Per Caritatem

I recently finished an essay on Augustine and Foucault that brings both thinkers into critical dialogue.  Although in the essay itself I highlight strengths and weaknesses of both Foucault and Augustine, the excerpt below (taken from my concluding section) focuses primarily on how a contemporary Augustinian of a particular sort might benefit from a dialogue with Foucault.[1]

What might a dissatisfied, contemporary Augustinian gain from a conversation with Foucault? First, Foucault’s conception of power relations are immensely valuable to Augustinians with feminist sensibilities and interests in peace and conflict studies as well as, those who desire to expand and develop Augustinian trajectories that might speak to contemporary social justice issues. Embedded in Foucault’s conception of power relations and resistance possibilities is his insight that freedom must be expressed bodily. As many critics of Augustine have pointed out, his position is wrought with dualistic tendencies,[2] which are then appealed to in order to defend a status quo position. For example, Augustine encourages slaves to submit to their masters and women to submit to their husbands even when both master and husband violently abuse them (see, e.g. City of God 19.16.) Such exhortations and calls to obedience are based, among other things, upon commitments to various dualisms. For example, spiritual freedom is touted as superior to bodily freedom just as the spiritual is superior to the material. In addition, the call to accept violent relations (such as slavery and spousal abuse) is often undergirded with an appeal to a future other-worldly justice where all wrongs will be set right.  If the Augustinian were to appropriate Foucault’s insight that freedom in this life must be expressed bodily, she could avoid some of the problematic dualisms that surface in Augustine and at the same time highlight the in-breaking of God’s transformative grace in this life.  That is, just as the redemptive power of the Christ-event irrupted into Augustine’s life, removing his bonds and re-integrating his life, so too can divine grace work through Christians and all people of good will to change unjust social structures and thus to bring healing to exploitative and violent human relationships. Of course, the Augustinian need not adopt false utopian hopes for a perfect society; Foucault had no such pseudo-hope.

Most Augustinians today readily acknowledge that relations of violence such as slavery and domestic violence hinder human flourishing and are incompatible with the Christian call to love and to promote human dignity for all. In light of these contemporary commitments, adopting some variant of Foucault’s critical philosophy of ongoing critique would be a helpful “tool” in reassessing gender relations, stereotypes, and other concepts that we have been conditioned to see as universal and necessary but which are in fact particular, historical, and contingent.

In other words, the Augustinian might engage in a type of “theologico-philosophical interrogation” that problematizes our current understanding of gender relations (or other dominating relations), re-tracing how its own tradition has come to its present position and how its past views were historically conditioned and shaped. Here the tradition asks itself:  How have we—for example, through formulating our own erroneous views (of women or slaves), adopting false views from other traditions, or misapplying our own principles—created a trajectory in the tradition that has diminished biblical emancipatory insights or worse has offered spiritualized interpretations of relations of violence that encourage their continuance rather than challenge their existence? For example, given our present understanding of slavery as intrinsically unjust and our rejection of women as rationally or morally inferior to men, what might a re-reading of St. Paul’s—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”[3] and Genesis 1:26 look like? A Foucauldian-inspired genealogical study of power relations and relations of violence between husbands and wives and masters and slaves yield significant analytical and socio-political insights. Employing Foucault’s critical philosophy, what we find, for example, are alleged universal, “natural,” and necessary concepts of women and what it is to be a woman or a wife (e.g., receptive, passive, docile, submissive, morally or intellectually inferior—interestingly, these are more or less the same concepts regularly used to describe the “essence” of a slave) are in fact particular, contingent, and socially constructed concepts.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, for Foucault, there is no outside to power relations; however, given his understanding of the correlativity of power and resistance, neither is there an outside to resistance. In other words, resistance possibilities always exist so long as genuine power relations obtain. Given the contingent, historical character of power configurations and the ever-present possibility of resistance, change over time is possible.  Thus, there is room for hope and a cautious, but in no way naïve, optimism. Rather, as Foucault himself explains, “[t]here’s an optimism that consists in saying that things couldn’t be better. My optimism would consist rather in saying that so many things can be changed, fragile as they are, bound up more with circumstances than necessities.”[4]

Analogous to Foucault’s claim regarding the ubiquity of power, for Augustine there is no outside to sin. But as Augustine’s own story testifies, God’s grace is also operative in this world. Just as divine grace transformed Augustine, healing him and bringing him into intimate union with God, so too can God’s grace transform individuals and groups today, working through and with them to change institutional structures, legislation, cultural practices, and political and religious narratives so that they might better respect human dignity and foster human flourishing. Eschatological perfection is not the goal for this world; however, a communal striving with all people of goodwill to bring into being proleptic glimpses of the world to come is completely consonant with Christian hope.

Notes

[1] The arguments for my conclusions are given in the full essay; however, the complete essay is far too long for a blog post.

[2] Augustine does, of course, proclaim the goodness of creation, employing both philosophical (e.g. goodness and being are coextensive) and theological arguments (e.g., creation comes from God and thus must be good). Nonetheless, dualistic tendencies remain.

[3] Gal 3:28; New Revised Standard Version.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989.

[4] Foucault, “Practicing Criticism,” 156.

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