Posted on: August 24th, 2022 Foucault’s History of Sex (IV): the Formation of a New Experience

In his belated and eyebrow-raising fourth volume of his History of Sexuality—posthumously published three and a half decades after his death and against the expressed terms of his will—what does Foucault take himself to be doing?

It is difficult to know. Perhaps that is OK, since I am only three chapters in.

I’d like to interact with the material up through the end of chapter 3 (“The Second Penance”) of Part I (“The Formation of a New Experience”).

What becomes fairly clear after the initial chapter—in which Foucault shows that Clement of Alexandria’s “sexual ethic” is mainly continuous with that of certain ancient Greek & Roman philosophers (Musionius Rufus, Athenagoras, Marcus Aurelius), but now democratized and shown to be consistent with God’s revealed logos—is that he is narrating something like a history/genealogy of modern subjectivity. He repeatedly points out how, both in the ancient Christian practice of baptism (chapter 2) and in that of penance (chapter 3) one sees the development of new ways of “the self relating to the self.” This involves various disciplines and practices, but for Foucault it is mainly a matter of speaking or manifesting or (best of all) doing “one’s own truth.”

At one point in chapter two he distinguishes between what one could regard as a spatialized subjectivity (which splits the self into subject and object; this is the focus of his discussion, in his The Order of Things, of the “empirico-transcendental doublet” stemming from Kant, of which he is highly critical) on the one hand, and a temporalized subjectivity on the other: “Metanoia doesn’t split the soul into one part that knows and another that must be known. It holds together, in the order of time, that which one no longer is and that which one is already….”

“That which one no longer is.” This phrase, it seems to me, emerges as the core of Foucault’s point in the book thus far. Both in baptism and in penance, one begins to see the development of an attitude toward the self—an attitude (almost certainly) previously unknown in human culture—of self-rupture. A way of adopting a new identity that breaks with the old one.

The last few lines of chapter 3 radiate in their sublimity:

The pentitant, says Saint Ambrose, must be that young man who comes back home, and the girl he had loved presents herself and says: Here I am, ego sum.  To which he replies: Sed ego non sum ego. A day will come, in the history of the penitential practice, when the sinner will have to present himself to the priest and verbally itemize his sins: ego sum. But in its early form, penance, at the same time a mortification and a veridiction, is the way of affirming ego non sum ego. The rites of exomologesis ensure that this rupture is produced.

Foucault, history of sexuality, vol iv, 78.

What does this history of subjectivity have to do with sexuality, though? Somehow, Foucault wants to trace a genealogy that produces our contemporary assumption (conviction?) that sexuality is the core of our identity. How does he do this, and does he succeed? I hope to answer those questions soon.

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Posted on: August 11th, 2022 Gregory of Nyssa on Human Sexual Difference

For Gregory of Nyssa, writing in his On the Making of Man, sexual difference is not simply a beneficent feature of the good creation God made, but rather is a result of the fall of the human race into sin. (More precisely it is the result of God’s foreknowledge of man’s fall.)

In §16 Greg is saying that, in Gen 1:27, we see something like a two-step process or dynamic or development. First, God created man in his image, with no sexual differentiation. Then, in a later step (or in some kind of derivative manner) God, “perceiving beforehand by his power of foreknowledge what, in a state of independence and freedom, is the tendency of the motion of man’s will,” introduced the distinction between male and female. [206] Yet, Gregory re-emphasizes, this distinction has no reference to the Divine Archetype.” [207] Rather it “is an approximation to the less rational nature.” (Here Greg is thinking of the irrational nature of “brutes.”” [205])

In §17 Gregory is arguing against some “adversaries” of his. Yet, for our purposes here, what he agrees on with his adversaries is far more important than what he disagrees with them on (namely, that, given the absence of procreation and marriage before the fall, had man not sinned, “human souls would not have existed in plurality” [209] and “the human race would have remained in the pair of the first-formed.” [209]

What does he agree with them on? Far more importantly, Gregory holds the common assumption with them that the original intention of God for his human creature(s) in paradise did not include sexual procreation or marriage. (Further, he implies that, along with the absence of these two features, sexual difference itself is absent.)

Now, what does this stance of Gregory’s imply for the sex(uality) and gender wars of our contemporary culture, including church culture, or the situation within the churches?

First, I must register one additional point. One of Gregory’s themes is that the cosmic eschaton (the final destiny of the human race and indeed all creation, named variously as “the beatific vision”; “deification”; “the new heavens and the new earth”) is correlated to the origin. We glimpse this insistence of Gregory’s not only in the title of §23 (“That he who confesses the beginning of the world’s existence must necessarily agree also as to its end”), but also in the inherent logic of his argument in §17, his rebuttal against his “adversaries.” Appealing to Jesus’ response to the Sadducees in Lk 20:35–6, that “in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage,” Gregory writes that:

Now the resurrection promises us nothing else than the restoration of the fallen to their ancient state; for the greace we look for is a certain return to the first life, bringing back again Paradise to him who was cast out from it. If then the life of those restored is closely related to that of the angels, it is clear that the life before the transgression was a kind of angelic life, bringing back to Paradise him who was cast from it. If then the life of those restored is closely related to that of angels, it is clear that the life before the transgression was a kind of angelic life, and hence also our return to the ancient condition of our life is compared to the angels.

Saint gregory of nyssa, On the making of man tr. taken from vol 8 of The Nicene and post-nicene fathers (Brookline, MA: Paterikon, 2017), 209.

I hasten to add, in a preview of how I plan to develop this theme, that in his recent Tradition and Apocalypse, David Bentley Hart stresses that, what it means to be faithful to (the) Christian tradition is not simply to attend to the past (the Scriptures, the apostles, the church fathers, and the teachings and events therein), but also to the “future,” or rather to the final telos envisioned in those same events and writings. Not just the origin, but the eschaton.

Isn’t it interesting that, in the above text, Gregory of Nyssa is discussing both? In both, human beings are conceived of as sexless in some very real sense. What implications might this have for our contemporary struggles with sex & gender? To that question I hope to turn my attention very soon.

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Posted on: August 1st, 2022 Hosea, Gomer, & “Sex Workers”

Sometime over the last few months, I have discovered a kindred spirit in the person of Mark Vernon. I have never met Mark (I’ve only interacted with him very briefly online), but through his youtube videos & his books (one book, rather, for I’ve not yet gotten to the others), I can tell that he is channeling something that resonates with my own views/interests/posture. (Sidenote: it was our shared interest in the work of David Bentley Hart that allowed Mark to emerge on my “radar screen.”)

The book in question, The Secret History of Christianity: Jesus, the Last Inkling, and the Evolution of Consciousness (a bit of an unfortunate title, I admit, as it evokes Dan-Brown type images of conspiracy and underground, possibly new-agey plots), is a gem not simply because of the way it applies the thought of Owen Barfield (dear friend of Lewis & Tolkien, whom they both regarded as the most intelligent of the three), but also because of one particular focus it has by way of a “shift” in (what Vernon thinks of as) spiritual consciousness: that of the eighth-century prophets of Israel, Amos and Hosea in particular.

For it just so happens that in my Episcopal parish we have been reading “the Bible in one year” (thanks, Nicky Gumbel!) and discussing it in our Sunday morning Christian Formation Class, that last couple of weeks focusing on the minor prophets of Jonah, Amos, and Hosea.

Allow me to quote the upshot of Vernon’s point about these prophetic shifts in posture:

Looking back, we can say that the genius of the eighth-century prophets was to intuit that, amidst the anxieties of the age, a new consciousness of themselves and God was unfolding. What Amos and Hosea, in particular, were beginning to realize was that, as the monarchy failed, the nature of the covenant must change. It would no longer be held in the pooled identity of the kingly theocratic order. People would need to come to know Yahweh’s presence in a different way. Only, at this stage, it was entirely unclear in what way.

Vernon, Secret History, 23.

Now, in our Formation Class yesterday morning, we had an interesting discussion about Gomer, the prostitute whom God commanded Hosea to marry. One good friend (extremely thoughtful) in the discussion suggested that I should refer to Gomer as a “sex worker,” I suggestion which I received with open appreciation. However, reading the Vernon book is causing me to reconsider, for he rightly points out that “Gomer … was a sacred prostitute in the cult of Baal.” Unlike a “sex worker” that we might find the twenty-first century West, this woman is not working for a wage. Rather, she is enmeshed in a system of religious power. While a sex worker has (or ought to have, according to some, myself probably included) the same kind of autonomy, the same rights, as any other worker in a secular, capitalist society, Gomer is, quite plainly, a religious slave.

This slave also turns out to be a symbol that the Hebrew Bible uses to make a point about the new thing that God is doing in his history with his people: the deepening of a relationship starkly different from those having to do with the traditional deities of that age. This relationship is one of the heart, one of love. It is a relationship with God uncountenanced within the context of what Barfield calls “original participation.”

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