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and the Care of The Self

Presented November 9, 1997, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.

This talk is about Christianity and the care of the self but I was tempted to title it: A Funny Thing Happened to Foucault on the way to His History of Sexuality. Michel Foucault, the French historian and philosopher and certainly one of the most important thinkers since W.W. II, had already written a history of prisons and a history of madness when he set out to write a book on the history of sexuality.

Foucault said he wanted to explore sexuality, sexual practices and how sexuality was thought and written about first in Greek culture, then in Hellenistic Roman culture, then in Christianity and in modern western societies. Foucault's completed work, The History of Sexuality, is comprised of three volumes and over a thousand pages, yet the project was so vast that unfortunately he never got to sexuality in Christianity and in modern west before he himself became one of the first famous victims of AIDS in 1984.

Foucault explains at the beginning of Volume 2 of his History of Sexuality that he took with him into his research the widely-held view that Christianity was in so many ways hung up on sex, that Christianity was very concerned with sex, very concerned about restricting it, censoring it, condemning it, that Christianity was in fact obsessed with thinking of sex within a moral problematic, making a moral problem out of sex. The other part of the widely-held view is that, quite contradictory to Christianity's obsession with sex, Greek and Roman culture simply accepted sex as a fact of nature and let it alone, didn't obsess over it, didn't, as Foucault would say, "problematize" it, i.e., turn sex into a problem that needed constantly to be analyzed, thought about and solved in various ways.

Funny things happen to those widely- held notions when you look into them more deeply, and this is exactly what happened to those widely- held notions Foucault took with him as he started to look more deeply into the history of sexuality. To his surprise, Foucault says, he found that Greek and Roman culture did problematize sexuality, make a problem out of it. Sexuality was for the Greeks first and then the Romans a problem they constantly analyzed, talked about, gave one another advice about, etc. But, Foucault says, their concern about sexuality was very much a secondary concern. Their concern about sexuality was only one aspect of a much deeper and more important concern, the concern for the full life of and the health and well being of the self. The Greeks and Romans did give all kinds of advice about sex, about how often, about how many and what kinds of partners, etc., but their advice was couched in a much larger concern, the concern for the emotional and psychological development of the self and for the self's physical health and well being. This overriding concern for the full development of and the health and well being of the self Foucault called "the care of the self."

Now Foucault never got around to writing a history of sexuality in the Christian era and in the contemporary west. But if we continue his work ourselves, we see that the funny thing that happened to his widely- held notions when he discovered that the Greeks and Romans did problematize sex in that it became one aspect of their overriding concern for the care of the self, means that his work can lead to a useful and very meaningful critical relation to Christianity, far more useful and meaningful than if Foucault's work on sexuality basically said simply: those darned Christians condemned sex and made us feel guilty for it but that the Greeks and Romans just let it happen, guilt-free, so we should be more like them. Foucault's work on sexuality drives to a much more interesting and meaningful and thought provoking question. It leads us to ask: if Christianity problematizes sex, if it makes a problem out it, does it do it in the same way the Greeks and Romans do, within the context of a much larger problematic, the concern for the health and well being of the self? Does Christianity have as one of its central concerns, and does it treasure and promote what Foucault presented to us as the central concern of both Greek and Roman culture, "the care of the self"?

Christianity and the care of the self Christianity is certainly concerned with the self, obsessed with thinking about it and analyzing it. In fact, Christianity may be more preoccupied with the self than any other world religion. One has only to think about St. Augustine and his influence on western Christianity. St. Augustine the good Platonist reflected on how the divine light shone in the depths of the soul, illuminating our mind and enabling us to understand ourselves and the world around us. But it was Augustine the supreme Christian theologian who analyzed the self so obsessively that he thought long and hard about how as a baby he would cry out whenever he wanted something and that at the time he cared for nothing but his own needs and wondered what the selfishness of babies had to do with the nature of the self. And Augustine the supreme Christian theologian pondered why it was that as a teenager he enjoyed stealing some pears in the company of his friends and how that related to the nature of the human self. And it was Augustine the supreme theologian of the church who one day during some kind of frenzy or spastic fit noticed that if he wills to move his arm the arm obeys immediately, but if the will gives an order to itself, the will disobeys, and develops from this obsessive analysis of the disobedience of the will the idea that will become the Christian doctrine of original sin.

Certainly Christianity is preoccupied with analyzing the self. I even heard one well regarded scholar say one day that if in our day we define the self as that thing that is mysterious, as that thing that has hidden depths which constantly need to be questioned, analyzed and explored in order to be understood, then Augustine may be thought of as the inventor of that self. Now that might be overstating the case a bit, but it is true that Christianity as a religion has involved a great deal of theological speculation about the nature of the self.

But does Christianity's preoccupation with the self mean that it has a strong dose of what Foucault tells us is the central concern of Greek and Roman culture, the care of the self? Christianity certainly cares about the self, especially about its moral purity or impurity, but despite this the question remains open as to whether Christianity generates that "care of the self" that Foucault was talking about and which he said was so prominent in the lives of the Greeks and of the Helllenistic Romans.

The care of the self Foucault was describing involved the Greeks and Romans thinking of their lives as a lifelong project through which to fashion the self that they wanted to become. This fashioning of the self was quite multifaceted. It involved educating the self, fashioning a self that desired intelligence and wisdom. Fashioning the self meant nurturing the self into a deep appreciation for the aesthetic, for beauty, whether it be the beauty of nature, of music, of art, or the beauty of true friendship between humans. It meant cultivating the self's capacity for pleasure, especially the two forms of pleasure of most concern to the Greeks, eating and sexual pleasure, and it also meant managing the self into a responsible and mature use of the self's capacity to experience pleasure. And fashioning the self, this deep care of the self, also meant being concerned with and taking care of one's physical body. The Greeks and Romans care of the self involved all kinds of prescriptions and advice about the health of the body, about the best ways to maintain for as long as possible the body's maximum strength, fitness and beauty.

This care of the self, says Foucault, involved for the Greeks and Romans their quite conscious effort to fashion the self according to ideals of wisdom, virtue, beauty and health, to create the self as a work of art.

Foucault was hardly the first to admire Greek culture for this ideal of care of the self as crafting the self as a work of art. Nietzsche, certainly Foucault's primary intellectual influence, recommended to end- of- the- century Europeans that they should come to think of the self as a work of art to be created, and he too greatly admired Greek culture for having a profound appreciation of the self as a work of art. And, in fact, this was not only one of the reasons why he preferred Greek culture over Christian culture, but this was probably the primary reason why Nietzsche absolutely hated Christianity. Christianity, said Nietzsche, took this totally appropriate and beneficial concern for the self that the Greeks had, this care of the self, and undermined and negated it by labeling it selfishness, self centeredness, sin.

Now you and I, we Unitarians and friends of Unitarianism, we all have our own experiences of and relationships with Christianity and we run the gamut from friendly and open to Christianity to hostile and closed to Christianity. Wherever you are, I'd like to to open up thought and conversation about your own experiences with Christianity in terms of you feel Christianity supports or opposes this care of the self Foucault and Nietzsche admire and recommend.

As for myself, the Christianity I was introduced to, grew up in, am surrounded by and still feel myself a part of, may not be directly hostile to this care of the self, but it sure doesn't support it or have much to do with it. This fashioning of the self, this developing the self in terms of its capacity for wisdom, for the appreciation of the arts and beauty, for the body's health and fitness and capacity for pleasure...this sure doesn't have much to do with the Christianity I experience in our culture. Far from fostering this care of the self, far from encouraging us to think of ourselves as works of art we are creating, the Christianity I was raised with had more of a tendency to lead away from this care of the self and a strong tendency to define not doing this, not thinking of the self much at all, as virtue itself, as what it meant to be a good, Christian, moral person. Christianity actually seemed like the way that swings off from such a profound and intelligent care of the self rather than the way toward it.

If Christianity tends to encourage more the neglect than the cultivation of the self, if it tends to discourage this care of the self, then how have we and how has our culture been affected by this? Many theologians and social theorists have argued that American society today is largely a post- Christian culture, that we are to a large extent beyond our the time when Christianity dominated the culture. They also point out that despite this it is important to understand that ours is a post- Christian culture, meaning that if it is still Christianity that we have moved through and that has moved through us, so there are still plenty of ways our culture is affected by Christianity and plenty of work to do in understanding these many ways.

Another way to think of this is to think about those aspects of Christianity and those ways Christianity may have shaped us which need to be overcome. Perhaps we Unitarians might want to think about aspects of Christianity and about the ways Christianity has influenced us which we want to overcome in our religious life, in our spirituality.

Historically, Unitarianism in its relation to Christianity has always wanted to overcome something about Christianity. It seems the main thing the earliest Unitarian theologians were trying to overcome about Christianity was the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I was recently surprised by the confession of a Presbyterian minister who told me that he was drawn to Unitarianism because he found Trinitarian language too confusing and often thought Christianity would be better off without it. I was disappointed to hear him say that because Trinitarian language has always appealed to me and I find thinking of God as a network of relationships, all different but all loving, thought provoking and illuminating, and I feel no desire to overcome Trinitarian language. But anything that prevents us from developing this care of the self, anything that becomes the way that swings off from really thinking of ourselves as works of art to be created and cared for, and especially anything about Christianity that prevents us from this; that I am very interested in overcoming, in overcoming religiously, spiritually.

Let me offer two possible spiritualities that lead toward, not away from the care of the self, both of which are equally open, equally possible for this diverse group of spiritual people that we are, us Unitarians. The first spiritual path toward a genuine and holistic care of the self springs from an intimate relationship with a personal and loving God who wraps Herself around the innermost core of our being, who speaks within the most intimate ways a person knows him or herself, as someone with dreams and talents, as someone with a capacity for pleasure and joy, and even as a physical body. This most intimate and loving God enables the self to fully love and accept itself and live itself out fully. This most intimate and loving God opens up to the self, according to Meister Eckhart, God's own enjoyment and pleasure in the created world so that the self is able, as Kierkegaard says, to take a leisurely stroll through the Deer Park and absolutely enjoy himself, take full delight in every tree and every animal, even though he's walking in the middle of the day, when everybody knows he should be at work. As Unitarians, we may find this spiritual path opening up to us thanks to certain Hindu Upanishads or Sufi mystics, or even thanks to Christianity itself, even perhaps through a deeper encounter with the one who is reputed to have said: "I came so that they might have life, and have it more abundantly."

Another spiritual path leading toward a deeper care of the self was blazed by earlier generations of Unitarians, who insisted, against Christianity, against the doctrine of original sin and its general neglect of the self, that the self was created in the image and with the spark of divine perfection and so must understand itself this way and take full responsibility for developing its own divine capacities. Who understood, after all, or lived more fully the notion of the self as a work of art that needed to be shaped and crafted and maintained, who more than these early Unitarians, like Thoreau and Emerson and Adams. And has there even been a greater, more perfect example of self fashioning, of what it is to make of your life a work of art, than Jefferson? This is another and a different spiritual path leading to greater care of the self in every way, even greater care for the self as a body, a physical thing, as Jefferson himself exemplified when he described the body as a machine which just like any other machine needed care and maintenance, and when he constantly put care and thought, just like a good Greek, into ways it could be kept maximally healthy and fit for as long as possible. Nietzsche used to say about himself that he was a bad German but a good European, and we could say about Jefferson that he was a bad Christian, but insofar as he was a master at the art of caring for the self, he was a good Unitarian.

I've talked about two spiritual paths that move toward the care of the self. There are other spiritualities that nurture this care of the self, ones more influenced by Buddhism or Hindism, perhaps by native American spirituality. I'm sure that in this church community there are various masters of various spiritual paths to the care of the self, and there is no need to argue over which one is superior or to choose among them. We are a community of spiritual people walking down diverse spiritual paths harmoniously and with respect for each other.

You know, sometimes you get to like this church so much you wonder why everyone in town isn't a Unitarian, why it's in fact such a rare thing, being a Unitarian. My friend Jim sent me a tape with an episode of the Simpsons. In this episode there is a scene of a great crowd gathering with great hubub as if they are waiting for something or someone spectacular and unusual. Grandpa Simpson shouts out: What is it? A Unitarian?

I've been in a few conversations recently where people have told me that as the minister of this church I should be very concerned that being a Unitarian in Quincy shouldn't be so unusual, that I should be thinking about the size of the community, about growth, about the numbers of members and non- members and visitors. I'm not much of a minister, you know. I do think we should reach out to the community more and let more and more people know about us, what we do and what we're like as a religious community, but I'm not much of a numbers person and I don't care if we're the biggest church in town.

What I do care about is that we be a religious community that in our many ways does actively practice the art of the care of the self. What I do care about is that we use our own spiritual resources from our various religious traditions to resist that tendency people have in our culture and which may even be encouraged by Christianity, that tendency to take care of many things while neglecting the self. What I do care about is that we be a religious community where we help one another deal with the stresses and the difficulties of life and that we help each other nurse inside of all of ourselves that care for the self grounded not in selfishness but in spirituality. I would like to have a community of people who know that whatever responsibities we have, as professional persons, as spouses, parents, etc.; that all our responsibilities are grounded in the responsibility to ourselves, and that we're all spiritually aware that our culture in many ways tends to make us forget this. I do care that this be a spiritual community where we, despite all the pressures and the stress of our too busy lives, get out there on a regular basis to the deer park, whether that deer park be for you a Quincy park, or just a certain time of the day, or a private part of your house, or maybe a special relationship with a person or even a gym, to walk down our own spiritual path where we find a greater love and a stronger care for our own humanity.

©1997 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 1997. Christianity and the Care of The Self, (accessed July 16, 2020).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.