Derrida, Foucault, and the Bible

Understand What Prominent Postmodern Philosophers Derrida and Foucault Were Saying, and Put Their Views in Conversation with the Bible

Curated from a Lecture Series by Christopher Watkin

Course Introduction

About the Course

This course will help you see what Derrida and Foucault are really saying, and show you how you can bring their thought into conversation with the Bible. You will get an accessible introduction to the thought of two of the most influential French philosophers of recent decades, and you will learn methods for fostering meaningful engagement between philosophical ideas and biblical doctrine.

Course Objectives:

  • Provide an introductory overview to the work of two of the most important and influential postmodern thinkers of the twentieth century, whose ideas help shape our thinking today, including diagrams and explanations of key terms and quotations.
  • Establish a way of thinking about the Bible that helps you bring it into conversation with philosophical ideas in an authentic and rigorous way.
About Dr. Christopher Watkin

Christopher Watkin (MPhil, PhD, Jesus College, Cambridge) researches and writes on modern and contemporary French thought, atheism, and religion. He lectures in French studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, blogs at, and can be found on Twitter @DrChrisWatkin.

Background: The Death of God

In this section, we are going to explore the idea of the “death of God” and why is it important for contemporary philosophy. We will discuss the parable of the madman from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science and see how it raises new sets of problems to which subsequent philosophy tried to respond. There are four videos in this section: two on the death of God itself, and two on its consequences.

  • Introducing the Death of God

    In this video you'll learn (1) what Nietzsche means (and what he doesn't mean!) when his madman says that "God is dead", and (2) the importance of Plato for grasping what the madman is saying, and for understanding the death of God.

  • Which God is Dead?

    In this video you'll learn (1) what the "God of the philosophers" is, and why Pascal didn't like the idea, and (2) what on earth the death of God has to do with roadrunner cartoons.

  • Consequences of the Death of God

    In this video you'll learn (1) what consequences the death of God has been understood to have in three areas: morality, truth, and language, and (2) why the phrase "If God is dead, everything is permitted" is helpful, even if it is a misquotation.

  • More Consequences of the Death of God

    In this video you'll learn (1) about more consequences of the death of God, this time for humanity and the author, and (2) how you can spot a mid twentieth-century French philosopher from fifty paces.

Reading Assignment
Fredrich Nietzsche – Parable of the Madman

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughed

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant starsand yet they have done it themselves.

It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: “What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?”

Source: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), 181–82.

Review Questions
  • Who is the madman talking to?
  • In what way has God ‘died’ for Nietzsche?
  • Why is the madman not understood?
  • Why do you think the madman carries a lantern in the daytime?
  • ‘If God is dead, then everything is permitted’. Why?
  • The passage is written in a very colourful style. What effect does this way of writing have on the reader? Why do you think Nietzsche wants it that way?
  • Why do you think Nietzsche puts these words in the mouth of a madman?
  • The madman says “This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars”. Do you think that the death of God is still “on its way” in our society today, or do you think it has fully arrived? What makes you say that?

Derrida: Metaphysics

Roll up your sleeves: in this section we’re getting to work on Derrida’s “metaphysics” (literally, “beyond physics”: the principles that underpin the reality we experience and that physics measures). I am going to explain why Derrida isn’t saying that language is meaningless or that it can mean whatever you want it to, and I’m going to explain some of his most famous terms and phrases. After that, we’re going to have our first look at how to bring philosophical ideas into conversation with the Bible in a way that seeks to do justice to both.

There are five videos in this section: 1–3 on what Derrida says and 4–5 on how to bring him into conversation with the Bible. Tip for super-busy people: you can get by with just videos 2 and 4 if you just want to learn what Derrida means by “there is nothing outside the text”, and how to bring that into conversation with the Bible.

  • Deconstruction is not Meaninglessness but Openness

    In this video you'll learn (1) what Derrida really thinks about language and meaning, (2) why it's wrong to attribute to him the view that language is meaningless or can mean whatever you want it to, and (3) why you can't get your hair cut on a building site.

  • "There is Nothing Outside the Text"

    In this video you'll learn (1) what this most famous of Derridean phrases really means and (2) what Heidegger has to do with your next cup of tea.

  • Logocentrism and Différance

    Derrida introduces two notions to describe what he sees as the dominant view of meaning and language in the Western tradition: "logocentrism" and "phonocentrism". I explain "logocentrism" in the video, and I'll say a quick word about "phonocentrism" here. All the way back to Plato, Derrida argues, the West has privileged speech ("phone" in Greek means "sound", "voice" or "speech") over writing. Speech is immediate and authentic, always in the presence of the speaker; writing is delayed and mediated, and therefore inferior.

    In this video you'll learn (1) what characterizes the metaphysics that Derrida rejects, and how he talks about his own position and (2) what différance is and isn't.

  • "Is God Outside the Text?"

    In this video you'll learn (1) how the question "is God outside the text?" is a great illustration of the wrong way to bring Derrida and the Bible into conversation, (2) what theologians mean by the "Creator-creature distinction", and why it is fundamental to understanding a biblical view of the world, and (3) how the Creator-creature distinction "diagonalizes" logocentrism and différance.

  • The Trinity and Différance

    In this video you'll learn (1) how the doctrine of the Trinity gives a distinctively Christian response to an age-old philosophical problem, (2) what the big deal is with "equal ultimacy", and why it's crucial for getting to grips with a biblical account of the world, and (3) how the Trinity "diagonalizes" Derrida's options for dealing with the question of the one and the many

Reading Assignment

The following three excerpts are not necessarily easy reading but will help you dig deeper into this section’s video content.

Jacques Derrida – "Différance"

Now this principle of difference, as the condition for signification, affects the totality of the sign, that is the sign as both signified and signifier. The signified is the concept, the ideal meaning; and the signifier is what Saussure calls the “image,” the “psychical imprint” of a material, physical–for example, acoustical–phenomenon. We do not have to go into all the problems posed by these definitions here. Let us cite Saussure only at the point which interests us: “The conceptual side of value is made up solely of relations and differences with respect to the other terms of language, and the same can be said of its material side . . . Everything that has been said up to this point boils down to this: in language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less;. importance than the other signs that surround it.”

The first consequence to be drawn from this is that the signified concept is never present in and of itself, in a sufficient presence that would refer only to itself. Essentially and lawfully, every concept is inscribed in a chain or in a system within which it refers to the other, to other concepts, by means of the systematic play of differences. Such a play, différance, is thus no longer simply a concept, but rather the possibility of conceptuality, of a conceptual process and system in general. For the same reason, différance, which is not a concept, is not simply a word, that is, what is generally represented as the calm, present, and self-refernetial unity of concept and phonic material. Later we will look into the word in general.

The difference of which Saussure speaks is itself, therefore, neither a concept nor a word among others. The same can be said, a fortiori, of différance. And we are thereby led to explicate the relation of one to the other.

In a language, in the system of language, there are only differences. Therefore a taxonomical operation can undertake the systematic, statistical, and classificatory inventory of a language. But, on the one hand, these differences play: in language, in speech too, and in the exchange between language and speech. On the other hand, these differences are themselves effects. They have not fallen from the sky fully formed, and are no more inscribed in a topos noetos, than they are prescribed in the gray matter of the brain. If the word “history” did not in and of itself convey the motif of a final repression of difference, one could say that only differences can be “historical” from the outset and in each of their aspects.

What is written as différance, then, will be the playing movement that “produces”–by means of something that is not simply an activity an activity–these differences, these effects of difference. This does not mean that the différance that produces differences is somehow before them, in a simple and unmodified–in-different–present. Différance is the non-full, non-simple, structured and differentiating origin of differences. Thus, the name “origin” no longer suits it.

Source: Jacques Derrida, “Différance”, trans. Alan Bass, Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 9. Click here to read the full article.

John Frame – The Creator-Creature Distinction

The Lord Is Creator

We have seen that as the Lord, God is absolute, tripersonal, transcendent, and immanent. Taken in biblical senses, these are unique characteristics, both in the sense that God is different from anything else in creation and in the sense that the doctrine of God in Scripture is different from any other worldview or philosophy.

Another way to speak of the Lord’s uniqueness is by invoking the Creator-creature distinction. Creation is a unique act of God, by which, as we will see later, he brings being out of nothing and arranges everything on earth according to his will. In Genesis 1, God calls light to appear out of darkness, when light was still nonexistent (v. 3). He is the God who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). Nobody else can do this. And so in Scripture there is a sharp distinction between Creator and creature, between the One who makes all things and the beings that he makes. Cornelius Van Til believed that the Creator-creature distinction distinguished the Christian worldview from all others. In his classroom, he frequently drew on the board two circles; see fig. 3.3.

The upper circle represented God, the lower circle creation. Often Van Til would put three dots in the upper circle to represent the Trinity and two lines between the two circles to indicate lines of communication. The lines did not, however, represent anything existing between Creator and creature. Everything is either Creator or creature. There is no third realm of being.

Van Til understood this to be a diagram of the Christian worldview. There are two levels of being: God and the world. The two are distinct. God can never become the world, for he can never lose his status as the world’s Creator. The world can never become God, because it can never undo the fact that it is created. And there is no third category.

But what of Jesus, who is both God and man? Even in him, Van Til contended, deity and humanity are not confused. For, as the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) taught, even in Jesus the divine and human natures were not confused or changed into each other. Nor are they separated or divided. In Jesus, divinity and humanity are as intimately close together as they can possibly be. But even in him, the two are distinct.

In the doctrine of creation, therefore, we can see both God’s transcendence and his immanence in the biblical senses noted earlier. He is transcendent to his creation, for he is always distinct from the world. But he is immanent, for there is nothing standing between himself and the world. There is always an intimate connection (which we call divine omnipresence), but never a confusion between the two. One never changes into the other.

Van Til believed that all non-Christian thought could be summarized in a one-circle diagram; see fig. 3.4.

That is, in non-Christian thought, God and the world are on the same level, made of the same stuff, meaning, of course, that there is no God at all in the biblical sense. Essentially, they are the same reality, viewed from different perspectives. This diagram is obviously useful for illustrating pantheistic thought. But deism, too, restricts God’s sovereign power over the world and excludes him from the course of history. All non-Christian thought gives autonomy to creatures in some measure. It denies that an absolute, tripersonal God has the authority to govern human thought and life.

The two-circle diagram is a way to illustrate the biblical and unbiblical doctrines of transcendence and immanence that we considered earlier. That the two circles are distinct and irreducible indicates God’s transcendence. That there is no third category means that there is nothing separating the creation from God, so that he is necessarily present to everything and everyone that he has made. The one-circle diagram indicates the unbiblical doctrines of transcendence and immanence. Here, immanence can mean only identity, and transcendence can mean only something unintelligible, a being beyond being itself.


To summarize: We have seen that the biblical worldview is radically different from all other worldviews, whether religious or secular. The Bible teaches (1) that this world is created and governed by an absolute person, in fact an absolute tripersonality; (2) that this God is both transcendent and immanent in his relationship to the world—his transcendence is his covenant control and authority, and his immanence is his covenant presence; (3) that divine revelation provides and limits human access to the knowledge of God and his world; and (4) that Creator and creature are radically distinct from one another, but that the Creator is always close to his creation.

Source: John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 48–50.

John Frame – The Trinity and Equal Ultimacy

Philosophical Analogies

Philosophers, too, have found it hard to resist threefold formulations. Georg Hegel and other idealist philosophers are famous for their triadic understanding of reality as dialectical—self-negating and consummating: (1) an idea or state of affairs (2) negates itself, then (3) reintegrates with its negation, bringing the process to a higher level. When I have an idea, for example, I often upon reflection find truth in its negation. But when I find a way to combine the truth of the original idea with the truth of the negation, I see more of the truth than I saw before. Hegel believed that both human thought and human history followed this pattern. In history, one social order succumbs to another, but civilization rises to a higher level when a culture incorporates value from both the original order and its negation. Hegel saw this process as the true meaning of the reality for which the Trinity is a symbol.

Hegel’s understanding is far from that of Scripture. What Scripture presents as a triune God, Hegel presents as a structure of multiple triads in reality in general. I also resist Hegel’s notion that the Son negates the Father (though it can at least be said that the Son is not the Father), to be rejoined by the consummating Spirit. In the biblical view, all three persons contrast with one another, and all three are united by a common nature, including a mutual love.

Cornelius Van Til regarded all the world as a vestigium trinitatis, in its remarkable diversity-in-unity, which has baffled philosophers through the years. Realists have thought that the reality of the world is its oneness, for we know the world by bringing things together under concepts. The concepts are what is rational, not the particular things. On the other hand, nominalists have thought that what is real are particular things (sometimes even little particles of things), and that concepts are mental constructions. Realists reduce particulars to universal concepts; nominalists do the reverse. But in fact, it is impossible to think of particular things apart from universal qualities, or to justify assertions about universals without reference to particulars.

So unbelieving philosophers will always fail in their attempt to gain an exhaustive knowledge of the world by reducing it to some dimension that they think their reason can handle. The universe is irreducibly one-and-many. The one cannot be understood without reference to the many, or vice versa. The universe is one-and-many because God is also one-and-many. He has made the world in his triune image. So the doctrine of the Trinity serves as a rebuke to would-be autonomous epistemology.

Vern S. Poythress carries this argument still further. He finds a Trinitarian analogy in the triad of physical science—particle, wave, and field—applied to linguistics by Kenneth Pike’s concepts of feature mode, manifestation mode, and distribution mode. Poythress adopts the terminology of contrast, variation, and distribution: to find meaning, we seek to find how a linguistic unit is distinctive, differing from others (contrast), how it may vary in sound and form while remaining the same word (variation), and the contexts in which it functions (distribution). (In my terms, these are normative, existential, and situational, respectively.)

More recently, Poythress has written “Reforming Ontology and Logic in the Light of the Trinity: An Application of Van Til’s Idea of Analogy.” Here he ascribes to the persons of the Trinity three aspects: the instantiational, the associational, and the classificational, which he explains as follows:

Each Person of the Godhead is particular. Let us call this particularity the instantiational aspect. Each Person is an instantiation of God. Second, God exists in fellowship and communion. The Persons of the Godhead exist in association with other Persons, in context of fellowship with other Persons. We may call this aspect the associational aspect. Third, the Persons of the Godhead are all God. They are classified using the category “God.” We may call this aspect the classificational aspect.

The classificational aspect expresses the fact that the three Persons share common attributes and are all God. Thus it is closely related to the unity of the three Persons in one God. The instantiational aspect expresses the particularity of each Person, and in this way is closely related to the plurality of Persons in the Godhead. But of course each Person is one Person, with unity. And this God is three Persons, with diversity. Unity and diversity are “equally ultimate” as Van Til reminds us.

The classificational aspect reflects the character of God the Father, who is the same through all the dynamicity of God’s historical actions. The instantiational aspect reflects the character of God the Son, who became flesh for us. The associational aspect of mutual fellowship and indwelling reflects the character of God the Holy Spirit, who indwells us.

He stresses, however, that the three persons coinhere, each existing in and with the others, so none of these aspects is limited to any one person.

Since creation reflects the Trinity, human language, thought, communication, and logic also have these aspects. Poythress reiterates Van Til’s critique of realism and nominalism by showing that realism (both Platonic and Aristotelian) exalts the classificational aspect above the others, trying to find “pure categories” untainted by particular instantiations and contextual associations. Empiricism absolutizes the instantiational, subjectivism the associational. These reductionisms are plausible because the aspects coinhere: each encompasses the other two. But in fact, there are no pure universals, pure particulars, or pure relationships. Trying to reduce knowledge to one aspect is idolatrous. It is trying to find an absolute starting point in creation rather than in God’s triune existence.

Poythress analyzes communication similarly, into expressive, informational, and productive aspects, a triad that intersects the former one so that we can ask, for example, “how the classificational aspect displays the expressive, informational, and productive purposes of God.” Nevertheless, this triad also corresponds to the persons of the Trinity:

In sum, we may say that the eternal Word is the archetypal speech of God. This archetypal speech enjoys three aspects: in its expressive aspect, it is the speech of God the Father; in its informational aspect, its specific content is God the Son; in its productive aspect, it is “searched” and carried into effect in God the Holy Spirit. By analogy, God’s speech to us displays these three aspects. It is expressive of who God is, and in it we meet God himself; it is informational and contains specific statements and commands; it is productive in us in blessing and curse—in sanctification, or in punishment, or in judgment. These three aspects are coinherent and presuppose one another, as we would expect. Each is a perspective on the whole. Together they form a perspectival triad analogically related to the Trinitarian character of God.

Now, logical syllogisms are usually said to depend for their validity on the univocal use of terms: a term must have the same sense in premises and conclusion. For practical purposes, many logical syllogisms have sufficient continuity of meaning to generate valid conclusions. But, says Poythress, there is no such thing as a univocal term. All terms are analogical. That is to say that, as in the Trinity, there is no pure instantiation apart from association and classification. Say that someone were to propose the syllogism:

  1. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. (John 5:19)
  2. The Father begets the Son.
  3. Conclusion: The Son begets the Son.

The syllogism would appear to follow the rules of logic, but the instantiation of premise 2 as a particular case of premise 1 is not appropriate. Such instantiation must take account of the distinctive nature of the associations and classifications within the persons of the Trinity. Similarly, instantiation in logical reasoning about earthly matters cannot involve merely mechanical substitutions of concepts, but must take into account the distinctive nature of those concepts and their association with other realities in the world. Logic requires the activity of a person, relating his premises and conclusions to his entire range of experience and knowledge. Those who claim that there are logical contradictions in Scripture (including the doctrine of the Trinity itself), Poythress argues, fail to understand the terms they use in proper scriptural senses, determined by all the biblical data.92 Biblical use of logic is “conditioned by redemptive history.” All of this suggests a conclusion bearing on all reasoning: In a Trinitarian universe, only God himself, by his revelation, can give us the stability of meaning by which we reason logically.

Poythress also discusses logical circularity, alternative views of logic, the use of logic in apologetics, and implications for linguistics and other sciences. His proposal is a powerful one, with implications for all of human life.

Source: John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 508–11.

Further Study

For your further study and meditation, Bible passages particularly relevant to the concerns of this section’s material are:

  • Genesis 1 and John 1:1-14 (in relation to the Creator-creature distinction)
  • John 17 (in relation to the Trinity)
  • The Cambridge Introduction to Jacques DerridaLeslie Hill

    One of the best one-volume introductions to Derrida. A deeply researched and well written book that focuses on Derrida’s engagement with literature. Hill explains Derrida’s thought precisely and carefully.

    One of the best one-volume introductions to Derrida. A deeply researched and well written book that focuses on Derrida’s engagement with literature. Hill explains Derrida’s thought precisely and carefully.

  • Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian BeliefJohn M. Frame

    See particularly part 1, chapter 3: God's lordship as a unique worldview. This is an accessible introduction to three postmodern thinkers and a reflection on how their thought might inform church practice.

    See particularly part 1, chapter 3: God's lordship as a unique worldview. This is an accessible introduction to three postmodern thinkers and a reflection on how their thought might inform church practice.

  • Jacques DerridaChristopher Watkin

    An expanded version of the material from which these sessions on Derrida have been taken.

    An expanded version of the material from which these sessions on Derrida have been taken.

  • Who's Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to ChurchJames K. A. Smith

Derrida: Ethics

We are going to think about what ethics can look like after the death of God. We will see that Derrida does have an ethics (despite what some people say), and we will see what it means for his understanding of rule-following and the difference between law and justice. This week we introduce the fundamental biblical principle of “absolute personality theism” and explain how it contests the ethical options that Derrida offers us. We also look at how Colossians 1 compares to Derrida’s famous phrase “every other is wholly other.”

As in the last section, there are five videos, three on Derrida and two on bringing his thought into conversation with the Bible. And as in the last section, if you are super-busy then go for videos 2 and 4 first: that will give you one of the two important principles of Derrida’s ethics, and one of the two key elements of the Bible to bring into contact with it.

  • An Introduction to Derridean Ethics

    In this video you'll learn (1) why calling Derrida a "relativist" is almost exactly the opposite of what he really says and (2) why it's always a bad idea to exchange your grandmother for money.

  • "Every Other is Wholly Other"

    In this video you'll learn (1) what Derrida means by the famous phrase "tout autre est tout autre" ("every other is wholly other"), (2) what Derrida and the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard think about Genesis 22, and (3) why ethics puts two demands on you that you have to choose between.

  • Law and Justice

    In this video you'll learn (1) what the difference is between law and justice for Derrida, (2) why following the rules isn't the same as being ethical, and (3) why it might be OK after all to think of your grandmother in terms of money.

  • Is "Every Other Wholly Other" for the Bible?

    In this video you'll learn (1) how the Bible offers a way to respect uniqueness while also providing a common measure between people, and (2) how Christ is at the centre of a Biblical understanding of unity and diversity.

  • Absolute Personality Theism, Law and Justice

    In this video you'll learn (1) how the Biblical truth that theologians call "absolute personality theism" challenges the Derridean distinction between law and justice at its root and (2) why one of the most important parts of the ten commandments isn't actually in the ten commandments themselves.

Reading Assignment
Jacques Derrida – Force of Law

Law is not justice. Law is the element of calculation, and it is just that there be law, but justice is incalculable, it demands that one calculate with the incalculable; and aporetic experiences are the experiences, as improbable as they are necessary, of justice, that is to say of moments in which the decision between just and unjust is never insured by a rule.

And so I must address myself to you and “address” problems; I must do it briefly and in a foreign  language. To do it briefly, I ought to do it as directly as possible, going straight ahead, without detour, without historical alibi, without oblique proceeding [démarche oblique], on the one hand toward you, supposedly the primary addressees of this discourse, but at the same time and on the other hand toward the essential place of decision for said problems. Address, like direction, like rectitude, says something about law [droit] and about what one must not miss when one wants justice, when one wants to be just—it is the rectitude of address. ll ne faut pas manquer d’adresse, one must not lack address or skill, one might say in French, but, above all, il ne faut pas manquer l’adresse, one must not miss the address, one must not mistake the address. But the address always turns out to be singular. An address always singular, idiomatic, and justice, as law, seems always to suppose the generality of a rule, a norm or a universal imperative. How to reconcile the act of justice that must always concern singularity, individuals, groups, irreplaceable existences, the other or myself as other, in a unique situation, with rule, norm, value, or the imperative of justice that necessarily have a general form, even if this generality prescribes a singular application in each case? If I were content to apply a just rule, without a spirit of justice and without in some way and each time inventing the rule and the example, I might be sheltered from criticism, under the protection of law, my action conforming to objective law, but I would not be just. I would act, Kant would say, in conformity with duty but not through duty or out of respect for the law [loi]. Is it ever possible to say that an action is not only legal, but just? A person is not only within his rights [dans son droit] but within justice? That such a person is just, a decision is just? Is it ever possible to say, “I know that I am just”? I would want to show that such confidence is essentially impossible, other than in the figure of good conscience and mystification. But allow me yet another detour.

To address oneself to the other in the language of the other is both the condition of all possible justice, it seems, but, in all rigor, it appears not only impossible (since I cannot speak the language of the other except to the extent that I appropriate it and assimilate it according to the law [loi] of an implicit third) but even excluded by justice as law, inasmuch as justice as law seems to imply an element of universality, the appeal to a third party who suspends the unilaterality or singularity of the idioms.

When I address myself to someone in English, it is always a test and ordeal for me and for my addressee, for you as well, I imagine. Rather than explain to you why and lose time in doing so, I begin in medias res, with several remarks that for me tie the anguishing gravity of this problem of language to the question of justice, of the possibility of justice.

On the one hand, for fundamental reasons, it seems to us just to rendre la justice, as one says in French, in a ‘given idiom‘, in a language in which all the “subjects” concerned are supposed competent, that is to say, capable of understanding and interpreting; all the “subjects,” so to say, are

those who establish the laws [lois], those who judge those who are judged, witnesses in both the broad and narrow sense—all those who are guarantors of the exercise of justice, or rather of law. It is unjust to judge someone who does not understand his rights, nor the language in which the law [loi] is inscribed or the judgment pronounced, and so on. We could give multiple dramatic examples of situations of violence in which a person or group of persons assumed to fall under the law [loi] are judged in an idiom they do not understand, not very well or not at all. And however slight or subtle the difference of competence in the mastery of the idiom would be here, the violence of an injustice has begun when all the members [partenaires] of a community do not share, through and through, the same idiom. Since, in all rigor, this ideal situation is never possible, one can already draw some inferences about what the title of our conference calls “the possibility of justice.” The violence of this injustice that consists of judging those who do not understand the idiom in which one claims, as one says in French, that “justice est faite [justice is done, made]” is not just any violence, any injustice. This injustice, which supposes all the others, supposes that the other, the victim of the injustice of language, if one may say so, is capable of a language in general, is man as a speaking animal, in the sense that we, men, give to this word “language.” Moreover, there was a time, not long ago and not yet over, in which “we, men” meant “we adult white male Europeans, carnivorous and capable of sacrifice.”

Source: Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law” in Gil Anidjar (ed.), Acts of Religion (London: Routledge, 2002), 244–46.

John Frame – God is an Absolute Personality

The biblical God is the supreme being of the universe—eternal, unchangeable, infinite. He is self-existent, self-authenticating, and self-justifying. He depends on no other reality for his existence, or to meet his needs. In these senses he is absolute. But he is not only absolute. He is also personal, an absolute personality.

Further, the biblical God is not only personal, but tripersonal. His self-love, for example, in Scripture is not based on the model of a narcissist, an individual admiring himself (though God would not be wrong to love himself in that way). Rather, his self-love is fully interpersonal: the Father loving the Son, the Son loving the Father, and the love of both embracing the Holy Spirit and his own love for them. God is for us the supreme model not only of personal virtues, but of interpersonal ones as well.

Other religions and philosophies honor absolute beings, such as the Hindu Brahman, the Greek Fate, Aristotle’s Prime Mover, Hegel’s Absolute. But none of these beings are personal. They do not know or love us, make decisions, make plans for history. Significantly in our present context, they do not speak to us.

Other religions and philosophies do honor personal gods, as with the polytheisms of Canaan, Greece, Egypt, Babylon, India, and modern paganism. Yet none of these personal gods are absolute. Only in biblical religion is the supreme being an absolute personality. Only in biblical religion does the supreme being speak. And only in biblical religion is the speaking God absolute, a being who, significantly, needs nobody or nothing outside himself to validate his speech.

Consider the immense significance of the fact that the Creator of heaven and earth, who sovereignly governs all the affairs of the universe, actually knows, befriends, even loves human beings—and that he speaks to us.

There are, of course, other religions that approach the biblical idea of an absolute personal God. These include Islam, Judaism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormonism. These present themselves as believing that the supreme being is an absolute person. I believe this claim is inconsistent with other things in these religions. Certainly, none of these religions embraces the absolute tripersonality of biblical theism. But my present point is that even in these religions the claim to believe in an absolute personal God arises from the Bible. For all these religions are deeply influenced by the Bible, though they have departed from it in many ways.

Source: John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 8–9.

Cornelius Van Til – The God-Concept and Man-Concept of Christian Ethics

The God-Concept of Christian Ethics

As God is absolute rationality so God is also absolute will. By this we mean primarily that God did not have to become good, but has from everlasting to everlasting been good. In God there is no problem of activity and passivity. In God there is eternal accomplishment. God is finally and ultimately self-determinative. God is finally and absolutely necessary and therefore absolutely free.

It should be especially noted that Christians put forth this concept of God, not as something that may possibly be true, and may also possibly be untrue. From the non-theistic point of view our God will have to appear as the dumping ground of all difficulties. For the moment we waive this objection, in order to call attention to the fact that all the differences between the Christian and the non-Christian point of view, in the field of ethics, must be ultimately traced to their different God-concepts. Christians hold that the conception of God is the necessary presupposition of all human activity. Non-Christian thought holds that the Christian conception of God is the death of all ethical activity. All non-Christian ethics takes for granted that such a God as Christians believe in does not exist. Non-Christian thought takes for granted that the will of God, as well as the will of man, has an environment. Non-Christian ethics assumes an ultimate activism. For it, God has to become good. Character is an achievement for God as well as for man. God is thought of as determined as well as determinative.

Non-theism starts with the assumption of an ultimately indeterminate Reality. For it, all determinate existence, all personality, is therefore derivative.

Idealists may object that in the eternally Good of Plato, and in the modern idea of the Absolute, there is no mention made of achievement. In those concepts, it will be said, you have absolutely self-determinative experience. In answer to this we only point out that the God of Plato was not really ultimate. The Good rather than God was Plato’s most ultimate concept. His God, to the extent that he was personal, was metaphorical and, in any case, dependent upon an environment more ultimate than himself. The element of Chance is absolutely ultimate in the philosophy of Plato. And it is this ultimacy of Chance that either makes the determinate good an achievement, or sets the Good out of relation to its environment, and therewith destroys its value.

Then as to the modern idealist conception of the Absolute, it is to be noted that it is the result of a definite and prolonged effort to find the conception of an absolutely self-determinative Experience. The idealists have been basically convinced, it seems, that unless an absolutely self-determinative Experience can be presupposed, all human experience in general, and ethical experience in particular, would be meaningless. Modern idealism has definitely attempted to set the Good of Plato into a fruitful relation to its environment. Yet it has not overcome the difficulties inherent in Plato’s ethics. It has ended with a determined instead of with a self-determinative God. It has taken for granted that the space-time universe is a part or aspect of ultimate existence. With this assumption it made time as ultimate as eternity, and made God dependent upon whatever might come out of the space-time matrix.

The basic difference, then, that distinguishes Christian from non-Christian ethics is the acceptance, or denial, of the ultimately self-determinative will of God. As Christians we hold that determinate human experience could work to no end, could work in accordance with no plan, and could not even get under way, if it were not for the existence of the absolute will of God as portrayed in Scriptures.

It is on this ground, then, that, from the point of view of the necessity of the ethical life, we hold to the absolute will of God as the presupposition of the will of man. Looked at in this way, that which to many seems to be the greatest hindrance to human responsibility, namely, the conception of an absolutely sovereign God, becomes the very foundation of its possibility.

In order to avoid misunderstanding, however, we should distinguish the concept of the absolutely personalist environment in which the Christian believes, from philosophical determinism. It is all too common for men hastily to identify consistent Christianity with philosophical necessitarianism. Yet they are as the poles apart. Philosophical necessitarianism stands for an ultimate impersonalism: consistent Christianity stands for an ultimate personalism. What this implies for the activity of the will of man itself we may now briefly examine.

The Man Concept of Christian Ethics

If man acts self-consciously before the background of an absolutely personal God he acts analogically. On the other hand, if man acts self-consciously before the background of an ultimately impersonal principle, he acts univocally.

To act analogically implies the recognition that one is a creature of God. If man is a creature of God, he must, to think truly and to act truly, think and act analogically. Man is created as an analogue of God. Hence man has been created as a character. God could not create an intellectual and moral blank. It would be a denial of his own ultimately self-determinate Experience to create a blank. Hence, too, the idea of a created character is as defensible as the idea of a self-determinative God. This point is worthy of particular notice. Many Christians in effect deny that man was created a character, but will not go further and deny that God is the eternal character. Now it is plain that if one denies that man was created a character, one will also logically have to deny that God is self-determinative.

One of the most common forms in which the objection to the idea of a created moral character appears on the part of Christians, is in the effort they make to hold man exclusively responsible for the entrance of sin. The argument runs as follows: If the sin of man is in any way connected with the plan of God, it is not man but God who is responsible for its entrance. The assumption of this mode of argumentation is that man, in order to be responsible, must act univocally, that is, against an impersonal background. But we have found that determinate action would be wholly impossible on such a non-theistic basis. On such a basis man could neither sin nor do good. He could do nothing. Christians need to become fundamentally conscious of the fact that man cannot think and cannot act truly unless he thinks and acts analogically. The very presupposition of man’s being able to sin is that from the outset God created him a perfect moral character. And the very possibility of sin implies the plan of God as its background. Man cannot sin in the blue. Does this make God responsible for sin instead of man? On the contrary, this is the only way in which man can be considered responsible. Only an analogical act is a responsible act.

It will be noted, then, that if we are anxious to establish human responsibility, and if in order to establish human responsibility we seek to establish what is ordinarily spoken of as the freedom of the will, we are defeating our own purposes. It is often said that God created free personalities and treated them as such after he had once created them. By this is meant that God realized that when he wished to create free personalities he should have to limit himself in order to make room for their activities. This idea of the self-limitation of God is quite commonly put forth as a solution to the problem of human responsibility. Yet it is plainly a compromise with the anti-theistic motif. In the first place it would be self-contradictory for God to limit himself. It is of his very essence to

be self-determinative. And since he is eternal he cannot be self-determinative at one time and no longer self-determinative at another time. The idea of self-limitation of God sacrifices the self-sufficiency of God. It is the self-sufficiency of God in which our whole hope for any solution to any problem lies. The more you break it down the more you work into the hands of the enemy. And for that reason it is that, so far from establishing freedom for man by reducing this relationship to the plan of God, you are destroying his freedom and therewith the responsibility of man by doing so.

True freedom for man consists in self-conscious, analogical activity. If man freely recognizes the fact that back of his created character lies the eternal character and plan of God, if man freely recognizes that his every moral act presupposes back of it this same unlimited God, he will be free indeed. On the other hand, if man tries to “liberate” himself from the background of the absolute plan of God, he has to start his moral activity in a perfect blank, he has to continue to act as a moral blank and he has to act in the direction of a moral blank.

It is only if one holds unequivocally to the theistic motif that one can justify the ethics of the substitutionary atonement. If God can and must create character, Christ can and must, once sin has entered into the world and man is to be saved, recreate character. If man can be held responsible for the evil deeds of a God-given character, man can also be accounted ethically perfect through the righteousness of Christ. On the other hand, if character had to be an accomplishment on the part of man in the first place, the re-creation of character has to be an accomplishment on the part of man also. If Adam could not be accounted guilty because he acted with a given character, and against an absolutely personal background, then the Christian cannot be accounted guiltless because salvation is a gift of God and faith itself a work of the Spirit within us. If we insist on univocal action at one place we must, to be consistent, insist on univocal action at every other place.

Source: Cornelius Van Til, Christian Theistic Ethics (P&R: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1980), 29–32.

Further Study

For your further study and meditation, Bible passages particularly relevant to the concerns of this section’s material are:

  • Colossians 1:15-23 (in relation to the “common measure” of every person and object in the universe)
  • John 17 (in relation to the Trinity)
  • Derrida and the PoliticalRichard Beardsworth

    A sinuous, concise and very helpful introduction to Derrida’s political thought. Not the easiest read, but very insightful.

    A sinuous, concise and very helpful introduction to Derrida’s political thought. Not the easiest read, but very insightful.

  • The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and LevinasSimon Critchley

    A seminal book in making the argument that deconstruction has an ethics and a politics. Still one of the finest and most sensitive readings of Derrida’s ethics, particularly in relation to the influential thought of Emmanuel Levinas.

    A seminal book in making the argument that deconstruction has an ethics and a politics. Still one of the finest and most sensitive readings of Derrida’s ethics, particularly in relation to the influential thought of Emmanuel Levinas.

  • The Defense of the FaithCornelius Van Til

    See particularly chapter 1: The Doctrine of God.

    See particularly chapter 1: The Doctrine of God.

  • Thinking through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural CritiqueChristopher Watkin

    This work expands on a number of the points raised in this and other sections of the course: the creator/creature distinction, absolute personality theism, the Trinity, and more.

    This work expands on a number of the points raised in this and other sections of the course: the creator/creature distinction, absolute personality theism, the Trinity, and more.

Derrida: Theology

In this final section on Derrida we turn our attention to his treatment of explicitly theological themes (though, as I have been arguing in the two previous sections, all of his thought has theological implications). We will consider why the question “is Derrida an atheist?” is both easy and hard to answer. We will look at the way in which his thought re-works the motif of the messianic coming. We will bring Derrida’s theological thought into conversation with biblical notions of predestination and, once more, absolute personality theism. Then we can have a party, because we will have finished the Derrida part of this course!

There are four videos in this section, two on Derrida’s theology in its own terms, and two bringing it into conversation with the Bible. Tip for super-busy people: you can get by with just videos 2 and 4 if you only want to learn what Derrida means by “messianicity without messianism”, and how to bring that into conversation with the Bible.

  • Is Derrida an Atheist?

    In this video you'll learn (1) why, for Derrida, atheism and theism have more in common than divides them, (2) what the key term "ontotheology" means, and why Derrida rejects it, and (3) why you should never ask Derrida a question if you are in a hurry and need a quick answer.

  • Messianicity without Messianism and the Democracy to Come

    In this video you'll learn (1) what the "without" means in Derrida's "messianicity without messianism", and how the notion is similar to and different from biblical and Marxian messianisms, (2) one of the signature moves of modern and contemporary European thought when it comes to its understanding of Christianity, and (3) why democracy is always "to come", and why Derrida thinks that's a good thing.

  • Absolute Personality Theism and Ontotheology

    In this video you'll learn (1) in what ways the God that Derrida rejects is different to the God of the Bible, (2) how the biblical God diagonalizes the possibilities that Derrida offers, and (3) the importance of Calvin's notion of "accommodation" for establishing a conversation between postmodern philosophy and the Bible.

  • Predestination and Messianicity without Messianism

    In this video you'll learn (1) how biblical predestination diagonalizes Derrida's own position and the position he rejects, (2) how Derrida's commitment to a non-scripted future can turn against itself and act as a limit or closure in his thought, and (3) the (perhaps surprising) way in which, far from invalidating free will, predestination is the only context in which free will can be meaningful.

Reading Assignment

The first reading is a brief extract of Derrida’s reply to a question put to him by theologian John Caputo, asking him to enlarge upon his previous comment that “I rightly pass for an atheist”.

The second reading is the aforementioned passage in which Cornelius Van Til argues for an account of God’s sovereignty as the precondition for human responsibility.

Jacques Derrida – I Rightly Pass for an Athiest

John D. Caputo: Why do you say that you “rightly pass” (je passe à juste titre) for an atheist (“Circonfession,” 146, 155) instead of simply stating that “I am” (je suis) an atheist? Is this because you have some doubts about whether you really are an atheist? Or because you have some doubts about the distinction between atheism and belief in God? One might be tempted to construe this expression as follows: “I am to all appearances an atheist, but appearances can be deceiving, so don’t be too sure; perhaps I am not.”

Jacques Derrida: I am not simply the one who says “I.” Also, I think we may have some doubts about the distinction between atheism and belief in God. If belief in God is not also a culture of atheism, if it does not go through a number of atheistic steps, one does not believe in God. There must be a critique of idolatry, of all sorts of images in prayer, especially prayer, there must be a critique of onto-theology—the reappropriation of God in metaphysics—which, as Heidegger says, doesn’t know any­thing about prayer or sacrifice. True believers know they run the risk of being radical atheists. Even Lévinas says that in certain ways he is an atheist, because he doesn’t understand God. He doesn’t interpret God as an existing being. God is not an absolute being. Negative theology, prophetic philosophical criticism, deconstruction: if you don’t go through these in the direction of atheism, the belief in God is naïve, totally inauthentic. In order to be authentic—this is a word I almost never use—the belief in God must be exposed to absolute doubt. I know that the great mystics experience this. They experience the death of God, the disappearance of God, the nonexistence of God, or God as being that is called NonExistence: “I pray to someone who doesn’t exist in the strict, metaphysical meaning of existence, that is, to the present as an essence or a substance.”

Think of the epekeina tes ousias of Plato, or of Heidegger’s being beyond beings. If I believe in what is beyond being, then I believe as an atheist, in a certain way. However paradoxical it may sound, believing implies some atheism; and I am sure that true believers know this better than others, that they experience atheism all the time. It is a part of their belief. It is in the epoché, in the suspension of belief, the suspension of the position of God as a thesis, that faith appears. The only possibility of faith is in the epoché. When I say je passe à juste titre, I rightly pass for an atheist; [ know that I’ve given a number of signs of my being a nonbeliever in God in a certain way, of being an atheist. Nevertheless, although I confirm that it is right to say that I am an atheist, I can’t say, myself, “I am an atheist.” It’s not a position. I cannot say, “I know what I am: I am this and nothing else.” I wouldn’t say, “I am an atheist” and I wouldn’t say, “I am a believer” either. 1 find the statement absolutely ridiculous. Who can say, “[ am a believer?” Who knows that? Who can affirm and confirm that he or she is a believer? And who can say, “I am an atheist?”

Kevin Hart: In some of your first writings you argued that the notion of God has been leagued with presence, whether understood epistemologi­cally, ontically, or ontologically. You also pointed out that this metaphysics of presence is not in itself theological and thereby hinted that one could think God outside the metaphysics of presence. Over the years it has struck me that, even though you indicate that the Christian God has been co­opted by the metaphysics of presence, you have always responded to more or less overt philosophical framings of the Christian God. Whether for lack of expertise, religious commitment, time, or interest, you have not attended to theological understandings of the Christian God. And yet it is here that one could perhaps find the most interesting resources for think­ing of God both deconstructively and in a Christian manner. Now thinking God in a Christian manner is my concern, not yours; all the same, I would be interested in your response to the following question: Is difference not at work in the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Christ? To be sure, the unity of God is upheld in all orthodox theologies, but at the same time the triune nature of that unity is also affirmed. Theologies of the Trinity will figure the threefold nature of the deity in their own ways, but there will always be a difference to be examined: a perichoresis of the three personae. Similarly, the central christological claim that Jesus is fully human and fully divine does not erase difference. The two natures are neither fused nor dialectically related. Are there coercive reasons for regarding these differences as metaphysical, in your sense of the word? Or would it be possible for a Christian theologian to work out those doctrines both theologically and deconstructively?

Jacques Derrida: Obviously, if there is an answer to this question, it must be yours! [Laughter] As you say, “thinking God in a Christian manner is my concern, not yours.” If you are sure of that, then you can tell me how to do it.

Source: Yvonne Sherwood, Kevin Hart (eds.), Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York: Routledge, 2005), 46–7.

Cornelius Van Til – Ethics and the Christian Philosophy of Reality

As God is absolute rationality so God is also absolute will. By this we mean primarily that God did not have to become good, but has from everlasting to everlasting been good. In God there is no problem of activ­ity and passivity. In God there is eternal accomplishment. God is finally and ultimately self-determinative. God is finally and absolutely necessary and therefore absolutely free.

It should be especially noted that Christians put forth this concept of God, not as something that may possibly be true and may also possibly be untrue. From the nontheistic point of view our God will have to appear as the dumping ground of all difficulties. For the moment we waive this objection in order to call attention to the fact that all the differences between the Christian and the non-Christian point of view, in the field of ethics, must be ultimately traced to their different God-concepts. Chris­tians hold that the conception of God is the necessary presupposition of all human activity. Non-Christian thought holds that the Christian conception of God is the death of all ethical activity. All non-Christian ethics takes for granted that such a God as Christians believe in does not exist. Non-Christian thought takes for granted that the will of God, as well as the will of man, has an environment. Non-Christian ethics assumes an ultimate activism. For it God has to become good. Character is an achievement through a process for God as well as for man. God is thought of as determined as well as determinated and determinative.

Nontheism starts with the assumption of an ultimately indeterminate Reality. For it all determinate existence, all personality, is therefore derivative.

Idealists may object that in the eternally good of Plato, and in the modem idealist idea of the absolute, there is no mention made of achievement. In those concepts, it will be said, you have absolutely self-determinative experience. In answer to this we only point out that the God of Plato was not really ultimate. The good rather than God was Plato’s most ultimate concept. His god, to the extent that he was personal, was metaphorical and, in any case, dependent upon an environment more ultimate than himself. The element of chance is absolutely ultimate in the philosophy of Plato. And it is this ultimacy of chance that either makes the determinate good an achievement or sets the good out of relation to its environment, and therewith destroys its value. Then as to the modern idealist conception of the absolute, it is to be noted that it is the result of a definite and prolonged effort to find the conception of an absolutely self-determinative experience. The idealists have been basically convinced, it seems, that unless an absolutely self­ determinative experience can be presupposed, all human experience in general, and ethical experience in particular, would be meaningless. Modern idealism has definitely attempted to set the good of Plato into a fruitful relation to its environment. Yet it has not overcome the difficul­ties inherent in Plato’s ethics. It has ended with a determined instead of with a self-determinative God. It has taken for granted that the space-time universe is a part or aspect of ultimate existence. With this assumption it made time as ultimate as eternity and made God dependent upon whatever might come out of the space-time matrix.

The basic difference then that distinguishes Christian from non­-Christian ethics is the acceptance, or denial, of the ultimately self determinative will of God. As Christians we hold that determinate human experience could work to no end, could work in accordance with no plan, and could not even get under way, if it were not for the existence of the absolute will of God.

It is on this ground then that we hold to the absolute will of God as the presupposition of the will of man. Looked at in this way, that which to many seems at first glance to be the greatest hindrance to human responsibility, namely the conception of an absolutely sovereign God, becomes the very foundation of its possibility.

In order to avoid misunderstanding, however, we should distinguish the concept of an absolutely personalist environment from philosophical determinism. It is all too common for men hastily to identify consistent Christianity with philosophical necessitarianism. Yet they are as the poles apart. Philosophical necessitarianism stands for an ultimate imperson­alism; consistent Christianity stands for an ultimate personalism. What this implies for the activity of the will of man itself we may now briefly examine.

Source: Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (P&R: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2008), 83–5.

Further Study

For your further study and meditation, Bible passages particularly relevant to the concerns of this week’s material are:

  • Ephesians 1:1–14 and 2:1–10 (for the harmony of divine sovereignty and human responsibility)
  • Acts 17:16–34 (on the involvement of God with his creation, as a contrast to the God of ontotheology).
  • Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida and Marion on Modern IdolatryBruce Ellis Benson

    A good example of an evangelical use of Derrida’s thought to illuminate the subtleties of contemporary ideology. Broadly sympathetic to deconstruction but raises reservations.

    A good example of an evangelical use of Derrida’s thought to illuminate the subtleties of contemporary ideology. Broadly sympathetic to deconstruction but raises reservations.

  • The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without ReligionJohn D. Caputo

    One of the best examples of a theological reading of Derrida’s work from a point of view very sympathetic to his thought.

    One of the best examples of a theological reading of Derrida’s work from a point of view very sympathetic to his thought.

  • Derrida and Theology Steven Shakespeare

    To my mind the best general or “impartial” introduction to Derrida’s engagement with theological motifs. Includes a helpful chapter summarizing readers of Derrida’s theology both positive and negative, including their critiques of his thought.

    To my mind the best general or “impartial” introduction to Derrida’s engagement with theological motifs. Includes a helpful chapter summarizing readers of Derrida’s theology both positive and negative, including their critiques of his thought.

Foucault: History and Truth

In this section, we turn our attention to Michel Foucault. He is often bundled together with Derrida and others under the label “postmodernism”, but as we shall begin to see in this section, his thought is very different from Derrida’s. We will explore together what it is about Foucault’s histories that makes them distinctive. We will get a grip on some of the key terms in Foucault’s early, “archaeological” period. And we will begin to explore a biblical understanding of history, bringing it into conversation with Foucault’s historiography.

There are five videos in this section, three on Foucault’s approach to history and two bringing it into conversation with the Bible. Tip for super-busy people: you can scrape through with just videos 1 and 4 if you only want to learn how Foucault thinks of historical continuity and how the Bible partially agrees with him.

  • Foucault the Historian

    In this video you'll learn (1) Foucault's signature move in all his histories, (2) what is distinctive about Foucault's approach to history, and (3) how to get a free cup of coffee out of me.

  • Archaeology and Epistemes

    In this video you'll learn (1) the meaning of two of the most important key terms for understanding Foucault's history, (2) what Foucault means when he says that truth is produced, and (3) how Foucault divides up the history of the West since the end of the medieval period.

  • Madness and Civilization

    In this video you'll learn (1) how Foucault approaches a particular historical phenomenon: madness, and (2) why freeing the mad from their chains was in fact an exchange of one incarceration for another.

  • The Great Reversal

    In this video you'll learn (1) a key motif that structures the biblical storyline and contributes to a biblical philosophy of history, (2) how this motif diagonalizes Foucault's rejection of Hegelian history and his own Nietzschean approach, and (3) how Philippians 2 is "v-shaped."

  • Rupture of What?

    In this video you'll learn: (1) how to bring the biblical great reversal into conversation with a Foucauldian approach to history, (2) the difference between "secular time" and "higher time" in Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, and (3) how, in some ways, Philippians 2 accomplishes what Foucault wants his history to achieve better than that history itself.

Reading Assignment

The first extract takes further the sketch of Madness and Civilization in the video above. Foucault sees Freudian psychoanalysis as an extension of disciplinary, normalizing power.

As mentioned in the video “Rupture of What?”, the second reading is from one of the main passages from A Secular Age in which Taylor discusses the differences between, and implications of, secular time and higher time.

Michel Foucault – On Freud

This psychiatric practice, mysterious even to those who used it, is very important in the situation of the madman within the medical world. First because medicine of the mind “for the first time in the history of Western science was to assume almost complete autonomy: from the time of the Greeks, it had been no more than a chapter of medicine, and we have seen study madness under the rubric “diseases of the head”; after Pinel and Tuke, psychiatry would become a medicine of a particular style: those most eager to discover the origin of madness in organic causes or in hereditary dispositions would not be able to avoid this style. They would be all the more unable to avoid it in that this particular style—bringing into play increasingly obscure moral powers—would originally be a sort of bad conscience; they would increasingly confine themselves in positivism, the more they felt their practice slipping out of it.

As positivism imposes itself upon medicine and psychiatry, this practice becomes more and more obscure, the psychiatrist’s power more and more miraculous, and the doctor-patient couple sinks deeper into a strange world. In the patient’s eyes, the doctor becomes a thaumaturge; the authority he has borrowed from order, morality, and the family now seems to derive from himself; it is because he is a doctor that he is believed to possess these powers, and while Pinel, with Tuke, strongly asserted that his moral action was not necessarily linked to any scientific competence, it was thought, and by the patient of all, that it was in the esotericism of his knowledge, in some almost daemonic secret of knowledge, that the doctor had found the power to unravel insanity; and increasingly the patient would accept this self-surrender to a doctor both divine and satanic, beyond human measure in any case; increasingly he would alienate himself in the “physician, accepting entirely and in advance all his prestige, submitting from the very first to a will he experienced as magic, and to a science he regarded as prescience and divination, thus becoming the ideal and perfect correlative of those powers he projected upon the doctor, pure object without any resistance except his own inertia, quite ready to become precisely that hysteric in whom Charcot exalted the doctor’s marvellous powers. If we wanted to analyze the profound structures of objectivity in the knowledge and practice of nineteenth-century psychiatry from Pinel to Freud, “we should have to show in fact that such objectivity was from the start a reification of a magical nature, which could only be accomplished with the complicity of the patient himself, and beginning from a transparent and clear moral practice, gradually forgotten as positivism imposed its myths of scientific objectivity; a practice forgotten in its origins and its meaning, but always used and always present. What we call psychiatric practice is a certain moral tactic contemporary with the end of the eighteenth century, preserved in the rites of asylum life, and overlaid by the myths of positivism.

But if the doctor soon became a thaumaturge for the patient, he could not be one in his own positivist doctor’s eyes. That obscure power whose origin he no longer knew, in which he could not decipher the patient’s complicity, and in which he would not consent to acknowledge the ancient powers which constituted it, nevertheless had to be given some status; and since nothing in positivist understanding could justify such a transfer of will or similar remote-control operations, the moment would soon come when madness itself would be held responsible for such anomalies. These cures without basis, which must be recognized as not being false cures, would soon become the true cures of false illnesses. Madness was not what one believed, nor what it believed itself to be; it was infinitely less than itself: a combination of persuasion and mystification. We can see here the genesis of Babinski’s pithiatism. And by a strange reversal, thought leaped back almost two centuries to the era when between madness, false madness, and the simulation of madness, the limit was indistinct—identical symptoms confused to the point where transgression replaced unity; further still, medical thought finally effected an identification over which all Western thought since Greek medicine had hesitated: the identification of madness with madness-that is, of the medical concept with the critical concept of madness. At the end of the nineteenth century, and in the thought of Babinski’s contemporaries, we find that prodigious postulate, which no medicine had yet dared formulate: that madness, after all, was only madness.

Thus while the victim of mental illness is entirely alienated in the real person of his doctor, the doctor dissipates the reality of the mental illness in the critical concept of madness. So that there remains, beyond the empty forms of positivist thought, only a single concrete reality: the doctor-patient couple in which all alienations are summarized, linked, and loosened. And it is to this degree that all nineteenth-century psychiatry really converges on Freud, the first man to accept in all its seriousness the reality of the physician-patient couple, O the first to consent not to look away nor to investigate elsewhere, the first not to attempt to hide it in a psychiatric theory that more or less harmonized with the rest of medical knowledge; the first to follow its consequences with absolute rigor. Freud demystified all the other asylum structures: he abolished silence and observation, he eliminated madness’s recognition of itself in the mirror of its own spectacle, he silenced the instances of condemnation. But on the other hand he exploited the structure that enveloped the medical personage; he amplified its thaumaturgical virtues, preparing for its omnipotence a quasi-divine status. He focussed upon this single presence-concealed behind the patient and above him, in an absence that is also a total presence—all the powers that had been distributed in the collective existence of the asylum; he transformed this into an absolute Observation, a pure and circumspect Silence, a Judge who punishes and rewards in a judgment that does not even condescend to language; he made it the Mirror in which madness, in an almost motionless movement, clings to and casts off itself.

To the doctor, Freud transferred all the structures Pinel and Tuke had set up within confinement. He did deliver the patient from the existence of the asylum within which his “liberators” had alienated him; but he did not deliver him from what was essential in this existence; he regrouped its powers, extended them to the maximum by uniting them in the doctor’s hands; he created the psychoanalytical situation where, by an inspired short-circuit, alienation becomes disalienating because, in the doctor, it becomes a subject. The doctor, as an alienating figure, remains the key to psychoanalysis. It is perhaps because it did not suppress this ultimate structure, and because it referred all the others to it, that psychoanalysis has not been able, will not be able, to hear the voices of unreason, nor to decipher in themselves the signs of the madman. Psychoanalysis can unravel some of the forms of madness; it remains a stranger to the sovereign enterprise of unreason. It can neither liberate nor transcribe, nor most certainly explain, what is essential in this enterprise.

Since the end of the eighteenth century, the life of unreason no longer manifests itself except in the “lightning-flash of works such as those of Hölderlin, of Nerval, of Nietzsche, or of Artaud—forever irreducible to those alienations that can be cured, resisting by their own strength that gigantic moral imprisonment which we are in the habit of calling, doubtless by antiphrasis, the liberation of the insane by Pinel and Tuke.

Source: Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 274-8.

Charles Taylor – On Secular Time and Higher Time

IV. It is obvious that time in this world of reversal and anti-structure can’t be the “homogeneous, empty time” which Benjamin makes central to modernity. The time of carnival, for instance, is kairotic; that is, the time line encounters kairotic knots, moments whose nature and placing calls for reversal, followed by others demanding rededication, and others still which approach Parousia: Shrove Tuesday, Lent, Easter.

Now there are kairotic knots in the stories we tell about ourselves in our time. Revolutions themselves are understood by their heirs and supporters as such kairotic moments. And nationalist historiography is full of such moments. But what has changed is that around which these moments gather. In the pre-modern era, the organizing field for ordinary time came from what I want to call higher times.

The most obvious term to introduce here would be ‘eternity’. And that isn’t wrong, because it is the philosophically and theologically consecrated term for higher time. But I need the more general term, because (a) there was more than one kind of eternity, and (b) these didn’t exhaust the higher times.

What did higher times do? One might say, they gathered, assembled, reordered, punctuated, profane, ordinary time. Let me grasp a nettle and call this latter ‘secular time’. There is a risk here, because I’m already using the word ‘secular’ (and in three senses, already!) for features of our age. If I feel impelled to introduce it in a fourth sense, it’s because this is the original one, that from which my three meanings of chapter one are derived.

“Secular”, as we all know, comes from ‘saeculum’, a century or age. When it begins to be used as one term in an opposition, like secular/regular clergy; or being in the saeculum, as against in religion (that is, some monastic order), the original meaning is being drawn on in a very specific way. People who are in the saeculum, are embedded in ordinary time, they are living the life of ordinary time; as against those who have turned away from this in order to live closer to eternity. The word is thus used for ordinary as against higher time. A parallel distinction is temporal/spiritual. One is concerned with things in ordinary time, the other with the affairs of eternity.

So it is hard to side-line the term when discussing pre-modern time-consciousness. Best to have things straight out, and use it. “Secular” time is what to us is ordinary time, indeed, to us it’s just time, period. One thing happens after another, and when something is past, its past. Time placings are consistently transitive. If A is before B and B before C, then A is before C. The same goes if we quantify these relations: if A is long before B, and B long before C, then A is very’ long before C.

Now higher times gather and re-order secular time. They introduce “warps” and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events which were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked. Benedict Anderson in a penetrating discussion of the some of the same issues I am trying to describe here,’ quotes Auerbach on the relation prefiguring-fulfilling in which events of the old Testament were held to stand to those in the New, for instance the sacrifice of Isaac and the Crucifixion of Christ. These two events were linked through their immediate contiguous places in the divine plan. They are drawn close to identity in eternity, even though they are centuries (that is, “aeons” or “saceula”) apart. In God’s time there is a sort of simultaneity of sacrifice and Crucifixion.

Similarly, Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than mid-summers day 1997. Once events are situated in relation to more than one kind of time, the issue of time-placing becomes quite transformed. Why are higher times higher? The answer is easy for the eternity which Europe inherits from Plato and Greek philosophy. The really real, full being is outside of time, unchanging. Time is a moving image of eternity. It is imperfect, or tends to imperfection.

For Aristotle, this is very true of the sub-lunar. Nothing here can be counted on to be quite totally conformed to its nature. But there were some processes which reflected eternity without flaw: for instance, the stars in their circular courses, without beginning nor end. The general tendency of this thought was to go for a sempiternal universe, that is, one which underwent change, but in which there was neither beginning nor end. True eternity was beyond this; it was fixed and unvarying. This was the realm of Ideas. Below these lay their embodiments in the world, which begin to exhibit imperfections. These become really serious in ordinary, sublunar time, where everything deviates to a certain degree from its Form.

Thus what happens in time is less real than the timeless. A limit is set to this deviancy because the course of time is held in place by higher movements which are closer to eternity (like the rotation of the stars). On some versions, it is also held in place by circular “great years”, huge cycles of time after which everything returns to its original state. This was a common idea borrowed from mythology. Thus for the Stoics, after each such cycle everything returns to its original undifferentiated state in a great conflagration. Without fully abandoning this idea of eternity, Christianity developed a somewhat different one. The Bible sees the universe as made by God. It also tells a story of God’s dealings with humans. This divine-human history is incompatible with the idea that there are ever-repeating cycles. It also means that what happens in time matters. God enters into drama in time. The Incarnation, the Crucifixion happened in time, and so what occurs here can no longer be seen as less than fully real. Out of this emerges another idea of eternity. As long as it is conceived after the fashion of Plato, and after him Plotinus, our way to God lies in our rising out of time. And also God, as impassible, beyond time, can’t really be a player in history. The Christian conception has to be different from this. It evolves slowly, but its best known formulation in Latin Christendom comes from Augustine. With him eternity is reconceived as gathered time.

Unlike his Greek sources, who looked at objective time, the time of processes and movement, Augustine in his famous discussion in Confessions XI examines lived time. His instant is not the “nun” of Aristotle, which is a limit, like a point, an extensionless boundary of time periods. Rather it is the gathering together of past into present to project a future. The past, which “objectively” exists no more, is here in my present; it shapes this moment in which I turn to a future, which “objectively” is not yet, but which is here qua project. In a sense, Augustine may be thought to have foreshadowed the three ekstaseis of Heidegger. This creates a kind of simultaneity between the components of an action; my action knits together my situation as it emerges from my past with the future T project as a response to it. They make sense of each other. They cannot be dissociated, and in this way there is a certain minimum consistency in the now of action, a minimal thickness, below which time cannot be further dissected without disaggregating the coherence of action. This is the kind of coherence we find in a melody or a poem, favourite examples of Augustine. There is a kind of simultaneity of the first note with the last, because all have to sound in the presence of the others in order for the melody to be heard. In this micro-environment, time is crucial because it gives us the order of notes which is constitutive of the melody. But it is not here playing the role of time the destroyer, which has carried my youth off to an inaccessible distance, and closed the door on bygone ages.

There is thus a kind of extended simultaneity of the moment of action or enjoyment, which we see also, for instance, in a conversation which really engages us. Your question, my reply, your rejoinder occur in this sense together, even though like the melody, their ordering in time is of the essence. Now Augustine holds that God can and does make all time such an instant of action. So all times are present to him, and he holds them in his extended simultaneity. His now contains all time. It is a “nunc stans”. So rising to eternity is rising to participate in Gods instant. Augustine sees ordinary time as dispersal, distensio, losing the unity, being cut off from our past and out of touch with our future. We get lost in our little parcel of time. But we have an irrepressible craving for eternity, and so we strive to go beyond this. Unfortunately, this all too often takes the form of our trying to invest our little parcel with eternal significance, and therefore divinising things, and therefore falling deeper into sin.’

The Middle Ages had therefore two models of eternity: what we might call Plato eternity, that of perfect immobility, impassivity, which we aspire to by rising out of time; and God s eternity, which doesn’t abolish time, but gathers it into an instant. This we can only have access to by participating in God s life. To this we have to add a third kind of higher time, which we can call, following Eliade, a “time of origins”. Unlike the two eternities, this was not developed by philosophers and theologians, but belongs to the folk tradition of peoples, and indeed, not only in Europe, but almost everywhere.

The idea is of a Great Time, an “illud tempus”, when the order of things was established, whether that of the creation of the present world, or the founding of our people with its Law. The agents in this time were on a larger scale than people today, perhaps gods, but at least heroes. In terms of secular time, this origin is in a remote past, it is “time out of mind”. But it is not simply in the past, because it is also something that we can re-approach, can get closer to again. This may be by ritual only, but this ritual may also have an effect of renewing and rededicating, hence coming closer to the origin. The Great Time is thus behind us, but it is also in a sense above us. It is what happened at the beginning, but it is also the great Exemplar, which we can be closer to or farther away from as we move through history.

Now some aspects of each of these three kinds of higher time helped form the time-consciousness of our mediaeval predecessors. In each case, as well as the “horizontal” dimension of merely secular time, there is a “vertical” dimension, which can allow for the “warps” and foreshortening of time which I mentioned above. The flow of secular time occurs in a multiplex vertical context, so that everything relates to more than one kind of time.

Thus a late mediaeval kingdom, in which the king has two “bodies”, has to be conceived as existing also in Plato eternity. The body which can never die is not subject to time and change. At the same time, many of these kingdoms saw their Law as laid down since time out of mind, a notion which comes from the framework of a Time of Origins. While also, as part of Christendom, they were related through the Church to God s eternity. Meanwhile the Church, in its liturgical year, remembers and re-enacts what happened in illo tempore when Christ was on earth. Which is why this year’s Good Friday can be closer to the Crucifixion than last year’s mid-summer day. And the

Crucifixion itself, since Christ’s action/passion here participates in God’s eternity, is closer to all times than they in secular terms are to each other. Put in other terms, on this view tracts of secular time were not homogeneous, mutually interchangeable. They were coloured by their placing in relation to higher times. I am evoking the contrast case here, Benjamin’s “homogeneous, empty time”, as the mark of modern consciousness. On this view, time like space has become a container, indifferent to what fills it.

I’m not sure that this take on our contemporary outlook is quite right as it stands. It’s true that the shift from ancient and mediaeval “place” to modern “space” involved a dissociation of segments of space from what happens to be filling them. While a “place” is identified by what’s there, Newtonian space and time were mere containers, within which objects could be moved around (and even non-objects, i.e., vacua, could fit there). But many contemporary understandings of time take it as indissociable from cosmic processes, like entropy. However, this identification of time in cosmic terms makes it an indifferent container of the human and historical events which our species lives out on this planet. In that sense, cosmic time is (for us) homogeneous and empty. But that is far from being true of the earlier, complex time-consciousness. If a tract of time is identified not just by its placing in secular time order, but also by its proximity to higher times, then what happens within it is no longer indifferent to its placing. A time which has fallen away from the eternal paradigms of order will exhibit more disorder. A time-place which is closer to God’s eternity will be more gathered. At the pilgrimage centre on the saints feast day, it is the time itself which is hallowed. When Hamlet says that “the times are out of joint”, we could take this remark literally, and not just as a metonym for “the condition of Danish society which happens to be filling this time-slice is lamentable”. “Out of joint” means that things don’t fit together in the proper fashion, as they do in times which are closer to the ordering paradigms of eternity. Just as we should take Marcellus’ earlier remark literally, that ghosts and goblins don’t dare walk the earth on Christmas Eve, “so hallow’d and so gracious is the time”.

Now homogeneity and emptiness don’t tell the full story of modern time-consciousness. I want to argue later that we have forms of narrativity, gathered around notions of potential and maturation, which make different time-placings significant in a sense. But certainly, in relation to the earlier complex consciousness of higher times, our outlook enshrines homogeneity and indifference to content. We now find it very hard even to understand what Hamlet may have been getting at. That is because, unlike our ancestors, we tend to see our lives exclusively within the horizontal flow of secular time. I don’t mean, once again, that people don’t believe in, say, God’s eternity. Many do. But the imbrication of secular in higher times is no longer for many people today a matter of common, “naïve” experience, something not yet a candidate for belief or disbelief because it is just obviously there; as it was for pilgrims at Compostela or Canterbury in the fourteenth century. (And as it may be today for many at Czestachowa and Guadalupe; our secular age has geographical and social as well as temporal boundaries.)

This is another of the great shifts, along with disenchantment, and the eclipse of anti-structure, which have helped to set the conditions for modern secular society. Obviously modern natural science has had something to do with the change. Seventeenth-century mechanistic science offered a completely different notion of the stable reality behind change. This was no longer eternity; the stable is not something beyond time, nor is it gathered time, but just the law of changes in time. This is like ancient objective time, except now there is no deviancy. The sub-lunar obeys these laws exactly, just as the stars do. The eternity of mathematics is not beyond change, but constantly rules change. It is equidistant from all times. It is not in this sense a “higher” time.

But important as science is to our present outlook, we mustn’t exaggerate its causal role here, and make it the main motor of the transformation. Our encasing in secular time is also something we have brought about in the way we live and order our lives. It has been brought about by the same social and ideological changes which have wrought disenchantment. In particular, the disciplines of our modern civilized order have led us to measure and organize time as never before in human history. Time has become a precious resource, not to be “wasted”. The result has been the creation of a tight, ordered time environment. This has enveloped us, until it comes to seem like nature. We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done. This “time frame” deserves, perhaps more than any other facet of modernity, Weber’s famous description of a “stahlhartes Gehäuse” (iron cage). It occludes all higher times, makes them even hard to conceive. This will be part of my story below.

V. Interwoven with this change in time-consciousness is a transformation in our understanding of the universe in which we live. We might say that we moved from living in a cosmos to being included in a universe. I use ‘cosmos’ for our forebears’ idea of the totality of existence because it contains the sense of ordered whole. It is not that our universe isn’t in its own way ordered, but in the cosmos the order of things was a humanly meaningful one. That is, the principle of order in the cosmos was closely related to, often identical with that which gave shape to our lives. Thus Aristotle’s cosmos has at its apex and centre God, whose ceaseless and unvarying action exemplifies something close to Plato’s eternity. But this action, a kind of thinking, is also at the centre of our lives. Theoretical thought is in us that which is “most divine”. And for Plato, and this whole mode of thought in general, the cosmos exhibits the order which we should exemplify in our own lives, both individually and as societies.

It belongs to this understanding of order that the cosmos was limited and bounded. At least it did for the Greeks, for whom order and limit were inextricably linked; and our civilization was in this sense heir to the Greeks. This kind of cosmos is a hierarchy; it has higher and lower levels of being. And it reaches its apex in eternity; it is indeed, held together by what exists on the level of eternity, the Ideas, or God, or both together—Ideas as the thoughts of the creator. Partly as a result of the scientific revolution, the cosmos idea faded, and we find ourselves in a universe. This has its own kind of order, that exhibited in exceptionless natural laws. But it is no longer a hierarchy of being, and it doesn’t obviously point to eternity as the locus of its principle of cohesion. The universe flows on in secular time. Above all, its principles of order arc not related to human meaning, at any rate not immediately or evidently. Biblical religion, in entering the Graeco-Roman, later Arab, worlds, develops within the cosmos idea. So we come to see ourselves as situated in a defined history, which unfolds within a bounded setting. So the whole sweep of cosmic-divine history can be rendered in the stained glass of a large cathedral. But the universe approaches the limitless, or at any rate its limits are not easily encompassable in time or space. Our planet, our solar system is set in a galaxy, which is one of an as yet uncounted number of galaxies. Our origins go back into the mists of evolutionary time, so that we become unclear as to what could count as the beginning of our human story, many of the features of which are irretrievably lost.

Many of the spectacular battles between belief and unbelief in the last two centuries have turned on the challenge to Biblical religion from the universe idea. But in spite of the headline-grabbing nature of these fights, I doubt whether the relevance of the universe conception for unbelief lies here. The battles only arose because and where Biblical religion was held prisoner to the cosmos idea. Placing the creation of the world on a certain day in 4004 B.C. is a prime example of this kind of thinking. Paradoxically using the modes of exact calculation developed in modernity to entrench oneself in the cosmos bastion. As is the refusal of the very idea of an evolution of species (as against the more implausible aspects of neo-Darwinianism).

There is no bar as such to rethinking Biblical religion within the universe. And some earlier thinkers—Origen, Nicholas of Cusa—already had done something of this kind. Not to speak of Pascal, whose invocation of the eternal silence of infinite spaces places him firmly beyond the range of the cosmos and the music of its spheres. The real relevance of the universe understanding is more subtle and indirect. It lies in the way it has altered the terms of the debate, and reshaped the possibilities both of belief and unbelief, opened up new loci of mystery, as well as offering new ways of denying transcendence. We will see specifically later on how the universe, seen as a great clockwork-like order, whose parts are made to mesh perfectly, can be the basis for a certain kind of doctrine of Providence. But the new understanding of our spatio-temporal setting worked alongside the other changes I have been describing here to generate this new context. Let me move on to the story’ of how this arose.

Source: Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2006), 54–61.

Further Study

For your further study and meditation, Bible passages particularly relevant to the concerns of this week’s material are:

  • Philippians 2:5-11 (the v-shaped, disjunctive account of the incarnation, cross, resurrection and ascension)
  • The Cambridge Introduction to Michel FoucaultLisa Downing

    Perhaps the best short introduction to Foucault. Downing lays stress on the theme of sexuality and has a helpful chapter on the death of man, which I have chosen not to cover in this course.

    Perhaps the best short introduction to Foucault. Downing lays stress on the theme of sexuality and has a helpful chapter on the death of man, which I have chosen not to cover in this course.

  • The Philosophy of FoucaultTodd May

    Another good introduction to Foucault by one of the best regarded names in contemporary European thought. May helpfully organizes his discussion of Foucault around the question "who are we?"

    Another good introduction to Foucault by one of the best regarded names in contemporary European thought. May helpfully organizes his discussion of Foucault around the question "who are we?"

  • Foucault and Theology Jonathan Tran

    The most comprehensive entry-level discussion of theological themes as they relate to Foucault's thought. Tran argues that Foucault can help Christians think about Christian faithfulness.

    The most comprehensive entry-level discussion of theological themes as they relate to Foucault's thought. Tran argues that Foucault can help Christians think about Christian faithfulness.

  • Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to ChurchJames K. A. Smith

    Smith's chapter on Foucault gestures towards his usefulness for Christians in recognizing the importance of patterns of behavior and what Foucault would call discipline. He seeks to rethink Foucauldian discipline in the context of Christian liturgy.

    Smith's chapter on Foucault gestures towards his usefulness for Christians in recognizing the importance of patterns of behavior and what Foucault would call discipline. He seeks to rethink Foucauldian discipline in the context of Christian liturgy.

  • Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles TaylorCollin Hansen

    A robust analysis, evaluation, and response to Charles Taylor's work ten years after its publication. This work may provide perspective on the reading assignment for this section.

    A robust analysis, evaluation, and response to Charles Taylor's work ten years after its publication. This work may provide perspective on the reading assignment for this section.

Foucault: Power and Knowledge

In this section, we turn to Foucault’s middle, genealogical period, in which the motif of power comes to the fore and Foucault’s writing becomes more overtly political. We will follow Foucault as he charts the development of new forms of power in the history of the Western world. We will explore these modalities of power through his important text Discipline and Punish. We will elaborate a contrasting account of power from 1 Corinthians 1. And we will bring this biblical account of power into conversation with Foucault’s writing.

  • What is Power?

    In this video you'll learn (1) why, for Foucault, power is less "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and more "Shawshank Redemption", (2) six key theses summarizing Foucault's understanding of power, and (3) why Foucault didn't like using the term "power" by itself.

  • Discipline and Punish

    In this video you'll learn (1) four models of power that Foucault uses: sovereign power, pastoral power, disciplinary power and biopower, (2) six key theses summarizing Foucault's understanding of power, and (3) how the invention of the rifle contributed to the transformation of the modern world.

  • Cruciform Power

    In this video you'll learn (1) how to build up a distinctively biblical understanding of power, (2) how the v-shaped dynamic of Philippians 2 becomes x-shaped in 1 Corinthians 1, and (3) how the cross introduces a moment of subversion into narratives of power and wisdom.

  • "So That No One May Boast"

    In this video you'll learn (1) how to bring the Foucauldian and biblical accounts of power into dialogue, (2) how Foucault and the Bible share a concern for an attitude that thinks tomorrow will be just like today, and (3) how the responses they offer to that problem differ significantly.

Reading Assignment

In the first reading from Discipline and Punish, Foucault identifies the Panopticon as a paradigmatic manifestation of disciplinary society (in a similar way to how he offers the Ship of Fools as a paradigmatic emblem of the Renaissance view of madness). In this extract he explains what the Panopticon is, how it functions, and how its paradigm shapes the disciplinary society.

The second reading is Carl Trueman’s article on “Luther’s Theology of the Cross.” It is available in full form online.

Michel Foucault – On the Panopticon

Bentham’s Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. We know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows the light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed, then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower and to shut up in each cell a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy. By the effect of backlighting, one can observe from the tower, standing out precisely against the light, the small captive shadows in the cells of the periphery. They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.  The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately. In short, it reverses the principle of the dungeon; or rather of its three functions—to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide—it preserves only the first and eliminates the other two. Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is a trap.

To begin with, this made it possible—as a negative effect—to avoid those compact, swarming, howling masses that were to be found in places of confinement, those painted by Goya or described by Howard. Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication. The arrangement of his room, opposite the central tower, imposes on him an axial visibility; but the divisions of the ring, those separated cells, imply a lateral invisibility. And this invisibility is a guarantee of order. If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes for the future, bad reciprocal influences; if they are patients, there is no danger of contagion; if they are madmen there is no risk of their committing violence upon one another; if they are schoolchildren, there is no copying, no noise, no chatter, no waste of time; if they are workers, there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents. The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities. From the point of view of the guardian, it is replaced by a multiplicity that can be numbered and supervised; from the point of view of the inmates, by a sequestered and observed solitude (Bentham, 60-64).

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only Venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.

It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up. The ceremonies, the rituals, the marks by which the sovereign’s surplus power was manifested are useless. There is a machinery that assures dissymmetry, disequilibrium, difference. Consequently, it does not matter who exercises power. Any individual, taken almost at random, can operate the machine: in the absence of the director, his family, his friends, his visitors, even his servants (Bentham, 45). Similarly, it does not matter what motive animates him: the curiosity of the indiscreet, the malice of a child, the thirst for knowledge of a philosopher who wishes to visit this museum of human nature, or the perversity of those who take pleasure in spying and punishing. The more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are, the greater the risk for the inmate of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed. The Panopticon is a marvellous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power.

A real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation. So it is not necessary to use force to constrain the convict to good behaviour, the madman to calm, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to the observation of the regulations. Bentham was surprised that panoptic institutions could be so light: there were no more bars, no more chains, no more heavy locks; all that was needed was that the separations should be clear and the openings well arranged. The heaviness of the old ‘houses of security’, with their fortress-like architecture, could be replaced by the simple, economic geometry of a ‘house of certainty’. The efficiency of power, its constraining force have, in a sense, passed over to the other side—to the side of its surface of application. He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects: it is a perpetual victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance.

Bentham does not say whether he was inspired, in his project, by Le Vaux’s menagerie at Versailles: the first menagerie in which the different elements are not, as they traditionally were, distributed in a park (Loisel, 104-7). At the centre was an octagonal pavilion which, on the first floor, consisted of only a single room, the king’s salon; on every side large windows looked out onto seven cages (the eighth side was. reserved for the entrance), containing different species of animals. By Bentham’s time, this menagerie had disappeared. But one finds in the programme of the Panopticon a similar concern with individualizing observation, with characterization and classification, with the analytical arrangement of space. The Panopticon is a royal menagerie; the animal is replaced by man, individual distribution by specific grouping and the king by the machinery of a furtive power. With this exception, the Panopticon also does the work of a naturalist. It makes it possible to draw up differences: among patients, to observe the symptoms of each individual, without the proximity of beds, the circulation of miasmas, the effects of contagion confusing the clinical tables; among schoolchildren, it makes it possible to observe performances (without there being any imitation or copying), to map aptitudes, to assess characters, to draw up rigorous classifications and, in relation to normal development, to distinguish ‘laziness and stubbornness’ from ‘incurable imbecility’; among workers, it makes it possible to note the aptitudes of each worker, compare the time he takes to perform a task, and if they are paid by the day, to calculate their wages (Bentham, 60-64).

So much for the question of observation. But the Panopticon was also a laboratory; it could be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter behaviour, to train or correct individuals. To experiment with medicines and monitor their effects. To try out different punishments on prisoners, according to their crimes and character, and to seek the most effective ones. To teach different techniques simultaneously to the workers, to decide which is the best. To try out pedagogical experiments—and in particular to take up once again the well-debated problem of secluded education, by using orphans. One would see what would happen when, in their sixteenth or eighteenth year, they were presented with other boys or girls; one could verify whether, as Helvetius thought, anyone could learn anything; one would follow ‘the genealogy of every observable idea’; one could bring up different children according to different systems of thought, making certain children believe that two and two do not make four or that the moon is a cheese, then put them together when they are twenty or twenty-five years old; one would then have discussions that would be worth a great deal more than the sermons or lectures on which so much money is spent; one would have at least an opportunity of making discoveries in the domain of metaphysics. The Panopticon is a privileged place for experiments on men, and for analysing with complete certainty the transformations that may be obtained from them. The Panopticon may even provide an apparatus for supervising its own mechanisms. In this central tower, the director may spy on all the employees that he has under his orders: nurses, doctors, foremen, teachers, warders; he will be able to judge them continuously, alter their behaviour, impose upon them the methods he thinks best; and it will even be possible to observe the director himself. An inspector arriving unexpectedly at the centre of the Panopticon will be able to judge at a glance, without anything being concealed from him, how the entire establishment is functioning. And, in any case, enclosed as he is in the middle of this architectural mechanism, is not the director’s own fate entirely bound up with it? The incompetent physician who has allowed contagion to spread, the incompetent prison governor or workshop manager will be the first victims of an epidemic or a revolt. “By every tie I could devise”, said the master of the Panopticon, “my own fate had been bound up by me with theirs” (Bentham, 177). The Panopticon functions as a kind of laboratory of power. Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men’s behaviour; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised.

The plague-stricken town, the panoptic establishment—the differences are important. They mark, at a distance of a century and a half, the transformations of the disciplinary programme. In the first case, there is an exceptional situation: against an extraordinary evil, power is mobilized; it makes itself everywhere present and visible; it invents new mechanisms; it separates, it immobilizes, it partitions; it constructs for a time what is both a counter-city and the perfect society; it imposes an ideal functioning, but one that is reduced, in the final analysis, like the evil that it combats, to a simple dualism of life and death: that which moves brings death, and one kills that which moves. The Panopticon, on the other hand, must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men. No doubt Bentham presents it as a particular institution, closed in upon itself. Utopias, perfectly closed in upon themselves, are common enough. As opposed to the ruined prisons, littered with mechanisms of torture, to be seen in Piranese’s engravings, the Panopticon presents a cruel, ingenious cage. The fact that it should have given rise, even in our own time, to so many variations, projected or realized, is evidence of the imaginary intensity that it has possessed for almost two hundred years. But the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.

It is polyvalent in its applications; it serves to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work. It is a type of location of bodies in space, of distribution of individuals in relation to one another, of hierarchical organization, of disposition of centres and channels of power, of definition of the instruments and modes of intervention of power, which can be implemented in hospitals, workshops, schools, prisons. Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used. It is—necessary modifications apart – applicable ‘to all establishments whatsoever, in which, within a space not too large to be covered or commanded by buildings, a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection’ (Bentham, 40; although Bentham takes the penitentiary house as his prime example, it is because it has many different functions to fulfil—safe custody, confinement, solitude, forced labour and instruction).

In each of its applications, it makes it possible to perfect the exercise of power. It does this in several ways: because it can reduce the number of those who exercise it, while increasing the number of those on whom it is exercised. Because it is possible to intervene at any moment and because the constant pressure acts even before the offences, mistakes or crimes have been committed. Because, in these conditions, its strength is that it never intervenes, it is exercised spontaneously and without noise, it constitutes a mechanism whose effects follow from one another. Because, without any physical instrument other than architecture and geometry, it acts directly on individuals; it gives ‘power of mind over mind. The panoptic schema makes any apparatus of power more intense: it assures its economy (in material, in personnel, in time); it assures its efficacity by its preventative character, its continuous functioning and its automatic mechanisms. It is a way of obtaining from power ‘in hitherto unexampled quantity’, ‘a great and new instrument of government . . . ; its great excellence consists in the great strength it is capable of giving to any institution it may be thought proper to apply it to’ (Bentham, 66).

It’s a case of ‘it’s easy once you’ve thought of it’ in the political sphere. It can in fact be integrated into any function (education, medical treatment, production, punishment); it can increase the effect of this function, by being linked closely with it; it can constitute a mixed mechanism in which relations of power (and of knowledge) may be precisely adjusted, in the smallest detail, to the processes that are to be supervised; it can establish a direct proportion between ‘surplus power’ and ‘surplus production’. In short, it arranges things in such a way that the exercise of power is not added on from the outside, like a rigid, heavy constraint, to the functions it invests, but is so subtly present in them as to increase their efficiency by itself increasing its own points of contact. The panoptic mechanism is not simply a hinge, a point of exchange between a mechanism of power and a function; it is a way of making power relations function in a function, and of making a function function through these power relations. Bentham’s Preface to Panopticon opens with a list of the benefits to be obtained from his ‘inspection-house’: ‘Morals reformed—health preserved—industry invigorated—instruction diffused—public burthens lightened—Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock – the Gordian knot of the Poor-Laws not cut, but untied—all by a simple idea in architecture! (Bentham, 39).

Furthermore, the arrangement of this machine is such that its enclosed nature does not preclude a permanent presence from the outside: we have seen that anyone may come and exercise in the central tower the functions of surveillance, and that, this being the case, he can gain a clear idea of the way in which the surveillance is practised. In fact, any panoptic institution, even if it is as rigorously closed as a penitentiary, may without difficulty be subjected to such irregular and constant inspections: and not only by the appointed inspectors, but also by the public; any member of society will have the right to come and see with his own eyes how the schools, hospitals, factories, prisons function. There is no risk, therefore, that the increase of power created by the panoptic machine may degenerate into tyranny; the disciplinary mechanism will be democratically controlled, since it will be constantly accessible ‘to the great tribunal committee of the world’. This Panopticon, subtly arranged so that an observer may observe, at a glance, so many different individuals, also enables everyone to come and observe any of the observers. The seeing machine was once a sort of dark room into which individuals spied; it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole. The panoptic schema, without disappearing as such or losing any of its properties, was destined to spread throughout the social body; its vocation was to become a generalized function. The plague-stricken town provided an exceptional disciplinary model: perfect, but absolutely violent; to the disease that brought death, power opposed its perpetual threat of death; life inside it was reduced to its simplest expression; it was, against the power of death, the meticulous exercise of the right of the sword. The Panopticon, on the other hand, has a role of amplification; although it arranges power, although it is intended to make it more economic and more effective, it does so not for power itself, nor for the immediate salvation of a threatened society: its aim is to strengthen the social forces—to increase production, to develop the economy, spread education, raise the level of public morality; to increase and multiply. How is power to be strengthened in such a way that, far from impeding progress, far from weighing upon it with its rules and regulations, it actually facilitates such progress? What intensificator of power will be able at the same time to be a multiplicator of production? How will power, by increasing its forces, be able to increase those of society instead of confiscating them or impeding them? The Panopticon’s solution to this problem is that the productive increase of power can be assured only if, on the one hand, it can be exercised continuously in the very foundations of society, in the subtlest possible way, and if, on the other hand, it functions outside these sudden, violent, discontinuous forms that are bound up with the exercise of sovereignty. The body of the king, with its strange material and physical presence, with the force that he himself deploys or transmits to some few others, is at the opposite extreme of this new physics of power represented by panopticism; the domain of panopticism is, on the contrary, that whole lower region, that region of irregular bodies, with their details, their multiple movements, their heterogeneous forces, their spatial relations; what are required are mechanisms that analyse distributions, gaps, series, combinations, and which use instruments that render visible, record, differentiate and compare: a physics of a relational and multiple power, which has its maximum intensity not in the person of the king, but in the bodies that can be individualized by these relations. At the theoretical level, Bentham defines another way of analysing the social body and the power relations that traverse it; in terms of practice, he defines a procedure of subordination of bodies and forces that must increase the utility of power while practising the economy of the prince. Panopticism is the general principle of a new ‘political anatomy’ whose object and end are not the relations of sovereignty but the relations of discipline.

The celebrated, transparent, circular cage, with its high tower, powerful and knowing, may have been for Bentham a project of a perfect disciplinary institution; but he also set out to show how one may ‘unlock’ the disciplines and get them to function in a diffused, multiple, polyvalent way throughout the whole social body. These disciplines, which the classical age had elaborated in specific, relatively enclosed places—barracks, schools, workshops—and whose total implementation had been imagined only at the limited and temporary scale of a plague-stricken town, Bentham dreamt of transforming into a network of mechanisms that would be everywhere and always alert, running through society without interruption in space or in time. The panoptic arrangement provides the formula for this generalization. It programmes, at the level of an elementary and easily transferable mechanism, the basic functioning of a society penetrated through and through with disciplinary mechanisms.

Source: Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1977), 200–8.

Carl Trueman – Luther's Theology of the Cross

Further Study

Take time to consider two passages of Scripture as you reflect on the reading and videos in this section:

  • The main Bible passage for this section is, of course, 1 Corinthians 1:18–31. The theme of the great reversal is also emphasized in 2 Corinthians. What do you think it was about the context of the Corinthian church that led Paul to lay greater emphasis on the great reversal in these letters than in others?
  • See also Matthew 5:1–12. Compare and contrast Jesus’ view of power with that of Foucault.
  • Michel FoucaultSara Mills

    Another entry-level introduction to Foucault's thought, organized into brief discussions of major themes and issues, Foucault's method, and key themes from his best-known texts.

    Another entry-level introduction to Foucault's thought, organized into brief discussions of major themes and issues, Foucault's method, and key themes from his best-known texts.

  • The Power of the Cross: Theology and the Death of Christ in Paul, Luther and PascalGraham Tomlin

    An interesting treatment of the theologia crucis motif, drawing out its implications through Pascal. Contains a relatively brief discussion of Foucault.

    An interesting treatment of the theologia crucis motif, drawing out its implications through Pascal. Contains a relatively brief discussion of Foucault.

  • The Providence of God Paul Helm

    Contains a perceptive treatment of the great reversal motif in relation to its implications for a biblical understanding of power.

    Contains a perceptive treatment of the great reversal motif in relation to its implications for a biblical understanding of power.

  • Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and FreedomCarl R. Trueman

    A rare discussion of Luther's theology of the cross from a Reformed standpoint.

    A rare discussion of Luther's theology of the cross from a Reformed standpoint.

Foucault: Ethics and Identity

This section is the final section of the course. Congratulations for getting this far! We’re not coasting in for an easy landing , however; there’s lots to cover in this section. We will reflect on the key features of Foucault’s reading of Christianity and see how he reads the discourse of twentieth century sexual liberation as having deeply Christian roots. We will think about some of the main arguments in the first volume of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality. We will show how Foucault’s own approach to sexuality is part of a wider political landscape of self-transformation. And we will bring Foucault’s self-transformation into conversation with a notion of “cruciform identity” drawn out of the Bible.

  • Foucault on Christianity

    In this video you'll learn (1) why Foucault thinks that Christian practice and the modern discourse on sexuality are intimately related, (2) key elements of Foucault's understanding of Christianity, and (3) a dreadful joke never to tell anywhere, under any circumstances, to anyone.

  • The History of Sexuality (Volume 1)

    In this video you'll learn (1) why the Victorians weren't as prudish about sex as we usually think, (2) why Foucault understands the sexual liberation of the twentieth century as a continuation of Christian themes, and (3) what Foucault means when he says that sexuality has replaced the soul in the modern age.

  • An Ethic of Self-transformation

    In this video you'll learn (1) why Foucault rejects the idea that our sexuality is our essential self, (2) how Foucault sees the discourse around sexuality as about much more than desires and relationships, and (3) Foucault's understanding of the politics of a gay lifestyle.

  • Cruciform Identity

    In this video you'll learn (1) how to draw out of the Bible an account of identity that can be brought into conversation with Foucault's ethic of self-transformation, (2) how the biblical, cruciform self is radically fractured and open, and (3) how this cruciform self shows that Foucault's own position and the account of identity that he rejects share something very important in common.

  • Open and Closed Identities

    In this video you'll learn (1) how Foucault's distinction between open and closed identities veils a deeper agreement between them and (2) how both open and closed identities are, well... both open and closed.

  • Autonomous and Heteronomous Identities

    In this video you'll learn (1) why Foucault cannot know that the self-transformation of the self is not, at the end of the day, heteronomous, (2) why autonomy and heteronomy are inadequate terms for describing the cruciform self, and (3) how absolute personality theism can give Foucault what he is looking for.

Reading Assignment

In the first reading, Foucault sets out his understanding of the politics of the gay lifestyle in a 1981 interview.

The second reading is a treatment of the theology of the cross in the context of a study drawing out its implications in terms of Luther and Pascal.

Michel Foucault – Friendship as a Way of Life

Q. You’re in your fifties. You’re a reader of Le Gai Pied, which has been in existence now for two years. Is the kind of discourse you find there something positive for you?

M.F. That the magazine exists is the positive and important thing. In answer to your question, I could say that I don’t have to read it to voice the question of my age. What I could ask of your magazine is that I do not, in reading it, have to pose the question of my age. Now, reading it . . .

Q. Perhaps the problem is the age group of those who contribute to it and read it; the majority are between twenty-five and thirty-five.

M.F. Of course. The more it is written by young people the more it concerns young people. But the problem is not to make room for one age group alongside another but to find out what can be done in relation to the quasi identification between homosexuality and the love among young people. Another thing to distrust is the tendency to relate the question of homosexuality to the problem of “Who am I?” and “What is the secret of my desire?” Perhaps it would be better to ask oneself, “What relations, through homosexuality, can be established, invented, multiplied, and modulated?” The problem is not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex, but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships. And, no doubt, that’s the real reason why homosexuality is not a form of desire but something desirable. Therefore, we have to work at becoming homosexuals and not be obstinate in recognizing that we are. The development toward which the problem of homosexuality tends is the one of friendship.

Q. Did you think so at twenty, or have you discovered it over the years?

M.F. As far back as I remember, to want guys [garçons] was to want relations with guys. That has always been important for me. Not necessarily in the form of a couple but as a matter of existence: how is it possible for men to be together? To live together, to share their time, their meals, their room, their leisure, their grief, their knowledge, their confidences? What is it to be “naked” among men, outside of institutional relations, family, profession, and obligatory camaraderie? It’s a desire, an uneasiness, a desire-in-uneasiness that exists among a lot of people.

Q. Can you say that desire and pleasure, and the relationships one can have, are dependent on one’s age?

M.F. Yes, very profoundly. Between a man and a younger woman, the marriage institution makes it easier: she accepts it and makes it work. But two men of noticeably different ages—what code would allow them to communicate? They face each other without terms or convenient words, with nothing to assure them about the meaning of the movement that carries them toward each other. They have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless, which is friendship: that is to say, the sum of everything through which they can give each other pleasure. One of the concessions one makes to others is not to present homosexuality as anything but a kind of immediate pleasure, of two young men meeting in the street, seducing each other with a look, grabbing each other’s asses and getting each other off in a quarter of an hour. There you have a kind of neat image of homosexuality without any possibility of generating unease, and for two reasons: it responds to a reassuring canon of beauty, and it cancels everything that can be troubling in affection, tenderness, friendship, fidelity, camaraderie, and companionship, things that our rather sanitized society can’t allow a place for without fearing the formation of new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force. I think that’s what makes homosexuality “disturbing”: the homosexual mode of life, much more than the sexual act itself. To imagine a sexual act that doesn’t conform to law or nature is not what disturbs people. But that individuals are beginning to love one another-there’s the problem. The institution is caught in a contradiction; affective intensities traverse it which at one and the same time keep it going and shake it up. Look at the army, where love between men is ceaselessly provoked [appelé] and shamed. Institutional codes can’t validate these relations with multiple intensities, variable colors, imperceptible movements and changing forms. These relations short-circuit it and introduce love where there’s supposed to be only law, rule, or habit.

Q. You were saying a little while ago: “Rather than crying about faded pleasures, I’m interested in what we ourselves can do.” Could you explain that more precisely?

M.F. Asceticism as the renunciation of pleasure has bad connotations. But ascesis is something else: it’s the work that one performs on oneself in order to transform oneself or make the self appear which, happily, one never attains. Can that be our problem today? We’ve rid ourselves of asceticism. Yet it’s up to us to advance into a homosexual ascesis that would make us work on ourselves and invent—I do not say discover-a manner of being that is still improbable.

Q. That means that a young homosexual must be very cautious in regard to homosexual imagery; he must work at something else?

M.F. What we must work on, it seems to me, is not so much to liberate our desires but to make ourselves infinitely more susceptible to pleasure [plaisirs]. We must escape and help others to escape the two readymade formulas of the pure sexual encounter and the lovers’ fusion of identities.

Q. Can one see the first fruits of strong constructive relationships in the United States, in any case in the cities where the problem of sexual misery seems under control?

M.F. To me, it appears certain that in the United States, even if the basis of sexual misery still exists, the interest in friendship has become very important; one doesn’t enter a relationship simply in order to be able to consummate it sexually, which happens very easily. But toward friendship, people are very polarized. How can a relational system be reached through sexual practices? Is it possible to create a homosexual mode of life? This notion of mode of life seems important to me. Will it require the introduction of a diversification different from the ones due to social class, differences in profession and culture, a diversification that would aIso be a form of relationship and would be a “way of life”? A way of life can be shared among individuals of different age, status, and social activity. It can yield intense relations not resembling those that are institutionalized. It seems to me that a way of life can yield a culture and an ethics. To be “gay,” I think, is not to identify with the psychological traits and the visible masks of the homosexual but to try to define and develop a way of life.

Q. Isn’t it a myth to say: Here we are enjoying the first fruits of a socialization between different classes, ages, and countries?

M.F. Yes, like the great myth of saying: There will no longer be any difference between homo- and heterosexuality. Moreover, I think that it’s one of the reasons that homosexuality presents a problem today. Many sexual liberation movements project this idea of “liberating yourself from the hideous constraints that weigh upon you.” Yet the affirmation that to be a homosexual is for a man to love another man-this search for a way of life runs counter to the ideology of the sexual liberation movements of the sixties. It’s in this sense that the mustached “clones” are significant. It’s a way of responding: “Have nothing to fear; the more one is liberated, the less one will love women, the less one will founder in this polysexuality where there are no longer any differences between the two.” It’s not at all the idea of a great community fusion. Homosexuality is a historic occasion to reopen affective and relational virtualities, not so much through the intrinsic qualities of the homosexual but because the “slantwise” position of the latter, as it were, the diagonal lines he can lay out in the social fabric allow these virtualities to come to light.

Q. Women might object: What do men together have to win compared to the relations between a man and a woman or between two women?

M.F. There is a book that just appeared in the U.S. on the friendships between women. l The affection and passion between women is well documented. In the preface, the author states that she began with the idea of unearthing homosexual relationships-but perceived that not only were these relationships not always present but that it was uninteresting whether relationships could be called “homosexual” or not. And by letting the relationship manifest itself as it appeared in words and gestures, other very essential things also appeared: dense, bright, marvelous loves and affections or very dark and sad loves. The book shows the extent to which woman’s body has played a great role, and the importance of physical contact between women: women do each other’s hair, help each other with make up, dress each other. Women have had access to the bodies of other women: they put their arms around each other, kiss each other. Man’s body has been forbidden to other men in a much more drastic way. If it’s true that life between women was tolerated, it’s only in certain periods and since the nineteenth century that life between men not only was tolerated but rigorously necessary: very simply, during war. And equally in prison camps. You had soldiers and young officers who spent months and even years together. During World War I, men lived together completely, one on top of another, and for them it was nothing at all, insofar as death was present and finally the devotion to one another and the services rendered were sanctioned by the play of life and death. And apart from several remarks on camaraderie, the brotherhood of spirit, and some very partial observations, what do we know about these emotional uproars and storms of feeling that took place in those times? One can wonder how, in these absurd and grotesque wars and infernal massacres, the men managed to hold on in spite of everything. Through some emotional fabric, no doubt. I don’t mean that it was because they were each other’s lovers that they continued to fight; but honor, courage, not losing face, sacrifice, leaving the trench with the captain-all that implied a very intense emotional tie. It’s not to say: “Ah, there you have homosexuality!” I detest that kind of reasoning. But no doubt you have there one of the conditions, not the only one, that has permitted this infernal life where for weeks guys floundered in the mud and shit, among corpses, starving for food, and were drunk the morning of the assault. I would like to say, finally, that something well considered and voluntary like a magazine ought to make possible a homosexual culture, that is to say, the instruments for polymorphic, varied, and individually modulated relationships. But the idea of a program of proposals is dangerous. As soon as a program is presented, it becomes a law, and there’s a prohibition against inventing. There ought to be an inventiveness special to a, situation like ours and to these feelings, this need that Americans call “coming out,” that is, showing oneself. The program must be wide open. We have to dig deeply to show how things have been historically contingent, for such and such reason intelligible but not necessary. We must make the intelligible appear against a background of emptiness and deny its necessity. We must think that what exists is far from filling all possible spaces. To make a truly unavoidable challenge of the question: What can be played?

Source: Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life” in Essential Writings Volume 1: Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow, trans. Robert Hurley et. al. (New York: The New Press, 1994), 135–40.

Graham Tomlin – Paul’s Theology of the Cross in the Corinthian Church

Why then, did Paul focus on the cross when he wrote to the Corinthians? Why does he begin writing in such startling language about God? In the light of our explorations into the influences upon the Corinthian church, it should be possible to answer these questions with greater clarity and precision.

These themes have of course been examined before. Neil Richardson for example, has explored the theological significance of Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2. His careful examination of Old Testament parallels has shown that in ascribing weakness and foolishness to God, Paul has arrived at “not only new language about God, but also a new understanding of God”. He concludes: “Most important of all, the God who seems to be nowhere is in fact the ultimate reality which is the great subverter of the status quo.”

Although Richardson’s conclusion is apt, it is hard to see precisely how it emerges from his own reading of the immediate problems of the church in Corinth. His suggestion is that the Christ-party so stressed the importance of Christ that they “marginalised belief in God”; in response, Paul emphasised the word Θεός, to correct their defective eschatology. In fact, for Richardson, eschatology is the underlying issue at stake between Paul and his critics in Corinth. We have noted above some difficulties with using realised eschatology as a key to understanding the theology of the church in Corinth. If anybody’s eschatology is realised here, it is Paul’s, who claims that God has revealed his secret wisdom to him (2:9–10). Richardson’s reconstruction faces other problems as well. 8:6 clearly states a common belief in the “one God the Father” between Paul and the Corinthians, and shows no hint of a ‘marginalised’ belief in God as such. Richardson’s version reads too much into the frequency in the early section of the letter of the word Θεός, which is surely explained more by the rival claims to know the mind of God, than any ‘Christomonism’ on the part of the Christ-party. Moreover, if the problem were an insufficient Christology, why would Paul’s answer emphasise the cross in particular, rather than the person of Christ in general? Again, in focusing on the Christ-party as the source of the trouble, Richardson underestimates the degree of internal dispute between different groups in the church, which from 1:10–12 appears to be the immediate cause of Paul’s concern. Paul seems to focus on the cross not in order to correct the Corinthians’ defective eschatology, but to oppose their internal power struggles, and the ideological justification which underlay the boastful behaviour which sparked it all off.

To choose a further example, R.S. Barbour arrives at a similar conclusion about Paul’s language:

‘Christ crucified’ is ‘wisdom of God’, not by a simple identification in the processes of polemic, nor yet by the identification of Christ with an already-known pre-existent figure of wisdom, but in the process of asserting that the very heart of God’s purpose is the cross of Christ; not just Christ but Christ crucified.

Barbour thinks that the discussion in 1 Corinthians concerns “the secrets of the last days, on the model found in Jewish apocalyptic and at Qumran”. As we have seen, there are difficulties with the theory of a Jewish background for Corinthian theology, and there is little clear evidence that the Corinthian Christians claimed to be living in, or knew the secrets of, the last days. They simply did not put the issue in this form. Like Richardson, Barbour’s conclusion is valid, but rests on uncertain foundations. Both in fact suggest that the main problem is theological, and that between these Corinthians and Paul there is primarily a clash of ideologies. However, the issues Paul confronts more directly are matters of conduct. He uses the cross to correct Corinthian behaviour rather than theology, although naturally there are some (perhaps unacknowledged) beliefs and pre-suppositions underlying that behaviour. The task is therefore to understand how the cross does act in this critical manner to counter these patterns of relationship emerging in the church.

In what follows, a reading of the events leading up to the writing of 1 Corinthians is described, which shows more appropriately how the cross, understood as a revelation of God, addresses that very conduct, and the social and philosophical context in which it developed. Paul’s startling ascription of weakness and foolishness to God is in fact a specific counter to power plays being enacted in the Corinthian church.


The ethical and doctrinal values of the ‘Apollos group’, influenced by Epicurean-style values and thinking, were markedly different from those who entered the church under Paul’s ministry and teaching. If this were the case, it would not be surprising if the wealthy high-status leaders of the congregation who still looked to Paul as their spiritual father, on seeing this group behaving in the ways described above, began to protest and even to try to discipline these maverick new Christians. 5:9 indicates that Paul had written before, quite probably in response to an earlier complaint of some Corinthians that others within the church were behaving in an immoral fashion. The Corinthian request for advice referred to in 5:9 may well have come from the Paul-loyalists who objected to the worldly behaviour of this newly converted group. This advice had been mistakenly interpreted (by the Paul group?) as advocating withdrawal from contacts with outsiders altogether (5:10), vindicating their opposition to these new Christians’ over-friendly relations with pagan (perhaps Epicurean?) neighbours. This advice therefore simply gave rise to further dispute over what Paul really meant. The dialogue then degenerated into an argument over names, those still loyal to Paul claiming his authority, admirers of Apollos pitting his merits over against that of the founder of the church. In this atmosphere, it would also not have been surprising if some of the small number of Jewish Christians in the congregation started to claim partiality to Peter as well.

Subsequent to this, however, two factors in particular seem to have led to invidious comparisons between Paul and Apollos. One was Paul’s lack of rhetorical skill, compared to Apollos’ proficiency in this area. As suggested above, the most likely cause of the trouble was that Paul was considered by some in the congregation to be a bad speaker, or as Paul himself later put it, ἰδιώτης τῳ λόγῳ (2 Cor. 11:6). This would naturally have become a bone of contention and an additional cause for contempt for a group who had specifically been attracted to the Christian church because of Apollos’ rhetorical skill. Once their behaviour had been criticised in the name of Paul, the founder of the congregation, a natural response would be along the lines of: “Why should we take any notice of Paul, when he is so obviously inferior in σοφία λόγου to Apollos?”

The other bone of contention was Paul’s decision to work at a trade rather than to exercise his right to financial support from the church, referred to in ch. 9. Ronald Hock suggested that the issue here was Paul’s means of support. In order to distinguish himself from fraudulent Cynic teachers, and in contrast to the various options open to any travelling sophist, Paul chose not to exercise his right to enter a household, accept a patron and receive due financial support. Instead he chose to ply a common trade, making tents. Paul became a ‘weak’ figure in the social structure of Corinth in order to preserve his own freedom (9:1), and to enable him to offer the gospel ‘free of charge’ (9:18). Peter Marshall argued instead that it was not so much Paul’s work, but his social obligations that were the key issue. Marshall points out that Paul was happy to take financial support from the Philippians (Phil 4:14–20), so that it cannot be, as Hock claims, that Paul refused to claim support on principle. In fact, Marshall suggests, it was this very acceptance of support from Philippi that had caused the problem in Corinth. Paul refused offers of help from Corinth because he felt that to do so would put him under obligation to the group who had extended the offer, a politically sensitive point given the divisions in the community. Like Hock, Marshall agrees that Paul put himself in a socially disadvantaged position. Yet, in contrast to Hock, he argues that Paul does so not on principle lest the gospel should not be freely offered, but rather in order to shame the ‘hybrists’, those he criticizes for proud boastful behaviour, those in whose pocket he would have been, had he accepted their patronage. A third perspective comes from Dale Martin, who examines Paul’s use of the metaphor of slavery, and highlights its often unnoticed complexity. To high-status people it implied voluntary condescension, but to lower-status people it implied the privilege of being a slave of Christ. Martin argues that Paul refused to accept support from the Corinthians, not to avoid offending the rich but to avoid offending the poor, with whom Paul would have had little contact if he had taken up residence in the home of a rich Corinthian patrician.

Paul’s statement of his reasons comes in 9:22–3. Verse 23 suggests that he did not refuse payment and take up a trade out of a settled principle that he should preach the gospel free of charge: Marshall’s point that Paul was happy to accept financial support elsewhere is entirely valid. Nor did he do it to avoid putting himself in the pocket of the wrong people in Corinth. The explicit reason given in the text is διὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιον (9:23), and ἵνα τοὺς πλείονας κερδήσω (9:19). Paul chose to work with his hands to make the gospel available to the class of people he would meet while plying a trade, rather than the limited circle he would reach if attached to a household as resident teacher on the sophistic model. When he claims that his reward for doing this is that he “may make the gospel free of charge” he means not restricting it to those who can pay to hear it. Hock’s study showed how the obvious models for Paul’s activity would have included charging fees and becoming the resident teacher at the home of a rich patron. This would have restricted the gospel’s appeal to the “rich, powerful and well-born” (1:26), and taken it out of the hearing of poorer, lower-status people, something Paul was not prepared to do.

This consequent loss of social status was quite probably a major cause of disparagement of Paul among this status-seeking group. Paul was conscious as he wrote to the Corinthians of his ‘weakness’ in their eyes (2:1–5; 4:9–13; 9:22). It was at one and the same time their accusation against him, and his own deliberate boast. This atmosphere of disdain towards Paul would have then extended into a critique of his views on the resurrection and various ethical matters. Theology influenced by Epicurean-style ideas fostered not only a distancing from the poor in the congregation, but from the founder of the church as well.


While this situation was developing in his absence, Paul received two separate pieces of information. First, an oral report came from “Chloe’s people” (1:11), a message which concentrated not so much upon ethical irregularities as on divisions. Chloe’s people used to be thought of as followers of Demeter, but this view has little to commend it, and they should rather be seen as members of Chloe’s household, either freedmen, or more probably slaves. This report on the Corinthian church came most likely from the perspective of the poorer members of the congregation. Not surprisingly then, Chloe’s people saw division only among the richer members, some claiming the name of Paul, some that of Apollos, and they duly reported this to Paul. From their perspective, the major problem at Corinth was this personality-based rivalry. It would appear that Chloe’s people did not see themselves as part of this rivalry. This confirms the assumption that it was primarily the rich who were involved, on one side those converted by and still loyal to Paul, and on the other, those drawn into the church by Apollos’ ministry.

Secondly, Paul received a letter (7:1), presumably delivered to him by Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17). Stephanas it seems, despite being one of Paul’s converts, had managed to stay clear of the argument. He had perhaps acted as a mediator between the two main sides, delivering a letter informing Paul of the issues which had given rise to this rivalry (including asking for clarification on the question of what Paul had meant by his earlier advice not to associate with immoral men—5:9ff). Fortunatus and Achaicus may have been rich householders like Stephanas, yet more likely were Stephanas’ slaves, perhaps senior members of his household travelling with him. Coming from Stephanas, this written information emerged not from the perspective of the poorer members (as in the oral report from Chloe’s people), but with full awareness of the issues which divided those at the higher end of the social scale in the church, namely the ethical and doctrinal problems Paul addresses in chapters 5–15.

Basically, the poorer Christians see the problem as a squabble among the richer members over leaders, Paul’s supporters see the problem as the behaviour of the ‘Apollos group’, and the Apollos group see the problem as their opponents’ misguided adherence to Paul’s authority. As Paul saw it, the worldly Epicurean-style ‘wisdom’ manifest in this group within the church which had begun to associate itself with the name of Apollos manifested itself as arrogance (καυχάομαι) and independence, both towards socially and charismatically inferior members of the congregation and subsequently and increasingly towards himself. This arrogance is based on the claim to wealth, eloquence and knowledge. Their attitude towards the others in the church, is expressed in 12:21: “I have no need of you”. With regard to Paul, their boast is to be wise, filled, rich, kings, χωρὶς ημῶν (4:8). Others in the congregation, still 40 loyal to Paul and his teaching, have been drawn into comparable attitudes of competition (ἔριδες) out of an initial unsuccessful attempt to correct these others, and in turn a small number of others have begun to express partiality to Peter.

Paul therefore had to tackle two problems, competition and boasting, both of which revolve around the use of power. The Apollos group’s boasting was an assertion of superiority based on their knowledge, over the poor of the congregation, over those loyal to Paul and even over Paul himself. The resulting divisions of 1:10ff indicate a struggle for control of the congregation between those loyal to Paul and this ‘Apollos group’. Paul’s polemic in 1 Corinthians therefore needed to operate on two levels. In the foreground he addresses some major sections of the church which have become embroiled in a struggle for power. In the background he has to address this group whose social and theological arrogance has sparked the whole thing off. On both levels he confronted illegitimate struggles for power within the congregation, and had to develop a theology which counters such power-plays, whether on behalf of the ‘Apollos group’ or of his own supporters.


The two-dimensional nature of the problem at Corinth presented Paul with a delicate and difficult task. There was confusion over his role in the church, some claiming too much for him, others claiming too little. He wanted to defend his own authority and standing, yet without seeming to take sides, thus endorsing the divisions in the church and alienating even further a significant section of the congregation. He needed to combat arrogance without appearing arrogant, to combat division without being divisive. Paul’s argument therefore weaves together a critique of both quarrelling and boasting. The direction of his attack constantly oscillates between the two, at times clearly addressing one (such as in 1:10–16), at times addressing the other (for example in 4:8–13), and at times combining an attack on both stances, revealing the underlying connection between them. As Paul begins to address this complex situation, the cross is his central theological reference-point, so that 1:18–25 serves to introduce his counterpoint to their wisdom. In opposition to the Epicurean-influenced wisdom prized by some Christians, which has in turn led to the quarrelling outlined in 1:10–12, and the desire for power which lies behind both, Paul puts forward the cross as the content of God’s wisdom.


Whether the ‘Christ’ slogan in 1:12 is a reductio ad absurdum of Corinthian quarrelling, or a phrase used by some within the Apollos group, Paul picks it up rhetorically to begin his response to the emerging cracks in the unity of the church. Paul’s strategy is to redirect attention to their unity not in individual leaders, but in the Christ to whom they do in fact belong. Victor Furnish has argued persuasively that the motif of ‘belonging to Christ’ in 1 Corinthians functions as a key ethical grounding for paraenetic appeals. Paul responds to their claim to belong to different apostolic figures by reminding them of the one to whom they really belong. This impression is confirmed by an analysis of the following few verses.

The three rhetorical questions in 1:13 all expect a negative response. “Is Christ divided?” No, clearly not—Christ is One, and the basis for unity of all the church, regardless of which leader they prefer. “Was Paul crucified for you?” No—Christ was. Paul links Christ’s crucifixion on their behalf to the fundamental unity of the congregation in Christ. For Paul, the unity of the church is grounded not just in Christ, but in Christ crucified for them. Christ’s death for them places them in a relationship of belonging and interdependence to him and to each other. This is reinforced by reference to baptism, their point of entry into the community. “Were you baptised in the name of Paul?” Clearly not, rather in the name of Christ. For Paul, the baptised are baptised into Christ’s death (Rom. 6:4), and this act remains the fundamental basis of unity (1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:27f.). When Paul reminds them of their baptism into Christ, he refers them to the cross, the crucified Christ as the foundation stone of their unity as a congregation.

By their focus on the leader who performed their baptism, the Corinthians have forgotten their baptism into Christ’s death. For Paul, the new community, founded on the death of Christ, makes all the old divisions and oppositions irrelevant. The cross is the decisive criterion of the church’s unity and identity, and both are compromised by the behaviour of the Corinthian Christians, whether followers of Apollos or loyalists to Paul. This is of course why the dispute over who baptised whom would “empty the cross of its power” (1:17), because it denies the reality of the unity which the cross has achieved, and blurs the distinction between the church and the world.

Paul associates the cross and unity at two other points in the letter. One is at 8:11, where Paul apparently addresses those in the high-status ‘Apollos group’ who eat in pagan temples, without regard for the effect this might have on poorer, more conscientious members of the Christian community. Paul’s appeal to consider the weaker Christian is based on the fact that the latter is “the brother for whom Christ died”. Paul again appeals to the cross as the basis of their common life and mutual belonging. Again at 15:3 the apostle rehearses the pre-Pauline tradition which he handed on to them. The context here also is that of an appeal to a common belief. This is the content of the original κηρυγμα which stood as the foundation stone of the Corinthian church. It begins of course with the clause Χριστὸς απέθανεν ὑπερ τῶν αμαρτιῶν ημῶν (15:3). This teaching lies as the bedrock of the community’s existence.

The first part of Paul’s answer to Corinthian quarrelling over leaders then, is found in 1:13, that is in his insistence that the unity of the congregation consists in the fact that Christ was crucified for all of them. They belong neither to him, nor to Apollos nor Cephas, but to the Christ who was crucified for them, who has “bought them with a price”. (6:20). Paul is keen to distance himself from the possibility of becoming the focus of partisan loyalties, so he stresses the role he played in Corinth as evangelist, rather than as baptiser. He was chiefly the means by which they came to hear and accept the gospel of Christ crucified, rather than one who stands in a patronal relationship with them as their initiator into the community. This tack is taken up again in 3:5ff., where again he examines the role that both he and Apollos played during their time in Corinth, minimising their significance over against “God who gives the growth”. It makes no sense to claim himself or Apollos as identity-giving figures. They are merely “servants through whom you believed”.


While on the surface Paul has to deal with Corinthian division over apostolic loyalties, the deeper problem comes from a group of the congregation claiming Apollos as model, still strongly influenced by pagan Greek ideas and behaviour, and adopting a stance of arrogant withdrawal both from poorer members of the congregation and from Paul. This issue lies more hidden within the text for several reasons. The report of Chloe’s people accused most if not all of the richer people in the church of breaking into factions. Paul can thus address that issue openly without appearing to take sides, adopting the position of the neutral observer. The other issue, the behaviour of the Apollos group about which his own supporters have rightly complained is more sensitive. Open criticism risks appearing to take the side of the ‘Paul’ group, thus invalidating his criticism of division over names of apostolic leaders. Criticism of this group and its behaviour therefore has to remain subtle and often indirect, naming no names, woven into the more generalised criticism of the whole church.

Paul introduces the notion of wisdom in the transitional verse 1:17. As has been argued above, this is to be taken as in part an issue of rhetorical ability, and in part the ideal of σοφία behind it. It is the ‘wisdom’ which values rhetorical skill (σοφία λόγου v. 17) admires the δυνατος and εὐγενεις (v. 26), boasts in its ethical freedom (5:1–2), disregards the scruples of the weak (8:9–11), looks down on an artisan apostle (2:3; 9:22), humiliates the poor (11:22) prides itself in superior knowledge (8:1) and spiritual endowment (14:37), and denies the resurrection (15:12).

Paul opposes this wisdom of the world (v. 20) with the wisdom of God (v. 21). In stark contrast, God’s wisdom, or mind (νοῦς), is revealed in the scandalous ‘choice’ of a crucified messiah as the means of salvation. God displayed the radically different character of his wisdom by choosing to save people through the word (λόγος) v. 18, κηρύγμα v. 21) of the cross. Whereas Corinthian society prefers what is wise, strong and honoured, God chooses and values what is foolish, weak, low and despised. The central symbol of God’s character-revealing wisdom is the historical cross of Christ as the means of salvation. Paul illustrates this with two highly significant examples. First, (vv. 26–31) he calls the attention of his readers to the poor in the community. God has by and large not chosen the highest level of society for his church; in fact he has often chosen those who are despised by the world. Κλῆσις in v. 26 must refer to ‘social standing’, and so Paul very deliberately brings into the discussion the presence of the poor of the congregation, τοὺς μὴ ἔχοντας (11:22). Paul’s second witness to God’s preference for the ‘foolish’ is himself. 2:1 introduces his own rhetorically unskilled, physically and spiritually exhausted persona into the discussion. God has chosen not only despised people for his church, he has chosen an unimpressive apostle as his messenger.

These two are chosen as examples precisely because they are the two targets of the Apollos group’s disparagement. They humiliate the poor (8:11; 11:22) and they disregard Paul (4:18; 9:3). Paul’s polemic is plain: God has chosen what they have rejected. Just as divisions in the community displays their failure to grasp the crucified Christ as the ground of their unity, so the arrogance of the Apollos group in an even more startling way displays their total failure to grasp God’s wisdom, revealed in his scandalous choice of a crucified messiah as the means of salvation. To scorn the weak, poor and foolish is simply to reveal how wedded they are to the wisdom and values of the world which God will destroy (1:19). The cross therefore not only acts as the foundation of the congregation’s unity, it also deconstructs the Apollos group’s 40 Epicurean-influenced theology of wisdom and knowledge. It counters not just competition for power within the church, but the underlying claim to independence and superiority over others.


The three examples of God’s foolish wisdom, the crucified Christ, the poor, foolish and weak things of the world and the weak, trembling apostle stand in a carefully constructed theological relationship. The crucified messiah, scandalous to Jews and nonsensical to Greeks, is the starting point of Paul’s reflections on God’s strange wisdom. That wisdom is exemplified and expressed in his choice of the foolish, weak and lowly, rather than the wise, powerful and well born. For Paul himself, as the apostle of the crucified messiah, this then gives a practical and even political shape to the ministry he is called to perform. It too has to take the shape of the cross, which in social terms means taking up a position at the bottom of the social scale (4:9–13), along with the foolish, weak and lowly. For Paul there is a theological connection between the recognition that came at his conversion that the crucified Jesus was the messiah and his own experience of hardship and weariness in the apostolic life and manual labour. There is also a theological connection between the cross and the relatively low social standing of many in his churches. Yet there is a theological rupture between the cross and the kind of arrogant, self-satisfied power-seeking behaviour he encounters at Corinth.

The connection between the cross and the “low and despised in the world” means for Paul a life of social shame, hard labour, homelessness and misunderstanding. He presents a positive role model in his own self-lowering, which in turn is an imitation of the self-lowering of Christ to the cross (11:1). Yet he does not urge this precise form of social shame upon his city-dwelling churches. This extreme role he reserves for those in the apostolic calling. For the Christians in Corinth, he uses the transitional concept of servanthood, the role in which he insists on being regarded by these Christians (3:5; 4:1). For them, the connection between the cross and the poor is to result ethically in love (14:1a, 16:14), the foregoing of ethical liberty for the sake of the poor (8:9), edification rather than self-fulfilment (14:26), the renunciation of privilege for the sake of others.

In practical terms, this leads not to an anaemic ‘love-patriarchalism’, but to a voluntary self-lowering to the role of servant, expressed in the attitude of love. This is the purpose of chapter 13, coming as it does after material which indirectly accuses some in Corinth of feeling so superior to others in the congregation that they have no need of them. The true content of wisdom for Paul is not γνῶσις but ἀγάπη (8:1–3; 13:2–8). The wisdom which God prizes, and which enables one to discern the thoughts of God (2:11) does not consist of privileged knowledge of the nature of things, but in an attitude of self-giving love towards one’s fellow-believers, especially those who are poor. Paul appeals to the “certainty of agape as the ultimate ‘norm’ of social life”. It is this path he sees both in the crucified Christ, and in his own response to Christ’s self-giving, in terms of his voluntary loss of social status. His theologia crucis possesses not merely soteriological implications, but ethical and ecclesiological ones as well. The true response to the God who saves through a crucified messiah is a life of voluntary servanthood, self-lowering, love, distinctly different from the attitude shown by his opponents, and even his supporters in Corinth.


Paul’s repeated appeal for imitation (4:16; 11:1) has been seen in some recent scholarship as a bid for power over the congregation. Elizabeth Castelli sees imitation (“mimesis”) as an exaltation of sameness, a suppression of difference. In the light of Michel Foucault’s understanding of power and oppressive models of patriarchy in antiquity, Paul’s claim to be father of the church (4:15), and this call to imitate him are seen simply as an attempt to eliminate opposition and impose repressive hierarchical models of power. Castelli’s analysis however is another victim of the failure to contextualise Paul’s discourse. She simply does not try to reconstruct the situation into which Paul writes, neither does she examine closely enough the nature of Paul’s self-presentation. When it is understood that Paul is addressing not just theological disagreement, but competing claims to power within the congregation, the nature of his argument, as suggesting an alternative understanding of power becomes clearer. Paul’s appeal for imitation is in fact an appeal to imitate his voluntary surrender of relationships based on social, spiritual or intellectual power or privilege. It is precisely the opposite of the power-seeking discourse which Castelli finds in the text, and is enjoined precisely to protect the poor in the congregation who would otherwise suffer rejection and oppression. Paul is actually very happy to celebrate difference in chapters 12 and 14, passages which oppose the desire of some in the Corinthian church to impose ‘sameness’ by insisting that they do not need those who are different from themselves (12:21–24). Paul’s theologia crucis presents a vision of community life which resists claims to power by modelling itself on the self-giving and powerlessness of Christ, and the social self-lowering of his apostle.

Alexandra Brown has similarly drawn attention to the danger seen most clearly by some feminist critics that the theology of the cross, especially when seen in its Lutheran guise, can be used to glorify suffering and justify injustice. Such a concern is well founded. The theologia crucis is vulnerable to misuse in this way, and Brown does suggest a defence of Paul’s thought against this criticism. She does so by interpreting Paul’s ‘word of the cross’ as mainly an expression of God’s love. The difficulty here is that chs. 1–2 do not clearly focus on God’s love as a central theme. Instead, Paul sees the cross in these early chapters as primarily a revelation of God’s power and wisdom, rather than his love. Strictly speaking, his concentration on ἀγάπη in the letter concerns more the love that Christians are to have for one another (cf. ch. 13) than that of God himself. However, Brown is clearly on the right lines, and her point can be developed in another way. In these chapters, Paul understands God’s means of achieving salvation, the cross of Christ, as a paradigm for God’s action in the world. In other words, God gets things done not by a conventional human use of power, by displays of force, impressive signs or sophisticated wisdom. He achieves salvation through an act of what to human eyes is powerlessness on the cross; he chooses to dwell in Corinth in a group of ‘nothings’ in the eyes of Corinthian society; he creates these new communities through the preaching of an unimpressive artisan tentmaker. The passage offers a vision of God’s use of power through powerlessness. Through this apparent powerlessness, God achieves far more than human power ever could. In the light of this pattern, Paul appeals to these powerful Christians in Corinth not to conduct their business through the conventional means of human power, but through a kind of self-giving love for other Christians which surrenders privilege and may look like powerlessness, but which is much more in tune with the way God acts and achieves.

Brown is right in suggesting that Paul’s theologia crucis does not sanction submission to injustice, but the point must be upheld on different grounds from those suggested by her. Read in context, the ‘word of the cross’ is addressed primarily to the wealthier, socially and economically powerful members of the church. It consists of an appeal to them to imitate Christ’s and Paul’s self-giving, to give the poorer brothers and sisters pride of place in their gatherings (cf. 12:23–4) and abstaining from attending meals connected with pagan worship when it offends other members of the church. It would be dangerously misused when addressed in the same way to the poor and victimised, to justify their continued exclusion and subjugation.

This theologia crucis presents an alternative understanding of power by grounding it in an understanding of God as one whose character and economy are revealed in the scandalous choice of the crucified Christ as the means of salvation. Paul claims that God’s action in the cross is paradigmatic for his action in the present, in that just as God chose the weak suffering Christ, so also he chooses socially inferior people, and a weak suffering apostle. The cross therefore has theological significance for Paul, in that it reveals the way God works now, not just the way he achieved salvation in the past. Paul insists that the God who ‘chose’ the crucified Messiah also ‘chose’ the poorer Christians and a weak apostle. He works now in conformity with the pattern seen then on the cross: it is the God of the cross with whom the Corinthians now have to deal. As Richardson has seen, Paul’s language in this letter implies a new understanding of God, rooted in OT perspectives, of a God who always achieves his purposes through things which in the eyes of the world are weak and foolish. Our reading however provides a fuller picture of how this understanding of God meets the situation in the Corinthian church.

As Paul seeks to counter the jostling for control of the congregation in his own name, or the claim to power based on superior knowledge, wealth, eloquence or spiritual gifts, the cross becomes for him the central polemical focus. The cross operates as a counter-ideology to the uses of power current within the church, fostering a regard for love rather than knowledge, the poor rather than the wealthy, their trembling apostle rather than the rhetorical ability of any ‘rival’, mutual upbuilding rather than spiritual showing-off. Theology that begins at the cross is for Paul the radical antidote to any religion that is a thinly veiled copy of a power-seeking culture.

Source: Graham Tomlin, The Power of the Cross: Theology and the Death of Christ in Paul, Luther and Pascal (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999).

Further Study

For your further study and meditation, Bible passages particularly relevant to the concerns of this section’s material are:

  • Galatians 2:11-21 (especially verse 20). Paul’s compact statement about identity in Christ.
  • Romans 7:7-25. Another passage highlighting aspects of the complexity of identity in a biblical frame.
  • Foucault and Religion: Spiritual Corporeality and Political SpiritualityJeremy Carrette

    Carrette’s contention is that “After Foucault ‘religion’ is taken out of its privileged realm and brought into the body politic and into the heart of culture”. As Carrette rightly notes, “[t]his reading of religion will always be difficult to anyone hoping to use Foucault to support traditional religious belief and practice.”

    Carrette’s contention is that “After Foucault ‘religion’ is taken out of its privileged realm and brought into the body politic and into the heart of culture”. As Carrette rightly notes, “[t]his reading of religion will always be difficult to anyone hoping to use Foucault to support traditional religious belief and practice.”

  • Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay HagiographyDavid M. Halperin

    A reading of Foucault in the context of gay identity and politics.

    A reading of Foucault in the context of gay identity and politics.

  • Foucault and Augustine: Reconsidering Power and LoveJ. Joyce Schuld

    Schuld's stance is discerning and broadly balanced, resolving to the position that “Foucault ought to be read as providing a highly nuanced critique of distinct segments of the contemporary social environment that Christians can then examine with a different sort of attentiveness that is guided by a different set of presuppositions”.

    Schuld's stance is discerning and broadly balanced, resolving to the position that “Foucault ought to be read as providing a highly nuanced critique of distinct segments of the contemporary social environment that Christians can then examine with a different sort of attentiveness that is guided by a different set of presuppositions”.