The Philosophy of Michel Foucault
in relation to
Wesley W. Ellis
Azusa Pacific University
Professor Dan Speak
May 3, 2005
Foucault writes that truth cannot be separated from power and power can’t be separated from truth. We can not find truth by “freeing ourselves” or “liberating” ourselves. It has to come from some political or economical “regime of truth.” Those in power decide what is true. This concept is important to understand while involved in Christian ministry; people have given pastors this power over them. Because a minister has been entrusted with power he is the source of truth for the people he is ministering to.
Foucault gives us five “traits” of truth. The first “trait” is that Truth is “centered on the form of scientific discourse and the institutions which produce it.” When Foucault speaks of “scientific discourse” he isn’t necessarily referring specifically to physical sciences but to the scientific process or method in which a conclusion is derived. This discourse that he speaks of is the scientific method that comes to a conclusion about what is real, what is valid and what is held as truth. They use this discourse or method to produce truth. Scientific procedure is concrete; what Foucault earlier calls something that is “of this world.” Whoever is doing the thinking in a society, whoever is discovering social systems, these are the ones who are creating and discovering truth. They, the political system, are able to produce truth through discourse and discussions about what truth is, then diffuse and control their system around these truths.
This goes on in a church setting as well. The staff of the church designs what is often called a “mission statement” or a set of doctrine. If something is said contrary to the church doctrine it is deemed as a “false doctrine” and the amplifier is usually confronted and corrected according to the set truths of the church “regime.”
Biblical scripture does not give specific instruction as to how we are to systematize a gathering or how a Church should be hierarchically configured. The Church is required to construct their organization based on cultural conditioning and the current historical situation. The appropriateness of the structure is judged solely by the contemporary epoch of history in which it is placed. The Church must be approached as a “regime of truth.” There are three possible options for how a Church can be structured, how the doctrine or truth of the regime is diffused. Who engages in discourse?
The first opted structure is that pastor or minister is given the authority to decide the truth of the regime. The power is for all intents and purposes distributed to him. The minister is regarded as the one doing the studying and the people simply accept his information like sheep without question. The congregation is to form their doctrine and define it in terms of the pastor’s. The pastor, elders, and staff members are never expected to change according to the doctrines of the lay people. This is a “regime” that takes advantage of the hierarchical authority given to them and does not accept discourse formulating from outside the boundaries of the governing body.
The Mormon Church movement illustrates this structure. The Mormon “prophets” are said to be speaking the word of God from revelations or visions they receive. Their authority is the highest in the church. The prophets share the authority to change the doctrine of the church though they complete a minute portion of the association.
An alternate idea is that is everyone is accepted as part of the discourse of the church institution. When a person enters into the community of the church it is not that they are placed under the power of the church but that they become part of the established governing body. The goal of the pastor should be to give the people in the congregation part of this power which holds truth. The pastor should not be the authority. Members should also be the ones engaging in discourse. Everyone should be a minister in this regard.
This structure is reminiscent to the early Congregationalist church and the Quaker movement of the 1600’s. The Quakers had no pastor. The women as well as the men “were allowed to speak whenever the spirit moved them.” (Gonzalez 201). In both of these movements the congregation is the governing body. The Congregationalist church places boards of church members to make theological decisions and even decisions about pastoral staff hiring.
A concern arises from this anti hierarchical structure. Will there be no discernment as to who decides the theology publicized within the church? The idea is not that the church ought to tolerate “false doctrine” and allow anything to be said even illogical counter biblical canon. Church is not an establishment set out to simply make conversions to a set of doctrine but to make better of the world. It is an establishment of community and service, it is to meet the needs and make good the problems around them. The things taught in the church are less important than the utility played by the church. In essence the teachings that are taught are not inculcated but constantly discoursed.
Thirdly we must consider if there is such a thing as an anti hierarchical structure. Foucault’s observations about regimes of truth and the diffusion of their ideas are not to be avoided but viewed in the correct terms. When a church sends out missionaries to feed the poor they are diffusing a type of moral truth; feeding the poor is good. If a pastor makes known that all his or her ideas are subject to testing and discussion then his hierarchical position is potentially beneficial. The teacher or pastor may teach what he or she has studied without it being understood as infallible truth. This outlook places a value on the superior education that the pastor has obtained that would not exist within the anti hierarchical structure. This value should not be taken advantage of. The pastor must never claim to be speaking the words of God for in that he is placing an unquestionable authority upon himself.
The second point Foucault makes is that “truth is subject to constant economic and political incitement.” Here power is attempting to get people to do what will “get the job done.” It could be asked “what must be true for end “A” to be reached and for truth “X” to be accepted or diffused among the masses?” They proceed in modeling their economic truth-structure around what they found needed to be true to reach their desired end. Truth is molded around whatever the economy and government wants it to be. For instance, when Hitler decided that Jews were the problem of Germany’s failing economy that became “truth” because he held the political power. He was able to incite people to follow him and his political policies. His truth gave him power.
Many Christians today in our culture are Christians for convenience. We tell them that life will be better if they become a Christian. When we say that people should “give their life to Christ” we are saying that he will take care of them. The truth wasn’t the same for the early church. In the early church if a person entered the church some bad things could happen. There was persecution and exile from their social status. They were viewed as heretics because they accepted things other than the social norm. Their views were different than the power over them and consequences followed. In many cases they were forced to sacrifice their lives.
For instance, the social norm in the first century was to not be a Christian. The social norm was embodied by people such as Marcus Aurelius (Gladiator) where family played a significant sociological factor in their lives. Jesus came along and said that his disciples must “hate” their families (Luke 14). His claim was counter-cultural and not accepted by what Foucault would call a social truth. Culture today says family values are second to personal ambitions. What’s best for the family comes second to what is important for the individual. Truth, according to Foucault in this instance, would articulate that truth is subject to the political and economic “incitements” particular to certain times in history.
Next Foucault says truth “is the object…of immense diffusion and consumption.” This means that truth is constantly being spread, consumed and accepted among people under the “regime”. When truth is diffused and accepted it takes power in places where it wouldn’t have before. It is a broadening of horizons, an expanding of influence, of this or that particular truth. It is intrinsically conquering or consuming of territory. Hitler wanted his view of truth to be diffused throughout the world so his objectives would be fulfilled. That is, that his power would be made true. This supports the idea that truth is a means to reach the end and this end is power. Foucault then goes on to say that it diffuses by “apparatuses through education and information.” If we teach our truth well more and more people will accept this truth. The power of this particular truth, which we established as a means to power, is now held over the people who admit that truth, our truth.
Look at evangelism in the church. We often speak of broadening or expanding the kingdom of heaven. In this we believe that this expanding kingdom gives God the power over more and more people’s lives. Just as Hitler wanted to spread power, Christianity wants to give this same power to God to whoever accepts their truth. It is also established through “apparatuses” such as Sunday school, ministry and main church services where teaching takes place. There is a will that people would accept the truth. Foucault would argue that this gives the church more power. The more people that accept church, the more power the church has.
It is conceivable that Jesus counteracted a negative view of His diffusion or evangelism, the idea that truth is a means to reach an end and this end being power. The negative view is that the diffusion of His teachings was rooted in a desire to dominate for egocentric purposes. A key element to following and being a disciple of Christ is that the service of others comes before service of self. Jesus exemplifies this servant hood element in the book of John chapter 13; “After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.” Jesus also said “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30). It is essential to understand Jesus’ power, His regime of truth, the kingdom of God, as one of selfless compassion not of manipulative domination.
A biblical understanding of the church’s function of diffusion is one without manipulative elements. Christian ministry must understand Foucault’s description of the relationship that exists in the “outreach” or “evangelism” before going about it. Often manipulation takes place in evangelism. Doing evangelism is often distorted into attempting to instill doctrine into the mind of those being evangelized to. But what is their doctrine? It would seem that if there was an appropriate application of biblical interpretation in evangelism the best method would instead of dogmatic discourse there be an illustration of servant-hood, a sort of showing rather than informing. It seems that the essential elements of Christianity are not tenets of information, or written doctrine, but things that cannot be contained in language but only shown in action.
The action is the message. Many times the church will act in order to gain credibility so that people will come to agree with their truth. For example they might offer a sandwich to a hungry person in exchange for the time of day to share their set of guidelines, their doctrine. If this is done then the truth the regime is trying to diffuse is not to closely associated with the action “of love” being done. Scripture does support that the action in itself should be the message, that we should be compassionate and meet needs simply because there is a need to be met? If the action is the means to power than we must see Jesus not as a compassionate savior but one who served in order to manipulate people to accept his authority. If this is true than Jesus was loving with an agenda. His agenda was power. Is that love at all?
Next Foucault says that “truth is produced and transmitted under the control…of a few great political and economic apparatuses (university, army, writing, media).” These few apparatuses control the transmission of truth, how the truth is communicated, and the procedure used for its production. This means that most people are not leaders. Everyone is a follower of something in someway. Sometimes we may even be the apparatus of transmission, meaning we “transmit” a truth that we have placed in power over ourselves.
An example of that in the church might be the transference of information through teaching times. The pastor often calls us to be an “apparatus” or witness to Jesus Christ (i.e. the great commission). When we do this we are not viewing ourselves as the power. We are viewing the truth that we are transmitting as the power. Basically we are a tool for telling people about the power over us. Pastors often say, “It’s not about you. It’s about how God wants to use you.” Thus we are not the truth itself but just a witness to the truth (1 John 1:2).
Lastly Foucault states that truth “is the issue of a whole political debate and social confrontation (‘ideological’ struggles).” Foucault is saying different factions fight over who is “right” and “wrong.” These factions have been fighting all throughout history. Different factions have been considered more “right” in some eras or epochs in history and others more “wrong.” For instance, during the 1960’s it was much more popular to be a liberal. Nowadays with a conservative court, a conservative president and a conservative congress it is more popular to be conservative. Liberal was more “correct” forty years ago and now conservatives are more “correct.” But all throughout these forty years there has been an “ideological struggle” for who is right.
Often in the church we share a common set of values yet struggle between two perspectives of truth to get to a common end. These small differences in perception create a figurative pendulum swing. For example, before the reformation means for salvation included many sacraments. The reformation took the power away from the Catholic Church swinging this pendulum away from community, dependency upon the body of Christ and into an individualistic viewpoint on salvation (i.e. the “personal relationship with Christ” theology). Now the pendulum seems to be swinging back into community. Community is now more essential to living the Christian life.
Foucault’s view of ministry is a power relationship diffusing Christian doctrine to church attendees. We may view a minister as an apparatus for implanting information into the minds of his listeners as a means to convert them to his or her understanding and his way of life. We must ask if this is an appropriate definition for “minister.” A simple definition given to us by the Encarta English dictionary for the word ministry is “the profession and services of a religious minister.” In light of the given definition we must examine ministry in terms of what a minister is and what a minister does. What is the “service” that we are speaking of?
To understand the proper function of a Christian minister we must view it through the scope of the Christian scriptures, the Bible. In the New Testament there are three words in scripture for minister the first being “hupēretēs (ὑπηρέτης)” This Greek word is best translated “minister, officer, servant.” (Strong’s G5257) This word appears as “servant” (Matthew 26:58), “minister” (Luke1:2) and “officers” (John 7:32) in the King James translations. The two remaining both come from the Greek word “diakonos (διάκονος)” best translated as “deacon” The Strong’s dictionary gives us this translated definition; “an attendant, that is, (generally) a waiter (at table or in other menial duties); specifically a Christian teacher and pastor (technically a deacon or deaconess):—deacon, minister, servant” (Strong’s G1249).
The word “minister” has dual implications. “Hupēretēs,” contained in its definition are two seemingly opposite functions, the function of officer and the function of servant. In the definition given for the second word (from which roots a third word used as plural form and contains the same essential definition) “diakonos” we see the word “attendant.” This word has messy implications. This word “servant” contained in the definition is appropriately associated with “dirty work.”
Greek words so closely associated with Christian ministry contrive two contrasting ideas. It seems that a minister is a servant with authority or power of sort because of these contrasting themes. Concerns arise from this definition of ministry. What sort of balance is to exist between servant hood and authority? We must view this authority in the correct terms. Is a minister the apparatus of doctrine or one of service and love? A form of service is, in a certain situation, an elucidation of private positive experience with an idea or standard of living (a testimony). Wise counsel is authority that is necessary to extend. This is a spread of doctrine or wisdom for the desired end to serve. If the diffusion of doctrine conflicts with love it is not in fact a biblical picture of ministry.
Foucault doesn’t see the intellectuals as the “bearers of universal values.” It is not the intellectual who decides what is and is not important. People have to be in positions of power to decide the “universal values.” The author of a book has no credibility established preceding his position of power as an author. The intelligence, in itself, of a person gives them no liberty to disperse their ideas. There must first be obtained a position of power proportionate to the size of the social assembly to which his or her ideas are to be disbursed. The intellectual must have certain status to be heard in society.
This is illustrated in ministry well. If a lay person has extensive knowledge of scriptures that does not, by default, deem them an influence in the church. They carry not the same authority as the pastor who, in speculation, may not have equal knowledge or education. The power in society lies in the position they hold not in their intellect. A lay person does not sway the theological thoughts of the church. The “barer” of value is the individual with the designation that gives them authority to hold value or truth.
There are undeniable problems existing in our social order. There exists a persistent confliction of Ideas. Foucault writes “the problem is not changing people’s consciousness ---or what’s in their heads--- but the political, economical institutional regime of the production of truth.” Truth is not a product of free thinking but dependency on “constraint.” The problem is not in the mind of the individual but the regime that has power over them.
Power and truth are not mutually exclusive. Power and Truth are one in the same and dependant upon one another. If a belief or a truth is embraced then the power from which the truth came is surrendered to. In ministry there must exist a consciousness of the ideas which are shared and the motives that drive diffusion of their ideas. The minister is to communicate that he or she is not the power from which the truth came from but from the divine. The main concern is not that the churches theology is “diffused and consumed” but that the motive in teaching theology is for life to be changed in a positive way. Men often sit and discourse and discuss but nothing is ever done with their ideas. Their thoughts do not reflect on their everyday lives. If ministry is how it has been described in scripture. If ministry is about service (not to limit it only to that) than its intention should be service, not power. Ministry should be performed not with a manipulative spirit, a deceptive intention but with a spirit of empathy, a compassionate heart. There is an existing power relationship in ministry that cannot be taken advantage of lest the perception of Christianity, the very definition of minister be changed forever. For if the power is placed upon false ideals and hypocritical dogma the truth will indeed change and be molded to reach the ends of the deceitful and selfish regimes within humanity.
Works Cited :
1. Truth and power, Michel Foucault. 1972
2. The Story of Christianity, Justo L. Gonzales. 1985
3. Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionary,2000