Religion in the Web of Immanence: Foucault and Thinking Otherwise after the Death of God

  • John McSweeney Independent Researcher Cork


This article rethinks Michel Foucault’s relation to religion by situating his engagement with the ‘death of God’ in relation to his ongoing efforts to frame critical discourse in consistently immanent terms. It argues that a certain, indirect ‘theological’ horizon is the paradoxical and problematic limit, for Foucault, of the possibility of a thoroughgoing immanent discourse in his earlier work, due to the paradoxes of the death of long-duration of God (and ‘man’). The relation of his work to religion thus emerges less as a productive question, for Foucault, than as a problem to be resolved if his critical project is to be viable. The article argues that his later work is informed by a significant re-framing of his relation to religion, signalled in comments he makes at the end of his 1978 lecture, “What is Critique?” and performed in his engagements with Christian mysticism, the ‘political spirituality’ of the Iranian revolution and early Christian practices of the self. Foucault is shown to perform a complex openness to religion as ‘other,’ which negotiates the ‘religious problem’ haunting his early work, even as it must repeatedly risk undermining his project. It is concluded that the relation to religion in Foucault’s work, less reflects resonance with aspects of a religious worldview, than it stages and clarifies the challenge of thinking otherwise immanently after the death of God.

Author Biography

John McSweeney, Independent Researcher Cork
John McSweeney is an independent researcher, based in Cork, Ireland. His research focuses on questions of ethics, politics, and religion in recent continental thought, with particular emphases on the work of the later Foucault and post-Lacanian conceptions of subjectivity and act. His essay in this issue forms part of a larger examination of the significance that Foucault’s work assigns to religion for critical practice. He has co-edited Representation and Contestation: Cultural Politics in a Political Century (Rodopi, 2010). Other recent publications include “The Cold Cruelty of Ethics: Žižek, Kristof and Reflexive Subjectivization,” The International Journal of Žižek Studies, 5.4 (2011), and “Finitude and Violence: Žižek versus Derrida on Politics”, Kritike 5.2 (2011), 41-58.
Special Issue on Foucault and Religion