1 John and Foucault

As I haltingly make my way through the New Testament, starting with the very easy book of 1 John, I came to verse 2:28:

Καὶ νῦν, τεκνία, μένετε ἐν αὐτῷ, ἵνα ἐὰν φανερωθῇ σχῶμεν παρρησίαν καὶ μὴ αἰσχυνθῶμεν ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

The NRSV translates it as follows:

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming.

The word translated as “confidence” is none other than the famous Foucauldian word “parrhesia.” I found a devotional reading online that picked up on the real meaning of the word, but appeared to abstract it from its context and claim that Christians should be bold in approaching God in prayer — yet in this particular context, we are promised that we will speak boldly to Christ at his coming. What does that mean? And in connection with that, how should we understand the part translated as “not be put to shame before him”? (I’d suggest “not be dishonored by him.”)

8 thoughts on “1 John and Foucault

  1. I think it’s the right to say everything rather than the act of speaking that is meant here. It’s a juridical right, or something one person can grant another. Spouses sometimes had it in antiquity: it’s a sign of intimacy. Presumably the shame would be because I had spoken without being granted parrhesia and been told to shut the fuck up.
    I’m afraid I don’t have the courses with me, so I can’t find out what Foucault said about this, but it’s basically the final chapter of the 1984 course: there he discusses parrhesia in the NT, and draws fairly heavily on the Theological Dictionary of the NT and perhaps the dictionary of spirituality.

  2. Andy, That makes sense to me. I was picturing some kind of back and forth where the believer would speak up and then Christ would “diss” them or something (thereby dishonoring them) — good to see that such a hypothetical scene is actually in the background here. It would be really interesting to see what Foucault himself does with the passage.

    Bruce, I wondered that, too.

  3. SPOILER ALERT: 1 John 3:21-22 uses the same word: “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.” I think this helps understand the use in Chapter 2 as well.

    My sense of the idea would be that, if my heart condemns me, then I am ashamed to speak up before Christ, either in prayer (as in chapter 3) or when he comes (as in chapter 2).

    The absence of free speaking, and also being put to shame before him, would be when Christ shows up at the bar, and says “What are you drinking? It’s on me!” and I’m like, “No, really, Jesus, that’s okay” because I’m thinking about how I’ve been all pissed off for weeks about how he hasn’t been answering my email.

  4. Bauer suggests “be disappointed in hope” as a possible reading of the verb in other contexts, which might fit this one as well. Whether or not it does, might not Agamben’s reading of shame in Remnants of Auschwitz as the subjective experience of objectivity apply here? Especially in light of a few verses down (1 John 3:2) which shame-free experience of recognition and communion is then in effect contingent on the abiding of 1 John 2:28?

  5. From the 1984 course:

    “La parresia…ne designe plus simplement le courage de l’individu qui en quelque sorte, seul en face des autres, a a leur dire vrai, et ce qu’il en est de ce qu’il faut faire. Cette autre parresia que l’on voit se dessiner se definit comme une sorte de modalite de rapport a Dieu, modalite pleine et positive. Il s’agit de quelque chose comme l’ouverture de coeur, la transparence de l’ame qui s’offre au regard de Dieu. Et en meme temps que se produit cetter ouverture de coeur, cette transparence de l’ame qui s’offre au regard de dieu. Et en meme temps que se produit cette ouverture de coeur, cette transparence de l’ame sous le regard de Dieu, il y a un mouvement en quelque sorte ascendant de cette ame pure qui l’eleve jusqu’au Tout-puissant” (297).

    A little later Foucault notes a sense in which parrhesia designated presence and manifestation of God: “…le mouvement par lequel Dieu manifeste Son etre comme puissance et sagesse, comme force de la verite. C’est a l’interieur de ce rapport ontologique de face-a-face, de vis-a-vis de l’homme et de Dieu, que la parrhesia tend…a se deplacer” (299).

    Foucault’s analysis of Plato’s Gorgias at the end of the previous year’s course is a pretty clear antecedent: the one-on-one, face-to-face communion and transparency, the movement of ascent, etc. Foucault doesn’t make this very clear in 1984 since he’s been analyzing the incorporation of a very different strand of parrhesia – Cynic parrhesia – into Christian practice. I’m sure Foucault would have liked to analyze parrhesia in Christianity at greater length.

  6. If parrhesia was understood as a sort of ‘speaking truth to power’- i.e taking a risk, confronting the powers that be with a speech castigated as ‘shameless’ because of one’s lowly origins- then a precondition for it was the indwelling of the spirit. The next stage is testifying. The third is enjoying the Parousia without shame or self-recrimination.

    Does any of this tie up with the Hegelian (or Kojeve’s Hegelian) struggle for recognition? Does the nutjob with the suicide bomb get to claim he has the monopoly of truth coz he wins the game of chicken?
    Is Truth to be proved not by Cartesian, or other similar, methods but by the number of martyrs and shaheeds (witnesses) it can claim?
    ‘..parrhesia is a verbal activity in which a speaker expresses his personal relationship to truth, and risks his life because he recognizes truth-telling as a duty to improve or help other people (as well as himself). In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy’

    It looks to me that in Christian parrhesia one is taking permission as it were to speak in the name of the indwelling Truth. One takes up the ‘talking stick’ after due protestation of one’s unworthiness- i.e. there is a sort of ritualization which disinfects information from having an impact on class relations.

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