Modern Transformations of Sin and Salvation
Both Foucault and Augustine understand that the “search for knowledge, truth, and ultimate fulfillment orients all of one’s relations” (131). Likewise, both thinkers discern “that the truths we pursue and the perfection and happiness we anticipate” involve costs (131). As Schuld observes, Foucault pens his work in a largely anthropocentric, rather than theocentric cultural context. Consequently, “his questioning about the personal and communal costs of our peculiarly modern appetites for knowledge, truth, emancipation, and perfection refers to how these have come to be grounded exclusively in the human subject” (132). Over the course of his studies, Foucault concludes that the basic desire to know who we are, the risks involved and how to best attain fulfillment, still have the same all-encompassing focus as was the case in antiquity. “What has changed is where we look for that essential truth and how we bring others into our search” (132). The new turn is to seek answers from those who offer themselves as “experts”—psychiatrists, physicians, scientists of various sorts.
Part of Schuld’s project is an attempt to analyze “from Foucault’s perspective the cultural transformations involved in modern aspirations for a “redeeming” self-knowledge and truth” (132). The following three theological and sociohistorical themes provide a basic structure for her analysis of Foucault’s account: (1) interpretations of “confession” in shaping personal and communal identity; (2) interpretations of “infirmity” in sanctioning cultural responses to human differences, deviations, and imperfections; and (3) interpretations of “healing” as a process of convalescence or transfiguring cure requiring critical intervention by specialists (133). Foucault claims that in various ways, all of the above “have been appropriated from early Christian practices and tailored for secular purposes so that the social desires attending each have shifted significantly from a paradigm of sin and salvation to one of ‘pseudo-scientific’ pathology and well-being” (133).
Before discussing the first theme (i.e., interpretations of “confession”), Schuld acknowledges that Foucault’s work as a historian has been criticized, and his investigation of early Christian culture is both limited and unbalanced. Nonetheless, Schuld’s interests lie in “[Foucault’s] broader strokes that give shape to a central modern transformation that has great import for theology” (135). As to his views of Christian practices, Schuld opts to focus on his later writings, which are more sympathetic in his examination of monastic texts, particularly the works of John Cassian.
Foucault uncovers the “bare cultural beams” upon which the new social superstructure will be built and used for new purposes as the culture shifts from its privileging of truth in theology and philosophy to science (136). This superstructure appears to Foucault to be grounded in what were understood as four religious dangers: (1) “the endlessly desiring person who cannot control his intentions, thoughts, whims, fantasies, and dreams;” (2) “the hidden and ingenious nature of concupiscence that can only be seized and eradicated through painstaking coercion;” (3) “the ease with which evil can be made to appear good so that one can never know the real root of desire or trust even the most fleeting and innocuous-seeming images and sensations;” (4) “the inability of individuals to decipher adequately the spiritual temptations and struggles taking place within them so that for salvation they have to seek the aid of a human intermediary” (136).
The subsequent posts will be devoted to Schuld’s three theological and sociohistorical themes that structure her investigation. Thus, part V will focus Foucault’s interpretations of “confession.”