In Our Lord’s Discipline and Punishment, I talked about Michel Foucault’s theory of disciplinary societies and how there is no escaping some form of discipline and punishment in human civilization. The only thing that must be considered is whether we are coerced into the world’s materialistic disciplinary system, many times unaware that we are even within its grasp, or whether we are voluntarily and knowingly submitting to God’s spiritual discipline and justice. Another aspect of Foucault’s work was his emphasis on the intersection between truth and power or oppression:
“Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Foucault, Truth and Power, p.131)
Foucault was a great admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche, from whom he derived many ideas about the nature of truth and power in human society. Nietzsche saw claims to “absolute truth” as being a means for those making the claims to exert control over large groups of people and exploit them for personal gain. He viewed “absolutism” as nothing more than the ideological mechanism through which certain people express their “will to power” at the expense of others.
What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins. (Nietzsche, On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense)
We also find this theme of truth claims and oppressive power embedded in the teachings of Jesus Christ, as recorded by the Gospel accounts. Jesus repeatedly castigated the Sagisees and Pharisees of his day, who had upheld themselves as the sole arbiters of God’s truth and used their religious traditions as a means of greed and oppression, rather than a means of faithful worship. He told them, “you have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition… thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down… and many such things you do.” (Mark 7:9-13)
In the words of Pastor Tim Keller, “when Foucault, Nietzsche and Jesus all agree on something… it has to be true!” The difference is that Foucault and Nietzsche were only providing a glimpse of the truth, i.e. that certain truth claims can be used for oppression by the powerful, while Jesus Christ told us there is a very important exception to this general rule – the absolute truth. Discovering the absolute truth of God’s word is the only path that will set us free from physical and spiritual oppression (John 8:32). John’s Gospel tells us that, “in the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
This direct statement by John had a very profound meaning for his Greek audience familiar with the philosophy of the time. The “logos” was used to denote the underlying logic or reason behind everything in existence, i.e. the ultimate purpose of reality and human existence. John confronted the abstract philosophical notions of his contemporaries by stating that not only did this ultimate purpose actually exist, it was far from being abstract and unknowable. It was a personal God who is eternal, who created all things and who created humans to worship and love him, as he does them. This was a radical moment in the history of philosophical thinking, reflecting Jesus’ radical act of loving sacrifice on the Cross.
Unfortunately, post-modern philosophers have failed to recognize the truth in Christ and have continued to repeat the mistakes of their intellectual ancestors by attempting to deny the very existence of an absolute truth, let alone the truth expressed by John, thereby trapping themselves into a logical paradox. It is a situation in which they have confused the negative effects of absolute truth claims with the non-existence of absolute truth. C.S Lewis described the resulting paradox brilliantly in The Abolition of Man:
“The kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever.
The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles.
If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” (C.S. Lewis, 81)
Any claim that there is no absolute truth is an absolute truth claim itself. It is a contradictory worldview that claims no one can grasp the absolute truth, even though the non-existence of any one absolute truth is an absolute truth. Therefore, these “anti-absolutism” philosophers have explained away their explanation and created the illusion of an invisible world. Such a relativistic and illusionary framework is just as much a means of elite oppression as any false claim to absolute truth. The “truth” of the day can be deformed, twisted and molded into any number of different forms, depending on the time, place and circumstances.
Historic Christianity, on the other hand, provides a much more consistent and stable worldview, in which there is only one absolute truth in a world filled with many false truths and doctrines which lead to oppression. Nietzsche and Foucault were right about the relations between truth and power, but only to the extent that they were describing all claimed truths that do not conform to the word of God, most recently revealed to us through Jesus Christ and his disciples. It is Christ alone who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), bringing ultimate freedom to those who accept him by faith.
We tend to think of freedom in simplistic terms, i.e. our ability to choose to do whatever we want in the here and now. The freedom provided by recognizing the truth in Christ is much deeper, richer and long-lasting than this superficial and materialistic freedom we value. It is the type of freedom that opens up endless physical and spiritual opportunities when one voluntarily submits their will to another; the type of freedom that can only blossom from the restrictions and sacrifices of unconditional love. When we choose to accept Christ as our personal logos or universal ordering principle, we will truly unlock our chains and be freed from worldly oppression.