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Charles Taze Russell, The Finished Mystery: ‘The Winepress of God’s Wrath and the Fall of Babylon. People’s Pulpit Association, 1918.  Section of plates. 

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“Rereading the larger History of Sexuality project in the light of this recently published volume, it becomes clear that, despite the change of focus and the introduction of ever more complex genealogical strands, Foucault’s efforts remained directed at depriving our modern, medicalized version of sexuality of its sense of self-evidence, and thus its power. Foucault found it problematic that our culture’s understanding of what is “normal” and “healthy” derives largely from discourses such as psychology. After all, when Foucault carried out his research, many mental health professionals still considered homosexuality a mental disorder. He thus sought to counter the modern experience of sexuality with the different “regimes” that preceded it, envisioning his project as revolving around three distinct regimes or forms of experience: aphrodisia, the flesh, and sexuality. Foucault’s hope was that by thinking through this history, he might create an opening in which to take distance from it.

As Foucault attests in his second volume, aphrodisia, the regime of philosophical and medical thought constituted by the ancient Greeks, was primarily concerned with developing an ethics of self-mastery to ensure that the subject would not be consumed by the pleasures which accompany the “acts of Aphrodite.” In the third volume, Foucault would go on to examine how this regime was reworked and refined by Greek and Roman philosophers of the first centuries. During that historical period, several themes of austerity that Foucault takes up again in Confessions of the Flesh — abstinence, a preference for virginity, the restriction of sexual congress to the marriage relation, and the categorical condemnation of the love of boys — came to predominate in pagan morality. Foucault shows us how early Christian thinkers often reproduced age-old warnings regarding the violent spasms induced by orgasm, along with the practical precepts designed to curb it; in this way, he sought to demonstrate that the moral code regarding what is forbidden and permitted in terms of sexual behavior has tended to remain relatively constant throughout Western history. Throughout this investigation, Foucault frequently reminds us that Christianity did not invent the distrust of pleasure for which it is often blamed and that trepidation regarding the sexual act is as old as Western thought itself. What Christianity did invent, however, is the idea that there is an end to human life beyond that of physical health or self-mastery.

As a religion of salvation, the goal of Christian ethics is to lead the individual from this life to another. Thus, one of the major aims of the fourth volume is to explain how grappling with the idea of original sin, together with the changes it is purported to have wrought upon human nature, led the early Christians to elaborate a new way of relating the self to itself. This “rapport à soi” — a phrase that appears everywhere in the Final Foucault — pertains to Foucault’s understanding of ethics, or the historically variable relationship whereby the self relates to itself for the purposes of subjecting itself to the Western moral code. The regime of the flesh, then, as Foucault understands it, relies upon accepting the idea that the human being was corrupted by the Fall, and that henceforth each individual must engage in a “spiritual combat” in order to restore his or her relationship with God.

By accepting the idea that there is an inborn propensity for sin, however, one simultaneously acknowledges that salvation cannot be achieved on one’s own. The flesh must be directed by another so as to render it obedient. In this respect, Foucault emphasizes how early monastic practice profoundly shaped the Christian experience of the flesh. John Cassian, for example, outlined an apparatus through which Christian monks were expected to scrutinize the contents of their consciousness and confess the signs of sinfulness to another. As it turns out, Cassian had converted a practice once used by the Pythagoreans and Stoics to assess their actions (and to ensure a good night’s sleep) into a tool for rooting out impure desires. It is significant for Foucault that Cassian outfitted the examination of conscience with the need for a continuous avowal; it is one of the main ways in which Western culture gave rise to an obligation to speak the truth about oneself. This avowal was required by the belief that, after the Fall, evil lurks in man’s very thoughts — in particular those which resist being shared. Whereas the philosopher could use his own reason to sort through the day’s events, the Christian monk became dependent upon the guidance of another.

It would be a mistake to treat Christianity, particularly as it appeared during the first five centuries, as though it were uniform system of ideas — a fact that Foucault attempts to do justice to by exploring Christian authors from both the Eastern and Western traditions. During this time, eschatological hopes were giving way to the recognition that Christ’s return might not be imminent. Many official doctrines had yet to be solidified and Christian writers were still drawing upon a wide array of philosophical sources for inspiration. Most significantly, within the space of a few hundred years, a minor cult composed of a persecuted minority managed to transform itself into the official religion of Rome. Yet, in general, Foucault devotes very little space to recounting this history, to familiarizing his readers with the development of Christian doctrine, or to briefing them on the various heresies that the Church confronted throughout the course of its development. Because he aims to foreground the new form of ethical experience that this development inaugurated, he instead presents Christianity in terms of its practices or, rather, in terms of the relationship with the self that these different practices and ideas rendered possible.

Based on the volume’s organization, Foucault appears to suggest that these changes in our relationship to the self can be grouped and understood in terms of the different ways of life one might adopt in response to the dogma that human nature was corrupted by the Fall: that of the celibate and that of the married person. The writings of the fourth volume divide into three lengthy sections: a chapter entitled “The Formation of a New Experience,” where Foucault analyzes the various obligations of Christians to manifest the truth about themselves prior to the advent of confession as we know it; “Being a Virgin,” a chapter that recounts how chastity — understood not simply as the renunciation of sex but as an exalted state in which one grows closer to God — displaced the pagan virtue of continence; and “Being Married,” a riveting analysis of the different and sometimes conflicting ways in which Christian authors sought to justify sexual relations within marriage.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a considerable portion of the fourth volume is dedicated to analyzing Augustine’s full-fledged doctrine of the flesh and his concomitant notion of the libido. Prior to the volume’s publication, and on the basis of clues scattered throughout Foucault’s other writings, many scholars had speculated about what this fabled encounter between Augustine and Foucault was likely to contain. We can now see clearly that Foucault’s primary interest lies in analyzing the route by which Augustine came to transform sexual desire into a constitutive feature of the subject. After Augustine, desire is no longer simply an external and transitory evil, something that troubles the monk’s contemplation of God; it is a structural component of the human being.

In Augustine’s responses to Pelagianism — the heresy of denying original sin — Foucault isolates what he calls the “libidinization of sex,” a concept that refers to the uncoupling of sexual reproduction from the agency of the will. According to Augustine, as a result of the Fall man’s will is shadowed by concupiscence, and the human being is thus barred from achieving full autonomy over itself. Early Christian writers, contrary to popular conception, uniformly affirmed that the first sin had nothing to do with sex. Augustine follows this line of thinking by insisting that concupiscence is the result of man’s attempt to escape God’s will, not the cause of it, although he finally departs from this tradition by arguing that sexual reproduction must have occurred in paradise. He contrasted this “paradisiacal sex” with the troubled, involuntary form of sex that he saw plaguing fallen men and women. Prior to the Fall, the body — including the sexual organs — responded fully to the will. Procreation then was analogous to planting seeds in the earth and the sexual act was happily devoid of the paroxysms that so troubled Greek and Roman physicians; however, as punishment for the first sin, man lost control of his body. According to Augustine, Adam cloaked his sexual organs not because he was ashamed of being seen, but because his penis moved against his will. As Foucault once put it: “Sex in erection is the image of man revolted against God.”

Foucault thus positions Augustine at a crucial juncture in the fourth volume and within the History of Sexuality more generally. He understands Augustine as synthesizing much of the tradition that came before him and credits him with creating a theoretical framework in which it became possible to unite the two ways of life — virginity and marriage — in terms of their struggle against the common enemy: concupiscence. Foucault writes, “In a word, beyond the comparisons between the virgin and the spouses […] which had been largely developed before him, Augustine makes appear, not a third person, nor a composite figure, but the element fundamental to the other two: the subject of desire.”

The birth of the “subject of desire” has two major ramifications for how we understand Foucault’s broader history of sexuality. First, there is evidence that Augustine would have formed the point of departure for yet another volume dedicated to explaining how, during the Late Medieval Period, the Church invented a “very precise codification of the moments, initiatives, prompts, acceptances, refusals, positions, gestures, caresses, [and] eventually […] the words that can take place in sexual relations.” According to Foucault, it was around the sexual relations of married persons that “medieval Christianity — especially from the 13th century on — would become the first form of civilization to develop […] prolix regulations” regarding sex. Consequently, the fourth volume ends with the assertion that Augustine’s theory of the libido led to the regime of aphrodisia being broken up and reconstructed in terms of the subject’s relationship with desire. Referring to the “paroxysmal block” of pleasure at the heart of the ancient regime, Foucault explains, “In Christianity, this block has been dissociated, by rules of life, arts for conducting oneself and leading others, by techniques of examination and procedures of avowal, [and] by a general doctrine of desire, the Fall, fault, etc.” In this way, Foucault concludes, “There were linked, by ties that our culture has tightened rather than loosening — sex, truth, and law [la droit]”

The second ramification is that this “subject of desire” would have no doubt formed part of Foucault’s account of how the modern regime of sexuality, as well as the supposed resistance to it, came to be articulated in terms of desire. Already in 1976, Foucault could see that by compelling desire to speak the truth about itself, power managed to complete its hold over the individual. This is why he questioned the strategy of attempting to resist power through the “liberation” of desire. “The rallying point for the counterattack […] ought not to be sex-desire,” he famously suggested, “but bodies and pleasures.”

Foucault often lamented that our modern sexual ethics had not fully broken with the Christian problematics of desire; that it had perhaps only succeeded in returning to it in an ironic form; and that, accordingly, it still suffers from a lack of concern for acts and pleasures. In questioning the different historical processes by which sex came to be inserted into games of truth and falsity, Foucault hoped to prepare the way for a new ethics — a new way of relating to oneself and to others — that would balance the concern for others with the goal of stylizing one’s own existence. Such an ethics, Foucault thought, must restore autonomy to actions and facilitate the invention of new pleasures by freeing the subject from the limitations that have been imposed upon it in the name of desire.”

Joseph Tanke,
The Final “Final Foucault”?LA Review of Books, August 1, 2018.

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“Irony against those who believe Christianity has been overcome by the modern natural sciences. Christian value judgements have not by any means been overcome this way. ‘Christ on the cross’ is the most sublime symbol – even today.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power

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Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire. New York, Random House, Inc., 2012.

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“I CALLED on him for the first time on Friday the 15th of
November. He appeared very cheerful, but his ways soon convinced me he was
doing all in his power to excite himself into happy feelings to drown the
thought of his impending execution.

Upon testing him a little as to the ground of the hope he expressed concerning the life to come, I soon
found it to be his thorough repentance, his comparative freedom from evil
desires, his great love to God, &c. He thought surely he had made his peace
with God since he had so many good things to show.

His lips talked
about Jesus and His love very nicely. He repeated some of God’s precious
promises, but evidently his heart was
so intensely occupied with self, that he could grasp no meaning in those promises.

His earnest face, however, and the thoughtful attention he
paid to what I said to him, attracted me at once. I remembered how, four years
before, I was in the same state — occupied with my humility, my repentance, my faith,
my love — and while putting on a cheerful face to make myself believe I possessed
that happiness which I had often heard belonged to a man at peace with God, what
bitterness and anguish lay in the depth of my soul. I remembered the day when,
at the climax of misery, someone had pointed me to the third chapter of Romans,
how it had opened Heaven to me — the unutterable deliverance it put me into —
and I burned to have him get in the same place.

I told him nothing he
could do could save him; neither his repentance, nor his love, nor looking to
the work of the Spirit in him, could give him peace with God. “You are
lost,” I said: “you are dead in trespasses and sins — condemned already— and you might as well
think that weeping and promising to do better could put away the sentence
pronounced against you the other day as to think your repentance, or your promises,
or anything from you, can move the curse of God’s eternal law which now hangs over
you, as well as over every soul of man who is not saved.’

I told him the only
thing which could meet a "lost” man’s need was salvation — a “dead” man needed life and a “condemned” man needed mercy.

I declared to him he
was grievously mistaken if he thought he
had made his peace with God
. He
could never do that. “What, then, must I do?“ said he, in a half-stunned
way. “Read there,” said l, and my finger pointed to Colossians 1. 20:
And having made peace through the blood
of His cross
.  . .” I pointed again
to Galatians iii.13, and said, “read again here!” “Christ hath
redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us …”

I then besought him to read, thoughtfully and prayer-fully,
the third, fourth, and fifth chapters of Romans, and commending him to the Lord,
who alone, I knew, could open his blinded eyes, I left him in his lonely cell.”

– P. J. Loizeaux, The Last Twenty-One Days of the Convict Daniel Mann; Sentenced to Death, On the 10th of November, 1870, Executed on the 14th of Dec. Following. – Being a Simple Narrative of the Author’s interview with him.  Kingston: Printed by William Lightfoot, Wellington Street. p. 3-5

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“Possession! The word alone was terrifying. I’d heard of such a thing in church, and read of it in scripture, but here it was onscreen, in color. How did it work? Did he enter through the mouth? The skin? And work you like a puppet? Did he make you do things you would normally never do? Maybe whatever bad things I had done before, or whatever terrible things I would ever do, might be blamed on him. It seems I was not rid of the Devil, after all, because apparently he could enter me at will.

The first possession I’d ever heard of came from the Book of Matthew, the famous account of Jesus casting spirits out of two men “possessed with devils” and into a “herd of swine.” Pigs. And more famously, those same pigs then ran off a high cliff into the sea, and perished. It’s a story attractive to many Protestant Christians. I’ve always had the impression this has mostly to do with iconography. Protestant symbology tends to privilege the cross over the crucifix (the Catholic favorite), which is to say a Christ resurrected, and alive, implied by his absence on the cross.

The story of the swineherd, too, provides a fitting picture of the Devil without having to show his face. It suggests a living and ubiquitous presence, by way of absence. There is no “Devil,” per se, only his spirit within the bodies of the animals. Whereas anthropomorphic representations of the Devil himself, drawings or paintings of his pitchfork, horns, and tail, no matter how classic or modern, date immediately upon viewing, are always insufficient, and die in the imagination. Ultimately, they are not believable. Not to mention, what more just fate for the Devil than to be depicted as a bunch of unclean pigs falling off a cliff and drowning? Not a shred of dignity is granted.

I’ve always had questions about this story, serious theological and moral questions: What does it say of spirit? Can it separate? Can it concentrate? If the Devil was everywhere, then he was not just in those poor pigs, but in the people watching, too, even the writer of the Gospel… In me? How much? I turned to a minister in my church. He said to stop asking so many questions.

My first encounter with human possession happened when I was sixteen. It was a Saturday, which I remember because it was my family’s turn to lead the cleaning of our church, or Kingdom Hall, so called in the Witness tradition. A Witness hall is a modest place, lots of white, beige, and mauve. They’re usually carpeted. There are no statues, crosses, or candles. And so cleaning them was a lot like cleaning your home. Get out the vacuum, Windex, and spray polish.

That Saturday morning we arrived early, my family and about ten friends from the congregation. The morning service and prayer for the house-to-house ministry (when the Witnesses come knocking on your door) was still in full swing. There were scenarios, questions about possible “conversation-stoppers,” and then a brief sharing of recent positive experiences. This usually meant comments like: Well, I had a great talk about the Bible with a stranger on the subway and we planned to meet for a coffee and talk again soon, etc. Until one woman told a story of how just last week she’d visited her sister who was extremely alcoholic and also dealing with a husband who hit her. In this woman’s presence the alcoholic sister was suddenly filled with a rage so visible and extraordinary it was clear she’d been possessed by a demon—later she would admit that in fact she had been. She erupted in the kitchen, screaming obscenities, utensils flying about the room of their own accord, and when the violent husband came home and the alcoholic sister attacked him—she actually flew, she raised up in the air, floated about the room, as pots and pans, spatulas and spoons, all orbited about her—the non-alcoholic sister, the one telling the story, shouted out and commanded the demon to leave the woman in the name of Jesus Christ and our heavenly father Jehovah. I was entranced by this story, and thrilled, and scared, and thankful I was hearing it within a House of God because, who knows, maybe even hearing such a thing might invite possession. The entire audience felt the same, I’m sure. There were tears, and there was that laughter of relief that often follows tears. There was applause for the sister who cast the demon out.

That same year we moved to Georgia, a place steeped in the lore of its own American Devil, a trickster who challenged souls to fiddle competitions, a wager with eternal and cosmic odds, remembered in country song, and animated by laser on the Confederate bas-relief face of Stone Mountain, followed by hands-on-hearts and fireworks. I now encountered possessions pretty much all the time. And when I say “human possession,” really I mean people either claiming to have been possessed (rare), or people claiming to have witnessed human possession (weekly). It was a new life for me, and a new Devil. One summer, I attended a bonfire church party in a cornfield. We roasted ears of corn in their husks on the fire and peeled them after they cooled. We made s’mores. There was no beer. And then the fire stories started, typical stuff, ghosts, and monsters, and haunted houses, but with a Southern Christian spin. The ghosts were demons, and all the haunted houses were demonic, under Satan’s control.

It seemed I could not go a week without hearing of someone under possession, or, the more polite version, that someone’s behavior was demonic. It was often used to describe some wildly and obviously wrong criminal act—like murder (“That Jeffrey Dahmer is so demonic”). But it was also used with regard to regular people, to neighbors, who happened to disagree with our Christian perspective. I can’t tell you how many times we knocked on someone’s door, Bible in hand, and found there someone different, someone “strange,” an atheist, a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or Jewish person (all of these having healthy representation in the South), or some other kind of Christian, a Catholic, or a student of philosophy, who passionately and smartly disagreed, and sometimes asked us not to come back, maybe even got annoyed, or angry, or perhaps, even worse, politely invited us in, to talk, I mean really talk, about the complex human need for making meaning, and how, afterward, this person was referred to as “demonic.”

What I should have learned back then, but did not, and in fact took at least another twenty years to fully learn, is that such claims are not at all about “demonic power,” “demonic possession,” or even “the Devil,” but are actually about demonization. I learned instead to no longer only imagine evil as contained in a physical thing, like a book, but rather as a colonizing alien presence that could displace human consciousness, free will, the soul. Those kitchen utensils had not been thrown, and the alcohol was not responsible for that woman’s rage. Nor was her husband for his violence. Nor were the atheist, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Catholic, or Jewish persons simply expressing other facets of human experience. They were strange, and sounded different, they acted different, looked different. Their skin and clothes were not like ours, and their houses smelled of different spices. Their prophets and gods were strange—the bearded swarthy prophet Muhammad, the dark elephant-faced Ganesha of Hindus, the godless black-hole void of the atheist. It was all the Devil’s work, they were under his control, and so they were not wholly human.

I had learned to dehumanize.”

– Scott Cheshire, “Yo Soy el Diablo – Religion in America: The Devil as part of a rather American tradition.” Guernica. December 15, 2014.

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“For the non-Indigenous peoples, Early British Columbia was a place where men were men and women were scarce. And manly men did not spend time in churches.

Marks notes that in transient resource towns, the concept of masculinity caused men to “abandon religion along with the families they left behind.”

Some men, she writes, did not completely discard God, but embraced drinking, gambling and the sex trade. That left little room for Christianity. They preferred to spend their free time espousing the virtues of socialism.

White women were a minority throughout the province, but a majority in churches, where they were isolated from influences such as the Indigenous peoples and the immigrants from Asia.

One of the key chapters in this book is “Sundays are so different here.” In it, Marks compared four small communities in British Columbia with two in Ontario and two in Nova Scotia, and compares census data with church records.

Involvement with churches was at a lower rate in three towns in the Kootenay than in the towns in Ontario and Nova Scotia, reflecting the “no religion” entries in the census. But there were remarkable differences in church involvement between three Kootenay communities and Vernon, in the Okanagan Valley, which saw a higher rate of church involvement than was seen in the eastern provinces.

As Marks notes, it was families, led by women, who formed the backbone of congregations.

The Kootenay towns were much more transient, while the ones in the east had been established for much longer, and families in Vernon, a young community, had formed deep roots. The three Kootenay towns also had more people who were lodgers or boarders, a group generally associated with being male, and irreligious.

The gender gap was key. Women were more likely to attend churches, to join church organizations, and to fight for temperance causes and against brothels. They may have gone to church regularly to make it clear that they were respectable, unlike the women who were in the red-light areas.”

– Dave Obee, “Indifference to religion played huge role in B.C. history: Review of Infidels and the Damn Churches: Irreligion and Religion in Settler British Columbia, by Lynne Marks; UBC Press.The Times-Colonist, December 10, 2017

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