Neat. The English online version of a Turkish paper has a interview with James W. Bernauer, the American author of several books on the French philosopher Michel Foucault, tied in to the publication of a Turkish translation of one of his books. Bernauer teaches at Boston College and many of his books and papers identify him as James w. Bernauer S.J. which indicates that he is a member of the Jesuits, and therefore a Catholic scholar.
Bernauer says that Foucault’s later writings looked at philosophy as a method of care for the self and spirituality as a method of resisting the ideology of power imposed over individuals by society.
The article looks at a number of papers – mainly by Catholic theologians – which assert that Foucault, who was not otherwise a religious person, saw some value in religious practice. He was interested in the Islamic revolution and saw the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran as the evolution of a different consciousness, as discussed in article by Wesley Yang in the Boston Globe, and in an excerpt from an article Foucault wrote in Iran in 1978. In those days he was interested in religion as power exercised in opposition to cultural and political forces.
It would appear that religious thinkers are trying to use him to build up religion by tearing down the intellectual structures of science and atheist philosophy. In other works, Foucault criticized “reason” as a form of discourse used by people with power to maintain their own power. At one time he tried to write about the concept of the episteme, a kind of all-embracing cultural world view. This might imply, consistently with various forms of religious discourse, that empirical science and rational skepticism are just one other way of looking at the world, with no particular claims to influence the decisions people make or the way we talk and think.
This kind of thinking can’t go far in the institutional church which promotes a more literal understanding of the value of religious truth. Foucault is not a very appealing teacher either. Most Catholics are pretty conservative on social and sexual issues. In the final analysis, the Catholic church is not going to adopt the ideas a gay postmodern French intellectual who praised and practiced S&M, enjoyed the bathhouse culture of San Francisco in the 1970’s, and died of AIDS. If these ideas are going to find their way into Catholic theology, it will be by uncredited borrowing.
I suspect that these papers simply read too much support for religion into Foucault’s work. His initial assessment was that religious knowledge and practice is a system of power exercised over people, rather than a force for human freedom. I will accept Bernauer’s assessment that Foucault thought and wrote about religious practice, but I am not sure that I can easily accept the idea that he became a religious thinker. The idea of that a religious episteme or world view can replace a scientific or rational world view is rather slippery. For some decisions – personal, political, social and economic – people have different values and different ways of seeing the world. However not all of those world views deserve freedom and respect.