its grasp of innate ideas. In other respects it is a dark abyss of possibility: “I could have many other faculties that I have not yet discovered” (Med III; my paraphrase). Thus even the Cartesian self is open to infinite ‘confessional’ commentary and self-prescription.

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