Blogging on a very recently published volume of Michel Foucault’s lecture courses at the Collège de France, Du gouvernement des vivants: Cours au Collège de France. 1979-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 2012).
In the lecture of February 13th, Foucault focuses on early Christian ideas of Baptism, along with associated notions of sin, confession and so on. His account partly uses a contrast between Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian. I’m too ignorant of these two Church Fathers to deal with this. I would be using an account of texts which I have not read, a hazardous enterprise, so I won’t make any further reference to those two.
Foucault sees Baptism as containing a contradiction. I should say something about what Baptism is for those from non-Chritian cultures, end even those from Christian cultures who have a secular upbringing and life. Baptism is a ceremony (a sacrament even) which brings a baby into the Christian community, in which the baby is anointed with holy water (water blessed by a priest). The ceremony contains references to renouncing Satan which Foucault mentions. What I am referring to here is the Catholic ceremony, which would be the form most familiar to Foucault. I’m not competent to say much about variations in all Christian denominations, but I believe all practice baptism. Some Protestant emphasise adult Baptism, on the grounds that a baby cannot understand and consent to Christian doctrine. Adult baptism can be a new demonstration of faith for those who have always belonged to that religious community, and it can be for adult converts. These adult ceremonies typically involve immersion of the whole body in the water of a river.
The ceremony of baptism itself goes bad to a New Testament incident where Christ is baptised by the holy man, John the Baptist, so as Foucault points out was applied to Christ by someone whose teaching preceded the formation of Christianity. As Foucault also points out, the importance of water in the ceremony refers back to Moses, who found as a baby in a basket in a river, and who held back the Red Sea, so that the Israelites could escape from bondage in Egypt. The ceremony also includes the more abstract idea of the Holy Spirt entering the soul of the baptised subject. The Holy Spirit is part of the trinity, the idea that God is three in one, which also includes Christ the Son and God the Father. Most Christians are Trinitarians, but there are some who are not including Unitarians. The Holy Spirit is the aspect of God which communicates God’s message.
Foucault looks at the oddity noted above that Christ was baptised, though baptism is part of the teaching of Christianity and so cannot be administered by someone who is not a Christian, and John could not be a Christian since he was in business as a holy man before Christ started preaching his own message. Foucault notes that this problem came up in early Christian writing and a solution was offered. The solution being that baptism has a dual nature and that John had only performed baptisms which included the first nature. That first aspect is renunciation, renunciation of sin, of the world and of Satan. The second aspect is illumination with the word, love and light of God, which is only possible after the first stage.
What is renounced in us as satan is otherness within us according to Foucault. That is Satan is what enters us from outside to deceive us and distract us from God and goodness. The idea of Satan itself brings up ambiguities within Christian belief according to Foucault. Christianity since its early years, and maybe particularly in its early years has dealt with a tension between a soul that is pure and a soul that is always stained by the material world. The second position has some traces of Platonism and Gnosticism, that is the position in which the material world is deeply flawed, rather than belonging fully to the greatness of divine creation. The first position allows for the innocence of the infant soul which is baptised, while the second position is mıre trouble d by a position in which the soul can ever be pure in the material world. The attempted resolution of those two positions in Christianity which have precedents in pre-Christian thought (the Hebrew Bible on one side; Platonist philosophical texts and Gnostic religious texts on the other side) comes through Satan. Satan can enter the soul, though the soul is by its nature pure (and Satan was an angel who rebelled while dwelling in Heaven). Satan is what we do not believe to be part of the soul, or our real soul. Our real soul, by its nature, does not need the worldly pleasures and values that Satan tempts us towards. Satan marks the ways we do things, want things, and thinks about things,which our soul rejects when it is true to itself.
Foucault’s account of Satan, as the other in the soul, intersects with the Christian belief in separation of soul and body, and the contamination of the soul by the body. Baptism is a way in which Christianity tries to resolve these issues by allowing for the innocence of a baptised child, and of illumination following renunciation. Christianity adds to the ascetic renunciation that is in John the Baptist’s teaching, by allowing for the soul to be flooded by God through the Holy Spirit as a consequence of renunciation, of separation from the inner otherness of Satan, even if it is a renunciation by proxy and must be undermined by our fallen nature. Baptism tries to reconcile the fallen nature of existence in the material world, appearing in Christianity as sin inherited from the Edenic Fall, with the Christian hope of grace from God which allows perfection even in this material fallen existence. All of this builds on pre-Christian notions of subjectivity, care of the self, and the self-relation of the self, which Foucault wrote about at some length.