"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Foucault on Power and Authority in the Church (II)

Previously I noted that this book begins from the premise that the Church's understanding of power is problematic insofar as it is tied to worldly notions of sovereignty (which I have treated elsewhere at length). Much of the burden of the author consists in his trying to show how corrupting "sovereignty" is in a body which purports to incarnate in the world the kingdom of Him who came not to be served but to serve, and who surrendered His sovereignty by taking the very nature of a servant (cf. Phil. 2). In particular, Ogden notes that the Church has often failed to protect the innocent and vulnerable in e.g., child sex abuse cases, because of a belief that bishops are sovereign.

After addressing the challenges of using Foucault theologically, the author notes in his introduction that his other major interlocutor will be the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner.

Ogden's second chapter begins from the premise that "authority is an important concept in the Church but it is under-theorized," which I certainly find to be true. He goes on to note that in Foucault as in others, there is often a great deal of reflection on power, but relatively little on authority--which, as I noted previously, should not surprise us insofar as one of the achievements of emotivism is to obliterate precisely this distinction. Only towards the end of his third chapter will Ogden begin to attempt defining authority, a process that is itself not at all straightforward insofar as it is often self-legitimating. It is at this point that Ogden brings Hannah Arendt into the conversation with Foucault, especially her essay "What is Authority?"

For Arendt, authority is neither coercive nor persuasive, but personal and foundational, resting on an office and its respect. For Arendt (and other historians), such foundational offices passed from the Roman Empire into the Roman Church as the former began to decline and the latter picked up some of the pieces. In time, such a move would be legitimated by being considered part of "tradition," a notion Ogden addresses briefly at this point by drawing on MacIntyre.

Foucault rarely treats authority as such, preferring instead to concentrate his focus on the mesh of power-relations that is ever shifting. One must not see power in monochromatic terms here, for power is dynamic, and power-relations usually more complex than a simple binary of dominator-dominated. This is all the more true, Ogden says, in the Church whose "problems are more complex than a stereotypical bifurcation of exploitive leaders and ill-fated followers." And it is not the leaders Ogden is expecially concerned about so much as their, and the whole Church's reliance on "the influence of sovereign power" and the reliance on "a monarchical model of leadership."

From here, following Foucault, Ogden then examines the relationship between power and the production of knowledge. This has especial relevance in the Church insofar as episcopally structured ecclesial bodies see those hierarchs as having an authoritative teaching role to declare certain things to be true or false. The problem here, the very real risk abundantly in evidence in every church and indeed human organization of any sort, is that of "epistemic hubris," which Ogden introduces in ch.2 but develops further in ch.3.

The temptations to epistemic hubris seem inevitable in a system that sets up certain leaders as "my lord bishop," as patriarch of all the Russias, or "your all-holiness." Each of those figures presides over "sovereign" territory--whether a diocese, or a unit much larger. Once again, then, we are back to the problem of sovereignty, and as chapter 3 closes, Ogden rightly notes how much of the discussion here is indebted to Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Giorgio Agamben, and others.

At the end of ch. 3 Ogden has narrowed his focus to look at sovereignty, authority, and power, in the diocesan structures of the Anglican Communion, especially in Australia. But before he begins that, his next brief chapter "The Spell of Monarchy and the Sacralization of Obedience," deals with the fact that from its founding Anglicanism "still has not cut the head off the king." Thus Anglican episcopacy lives very much in imitation of monarchical patterns--ruling over sovereign territory, compelling conformity of behavior and discipline, and sacralizing authority and its commands as "pastoral."

A brief mention of the Christian East is introduced here from Foucault, whose understanding of "pastoral power" is traced through early Egyptian and Jewish monarchical ideas to later notions of spiritual direction in the Desert Fathers--so well treated in Five Models of Spiritual Direction in the Early Church by the Orthodox scholar George Demacopoulos.

The dangers of spiritual directors and confessors abusing their power is by no means limited to the first millennium, as this recent essay suggests.

If sovereignty, power, and authority all have risks--epistemic hubris, abuse of minorities and the vulnerable, etc--what alternatives have we? Here, in chapter 5, is where Ogden begins to sketch some alternative possibilities to conceive of the Church as "an open space of freedom."


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