Friday, 30 October 2009

Engaging with Foucault: can we believe in truth any more?

I spoke earlier in the week at Sheffield CU's lunchbar, engaging with issues of truth. As a social scientist, it's great to be engaging with writers like Michel Foucault. (I've written before on whether Foucault is correct in thinking power must always be used in a way that invariably restricts freedoms). I owe part of my thinking here to Tim Keller. Here's a summary of what I said:

20th Century philosophies of truth: your perspective informs what you understand the truth to be. When we look at the world around us, each of us sees it from within the horizons of our own world, whether those horizons are linguistic, emotional, social, artistic or whatever. Actually our perception of things is, at best, a limited or partial view of the truth.

Foucault's bit: he added to the above by claiming that truth claims are invariably power plays (as they limit the freedoms of others to chose to live as they like).

This leads us to a kind of paralysis. The big questions are unanswerable. And when we do decide to land on one answer as opposed to another, we can get accused of trying to get power over someone else. We long for truth - but instead all we have is lots of information, a whole load of 'partial truths' at best.

Jesus on Foucault: Jesus agreed that truth can be used as a power play (e.g. in the way that he confronts the teachers of the Law in Luke 11).

We’ve all experienced times when people have spoken genuine truth to us but they have not spoken it to us in love. Instead they’ve told it to us to hurt us, to wound us, to injure us. Yes, we can step back and say, 'What you’ve said is true, but the way you said it; well, you are intending to hurt me, not to help me.' And Jesus would say: "Listen, it’s not the claim to truth that does this – that hurts people. It’s what’s in the truth claim and its intent that matters."

Let's look at Jesus by these criteria...

1. Jesus claimed to speak as someone not limited by his humanity. Jesus was a Jewish man in the 1st Century. But he claimed to speak as God in human form: that he had a God’s-eye view of the Universe. And so he claimed not just to be having a good guess about how things are, but to reveal and embody the truth.

2. Jesus' mission (in his own words) was to bring freedom. While most religions and belief systems present God as static and making demands upon us, Christianity trusts in the God who has served us, in coming to us and dying for us. And so for Christians, true freedom is found in relationship with God. When we realize all that Jesus has done to serve us and give himself for us, this speaks to our fears of giving up our independence, finding true freedom in him.

3. The intent behind Jesus' truth claims. Jesus claimed that he isn’t out to control people like us, rather he’s out to free us and to bring us into the relationship with God we’re made for. In fact Jesus was so committed to us that it ultimately led to his voluntary death in our place. So as you consider Jesus’ truth claims, test the person of Jesus: does he seem out to coerce or control?

A person is transformed when they encounter undeserved sacrifice. Once you’ve encountered someone who sacrifices on your behalf and you know you don’t deserve it, you’re aware you can never be the same. It requires transformation. That is what drives Christians. Out of love for Christ and love for others, they long to see others entering into that relationship of life with Jesus. And so Christians are committed to loving their friends (and their enemies) and pointing them to Jesus, building strong relationships based on truth. That is the natural outcome of Jesus’ teaching and intent.

So, as a Christian, can you believe in truth any more?

This was a question I used to wrestle through as I did my Masters which embraced lots of continental philosophy. Can I believe in truth any more as a Christian? Yes, because truth has made itself known in the person of Jesus; because truth diagnoses me as I really am, then offers an antidote; and because truth shows itself when lived out fully in beautiful others-centred relationships that do not hurt others but build them up.


Chris said...

Hey Pete
How did it go? I might have gone to the despair of trying to escape power before goin to Jesus but I'm interested what areas u thought hit home clearly and if u felt any sections even while speaking seemed to be clunking with the audience?
That aside, hope ur toilet's still providing amusement!

peterdray said...

Hi Chris

I did actually do a bit on the despair side of things actually, just didn't put it in my little precis then.

There were quite a few from the atheist society there. Think point 3 particularly hit home there. I also spent quite a while explaining why Christians were involved in the task of evangelism and how that related to Jesus' own mission, rather than merely an assault on power.

I think the critique of Foucault was well received; particularly the distinction between all truth being a powerplay and the fact that truth sometimes can be used for powerplay.

Had a number of chats afterwards but they were on an incredibly diverse range of subjects, including the pursuit of truth and relating to science, and some questions of Biblical interpretation and hermeneutics.