Whatever Happened to Man?


(Recently I send the Penn State Press a lengthy manuscript of a book about the life and thought of Ivan Illich. Because of its length, I had to cut a number of sections that I wrote after the main body of the text was already complete. They deal with subjects that I felt had been left out or inadequately treated. Aside from occasional blind references to the book from which they have been excised, I think they are well enough able to stand on their own to justify my presenting them here. This is one of those sections.) 


In a book called The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, American writer Mark Greif argues that, during the period enumerated in his title, there was a prolonged panic about “Man.”  A few quotations will illustrate.  Jacques Maritain, who was Illich’s teacher in Rome in the late 1940’s, said, “The only way of regeneration for the human community is a rediscovery of the true image of man.”[1]  Lewis Mumford, reflecting on the threat posed by nuclear weapons, claimed that “it may be necessary to scrap almost everything to save man.”  Hannah Arendt, in her essay “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” argued that the projection of technological power, reflected in “the conquest of space,” had not only “lowered…the stature of man” but now threatened to destroy it utterly.[2]  Herbert Marcuse, in a book that  exerted a powerful influence on the New Left of the 1960’s, portrayed contemporary man as “one-dimensional.”[3]  The Port Huron Statement, the manifesto by which Students for A Democratic Society (SDS) announced its arrival on the political scene in 1962, expressed its intention to “counter…the dominant conceptions of Man in the 20th century.”[4]  Man was ubiquitous in political discourse, and everywhere he appeared he was at risk, in danger, on the brink of extinction.  In a book of that name, published in 1947, C.S. Lewis spoke of “the abolition of man.”[5]  

The Illich of the early 1960’s and early 1970’s clearly belongs to this literature.  In Celebration of Awareness, we read of “man’s race to maturity” and of the hazards that he risks should he lose this race and be overcome by “the demonic nature of present systems which force man to consent to his own deepening self-destruction.”[6]  In “The Rise of Epimethean Man,” the essay which concluded Deschooling Society, the reader is told that “Man himself is at stake.”[7]  In Tools for Conviviality, “man” is warned to “set limits to the interference of his tools with the environment” or face a “gruesome apocalypse.”[8] And man is at much at risk as his environment: “Mankind may wither and disappear,” Illich writes, “because he is deprived of basic structures of language, law and myth.”[9] The same warnings are sounded in Limits to Medicine (Medical Nemesis, as its first editions were called) where Illich portrays the ultimate consequence of unlimited medicalization as a “cultural iatrogenesis” in which the very ability to suffer disease and death basic is sapped and enervated, and people, in losing the art of dying, lose the art of living.  He ends with a plea for a restoration of “Man’s consciously lived fragility, individuality and relatedness” – a sense, he says, of which “the experience of pain…sickness and…death [is] an integral part.”  There is an implication throughout that there is both a nature and a condition which is proper to Man, that this nature and condition have been exceeded, and that consequently Man as a norm, a destiny and archetype will disappear unless  “a major change of direction” is soon undertaken.[10] Illich is not included in Grief’s inventory of the discourses of “the crisis of man,” but I think there can be no doubt that he belongs with Arendt, Maritain, Mumford and the many others who foresee “the abolition of man.” 

Later in his life, Illich was more tentative about the kind of language he used in his jeremiads of the 1970’s.  When I quoted his statement that “man himself is at stake” to him in 1988, he said “I wouldn’t any longer be able to speak so easily of man.”  But this was not, he went on because he would now distinguish she from he but because he had “become more prudent.”  He was now, he said, “increasingly silent in public because I have more and more learned to recognize that even very careful and traditional use of words does not allow me to bespeak the percepts my grandfather knew, because they aren’t there any more.”[11]  This says, in effect, that what Illich predicted, in fact, occurred, and that he now refrains from speaking of man because few will even know what he means.  The world went over the cliff that prophets of “the crisis of man” saw looming ahead, and we now live with the consequences – a situation in which there is no normative human nature and no normative human condition.  Indeed the very frontier of civil rights among the young is the struggle against any norm that might obstruct the free flow of identity and the adventure of discovering one’s own.  People may still talk of ethics, and values, but neither have the slightest foundation.  Medical ethics, for example, do not set absolute and unequivocal limits, but rather express the medical institution’s prudent curation of its “image.” The word values may sometimes be used as a synonym for moral standards that are believed to be unequivocally right or wrong, but in itself it only refers to what a given individuals prefers or invests in, what he/she values.  

There are two ways of looking at Greif’s “age of the crisis of man.”  As a young writer trying to clear an intellectual and cultural space that does not begin with “post” – post-modern, post human, post-secular, post-historical etc. – he does not lament the disappearance of man.  It is not just that he sympathizes with the skeptic who began to refuse the discourse of man in the 1960’s and 1970’s – with Levi-Strauss who speaks for pluralism and says that “the ultimate goal of the human sciences is not to constitute but to dissolve man”[12]; with Michel Foucault’s recoil from “the moralizing pool of humanistic sermons” and his claim that “man is an invention of recent date,” doomed to be “erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea”[13]; with the apostles of difference, or différance in Derrida’s lingo; with feminists who saw man as male; with blacks who read man as “the Man,” etc.  Greif gives a generous account of these critiques, but, in the end, he is arguing not for or against man, but rather for a new, less polarized problematic.  If you find yourself, he writes, “at the threshold of the question of man,” then just stop, because all you will find across that threshold are “pre-programmed answers.”[14]  That’s one view – one that hasn’t given up on “a new paradigm,” even if it can’t say what it is.  The other is the view I ascribed to Illich – that the disappearance of “the question of man” represents not just the vanishing of a way of speaking but of the very possibility of a unified or normative view of humanity.  

Man is obviously a problematic term.  The problem is worse in some European languages than others – in German one can say der Mensch which doesn’t imply maleness, despite its grammatical gender, while in English man in general can  always be taken as pointing at men in particular – but the gender problem is only the beginning.  The word claims universality, but arguably points to a specific class – the propertied, literate, white, male individuals who consider themselves to be the subjects of history.   It takes for granted a certain conception of subjectivity – Charles Taylor’s “buffered self,” C.B. Macpherson’s “possessive individual” etc.[15] – a certain, decidedly Christian conception of the individual as one who attains to both uniqueness and universality by his participation in Christ, and a certain conception of history of which European man is the subject.  This is the image that Foucault wants to erase, that Derrida wants to unsettle, that Greif wants to transcend.  

And why not?  Well the question I want to raise is what Illich meant when he wrote in 1970 that “man himself is at stake.”  And if he/she was at stake, and subsequently disappeared – a logical conclusion, given that none of the steps required to save man were taken – then what?  For Greif, the crisis of man was the last gasp of an expiring humanism, and will, he hopes, give way to something less parochial and less phallocentric, something more plural and more adequate to the variety of human adventures.  And, if Christianity must go on to the historical refuse heap, along with Man, well, good riddance. The idea of a single, comprehensive human destiny constituting itself as history simple must be abandoned.  But with Illich, and other Christians attempting to renew their faith in the absence of man, matters are more complicated.  

Let me first try to address the specific difficulty of an English word that means both humanity-in-general and a male person.  For some women I know this difficulty is insuperable, and out of deference to them, I have never used the term man.  At the same time, I am aware that the available replacement terms – humanity, humankind, people, human beings, etc. – have a completely different valence than man.  Man evokes an archetype, a single being, while the possible replacements all suggest an assembly or gathering composed of many discrete parts that compose a heap but not a whole.  This is the problem in a nutshell. 

In the beginning, according to the Revised Standard Version of The Holy Bible, after God had made the heavens and the earth, and everything that lives upon the earth, He said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion…over all the earth.”[16]  Man is both singular and plural, a being made in single image – the image of God – and a multitude – a them, not just a he.  Much turns on this idea of humanity as a single being.  Not only does all of humanity fall in a single event, but all of humanity is redeemed in a single man.  This redeemer is a comprehensive and complete man, to be sure, the one who takes every place as home, every other one as his mother and brother, whose life is at once myth and history, an event in time and symbol of the timeless.[17]  But the Christ remains a being and an event that occurs in a definite place at a definite time, and will unfold as an earthly history.  The centrality of Christ can certainly be expressed with greater modesty and humility than triumphalist Christianity, in smug and confident possession of the truth, has generally done.  British theologian John Milbank has gone so far as to say that, although Christians believe Christ is “the fulfillment of everything,” that this must be considered “a weird kind of fulfillment…a kind of counter-fulfillment” because it doesn’t claim that Christianity possesses a superior doctrine, a superior metaphysics or any other claim to pre-eminence, but only that God is most fully shown in a single perfected, or fully expressed, human being.[18] But, even the most unassuming theologies and cautious missiologies, must assert that Christ is, as von Balthasar says, “the concrete universal,” and this implies, by some name or other, man i.e. a destiny that belongs to human beings as such and can’t be dissolved either in pluralism or a cosmic mysticism that swallows history.  

This, I think, is the nub.  In Illich’s account of Church history in The Rivers North of the Future almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, even to the point that he feels obliged to confess a temptation “to curse the Incarnation.”[19]  On principle, he never develops the hypothetical history that would tell us what might have been if the  church had “centred its faith” on the imminent danger of institutionalizing revelation as “anti-Christ,” beyond saying that the Gospel might have furnished “the crowning proportion” in a world that remained proportioned at human and natural scales rather than incubating its destruction.  Nevertheless, I think there are certain fundamental notes even in his chastened, de-clericalized, and self-aware evangelism.  Christianity must be evangelical i.e. it must be shared, even if it is shared only by example and in humble recognition that, in the words of the Kena Upanishad, “it is not understood by those who understand it/ It is understood by those who do not understand it.”[20]  (This paradox echoes through every scripture from Lao-Tzu’s “those who know do not tell/Those who tell do not know” to Jesus’ “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear.”[21])  Christianity must be historical i.e. it must find its fulfillment in history.  And it must be apocalyptic i.e. it must understand the Incarnation as a decisive revelation which confronts humanity with a final choice – life or death, God’s way or no way at all.   In all these ways, a unified and unifying narrative is implied.  The being that is the subject of this narrative need not be called man.  There are many good reasons why it would be better if it were not.  But the unity of humanity, which is fully expressed in the word, and only weakly and diffusely in the alternatives, must be kept in sight.  

Perhaps a good solution is offered in theologian Walter Wink’s wonderful book, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man.  Writing in the tradition of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job and Elizabeth Howes’ Guild for Psychological Studies in San Francisco, which extended and developed Jung’s dialogue with Christianity, Wink examines the enigmatic Biblical term the Son of Man.  It appears first in the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet is addressed by that name by the Lord, and he sees a vision in which a radiant “Son of Man” confronts a senescent God portrayed as the Ancient of Days.  In the Gospels this is the main term that Jesus applies to himself – he doesn’t, despite his frequent references to his Father, call himself the Son of God but rather the Son of Man.  (And, if the term were literally translated Wink says it would actually be “the Son of the Man.”)  Wink thinks that a good translation would be “the human being.”   The term preserves the archetypal character of man while purging its gender.  I will not go further here into Wink’s “Christology from below” or his attempt to refute the received view of Jesus as “the omnipotent God in a man-suit,” but I do think that his account of Jesus as “the Human Being” – the one in whom divinity is fully realized as humanity – is very compatible with Illich’s understanding.  

[1] Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, Princeton, 2015, p. 7

[2] Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, Viking Press, 1968, pp. 265-280

[3] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Beacon Press, 1964

[4] Greif, op. cit., p. 265

[5]  C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Macmillan, 1947

[6] Ivan Illich, Celebration of Awareness, Doubleday, 1970, p. 5

[7] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Penguin, 1973, p. 108

[8] Ivan Illich Tools for Conviviality, Harper and Row, 1973, p. 108

[9] ibid., p. 83

[10] Deschooling Society, op. cit., p. 112

[11] David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992, p. 125

[12] Greif, op. cit., p. 115

[13] ibid., p. 285, 303 (check page references)

[14] ibid., p. 328

[15] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, Harvard, 1907; Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Clarendon Press, 1962

[16] Genesis, 1:26

[17] This sentence is not an exact quote but closely follows a sentence of Owen Barfield’s that is quoted in Simon Blaxland-de Lange, Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age: A Biography, Temple Lodge, 2006; “mother and brother” refers to Matthew 12:48, Mark 3:33, and Luke 8:21; “a symbol of the timeless” refers, among other passages, to John 8:56: “Before Abraham was, I am.”

[18] Milbank develops these thoughts in Part Six of my radio series, “The Myth of the Secular,” which can be found here: http://www.davidcayley.com/podcasts?category=Myth+of+the+Secular

[19] Ivan Illich/David Cayley, The Rivers North of the Future, Anansi, 2005, p. 61

[20] Kena Upanashad, II – 3, quoted in Panikkar, op. cit., p. 31

[21] The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, trans. Witter Bynner, Capricorn Books, 1944, Stanza 56, p. 60; Matthew 13: 13no w

Echoes, Affinities, Resonances: Ivan Illich in Contemporary Thought



(Recently I send the Penn State Press a lengthy manuscript of a book about the life and thought of Ivan Illich. Because of its length, I had to cut a number of sections that I wrote after the main body of the text was already complete. They deal with subjects that I felt had been left out or inadequately treated. Aside from occasional blind references to the book from which they have been excised, I think they are well enough able to stand on their own to justify my presenting them here. This is one of those sections.) 



In the year before he died, Ivan Illich was the guest of his friend Jerry Brown in Oakland, California where Brown was then the mayor.  Brown lived in what he called a loft, a large building near Jack London Square and the Oakland inner harbour, which he had renovated to make space for offices, meetings rooms and an ample number of guest rooms, along with his own apartment.  Beginning in the year 2000, he had invited Illich and his associates to use this space for a couple of months in the early fall to conduct meetings and seminars– an event that became known as The Oakland Table.[1]  During its second 2001 edition, Brown recalled, in an obituary tribute to his friend…                                  

[Illich] invited the local archbishop to discuss matters of Catholic theology that greatly troubled him. Before he died, Illich wanted to engage ecclesiastical representatives in a conversation about corruption in the early church and the evolution – as he saw it – of Christian charity from a personal act to planned institutional services. This he called the corruption of the best becoming the worst – Corruptio optimi quae est pessima . His interlocutors arrived at my loft and were ushered into the library. Illich spoke at length, summoning up his vast store of Church history. He tried one subject, then another, but the bishop and his clerical assistants seemed nonplussed, even uncomfortable. Soon the conversation was over and our guests excused themselves and left. I am sure they were wondering what in the world Illich was getting at.[2] 

This failed encounter typified Illich’s relationship to the Church from whose service he had withdrawn in 1969 – the year in which he concluded that the climate of scandal and innuendo which his opponents had generated around his name made it impossible for him to continue as a churchman.  His disappointment with the archbishop continued a theme he had sounded with me in 1993, when he said that, on the subject of how modern service institutions express “a perverse transmutation of…Christian vocation…I have not even found a first conversational partner within any of the established churches.”[3]  And it was not just the Church that was deaf to what Illich had to say.  In the 1970’s his lectures were mobbed, princes and prime ministers sought him out, and his essays were published in the Saturday Review and the New York Review of Books.  By the later 1980’s he was still in demand, and still the centre of a lively intellectual circle, but no longer quite au courant.   This was in many ways good.  Illich had no wish, as he said, to become “a jukebox,” spinning the same old tunes, and he could never have maintained the fevered pace of the early 1970’s when, as I related earlier, he once came to Vancouver and thought he was in Seattle.   He was never going to be an ordinary man – there was nothing ordinary about him – but the smaller settings and unhurried friendships of his later years were certainly a gift to his friends and, I think, to him as well.  Nevertheless there was the sense of a voice unheeded, and of seeds that, outside a small circle of friends, and a few outposts of unreconstructed 60’s radicalism, had fallen on “stony places where they had little earth.”[4] 

This was the situation, as I understood it as well, when I broadcast “The Corruption of Christianity” on CBC radio the beginning of January, 2000, when people were still adjusting to the fact that their computers hadn’t all gone haywire at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day.  My standing at Ideas, and the traces of celebrity that still clung to Illich’s name, were enough to justify my launching, just twelve years after “Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman,” a second week-long series of broadcasts which otherwise would have faced the objection that we had already “done” Illich.  But I had no sense that I was presenting something that dovetailed with any contemporary school of thought or body of opinion that I could identify.  I understood that “secularization” theories were abundant, and that Illich was hardly the first to suggest that Christianity had had a formative influence on the West, but the way he had framed his account of modernity – neither as a transformation of Christianity, nor as its repudiation, but as its perversion – was entirely new to me and seemed to hold implications far beyond what I could then think or imagine.  It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that it’s taken much of the twenty years that have elapsed since my final interviews with Illich were recorded to get me to the place where I feel I have some perspective on “the testament,” as I called it, with which Illich left me.  This effort to become equal, or at least adequate, to what I had been given took two forms: reflection on Illich’s hypothesis as it touched my life and the interpretation of his work, and a research aimed at discovering other contemporary thinkers in whom Illich’s corruptio optimi pessima has some echo, intimation or resonance. The first straw in the wind was a call from Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, while “The Corruption of Christianity” was being broadcast, to tell me that “the basic thesis” of the account of Western modernity on which he was then working “was similar to Illich’s.”[5]  (Taylor had first advanced his thesis that “secular civilization” is a mutation of Latin Christendom in his 1998-99 Gifford Lectures and would publish his work in finished form in 2007’s A Secular Age.)  Taylor’s championing of The Rivers North of the Future, both in the preface he wrote for the book and his sympathetic discussion of it in A Secular Age, gave my book a broader readership than it might otherwise have had. 

I soon noticed many other resonances.  One example, on which I have already commented several times, is the theological movement known as “Radical Orthodoxy.”  Its first proponents were British theologians John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward.[6] I had already read Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy at the time of the interviews that comprise the second half of The Rivers North of the Future, and an echo of Illich endorsement of Pickstock’s thesis can be found on the last page of Rivers where Illich supposes that “those who propose a new orthodoxy” and claim that philosophy must culminate in praise, not propositions, are in harmony with his lifelong attempt to put celebration at the centre of social existence.[7]  Further reading, particularly in John Milbank’s monumental, and yet still manifesto-like Theology and Social Theory, convinced me that there are profound and far-reaching affinities between Illich’s thought and Milbank’s. 

Radical Orthodoxy is just one version of the radical potential of a perfectly orthodox Christianity.  G.K. Chesterton, himself an instance of this potential, has a chapter in his book The Everlasting Man called “Five Deaths of Faith,” in which he isolates the moments at which he thinks Christianity has died and revived.  He mentions the heresies that threatened to engulf the early Church, the Albigensian heresy, skeptical Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment rationalism, and “after Darwin.”  In each case some form of revival or awakening has followed, and several, beginning with the great religious revival of the 1730’s and 1740’s, have been called Great Awakenings.[8]  Robert Inchausti in a book called Subversive Orthodoxy wonders whether the post-modern moment might not be another.  (Inchausti’s book in which Illich is featured alongside a long list of radical Christians, from William Blake to Wendell Berry, makes no reference to Radical Orthodoxy, but its title is a variation on the same theme.) 

Another important encounter was with the theologically-oriented Irish philosopher Richard Kearney whom I featured in an Ideas series in 2005.  Through him I began to discover the “theological turn” in phenomenological philosophy.  Kearney in a book called The God Who May Be introduced me to the idea that God exists in the mode of potentiality, or possibility, rather than as a definite and substantial being of whom one can ask the question, is he there or not, yes or no?  When Moses comes across the bush in the wilderness that burns without being consumed and the voice of the Lord calls on him to lead the people of Israel out of captivity, Moses asks the Lord how he should respond, if the people should ask, what is the name of the one who sent you to us?  Most translators have given God’s answer as “I am who I am…say to the people of Israel, ‘I Am’ has sent me to you.”  Modern translators, beginning with Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber in their rendering of the Hebrew Bible into German, have suggested, “I will be who I will be” is also a possible translation i.e. God’s manifestation is linked to human manifestation, each depending on the other.  What God will be depends on the answer we give to a call, a voice, whose existence we will partly determine by our response, not because we make God, but because Man and God are a mutually interpenetrating polarity, in which God is discovered in Man, just as Man is discovered in God.          

Through Kearney I began to see that atheism could be considered a cultural phase, a period of purgation and darkness, which potentially has a farther shore.  Nietzsche presents the death of God as a happening, indeed a killing.  His “Madman” who declares “the death of God” in The Gay Science says that “what was holiest…has bled to death under our knives.”[9] The death of God to this way of thinking is a historical event – the divine image that had prevailed in the West had atrophied in the hearts of Nietzsche’s contemporaries.  That’s why he gives them such an active role as murderers.  But what has died is only one historical and psychological image of the living power in which we “live and move and have our being.”[10]  To let go of what Kearney calls the “omni-God” does not necessarily imply atheism.  His alternative is what he calls “anatheism,” a disposition in which the absence and the presence of God are both allowed their moment, an attitude in which the couplet God/man is not fatally divided, and an isolated and self-enclosed humanity left to wonder where God has gone.  

Kearney’s anatheism points to a “zone of indecision,” a moment of not knowing which is the inseparable complement of knowing, the moment when Mary is confronted by a messenger who tells her – is he mad? – that she will conceive the Son of God in her virgin womb.  At this moment, the event on which, according to Christians, all history pivots, hangs in the balance.  It will happen, evidently, only if this obscure teenager in Galilee says yes.  Reality at this point is unknown, unformed, undecided – a true surprise, as Illich says.  God may, by definition, foresee the outcome, and theologians may offer subtle accounts of how it is possible that the outcome of free actions can be foreknown – Einsteinian physicists too have their way of proving that time is an illusion and the future already exists – but from the point of view of the present this is only speculation.[11]  This zone of indecision represents a limit for philosophy – a darkness in which it cannot easily be distinguished from theology.  Such a distinction was crucial, even in Heidegger’s early writings, because theology is, in Heidegger’s words, “a positive science,” i.e. it reflects on a content already given by divine revelation, while philosophy is free, speculative thought.  But, once philosophy discovers that what is given in revelation is both a structure of experience, and an implication of language, the distinction begins to dissolve.  Philosophy, in a sense, discovers that it has as much faith as theology, even if this faith is framed in atheist terms.  Jacques Derrida’s celebrated bon mot that he “rightly passes for an atheist” perfectly captures this new mood.  Yes he is an atheist in that he lives within the horizon of “the death of God,” and yet he only “passes” for an atheist, even if “rightly,” because what he discovers at the limit of his experience is “the gift of death” and “a messianism without religion.”[12]  Derrida’s “acts of religion,” as one of his books is called , are echoed in the works of Jean Luc Nancy, Slavoj Zizek, Gianni Vattimo, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and others – all of them philosophers who could say with Derrida that they rightly pass for atheists, and yet all of them recognizing what is given in Christianity as an unsurpassable horizon, the very “nervation” of the West as Nancy says.[13] 

Rudolf Steiner, who believed that human consciousness undergoes evolution, characterized the modern period as the time when what he calls Consciousness Soul develops.  According to Owen Barfield, Steiner’s wonderfully lucid interpreter, “The Consciousness Soul indicates the maximum point of self-consciousness, the point at which the individual feels himself to be entirely cut off from the surrounding cosmos and is for that reason fully conscious of himself as an individual.”[14] Shakespeare’s Hamlet, plunged into the abyss of self-consciousness, and thus into endless indecision, is the proto-type of Consciousness Soul.  Consciousness soul, Steiner says, cannot believe, because all that is finally real for it is the self.  Steiner’s response was to ask his students “not to believe.”  “Think these thoughts without believing in them,” he once said.[15]  This is germane to the theological turn in philosophy, I think.  If it is true, as I said earlier, that the death of God is an event not an idea, an experience, not the failure of some cosmological hypothesis, then it is very natural for philosophers to now be exploring Christianity without belief.  Kearney’s anatheism is a way of naming the disposition within which this can occur.  The prefix ana indicates up, back, again – it refers to the moment before we know what we are facing, the moment when we are thrown back on ourselves, the moment that repeats but always repeats differently.  It allows atheism and theism to coexist, making neither final.   

Illich’s corruptio optimi pessima has various implications: it urges us to see a displaced and degenerate salvation being enacted in our great “service” institutions, and it invites us to return to the Incarnation and its witness in the Gospel in order to understand them again differently in the light of their corruption.  I want to argue that the developments I have sketched above, in both philosophy and theology, have created a climate which is much more receptive to what Illich has to say than the one in which he thought he was operating towards the end of his life.  I say “thought he was operating” because the first intimations of this new climate are clearly evident, at least in retrospect, during the last years of his life – Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, for example, was published in 1990.   In what follows I want to examine several of the thinkers who have treated the same themes as Illich, and, in the process, helped me to understand these themes. 


Giorgio Agamben is a prolific Italian philosopher, now seventy five years old, who has explicitly recognized his affinity with Illich.  He has acquired Illich’s Italian literary rights and already introduced a new edition of Illich’s Gender (Genere in Italian) to the Italian public.  In his introduction to this new edition, he asserts that Illich’s work, misread and misunderstood when it was first presented, has now reached its “hour of legibility” and that Illich is unique in contemplating “the catastrophic consequences of [Christianity’s] secular perversion” from a position deeply rooted in its tradition.[16]  Agamben has also written an introduction to a new collection of Illich’s essays and lectures, mostly written when he was still in Church service, that the Penn State Press has just published as The Powerless Church.  In this essay, Agamben argues that the “thought of the kingdom” is central to Illich’s thought as a whole, a reading which coincides with the emphasis on the messianic moment in Agamben’s own thought, but is still, I think, substantially correct.  This is one of many overlaps between Agamben’s themes and Illich’s.   

Agamben’s concern, according to one recent commentator, is with nothing less than “the metaphysical structure of modernity.”[17] I think this term, though grander, corresponds fairly closely with Illich’s “certainties” – those things we don’t think about because they are, in effect, what we think with.  Agamben’s ultimate aim is liberation from this metaphysical structure – a task in which he thinks the messianic plays a crucial role.  Speaking in Notre Dame Cathedral in March of 2009, in the presence of the Bishop Paris and other high-ranking church officials, Agamben gave what he was not afraid to call a homily on the subject.  “The Church,” he said, “has lost the messianic experience of time that defines it.”[18]   He went on to distinguish the messianic from the apocalyptic, or what he elsewhere calls the eschatological.  Eschatology is concerned with the last or final things, with the end of time, and of the world.  The Messianic is possible at any moment.  Agamben’s watchword, here as in other texts, is Walter Benjamin’s saying that “every day, every instant is the small gate through which the Messiah enters.”[19]  The messianic, in other words, is not the end of time but a changed experience of time occurring within time.  So long as we live in what Benjamin calls “empty homogeneous time” – that indifferent, inexorable carriage that speeds us helplessly from moment to moment – and believe that this is the only time, then “the time in which we believe we live [will] separate…us from what we are and transform…us into powerless  spectators of our own lives.”[20]  The messianic, in effect, makes time real – it allows us to seize it and inhabit it, and, in this way, to realize its inherent relationship to eternity, and the end of time.  In Agamben’s words: “What is messianic is not the end of time but the relationship of every moment…to eternity.”[21]  (Agamben doesn’t say so explicitly, but I would add this is because the terms, time/eternity, are generative polar opposites interpenetrating in the field which their polar opposition creates.)   

Agamben’s scriptural proof text, mentioned in the Notre Dame talk but analyzed at much greater length in his book The Time That Remains, is the passage in the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, in which Paul advises his brothers and sisters there that “the time has grown very short.” (This is the translation in the Revised Standard Version, Agamben prefers “the time has contracted.”)  In view of this shortening or contraction, he advises the Corinthians that each should remain in his/her existing status. “Let those who have wives,” Paul writes, “live as though they had none, and those that mourn as though they were not mourning, and those that rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those that buy as though they had no goods, and those that deal with the world as though they had no dealings with the world. For the form of this world is passing away.”[22]  This “as though,” or, “as not” is crucially important to Agamben.  It signifies, he says, “the revocation of every vocation.”[23] This is the condition – he sometimes calls it “inoperativity” – towards which Agamben strives in his writing.  It’s a state in which all that holds our world and ourselves in thrall and pre-determines the way we will go, is cancelled or held at bay – an awakening to all that is held down and imprisoned by our habits, by our unthought assumptions, by the weight of history, and by a conception of time as railway on which we are hurried along.   

Agamben reads Paul very selectively.  He does not draw attention to the passage in 1 Thessalonians where Paul imagines a cinematic Second Coming in which “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpets of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”[24] So extravagantly mythological an account would not suit Agamben’s purposes, for it would show that Paul was not seeking a renewed experience of the inwardness of time, but a positive Rapture in which the faithful are swept up.  But there is another Paul, the Paul who says in the same letter I have been quoting that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” an event unlikely to be heralded by a trumpet.[25]  He also says, to the Corinthians, without any apparent reference to futurity or celestial light-shows, “Now is the day of salvation.”[26]  Agamben recuperates this side of Paul and demonstrates how it might be possible for those of us, who are on the other side of the death of God, to understand Paul anew – to, as it were, recover messianic Paul from eschatological Paul. 

Agamben’s argument in Notre Dame cathedral was that, once it became clear that the once-and-for-all end of the world was imminent only in the elastic sense in which the apostle Peter says that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” the Church largely forgot about the messianic as an experience of the present and got on with the task of government.[27]  For the early Church – “in the eyes of the Church Fathers, Agamben says – “history [is] a field traversed by two opposing forces.”  The first is that binding, worldly power that the Second Letter to the Thessalonians calls “the Restrainer” (to katechon), that force which “maintains and ceaselessly defers the end along the linear and homogeneous line of chronological time.”[28] The second is the force that Agamben calls Messiah, which revokes all vocations and turns time inside out, showing it, in the words of William Blake, as “the mercy of eternity,” the mirror in which eternity becomes visible to us as embodied creatures enclosed in what Paul calls “this body of death.”[29]  It is the task of the Church to reveal this dimension of time, and, only when it does, Agamben continues, can a truly human community be created.  “The only way a community can form and last” is if both poles – both the restraining and the liberating force – “are present and a dialectical tension between them prevails.”[30] The Church, however, has put itself on the side of the restraining force.  “Let us call this force Law or State,” Agamben writes, “dedicated as it is to economy, which is to say, dedicated as it is to the indefinite – and indeed infinite – governance of the world.”[31]   Agamben then concludes his homily with these words: “The question I came here today to ask, without any other authority than an obstinate habit of reading the signs of the times, is this: Will the Church finally grasp the historic occasion and recover its messianic vocation?”[32] 

Thus Giorgio Agamben to the Bishop of Paris in 2009.  One would like to say these words resounded like Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517.  I don’t see much evidence as yet, but, of course, most historians now say it is mere legend that Luther’s theses were ever nailed to that famous door in the first place, so perhaps one day it will be said that Giorgio Agamben nailed his manifesto for a messianic church to the great doors of Notre Dame and started a revolution.  Certainly one can see the deep affinity with Illich.  “The entirety of Illich’s thought,” Agamben writes in his introduction to The Powerless Church, “appears as the thought of the kingdom [and] of its special presence among us, already accomplished and not yet accomplished.”  Entirety may be overdrawn – Illich was a shrewd sociologist, as well as an evangelist – and yet I think Agamben, in the end, is right.  The constantly recurring emphasis in Illich on celebration, on surprise, and on relationship is, finally, “the thought of the kingdom” – the thought of a reality that can steal upon us, like Paul’s thief, only when our management of the world and ourselves is modified, complemented and undercut by a counter-vailing emphasis on the power that can turn time inside out.  Agamben has adopted Illich because Illich, writing from a position, as Agamben notes, “deeply rooted in [Catholic] tradition,” consistently denounced the absence of the Messiah in the discourses of the Church and its many offspring.  This was rarely done explicitly because Illich judged that he would inevitably be misunderstood.  “I did not want to be taken for a proselytizer, a fundamentalist – or worse, a Catholic theologian,” he told the Catholic Philosophical Association in Los Angeles in 1996.  “When speaking in Philadelphia or Bremen,” he went on, “I felt I ought to shroud my ultimate motive in apophasy.”  (Apophasy, as sometimes happens with Illich, is a word none of my dictionaries even recognize – they show only apophasis as the name of the rhetorical device whereby a speaker brings something up by saying he’s not going to bring it up – but I think Illich intends the practice of apophatic, or negative theology. ) This was “the tightrope,” he says, “on which he had to do his balancing act as a teacher.”[33]  This reticence was real, but never quite as total as Illich sometimes made it seem in looking back.  Deschooling Society, for example, is explicit that confusing education with schooling is equivalent to “confusing salvation with the Church.”[34]  And this corresponds exactly with Agamben’s point.  Instead of taking its stand at a point outside history (though one could equally well say inside history) the Church has identified salvation with its own history.  It has seen its task as, primarily, one of government during the interval between the Christ’s ascension and return and thus has deferred the end, as Agamben says, “along the…homogeneous line of chronological time.”  The end is never now.  But now, Illich says, is all we ever  have.  “The only time the Lord is present to us is at the present moment which we celebrate together,” Illich says. “We have no idea if there is a future.  To live as a Christian means to live in the spirit of the Maran Atha – the Lord is coming at this moment.  It means to live and enjoy living at the edge of time, at the end moment of time.”[35]  This is completely in the messianic spirit that Agamben feels has been otherwise absent from the Church. 

It is interesting – as an aside here – that Agamben who is not explicitly a Christian (though not explicitly not a Christian either, a point I’ll get to presently) should be so open about what Illich felt should remain “shrouded” in his teaching.  The difference is an index of the changed times, I think.  Illich remained protective of the Church – it was because he wanted to protect the Church from further self-inflicted scandal that he resigned from church service in 1969.  It was only towards the end of his life, I think, that Illich, as a man who had always quite rigorously “abstained from making apocalyptic statements,” felt able to say publicly that it might be “quite close to the end of the world.”[36] Agamben, on the other hand, has more or less taken “the end of the world” for granted throughout his writings.  He has identified the concentration camp as “the hidden matrix…of the political space in which we…live.”[37]  He has described the condition in which we live as a permanent state of emergency and exception.[38]  And he has noted that “the nations of the earth” are all being driven “toward a single common destiny” as a result of “the alienation of linguistic being, the uprooting of all peoples from their vital dwelling in language.”  This last is part of his larger point that definite, local forms-of-life are increasingly being reduced to “bare life,” a point I’ll develop at more length in a moment.  Agamben, in other words, takes as a starting point a condition that Illich is hesitant to reveal, or interpret in terms of Biblical prophecy, even though awareness of this condition continually breaks through in his last texts.[39]  And, Agamben, accordingly, honours Illich as one who recognized the condition in which Agamben thinks we live and tried to change it.  Illich, in the first half of his career, could still imagine the apocalyptic tide stemmed, and the world brought back within politically-defined limits; Agamben thinks only of the new possibilities that might open when this tide reaches its flood. 

Illich’s works are full of hints at the ecclesiastical and theological origins of contemporary styles of thought and ways of life.  In his final interviews with me he made his “hypothesis that modernity can be studied as an extension of church history” more explicit and sketched a few of the “lines of evolution” along which he saw the metamorphosis of the medieval church into the modern state taking place.[40]  Agamben has now gone much farther along these lines, notably in his The Kingdom and the Glory.  This book, to simplify a little, describes the way in which “the economy of salvation,” the figure by which the early church tried to understand the historical effect of the Incarnation, became in time the limitless economy without salvation in which we presently live.  Oikonomia in Greek meant the management of a household.  The Christian church adopted the term to describe the workings of divine providence, operating within the interactive image of a God “in three persons” – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – each giving way to the other, each mediating the other, so that the Son is the image of the Father, the Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son, etc.[41]  The idea of history as a meaningful process appears first, Agamben says, as the “economy” of salvation.  Oikonomia names the process or plan by which God realizes his intention and the three persons of the Trinity work their will.  It allows a transcendent God to be both one and three – to found a worldly art of government while remaining above it all.  One might say, though these are not Agamben’s words, that it takes a mystery – Illich’s “surprise” that must, but its nature, “remain a surprise” – and turns the mystery into mechanics, though a mechanics always oiled and, at the same time, obscured by an effulgent glory that blinds the too eager or too attentive gaze and prevents us from getting too close.  In establishing this idea that the world is the object of divine government, Agamben says, Christianity “sunders being and praxis” i.e. creates a situation in which our doing will no longer necessarily follow the contours of a nature or being that defines us.  The Greek gods express nature – they do not make it.  The Judeo-Christian God makes the world as a gratuitous act – quia vult, because he wanted to, Augustine says– and so it is not necessary that things be or remain as they are.[42]  

Agamben’s archaeology of the idea of divine economy supplements and spells out the intuition of Michel Foucault’s that modern “governmentality” has its roots in the Christian exercise of pastoral power.  Prolonged reflection on the inner workings of divine providence creates an entrenched habit of thought.[43]  What we first imagine of God, we later execute on our own behalf.  The Panopticon, the figure of universal visibility that Foucault borrows from Jeremy Bentham, is unthinkable without the all-seeing God as its ultimate paradigm, “the ceaseless flow” that constitutes the inner life of the Trinity becomes the endless circulation that we glorify and depend on in the modern economy.    Theological oikonomia “transmits [a] structure,” Agamben writes, to modern governmentality.[44] One of the ways in which this is done is through what he calls “signatures.”  A signature is a sign that “retains its identity in displacement.”  The inner identity of theological oikonomia and modern economy is an example.  “Archaeology” is one Agamben’s names for the attempt to unearth the foundations on which our unconscious thinking rests, and “archaeology,” he says, “is a science of signatures.”[45] 

Agamben’s book also makes many evocative observations about what he calls “the theology of glory” – observations which I think help us to understand why we remain speechless and disarmed in the face of the many quasi-theological manoeuvres by which the present day economy is explained and justified.  The intricacies of the economy of salvation, with its “general providence” now and then requiring modification by the interventions of “special providence,” constitute what Agamben sometimes calls a “machine.”  The stuff which this machine produces, and which, at the same time, hides the operation of the machine is called glory.  Glory is “praise without content.”  The concluding amen which “says nothing but merely assents to and concludes what has already been said” is an example.  Alleluia which praises God as such is the same.  Hymns are often pure praise –a “radical deactivation of signifying language,” Agamben says.[46] “Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide thee,” says a hymn that imprinted itself strongly on my mind in childhood. “Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,/Only though art holy; there is none beside thee,/perfect in power, in love, and purity.”[47]  This does not, in Agamben’s terms, “signify,” i.e. point to something, because it is entirely assertion, or acclamation, the production of a radiance so intense that “the eye of sinful man” cannot even see it.  This glory passes back and forth in the ruling economy.  “Father glorify your son, that the Son may glorify you,” Jesus prays, in the Gospel of John, on the day before his crucifixion.[48]  Likewise, Agamben says, in the subsequent economy of salvation “Government glorifies the kingdom, and the kingdom glorifies government.”  But at the centre of all this glory sits “an empty throne.” “The centre of the machine is empty,” Agamben says, “and glory is nothing but the splendor that emanates from this emptiness.”[49] “Glory,” he goes on, “both in theology and politics, is precisely what takes the place of that unthinkable emptiness that amounts to the inoperativity of power.  And yet precisely this unsayable vacuity is what nourishes and feeds power.”[50]  Inoperativity, as we shall see, is a word that plays a big part in Agamben’s philosophy, but, for the time being, it can be read simply as what does not work.  “Glory must cover with its splendor the unaccountable figure of divine inoperativity.”[51]  

Inoperativity, in Agamben, refers to anything that is reduced to its pure potentiality, the point at which it has been deprived of all its existing uses and may therefore be put to use in some new way.  Poetry, for example, “exemplifies inoperativity” – it is language, Agamben says, “with its informative and communicative functions deactivated…language contemplating its own power of saying.” It answers no need, performs no function, but is pure celebration – language which does nothing and wants nothing but, like Walt Whitman, celebrates itself and sings itself with “all creeds and schools in abeyance.”[52]   By inoperativity people are liberated from “biological and social destinies” and, to that extent, made free for “the indefinable sphere of politics” – the sphere in which, for Agamben as for Hannah Arendt, a human life may be made.  In another place he calls politics the “sphere of pure mediality without end,” which I take to mean what is neither a means to an end, nor an end in itself, but pure play, or, so to speak, a means in itself.[53]  In a passage that Agamben cites more than once, Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, says that man as such has no vocation, i.e. no path determined by nature.  He is free and must make himself – he is a “good for nothing,” in Agamben’s joking paraphrase, who is also by the same token a good for everything.[54]  Inoperativity returns people to this condition of potentiality.  When the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians “I no longer live but Christ lives in me,” this is, for Agamben, “a figure of inoperativity.” The messianic life which Paul says he now lives is a life beyond any predetermined form, a life that begins when every predetermined form is cancelled and revoked – when “those that mourn are as though they were not mourning, and those that rejoice as though they were not rejoicing.”[55]  

Agamben is a keen reader and interpreter of Walter Benjamin – he was the Italian editor of Benjamin’s collected works – and traces of Benjamin’s highly original Marxism can be found in Agamben’s work, along with Benjamin’s emphasis on the messianic.  In one of Benjamin’s fragments, called “Capitalism as Religion,” he asserts that capitalism is “a pure religious cult, a cult without dogma.”  Agamben’s paraphrase of the central idea of this essay is that we live in “a single uninterrupted holiday [holy day] in which work coincides with the celebration of the cult”[56]   I find Benjamin’s essay elusive, but I think he is trying to say that capitalism, far from being an irreligious way of life, is a kind of quintessence or distillation of religion.  Christianity “changed into capitalism,” and became unconscious in capitalism, and so we are doomed to perpetual celebration that never finally feels like celebration because there is nothing but celebration and therefore no celebration at all.  I don’t really know if this is an accurate rendering of Benjamin’s thought, but the idea is certainly visible in Agamben, and perhaps a spelling out of the not-quite-articulate nuggets of Benjamin’s thought has been one of Agamben’s tasks.  In what Benjamin calls capitalism, the world has withdrawn and become inaccessible, just as in Marx’s thought of the “commodity form” which he already identifies as having its only analogy in “the misty realm of religion.”[57] The commodity, taken in its broadest possible sense – Illich’s sense in which even services count as “commodifications” of charity – withdraws into a religious sphere in which it is available to us and yet not available.  Two of Agamben’s figures for this availablility/unavailability are the Museum and the Tourist.  “The Museum,” he says, “occupies exactly the space and function once reserved for the Temple as the place of sacrifice.”  The potsherd, the warrior’s shield, the trade blanket encased at the museum have been “sacrificed,” or dedicated to the gods, and can no longer be used.  The tourist, in effect, moves through such a museum, a world arranged and ordered in such a way that he/she may never touch it or alter its predetermined meaning.  “Inasmuch as it represents the cult and central altar of the capitalist religion,” Agamben writes, “tourism is the primary industry in the world…Nothing is so astonishing as the fact that millions of ordinary people are able to carry out on their own flesh what is perhaps the most desperate [experience] that one can have: the irrevocable loss of all use.”[58]  The tourist, Agamben says, is a continuation of the Christian pilgrim who also expressed his “irreducible foreignness to the world.”[59] But, while the Christian peregrinus found at least a glimmer of the transcendent God at the shrine that was his destination, the modern tourist, devotee of the pure cult in which God has been absorbed and entombed, can only go on in mirthless celebration, accumulating experiences he can never assimilate.  Capitalist modernity, Agamben says, is a condition in which the law is “in force without signifying” – the cult solicits and compels our obedience/participation but its meaning is obscure.[60] 

Another example of what is withdrawn from use and made untouchable is the sphere of the media.  Agamben, here influenced by Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, identifies the social formation in which we live as “the spectacular democratic regime.”[61]  In another place he refers to “the spectacular religion.”[62] Language, when consigned to “the spectacular sphere” loses its potential.  The apparatuses of the media, Agamben says, “prevent language from disclosing the possibility of a new use.” Words and concepts acquire an impenetrable gloss which disables them for any other use than the intended one.  “In the spectacular religion the pure means, suspended and exhibited in the sphere of the media, shows its own emptiness, speaks only of its own nothingness, as if no other use were possible, as if no other experience of the word were possible.”[63]  This saturation of language, in which its capacity for redeployment is quenched and eliminated, was also extremely important to Illich – he speaks of the “extraordinarily beautiful freedom which is implicit in language, and which requires of my interlocutor the patience to allow his words to be turned around in my mouth” and of the way in which this freedom is lost in a world of icons, compulsory feelings, and other veiled commands issuing from “the media.”[64]   

Behind Agamben’s apprehension of the “irrevocable loss of all use,” which the contemporary consumer experiences even while his every need is satisfied, lies his sense of the sacred and the profane which is the fundamental structure of alienated human experience.  Something is consecrated, or made sacred, in Agamben’s understanding when it is removed from the free use of people and reserved for the gods.  Religion names the sphere to which it is removed, and sacrifice is the “apparatus” that effects the separation and makes the separated item untouchable.[65] So much is universal.  But Christianity complicates the picture.  The idea of God himself as a sacrificial victim – God sacrificed to God – puts God in the place where humans had once been and thus “threatened to paralyze the sacrificial machine of Christianity.”  This “put the distinction between the sacred and profane into crisis” by creating “a zone of undecideability” in which “the divine sphere is always in the process of collapsing into the human sphere and man always already passes over into the divine.”[66]  This is as close as Agamben comes, in the books I have read, to Illich’s corruptio optimi pessima.  He does not go as far as René Girard in saying that the Gospels unmask the sacrificial machine, or as far as Illich, Girard and  many others in saying that Christianity is, potentially, the overcoming and fulfillment of religion rather than its continuation; but he does recognize, with Benjamin, that Christianity, by paralyzing the sacrificial machinery, potentially extends its sway and eventually makes it total, producing a cult helplessly unaware of itself as such – a condition often decried as one in which nothing is sacred, when its predicament is just the opposition: everything is sacred. 

The sacrificial machine creates and enforces separation, removing what it hallows by sacrifice from both analysis and use, and Christianity extends this operation via secularization to all domains.  “Christianity generalizes in every domain the structure of separation that defines religion…there is now a single, multiform, ceaseless process of separation that assails everything, every place, every human activity in order to divide it from itself.”[67]  Agamben’s answer to this universal domination of the sacred is to praise “profanation.”  To profane, he says, is to return something that has been reserved for the gods to use “free of sacred names.”  Such profanation is sharply distinguished from mere “secularization.”  The latter term is how he names the process we have been discussing in which the sacred runs everywhere.  The transcendence of God, for example, becomes the paradigm of sovereign power, and the earthly sovereign preserves all the powers and prerogatives of the heavenly one.  Profanation, on the other hand, “neutralizes what it profanes.”  What was “unavailable and separate loses its aura and is returned to use.  Both are political operations: the first guarantees the exercise of power by carrying it back to a sacred model.  The second deactivates the apparatuses of power and returns to common use the spaces that power had seized.”[68]   

To make visible and overcome “the impossibility of using” is clearly Agamben’s aim.  That is how he defines the messianic: “Every worldly condition is released from itself to allow for its use.”[69]  And he holds that as the world moves inexorably to a condition of dispossession, the possibility of a reversal, of returning to use, occurs.  Take, for example, language.  Agamben says, in a passage I quoted earlier, that “all peoples” are being “uprooted…from their vital dwelling in language.”  But this very deprivation, he says, affords people the opportunity “to experience their own linguistic essence,” the opportunity “to experience not some language content or true proposition but language itself [my italics].”  Those who become aware of language as such “will become the first citizens of a community with neither presuppositions nor a state…the citizens of this community will enter the paradise of language.”[70]  This remarkable passage is the clearest and most explicit statement I can find in Agamben of a model/mechanism/paradigm that seems to be everywhere in his thought: dispossession as the possibility of repossession.  It clearly owes something to the mystical Marxism he inherits from Benjamin – the proletariat is the universal class, and the bearer of liberation, because it loses everything - but it also makes me think of Eliot: “In order to possess what you do not possess/ You must go by the way of dispossession./ In order to arrive at what you are not/ You must go by the way of dispossession.”  In this way we will at last “arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”[71]  Carl Jung, though never mentioned by Agamben, speaks of enantiodromia, or the tendency of things to turn into their opposites when pushed to their extreme.  Many of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount speak of similar reversals, as, for example, the meek inheriting the earth.  But, whether this reversal occurs by a conscious praxis, according to Agamben, or is automatic, is unclear to me.  When there are no longer any words that speak of me, or to me, will I necessarily experience my own “linguistic essence” and thereby stand on the thresh-hold of the paradise of language, or must I painfully, gradually, improbably awaken to this condition? 

Another case in which an apocalyptic (i.e. revealing) extremity is being reached in our time, according to Agamben, is what he calls “bare life,” that is life deprived of all the qualities and qualifications it acquires in a form-of-life, or culture, and reduced to a state in which “our private biological body has become indistinguishable from our body politic,” or, one might also say, a condition in which we have been completely naturalized.[72]  “Political power,” Agamben says, “…always founds itself – in the last instance – on the separation of a sphere of naked life from the context of a form of life.”[73] He makes this statement without exception.  Political power rests for him, not on a contract, but on a ban or exclusion – on the possibility that someone will be stripped of all standing and all dignity and made expendable.  His paradigm of bare life, Homo Sacer, a figure in Roman culture who “persists into codified Roman Law,” is an outcast who may be killed with impunity but not sacrificed to the gods.  The name, Homo Sacer, is important because the term, in its Roman context, signifies both sacred and accursed and thus demonstrates the inner link between the two concepts – the sacred is maintained by what it bans or curses.  Homo sacer stands, in Agamben’ discourse, for “a figure that belongs to the primitive life of many peoples.”  It also “includes the bandit, the outlaw, and the wolfman (wargus) or friedlos (man without peace) of German antiquity.” [74]  

Ostracism or exclusion, for Agamben, has been the basis of political power, so long as there has been political power, but it remained for a long time an exceptional or limiting case.  In modernity, bare life moves to the centre of political discourse, and so reveals itself as the true basis of sovereignty.  “The realm of bare life…originally situated at the margins of the political order gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside, bios [social status] and zoē [aliveness as such], right and fact enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction.”[75] In saying this, Agamben announces himself as the successor and inheritor of Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt (and he might have added Ivan Illich, had he known Illich’s reflections on “life” when he wrote Homo Sacer.)  Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition had written that “biological life as such…occup[ies] the very center of the political science of modernity.”[76]  Her thought was that modernity’s emphasis on making rather than doing, and its preoccupation with production, had gradually turned society into a giant metabolism concerned only with its own maintenance and reproduction.  Foucault in his lectures at the Collège de France, beginning in 1977, introduced the concepts of bio-power and governmentality.  He argued, as is now entirely obvious, that, in modernity, life itself had increasingly become the object of government.  But these insights, in Agamben’s view, were not systematically followed up. He saw himself in Homo Sacer as offering the political theory that neither Arendt or Foucault ever fully spelled out. 

“The politicization of life as such,” Agamben says, “constitutes the decisive event of modernity.”  The contrast with “life as such” is life-in-context.  Agamben often speaks of forms-of-life, a term which began its philosophical career with Ludwig Wittgenstein and refers generally to an accustomed way of doing things, but culture, and way of life are also rough synonyms.  It is Agamben’s contention that people everywhere are gradually being deprived of their characters and made into interchangeable units of life.  The refugee, deprived of a state and the rights of citizenship, and the concentration camp, where law is suspended altogether, are his paradigms, but he argues that life-as-such has become the subject of political life generally.  The discourses of medicine in which people appear as sets of symptoms or as statistical abstracts of the class to which they belong can serve an example.  But wherever our “buttons are pushed,” whether by political rhetorics or popular entertainments, and whenever we are addressed at our lowest common denominator, life-as-such has triumphed. 

One of Agamben’s examples in Homo Sacer is the doomed gathering of young Chinese citizens in Tienanmen Square in 1989.  He notes “the relative absence of specific contents in their demands” and says that they were “a force that could not and did not want to be represented but that presented itself nonetheless as a community and a common life.” They were “without either presuppositions or conditions of belonging.” Agamben’s describes the Tienanmen manifestation as a harbinger of “the whatever singularity – the singularity that wants to take possession of belonging itself as well as of its own being-into-language, and that thus declines any identity and any condition of belonging.”  “The whatever singularity,” he concludes, “is the new protagonist of the coming politics.”[77]  Subsequent events appear to have borne Agamben out – with movements like Occupy and Idle No More seeming to assert their mere obstinate existence more than any actual political programme. 

With the “whatever singularity,” as with our expulsion from our home in language, and our reduction to bare life, we are again face to face with Agamben’s curious optimism: the “coming politics” in which we will encounter ourselves anew at the extremity of loss, discovering belonging through not belonging, our linguistic essence through being uprooted from our dwelling in language, our pure potentiality in our estrangement from all definite forms of life.   It seems partly Hegelian/Marxist – the negation of the negation, the expropriators expropriated etc. – and partly Christian – “the stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” – and yet one still wants to ask what is its basis.[78]  On what ground does Agamben stand when he excoriates the church for having forgotten its messianic mission?  He never declares himself to be a Christian.  The throne obscured by the circulation of glory in the divine oikonomia is said to be empty.  In The Time That Remains, he says that “revelation is always and above all a revelation of language itself, an experience of a pure event of the word.”  This “pure event [which] exceeds every signification,” he goes on, “is …animated by two opposing tendencies.  The first which Paul calls nomos [law] attempts to encapsulate the excess by articulating it in precepts and semantic concepts.  The second which coincides with pistis [faith] is oriented on the contrary, toward maintaining it open beyond any determinative significance.”[79]  Elsewhere he says, “The name of God, that is the name that names language is, therefore, a word without meaning, the place of pure signification without anything being signified.”[80] This seems to indicate a limit of what we can know about revelation.  If language exceeds its own significance, addressing us, soliciting us, and commanding us in ways that form the ultimate horizon of what we can understand, then the question of what stands behind language is simply by-passed.  And indeed Agamben says in one place that he does not want to evade “the problem of God” so much as to “suppress” it.[81] 

This has led some theologians to call him a nihilist. This is Connor Cunningham’s approach in his article “Nihilism and Theology: Who Stands at the Door?” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought.[82] For Cunningham nihilism equates roughly with materialism – there is no soul, no spirit, no God – but nothing, not even nihilism, can define itself as “mere lack,” so it has moved in our time “to colonize theology” and set up “counterfeit theologies.”  Agamben, for Cunningham, is among these counterfeit theologians.  One of Agamben’s recurring touchstones is the figure of Bartleby the Scrivener, the eponymous hero of a story by 19th century American writer, Herman Melville.  The story is told in the voice of a Wall St. lawyer who hires a copyist – a scrivener – who at first does skillful work but then begins to answer all requests with the enigmatic phrase, “I’d prefer not to.”  For Agamben the story embodies the ambiguity that he thinks is characteristic of so many contemporary phenomena – that “zone of indecision” about which I quoted him earlier.  Erasure of the distinction between biological and political existence is an example.  Bartleby says neither yes, nor no, but, cryptically, refuses the alternatives.  He dwells “obstinately in the abyss of potentiality,” Agamben says.[83] As Cunningham paraphrases Agamben, Bartleby’s refusal “loosens the chains of the system’s logic, sending it into a sort of fibrillation.”  And thus we are plunged into the “abyss of potentiality” where radical change, as for example the entry into “the paradise of language,” becomes possible.

For Cunningham, a cheerful and occasionally bombastic apologist for orthodox Christianity, this is all mostly an empty play with words, a “counterfeit theology,” because it is purely formal.  For him, “the swamp of potentiality,” as he calls it, offers no way out of “the zone of indecision.”  I am perhaps too much in that zone myself to speak quite as confidently.  To me Agamben appears not as a nihilist, but as what one writer on his work calls “a non-non-Christian.”[84]  The phrase is absurd – non’s could be added indefinitely – and yet it also expresses a certain desirable reticence to give positive names to what stands at the very edge of possible understanding.   Agamben is certainly not a Christian in that he seems to affirm nothing beyond the horizon of language and to treat the messianic as a way of apprehending time rather than as an encounter with an actual Messiah.  And yet he is also not not a Christian in his insistence that the “metaphysical structure of modernity” is composed of theological figures. We are all Christians in this sense because, if Christianity is, as Nancy says, the “nervation” of the West, then it must necessarily think us as much as we think it.  Hostile Cunningham sees Agamben’s “counterfeit theology” as “diabolical.”  I see it as an attempt to understand how our world has been made and how it might be remade, an attempt undertaken from within the enclosure of contemporary consciousness, from within, one might say, “the death of God.” 

Earlier, I mentioned the term Consciousness Soul which was coined by Rudolf Steiner, and also elaborated by his English interpreter Owen Barfield, to describe modernity’s characteristic state of mind.  Before the dawn of Consciousness soul, in Steiner’s scheme, there was Intellectual Soul, which still participated in nature and believed that mind belonged to a rational order that it could understand because it belonged to it.  Consciousness Soul believes only what appears to consciousness – “nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so,” says Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who speaks as the very archetype of this new state of mind.  For Steiner/Barfield, this is a necessary phase in the evolution of consciousness, because it puts everything to the test, banishing “occult forces” from science and challenging what Francis Bacon calls “the idols of the mind,” but it results in extreme isolation and self-enclosure.  I see Agamben as operating at this extreme.  As a proper philosopher who is trying to “overcome metaphysics” he cannot admit a reality that is outside and beyond consciousness – a real Christ, let’s say.  And yet he has also understood that religion comprises real experiences.  Thus he is put to ingenious, sometime merely clever, but often enlightening explanations of the nature of these experiences.  He shows us, for example, how the apostle Paul’s messianism is a structure of experience, and an implication of language, that can be understood and practiced without in any way affirming Paul’s eschatology.  Perhaps one could say that he sticks to the phenomena that present themselves to his consciousness without his being able to ask what stands beyond, behind, or within them.  Homo religiosus has returned, i.e. there doesn’t seem to be anything else that’s as important to think about as the matters that lie “occulted” so to speak in theology and religion, but the whole inquiry is carried out within the basic presumption of “consciousness soul,” i.e. that all we can know is what the thinking and speaking mind can discern and explain.  Accordingly, when Agamben says that “revelation is always and above all a revelation of language” he is making an axiomatic statement, something that on his first principles must be the case.  What else, for Consciousness Soul, could it be?

Be that as it may, there is still a remarkable congruence between Agamben and Illich.  Agamben may be an a-theist, and Illich a believer, but their conclusions are so similar, as to raise puzzling questions about the nature of this difference – the kind of question Simone Weil raises when she calls atheism “a purification” and says that “of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other.”[85] Richard Kearney’s attempt to destabilize the theism/atheism distinction with his anatheism is also germane.  But what do Agamben and Illich agree about?  Essentially that the attempt to quench the messianic spirit and yoke the Kingdom of God to the earthly progress of the Church – to “confuse salvation with the Church,” as Illich says[86] - has produced a condition of total administration in which power, set free to act in the name of love, life, health and happiness, threatens to efface every boundary, every distinction, every limit within which humans beings once celebrated and suffered their condition.  Agamben and Illich are likewise agreed on the symptoms of this condition: forms of life reduced to bare life, a “hypertrophy of law,” loss of language, loss of judgment in an endless temporization with “crisis” and “emergency” etc.  The main difference would seem to be Agamben’s idea of a “coming community” which will have learned, through dispossession and “absolute impotence”, to live in the very heart of its own inexhaustible potential.[87]  This post-modern Dream-time, or restored paradise of the archetypes, is not a hope shared by Illich.  Illich said little about the future, once it was clear that “conviviality” was not a political option, and even made it a matter of principle to refrain from doing so, but it is clear from his vehement rejection of the idea of “post-Christianity” that he believed that no restored innocence, no new Dreaming, was possible.  The Incarnation was the final role of the dice – “the mystery of evil” will continue to be “the entrance door into the entire mystery of the Incarnation” until it is either grasped or its dominion becomes total.  But then, again, one has to ask: if Illich rejects all mythological accounts of this Day of Judgment, and sees it rather as playing out within history, then perhaps he is not so far from Agamben after all.  Both await the Kingdom.  And to say that “the name of God is pure signification without anything being signified,” as Agamben does, is to say what many believers would say – that God is not a meaning, but the very possibility of meaning.  Behold, I show you a mystery.[88] 



Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) is a political philosopher whose work, I think, sheds light on Illich’s account of the West as a corruptio optimi pessima, a corruption of the best which is the worst.  Voegelin, though a generation older, grew up, like Illich, in Vienna.  Also like Illich, he was driven into exile by the Nazi occupation and, after 1938, made his career and his name in the United States.  His collected works run to thirty-four volumes, and his best known work, the series Order and History, already runs to five full volumes, but I will rely here on his The New Science of Politics in which he outlined the main contours of this thought.  I will first summarize the parts of Voegelin that I think are germane to Illich, and then briefly compare the two. 

A society, Voegelin says, “is a whole little world, a cosmion [a cosmos in miniature], illuminated with meaning from within by human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization.”  The source of this illumination is “an elaborate symbolism…from rite, through myth to theory.”[89]  Voegelin calls this compact and interlaced symbolism, from which a world is spun, a “civil theology.”  In the ancient empires, this civil theology was the whole of theology – “the order of society and truth [were] identical,” Voegelin writes[90] – but this changed during the period, between, approximately, 800 and 200 B.C.E., that German philosopher Karl Jaspers called “the Axial Age.”  During this time a truth beyond society, and in potential contradiction with it, was announced by voices as diverse as Plato in Greece, Isaiah in ancient Israel, and Lao-Tzu in China.  Voegelin speaks of a “psychic differentiation” in which philosophers, prophets, and mystics discover “a new center in man at which he experiences himself as open towards transcendental reality.”[91]

Christianity belongs to this “opening of the soul.”  It de-divinizes, Voegelin says, both the city and its gods, and nature and its divinities.  Nature “loses its demonic terrors” – all “petty demons,” says Tertullian, “[are] subdue[d and] put to daily disgrace.”  Set free in Christ, the Christian is, as Illich also says, ““superior to the most powerful demons, watchdogs, dragons, horrors and menaces which, in the world before Jesus, guarded the ‘we’.”[92] What the Christian fears is not the old gods but his own back-sliding.  But the Church Fathers, according to Voegelin, failed to see that “paganism [as a “civil theology”] symbolized the truth of Roman society.”  It could not simply be replaced by otherworldly Christianity.  Bishops like Ambrose of Milan [c.340-397] and Augustine of Hippo [354-430] were obtuse in not recognizing that Christianity’s progress in the late Roman Empire did not consist merely in “a conversion of individual human beings to a higher truth” but in “the imposition of a new theologia civilis on society.”[93] This, I think, is very close to Illich’s understanding.  Illich’s whole philosophy of mission boils down to the idea that the Gospel should be added to other societies as a “crowning proportion,” rather than as a “civil theology” which attempts to replace the existing one.

The Christian Church, at first, Voegelin writes, “oscillated between expectation of the Parousia [Christ’s return] that would usher in the Kingdom and “the understanding of the Church as the apocalypse of Christ in history.” This latter view, which became known as “realized eschatology,” argued that the Church, in effect, is the Kingdom.  From there it was only a short step to becoming an earthly government.  A fatal confusion between city of God and the earthly city began to set in.  But Christianity was in no way suited to play the part of a civil theology.  The Gospel brings every social institution into question.  The sacred is questioned – “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath[94] - filial duty is relativized – “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?”[95] – the ways of the “world” are portrayed as nothing, when compared to that “pearl of great price,” the Kingdom.[96]  And Christianity, moreover, offers an extremely difficult path – “Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth to life, and few there be that find it”[97] – a crucial point in Voegelin’s account.  Faith, according to Paul, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”[98]  This says, in effect, that faith is its own substance, its own evidence.  It has no other, and can have no other, because if it did it would no longer be faith but its antithesis, certainty.  While we live, we see “though a glass darkly,” and only at the end will we see “face to face.”[99] Faith, as a conviction that is its own evidence and rests on no other proof, is defined by uncertainty.  “I am quite sure,” says Simone Weil, that “God [is] nothing…like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word.”[100] Her only certainty, in other words, is uncertainty because whatever the imagination can grasp and hold becomes an idol.  Faith must reach beyond conception.  “I pray God to rid me of God,” Meister Eckhart says.[101]  But this trembling on the edge of certainty, a certainty so evanescent that it can never be gained without, by the same token, being lost, creates, Voegelin says, an arduous and disappointing vocation.  And the difficulty is compounded by the fact that most Christians, at any time, are only nominal Christians who have been “drawn or pressured into the Christian orbit” and who, therefore, must, in the nature of the case, “lack the spiritual stamina for the heroic adventure of the soul that is Christianity.”[102]

The result of this predicament was that Christianity was eventually recast in more achievable, more accessible, and more satisfying forms.  Voegelin sees the beginnings of this move in the writings of the 12th century Cistercian monk Joachim of Flores (or Fiore) (1135-1202).  Joachim applied the symbolism of the Trinity to history, where he discerned an Age of the Father, corresponding with the “Old” Testament, an Age of the Son, in which Christ and his Church mediated between God and man, and an about-to-begin Age of the Spirit – he set the date at 1260 - when there would be no further need for mediating institutions and doctrines because man would know God, as it were, face to face.  Joachim had a mixed reception within the Church.   Dante discerned a “prophetic spirit in him,” and Joachimite movements sprang up; but some of his ideas were condemned by the Lateran Council of 1215, and both Aquinas and Bonaventure firmly opposed his thinking.[103]  Voegelin is interested in him mainly as an exemplar or prototype.  Joachim, in his view, was the first to perceive an eidos, or pattern in history and, more than that, to perceive the tripartite, or Trinitarian pattern that would be put forward again and again in Western history.  As examples, Voegelin mentions, among others, Vico (Gods/heroes/men), Hegel (thesis/ antithesis/synthesis) Marx (primitive society/class society/communism), as well as National Socialism’s view of itself as the Third Reich, and the Eastern church’s claim, after the fall of Constantinople, to be the third Rome. 

Joachim, in Voegelin’s view, represented the self-assertion of a confident and expansive society eager to thrown off “Augustinian defeatism with regard to the mundane sphere of existence.”[104] But his vision was founded on a fallacy.  For Voegelin, there is no pattern in history because the course of history as a whole is not an object of experience, and never can be, so long as history includes an unknown future.  “The meaning of history,” he writes, “is an illusion…created by treating a symbol of faith as if it were a proposition concerning an object of immanent experience.”[105] “Immanentization,” in Voegelin’s philosophy of history plays the role that “misplaced concreteness” play in the philosophy of A.N. Whitehead: it refers to an illegitimate transposition from the spiritual to the historical plane (or, in Whitehead’s terms, from the abstract to the empirical.)  It is well attested, though I have never quite been able to believe it, that when Voegelin’s thought enjoyed a vogue at William Buckley’s National Review in the 1960’s the phrase “don’t immanentize the eschaton” became a byword.[106]  People fell for this elementary fallacy, Voegelin says, because they wanted to.   Christianity was too hard, and too unavailing, so people sought “experiential alternatives” that mimicked the experience of faith without its rigors and uncertainties.  They could not simply fall back on themselves (which would be absolute despair, Voegelin says), so they “fell back on a less differentiated culture of spiritual experience.”[107]

Voegelin’s names this new historicized faith Gnosticism.  Conditioned by Christianity and so unable to “fall back” either on themselves or on pre-Christian worldviews, Christians fell into the heresy “which had accompanied Christianity from its very beginnings.”[108]   Man and society were “re-divinized,” but not by an impossible revival of polytheistic antiquity (though this was sometimes pretended) but rather by the adoption of ideas “that were suppressed as heretical by the universal church.”   By Gnosticism, Voegelin means, roughly speaking, the view that the world, as it is, is alien and unsatisfactory and ought to be redeemed or remade by initiates capable of taking the actions for which they alone know the formula.[109]  The term Gnosticism derives from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis, and, according to Voegelin, this is what it promises: “Gnostic experiences” offer the possibility of “bringing our knowledge of  transcendence into a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei [knowledge derived from faith] will afford.”   Through this lens, Voegelin is able to align most of what Charles Taylor includes in the central trope of his A Secular Age, the “Reform Master Narrative,” the “drive to Reform [that] was the matrix out of which the modern European idea of Revolution emerges.”[110]  Whether he’s discussing Calvinism or Communism, Voegelin sees Gnosticism: an elect animated by a “cause” and opposed by “anti-social elements” that must be eliminated. But behind it all he sees the same elementary mistake: the confusion of the spiritual and the historical.  “Faith is the anticipation of a supernatural perfection of man,” he writes, “it is not this perfection itself.  The realm of God is not of this world, and the representative of the civitas dei [the city of God] in history, the church, is not a substitute for civil society.”

Modernity, Voegelin claims, constitutes an entry into “the higher realm of the Gnostic dream world.”  He applies this phrase to the thought of Thomas Hobbes, claiming that in Hobbes the thought of transcendence is eliminated and replaced by the “mortal god.”  Hobbes supposed a world, says Voegelin, in which the truth of the soul would no longer “agitate men” because in trading their obedience for peace and security they would extinguish their “longing for transcendence”[111]  And this “dream world,” Voegelin says, substitutes itself for reality ever more completely as modernity unfolds.  By our time, he wrote in 1950’s, “the dream world has blended into the real world terminologically.”  In the hope of replacing reality by its transfiguration, “the dreamers adopt the vocabulary of reality while changing its meaning, as if the dream were the reality.” “In the Gnostic dream world,” he concludes, “non-recognition of reality is the first principle.”[112]

So Voegelin holds, in brief, that Christianity is characterized by a disposition, faith, that can never achieve worldly certainty or definitive institutional form, but that this precarious stance is increasingly abandoned in favour of a world-denying and world-improving Gnosticism which promises fulfillment in history.   Illich knew Voegelin’s theory and cites it approvingly in Limits to Medicine, where he says that modern medicine exactly conforms to Voegelin’s description of modern Gnosticism i.e. the world is unsatisfactory and “intrinsically poorly organized,” but salvation from it is possible for an elect who take the “technical actions” for which they “monopolize the special formula.”[113]  This is the only reference to Voegelin that I know of in Illich’s work, and he doesn’t seem to have thought of Voegelin when he elaborated his idea of the modern West as a corruption of the best which is the worst.  Nevertheless I find the overlapping of their thoughts quite striking, and I think that Voegelin spells out a good deal that Illich leaves implicit.  Illich from the very beginning of his work showed an awareness of the “other-worldly” roots of the kingdom of God and the impossibility that the church could ever replace civil society.  For example, when he went to Puerto Rico 1956 as a university administrator, he decided to get out of “any kind of official relationship to a bishop for whom I would work in the pastoral care of his people.”  The reason, he says, was because, “I didn’t want to get mixed up in a conflict between the priestly office of making the other-worldly unity and brotherhood of the liturgy real and my personal stance as a politician.”[114]  The Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven, can be recognized and celebrated.  It can leaven and brighten every social occasion, relationship, and institution, and, in that way, illuminate and change the world.  But it can never be harnessed, predicted, or made to perform as what Voegelin calls “a civil theology.”  I return to Wendell Berry’s wonderful formula: “It floats among us like a cloud and is the realest thing we know and the least to be captured, the least to be possessed by anybody for itself.”  This was Illich’s view, I think, and it conditioned his view of the Church as both a mysterious She – the Kingdom among us – and a corporate It, not essentially any different in its obedience to worldly necessities than General Motors or General Dynamics.  That the Church should have the aspect of an It could not have been avoided.  It was an object in the world, faced with unanswerable historical predicaments, like the decline of the Roman Empire and the resulting  power vacuum into which the Church was drawn willy-nilly, and it was subject to worldly necessities.  But awareness of the difference between She and It could have been maintained and upheld.  I remember, as an example, the delight with which Illich told me the story of Girolamo Savonarola’s last day on earth.  As Savonarola, and his two monastic brothers, approached the scaffold on which they would be hung and then burned in Florence in 1498, they confronted the special delegate of the Pope, who told Savonarola that “he was being condemned as a heretic and schismatic and…excluded henceforth from… the Church on earth and the Church in heaven… Savonarola responded in his usual quiet, strong, unbroken voice, as the official observer of these proceedings noted, ‘You may exclude me from the temporal church, sir,’ he said, ‘but only from the temporal church.  You don’t have the authority to decree the second [exclusion from the Church in heaven.]’”[115] 

Know the difference, could have been Illich’s motto, as much as the one he chose for himself – “I fear the Lord is passing me by” – and it seems also to have been a crucial idea for Eric Voegelin.  He reproaches pillars of the early Church, like Ambrose and Augustine, with forgetting this difference.  They did not see, he says, that “dissolving the civic religion” of Roman society would “leave a vacuum” – a vacuum which would pull Christianity into a vocation for which it couldn’t have been more unsuited.[116]  Likewise Illich reproaches the Church, as it established itself, with forgetting the temptation of anti-Christ.  From that point on their stories diverge somewhat.  Voegelin locates the roots of Protestant sectarianism and political revolution in a decay of Christian faith into Gnostic certainty, while Illich is concerned with how the Catholic church itself created the template for the modern state, but they have in common the idea, in Voegelin’s words, that “the church is not a substitute for civil society” and also the idea that, as this substitution occurs, it becomes harder and harder to know the difference and harder and harder to tell the truth.  Voegelin’s speaks of the “Gnostic dreamworld,” Illich of modern institutions as unconscious churches, but, in either case, one lives “as if the dream were the reality.”  That one ought to know the difference between heaven and earth seems a simple, even obvious idea, and yet it seems not to be.  Illich says that our ostensibly post-Christian era, in fact, “the most obviously Christian epoch,” Voegelin that “the dream world has blended into the real world.”  I think these statements are very close, and their evidence is all around us in the strangely altered and unrecognized faith, yet not faith, that animates the fantastic hopes of an unsustainable and increasingly uncivil society.  For this reason I think it is illuminating to read Voegelin and Illich together.




In 2013 Irish scholar Felix Ó’Murchadha, a professor of philosophy at the National University of Ireland in Galway, published a book called A Phenomenology of Christian Life: Glory and Night.  He described it as “an experiment [in] think[ing] philosophically in a Christian manner.”[117]  I  found that it illuminated many of Illich’s themes, and I wonder if the reverse might also be true: if Illich’s work might also help to draw out some of what is implicit in Ó’Murchadha’s approach. 

“It is not by philosophy,” said Bishop Ambrose of Milan (340-397) “that it has pleased God to save his people.”  He echoed the famous challenge of Tertullian of Carthage, who earlier had asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”[118]  The relationship of Christianity and philosophy has been at issue ever since.   Benedict XVI in his celebrated Regensburg Address of 2006, argued that, since Ambrose and Tertullian’s time, an “inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry” had taken place within Catholic Christianity and that this harmonization of faith and reason had not only defined the Western Church but was also “an event of decisive importance…from the standpoint of…world history.”[119]  This is a contested opinion.  Luther wished “to liberate the Christian experience hidden beneath Greek philosophical terms” and sometime spoke of this negative function of his theology of the cross as destruction, a term later adopted by Heidegger as Destruktion and then by Jacques Derrida as deconstruction.  Ó’Murchadha, too, generally opposes Christianity to philosophy, but, interestingly, he does so in the name of a new style of philosophy – phenomenological philosophy which, in his view, dovetails with Christianity in a way that metaphysical philosophy never did.  In fact, he argues that theology has been nothing else but an attempt to manage “the tensions arising from the marrying of Platonism and scriptural revelation.”[120]

This is no place for a history of phenomenology – nor would I be capable of one – but the essential idea lies in what Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, called the “phenomenological reduction.” Husserl wanted to get back, as he said, to the “things themselves” rather than viewing them in the light of some pre-established metaphysical system by which they were, in effect, known in advance.  He proposed a “bracketing” – his term was epoché, an ancient Greek word meaning suspension – by which one would attempt to hold at bay all assumptions, both practical and theoretical, about what a given object is.  With this procedure, Ó’Murchadha thinks, phenomenology gave up philosophy’s main pretension – to bring things to light as elements of some comprehensive and perspicuous system – and entered into the dark.  Reduction, in Husserl’s sense, is kenosis, self-emptying, the word the apostle Paul uses when he says that “Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”[121]  We can only make room for something by giving up our own instrumental/practical interest in it.  Prayer, Simone Weil says, is “empty thought,” or pure attention, and Ó’Murchadha argues that Husserl’s project of getting to the “things themselves” is nothing less.[122]  To seek what Ó’Murchadha calls “the original epiphany of appearance” and “the original radiance of creation” is to be willing to undergo what he calls “a triple dispossession” – “of language, self and time” – and this willingness aligns phenomenology with the practices of prayer and praise more than with the speculative energies of philosophy.[123]

For Ó’Murchadha Plato’s parable of the cave, in The Republic, is paradigmatic of all philosophies of enlightenment.  In the cave sit the prisoners facing a wall on which they observe a play of shadows.  Having been “fettered from childhood,” and so knowing nothing else, they take the shadows for “reality” itself.  Only the philosopher braves the arduous way out of the cave, along “an ascent which is rough and steep.”  Eventually, he is “drawn into the light of the sun” and, once accustomed to its, at first, blinding brilliance, becomes capable of perceiving “its true nature.”[124] This light, once discovered, illuminates all things, making everything appear as it is.  Philosophy can finally know the truth, even if it is hard put to convey it to the cave dwellers.  The light spoken of in the Prologue to the Gospel of John is of quite a different nature.  There the Word which was “in the beginning,” the Word that “was with God…and was God” is also compared to a light.  This light, according to the King James translation, shone “in darkness” but the darkness “comprehended it not.”  The Revised Standard Version emends this to “overcame it not.”  The King James is more evocative, suggesting not only that the darkness could not extinguish the light, but also that it could not understand it, but, either way, the light and the darkness are made to co-exist.  The darkness cannot quench the light, but neither does the light illuminate the darkness in a display of clarifying power.  This light appears only to those who are able, in effect, to perceive it within the dark.  “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.[125] “The uniqueness of Christ,” Ó’Murchadha writes, “is that in the darkness of his form he makes manifest a light which can be seen only through the eyes of faith.”  Indeed, he continues, that’s what faith is: “a sight which is possible only by seeing in darkness.”[126] 

Darkness, and night, the figure Ó’Murchadha uses in his title, are central to his account of Christianity.  Christianity, he says, quoting Karl Barth, “has no cosmology.”[127]  By this I think he means that Christianity offers no general account of things.  It proposes no map or framework in which every item of reality can be assigned its place, function and importance.  The light of John’s Gospel is not a radiance that illuminates everything.  Rather, it is a light that lights the singularity of each being from within.  The story of God-in-the-world does not end in enlightenment – it ends with a judicial murder.  During the three hours that Jesus hangs on the Cross there is “a darkness over all the land” and, at the end, according to Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, he feels himself abandoned even by God.[128]   Resurrection follows, but it is perceptible only to faith.  When he appears he is sometimes, at first, unrecognized.  The disciples on the road to Emmaus spend the whole afternoon walking and talking with him but they do not know him until, at last, he breaks bread with them.[129]  Mary Magdalen at the empty tomb mistakes him for the gardener.[130] Often he vanishes soon after he is recognized.  There are no appearances in the agora or the temple, the court or the palace where his presence might have been officially certified.  Later, when the Resurrection has become dogma  and the Church an establishment, Resurrection will become an item of belief, recited in a compulsory credo, but at first it is the experience of that handful of people who are able to see through the terrorizing power of the Crucifixion and understand that his ignominious death did not disprove his claim to be “the one to redeem Israel.”[131]  They develop the faculty that  Christianity calls faith, the ability, as Ó’Murchada says, of “seeing in darkness.”  The truth comes to those who are called, to those who suddenly understand – it is not a light by which all can see.  Easter doesn’t wipe out Good Friday – it puts it into a different perspective.

O’Murchadha develops his idea of night in many ways.  He points to the many Christian thinkers who have emphasized darkness as the way to God: from John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul’ to Nicolas of Cusa’s “learned ignorance”; from Meister Eckhart’s “I pray God to rid me of God” to Simone Weil’s “desire without an object.”  All evoke a soul which must know itself, at some point, as nothing but desire, a desire which must burn in darkness, waiting for the One of which it can form no true image. In Plato, on the other hand, desire is the savage part of the soul, symbolized by the unruly, unbroken and unbridled horse, which must be “humbled” and trained “to obey the counsel of his driver,” if the soul is to steer an orderly course towards wisdom.[132]  Desire is extinguished when its object is achieved.  The gods do not philosophize, Plato says, because they are already wise.  They have no need to love wisdom because they do not lack wisdom and love is desire for what is lacking. [133] Wisdom, once achieved, makes desire redundant.  But Christianity, on the other hand “embodies the wisdom of the lover, not the seeker of wisdom.” Love’s wisdom is the “ever deepening realization of desire…without end.”[134] Desire is excited not by lack but by abundance, and superabundance.  French philosopher/theologian Jean Luc Marion speaks of the “saturated phenomenon” which exceeds any concept or horizon that can be imposed on it.[135]  We strive, Ó’Murchadha says, for what we are “fundamentally incapable of reaching,” experiencing desire “for that of which I have no idea, that which I can in no way possess and that which I can receive only through dispossession.”[136]

Darkness, in O’Murchadha’s account, lies at the heart of all appearance.  In reflecting light, he says, objects, in a sense, refuse it – they send it back, and this is the condition of their being seen at all.  But the invisible offends modern sensibilities – we would prefer to treat it as the not yet seen.  Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, speaks of “the despotism of the eye” and continues…

…we are restless because invisible things are not the objects of vision; and metaphysical systems, for the most part, become popular, not for their truth, but in proportion as they attribute to causes a susceptibility of being seen, if only our visual organs were sufficiently powerful.[137]

This is true of “metaphysical systems,” but not true of the Bible where what can be seen is de-emphasized, a point literary critic Eric Auerbach made long ago in his Mimesis when he contrasted the Homeric and the Biblical style.  “The basic impulse of the Homeric style,” writes Auerbach, “[is] to represent phenemona in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations.”  Everything is “brought to light in perfect fullness, so that a continuous rhythmic procession of phenomena passes by, and never is there a form left fragmentary or half illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths.”[138]  This lucidity is entirely foreign to the Bible.  Auerbach chooses as his first example Genesis 22:1: “And it came to pass…that God did tempt Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham! And he said, Behold here I am.”  There follows the story of the command to sacrifice his son Isaac, the journey to the mountain in Moriah, the eventual substitution of a ram for Isaac, and the blessing of Abraham, all narrated in nineteen short verses during which we are not provided with a single unnecessary detail.  There is not a single adjective in the entire passage.  We do not know where God is, or where Abraham is, when the call comes.  We learn nothing of the landscapes through which Abraham and Isaac pass, nor what they wore, nor how they felt, nor what they said.  The story takes place, as it were, in the heart of reality, rather than in any definite natural setting.  It is not intended, like the limpid Greek epics, to charm or captivate us, but to confront us.[139]  O’Murchadha doesn’t mention Auerbach, but he makes the same point.  The Bible is not about what can be seen but what can be heard, and what can be heard above all is a call.  “Now the Lord said to Abram [who would become Abraham], ‘Go from your country, and your kindred, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”  Just that – obedience to the call counts for everything.  Abram doesn’t protest that he has a wedding to attend the following Tuesday.  God’s glory, Ó’Murchadha writes, “is not a ‘name which binds the sky to the earth.’”[140]  It is a rhythm of call and obedient response.  This is all contained in O’Muchadha’s image of night: it is not something that can be seen, or pictured in metaphors that imply visibility.  Hiddenness is another name for the darkness in which we listen.  The apostle Paul tells the Colossians they have died to the world and “your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”[141]  Glory has changed its meaning.  Paul preaches the glory of the Cross, a glory not of this world which glows in darkness and is radiant in humiliation.  From the point of view of what can be seen, Paul’s Christians are “the offscouring of all things” – other translations propose “scum of the earth,” “everybody’s trash,” etc.[142]

Night, finally, is silence.  It is what cannot be said, or reduced to a saying.  “Revelation,” O’Murchadha says, “means nothing” in the sense that it can’t be reduced to a message.  What enters the world with the Incarnation, and, thereafter is in the world, is still not of the world, and so cannot be fully expressed in worldly terms.  Christ is “a broken sign” - broken by incomprehension, broken on the Cross, broken again, in memoriam, in the Eucharist – as well as a sign of brokenness, and this sign “ruptures any system of signs that might contain it.”[143]  Night, silence and hiddenness all represent the presence in the world of something more than the world can contain, a presence which points to the dark and uncontainable excess within each one.   Glory, as I said above, changes it meaning, and this is reflected in the interesting career of the Greek word doxa, which in Christian usage came to mean praise, as in orthodoxy, right praise.  In Plato’s time, doxa still meant opinion, but also fame, as the weight that opinion carries when it is powerful.  But, when the Hebrew scriptures were rendered into Greek, beginning in the 3rd Century BCE – the translation that came to be known as the Septuagint, for the seventy scholars who eventually worked on it – the Hebrew word kabod, which refers to what makes God apparent, or the invisible somehow detectable, was translated as doxa.  And, with this usage, a reversal occurred because the glory of the Lord is invisible.  Unlike fame or reputation, which shine in the world, glory is an excess of light which blinds human vision and is, therefore, fundamentally, darkness.  In Plato, doxa prevails only until things are seen as they truly are by episteme, knowledge.  In the Christian inversion, doxa stands above episteme -  there are things that we can recognize only with praise, not with certain knowledge

The Incarnation, as Ó’Murchadha understands it, represents a radical tear within worldly existence.  As the being “in the world” of what is not “of the world,” it breaks with the orders of the everyday, the scientific and the metaphysical.   Each is relativized by that seeing in the dark that Christians call faith.  The Incarnation breaks with the sacred, as previously understood.  Sacred logic is a logic of purity and classification, even when it is pursued through rational philosophy rather than ritual.  Dirt, anthropologist Mary Douglas says, is what is “out of place” – what violates the order of classification, or endangers the purity of the set aside and untouchable.  But “Incarnational logic,” Ó’Murchadha says, “is…a logic not just of contagion but of contamination, indeed profanation.”  It stands opposed to the “sacred logic which still governs Plato’s texts.”  Sacred logic abhors mixtures and maintains hierarchy through prohibitions inscribed in law, but Christianity mixes what is kept apart in Platonism – above all, the divine and the human, but also matter and form, life and death, being and becoming.[144] And the Incarnation is a contingent event – it reflects no discernible reason or necessity but arises purely from love.  Creation calls for it, Paul says, but that the call should be answered is no more certain than is Abram’s decision to leave Ur or Mary’s assent to the strange prophecy that she will become the mother of God.[145]  Later the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo will arise to account for this contingency.  The world has no frame and no necessary existence other than the one that God has given it.  The Incarnation reveals the character which the Creation had from the outset – it arose from love and was given to humanity as radical freedom.  Creatures are set free from God, and “God is disclosed in every creature as nothing other than the creature itself in its absolute distance from God.”[146] (Recall Illich’s definition of prayer as the moment of maximum distance between man and God.[147]

Incarnation is a rupture in what had been understood as the nature of things.  As an unforeseeable contingency, and a scandalous conflation of the sacred and the profane, it is a singularity.  It is not an instance of something that can be generalized or repeated, but something that is utterly, inexhaustibly itself.  And it points to this quality in each one that it touches.  But the self, insofar as it is unique, is also invisible.  It is non-apparent, by definition, O’Murchadha says, because generalization, and generalizability, is a condition of knowledge.  To happen once, as Catherine Pickstock says, something must happen twice, and so become a recognizable and categorizable instance.[148]  The true self is therefore hidden and must be approached in its concealment, if it is not to be obscenely, or blasphemously exposed.[149]  Singular beings, moreover, are impure insofar as they have not been clarified, categorized or classified, and must inevitably, therefore, constitute some sort of impure mixture.  The messianic, having neither time nor place – “the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head”[150] – displaces and reveals an essence in each one which is not in time or space.[151]

All this points to what Illich calls the “mysterious new glory, thickness [and] phenomenological density that the body takes on under the influence of Christianity.”[152]  O’Murchadha understands, with Illich, that embodiment in the light of God’s Incarnation takes on a novel quality which places it beyond the various dualisms of spirit and matter that have structured philosophy and religion.  Incarnation transforms embodied being.  It adds a new dimension to flesh, rather than mandating domination of the body, or escape from it.[153]  The flesh is the site of spiritual encounter, but each one, as a singular being, remains dark, opaque, unknown until this surprising and revelatory encounter occurs.

O’Murchadha also hints at an understanding of the principle of corruptio optimi pessima, though he doesn’t mention it by name.  First, he remarks that once the possibility of being “not of this world” is opened up, then “the scope of evil [potentially] extends to infinity.”[154] Freedom, unfettered, can as easily be demonic as angelic.  The thought is not developed in Illich’s direction – the Kingdom brought under administration – but it certainly suggests evil escaping worldly limits as an implication of the Incarnation.  The second point is Ó’Murchadha’s recognition of the volatility, or double potential, of the idea of contingency.  Thinking that created beings arise from nothing, as the world arises at God’s word from nothing, may allow us to perceive their singularity and therefore treat them with loving care, but it can also have the opposite effect.  Thinking that beings are nothing in themselves can make them available for unlimited exploitation.  In both cases the best quickly becomes the worst. 

Christianity, as “a transcendence of the world in the world,” produces a condition that Ó’Murchadha calls “worldly worldlessness.”[155]  I found the phrase interesting, particularly in the light of Hannah Arendt’s claim that Christianity has produced the condition that she calls “worldlessness.”   Arendt has various reasons for this claim: that “charity cannot found a public realm,” that the conception of the Christian community as a body and a family was “un-political” and “non-public” in making the private public, and that a world whose end is imagined cannot provide a stable stage for political action.[156] Arendt’s points are all fruitful and suggestive, but the idea of “worldlessness” is one-sided, because it leaves out what has been added, rather than taken away, by the Incarnation – what Illich calls “phenomenological density.”  “Worldly worldlessness” rights this balance. It points to the increased significance of worldly encounters that is just as much a part of the revelation of the world’s roots in heaven as is the undermining of what Arendt’s conceives as “the public realm.”  Christianity is world-less in the sense that it is a-cosmic, and so cannot locate everything in a neat hierarchy of being.  The radical freedom both of God and of the humanity which God absolves and sets free, as the darkness in which faith must learn to see, preclude the existence of the stable, sunlit world that Arendt supposes was once the backdrop for the storied acts that she thinks Christianity has enervated.  But the world in the Christian perspective has also becomes more real.  By refusing an illuminated “world-view” in favour of the darkness in which faith must feel its way, it opens itself to surprise – the genuine surprise that may occur only in the face of what cannot be typified, contained or identically repeated.  The general revolves and recurs, the unique reaches beyond time.  What is less worldly in one sense is more worldly in another.

Perhaps it’s clear why the terms in which Ó’Murchadha unfolds Christianity as phenomenological philosophy seem to me to clarify and perhaps extend the scope of certain of Illich’s most characteristic ideas.  Illich insisted many times on surprise as a defining aim of his life.  This is either the motto of an adventurer, or the statement of a man who, even if with all due prudence, sometimes left the reins of his life in the hands of God.  Illich said that he wished “take the other at his word” – an impossible aim which comes very close to the phenomenological epoché, or bracketing, which attempts to exclude everything that confines and predetermines my understanding.  Illich feared the power of diagnosis – one of the very last lectures he ever gave was called, “Lead Us Not Into Diagnosis,” in imitation of the Lord’s prayer’s, “lead us not into temptation.”[157]  Diagnosis is a generalizing, typifying, categorizing power – a power that drowns the unique case in the class to which it belongs, until individuals are entirely overshadowed by their ghostly, statistical doubles.  But, more than this, Illich implicitly claimed that Christianity might have been something utterly different than what it became, if only it had remembered the temptation of anti-Christ and its vocation to be “in the world but not of it.”  O’Murchadha, in my view, has begun to open the modest, self-critical and self-aware path that Illich himself sought.



(I have used the following abbreviations for Illich’s books in the endnotes: RNF – The Rivers North of the Future, Anansi, 2005; DS – Deschooling Society, Penguin, 1973; IIC – Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992; and LM – Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis, Penguin, 1976.)

[1] Information about the event can be found here: http://www.wtp.org/oaklandtable.html

[2] Brown’s obituary which appeared in the Whole Earth Review is available here: http://www.wtp.org/

[3] IIC, p. 279  - I have slightly reorganized the phrases in this quotation to fit my text.

[4] The parable of the sower: Matthew 13, Luke 4, Mark 8.

[5] RNF, p. x

[6] See Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, Routledge, 1999, and The Radical Orthodoxy Reader, ed. John Milbank and Simon Oliver, Routledge, 2009

[7] RNF, p. 229

[8] For the various uses of this soubriquet see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Awakening

[9] The Portable Nietzscheop. cit., p. 95

[10] The phrase is the apostle Paul’s during his address to the Athenians on the Areopagus.  (Acts 17:28)

[11] Jacques Maritain, for example, explains God’s omniscience by saying that “God does not foresee the things of time, he sees them…in the pure existential freshness of their coming into being.”  For him, once we grasp that eternity is not “a species of time before and after time” but rather “a limitless instant which indivisibly embraces the whole succession of time,” the problem of how freedom can be part of a “plan,” or foreknowledge compatible with an undetermined present, goes away. (Existence and the Existent, Pantheon, 1948, p. 87, 9, 113)  Maritain’s assurance in describing how the world happens to God is striking and helps to illustrate the innovation of phenomenological philosophy in trying to remain within what is directly given.

[12] The Gift of Death, Chicago, 1996 (first French edition 1992); Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, Routledge, 1994, p. 59.

[13] Jean Luc Nancy,  Disenclosure : The Deconstruction of Christianity, Fordham, 2008, p. 142

[14] Owen Barfield, Romanticism Comes of Age, 2nd expanded edition, Wesleyan, 1966 (first edition 1944), p. 72

[15] ibid. p. 76

[16] Ivan Illich, Genere, Neri Pozza Editore, 2013, p. 7, 14

[17] Mathew Abbott, The Figure of this World: Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology, Edinburgh University Press, 2014, p. 188

[18] Giorgio Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom, Seagull Books, 2010, p. 4

[19] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations, Schocken, 1968, p. 264.  The rendering of Benjamin’s German here is slightly different than Agamben’s, but the thought is the same.

[20] The Church and the Kingdom, op. cit., p. 12

[21] ibid., p. 8

[22] 1 Corinthians, 7:29-31

[23] The Church and the Kingdom, op. cit., p. 18

[24] 1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17

[25] 1 Thessalonians 5:2

[26] 2 Corinthians 6:2

[27] 2 Peter 3:8

[28] The Church and the Kingdom, op. cit., pp. 34-35

[29] Blake, “Milton,” plate 24, line 72, op. cit., p. 121; Romans 7:24 (This is the RSV translation; the King James has the famous “body of this death.”

[30] The Church and the Kingdom, op. cit., p. 35

[31] ibid., p. 35

[32] ibid., p. 41

[33] Ivan Illich, “Philosophy…Artifacts…Friendship,” here: https://www.pudel.uni-bremen.de/pdf/Illich96PHILARPU.pdf

[34] DS, p. 18

[35] Ivan Illich, The Powerless Church, Penn State, 2018, p. 159

[36] IIC, p. 66; RNF, p. 170

[37] “What is a Camp?” in Means Without Ends, Minnesota, 2000 (first Italian edition 1996), p. 36

[38] The state of exception is the subject of a whole book of that name (Chicago, 2003); the state of permanent emergency is noted, among many other references, in Agamben’s introduction to the new Italian edition of Gender (op. cit.)  where he writes that “the central concept [of] the secularized eschatology of modernity is that of crisis,” a crisis that is “prolonged indefinitely in time” as a result of “decisions that do not…decide anything.”

[39] Typical in this respect is the passage from “Health As One’s Own Responsibility: No, Thank You!”in which he speaks of his contemporaries “matter of fact acceptance of a bottomless evil which Hitler and Stalin did not reach.”  That lecture is available here: https://www.pudel.uni-bremen.de/pdf/Illich_1429id.pdf

[40] RNF, p. 169. 190

[41] Colossians 1:15; Augustine, On the Trinity XV.17.24

[42] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a TheologicaL Genealogy of Economy and Government, Stanford, 2011, p. 55

[43] ibid., p. 109

[44] ibid., p. 140

[45] ibid., p. 112

[46] ibid., p. 236

[47] The Hymn Book of the Anglican Church in Canada and the United Church of Canada, 1971, #50

[48] John 17:1

[49] ibid., p. 211

[50] ibid., p. 242

[51] ibid., p. 162

[52] Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” begins “I celebrate myself and sing myself” and, for this, he adds at the end of the first section of the poem “all creeds and schools” must be held “in abeyance,” an expression which harmonizes nicely with Agamben’s inoperativity.

[53] Means Without Ends, op. cit., p. 117

[54] ibid., op, cit., p. 141

[55] Galatians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 7:30

[56] Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, M.I.T. Press, 2007, p. 80

[57] Karl Marx, Capital, Penguin Classics, 1990, p. 165

[58] Profanations, op. cit., p. 84, 85

[59] The Kingdom and the Glory, op. cit., p. 140

[60] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford, 1998 (Italian 1995), p. 56

[61] Means Without Ends, op. cit., p. 85

[62] Profanations, op. cit., p. 89

[63] ibid., 87

[64] RNF, p. 159

[65] Profanations, op. cit., p. 73

[66] ibid., p. 79

[67] ibid., p. 81

[68] ibid., p. 77

[69] Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Stanford, 2005 (Italian 2000), p. 43

[70] Means Without Ends, op. cit., p. 85

[71] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1943, p. 15, 39

[72] Means Without Ends, op. cit., 138

[73] ibid., p. 4

[74] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford, 1998 (Italian 1995), p. 57

[75] ibid. p. 9

[76] ibid. p. 3 – I cannot find this precise wording in The Human Condition, but it is entirely faithful to Arendt’s thought in the book.

[77] Means Without Ends, op. cit., p. 89

[78] Capital, Volume One, Chpt. 32; Psalms 118:22; Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11

[79] The Time That Remains, op. cit., p. 134

[80] Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, Stanford, 1999, p. 42

[81] Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, Stanford, 1999, p. 126, note 14

[82] The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought., ed. Nicolas Adams, George Pattison, Graham Ward, Oxford, 2013

[83] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Minnesota, 1993, p. 254

[84] Hollis Phelps, “Performing Profanation: Giorgio Agamben’s Non-Non-Christianity,” Political Theology Today, Nov. 27, 2001 (http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/performing-profanation-giorgio-agambens-non-non-christianity/)

[85] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953,  p. 103

[86] DS, p. 15

[87] The Coming Community, op. cit.; Means Without Ends, op. cit., p. 138

[88] 1 Corinthians 15:51

[89] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction, Chicago, 1952, p. 27

[90] ibid., p 41

[91] ibid., p. 67

[92] Tertullian is quoted in Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Harvard, 2014, p. 70; RNF, p. 99

[93] New Science of Politics, op, cit., p. 156

[94] Mark 2:27

[95] Matthew 12:48

[96] Matthew 13:46

[97] Matthew 7:14 KJV

[98] Hebrews 11:1 – this is the memorable, and often cited King James translation; the RSV substitutes “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

[99] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[100] Gravity and Grace, op. cit., p. 103

[101] “The Poor in Spirit,” Sermon LXXXVII in Franz Pfeiffer, Meister Eckhart, translated by C. de B. Evans, Watkins, 1952

[102] New Science of Politics, op. cit., p. 123

[103] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08406c.htm

[104] New Science of Politics, op. cit., p, 119

[105] ibid., 120

[106] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanentize_the_eschaton

[107] New Science of Politics, op. cit., p. 123

[108] ibid., p. 123

[109] Illich gives more or less this digest of Voegelin’s definition of Gnosticism in LM, p. 117, citing Voegelin’s Science, Politics and Mysticism

[110] A Secular Age, op. cit., p. 61

[111] New Science of Politics, op. cit., p. 161

[112] ibid., p. 161

[113] LM, p. 117

[114] IIC, p. 99

[115] RNF, pp. 155-156

[116] New Science of Politics, op. cit., p. 159

[117] Felix Ó’Murchadha, A Phenomenology of Christian Life: Glory and Night, Indiana, 2013, p. 199

[118] Terullian’s question occurs in Chaper Seven of his De Praescriptione Haereticorum; I have not been able to find a citation for Ambrose’s frequently quoted remark.

[119] The text of the lecture is here: http://www.catholic-ew.org.uk/Home/News/2006/Full-Text-of-the-Pope-Benedict-XVI-s-Regensburg-Lecture.  See p. 4

[120] Ó’Murchhadha, op. cit., p. xiii

[121] Letter to the Philippians, 2: 5-8

[122] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 59

[123] ibid., p. 35, 62

[124] Republic, VII, 514 ff. in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntingdon Cairns, Pantheon (Bollingen Series LXXI), 1961, pp. 747 ff.

[125] John 1: 1-10

[126] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 86

[127] ibid., p. 3 – he cites Church Dogmatics, Vol. 3, Part Two, pp. 3-6

[128] Matthew 27:45-47, Mark 15:33-35

[129] Luke 24: 13-35

[130] John 20:15

[131] Luke 24:21

[132] Phaedrus, 254e, in Plato, op. cit., p. 500

[133] Symposium 204a, ibid., p. 556

[134] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 55

[135] The idea appears in various places in Marion’s work, but see particularly Being Given: Towards a Phenomenology of Givenness (Stanford, 2002), p. 199 ff.

[136] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 55

[137] Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, Oxford, 1971, p. 19.  (Barfield cites Biographia Literaria, ed. Shawcross, 62, I, 64)

[138] Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Princeton, 1953/2003 (first German edition 1946), pp. 6-7

[139] ibid., p. 8 ff.

[140] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 76

[141] Colossians 3:3

[142] 1 Corinthians 4:13; O’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 108

[143] ibid., p. 110

[144] ibid., p. 6

[145] Romans 8:22

[146] ibid., p, 53

[147] CA, p. 33

[148] Repetition and Identity, op. cit., p. 73

[149] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 39, 90, 91

[150] Luke 9:58

[151] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 102

[152] RNF, p. 110

[153] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 141

[154] ibid., p. 126

[155] ibid., p. 85

[156] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago, 1958, pp. 53-54

[157] Matthew 6:9-13; “Lead Us Not Into Diagnosis” remains unpublished and does not appear to be  available on-line in English.

Was Ivan Illich a Romantic?


(Recently I send the Penn State Press a lengthy manuscript of a book about the life and thought of Ivan Illich. Because of its length, I had to cut a number of sections that I wrote after the main body of the text was already complete. They deal with subjects that I felt had been left out or inadequately treated. Aside from occasional blind references to the book from which they have been excised, I think they are well enough able to stand on their own to justify my presenting them here. This is one of those sections.) 


A serious human life, no matter what “religion” is invoked, can hardly begin until we see an element of illusion in what is really there, and something real in fantasies about might be there instead.

-Northrop Frye[1]


In his book on English Romanticism, Northrop Frye says that, “Romanticism…is the first major phase in an imaginative revolution which has carried on until our own day and has by no means completed itself yet.”[2]  English philosopher and critic Owen Barfield says more or less the same thing with his Romanticism Comes of Age.  His title takes his hope for the event, but otherwise agrees with Frye that romanticism remains an unfinished revolution.   Charles Taylor takes a similar view.  He has argued, in many of his writings, that modernity cannot be fairly considered only in the one-sided terms favoured by its critics – individualism, disenchantment, anomie, instrumentalism etc. – but must also be thought of as including its powerful romantic counter-current.[3]  Illich mainly tried to fend off the idea that he was a romantic.  “I am neither a romantic, nor a Luddite, nor a utopian,” he said to me, and a version of this disclaimer is repeated in a number of essays.[4]  But I think he used the word romantic mainly in its colloquial sense of a rose-coloured or gauze-filtered view of things, particularly of the past – the sense in which the opposite of a romantic is a realist – and not in the sense in which Taylor, Barfield and Frye are speaking.   Here I would like to ask whether Illich is a Romantic in this larger sense.  Another way of putting the question is to ask whether Illich sees any good in the modern or whether he conceives it entirely as loss, decline and falling away.   

Several recent writers on Romanticism have said that it is impossible to give a strict definition of the term.  Sometimes it is used as little more than a casual slander.  Novelist Zinovy Zinik, for example, in an essay for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) recently characterized “the Age or Romanticism” by “its nostalgia for the glorious past, national roots, blood,  soil and rural idyll, accompanied by xenophobia thinly veiled as patriotism.”[5]  Charles Larmore,  in his The Romantic Legacy, says that this name can refer to such disparate phenomena and thought styles as to rule out any exact statement of its scope, but, even so, he goes on, it  does assemble things that bear a certain family resemblance and it does contain “a precious inheritance” that he want to retrieve and conserve.  I can certainly see the difficulty.  I have recently been re-reading Wendell Berry’s long essay “Poetry and Place” in which he excoriates Percy Bysshe Shelley for everything that would seem to be worst in “romanticism”: his vanity, his self-pity, his grandiosity, his vagueness, his glorification of the Satanic, as in Shelley’s famous statement that Satan is the real hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost.[6]  This trouncing of Shelley, and the strong defence of Pope that precedes it, might seem to identify Berry as a “conservative” and “traditionalist” – the very opposite of a romantic.  And yet I’m sure I would have no difficulty in finding critics who think of Berry as an arch-romantic, a writer of rural idylls that virtually define the type.  So can anything be made of a term so elastic? 

I would say yes, insofar as the question of romanticism encodes a crucial question about modernity: is there some greatness in modernity that can be, as Charles Taylor says, retrieved, or is it, by now, a darkness so deep that we can only find our way at all by listening for what George Grant calls our “intimations of deprival?”[7]  Illich can be found, at different times, on both sides of this divide.  There is no doubt that his early work calls for a moderated and reformed modernity.  During the 1960’s he writes of the liberating possibilities in what he calls “secularization,” seeing in what Bonhoeffer calls “a world come of age” the possibility that he will at last be able, with others, “to celebrate my faith for no purpose at all.”[8]  “The development of humanity,” he says in the same essay, “tends towards the realization of the kingdom.”[9]  In Tools for Conviviality, the life within limits that he imagines is an explicitly modern possibility with a crucial role allotted to reformed versions of science, technology and liberal political institutions.   But later he will speak of our world as being “enveloped” in “mysterious darkness” and “demonic night.”[10]  He will identify himself as an “apocalyptic” thinker who thinks that we might be “quite close to the end of the world.”[11]  And he will say that what “determines our epoch” is “a bottomless evil that Hitler and Stalin did not reach.”[12]  In asking whether Illich is a romantic, therefore, I am asking finally for his position on modernity and his position within modernity. 

Let me begin by saying what I think Frye’s “romantic revolution” consists in.  Frye’s paradigm, as his readers will know, is the work of the poet engraver William Blake.  Blake, Frye says simply, “wraps up the whole romantic movement within himself.”   Frye goes on to describe the essence of this movement as the universe turned “upside-down.”[13]  The structure of the antique cosmos, which was mirrored in Christian theology, was top-down.  “Theologically,” Frye says, “there are four levels… 

…There is, first of all, the presence of God, which is associated with metaphors of ‘up there’…Then there is the state that God intended man to live in, that is, the Garden of Eden, the Golden Age, Paradise.  Then there is, third, the fallen world, the world man fell into with the sin of Adam and Eve.  Then there is, fourth, the demonic world, the world below the order of nature.  On that scheme…the destiny of man is to climb out of the fallen world as nearly as he can to the state that was originally designed for him.  He does this under a structure of authority: the sacraments of religion, the practice of morality, education and so forth.” 

In this traditional view, creativity and originality is entirely on the side of God.  Art could only, as Hamlet says, “hold the mirror up to nature.”[14]  (The figure of the mirror is used in M.H. Abrams famous study of Romanticism, The Mirror and the Lamp, where the mirror stands for art as imitation/reflection/mimesis, and the lamp for imaginative creation that shines by its own light.)  Blake and the Romantics, Frye says, turn this world upside down… 

For Blake what happens is that the child, who is the central figure of the Songs of Innocence is born believing that the world is made for his benefit, that the world makes human sense.  He then grows up and discovers that the world isn’t like this at all.  So what happens to his childlike vision?  Blake says it gets driven underground, what we would now call the subconscious.  There you have the embryonic mythical shape that is worked on later by people like Schopenhauer, Marx, and Freud…For Blake, you have to think of God as at the bottom of creation, trying to rebuild it, and as working through man to that effect.  

The uppermost realm, in the tradition scheme, is the realm of quintessence, the pure stuff of which the heavenly bodies are made.   In the new scheme the endless space of the universe is the space of alienation.  “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” Blaise Pascal had already written a century before Blake.  God, for Blake, is within – “All gods reside within the human breast” – and below, as can be seen in his “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” where “energy is eternal delight,” “the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,” and “angels” have something to learn from “devils.”[15] The important thing here is what Frye calls the “embryonic mythical shape” that appears in many Romantics and, for Frye, is summarized or “wrapped up” in Blake.  He uses the term myth for a structure that contains and determines thought – myth not as story but as story shape.  Such structures, says German philosopher Hans Blumenberg, constitute a “horizon of meaning” because “they cannot be dissolved into conceptuality.”  Blumenberg speaks of “absolute metaphors” and Frye of “mythological frameworks,” but I take it that they are talking about the same thing: the container rather than the content of thought.[16]  The basic elements of this new structure, according to Frye/Blake – often indistinguishable as Frye freely acknowledged – are that God is no longer on the side of authority, or of a corresponding “objective” order; that “creation” is an imaginative achievement and not a pre-existing array; and that the imagination is the divine life in us.  “The real Selfhood is the Imagination in the Divine Man,” says Blake.[17]  In other places, he drops the copula altogether and just speaks of “Christ, the Imagination.”  For all the romantics, imagination was the faculty through which the world exists for us; for Blake it was also the world’s redemption.  “When the sun rises,” Blake supposes himself being asked, “do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guineau [a golden coin]?”  “Oh, no, no,” he answers, “I see an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.  I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would question a Window concerning a Sight.  I look through it not with it.”[18]  Imagination here means something very different than the faculty that “gives to airy Nothing a local habitation and a name.”[19] It means the very ability to discover what is real.   

Let me now take a second step with Barfield’s “romanticism come of age” before returning to Illich.  Barfield traces the human journey from original participation to what he calls final participation.  Initially we are indistinguishable from the world in which we are conscious and of which we are conscious.  Citing Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, he writes, “the history of human consciousness was not a progress from an initial condition of blank darkness towards wider and wider awareness of a pre-existing outer world, but the gradual extrication of a small but a growing and an increasingly clear and self-determined focus of inner human experience from a dream-like state of virtual identity with the life of the body and of its environment.”[20]  This process can be observed in language, Barfield says, where the words which we use to refer to immaterial phenomenon originate as references to material entities. The New Testament word for spirit, for example is pneuma, which originally meant wind.  There has been, says Barfield, “an age-long process of contraction of the immaterial qualities of the cosmos into a human centre, into an inner world which…made possible the development of an immaterial language.”[21]  Spirit is wind made articulate in speech.  The Incarnation, for Barfield, is the epicentre of this process of contraction, the moment at which the polarity of inner and outer are reversed.  “Jesus,” he writes, “reverses…direction from outside in to inside out – he was, or represented the turning point.  He taught that ‘it is not that which cometh into a man which defileth him but that which goeth out of him’ or “The kingdom of heaven is within you.”[22]  But, with humans, as Blake says, it is only “the road of excess [which] leads to the palace of wisdom,” and so this process of contraction does not stop at the point of balance between inner and outer worlds.[23]  The rejection of anthropocentrism – of, in Barfield’s word, “finding in the world what we have now properly located in ourselves” – proceeds to the point that everything is within ourselves, all “occult qualities” are banished from nature, and humankind becomes, in Blake’s words, “a little grovelling root,” cut off from all participation with nature and other people.  This is the dilemma in which “science” finally finds itself.  Barfield puts it this way… 

The denial of inner being to the processes of nature leads inevitably to the denial of it in Man himself.  For, if physical objects and physical causes are all that we can know, it follows that man himself can only be known to the extent that he is a physical object among physical objects.[24]  

American philosopher Stanley Rosen, contemplating the same difficulty, says, “If knowledge is enlightenment and science is knowledge, then to be enlightened is either to endure self-ignorance or to undergo reification.”[25] i.e. If knowledge is reliable insofar as it objectifies, then I must either remain ignorant of myself, insofar as I am a subject, or turn myself into an object.  This predicament is often traced to the Cartesian cut between subject and object, mind and nature, res cogitans and res extensa, but Barfield sees the Cartesian cogito as only an episode in a gradual and lengthy process.  “Objectivity,” he says, “is not something that was handed us on a plate once and for all by Descartes.”  It is rather a hard-won mental and moral achievement – precious, even as it turns destructive, and entirely necessary to the synthesis that Barfield calls final participation.   

The Romantic reaction indicts the one-sidedness of scientific reductionism.  At the mere touch of “cold philosophy,” Keats wrote, “all charms fly.”  (Science, in Keats’ time was still called natural philosophy.) Newtonian science, Keats said, would “unweave a rainbow” or “clip an angel’s wings.”[26]  Blake, in a famous engraving, pictures Newton at the bottom of the sea, staring intently downwards at the figure he is drawing with a compass on the scroll at his feet.  “May God us keep,” Blake prays, “from single vision and Newton’s sleep.”[27]  Romanticism gives birth not just to a critique of science but also to a counter-current within science.  Goethe, another critic of Newton, formed “the hypothesis that it might be possible to derive all plant forms from one original plant.”[28]  At one of his first meetings with his friend-to-be Friedrich von Schiller Goethe explained his idea of an urpflanze, usually translated as primal or archetypal plant.  Schiller objected, “This is not an observation from experience, this is an idea.”  Goethe responded, “Then I may rejoice that I have ideas without knowing it and can see them with my own eyes.”[29] Goethe’s work gave birth to a strand of “scientific” inquiry that is much more experiential and much more contemplative that what we normally call science.  He also began the work that has continued into our time of overcoming the divorce between mind and nature.[30]  I won’t go into that further here.  Barfield in his time was very impressed by the findings of quantum mechanics, whose pioneers had reached the foundation of matter only to discover, as Arthur Eddington quipped, that “something unknown is doing we don’t know what.”[31]  “The same elements,” Erwin Schrödinger concluded, “compose my mind and the world...Subject and object are only one.”[32]  Physics, once it had reached the limits of objectivity, was “pitchforked,” Barfield says, “back into philosophy.”[33] 

My point here is that Barfield believed that the detour through materialism and objectivity was a necessary stage in the achievement of what he called “final participation.”  Without separation, and withdrawal from the dream-state of original participation, it would not have been possible, he thought, to understand the role of imagination in overcoming “the abrupt gap between matter and spirit.”[34]  “Romanticism come of age” is his idea of a fully achieved synthesis in which the contracted ego, chastened by scientific materialism, expands again in new participation.  Humanity can wrestle self-consciousness, or subjectivity, out of its world only by polarizing inner and outer, subject and object.  This stance reaches it limit in our time, as all the convenient distinctions on which modernity was erected break down – not just subject and object, but equally private and public, society and nature, secularity and religion etc.  This is the crisis of what Latour calls “the modern constitution,” expressed in the modern institutional landscape but originally constituted in our minds.  We are now at the point, according to Barfield, where it is possible to understand that the nature from which we wrested our hard-won subjectivity, and then took it for all of consciousness, is itself unconscious mind – that the wind that became spirit was spirit all along, awaiting its name.  This new understanding is not an abolition of science/objectivity/the on-looker stance, but is rather, in Hegelian language, its sublation or sublimation (aufhebung), its lifting up into a new synthesis. 

This “New Age” view, of which I have taken Barfield as the representation, was profoundly attractive to me and determined much of the writing and broadcasting I did in the ten years before I reconnected with Illich in 1988.  Having come through the 1960’s, and the myriad of “revolutions” those years were said to portend, I had concluded that it made most sense to think of our time as an interregnum between ages.[35]  What was ending could be described on various scales: the industrial age, at least, or the modern age, or Illich’s age of tools, dated from the 12th century, or the Age of Pisces, now giving way to the Age of Aquarius (astrological epochs, or Great Years,  move  backwards through the zodiac),  or even the entire period of historical consciousness, dated from Karl Jaspers Axial Age (roughly 800-200 BCE)   However considered, one could see that what was ending, though far from over, and still producing brilliant sunset effects, was inexorably revealing its limitations.  But what was beginning?  Well, to be brief, the peaceable, ecologically sustainable, trans-religious and trans-cultural way of life towards which I thought the forcing house of nuclear and ecological apocalypse was insistently pointing.  Meeting Illich again in 1987 was quite a challenge to the more facile and uncritical elements of this stance, but, now, at last, I want to ask whether Illich himself in some way fits into a chastened version of what Barfield called “romanticism come of age.”  

Let me first just list the various ways in which Illich fits into the Romantic counter-culture, when it is taken at its best.  This “best” stands out in clear relief only when one follows Charles Larmore in rejecting the sterile dichotomy – Blake’s “two horn’d Reasoning, Cloven Fiction” – that has dominated too much of popular discussion.[36]   This dichotomy, as in the earlier mentioned image of “the mirror and the lamp,” pits a “responsive” stance – humble,  reverential, soberly aware of human limitations – against an expressive one which glorifies the “creative” imagination.  Hundreds of other opposed pairs get divided in the same way – left v. right, equality v. hierarchy, etc. – and so become opponents rather than complementary aspects of a large whole.  But, at its “precarious height,” Larmore argues, Romanticism tends to a “fragile synthesis,” which collapses into these opposed pairs only in its (frequent) corruptions and degenerations.   This synthesis, or movement of integration, is what I mean by Romanticism at its best.   Illich fits it as a critic of science who understands that political communities will recover their power of judgment only when “Science” is de-mythified, i.e. deprived of its current status as an oracle and put in its proper place as an invaluable but limited mode of knowledge.  He belongs as someone who understands the crucial role of tradition in the continuance of humanity as a recognizable being – one who has not, as Illich wrote in Tools for Conviviality, broken “all normative bridges to the past.”[37]  Sometimes, as I have said, Illich also hints that the very gateway to the future, or, better, to the rivers north of the future, may also lie in the past.  Illich is a Romantic, above all, in his respect for the spontaneous, the unplanned, the unconscious.  This is especially clear in his essay on “Vernacular Values” when Illich speaks rhapsodically of “the domain of the wild,” “the vernacular,” “living language,” “free and anarchic development” and contrasts these things with the plans of Spanish humanist Antonio Nebrija whose grammar of the Catilian tongue is, Illich says, an attempt “to engineer, to synthesize chemically, a language.”  Illich sees Nebrija, and by extension all the other Renaissance humanists who were trying to shape national languages and instruct their peoples in their use, as a colonizer who wants to turn Castilian into a “resource to be mined,” to invent “an educational sphere” outside of which there will be, in future, “no salvation,” and to initiate “a war on subsistence.”[38]  This essay, like many of Illich’s, is polemical – the point he wishes to impress on the minds of contemporary readers is its shaping and selecting principle – so one has to allow for a certain exaggeration on this account.  Nevertheless, I think the preference for spontaneous cultural formations is plain enough.  To this, I would also add the fears about the collapse of imagination in a unisex and, otherwise, uniform world that Illich expresses in Gender.  With the undoing of “otherness,” Illich says, metaphor has nowhere to go, because the unknown has become only the not yet known, and so imagination loses its purpose.  It keeps its prestige – contemporary people incessantly pursue “their dreams” – but it is reduced either to an entertainment – the profuse cult of “stories” – or to an instrumental role as the faculty which visualizes success.  (This disappearance of otherness occurs, in Illich’s view, not just between men and women under the impress of unisex.  The otherness of heaven and earth is also undermined by a church which believes it possesses the keys to the kingdom, as is the otherness of here and there in an era of globalization.)  A symbol for Illich is not a cypher or a sign, it is a mystery, constituting all we can know of what we encounter within the symbol.  Imagination is the faculty by which this encounter occurs.  It follows that Illich rates imagination, though rarely by that name, as high as any Romantic. 

Illich, as I’ve argued, is a polemical, occasional and, one might even say, evangelical writer.  By evangelical I mean not that he is a proselytizer, which he never was, but that what concerns him in his study of social configurations is whether they ultimately foster, or, alternately, undermine, the capacity to recognize and celebrate the Word of God.   The style in which his essays realize this high calling tends frequently to satire, by which I mean the use of humour, particularly irony, sarcasm, and exaggeration, to lampoon his object.  To take the case mentioned above, a balanced account of Nebrija’s work is not the point of Illich’s essay on “vernacular values.”  Nebrija, in a sense, is a sacrifice to the evangelical purpose of the essay, which is to prick the pretensions of the “educational sphere” and deflate its claim to monopolize education as the church had once monopolized salvation.  I’m reluctant to call this a lack of balance, since balance is exactly what Illich is seeking to redress in a world that has relentlessly institutionalized every conceivable good, but it is a lack of balance in the sense that Illich never says that he is looking for a balance between the authority of grammarians and the authority of wild, untutored speech, allowed its own “free, anarchic development.”  He restricts himself to satirizing Nebrija and drawing a more or less straight line from the grammarian’s first attempts to coax a “language” out of the wild and unregulated profusion of popular tongues to the dominated, manipulated and over-schooled languages that are spoken and written today.  

I mention this polemical and evangelical tendency because I think it obscures the affinity I am trying to draw out here between Illich and Barfield’s grown-up Romanticism.  One has to go back to the 1960’s to find Illich speaking openly of what he then called “man’s race to maturity” – the phrase occurs in a “call to celebration” written in 1967 with which he begins his book Celebration of Awareness.  That book concludes with an equally hopeful “Constitution for Cultural Revolution,” an expression that Illich used at the time to distinguish the metanoia, or changed mind, that he was preaching from a mere “political” revolution in which nothing changes but the face behind the desk.  Presumably he thought that this cultural revolution either failed or miscarried, or a little of both.  Illich rarely dwelled on the past, but one hears nothing more from him about a new age of human maturity.  As late as Gender (1982) an emerging “archipelago of conviviality” – a phrase he borrowed from André Gorz – was still on Illich’s horizon, but its further growth depended, he said, on a recovery and enlargement of the commons to which he never again referred.  (He was sympathetic to the claims of Gustavo Esteva, and others, that “new commons” were emerging in marginalized communities that had seen through the hollow promise of “development’’ and were now regenerating tradition and improvising livelihood outside of modern economic assumptions, but he did not see his hopes for a revival of vernacular independence realized among the social movements whose attention he had briefly enjoyed in the 1970’s.[39])  Nevertheless, I think Illich makes a crucial contribution to the Romanticism come of age that was Frye and Barfield’s hope.  For me this principally consists in a vision of the Gospel, as it might have been and might still be, and in the deinstitutionalization that would necessarily follow a recognition of what necessarily exceeds institutionalization, of what, now and forever, must remain in the domain of the unpredictable and the uncontained – the realm, as Illich says, of surprise.

[1] Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981, p. 50

[2] Northrop Frye, A Study of English Romanticism, Random House, 1968, p. 15

[3] This idea appears throughout Taylor’s work but is nicely, and briefly summarized in The Malaise of Modernity (Anansi, 1991). 

[4] IIC, p. 188

[5] Zinovy Zink, “Accentless Souls,” TLS, May 26, 2017

[6] Wendell Berry, Standing by Words, Counterpoint, 1983, pp. 106-213

[7] In his Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard, 1989), Taylor describes the work as “an essay in retrieval” (p. 10) and elsewhere as “an exercise in retrieval” (p. xi); George Grant hints that all we have left of the good is our nagging sense of having lost it in “A Platitude” in Technology and Empire (Anansi, 1969), p. 239 ff.

[8] CA, p. 94

[9] CA, p. 87

[10] “Hospitality and Pain,” op. cit., p. 1

[11] RNF, p. 170

[12] “Health As One’s Own Responsibility - No Thank You!” op. cit., p. 3

[13] The exposition of this idea of the “upside-down universe” occurs in the chapter on “Milton and the Romantic Tradition” in Northrop Frye in Conversation, op. cit., p. 97ff.  All of the quotations that follow are taken from this chapter.

[14] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene ii

[15] Blake, op. cit., p. 33ff.

[16] Hans Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology, Cornell, 2010 (first German edition 1960), p. 5; Northrop Frye in Conversation, op. cit., p. 39

[17] Blake, op. cit., p. 233

[18] ibid., 565-566

[19] So says Duke Theseus in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene i.

[20] Owen Barfield, The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, Wesleyan University Press, 1977, p. 16

[21] ibid., p. 235

[22] ibid., p. 235

[23] This is one of Blake’s “proverbs of hell”, op. cit., p. 35

[24] Barfield, op. cit., p. 12

[25] Stanley Rosen, Hermenutics as Politics, Yale, 1987, p. 4

[26] John Keats, Lamia, Part Two, lines 230-240

[27] Blake, op. cit., p. 722

[28] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey, 1786-1788, Penguin Classics, 1970, p. 71

[29] Goethe relates the meeting under heading “A Fortunate Encounter,” in Scientific Studies, ed. and trans. Douglas Miller, Goethe edition, Vol 12, Suhrkamp, 1988, p. 20

[30] Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, ed. David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc (SUNY Press, 1998) provides a good introduction.

[31] Sir Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, Macmillan, 1928, p. 191

[32] Erwin Schrödinger, “Why Not Talk Physics” in Quantum Questions, ed. Ken Wilber, Shambhala, 1984, p. 79

[33] Barfield, op. cit., p. 179

[34] ibid., p. 150

[35] I first put forward this view in a radio series, broadcast, in 1981 called “Between Two Ages.”  It can be found here: http://www.davidcayley.com/podcasts?category=Between+Two+Ages

[36] The point is argued at length in the opening pages of The Romantic Legacy, op. cit.;  Blake, op. cit., 268

[37] TC, p. 83

[38] SW, pp. 29-51

[39] An extensive bibliography of Esteva’s writings in English is provided in this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustavo_Esteva


Ivan Illich as An Esoteric Writer


 (Recently I send the Penn State Press a lengthy manuscript of a book about the life and thought of Ivan Illich. Because of its length, I had to cut a number of sections that I wrote after the main body of the text was already complete. They deal with subjects that I felt had been left out or inadequately treated. Aside from occasional blind references to the book from which they have been excised, I think they are well enough able to stand on their own to justify my presenting them here. This is one of those sections. It draws on, and, in places, overlaps with my review essay on Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the LInes which I have also posted.)  

In his book The Prophet of Cuernavaca, historian Todd Hartch has argued that, in most of the writings Ivan Illich published after he withdrew from Church service in 1969, Illich dissimulated his true purpose.  “Most of his teaching and writing,” Hartch asserts, “had a hidden purpose.”  Hartch goes on to speak of “an encoded theology,” of his having “camouflaged his theology,” and of his use of “social and political critique as a sort of code.”  He argues further that this obscure motive resulted in a “lack of lucidity.  “Many of his friends and supporters longed for the day when he would produce a clear, direct and simple speech or text, but he never did.”  Some of them “lacked the theological background” to even “engage the religious side of his argument.”[1] 

Hartch’s understanding, in my opinion, is partial, obtuse and strangely blunted.  For example, the very authors Hartch uses to reproach and correct Illich – most notably Vincent Donovan and Lamin Sanneh – seem to me, on the contrary, to be in fairly exact consonance with Illich.  I have written, at length, about this elsewhere and will not go into it further here.[2]  But this does not mean, of course, that Hartch is entirely wrong.  He quotes Illich himself as saying, in a speech to the Thomas More Association in Chicago in 1970, that, “My only reason personally, intimately, for moving into analysis of the school was in order to provide an analysis for what really happened to the church.”[3]  Later, in conversation with me in 1988, he simplifies the same idea into what is almost a caricature.  “The key for what I have written in my life,” he says, lies in his attempt “to walk beneath the nose of God.”  If people want to understand Deschooling Society, he goes on, “let them look for Thomas Luckmann’s book The Invisible Religion, and they’ll see where it all began.  When he speaks about ‘church’ and ‘faith,’ I simply put in ‘school’ and ‘education’.”[4]  The advice to go back to Luckmann’s book is good – the two men came from a very similar Yugoslavian/Austrian background, and Luckmann’s work certainly influenced Illich – but the idea that Deschooling Society is simply a coded analysis of the Church, with the words mechanically altered, is, at best, a pointed joke, and, at worst, a red herring.  In the first place, as I have already pointed out, Deschooling Society is quite explicit both about the ritual and liturgical character of schooling, and about the fact that the school is “a World church”.  To confuse “equal educational opportunity” with “obligatory schooling,” Illich says, is “to confuse salvation with the Church.”[5] Indeed, the whole argument of the book that school must be “dis-established” implies that the compulsory school is a displaced church, which illegitimately claims privileges long since denied to other churches.   Readers may not have grasped the point, but this does not mean that the argument is coded.  Illich’s love for the church certainly provided what he calls the “intimate” reason for his analysis of schooling, but that does not at all mean that the only reason to analyze schooling is to shed light on the Church.   

My point here is that schooling warrants analysis as a contemporary religious ritual, and that’s what Illich provided.  Insofar as the school spells out what the church began – salvation by catechism; learning as a product of teaching; the institutional container confused with the content – analysis of schools may also shed light on the church.  But the school is where the action is for most people.  It’s the institution that represents the ideology of the “church militant” in its currently effective form.  To claim that Illich is doing something “coded” or “camouflaged” in examining hospitals and highways, schools and prisons is to fail grasp his idea that these are the actual outworkings of a Christian ideology, an ideology which can’t be understood without facing these institutions.  The Church can neither be understood nor changed without understanding these modern extensions of the church project.   Illich may have been more explicit in his late interviews with me, and in some of his late lectures, but, in my opinion,  he never, at any time, disguised or camouflaged “his hypothesis that modernity can be studied as an extension of church history.”[6]  If he indicated what is wrong with the church in showing what is wrong with the ideology of compulsory mass education, so much the better, but the fault in this ideology must  be recognized as a real and present emergency, not just as a cipher for the church.  Once it is understood that the school, as its extension, is the church, then the exposure of the church-like element in schooling, which was he task Illich explicitly set himself, becomes a crucial undertaking in itself.  There is no camouflage.  Illich is not doing hidden theology – he’s doing theology right out in the open, only on terms so new that most of his contemporaries couldn’t recognize what he was up to. 

This said, Hartch still raises a question about Illich’s mode of writing that I would like to consider.   Illich’s purposes may not be so hidden, camouflaged or coded as Hartch supposes, but this does rule out the possibility that they are still things going on “between the lines.”[7] Illich wrote, first of all, for occasions – there was no sense of a philosopher or a theologian building a system or expounding his thought for its own sake.  He called himself a pamphleteer, and, even when he produced original scholarship, as I think he did in his In the Vineyard of the Text with his analysis of the 12th century paleographic revolution that led to “the visible text,” he disclaimed any intention of making “a learned contribution,” saying rather that his purpose was to shed light on the contemporary transition from text to hyper-text.[8] Most of his books or essays were produced by a request, an invitation, or a sense of public emergency – in short, a call.  This is already a stringent restriction.  It doesn’t belie the powerful enthusiasm with which he wrote and taught, but it does imply a lifelong effort to discern what “the times” asked of him and to stick to that. 

In Illich’s book The Church, Change and Development, he begins with an “Author’s Note,” which takes the form of a letter to Jim Morton, then the director of the Urban Training Center for Christian Mission.  The Urban Training Center was an institution with which Illich had been closely connected – he speaks in his letter of “us at the UTC” – and Morton, later the dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, was a friend.  Illich tells Morton, in this letter, that each of the papers in the book was “meant for an audience…people into whose faces I could look.”  He goes on to express the hope that readers will understand that they are now holding a book of essays – he says “gropings” – that have been abstracted from these unique contexts and made deceptively permanent.  This was a lifelong preoccupation.  In our radio interviews in 1988, he speaks of what we are doing as “a public intercourse exhibition” and says that he is willing to display himself to strangers in front of the “keyhole” represented by my microphone only out of love for me.”[9]  Later he speaks of the radio documentaries I will eventually compose as “this mosaic we’re making out of stones broken from readings and writings which were set in a different context.”[10]   At the end of the 1997 interviews that make up the main text of The Rivers North of the Future, he is still marveling, ruefully, that “totally unknown people, perhaps after my death, will listen to these voices” and think to know us by our “digitalized utterance[s] without ever seeing “our faces or the changes in your smile or frown.”[11]   

Illich, at least in aspiration, was an oralist who deprecated an “acoustic climate” in which “the spoken word” and its “place engendering power” is drowned out by the recorded, amplified and broadcast voice.  In a paper called “The Environmental Threat to the Survival of the Voice,” he says…  

For a quarter of a century, I have tried to avoid using a microphone, even when addressing a large audience.  I use it only when I’m on a panel, or when the architecture of the auditorium is so modern that it silences the naked voice.  I refuse to made into a loudspeaker.  I refuse to address people who are beyond the reach of my voice.  I refuse to address people who are put at an acoustic disadvantage during the question period because of my access to a microphone.  I refuse, because I treasure the balance between auditory and visual presence, and reject the phony intimacy which arises from the distant speaker’s overpowering “whisper.”[12] 

There is an element of bravado here – a hostile reader might even say hypocrisy – from a man whose reputation was built on the world-wide dissemination of his voice and image through modern media.  Illich could not have possibly intervened in “public discussion” in the way he did, nor entertained the hope he expressed in his writings of the 1970’s that a “political majority” could be assembled for his proposals to deschool, decelerate, and demedicalize, had he not been able to throw his voice far beyond its “naked” capability.  Still I take him seriously.  I have seen too many people fall under the mystifying spell of “the distant speaker’s overpowering whisper” not to.  As with so many of Illich’s provocations, I think he has to be seen as offering a way of thinking, which can potentially begin to change the balance between ethereal voices and actual ones, rather than a rule of conduct or a pat solution to a “problem.”  But I quote the passage here to point to his preference for the dialogic and interpersonal over the amplified and de-contextualized word.[13]  

In Plato’s critique of writing in Phaedrus, Socrates says, “Once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people and not address the wrong.”[14]  This is the classic objection to writing as inert, frozen speech, abstracted from all occasions, and too easily made into an idol or oracle.  Illich, I think largely agreed with it, though perhaps he also recognized the force of the New Testament parable of the sower in which the word is broadcast widely even though it only occasionally falls into “good soil.”[15]  I can remember him once saying to my wife Jutta, with equal parts of gravity and playfulness, “Think of all the harm I did with my books” – a remark that may me think ruefully of all the times I was told that a radio broadcast of mine had said something quite different than what I had thought (and intended).   Written words, as Plato says, “drift all over” and their author cannot come to their aid when they are “ill-treated or abused.”  Illich had two responses to this difficulty.  One was the view that texts are only valuable and useful as starting points.  In his letter to Jim Morton, when he speaks of each essay as a deliverance to “people into whose faces I could look,” he goes on to say that each one “attempted to question the value of a context within which we think, rather than…to state and solve a puzzle .”  To successfully question a context of thought, he goes on, does not mean either that we have solved a problem or generated a definitive “new paradigm.”  Rather we have “open[ed] a horizon on which new paradigms for thought can appear.”  He compares this opening of new horizons to leav[ing] home on a pilgrimage,” and not “the pilgrimage of the West which leads over a travelled road to a famed sanctuary,” but rather the pilgrimage of the Christian East which does not know where the road might lead and the journey end.”  His second response was to compose his texts with extraordinary care and to write in a poetically condensed style that resisted easy misappropriation.  His sentences were intended as seeds, not as elements of a system.   

Another difficulty that Illich faced in writing, particularly after 1969, was that he addressed audiences in which most did not share his Christian faith.  Late in his life he was surprised one day in his class in Bremen to discover that almost none of those present could recognize the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” from the Lord’s Prayer – the prayer with which Jesus answered his disciples request that he “teach [them] to pray.”[16]  This was so striking that he actually took a survey and discovered that only seventeen of the two hundred people present were familiar with the prayer.[17]  But even from the beginning of his experiment in priesthood outside the Church, he set himself the task of making arguments intelligible to those who did not share his faith.  This is why I insist so vehemently that he did not have, as Hartch supposes, “a hidden purpose.”  He may have been, as his friend Lee Hoinacki said, “doing theology in a new way,” but this newness consisted in subjecting modern institutions to a theologically-informed analysis which recognized their liturgical, myth-making character, not in writing in ciphers accessible only to those who had sent away for the secret decoder ring.[18]  Nevertheless Illich’s attempt “to write as an historian curious about the undeniable historical consequences of Christian belief,” rather than as an apostle sharing his faith did impose certain restrictions on him. 

Once when Illich was staying with his friends Sajay Samuel and Samar Farage in State College, Pennsylvania, he received a visit from Islamic scholar William Chittick, also a friend.  During an evening’s conversation, Chittick asked Illich why he had not been listened to.   The question passed but, during the night, Illich later told Samuel, he woke up laughing.  If he had not been listened to anyway, then what had been the point of his conscientious effort to construct his arguments without reference to his faith.[19]  This was how he saw matters at a certain moment, and I do not at all want to deny that this was profound laughter, as Illich told Samuel it was – the divine humour is deep, and Illich more than once compared spiritual intuition to “getting” a joke.  But I think there is another way of looking at it.  Illich, in an early essay, called “The American Parish” criticized “the lack of missionary spirit” among his fellow Catholics.  “If Catholics every lose their concern for those who do not have God,” he wrote, “they lose also their charity.”[20] This couldn’t be clearer: charity demands that faith be shared.  I don’t think Illich ever thought otherwise.  But faith is only real insofar as it is enacted, and it can be enacted without being professed.  Real prophets are distinguished from false prophets “by their fruits,” Jesus says.[21] His faith, in this sense, was implicit in everything Illich did.  Part of the issue here is the prevalent picture of religions as exclusive clubs which provide “identity” to those who hold a membership card.  Religion is further understood to be a matter of belief i.e. it is sustained by an irrational conviction which must be kept out of the public sphere where evidence and rational argument supposedly obtain.   And religions, finally, are thought to be in competition, each prosecuting its truth claim against the incompatible truth claims of the other religions – a competition liable at any moment to degenerate into violence.  But Illich was not a very religious man – his friend Barbara Duden once joked, with me, that she had never known anyone less religious.  By religion, of course, she meant scrupulosity, ritualism, concern for doctrinal niceties, and hypocritical piety, not faith.  But she is right.  Illich had a remarkably open and ecumenical understanding of what it meant to practice Christian faith.  He once laid it out as follows: 

…the kingdom is a social reality at a transcendental level. Hence, it cannot be communicated except by means of a communitarian and fraternal form-of-life. Historically,
Jesus did so. And today I cannot do this but by means of communion of faith and messianic hope of a fraternal community. The transmission of faith is the result of testimony, and not of conceptual teaching; it is the result of the fulfillment of the kingdom in the heart of the witness with which the neophyte can identify; it is not the fruit of the intellectual conviction that can be attained by means of great doctrine. The Christian dogmas have the same role as the dogmas of Huineng or the Sufis; they are negations that exclude the intrusion of myth in the search of mystery.[22]

Doctrine here is given a crucial but still merely prophylactic and regulatory role.  The emphasis is on celebration and on personal encounter.  It is a real question, I think, whether such celebration must be called Christian in order to be Christian.  “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”[23]  Many people entered into communion with Ivan Illich without being able to make the same doctrinal affirmations that he did.  This was his very point, quoted above, about the blessing of living in a time when hope has no cosmological “scaffold”: it turns us towards one another.  

One further aside here on religion: Simone Weil speaks of atheism as a “purification.” The term has multiple meanings in her thought.  She speaks first in the sense in which Meister Eckhart says, “I pray God to rid me of God” i.e. an achieved image of God is always already an idol.  Weil says… 

A case of contradictories which are true: God exists; God does not exist.  Where is the problem?  I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory.  I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word.  But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.[24] 

This is from the perspective of the “believer” who must endlessly resist the action of what Weil calls “imagination which fills the void.”  From the perspective of the professed atheist, she says, “Of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other.” i.e. the believer who inherits Christianity as part of his mental and spiritual furniture may be farther from God from the atheist who tells the truth about his experience.   And finally she says that “religion insofar as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith.”  To “religion as…consolation,” one could also add religion as the handmaiden of political power, religion as the disguise for punitive emotions, religion as moral posturing etc.  This does not exhaust the question of religion, and I don’t want to pretend to have done so, but, insofar, as religion and faith stand opposed, the mass departure from religion in our time can be understood as a kind of purification.  The shadow of this move into a society that increasingly deems itself “spiritual but not religious” is the danger that faith will be buried in the rubble of a collapsing church. 

My point here is to encourage readers to look for faith, not explicit religion, in Illich’s work.  Notwithstanding his laugh on himself in the night, or his retrospective sense that he ought to have been explicit about his commitments, I think Illich’s work can be seen in the light of his attempt to “live today the ordinary life of tomorrow’s priest.”  This phrase comes from an essay in Celebration of Awareness, called “The Vanishing Clergyman.”   In it, he speaks tentatively.  “May we pray,” he asks, for “courageous priests…willing to risk misunderstanding and suspension,” for priests “who leave the Church in order to pioneer the church of the future?”  This essay was first drafted in 1959, ten years before the hostility and incomprehension of his superiors turned Illich into one of those pioneering priests.  Illich speaks of this new vocation as the expression of a radical “secularization” which is overtaking the church, but one might also speak, cautiously, about the emergence of a “post-religious” church.  In either case, there is an understanding that the modern constitution, in which religion occupies its own airtight compartment, has collapsed, and “Christianity” must return to the mountainsides, market places and dining rooms in which the Gospels locate it and be understood, if it is to be understood at all, simply as truth and not as some set-apart religious truth.  This, I think, is the context in which Illich is to be read as a Christian writer. 

The nature of “the kingdom,” Illich says, can only be “communicated…by means of a fraternal [and one might add, sororal] form-of-life.”  The church, insofar as it had confused its purpose as the guardian of a tradition and a mystery with its “visibility” as an institution, had substituted itself for the actual practice of this form-of-life.  Just as labour is alienated in its products, according to Marx, so salvation, as the practice of the kingdom right here, right now, was alienated in the Church.  (In an address given in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris in 2009, Giorgio Agamben speaks of the Church’s “incessant deferral of the Last Judgment,” by which he means that the church has substituted administered salvation for messianic hope.[25])  The difficulty intensifies with the emergence of the metastasized churches and secular clerisies of “The Age of Disabling Professions,” as Illich once tried to name our time.[26]  The Incarnation reveals, according to Illich, that our highest possibility consists in our freedom to love and form Samaritan-like relationships.  This is the pearl of great price for which everything else can be given up.  (“…the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant…seeking goodly pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all he had and bought it.”[27])  Modern institutions block this possibility in various ways – above all, by substituting themselves for the good they promise.  It follows that Illich’s efforts to mock the pretensions and undermine the foundations of these institutions, etc. was missionary, even if it was not explicitly apologetic.  Institutions claim independence of individual persons – they will accomplish what charity demands punctually and reliably without reference to the personal dispositions of the people who staff the institutions. You will still have gained an “education,” even your schooling never exposes you to a single gifted teacher, and every question that is answered is a question you never asked.  Salvation is not just “confused” with the church – it becomes a product of the Church, a place you can’t get to by any other road.  The thing itself is obscured by its counterfeits, and so completely obscured that desire for the thing may be extinguished.  A majority leaves school, not just with a head full of knowledge that will be quickly forgotten because it answers no curiosity and therefore has no place to attach, but as confirmed anti-intellectuals who in future will resist and resent what was prematurely imposed on them.   

It seems to me a preeminently “Christian” task to criticize such institutions, not in order to inculcate Christianity, but in order to prevent people from being made immune to surprise.  What surprise can there be, where all roads are mapped, all predicaments provided for, all tasks assigned to the competent authorities, and all questions answered before they are asked?  And without the capacity for surprise, how can one be open to an event that occurs “as a surprise, remains a surprise and could not exist as anything else” – God’s Incarnation?   My point is that institutionalization, once its passes into “paradoxical counter-productivity” and begins to saturate social space, not only hides sin but blocks awareness of the presence of God.  It follows that Ilich’s iconoclastic task in his institutional critiques of the 1970’s was fully within the missionary purpose that he says is a desideratum of Christian charity.  (“If Catholics every lose their concern for those who do not have God, they lose also their charity.”[28])   This missionary purpose, in my opinion, never ceased to inform and govern Illich’s writing. 

I have argued that Illich writes under various constraints and determinations: as an oralist suspicious of writing’s unresponsive immobility; as a Christian iconoclast, bent on clearing away idols; and as a missionary who wants to make the good news audible by reducing the noise that currently drowns it out.  All these are implicit purposes that will be evident to readers according to their understanding and disposition.  I don’t want to write a reception history of Deschooling Society, but I think it is clear enough that the full scope of the work was appreciated by very few readers at the time.  If Illich was, as Hoinacki says, “doing theology in a new way,” then few initially recognized the genre.  But this does not argue an esoteric or hidden purpose so much as a novel one.  We have seen that Illich believed, at least for a time, that what he proposed during the later 1960’s and early 1970’s might have been accepted by a political majority: that deschooling, technological limits, reduced speeds and demedicalization were not only necessary by possible.  But one can see in retrospect that this was not true.  The times were wild and unsettled – there was a genuine leaning towards “making a new society, right now”[29] – but accounts of what exactly was ending, and, even more, of what was beginning were so various, so partial, and often so primitive that the consensus Illich briefly imagined was completely out of reach.  It’s reversing my field somewhat to say so, but this, in a funny way, argues that Illich’s most celebrated writings were, in fact, more esoteric than the people who thought they understood them at the time ever recognized.  It wasn’t necessarily Illich’s intention to address the future – “to hell with the future,,” isn’t much of a motto, if that’s your hope – but his arguments rested on foundations that are clearer today, at least to me, than they were fifty years ago.   

But is Illich an esoteric writer in any other pertinent sense?  The answer to that question, I think, depends on a clarification on the highly problematic term esoteric.  This word is the accepted term of art for writing that disguises some part of its purpose or hopes to be understood in different ways by different readers.  The trouble is that, for most contemporary readers, the word connotes something arcane, out of the way, and not worth bothering about.  Such is our commitment to plain speech, majority rule, and the ability of scientific and instrumental reason to illuminate all important questions, that the very word we use for writing that is in any way subtle, layered or indirect rules it out of bounds a priori.  One needs to remember therefore that what was formerly called esoteric writing dealt with the highest and most difficult questions and not with how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – the example that has been used to parody scholasticism for hundreds of years.[30] 

In his 1952 book, Persecution and the Art of Writing, political theorist Leo Strauss argued that since philosophy lives by questioning and unmasking conventional wisdom, philosophers have always had to practice a defensive “art of writing” which hides the scandal and offense they would otherwise give to popular opinion.  Only in very recent times has the idea arisen that a harmony is possible between the ideal and the real, and that militant intellectuals have the vocation to realize this harmony.  (Marx gives the classic formulation in his Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”)   Strauss’s book, in time, scandalized the political left and became part of his reputation, in left-wing circles, as a sinister elitist, the godfather of neo-conservatism, and the inspiration for a conspiratorial band of “Straussians” bent on transforming American foreign policy.[31]  More recently, in a wonderfully lucid book called Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost Art of Esoteric Writing, American political thinker, Arthur Melzer, has revived, clarified and extended Strauss’s argument.  He argues, in brief, that it is impossible to understand the history of political thought without appreciating that from Plato’s time right through the end of the 18th century all philosophical writers wrote esoterically, though they may not have always called it that.   Erasmus, condemning the destructive effect of his contemporary Luther’s combativeness and intemperance, says mildly, “A prudent steward will husband the truth.”  Truth, Erasmus says, has “a bitter taste for most people” and will only subvert the accepted order of things to no good end when “poured out all at once,” as Luther has done in his “torrent of pamphlets.”[32] Plato, in one of his letters, considers the pleasing and tempting prospect of writing “a treatise…for the general public.”  “What finer achievement would there be,” he asks, “than to write a work of great benefit to all mankind and to bring the nature of things to light for all men?” But no, he concludes, this would not be good, for the result would be “to excite in some an unjustified contempt,” while others would be filled with “lofty and vain hopes.”[33] 

Melzer provides a compelling tapestry of quotations which show the argument of Plato and Erasmus to be the common opinion until the 18th century, when the question of human perfectibility moves from the religious into the political sphere, and opinion divides – to paraphrase Lincoln – as to how many of the people can be fooled for how much of the time.  One of the most interesting of these quotations is from Goethe.  Writing to a friend in 1811, he says: “I have always considered it an evil, indeed a disaster, which, in the second half of the previous century, gained more and more ground, that one no longer drew a distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric.[34]   From the time at which Goethe wrote one can trace a history in which distaste for the esoteric becomes steadily more visceral.  The idea that everybody should be exposed to everything at all times gathers speed until it culminates in the strange a-sociality of “social media” in which each one is their own broadcasting station.  The metaphor of enlightenment becomes literal in the seemingly irrresistible belief that progress consists in shining the light of publicity into every corner and relentlessly making the private public until the very distinction is in tatters.   

There remain holdouts among the poets and philosophers.  Jacques Derrida will still profess “a taste for the secret”; Emily Dickinson will still say, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”;  Robert Frost that “Heaven gives its glimpses only to those/ Not in position to look too close.; T.S. Eliot that “human kind cannot bear very much reality” [35]  But what I would like to point out here, before returning to the question of the genre in which Illich writes, is how very inept and outmoded the very distinction between the esoteric and the exoteric now seems.  This is not to say that there are not philosophers who dissimulate their purposes, or veil some elements of their doctrine, but only that this is the mere tip of the iceberg.  My essential point is that all writing is, to some extent esoteric writing.  This is most obviously true for people who can’t read at all, but it remains true even as one’s reading grows more sophisticated and discerning.  There is no one for whom some branch of literature, be it only the literature of quantum physics or Melanesian marriage customs, is not esoteric.  And there is another sense in which all writing is esoteric as well: all writing of any ambition is bound to be misunderstood, as any writer will tell you.  Its meaning is hidden whether the writer wishes it or not.  “That is not it all/ That is not what I meant at all,” T.S. Eliot writes in his “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”[36]  Illich’s joke about the harm he did with his books plays on the same idea: you may think you are calling, quite precisely and explicitly, for the disestablishment of compulsory schooling, but this will not prevent the majority of your readers from concluding that what you are against is schools as such, and not the extraordinary constitutional privilege they currently enjoy.  There is no frictionless transmission of meaning from one mind to another, and control, always partial, of potential misunderstanding will always be a great part of the writer’s art.  Erasmus’s reproach to Luther can be cited in support of esoteric writing, but he is not asking Luther to write in invisible ink, or even in veiled figures. He is asking him to be more prudent, more discreet, more reticent in order to limit the endless trouble he is stirring up with his belligerent “Here I stand, I can do no other” attitude. [37]  Esoteric doesn’t seem to me a helpful word for this elementary caution, especially now that the word is widely understood to refer to the practice of philosophers able to secretly instruct the initiated while at the same time mollifying the uninitiated.   

Written words, as Plato says, “drift all over the place,” never knowing where they are, powerless to correct the reader who misconstrues them.  Every word sets off a cascade of associations, which will necessarily differ from reader to reader.  One doesn’t have to contemplate the interference patterns created by these waves of association for long before it begins to seem miraculous that we understand each other at all.  In addition written language, simply by having been put in a fixed form, is reified – it becomes stupid, inert and unresponsive to its reader, an absence masquerading as a presence.  It was for this reason that Heidegger first suggested the practice, later deployed more extensively by Jacques Derrida, of writing “under erasure” i.e. crossing out a word so that it remains legible under the erasure, and in that way giving a graphic representation of the fact that every word belies itself.  This is why I say that willful and artful concealment of one’s full meaning, though it may sometimes occur, is neither the most interesting nor the most pertinent aspect of the question of writing as it presents itself today. 

All texts are esoteric because all true teachings are contradictory.  “Those who know do not tell/ Those who tell do not know,” says the Tao Te Ching, but the saying occurs in the midst of the book’s seeming attempt to tell what cannot be told.[38]  The Gospels evince the same problem, surprising as it may be to think of Jesus of Nazareth as a practitioner of what Melzer calls “philosophical esotericism”.   Jesus was, to begin with, an oralist.  Like Socrates, he committed none of his teachings to writing.  He was also careful what he said and where he said it.  He taught in stories, explaining to his disciples that “the secret of the kingdom” was granted to them while “to those who are outside everything comes in parables.”[39]  He warned against casting “pearls before swine” lest “they [the swine] turn and rend you.”[40]  After quizzing the disciples about who they thought he was, and receiving the answer from Peter that he is the Christ, he enjoined him to tell no one about it.[41]  Likewise when he was transfigured with Moses and Elijah, he warned Peter, James and John to keep the whole story to themselves.[42]  Later, the apostle Paul also adjusted his doctrine to his audience, telling the Corinthians that, at first, he fed them on milk because they were not yet ready for solid food.[43]  Examples could be multiplied, but it seems clear enough that there are abundant traces in the gospels of a teacher well aware of the dangers full disclosure might pose to himself and others.  There is also a contradiction between this esoteric practice, and the triumphalist strain in which trumpeting angels unfurl banners and shout the good news from the skies.  A similar contradiction exists between the prudent teacher who practices protective esotericism, and the anointed one whose death is inevitable and whose passion has been entirely foretold. (“All this happened,” Matthew says, “to fulfill the prophecies in scripture.”[44]) Arguably this tension continued in Christianity once it began to be formulated as a religion.  Earlier I quoted Simone Weil’s view that the Resurrection was a doctrine that ought to have put forward only with the greatest tact, discretion and reserve i.e. esoterically.  Instead it was shouted from the rooftops, though tellingly not in the Gospels themselves.  The Gospel of Mark, in its earliest redaction, ends with the women returning from the empty tomb in “trembling and astonishment” and saying “nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” All four Gospels make it clear that there is a connection between faith and the ability to perceive the risen Lord – he does not appear in the market, the Temple, or Pilate’s court – and, even when he condescends to let “doubting Thomas” feel the wound in his side, he makes it clear that it would have been better to have believed without such evidence.[45]  For Weil, the “theology of glory” which proclaimed the resurrection as a triumphant happy ending and a universal destiny was a travesty, a denaturing of the bitter truth of the crucifixion.  She affirmed the resurrection but only when hedged with the recognition of all the damage such an idea could do when treated as the sign of the Christian religion’s triumphant destiny i.e. made exoteric.  

I am trying to expand the idea of the esoteric here to include the need, particularly in writing that will “drift all over the place,” for tact, discretion, reserve and a sense of occasion.  My intention is not to salvage the word esoteric, but rather to prevent a larger discussion about the terms on which human beings are perfectible from being unduly narrowed by the unfortunate connotations of secrecy, conspiratorial elitism, or arcane subtlety that this word now carries.  In the meanwhile, I will continue to use it, in order to keep my presentation unified and join it to the view of Strauss and Melzer that the history of philosophy cannot be grasped without reference to esoteric writing.   Let me now try to make a link with Illich.  Illich claimed that the Incarnation, which he regarded as the supreme good, was accompanied by a proportionate danger which he dared, at the end of his life, to call anti-Christ: the danger that the unprecedented  freedom promised to a forgiven and redeemed humanity in the New Testament will be recoined by “those who organize Christianity” as “an entirely new kind of power.”[46]  Implied is the idea that this explosive Gospel ought to have been propagated only esoterically, i.e. only to those with “ears to hear” and only in the clear eyed recognition that a previously unthought and unimagined evil was its inevitable companion and complement. [47] In Illich’s way of putting it, “the Church had gone pregnant with an evil that would have found no nesting place in the old Testament.”[48]  Plato refrained from trying “to bring the nature of things to light for all men” because he thought it would either induce grandiosity and contempt or excite “lofty and vain hopes.”  How different is this from what Illich says happened when “those who organize Christianity” failed to show similar restraint?  

The early Church, Illich argues, knew that it was playing with fire.  That was why, he says, each community had prophets whose vocation was “to announce a mystery, which was that the final evil that would bring the world to an end was already present.  This evil was called Anti-Christ, and the Church was identified as the milieu in which it would nest.” I have already said that I can find little direct evidence in the New Testament for this claim, but I don’t think this matters much.  The point is that this ought to have been the infant Church’s posture, in Illich’s view.  And he is certainly right that such awareness, if it existed, had died out by the time the Church took the burden of the crumbling Roman empire on its shoulders.  It was replaced, Illich says, by what he calls “a brutal form of earnestness.”  And this earnestness was expressed not just in the loss of the idea of anti-Christ but also “in the progressive loss of the sense that the freedom for which Christ is our model and our witness is folly.”  Christianity, in becoming Christianity, lost its unworldliness, and, gradually, its ability to distinguish between what can be built, held and confidently announced, from what can only be waited for, celebrated and told, as Emily Dickinson says, “slant.”  

Illich argues that the history of the West can be summed up in the old proverb that “the corruption of the best is the worst.”  I understand his hypothesis in terms of the philosophy of complementarity that he lays out in his book Gender and in subsequent writings on the theme of “proportionality.”  A philosophy of complementarity holds, in brief, that everything in the world is defined by its opposite and has an inbuilt tendency to turn into its opposite if pushed to an extreme.   This is a principle of limitation – a way in which things check and limit each other in the social world, as they observably do in the natural world.  But it is also a principle of the imagination – it allows for a domain standing opposite to each one which can only be imagined.  And ultimately, Illich says in Gender, it is a foundational principle of metaphysics, as much as of physics.  We cannot know God directly, because God is not among the things that can be known directly, but we can recognize God analogically if we recognize an otherness in things that is always beyond our immediate reach – this is the gift of the other as other.   It is an implication of a philosophy of complementarity that written words can never set out the whole truth at once except by speaking in paradoxes and contradictions, like the Lord’s oscillating instruction in the Gospel to tell everyone/tell no one, or the Tao Te Ching’s claim, while telling, that “he who knows does not tell.”   

Esotericism can therefore be understood as an aspect of complementarity.  And, when so understood, the question of whether philosopher’s have secret doctrines becomes relatively trivial. The important thing is that some philosophers, at least, know the difference between heaven and earth, between what can be said and what cannot be said, between what the old Sufi story I cited early calls the container and content.  I would say that they understand contradiction, which is also an aspect of complementarity.  “Contradictions,” Simone Weil says, …are the criterion of the real,” the way we know that what we are confronting is not imaginary.  The cross, with its horizontal and vertical arms joined and opposed, is its symbol.  “All true good, Weil goes on “carries with it conditions which are contradictory.”  These contradictions cannot be resolved, but they can be accepted, contemplated and transcended.[49]  The virtues are often in contradiction: prudence and courage, or equanimity and justice, pull against each other.  At the highest level God is felt, Nicolas of Cusa says, as complex of opposites (coincidntia oppositorum), in which justice strains against mercy, provident care against impartiality.  Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, portrays God, at one moment as responsive concern – “everyone who asks receives” – and, at another, as serene indifference – “he makes his sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sends his rain on the just and the unjust.” [50]  I think Illich substantially agrees with Weil, whatever distaste he may have felt for her Platonism, her masochism, her severity or whatever it was he disliked about her.  The fateful history in which the Gospel is turned “inside out” and people become, in effect, immune to their own salvation is a prime instance of contradiction or complementarity.  The Gospel itself contains this contradiction in the form of the antithetical injunctions to tell everyone and to tell no one.  The Gospel must be proclaimed/ the Gospel cannot be proclaimed is a paradox of the same kind as Weil’s “God exists/God does not exist.”[51]  Illich’s answer, always, is awareness.  Anti-Christ, in his account, is a name for awareness of the evil that must, of necessity, accompany and shadow the Incarnation.  One cannot relativize boundaries, as the Samaritan does, without endangering boundaries.  One cannot exceed the law without invoking the possibility that this excess will one day be normalized and legalized.  Corruptio optimi pessima.  But one can be aware of the possibility, and, in being aware of it, renounce it.  One can recognize limit and contradiction and, beyond them, Nemesis.  One can, as Illich says, be a fool who makes the impossible possible by not denying that it is impossible.  “Brutal earnestness” is only avoided by this dance of awareness, this attentiveness to limit, this knowledge that heaven can be, as Frost says, “glimpsed” but never grasped.  (Frost’s line is wonderfully ambiguous: it might mean that Heaven is an illusion available only to those who don’t have the misfortune of getting “too close” and, thereby, discovering the prosaic truth of the matter, or it might mean that “glimpses” are all we can know of Heaven.) 

So is Illich an esoteric writer?  Well he’s certainly full of unresolved contradictions.  He’s a mandarin and an anarchist, superbly proud and utterly humble, a critical intellectual and a prayerful pilgrim, a man of tradition and “a pioneer of the church of the future,” someone deferential to properly constituted authority and an advocate of “finding out for oneself.”  I won’t try to document these antinomies here, but evidence for all of them can be found throughout this book.  A vivid memory, for me, was meeting Illich at the Toronto airport in 1970, when he came to address a teach-in my friends and I had organized.  Canada’s prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, whom Illich already knew, had just declared martial law in Canada in response to the kidnapping by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) of the British trade consul and the Minister of Labour for the province of Quebec.  Almost everyone I knew was appalled by Trudeau’s action and had demonstrated against it.  I expressed this opposition to Illich, confident that the man I thought of as a “radical,” like me, would agree.  Instead he astonished me with a whole-hearted defence of Trudeau’s draconian policy, saying that Trudeau had been wise to apply sudden and excessive force rather than temporizing with the FLQ’s terrorism – a view that seems much more plausible to me today than it did in 1970.  Illich, seeing my discomfiture, went on to say that he was much more conservative than might appear from the vogue he was then enjoying in “progressive” circles.  (It would be a stretch to say Illich ever got much of a hearing with the New Left, insofar as it saw itself as fomenting political revolution, and therefore thought of Illich’s “institutional revolution” as “reformism,” or, worse, an apology for cutbacks in government services, but he was certainly, for a time, the darling of the devotees of cultural revolution.)  This was when he joked with me that he appeared radical, only because his orthodoxy was so antique, so total and so unfamiliar as to seem avant-garde - a harbinger of the movement that John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward and their friends, a generation later, would call “radical orthodoxy.”  Illich, when he was interviewed by Doug Lummis during the 1980’s, said that the only political labels that fitted him even partially were anarchist and what his friend Paul Goodman had called “neolithic conservatism.”[52]   

The contradictions I have mentioned confused and sometimes dismayed many of Illich’s contemporaries.  The feminists of Berkeley thought they were being bullied by a European maître à penser, when he lectured on gender there in 1982.   Francine du Plessix Gray, in her 1970 profile of Illich for The New Yorker, thought she detected in Illich’s opposition to  development “the aristocrat’s sentimental attachment – recalling Tolstoy’s – for cultures of poverty untainted by bourgeois aspiration.”[53]  Liberation theologians were put off by his insistence that the Church must remain outside politics, even while “taking the moral stance which corresponds to the vocation implied in the  Gospel.”[54]  Political radicals who were drawn to CIDOC disliked Illich’s emphasis on what he called “le bon ton …our basically correct behavior.”  “I believe in good manners,” he told du Plessix Gray, “in playing [by] the rules of the game.”[55]  Canadian scholar activist Ursula Franklin, though an admirer, thought that he “pontificated on things in which he had no participation.”  “I could identify with Illich,” she said to me once, “but I have no idea whether Illich could identify with me.”[56]  Neil Postman thought him “a mystic…a utopian…and an authoritarian.[57]  Postman claimed that deschooling was a utopia, presented as if it were a practical policy proposal, while remaining, as something that had never existed and could never exist, “invulnerable to criticism.”[58]  Tod Hartch, as we have seen, thinks he was writing a veiled theology that even his closest associates didn’t really understand.  When he died newspapers around the world printed obituaries in which he appeared, variously, as everything from a holy man to a “renowned sociologist,” a “culture critic” to a “liberation theologian.  I concluded, in my introduction to The Rivers North of the Future, that these obituaries, in their variety, showed that “the world had lost not only a brilliant intellectual but also a fabulous rumour.[59]  

These contradiction are also peppered through his writings.  Readers may sometimes wonder, once they have gotten over the fireworks, what genre they are reading.  The inept names used by the obituary writers testify to this confusion.  What confuses perhaps is the variety of his effects – he can be aphoristic, poetical, and even sarcastic, in his more polemical passages, but he can also be somewhat scholastic, in the proper sense of the medieval schoolmen who wrote in formally set out articles, questions, objections, answers etc.  Speaking of his studies of Aquinas in Jacques Maritain’s seminar in Rome in the later 1940’s, when Illich was at the Gregorian University and Maritain was the French ambassador to the Vatican, Illich told me that in Maritain’s company he “discovered Thomas as a magnificent shell.”[60]  In another place, he speaks of how Maritain’s “Gothic approach” to the texts of St. Thomas “laid the Thomistic foundation of his entire perceptual mode.”  By Gothic he specifies, “narrow, precise and extraordinarily illuminating.”[61]  I take this seriously.  The terms – shell, mode, approach – relate to form more than content, and I think there is a scaffolding of pre-modern Catholic theology in Illich.  It doesn’t derive only from Aquinas, by any means.  Less scholastic authors like Aelred of Riveaulx and Hugh of St. Victor are equally important – in Hugh’s case, perhaps more important, though it’s hard to argue that anything is more important than “the foundation of [one’s] entire perceptual mode.”  One sees this in the schematic and propositional character of many of Illich’s writings.  Subjects are broken down into clear analytical subsets.  In Tools for Conviviality, Illich first sets out the “five dimensions on which the balance of life depends, and then proceeds to the “three formidable obstacles” that stand in the way of a recovery of this balance.  Objections are anticipated and answered.  

That this formal style never, in my view, becomes pedantic is a tribute to Illich’s wit.  By wit, I mean sense of humour, certainly, but also something more – the ability to make sentences that escape or contain their own contradictions, sentences that retain all that there are not able to say as an aura, sentences that are condensed, balanced, limited and accurate.  It is a tribute also to Illich’s clairvoyant power of observation.  My wife Jutta, on first reading Gender, put down the book and asked me, in a tone of real astonishment, “How does he know these things?”  Then, on reflection, she answered herself, “He’s like a bird cocking his head this way and that to take everything in.”  His colleague and friend, Sajay Samuel, said of Gender that, from its pages, he could “see his grandmother’s house” in south India.  Illich himself recalled, sitting under the table at his grandparent’s house in Vienna, drinking in the conversation.  He sensed what was going on in his times in a way that went beyond the usual pathways of sociological analysis or “cultural criticism.”  Carl Jung supposed that each one’s encounter with the world is mediated by four functions: thinking/feeling/intuiting/sensing.[62]  I find relatively equal and balanced attention to all four in Illich’s work.  He can be, as I said, clairvoyant, leaping intuitively beyond what would seem to be the facts at hand.  But, he is at the same time a surgically precise thinker; and he never neglects the sensory and the affective dimensions of his subject.  All this creates a literary presentation that is sui generis

The best way to understand Illich, in my opinion, is as an apophatic thinker.  The word comes from Greek – apo, other than, and phanai, speak – and is used mainly in theology to refer to an approach to the divine that proceeds by negation, by saying what God is not.  Illich’s friend Lee Hoinacki was the first, I think, to locate Illich in the tradition of apophatic theology.  John McKnight, another friend of Illich’s, remembered him as saying that he wanted to engage in proscription, not prescription – terms which exactly reproduced the distinction between apophatic and cataphatic, i.e affirmative, theology.[63] Illich is not interested in describing an imagined future society or in telling people how to get to it.  He is interested in creating conditions in which the presence of God can be expressed and experience in a convivial, communal and celebratory form of life.  He did not need to invent this form of life – it was a mandate from the One who fully revealed the nature of God.  Nor did he need to teach people how to make culture.  What he felt he needed to do was to demolish the idols that he felt were dis-abling self-reliance and preventing people from making satisfying lives together.   

I believe that all of Illich’s work can be read in this light.  Each is an attempt to clear away obstacles, whether it is the school’s interference with the ability to find out for oneself, the medical system’s interference with my ability to die my own death, or technology’s replacement of vital human capacities.  Salvation is an individual matter, something no one else can anticipate, accomplish or even understand – it belongs to what Illich calls the “total otherness” which we confront in one another.[64]  One can only denounce the ideas, institutions, and techniques that interpose themselves between individuals and their salvation.  (I know salvation is a problematic word here, but I don’t think it would help if I substituted enlightenment or some other equally dubious and compromised term.  What I mean by it, roughly speaking, is what bears on the unique existence which it is mine to express and fulfill.)  The few prerogatives on which Illich insists - “to choose whom I will love and where I will love,” to seek surprises, to watch for the Lord’s passing, and listen for the voice of “him who speaks”[65] – all refer to this individual salvation – to my ability to recognize and respond to what calls to me, and might “appear arbitrary from everybody else’s point of view”[66]  All Illich could do as a writer was to denounce the conditions inhibiting salvation, in the sense I specified above, and foster the conditions favourable to it.   

I hope that, by a rather circuitous route, I have made clear what I object to in Hartch’s idea of a hidden or camouflaged theology.  I believe with Hoinacki that Illich is rather “doing theology in a new way,” a way so new that most could not recognize it as theology, and so different that Illich himself did not think that it should be called theology – his forthright declaration “I am no theologian” should make it clear enough.[67]  This, however, does not mean that he was not exercising his priesthood and “pioneer[ing] the church of the future.”  To take just one example, he says that “the ritual of schooling” casts “a spell” on those who become believers in this ritual.  Those who fall under this spell become the devotees of a religion.  One can awaken to the abundance and availability of the world God has created and revealed only by “breaking the spell,” the purpose of all Illich’s critiques.  This is an eminently evangelical undertaking, whether or not it is called a practice of theology.  There is nothing secretive about it. 

I have answered the question of whether Illich is an esoteric writer with a yes and a no.  He is esoteric, insofar as he is discreet, understands the pitfalls of written words, shapes his discourses to the occasions that present themselves, avoids all prescription, and limits himself to denouncing what prevents people from realizing their various and mysterious vocations.  Otherwise, I think his purpose is plain enough in retrospect.  He wanted to expose the tragedy of Christianity as it is enacted in the many modern institutions that interpose themselves between individuals and their salvation.

[1] Todd Hartch, The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West, Oxford, 2015. p. 145 ff.

[2] http://www.davidcayley.com/blog?category=Todd+Hartch

[3] Hartch, op. cit., p. 147

[4] David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992, p. 242

[5] DS, p. 18

[6] Ivan Illich/David Cayley, The Rivers North of the Future, Anansi, 2005, p. 169

[7] Arthur Melzer uses this expression as part of the title of his book, Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost Art of Esoteric Writing  (University of Chicago Press, 2014)  His book helped me to think about the question of esoteric writing, and I have reviewed it here: http://www.davidcayley.com/blog?category=Philosophy+Between+Lines.  I rely on Melzer’s book in what follows and sometimes repeat whole passages from my review.

[8] This theme is addressed at length in my chapter on language.

[9] Ivan Illich in Conversation, op. cit., p. 161

[10] Ibid., p. 235

[11] The Rivers North of the Future, op. cit., p. 171

[12] This paper, written in 1990, which I have in typescript, has not yet been published in English, and, unusually, does not appear to be available on the web.  Illich describes it as “the continuation of a period of gregarious rumination in the company of Mother Jerome, OSB, and Valentina Borremans.”

[13] Interpersonal, I know, is a badly damaged word, hard to separate from the idea that there exists a trainable technique of  “interpersonal communication”.  When Illich used this word with me – because, like me, he could think of no alternative – he said he did so only cautiously and reluctantly. (See The Rivers North of the Future, op. cit., p. 191)

[14] Phaedrus 275e in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntingdon Cairns, Pantheon (Bollingen Series LXXI), 1961,  p 521

[15] Luke 8:4ff.  The story appears in all three synoptic Gospels.  John Durham Peters, in a book called Speaking Into the Air (Chicago, 1999) has suggested that a Platonic preference for dialogue has sometimes overshadowed and undermined the value of the “he who has ears to hear, let him hear” dissemination of the word that Jesus seems to endorse in his parable.

[16] Luke 11:1ff.

[17] The Rivers North of the Future, op. cit., pp. 130-131

[18] Hoinack’s claim that Illich is “doing theology in a new way” was made in my radio series, “Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Conversations with Ivan Illich,” page 32 in the transcript, which is here: http://www.davidcayley.com/transcripts/  More on secret decoder rings here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secret_decoder_ring

[19] Sajay Samuel told me the story.

[20] Ivan Illich, “The American Parish,” Integrity, June 1955.  (reprinted in The Powerless Church and Other Selected Writings: 1955-1985, Penn State Press, 2018.)

[21] Matthew 7:16

[22] Ivan Illich, The Powerless Church and Other Selected Writings: 1955-1985, op. cit., p. 87

[23] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

[24] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952, p. 103; subsequent quotes are from the same section of this book.

[25] The Church and the Kingdom, op cit., p. 40

[26] Disabling Professions, op. cit., p. 11

[27] Matthew 13: 45-46 (KJV)

[28] See note lxxx above.

[29] Ivan Illich in Conversation, op. cit., p. 213

[30] This figure goes back at least four hundred years.   In An exposition with notes vpon the first Epistle to the Thessalonians (1619), English divine William Sclater (1575-1626) claimed that scholastic philosophers occupied themselves with such pointless questions as whether angels "did occupie a place; and so, whether many might be in one place at one time; and how many might sit on a Needles point; and six hundred such like needlesse points."  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_many_angels_can_dance_on_the_head_of_a_pin%3F

[31] In Canada Shadia Drury, a professor of Political Science at the University of Regina, has led the charge with Leo Strauss and the American Right (Palgrave Macmillan 1999), portraying Strauss as an advocate of “perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power.”  Among American critics, Nicolas Xenos goes so far as to find in Strauss’s teaching a nucleus of “pure fascism.”  (This charge is quoted in Strauss’s Wikipedia entry.)   I have always considered these charges against a retiring professor of philosophy, and the supposed influence of his students – the Straussians” – somewhat overblown.

[32] Melzer, op. cit., p. 270 

[33] Seventh Letter, 341, d,e, in Plato, op. cit., p. 1589

[34] Goethe to Franz Passow, Oct. 20, 1811, cited in Melzer, op. cit., p. xxi

[35] Jacques Derrida and Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret, Polity 2001 (first published in Italian as Il Gusto del Segreto, 1997);  Dickinson’s wonderful poem is worth quoting in full: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant —/ Success in Circuit lies/ Too bright for our infirm Delight/ The Truth's superb surprise/ As Lightning to the Children eased/ With explanation kind/ The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind¾” (The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998); Robert Frost, “A Passing Glimpse,” Selected Poems, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1963; Four Quartets, op. cit., p. 4 

[36]  Collected Poems, op. cit., p. 17

[37] Luther is said to have concluded his defence of his ideas before the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms in 1521 with these words.  Some dispute the words themselves, but not the combative attitude they represent. 

[38] The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, translated by Witter Bynner, Capricorn Books, 1962 (first edition 1944), Part 56, p. 60.   This is far and away my favourite version of the Tao Te Ching and has been a vade mecum ever since I first discovered it as an undergraduate in the early 1960’s. 

[39] Mark 4:11

[40] Mathew 7:6

[41] Mark 8: 27-30

[42] Luke 9: 2-10

[43] 1 Corinthians 3:2

[44] Matthew 26:56 – “All this was done that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.”  This formula recurs many times as an explanation of why things happen as they do.

[45] John 20: 24-29

[46] The Rivers North of the Future, op. cit., p. 47

[47] Mark 4:9 – “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  The expression is found at various other place in the Synoptic [Matthew, Mark, Luke] Gospels as well.

[48] The Rivers North of the Future, op. cit., p. 59

[49] Gravity and Grace, op. cit., p. 89

[50] Matthew 7:8, 5:45

[51] Gravity and Grace, op. cit. p. 103

[52] The Lummis interview is unpublished; Paul Goodman, The New Reformation: Notes of A Neolithic Conservative, PM Press, 2010 (first edition 1970).

[53] Francine du Plessix Gray, Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism, Knopf, 1970, p. 288

[54] Ivan Illich in Conversation, op. cit., p. 103; Illich says this after telling me that he had resigned his official position, as advisor to Cardinal Suenens, one of the four moderators of the Second Vatican Council, which sat from 1962 to 1965, after the Council failed to unequivocally condemn nuclear weapons.  To have done so, as Illich urged, would have “corresponded to the vocation implied in the Gospel.”  The crucial distinction is between a moral stance and a partisan political one.  

[55] Gray, op. cit., p. 274

[56]  Ursula Franklin, a professor of physics at the University of Toronto and a lifelong peace activist, was a friend and sometime colleague at Ideas, the CBC radio program where I worked.   She admired Illich, and once came to tea, bringing muffins, when he was staying with me.  I am quoting from a private conversation in which she expressed her reservation about what she saw as Illich’s patrician, above-the-fray political style.

[57] Neil Postman, “My Ivan Illich Problem,” in After Deschooling, What? ed. Alan Gerntner, Colin Greer, Frank Riessman, Harper and Row, 1973, p. 137, 141, 143

[58] ibid., p. 141

[59] The Rivers North of the Future, op. cit., p. 28

[60] Ivan Illich in Conversation, op. cit., p. 152

[61] Ibid., p. 150

[62]  Jung refers to this scheme throughout his work.  He developed it first, as I recall, in Two Essays in Analytical Psychology.

[63] The Challenges of Ivan Illich, ed. Carl Mitcham and Lee Hoinacki, SUNY, 2001, p. 1; “Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Conversations with Ivan Illich,” CBC Transcript, p. 31.  The transcript is here: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/542c2af8e4b00b7cfca08972/t/58ffc9a55016e102f4cf8010/1493158442475/Part+Moon_3.pdf

[64] “Today’s Educational Enterprise viewed by the dropout, in the light of the Gospel,” p. 13, available here: http://www.davidtinapple.com/illich/1988_Educational.html

[65] Ivan Illich in Conversation, op. cit., p. 243

[66] The Rovers North of the Future, op. cit. p. 52

[67] Ibid., p. 121

On Being Without a Scaffold

On Being Without a Scaffold

(Recently I send the Penn State Press a lengthy manuscript of a book about the life and thought of Ivan Illich. Because of its length, I had to cut a number of sections that I wrote after the main body of the text was already complete. They deal with subjects that I felt had been left out or inadequately treated. Aside from occasional blind references to the book from which they have been excised, I think they are well enough able to stand on their own to justify my presenting them here. This is one of those sections.) 

…what a privilege to live in a time when our hope has lost its this-worldly calendar, and watch-related scaffolding.  We are in an age of scaffoldless hope.”[1]


The statement above was elicited by my asking Ivan Illich about the sense in the New Testament of a world about to come to an end.  “I know you are struck,” he said to me, “by these guys [the New Testament writers] with their happy trust that the light in the East will come tomorrow,” but aren’t we, in a way, more fortunate, he asked, to live in a time when our hope has lost its scaffolding.  The statement is unusual, first, because it’s rare to hear Illich speak of the contemporary situation as a blessing, or privilege – it’s more often portrayed in terms of horror or degradation – and, second, because it raises the question of Illich’s disposition both towards what theology calls “salvation history” (heilsgeschicte) and towards other religious traditions – both subjects he wrote little about. 

Let me choose, as an interlocutor for Illich, Raimon Panikkar.  The two men knew each other, though each was characteristically guarded about the relationship, and I had the sense from both, at moments, of unexpressed reservations about the other.   They belonged to the same generation and had, in common, at the least, their cosmopolitan backgrounds, their mastery of many languages, and their status as “controversial” figures in the Roman Catholic Church.  Each enjoyed, and perhaps, at times, cultivated, a certain mystique.  Peter Berger, who knew both, though Illich much better, portrays them as friends.  “Panikkar spent several months every year at an ashram in Varanasi,” Berger wrote shortly after Panikkar’s death in 2010.  “Illich would meet him there and join with him on forays into the tumultuous religious landscape of India, some of them on foot...Illich said that he discovered India in Panikkar’s company.”[2]  

Panikkar, from the time of his first book The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, conducted a subtle and delicate probe of the relations between the “truths” of Christianity and of the Vedic traditions of India.[3] He suggested that their proper relation was one of what he called “mutual fecundation” – that each could illuminate elements in the other without losing its own integrity or glossing over manifest contradictions.  To search for the “unknown Christ” in Indian traditions, just as to search for the unknown Isvara, or Atman, or Brahman in Christianity, could bring latent elements in each to light.  Each must convert the other without giving up its own ground.  This was how he put it to me in a programme recorded in 1984: “With our own spectacles, we cannot see the other.  The first step for mutual fecundation is to know each other.  In order to know one another, [we] have to know one another from within – as I understand myself, not as you see it from the outside – and that implies certainly love, sympathy and experience that I have to undergo [in] your…skin.”[4]  Fecundation, in Panikkar’s view, was something other than today’s polite, deferential and relativistic pluralism.  It required conversion without loss of identity, and it held out the possibility that traditions would criticize as well as illuminate each other.  One element in Western tradition that he particularly deprecated, and for which he found a corrective in Vedic religions, was what he called “the myth of history.”  “The Western world,” he wrote, “is, by and large, influenced by an exaggerated historicism, as though historicity were the sole component of reality.” 

When the myth of history begins to take hold of Western Christianity, Jesus Christ became the embodiment of the supreme Imperium.  Incarnation becomes just a little slice of history and evangelization consists in ‘civilizing’ others and incorporating them into one ‘Christian’ and (post-Christian) world order. [5] 

Christ, for Panikkar, cannot be Christ and remain secluded in one person, one place, one history, one tradition.  He must “represent” a universal and trans-historical reality. 

Illich generally avoided public statements on inter-religious dialogue.  His private comments could be tart.  I recall him telling me that he had “narrowly escaped” an audience with the Dalai Lama – a way of putting it that suggested to me not just a distaste for celebrity Buddhism but also that he thought the Dalai Lama was preaching a rather vapid “spirituality.”  On another occasion, he told me that he had offended a bishop in New Delhi, who had wanted to show him a church in his diocese that had been oriented to the rising sun.  lllich disclaimed any interest in this “temple of Apollo” and told the bishop that Jerusalem provided the only permissible point of orientation for a Christian.  These anecdotes are far from showing that Illich thought Christianity superior to other religions, but he was certainly an opponent of any casual, complacent or sloppy syncretism.  And Christianity, for him, was, inescapably, historical.  “Christians remember a historical event and expect one by which history will be closed,” he said.[6] 

But isn’t this historicity then a scaffold?  The early Christians may have mistaken the date, but this can be explained, as the Apostle Peter does, by saying that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day” or that the Day of the Lord comes like a “thief in the night” or that “no one…not even the angels…knows that day and hour.”[7]  One still has a unique event initiating and unrepeatable and irreversible historical sequence.  The angels keep “their watch of wondering love” above Bethlehem not above Nagasaki or Timbuktu. As Jesus tells the Samaritan woman he meets at the well, “Salvation is from the Jews.”  

This is a puzzle.  One night in Mexico, Illich, Lee Hoinacki and I discussed the Gospel passage in which Peter is given the keys to the kingdom and is told that whatever he binds on earth “will be bound in heaven” and whatever he looses on earth “will be loosed in heaven.”[8]  There being no other reference in the Gospels to Jesus intention to found a church, I said that I regarded this passage as an obvious interpolation in the Scripture.  Illich replied that he had been intensively exposed as a student to discussion of whether this passage is an interpolation; but, for him, it was part of his faith to take it as spoken.  Jesus, in his divine mind, he said, must have known Peter and all that would follow, even to the three of us sitting around the table in the outdoor kitchen in Ocotopec that night.  This is part of “the darkness of God,” he continued, and yet how else would we know Him if he had not founded his church on this unsteady rock.[9]  This was Illich’s traditionalist side, and it was more than a pose, I think.  Authority, tradition and obedience all seemed to him indispensable, to prevent people from falling either into forgetfulness or into a kind of religious egotism where I assemble a doctrine, according to my taste, from the smorgasbord of “spiritualities” and nothing guides, limits or restrains my judgment but my own liking. It was not as if Illich couldn’t see the joke in Jesus making this impetuous disciple, who first tempts him, then denies him, into his foundation stone.[10]  Illich had his own experience.   He had tried to renew the Church without ever challenging its magisterium [teaching authority], and had been answered with misunderstanding and rejection.  And yet he continued to affirm, against my logic, its divine sanction.  

So can one believe that “salvation is from the Jews” and that  Incarnation is a unique disclosure, occurring at one time and place, and still affirm the truth of other religions?   Can one insist on the absolute historicity of the Incarnation, without ending up believing that whole peoples lived for centuries in darkness before missionaries arrived to enlighten them?  Simone Weil responded with an unequivocal no.  “It is impossible,” she wrote, “that the whole truth should not be present at every time and place, available for anyone who desires it.”[11]  This was axiomatic for Weil.  Her strictures on the “universal conversion of the nations” and “a divine system of education designed to make men fit to receive Christ’s message,” which I quoted earlier, are equivalent to Panikkar’s “myth of history.” Illich has an apparently different view.  He insists that the Incarnation is a unique revelation within time – a revelation which, in effect, constructs history as what Eliade calls a “valorization of time.” History, then, is not a myth, but a real disclosure, a gathering and focusing of time effected by the Incarnation.  This difference with Panikkar and Weil is real, in one sense, but unreal in another.  It’s real in the sense that Illich’s commitment to the historicity of the Incarnation is part of his commitment to the local, the particular, the given – he will not second guess God, whatever may emerge from his darkness.  One cannot ask of what is “a surprise, remains a surprise and cannot exist as anything else” – Illich’s description of the Incarnation – why it didn’t occur in some other place, at some other time, or in all places at all times.  He is not Platonist, who believes in a timeless truth, like Weil.  Nor is he a devotee of a cosmic Christ, like Panikkar.   On the other hand his philosophy of mission is so stringent and so restrictive that he has few practical difference with Weil and Panikkar.   He too objected to almost every aspect of Western universalism.  He believed that the Gospel could have been shared with alien cultures, not as their dissolution but as their “crowning proportion.”  A deep commitment to “missionary poverty,” after all, was one of the main ways in which he scandalized his Church.   He would not have disagreed, I think, with Panikkar’s statement that “The true Christian…possesses nothing, not even the truth.”  

A statement which I think clarifies how one can think of the Incarnation historically without thinking of it imperially was made to me by theologian John Milbank in a radio programme I made about him.  He said: 

If one sees Christ as the fulfillment of everything, then understanding, let’s say, that he’s the fulfillment of things we find in Hinduism is going to enrich our understanding of Christ.  But I think that the idea that we have fulfillment in the life of one human being is a kind of counter-fulfillment.  It’s not like saying, here we have the superior doctrine, here we have the superior ideology, here we have the superior metaphysics.  On the contrary, it’s saying, actually, the truth is just one other human person…It is simply a human life, it’s not the law that’s supreme, it’s not a system of philosophy.  On the contrary, it’s this one life lived to the full, and, and because it’s lived to the full, inevitably this is a life that ends in rejection and violent death.  So that God is shown in a human person on the Cross is a weird kind of fulfillment.  It’s a kind of counter-fulfillment.   The very God who is omnipotent and transcendent and all that is this God who’s apparently weak and hopelessly failed on the Cross.  And then the synthesis, if you like, is the Resurrection, but the Resurrection is very subtly done, isn’t it?  He appears to a few people.  There’s nothing triumphant about it, and it’s somehow in continuity with the emergence of the church as the new international community.  And so, in a sense, the final revelation is that this is simply, the human, that all this points to the fully lived human life, that this is where God is shown, and then, linked to that, we understand that God in himself is a kind of fully achieved rational expression, God in himself is the fully achieved creation, God in himself is a work of art that can then be, in earth and human terms, fulfilled as a community, where we, repeating Jesus non-identically, can strive towards full awareness as personalities.  So Christianity is the fulfillment because it’s a humanism, because it’s a divine humanism, because it sees the person, the person in relation, as absolutely supreme in a way that I think other religions only approximate towards. [12]  

This, I think, would be fully acceptable to Illich.  His friend Erich Fromm could find no better word for Illich, when he introduced Celebration of Awareness to the reading public in 1970, than radical humanist.  Milbank’s “full expression” and “full awareness” are exactly Illich’s “freedom to love” and “crowning proportion.” 

But what has this got to do with scaffolding?  Well it shows, I think, how Christianity can be historical without being tied to any particular cultural or temporal scaffold.  The early Christians understood the Incarnation within the apocalyptic framework of Second Temple Judaism.  Other identifications followed: the church as the new Rome, and then as Panikkar’s Imperium, the spiritual essence of European colonialism.  But these scaffolds are gone, and this is why Illich’s rejoices in our privilege.  Much of the world may still be immured in the debris of worldly Christianity, but for those who escape this slavery to progress, education and all the other blandishments of the “mechanical messiah” the Gospel is able to be what it should always have been: an a-cosmic disclosure of a mysterious possibility that passes from hand to hand, mouth to mouth, and person to person.

[1] Ivan Illich/David Cayley, The Rivers North of the Future, Anansi, 2005, p. 183

[2] Peter Berger, “Proposing a Cosmic Christ,” The American Interest, Oct. 15, 2010

[3] Raimundo Panikkar, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, Darton, Longman and Todd, first edition 1964, revised and enlarged, 1981

[4] “History and the New Age,” CBC Transcripts, 1984, pp. 30-31 (available at: http://www.davidcayley.com/transcripts/). 

[5] The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, op. cit., p. 2, 83

[6] David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992, p. 268

[7] 2 Peter 3:8, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3, Mathew 24:36

[8]  You are Peter, and on this rock [Peter’s name in Greek means rock] I will build my church…I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)

[9] This is my reconstruction of the conversation, recorded in my notebook the following morning.

[10] Peter’s rashness is shown in his trying to walk on the water (Matthew 14:28-29) and his cutting off the ear of the servant of the High Priest (John 18:10).  When Jesus says that he will be killed, Peter denies that this is possible, and is told, “Get behind me, Satan.”(Matthew 16:22-23  This happens right after he is promised “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”) On the night of Jesus’ trial, Peter denies that he knows him.  (Matthew 16:34, 69-75.

[11] Weil, First and Last Notebooks, op. cit., p. 302

[12] David Cayley, “The Myth of the Secular,” Part Six, here: http://www.davidcayley.com/podcasts?category=Myth+of+the+Secular

Notes on Inventing the Individual

Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins ofWestern Liberalism, Harvard, 2013


Europe, Larry Siedentop says, is in the middle of an “undeclared civil war.”  The war pits religion against secularism and relies heavily on stereotypes on both sides – religion is caricatured as obscurantist and intolerant, secularism as lacking any sustaining foundational belief.  What has brought the war about, according to Siedentop, is a partial and wrong-headed way of narrating the history of Western civilization – we are, he says, “victims of our own historiography.”  The fault can be seen in the summary names we apply to the supposed periods of this history: Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  What this scheme does, Siedentop argues, is to “minimize the moral and intellectual distance between the modern world and the ancient world, while at the same time maximizing the moral and intellectual distance between modern Europe and the Middle Ages.”  Classical civilization is idealized; the Middle Ages are treated as an interruption that ends when “scholasticism” is overcome, the dead hand of the Church is forced to loosen its grip, and classical ideals are reborn in the Renaissance; and, finally, the Enlightenment consolidates the gains of the Renaissance and definitively banishes the church from the main narrative of Western progress.  

This is not the only way of telling the story, of course, though Siedentop sometimes writes as if it were.  Romantic counter-cultures in the West have been rediscovering the Middle Ages for a long time.  Nostalgic affection for the Middle Ages is one of the things that Romantic counter-cultures have in common – they have remembered a time, as Matthew Arnold says in Dover Beach, when “the Sea of Faith was…at the full and round earth’s shore/ Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.”  And they have seen in the Middle Ages, rather than in classical antiquity, what Spengler calls “the seed-time” of their civilization.  Likewise, Siedentop makes no mention of the lively contemporary current of thought that that has argued that modernity is secularized Christianity, whether for good or ill.  Think of German jurist Carl Schmitt asserting in the 1920’s in his book Political Theology that “all modern concepts of the theory of the state are secularized political concepts;” or of Nietzsche complaining that modernity is “a sickness” produced by Christianity; or of the religious turn in contemporary continental philosophy which finds philosophers like Alain Badio and Slavoj Žižek extolling the originality of St. Paul, and Jean Luc Nancy claiming that Christianity is the West’s “nervous system.” 

But Siedentop does have a point. The names by which we divide and shape history represent what might be called our default view – the one to which we keep snapping back even after we’ve been exposed to cogent alternative accounts.   And he’s certainly right that the conventional scheme misdirects our attention and hides the roots of modernity in the Christian church.  The aim of Siedentop’s book is to refute this scheme and substitute one which acknowledges that liberal modernity is founded on moral intuitions that developed over centuries in the Church and could never have taken on its present appearance of a free-standing structure without this prolonged adolescence.  Behind this undertaking he says are two great premises: first that ideas matter, and second that their implications may take many centuries to digest.   Based on these premises, he has told the story of how the Incarnation leads to the modern, rights-bearing individual in a lucid and compelling way.

Siedentop’s book draws on the work of a relative handful of master historians: Fustel de Coulanges on the ancient city; Peter Brown on early Christianity; Harold Berman and Brian Tierney on the legal revolution of the high Middle Ages, and a few others.  This gives his book a bold and clear outline.  He begins in antiquity which he thinks has been badly misrepresented by the image of public-minded men pursuing rational debate on a perpetually sunny Agora.  The societies of ancient Greece and Rome, he says,  following Fustel de Coulanges, were founded on “the domestic religion, the family and the right of property” – the three intimately conjoined.  The household was built around its domestic gods and its sacred fire which must never go out.  In the famous image of Aeneas escaping Troy with his old father on his back and his young son behind him, his father, Anchises, carries the household gods, while the boy, Ascanius, holds the sacred fire.  The father had a semi-divine status – as the representative of his ancestors he was, Siedentop says, “a god in preparation”  - and his word was law.  Society was a compact of families, not of individuals.  Inequality of status was natural and inevitable.  Slaves, in Siedentop’s quotation from Aristotle, were “living tools.” 

The cult of the fire, the family, and the city gave the human person a meaning only in relation to a certain place and its net of relationships.  Siedentop reproduces a telling quotation from Fustel de Coulanges on the relation of the ancient citizen to his city:

Let him leave its sacred walls, let him pass the sacred limits of its territory, and he no longer finds for himself either a religion or a social tie of any kind.  Everywhere else except in his own country he is outside the regular life and the law, everywhere he is without a god, and shut out from all moral life.  There alone he enjoys his dignity as a man, and his duties.  Only there can he be a man.

No wonder that Aristotle says the life of the citizen is the only life worth living. It was the only role in which one could have full standing.  The Christian, on the other hand, could say, with Origen: “We know of the existence in each city of another sort of country, created by the Word of God.”  This was exactly what anti-Christians like Celsus objected to: that Christians wouldn’t sacrifice to the gods of the city because their allegiance was elsewhere.  Knowledge of “another sort of country” conferred a potentially universal citizenship, valid wherever God’s writ ran. 

“Natural inequality”, Siedentop says, structured the Greek world-view, binding together nature and culture.  Every being had a purpose (telos) and a place in the great chain of being.  Siedentop thinks that this is why the ancient astronomer Aristarchus’s demonstration that the planets revolve around the sun was put on the shelf for the better part of two millennia, until Copernicus revived it.  Aristotle and Ptolemy, whose ideas prevailed, preferred the image of a rationally organized hierarchy of nested spheres made of a perfected “fifth element” called quintessence.  Nature was a harmonious and and hierarchical whole pervaded by a Reason or Logos which the philosopher could discern.  Each thing sought its proper end – each thing had its proper form.

The world-view of the Hebrew Bible was utterly different, as has been said many times.  Siedentop’s way of expressing the difference is to say that, in the Biblical understanding, “an act of submission [is] the precondition of knowledge.”  Obedience, not philosophical inquiry, leads to understanding.  Abraham, “the father of faith,” does what he’s told, even when it offends reason.  Wisdom is to discern, not deduce the Word of God.  This world-view burst into the classical milieu in the form of the Christian claim that this Word had become flesh and walked the earth as a man.   In the Incarnation, with its idea of “God with us”, Siedentop says, lie “the roots of Christian egalitarianism.”  He explores the idea through the letters of the apostle Paul.  Paul’s conception of the Christ overturns natural inequality because it is based on “transparency” i.e. “that we can and should see ourselves in others and others in ourselves” – an absurd idea if one believes, with Aristotle, that “from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”  Paul’s assertion that we are “one in Christ” engenders conscience as an inner space in which one realizes a relationship to God in Christ and Christ in one another.  It undermines the primacy of social categories which assign our roles, statuses and duties.  In Siedentop’sterms, “an ontological foundation” is being laid for that previously unheard of being that we call the individual – someone who has dignity, standing, and, eventually, rights that do not derive from his birth, station, or country. 

Another way in which Siedentop dramatizes the difference of Paul and proto-Christianity from its classical milieu is to contrast its imagery of descent with the Platonic imagery of ascent.  In the understanding that Christianity shares with Judaism, God condescends to man in his own time and in his own mysterious manner.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord through the mouth of Isaiah.  He comes down, he enters, and his presence is sensed within.   Plato, in Siedentop’s account, emphasizes “rational ascent…climbing a mountain that [leads] away from unreliable sense impressions to certain knowledge.”  The philosopher accomplishes something of which his own rational faculties make him capable.  The Christian waits on the Lord.  To simplify a little – the philosopher ascends to the light, the Christian attends in the dark.  In Siedentop’s view, the difference individualizes the believer who depends on personal inspiration, rather than following a demanding but predictable path to wisdom.  Ancient reason, he says, is “coercive” – it commands assent by its objective character – Christianity veils the ways of the Lord in mystery. 

Siedentop traces the progress of the Christian idea, first of all, as it undermines ancient religiosity.  Here, for example, is the bracing rhetoric of Tertullian, a second century bishop in Carthage in North Africa:

I am fully convinced that the solemn ceremonies and secrete rites of idolatry build up credence and prestige for themselves by means of their pretentious magnificence – and by the fees that are charged.  For God, being the creator of the whole universe, is in no need of smells or of blood.  That is the fodder of petty demons; we subdue them; we put them to daily disgrace; we drive them out of people as multitudes can testify. 

A second effect is the creation of the Church.  One thinks of French theologian Alfred Loisy’s famous witticism that what Jesus proclaimed was the Kingdom, but what arrived was the Church.  Siedentop is not so interested in the irony as he is in what is unique about this new institution and the way in which it ruptures and divides political power.  In the ancient city the chief magistrate had been as much priest as politician – the first duty of the archon in Athens, and the consul in Rome, was to offer sacrifices to the city’s gods.  The paterfamilias was equally a priest of the domestic cult.  The church divided  authority, leading Pope Gelasius I at the end of the fifth century to proclaim the doctrine of the two powers or “two swords” which allotted power between the spiritual and temporal realms represented by the Pope and the Emperor.  Gelasius did not challenge the Emperor’s supremacy as ruler, but one stills gets hints in his letter to the Emperor Anastasius in 494 of the fuller doctrine of papal power that will follow five hundred years later:

There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, dear son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation... And if it is fitting that the hearts of the faithful should submit to all priests in general who properly administer divine affairs, how much the more is obedience due to the bishop of that see [Rome] which the Most High ordained to be above all others, and which is consequently dutifully honored by the devotion of the whole Church.

The church reorganized Europe.  In the years before the Roman Empire disintegrated, Siedentop says:

Christians…occupied important positions in the Roman administration, at the centre and in the provinces.  Christians were to be found even among high officers in the army.  The church, moreover, acquired rich benefactors, and the largest episcopal sees developed elaborate welfare organizations.  Indeed, they amounted to mini-welfare through their provision for poorer members.  Bishops were fast becoming important civic figures.

The civic importance of the Church increased with the Empire’s collapse.  Gradually the old Roman urbs with its citizens was overlaid and replaced by a new civitas – a gathering of souls in the province of a bishop.

The period following the end of Rome’s empire is sometimes called the Dark Ages, but this is part of the historical scheme which Siedentop finds so misleading – the classical light goes out until it is rekindled at the Renaissance.  What he sees is the gradual Christianization of Europe – a process comprised of two movements.  Christianity is transforming vernacular culture while at the same time being itself transformed.  A favourite story of mine, which illustrates this double movement, concerns Clovis I, a convert to Christianity, who was king of the Franks between 481 and 511.  One day the bishop Reims, who was instructing him in the doctrines of Christianity, described the death of Christ. Clovis, as the bishop proceeded, became uncontrollably excited and at last jumped up from his seat and cried out:  "Had I been there with my brave Franks I would have avenged His wrongs."  Peter Brown in his The Rise of Christendom, gives the example of the assimilation of the Mass to the tradition of offering a sacred meal to the ancestors.  “Only in the 7th century,” Brown says, “did the Eucharist lose the quality of a ‘meal’ relayed from the family to the dead.  [Only then did] the Mass [come] to be spoken of as a sacrifice which only a priest could offer.”

The story of how Christianity was assimilated to the cultures of Europe, even as it was assimilating them, and of how it assumed political power, even as it was transforming the way this power accounted for itself, can be told as a story of loss – the story of how a Kingdom “not of this world” as Jesus says in the Gospel of John was gradually made the blueprint of an earthly city and thus denatured.  Ivan Illich tells the story this way in The Rivers North of the Future.  In summarizing, I’ll oversimplify, but Illich, broadly speaking, is interested in how the Christian inspiration ultimately gives birth to a rule-fixated regime in which administered care masquerades as love, and he treats the history of the church as a series of steps on this way.   Siedentop tells what could almost be said to be the opposite story.  In his version, the Church pioneers and effectively institutionalizes all the key ideas which make modernity worthy of admiration and protection: science, equality and the rule of law.  If he sees any shadow, he says little about it, and this maybe because his ultimate interest is not in the Gospel but in political liberalism.  But this is a question best addressed at the end of my review.

Siedentop gives any interesting account of the time of Charlemagne, and the ways in which “the Carolingian renaissance,” as it’s sometimes called, faced in two directions, combining new elements of Christianization with a revival of empire.  Charlemagne was rebuked by his main clerical advisor Alcuin for attempting to convert the Saxons by force – during one of these campaigns 4500 Saxons were beheaded in a town near Bremen – but Charlemagne also showed a keen solicitude for the Christian faith of his people, once refusing to allow children to be baptized in the church at Aachen, his imperial capital, when he discovered that their parents could not properly recite the Creed and the Lord’s prayer.  I learned from Siedentop that things I would have placed two hundred years later were already happening during the Carolingian period. For example, during the reign of one of Charlemagne’s successors, Charles the Bald, Archbishop Hincmar of Reims was already framing a view of marriage which, following Illich, I had thought originated in the years around 1100.   Hincmar, Siedentop writes, was “among the first to proclaim marriage a sacrament, a voluntary and permanent union between two individuals or ‘souls’ blessed by the church.”  When the King of Lorraine attempted to set aside his wife, Hincmar blocked him and won the support of Pope Nicholas I for his actions.  Hincmar also argued, ahead of his time, that “kings ought to be submitted to those who anoint them.”  A just king, he allowed, answers only to God, but an unjust king “must be judged by the bishops who sit on the throne of God.”  This already goes a little further than Gelasius who had claimed supremacy only in “divine affairs.”

What Hincmar began reached full expression at the time of Gregory VII, who was Pope between 1073 and 1085.   This was the time of the so-called “investiture” controversy whose basic issue concerned the appointment of bishops.  The church at this time was deeply entangled in the world.  Rulers appointed bishops, church offices were bought and sold, and, with a mostly uncelibate clergy, there was a fear that some of these offices might become hereditary.  Gregory was the spear-point of a movement to withdraw the church from these local involvements and assert its spiritual supremacy. One can see the scale of his ambition in his Dictatus Papae (Dictates of the Pope), promulgated in 1075.  In this document he proclaims, among other things, that “the Roman bishop alone is by right called universal,” that “he alone may depose and reinstate bishops,” that “to him alone is it permitted to make new laws according to the needs of the times,” and that “he along may depose emperors.”  According to this doctrine which achieves its first articulation in Gregory’s Dictates, a new kind of sovereignty, a plenitudo potestatis (a plenitude of power) is inherent in the papacy.  It received its mature expression during the reign of Innocent the III (1198-1216).  He declared himself “the representative of Christ, the successor of Peter, the anointed of the Lord…set midway between God and man, below God but above man, less than God but more than man, judging all other men, but himself judged by none.” 

Siedentop endorses legal historian Harold Berman’s claim that the papal revolution, so called, was the first European revolution.  What it accomplished, according to Siedentop, was, first of all, a clarification of political ideas.  Western Europe was “obliged to move beyond the ambiguities of a conception of law that mingled (and confused) customary practice, legislative enactments and moral principles.” Law, one might say, was “disembedded,” using the term in the sense in which Karl Polanyi used it to describe the later abstraction of “the economy” from the hodgepodge of practices and beliefs that constitute a way of life.  Under the banner of papal monarchy, the church became a new kind of entity – sovereign (“judging all…judged by none”), formally constituted, law-governed.  For Siedentop, this was a crucial step in the process which he describes as the transformation of a moral status – a soul equal to other souls – into a social role.  Papal sovereignty implied a radical new kind of equality, the equal subjection of all to the Pope, and, by implication, to no one else.  Hobbes in his Leviathan will later introduce the same idea into modern liberal political thought.  Secular rulers took notice, Siedentop says.  Papal power was something they “envied, resented and learned from.”  What they learned above all was to think of law not as the manifestation of something that already exists in nature or culture but rather as the expression of a sovereign will, as in Gregory VII’s claimed right “to make new laws according to the needs of the times.”  The sovereignty asserted by the Papacy became, for secular rulers, a means of centralizing and consolidating power.

The thread that runs through Siedentop’s book is the idea I mentioned above of a moral status being gradually transformed into a social role – “Christian moral beliefs,” he says in summary, are “the ultimate source of the social revolution that has made the West what it is.”  Another crucial epoch in his story is the codification of canon law, i.e. church law, first by the monk Gratian in his Decretum Gratiani ( app. 1150) and then by his successors who became know as “decretists.”  Canon law, Siedentop says, develops around a new theory of justice, a theory resting on the assumption of moral equality.  He cites, in evidence, the very first sentence of Gratian’s Decretum: “Natural law is what is contained in the Law and the Gospel by which each is to do to another what he wants done to himself and forbidden to do to another what he doesn’t want done to himself.”  This is interesting because it makes equality and reciprocity the wellsprings of justice, but also because it claims something which has its basis in revelation (the Law and the Gospel) as natural.  Gratian and the Decretists retained the term natural law from ancient philosophy but gave it a completely different twist.  The ancients had seen natural law as the expression of nature’s orderly, rational and harmonious structure in which everything had its appointed place and destination.  The canonists were more concerned with human nature.  They argued that all humans have an intrinsic moral nature which confers on each one certain claims, claims which are pre-social and prior to all custom or positive law.  Rights are inherent in the individual as an element of his or her nature.  A quotation Siedentop uses from historian Brian Tierney makes the difference clear: “For some of the Stoics and for Cicero there was a force in man through which he could discern jus naturale, the objective natural law that pervaded the whole universe, but for the canonists jus natural itself could be defined as a subjective force or faculty or power or ability inherent in human persons.” 

Another innovation taking place in the church at his time was the elaboration of a new kind of corporation law.  Siedentop summarizes the four unprecedented elements he thinks that the canonists introduced as follows: 1) An association can be formed by the will of its prospective members – it doesn’t require the endorsement of “public authority.” 2) Any corporation can  create law and exercise authority over its members. 3) Corporations act not just through representatives, they also embody a collective will which must consent to be represented.  4) The property of a corporation is held in common.  Taken together these four changes amount to a revolution, with power now seen as inhering in individual wills, whereas before it was seen to belong to some symbolic personification of the whole – the head which speaks for and directs the body, the king who is his kingdom.  Power has begun to derive from the base rather than apex of the social pyramid, and a whole new theory of representation, as delegation rather than personification, has been initiated. Canon law, in Siedentop’s view, writes a first constitution for civil society.      

Siedentop sees many other ways in which the Church and the milieu it created were the incubator of liberal modernity.  Monasticism introduces a new form of self-governing community based on voluntary obedience and conscience.  The revolution of the towns in the later Middle Ages constitutes a further step in the evolution of individualism, with citizens writing charters and “swearing the commune” and creating new legal entities with defined relations with their lord or king.  Of particular note is Siedentop’s view of the church as the nursery of science.  Even in the “the dark ages,” Siedentop writes, the church was at work “stripping intentionality out of the physical world,” by banishing spirits and exalting the individual will over the dark powers of the natural world.  Think of the confidence with which Tertullian speaks of disgracing and driving out demons in the passage I quoted above.   A systematic attempt was made to withdraw human projections and to distinguish what is in nature from  what is in us.  The clergy, for example, introduced the distinction between intentional and involuntary acts into the criminal law.  “In the seventh century,” Siedentop says, ‘the clergy-dominated Council of Toledo tried to replace verdicts based physical combat or oaths sworn by kinsmen with a careful search for evidence.”

Siedentop’s discussion of science and the church culminates in the long section of the book on nominalism.  Nominalism, roughly speaking, is the view that one begins to find in Peter Abelard that names and classes are merely a convenient abridgement without inherent reality – “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.  The opposite is realism, Plato being the arch-realist with his view that things on earth follow and imitate a substantial underlying pattern or archetype which he calls their Form.  Aquinas, with his revival of Aristotle, is the epitome of realism in the Middle Ages.  He is opposed by the largely Franciscan tradition than runs from Bonventure through Duns Scotus and William of Ockham.  According to Siedentop, whose sympathies are clearly with the nominalists, these Franciscans “detected [in Aquinas] a residue of the ancient assumption that reason could ‘command’ reality and that, out of its resources, reason could demonstrate the deepest metaphysical and moral truths. In Franciscan eyes this assumption was arrogant.   It elevated human fiat above the facts of moral experience, the complexity of human motivation and dependence on the truth of grace.”  For Siedentop this is the nub of a question that goes back to Paul.  Against the confidence of ancient philosophy which believed itself able to discern the true nature of things, Paul asserts that he “count[s] all things a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” and says that he “no longer lives but Christ lives in [him.]”  Augustine and Pelagius revisit the same issue.  Whatever he may actually have taught, about which there has been some revisionism in modern scholarship, Augustine believed Pelagius’ doctrine to be that humans can achieve perfection by their own efforts.  Siedentop continues: “For Augustine…Pelagius’s doctrine was dangerously oversimplified.  Pelagius misunderstood the implication of free will.  He assumed Christians could simply decide to be good and become so.  In Augustine’s eyes this view was contaminated by ancient rationalism, by the assumption claimed that reason on its own could motivate.”  The same stakes divide the nominalists from the realists: the freedom of God is pitted against the rationality of God.  Is there an inherent and evident order in things with which we can align ourselves and from which we which we can infer something of the nature of God?  Or are the ways of God, as Isaiah says, “unsearchable”?  William of Ockham takes the latter view.  “Only faith gives us access to theological truths.” Ockham says. “The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover.”

The key role of nominalism in the creation of modern science has often been noted in contemporary histories.  By denying universals and refusing to see a normative order in nature, a way was opened to study phenomena in what Duns Scotus called their haecceitas, their “thisness,” free from any idea of their intrinsic purpose.  Critical histories treat this as a step on the road to a regime of “instrumental reason” – the world at our disposal.  Siedentop sees it as another step in the liberation of the individual under the influence of Christian moral beliefs.   In this case the Franciscan commitment to the unconstrained freedom of God purges purposes and symbolic meanings from nature and, thereby, allows people to begin to see their knowledge of the world as constructive – something they make, rather than something they are given – as well as to see nature as a realm of indifferent facts.

Siedentop concludes his story at the brink of the Reformation with an account of how “the conciliar movement” failed to rein in the pretensions of papal monarchy and thus prevent the dismembering of the church.  (The conciliarists, applying the principles that had been elaborated in canon law, argued that the Church, as a corporation, ought to be governed by general church councils able to express the will of its members rather than by papal diktat.)   By the end he has argued convincingly that all the crucial elements of modernity were embryonically present in the church: the sovereignty on which the modern state insists has its roots in the papal revolution; the constitution which governs the modern state descends from the church’s reconstitution of itself as a legal entity beginning in Gregory VII’s time; the comprehensive rule of law was first practiced in the church; modern civil society is traceable to innovations in the way canon law conceived corporations; popular sovereignty and the inherent right of individuals have their source in the way the canonists reconceived law; modern science rest on the prolonged disenchantment of nature that was carried out in the church.  All this, Siedentop says, is a consequence of a conception of God which provided “an ontological foundation” for the individual, first as a moral status, and then, centuries later, as the primary social role.  “Christian moral beliefs,” he writes in a quotation I cited earlier, “emerge as the ultimate source of the social revolution that has made the West what it is.” 

Siedentop’s demonstration of the Christian roots of modernity is intended, as I said at the outset, as in intervention in what he takes to be Europe’s “undeclared civil war” between religion and secularism.  (He gives secularism two primary definitions: first the separation of a private realm from the public sphere, and, second, the idea freedom a prerequisite of moral conduct because conduct is only authentically moral when it’s freely chosen.) He regards this war as both tragic and unnecessary.

[It is] tragic because by identifying secularism with non-belief, with indifference and materialism, it deprives Europe of moral authority, playing into the hands of those who are only too anxious to portray Europe as decadent and without conviction.  It is unnecessary because it rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of secularism.   Properly understood secularism can be seen as Europe’s noblest achievement,   Christianity’s gift to the world, ideas and practices which have often been turned against ‘excesses’ of the Christian church itself. 

Belief in equal liberty for all is not “non-belief,” he says, because “it rests on the firm belief that to be human means being a rational and formal agent, a free chooser with responsibility for one’s actions.”

Siedentop’s book is a remarkable achievement.  Drawing on the best classic and contemporary historical sources, he has shaped a lucid and readable narrative that convincingly argues its main, and often reiterated point.  To the extent that Western modernity has a divided soul, represented by the competing origin stories – Athens v. Jerusalem - that characterize its two cultures, I would say that Siedentop has thrown an impressive weight on the side of Jerusalem.  But, that said, I find his conclusion most curious.  He argues that liberalism is of Christian derivation, but then fails to ask whether it in any way depends on the truth of Christianity.  Once one has ascended to the “firm belief that to be a human means being a rational and…free [and responsible] chooser,” one can apparently kick away the ladder without falling rudely back to earth.  But how can “a conception of God” provide an “ontological foundation” if one no longer has such a conception?  Where then is the foundation?  How can secularism be said to be a belief, or to rest on a belief, if that belief is no longer believed?  Perhaps Siedentop sees liberalism on the analogy of a child who could not have grown up without his Christian parents but who is now fully grown and fully independent.  Christianity would then be a superseded historical stage – the pupal phase, as it were, in the life of the liberal butterfly – deserving of honour on this account and useful in fending off charges that liberalism doesn’t believe anything – we were once Christians, after all  – but serving no further purpose.  But Siedentop doesn’t make this argument.  He makes no argument at all, just taking it as read that establishing a Christian genealogy for liberalism will show that liberalism is a belief.  My point is not that liberalism is defenceless and without grounds, even if that might be so, but that, if one attempts Siedentop’s defence, certain questions seem to follow about the status of faith in the argument.

A second curious thing about the book is its failure to engage with the many other thinkers who have worked some of the same ground.   “The place of Christianity in the rise of Western modernity,” as Charles Taylor notes, “has been under discussion for more than a century.”  Taylor himself has weighed in at just under nine hundred dense pages in his A Secular Age, a book Siedentop mentions only passing.  The claim I cited earlier from Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” has provoked a huge literature all by itself.  The religious turn in continental philosophy has added the voices of, among others, Alain Badiou, Slajoj Žižek, Giorgio Agamben and Jean Luc Nancy.  Typical is Nancy’s statement which I also cited above that Christianity is “the nervous system of Europe.”  The point is not that Siedentop should have addressed each and every writer who has put forward a position on the religious roots of secular society.  That would have been impossible, and, in any case, I think that his book benefits from its clean, uncluttered line of argument.  I wouldn’t have wanted him to be forever stopping to acknowledge what x, y, or z may have said to the contrary.  What I would have liked, though, is some acknowledgement that his topic has been, as Taylor says, “under discussion”, and that some of this discussion treats secularization as a problematic phenomenon and not just as the heroic tale of equality rising.

Let’s start with the term secularism itself.  Siedentop treats it as an unqualified good.  Indeed at one point he chides Benedict XVI whom he otherwise praises “as a most learned Pope” for encouraging the faithful to “combat secularism.”  The implication is that if the Pope had consulted his own “learning”, or Siedentop’s book had it had it available, he would have seen that secularism is Christianity, or as much of it as one would ever want.  But clearly this is not Benedict’s view.  Secularism for him means hostility to religion and the pretension that one can live without it.   Benedict doesn’t believe that one can.  The text that come to mind for me – I’m not quoting Benedict – is the parable of the unclean spirit.  “When the unclean spirit goes out of a man,” Jesus says, “it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and not finding any, it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.'  And when it comes, it finds it swept and put in order.  Then it goes and takes along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”  Perhaps contemporary persons, believing themselves free of religion, fail to notice their own religiosity because it takes degenerate and apparently “secular” forms.  They are then like the man whose “last state” was “worse than his first” – they are prey to what Jacques Ellul calls “the new demons” but they can’t do anything about it because they don’t believe in demons.

What I am saying here is that Siedentop seems simply to have ducked the question of religion – what is it and where is it, exactly?  If modern society was made in and by the Christian church, and the secular is therefore a religious phenomenon, then doesn’t one have to somehow get back to this original matrix if one wants to change or even understand the society we are now living in?  If the Church is the medium that produced the West – its origin and its only unity – then doesn’t this have important implications that go beyond just making it easier to defend liberalism against charges of nihilism, decadence and lack of conviction?

This brings me to a final point.  Siedentop seems to see remarkably few shadows in his story of ascendant liberalism.  In this respect he seems, as I said before, almost the precise opposite of Ivan Illich and his argument that the modern West is a perversion of Christianity.  Modernity, for Illich, is faith brought under institutional control and made to perform reliably and punctually, hope turned into managed expectation, and charity made the license for a covert exercise of a type of power more insidious than mere domination.   He argues this view in The Rivers North of the Future, a book I made out of interviews with him late in his life, and I won’t go further into his argument here.  The point is that the Gospel changes when institutionalized.  Faith, Paul says, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”  - a curious statement when one thinks about it because it says, in effect, the faith is the evidence.   What happens when this faith becomes the justification for a church which believes itself able to become, as the Council of Trent claimed “a perfect society” and this church institutes a regulation of life so comprehensive that it becomes the template for the modern state?   Siedentop sees that the church is such a template, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in exploring the explosive or the shadowy side of this harnessing, so to say, of faith.   Nor does he seem to think that the seemingly irresistible dynamism of our society has anything to do with its unrecognized Christian roots or its attempt to bring the Kingdom under sound administration.  These are not criticisms, exactly.  Siedentop’s genealogy is still instructive, even if it is uncritical, and I’m all for a more informed and more respectful view of all that was accomplished in the church.  I just think that he has begged a lot of questions.







"The Apocalypse Has Begun": Ivan Illich and René Girard on Anti-Christ

 This article was written for a handbook on the work of René Girard that is currently being prepared for publication under the editorial direction of theologians James Alison and Wolfgang Palaver.  Wolfgang, a friend, asked me to "build a bridge" between Illich and Girard.  The 3,000 word limit the editors imposed was a challenge, and I'm not sure the bridge is safe to walk on yet,  but here at least is a sketch:


The figure of Anti-Christ carries a lot of colorful, historical baggage.  Building on fairly slight New Testament evidence, the legend of an Anti-Christ whose appearance will initiate the last battle begins to grow in early Christian times.  By the second century Irenaeus can specify the length of time for which he will reign before Christ’s return – he puts it at three and a half years.  Hippolytus, a little later, knows that the Deceiver will resemble Christ in every particular.  By the fifth century certain familiar kitsch elements have begun to enter the Anti-Christ’s appearance, as in this description from the apocryphal Apocalypse of the Holy Theologian John:

The appearance of his face is gloomy; his hair like the points of arrows; his brow rough; his right eye like the morning star, and the left like a lion’s.  His mouth is a cubit wide, his teeth a span in length, his fingers are like sickles.  His footprints are two cubits long, and on his forehead is the writing “The Anti-Christ.”[i]

Beginning in the late Middle Ages, reformers associate anti-Christ with the Papacy.   Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and William Wycliffe, among many others, all called the Pope by this name, and to this day certain Protestant churches in the U.S. keep up the perfervid rhetoric associated with this tradition.  As recently as 2,000, for example, the United States Congress felt it necessary to censure Bob Jones University for this view.[ii]

In modern times, Anti-Christ has faded from awareness.  Despite the persistence of the idea at the fringes of American Protestantism, the historian and theologian Bernard McGinn seems broadly correct when he asserts, in his history of the Anti-Christ legend, that “the last Enemy rapidly became the hobby of cranks after 1660.”[iii]  McGinn does acknowledge a couple of exceptions: Vladimir Solovyev, the late nineteenth century Russian theologian, poet, and pamphleteer; and psychologist C.G. Jung.  But these were “the last major Western thinkers,” McGinn wrote in 1994, “who were convinced that real consideration of the problem of evil necessarily involves Anti-Christ.”[iv]   His judgment may have been premature.  In my view, Ivan Illich and René Girard are both major thinkers of our time; and both, in full awareness of the turbid waters into which they were wading, have revived and repurposed the figure of Anti-Christ.  In what follows I will try to summarize each of their views and then compare them. 

Ivan Illich was a Roman Catholic priest, who lived from 1926 to 2002.  In 1969, he withdrew from all church office after inquisitorial proceedings were begun against him in Rome.[v]  His remaining reputation largely rests on books he wrote in the 1970’s, notably Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis, in which he argues that institutions like education and medicine have become counterproductive monopolies that defeat their own purposes, smother personal responsibility and frustrate popular initiative.   Late in his life, at my initiative, he agreed to share his thoughts on how the institutionalization of Christianity has shaped the modern civilization that grew out of Latin Christendom.  I had been intrigued by his saying to me at the end of a long interview in 1988 that “Western culture” could only be fully accounted for by recognizing it as a corruption of the New Testament.  He used the old Latin adage corruptio optimi pessima – the corruption of the best is the worst.  He had recently expressed the same idea in a lecture at the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago:

I want to explore with you a phenomenon that I consider constitutive of the West, of that West which has shaped me, body and soul, flesh and blood.  This central reality of the West is marvelously expressed in the old Latin phrase: Corruptio optimi quae est pessima – the historical progression in which God’s Incarnation is turned topsy-turvy, inside out.  I want to speak of the mysterious darkness that envelops our world, the demonic night paradoxically resulting from the world’s equally mysterious vocation to glory.[vi]

In the interviews in which Illich laid out this idea for me he took as his paradigm the parable of the Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke.[vii]  This parable he says represents “the new flowering of love” that the Incarnation, the appearance of God in the flesh makes possible. [viii]  In the story, the Samaritan comes across a man who has been beaten and left for dead in a ditch by the road.  A priest and a Levite happen upon him.  These are, Illich says, “men associated with the Temple and the community’s approved sacrificial rites,” but they “pass by on the other side.[ix]   The Samaritan stops, moved by the man’s suffering.   He binds the man’s wounds and pays for his care at a nearby inn.  

According to Illich, this story has for centuries been taken as enjoining an unproblematic duty of care, but to its original auditors, he says, it would actually have seemed “utterly destructive of ordinary decency.”[x]  Responsibility to others, until this moment, occurred within limits.  One cared only for one’s own: Samaritans looked after Samaritans, Judaeans after Judaeans, Greeks after Greeks.  Jesus makes the revolutionary claim that “my neighbor is who I choose, not who I have to choose.  There is no way of categorizing who my neighbor ought to be.” 

In antiquity hospitable behavior, or full commitment in my action to the other, implies a boundary drawn around those to whom I can behave in this way…Jesus taught the Pharisees that the relationship which he had come to announce to them as most completely human is not one that is expected, required or owed.  It can only be a free creation between two people, and one which cannot happen unless something comes to me through the other, by the other, in his bodily presence.[xi]

This possible new relationship, Illich insists, is “a free creation.”  It cannot be commanded or made the subject of a rule.  It constitutes, he says, “an ‘ought’ [which] cannot be reduced to a norm.  It has a telos.  It aims at somebody, some body, but not according to a rule.”[xii]

The relationship between the two unrelated men in the story is not something that could have come about in the ordinary course of things.  It is a revealed possibility, disclosed by the Incarnation, the presence of God amongst us.  It doesn’t belong to the natural repertoire of human beings, who, of themselves, would stick to circumscribed societies built on secure religious foundations.  In theological language, the bridge the Samaritan improvises across the abyss separating his culture from the injured Judean’s is an effect of grace.  In Illich’s terms it “prolongs the Incarnation.”[xiii]

With the revelation of this new, ungovernable potentiality, a second possibility is also created: that the offer will be refused.  “With the creation of this new mode of existence,” Illich says, “the possibility of its breakage also appears.  And this denial, infidelity, turning away, coldness is what the New Testament calls sin, something which can only recognized by the light of this new glimmer of mutuality.”[xiv]  Sin thus changes its meaning with Jesus’ demonstration of a new participation in God’s love through one another.  It is no longer the violation of a law, God’s law; it is the refusal of an invitation which has been put before us.  The risen Christ tells his disciples to preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins…to all nations” – just that. [xv]  Sin acquires a new color and a new character in the light of its forgiveness.

Freedom, for Illich, is the keynote of the New Testament.  But freedom is also what gives the New Testament its unique volatility, its liability to corruption once its institutionalization is attempted.  “And that was what began to happen,” Illich argues, “after the Church achieved official status within the Roman Empire.

There is a temptation to try to manage and, eventually, to legislate this new love, to create an institution that will guarantee it, insure it, and protect it by criminalizing its opposite.  So, along with this new ability to give freely of oneself has appeared the possibility of exercising an entirely new kind of power, the power of those who organize Christianity and use this vocation to claim their superiority as social institutions.  This power is claimed first by the Church and later by the many secular institutions stamped from its mold.  Wherever I look for the roots of modernity, I find them in the attempts of the churches to institutionalize, legitimize, and manage Christian vocation.[xvi]

This, in a nutshell, is Illich’s hypothesis.  A love which is pure gift – unmerited, unconstrained, inconceivable - becomes an entirely new kind of law and a new kind of power.  And the process is progressive.  It begins when the Church becomes the welfare department of the crumbling Roman Empire.  It continues in the high Middle Ages when the “criminalization of sin” turns the Church into a law-governed prototype of the modern state.  And it culminates in our time in the creation of a vast architecture of secular service institutions.

Illich boldly refers to this history as the elaboration of anti-Christ, despite “the risk [of] being taken for a fundamentalist preacher in applying [this] monstrously churchy term.”[xvii]  He takes as his proof text a passage in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians.  This letter evokes a figure which tradition has identified as anti-Christ, though not named as such, who “takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”  Associated with this figure whom, at the end of time, “the Lord Jesus will slay…by the breath of his mouth” is something called the “mystery of evil” which is said to be “already at work.”[xviii]  This text, Illich argues, shows that the early church was aware thatwith the Incarnation a mysterious and conjoined evil had also entered the world.  “This final evil that would bring the world to an end…was called anti-Christ,” Illich says, “and the Church was identified as the milieu in which it would nest.”  Awareness of this mystery, however, did not last.  “What is impressive about the transition from the early Church to the established Western Church,” Illich continues, “is how thoroughly this mystery disappeared from the Church’s teaching and the concern of most of its members.  It reappeared from time to time in the prayers, writings and sermons of mystics and reformers, but the Roman Church did not center faith on its existence and neither did most of the Reformed Churches.” [xix]

The anti-Christ is Christ’s simulacrum and shadow: “the conglomerate,” in Illich’s words, “of a series of perversions by which we try to give security, survival ability and independence from individual persons to the new possibilities that were opened through the Gospel.”  The difference between the two is the presence or absence of freedom.  In the realm of the Anti-Christ, love becomes law and gift becomes guarantee.  But the Church and its secular descendants have long since given up trying to discern this difference.  This conglomerate, consequently, grows and advances, and all the more effectively in its modern secular disguises.  The result, Illich says, is that “the mysterium iniquitatis has been hatching.”  He, therefore, emphatically rejects the idea that ours is a post-Christian era.”  “On the contrary,’ he says, I believe this to be the most obviously Christian epoch, which might be quite close to the end of the world.”[xx]

So, to summarize, Illich believes that the Incarnation is something that manifests interpersonally, between persons.  It’s a gift that becomes “most fully visible at the moment of its rejection” – on the Cross – but once this gift is claimed as a source of power and an object of administration, the dominion of anti-Christ begins steadily to grow, achieving its mature form in modernity and something approaching its full articulation in our time. [xxi]  History, therefore, follows an apocalyptic logic – not apocalyptic in the sense in which the word is now used colloquially to refer to catastrophes of all kinds but in the word’s original sense of revelation or uncovering.  History tends to the fuller and fuller revelation of the mystery of evil.  This result, in its material manifestations, is visible to all and can be studied by the historian.  Many understand it as progress; others feel its uncanniness without quite knowing why.  Only the eye of faith can recognize it as sin and a mystery of evil by which the best becomes the worst.  The ability to disguise sin defines Anti-Christ.

All this, I think, fundamentally agrees with Girard’s view, even though each thinker emphasizes a different aspect of the Incarnation.  For Girard, the Cross proclaims the innocence of the victim and, in doing so, disables the mechanism by which all cultures had previously maintained peace – the unanimous murder of a victim whose death restores order and so reveals the victim as a god.  Sacrifices and prohibitions instituted in the name of this victim/god are the substance, according to Girard, of all archaic religions.  But this mechanism is gradually demystified in the Hebrew scriptures and then decisively unveiled in the New Testament, when God himself becomes the sacrifice – the last sacrifice because Christ’s voluntary and blameless submission exposes the terrifying trick by which Satan had formerly kept the peace and maintained his kingdom by allowing communities to disown, project and contain their own violence.  This exposure initiates the apocalyptic logic that history will follow wherever the Gospel is introduced.  Deprived of effective sacrifices, people face a choice: accept what Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven as the inspiration for their earthly existence or try to restore the effectiveness of sacrifice by ramping up the number of victims.  In the book of Deuteronomy, God had already said, through the mouth of Moses, “I have set before you life and death.  Therefore, choose life.”[xxii]  The Crucifixion and Resurrection impose this choice on “all nations,” though this will not finally become clear until Christianity gives birth to a world-wide civilization.   “The apocalypse has begun,” Girard says, as soon as this turning point is reached.  He described this new situation bluntly in an interview with me:

The Apocalypse is not some invention.  If we are without sacrifices, either we’re going to love each other or we’re going to die.  We have no more protection against our own violence.  Therefore, we are confronted with a choice: either we’re going to follow the rules of the Kingdom of God or the situation is going to get infinitely worse.[xxiii]

This logic determines the apocalyptic character of our civilization – its propensity, as Girard says, to get better and worse at the same time.  On the one hand is our unprecedented sensitivity to victims, on the other the shadow of terrorism, nuclear winter, a destabilized climate etc.  As in the parable of the wheat and the tares, Christ and anti-Christ are intermingled and concomitant until apocalypsis, the moment of vision and decision, is reached.[xxiv]

So Girard and Illich agree that history is a continuous and cumulative revelation whose motive principle is the New Testament.  They also agree that our world is, for the most part, willfully blind to this reality.  Illich says that the temptation of anti-Christ “disappeared” from the Church’s teaching and has remained invisible to its secular offshoots.  Girard finds “anti-Christ” in the contemporary stance that repudiates Christianity and claims superiority to it, while at the same time drawing on it.  We “criticize Christianity with Christianity,” he says but never acknowledge where our superior airs have come from.  He calls it “an imitation of Christ which [is] at the same time a total betrayal of Christianity.” 

Illich sees modern institutions as perversions of a Gospel imperative.  Girard sees a similar perversion in the way in which a claim of victimization can become a potential source of power and social advantage in the modern world.  In both cases, love fuses with resentment and the desire for power in a way that betrays its inspiration and, as William Blake says, “builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”[xxv]  They have, of course, many differences – a matter for another essay – but they are united, and equally unusual, in their apocalyptic mode of thought and in their sense that sin to be faced must first be recognized.



[i] This quotation and the two foregoing references are taken from Bernard McGinn, Anti-Christ: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil, HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 59-69

[ii] Dennis Pettibone, “Martin Luther’s Views on the Anti-Christ,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 18/1, Spring, 2007, p. 81.  He cites U.S. Congress, 106th Congress, 2d Session, S. Con. Res. 85, Feb. 29, 2,000.

[iii] McGinn, op. cit., p. 230

[iv] ibid., p. 266

[v] The story is told in the introduction to my book, Ivan Illich in Conversation (House of Anansi, 1992); and again in the introduction to my TheRivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (House of Anansi, 2004).

[vi] This paper, called “Hospitality and Pain,” has yet to be published in English.  It can be found here: http://www.pudel.uni-bremen.de/pdf/Illich_1423id.pdf 

[vii] Luke 10:25-37

[viii] The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley, House of Anansi, 2004, p. 47

[ix] ibid, p. 50

[x]  ibid, p. 51

[xi]  ibid, p. 51

[xii] ibid, p. 52

[xiii] ibid, p. 207

[xiv] ibid, p. 52

[xv] Luke 24:47

[xvi] Rivers, pp. 47-48

[xvii] ibid, p. 62

[xviii]  Second Thessalonians, 2:1-12.  The Revised Standard Version translates “mystery of lawlessness” but Illich prefers mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, which is Jerome’s translation in the Vulgate. 

[xix] Rivers, pp. 59-60

[xx] ibid, pp. 169-170

[xxi] ibid, p. 49

[xxii] This is the King James rendition of Deuteronomy 30:19.

[xxiii] The Scapegoat: René Girard’s Anthropology of Violence and Religion, a five-hour radio series I presented on the national radio network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2001, transcript, p. 40.  All subsequent quotes are taken from the transcript of the series which, unhappily, is no longer available to the public.  Audio can be found in the podcasts section of www.DavidCayley.com.

[xxiv] Matthew 13:24-30

[xxv] “The Clod and the Pebble” in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, Anchor Books, 1988. p.19





In his recent book, The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West, Todd Hartch argues that Ivan Illich was “mistaken” in taking what Hartch calls an “anti-missionary”stance during the 1960’s when Illich directed the Center for Intercultural Formation, and later the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico.  In his book, Hartch mentions a number of texts which he thinks show the path Illich should have followed.  In further correspondence with me, he singled out two of these texts as particularly crucial for the case he makes that Illich failed to carry out “a careful inquiry into the nature of mission…”  These two books are Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai (Fides/Claretien, 1978) and Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis Books, revised 2nd edition, 2009, first published 1989). I recently read both and was surprised to find that, far from contradicting Illich, they seemed rather to confirm, extend and illuminate his position.  In what follows, I digest both books, show how Illich’s thought and practice is consonant with them, and conclude by arguing that Hartch is, therefore, wrong to characterize Illich as anti-missionary.  


Mission, a friend remarked to me recently, has baggage.  Yes, it does.  Though our world remains pervaded by the idea of mission – what respectable organization is without its “mission statement”? – mission, in the Christian sense, is in bad odour with many people.  “Many misgivings, fear and suspicions,” Vincent Donovan wrote in 1978, “revolve around the missionary movement and missionary history – the violence done to cultures, customs and consciousness of peoples.”   

Vincent Donovan, who died in 2,000, was a member of The Congregation of the Holy Ghost, a Roman Catholic religious order.  In 1965 he arrived in East Africa as a missionary priest.  After a year at the Loliondo mission, and some reflection on what he could learn of the history of the mission, he concluded, remarkably, that it had never really seen its task as simply preaching the Gospel and leaving it at that.  The establishment and maintenance of new institutions had always taken precedence.  At first the missionaries had purchased people out of slavery in order to convert them, but this had created a situation, as Donovan writes in his book Christianity Rediscovered, in which the adoption of Christianity was not a free choice but rather the price of freedom.  In the 20th century the mission had focused on education and made schooling it priority.  An Apostolic Visitor to East Africa, Monsignor Hinsley, told a gathering of bishops in Dar es Salaam in 1928: “When it is impossible for you to carry on both the immediate task of evangelization and your education work, neglect your churches in order to perfect your schools.” 

Conversion to Christianity had been thought of as something that would be induced by “civilization” or “education” or “development,” not as something to be hoped from a direct and unvarnished encounter with the Gospel.  But, amongst the Masai of East Africa, it hadn’t worked.  There were, Donovan wrote to his bishop in 1966, “no adult Masai practicing Christians from Loliondo mission.”  Students might do what was required of them while at the school, but they made no lasting commitment.  Donovan decided it was time for a new tack.  In his letter to his bishop, he wrote: “I suddenly feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at a strategy – and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa.”  His request, which was granted, was to be allowed to “cut himself off from the schools and the hospital, as far as these people are concerned…and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message. 

This he proceeded to do.  His book is his account of what he accomplished and what he learned.  On his very first visit to a Masai kraal – the circular encampment in which this pastoral people live – he asked an influential elder if he could talk to the people about God.  The elder replied, “Who can refuse to talk about God?”  Donovan then told him that the purpose of the mission was to explain “the message of Christianity.”  “Ndangoya [the elder] looked at me for a long time,” Donovan writes, “and then said in a puzzled way, “If that is why you came here, why did you wait so long to tell us about this?”

It was agreed that the people would gather, from time to time, to listen to Donovan “talk about God.”  He spoke to them in a language – Masai – with no word “for person or creation or grace or freedom or spirit or immortality,” and he soon found that “every single thing I prepared to teach them had tobe revised or discarded once I had presented it to them.”  At his lowest ebb, he says, “I had to make the humiliating admission that I didn’t know what the Gospel was.”  What was the Good News when it was stripped of all it cultural and linguistic supports and presented without any blandishment beyond its claim to be the truth?  He concluded, in time, that what he had to tell was a story.  “The gospel,” he says, ‘is, after all, not a philosophy or set of doctrines or laws.  That is what culture is.  The gospel is essentially a history at whose center is the God-man born in Bethlehem, risen near Golgotha.” 

Along with this discovery of what he did have to say went the discovery of all the things that he didn’t need to say: almost, but not quite everything.  “Goodness and kindness and holiness and grace and divine presence and creating power and salvation were here before I got here,” he says.  What he thought he could add was something that he believed the people could not find out for themselves: the truth that had to be revealed by the God-man, the news that God is friendly and desires our freedom.

Creation is a key part of revelation.  No nation, no culture could have come to it on its own.  For the cultures outside of Christianity the earth is complete once and for all, and the world is not going anywhere in particular, everything is chaotic and directionless.  People of these cultures are trapped in the terrible dilemma of a fatalistic world vision – empty of the notion of continuing creation and personal responsibility and opportunity.  A missionary’s greatest contribution to the people for whom he works might well be to separate them from God, free them from their idea of God.

Donovan’s break with a century’s missionary tradition in East Africa allowed him to return, as he saw it, to the simplicity of the early church.  In his travels from kraal to kraal, he was aided by something the apostle Paul never had – a Land Rover – but he had Paul very much on his mind just the same.  In his reading of the New Testament, Paul came to town, preached, sometimes stayed a while, then left, keeping in touch as best he could, subsequently, by letter.  He framed no institution, let alone undertaking to staff it and prescribe the character its worship should take.  In the Acts of the Apostles, those that hear the word from Peter and his companions are said, afterwards, to have devoted themselves to “the apostles’ teaching… fellowship… the breaking of bread and prayers.”  That’s all.  Donovan conceived his mission to the Masai in much the same way.  “A permanent mission,” he says, centered on its “compound” as so many African missions were, “necessarily carries with it the atmosphere of foreignness, of colonialism.

The word ‘mission’ should really mean something in action, in motion, in movement as it did for St. Paul.  Mission compound, on the other hand, implies that the movement has come to a standstill.  In the latter case it is no longer a centrifugal force reaching out forever as far as it can.  It becomes instead centripetal, attracting everything to itself. Instead of symbolizing movement towards another thing (in this case, church) it becomes itself the end of the line.”

Related to this idea of mission as something “in motion” is Donovan’s sense that he was imparting the Word to a community, not just to individual persons, and that, once the community accepted the Word, it must be free to interpret it in its own way, reinventing worship and church after its own fashion.  In Donovan’s view missionaries had implanted in Africa “an inward-turned, individual salvation-oriented unadapted Christianity.”  Whether this orientation was any more “adaptive” in its homeland, even if invented there, is a question he leaves hanging, but he is clear that it didn’t fit the Masai context where individual salvation was quite unthinkable.  How they would worship, including their interpretation of priesthood, must be left up to them. His proclamation, he says, was freedom, not submission to a new style of priestcraft.

I really could not go to the Masai and tell them that this is the good news that I had brought them: they would no longer have to rely on the power of the pagan witch doctor; now could transfer their trust to the power of the Christian witch doctor.  That is no good new at all.  It is not worth travelling eight thousand miles to impart that news.  Does not the good news consist in the proclamation that we no longer need…a privileged caste to lead us to God?  Is it not that we believe that the people of God, the laity, can reach even to the throne of the living God by the power given to them as a Christian community by Christ?

The idea that Christianity is something given to the world, for the world, and not something to be treasured by individuals as a private “salvation” runs like a bright line through Vincent Donovan’s book.  It is one of his main criticisms of previous missionary efforts that they attempted to save individuals without regard to the fate of their communities.  The “only hope of achieving Christianity,” he writes, lies in adopting an “outward-turned” version of the faith.

An inward-turned Christianity is a dangerous counterfeit, an alluring masquerade.  It is no Christianity at all.  The salvation of one’s own soul, or self-sanctification, or self-perfection, or self-fulfillment may well be the goal or Buddhism or Greek philosophy or modern psychology.  But it is not the goal of Christianity.  For someone to embrace Christianity for the purpose of self-fulfillment or self-salvation is, I think, to betray or to misunderstand Christianity at its deepest level. 

What is being preached here, in my view, is not really a religion at all, but rather a stance towards the world and others.   Once this is seen, it becomes possible to conceive mission as something other than the attempt to replace one religion by another – an attempt that is always bound to have something invidious about it.   Even if the new religion isn’t a direct concomitant of colonial power, it is still claiming its superiority as religion.  But careful anthropological analysis is apt to reveal that in essence and structure the new religion and the one it seeks to replace are the same.  Indeed it was considered a great point for the Enlightenment critique of religion when it was shown that Christianity with its dying and rising god is quite indistinguishable from other members of the class of mystery religions to which it belongs.  The nature of the missionary encounter changes, however, when what is being preached is a modification of the very idea of religion.  There is no need for a competition between religions, or any need to change what is good in the religions that exist across all cultures – for example, the spirit, common to most religions, of reverence, gratitude and humility in the face of the unfathomable mystery of the world’s existence.  What Christianity adds is freedom from fear – from “fatalism,” Donovan says – and the news that God doesn’t belong to a priestly enclosure of any kind. 

[We must move] towards establishing the church of Christ which is the sign of salvation and hope raised up for the nations, the light of the Gentiles, not the Ark of Salvation for those who dwell in it, the church for the “non-church,” the community “for others.”  Missionary work should not envision the setting up of mission compounds or permanently dependent ecclesiastical colonies but rather the coming into being of autonomous, adult, self-propagating, open-ended, unpredictable, Spirit-controlled, many-cultured responses to the Gospel which are the church of Christ.  Missionary work is directed towards the establishment of that church not the continuing, permanent pastoral life and running of that church.

If one takes Donovan seriously on this point, it follows that most of what is called mission is not, in fact, mission at all according to his definition but rather the care and feeding of “ecclesiastical colonies.”  And this is indeed what he more or less says.

White missionaries in social and pastoral work in the already established churches make up by far the greatest number of missionaries in Africa today.  Missionaries involved primarily in direct evangelization have never been more than a handful in Africa.  In modern times, in the Catholic Church, there were never more than a thousand of them. 

Given these shocking estimates, it is not surprising to find Donovan recommending that a lot of “missionary” activity should be wound down.

There are a great number of white missionaries who are still involved in pastoral and social work in the already established Protestant and Catholic churches of Africa.  Are they really needed there?  Have they already overstayed their time?  Are they burdening those churches with their control and organization? Are they keeping those churches from the freedom and justice and peace which is rightfully theirs?  Are they giving those churches enough living and breathing space “to be alone to find their God”? 

The second book I want to try and digest is Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, a very different work than Vincent Donovan’s memoir of his missionary adventure in East Africa.  Sanneh’s is a big, wide-ranging academic book which aims at nothing less than a reconstruction of the “modern historiography” of missions.  This historiography, he says, “has established a tradition that mission was the surrogate of Western colonialism and that…together these two movements combined to destroy indigenous alien cultures.”   During his own education, “no serious scholar took issue with this viewpoint.”  Sanneh contests it vigorously and eloquently in his book.

The nub of his argument is that Christianity from its very origins was a message in translation, and that this gave it a unique ability to interact with every new vernacular it encountered.  The story begins with what Sanneh, following the usage of other New Testament scholars, calls “the Gentile breakthrough” – the realization by the first apostles that the good news that they had been told to “preach to all nations” did not have to remain bound within the Judaic cultural matrix within which it had first appeared.   The first Christians were not yet Christians, they were Jews, and their Lord himself, though he had told them to preach to all nations, had also said that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” and that he had come “not… to abolish the Law and the Prophets…but to fulfill them.”     A formidable barrier still hemmed them in, as they tried to decide first, whether they should preach to Gentiles at all and, second, if they did, whether they should then require their gentile converts to observe the Mosaic Law.  Even at the Pentecost, when they had found themselves able to speak in tongues and have their auditors understand them “each his own language,” these auditors had still been Jews from other countries who had gathered in Jerusalem.  The paradigmatic moment of breakthrough occurs in the Acts of the Apostles when the apostle Peter falls into a trance and sees a vision of all the creatures of the earth let down from heaven as if in a “great sheet.”  A voice tells him to eat; he protests that he may not eat what is “unclean”; and he is told that “what God has cleansed” he should no longer call “unclean.”  He then proceeds to the house of a devout Roman soldier named Cornelius, though he knows that “it is unlawful…for a Jew to associate with one…of another nation,” and there he announces: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  His Jewish companions – “believers from among the circumcised” – are “amazed because the gifts of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”     

This was the beginning.  The Gospels, written in Greek, were already a translation of what was spoken in Aramaic.  And translation continued throughout Christian history at ever new cultural frontiers.  Sometimes translations became, for a time, standard.  Jerome’s Latin Bible, the Vulgate, achieved such authority that copies of William Tyndale’s English translation were seized and destroyed at English ports in the years before the English Reformation, and Tyndale himself was burned at the stake as a heretic.  But no “definitive” version ever lasted.  An appendix to Sanneh’s book, enumerating “complete printed Bibles in vernacular translations”, lists three hundred and forty-nine now in circulation.

The decision for translation was momentous and created within Christianity what Sanneh calls in one place a vernacular “pulse” and, in another, a vernacular “ferment”.   “Translation,” he says, “forces a distinction between the truth of the message and its accompanying mode of cultural conveyance within Christianity.”  It leads, ultimately, to a de-centering of the message – it has no primary or privileged locus but exists in multiple versions – and to a radical cultural pluralism.  Indeed, Sanneh goes further and speaks of mission as a force for “cultural relativism,” a term he uses in a positive sense to signify, first, the reduction of Western culture to subsidiary status, and, second, the way in which the denial of special or privileged status to any particular culture brings all cultures equally under judgment.  

To show how decisively Christianity is marked by its willingness to undergo translation, Sanneh compares it with Islam in which “culture and religion” are “definitively sealed [together] once and for all.”  The Koran may be translated, but its Arabic text remains canonical and definitive wherever it goes.  Consider, by way of contrast, the account Sanneh quotes of how the Xhosa people of southern Africa experienced their first encounter with a Christian missionary.

He made enquiries among us, asking: “What do you say about the creation of all things?”  We replied “We call him who made all things uTikxo.”  And he inquired, “Where is he?”  We replied, “Usezulwini; he is in heaven.”  The missionary said, “Very well, I bring that very one – all that relates to or concerns him – to you of this country. 

There is a powerful but unmistakable irony at work here.  Once the God about whom the missionary wants to instruct the people is called uTikxo, a situation is created in which the people in fact know a great deal more about this God than the missionary does.  Nor need the missionary recognize this for it to be true nonetheless.  The vernacular, Sanneh says, is “trumps.”  It will shape the concepts which the missionary wants to convey, even as the missionary tries to reshape that vernacular to his own purposes. 

Sanneh’s name for this process is reciprocity, and he believes an understanding of it can lead out of the impasse in which de-colonizing discourses are stuck.   This impasse has come about, according to Sanneh, through the stigma attached to any perceived foreign domination.  This stigma attaches, he says, whether one converts or resists because in, either case, one is still reacting to and measuring oneself against the foreign incursion.  (Presumable, though Sanneh doesn’t explicitly say so this can’t-win situation, where the dominating influence gets you however hard you try to remain uncontaminated,  says something about the pretzel shapes into which people now twist themselves in the interests of “political correctness.”)   Through the model of reciprocity, Sanneh “tries to move beyond this impasse without ignoring the tension and critical challenge involved in this encounter.” 

What is the nature of this reciprocity?  I’ve already quoted Sanneh’s view that, in the process of translation, the receiving vernacular is “trumps.”  The missionary who is trying to preach the Gospel in Xhosa is, at the same time, struggling to understand the Gospel in Xhosa.  He must himself be converted, even as he tries to convert others.

Missionary translators groped and stumbled after rules and procedures to guide them in the more deeply shaded layers of meaning in the world’s virgin languages.  The more enlightened ones among them understood that they were as good as having lost their footing if they had to have recourse to Western validation.  European languages were little help in the impetuous stream of clicks, tones and sounds of the unknown tongues of unknown people. 

The missionary translator can only keep “his footing” by establishing himself on entirely new ground and allowing a concomitant change in his own assumptions.  He gives up his religion in order to receive it back in a reconstructed and revitalized form.

The language and culture into which the Gospel is translated is also changed.   Many of the missionaries Sanneh writes about were explorers of language, inventing grammars, orthographies and sometimes new scripts into which to render unwritten languages.  In the process these languages were profoundly changed.  “Dormant or dimly apprehended symbols” of the receiving culture might awaken as result of contact with the Gospel.   The vernaculars were strengthened and gained political as well as cultural confidence.  “Rooted in the vernacular,” Sanneh writes, “an African church must inevitably come into conflict with a political system based on the superiority of foreign domination…At the heart of the nationalist awakening was the cultural ferment that missionary translations and the attendant linguistic research stimulated.”  In another place, he says:

Mission deliberately fashion[ed] the vernacular instrument that Africans …welded again their colonial overlords.  Then, behind the backs of imperial masters, came the momentous outpouring of Christian conversion throughout the continent, suggesting that missionaries were effective in fertilizing the vernacular environment rather in making Christianity a sterile copy of its Victorian version.

It should be said, at this point, that Sanneh’s idea of a fundamental reciprocity built in to the very process of translation in no way denies conflict.  Mission as “imperialism at prayer” may be a stock figure, but Sanneh certainly doesn’t deny that it became one by embodying a certain truth.   Likewise, he recognizes that many missionaries, even some who fell under the spell of local languages, still entertained the erroneous belief, of which Donovan also writes, that Christianity would only take root when accompanied and supported by Western “civilization.”  Sanneh admits further that translation sometimes miscarried.  In fact he can be quite funny about it.  My favourite, among the several examples he gives of egregious mistranslation, concerned the missionary in central Africa who thought he was inviting his audience to “Enter the kingdom of heaven,” when he was in fact telling them “to go sit on a stick.”  So there is no sense, in Sanneh’s book, that he thinks either that translation is a transparent process, or that it produces reciprocity automatically.  All he is saying I think is that a powerful tendency towards reciprocity is built into Christianity’s virtually genetic disposition in favour of translation.

This disposition, in his view, has large consequences, which go beyond even the stimulus and ferment it introduces into local vernaculars.  It also supports the modern philosophy of language which Sanneh associates with Willard Quine, Ernst Cassirer and Ludwig Wittgenstein – a philosophy that holds, in brief, that the word is a symbol, not “a locus of things and classes [of things.]”  Words are elastic.  When “God” comes in contact with the Zulu “uNkulunkula” both are going to change their meaning.     This puts translation, in Sanneh’s bold formulation, on the side of “syncretism, sects, heresy and apostasy.”   Allowing new cultural horizons to open, he says, works against the very idea that Christianity is a fixed and finished structure.

Standard theological models of Christianity have presented it as a closed-circuit organism whose main pathways of communication have been laid in cognitive, normative channels.  Faced with this imposing, immobile system, the task of the theologians was seen as codifying the religion, mapping the contours of its form and the lineaments of its function…preventing foreign matter from entering it, repairing deviations and aberrations, fixing the qualities that alone define – and do not define – the religion, and generalizing about how God works in the world. 

Mission with its practices of translation is, in Sanneh’s view, decisively on the side of pluralism, decentralization and open-endedness.  But this does not mean that Christianity is no more than what a particular culture makes of it.   All “cultural forms” are fit “to bear the truth of Christianity,” but none is fully adequate.  

The ambiguous relation of Christianity to culture hinges on the necessity for the message to assume the specific terms of its contact and the equal necessity for the message to inveigh against cultural idolatry.  As a historical movement, Christianity is parallel to culture but, in its truth claims, it is not exactly proportionate to culture.  The religion is not culture, but it is not other than culture.  

Christianity, for Sanneh, is relative to culture in a double sense: its message is continually reconstructed by culture in a way that condemns “uniformity and centralization” and promotes what Sanneh is not afraid to call “cultural relativism”; but, at the same time, it relativizes culture by introducing a standard that condemns all “cultural idolatry.” 

This relativity presents what Sanneh calls “an acute paradox.”  Christianity is rooted in “a culturally specific experience [which] is in some fashion normative of the divine truth.”  God was revealed in one man who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, and died a condemned criminal at Golgotha outside the walls of Jerusalem.  He spoke Aramaic, and he framed his teaching in the terms of the law and prophecy of his own people.  All this is “culturally specific.” And yet at the same time this story, by the risen Christ’s own command, must be retold in all cultures.  In being retold, it will inevitably be liable to the vicissitudes of what Sanneh calls “relationship and communication,” but, even so, how can this retelling be done without privileging the original culture and making all other subservient to it?  Sanneh’s answer is that, although Jesus “bursts into history” in a certain place and culture, he also brings “the light of discernment” into human affairs, and, by this light, all “projects of cultural superiority” will sooner or later be indicted.  This “light of discernment” is well-illustrated, I think, by the parable in which Jesus asks in the Sermon on the Mount: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”  (This is King James language – modern translations say “speck” and “plank” for mote and beam.)  This teaching, to me, doesn’t just say, make sure you’re right before you put someone else in the wrong, it says rather, the very thought that you are right puts you inevitably in the wrong.   By such “a light of discernment,” what begins in one place can spread everywhere without the origin claiming or deserving priority.   The parable founds a hermeneutic circle in which we turn endlessly with none able to claim righteous superiority.  Jesus doesn’t even exempt himself.  “Why callest thou me good?” he says in Luke 18:19.  “None is good, save one, that is, God.”

I have examined these two books in such detail, as I said at the outset, because historian Todd Hartch in his recent book The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West claims that they embody “the careful inquiry into the nature of mission” that Illich failed to undertake before denouncing the missionary initiatives of the American Roman Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1960’s.   I think, on the contrary, that both books are entirely consonant with what Illich said and did during the 60’s.  Donovan, in fact, was aware of his affinity with Illich and quotes him approvingly in his book.  “As Ivan Illich pointed out long ago in reference to South America,” Donovan writes in Christianity Re-discovered, “we must get out of the this business, this business of identifying the gospel with system, any system, or we leave to a future generation the agony of separating once again the two realities.”  Donovan, moreover, is as manifestly “anti-missionary” as Illich both in his remark that no more than “a handful” in his time have actually done direct evangelization, and in his strictures on white priests who have “overstayed their time.”  Sanneh, so far as I know, is unaware of Illich, as Illich, apparently, was unaware of Sanneh.  But I find the same affinity. 

Illich put forward his “missiology” in several essays that were published in his books Celebration of Awareness and the partly overlapping The Church, Change and Development.  I will try to summarize his thought briefly before saying how I think it chimes with Donovan and Sanneh.   Illich believed that the overwhelming and unquestionable mandate of the New Testament is that the Word of God must be shared.   In an early essay called “The American Parish” he writes, “If Catholics ever lose their concern for those who do not have God, they lose their charity.”  He goes on to criticize the lack of “missionary spirit” among American Catholics.  But the question of how this sharing is to be done brings Illich to the same issue that preoccupies Sanneh and Donovan: distinguishing the Good News from its cultural containment.  Mission, Illich says, involves making the Church, as a sign, perceptible within a new cultural context.  The Gospel arrives, always, with baggage.  “Never does the missionary bring the World of God in a way that is abstracted from culture.”  This was true from the beginning, Christ being “not only an actual person but a Jew…[who] lived at a particular time of world history.”  Translation is always necessary, and translation may fail if the missionary church tries to preserve its own embodiment.   “In South America,” Illich says, “it didn’t work; no Indian church was established, but a Spanish church on an Indian ground, and the cultural world of the indigenous people collapsed.”  A successful translation requires, above all, a certain poverty of spirit on the part of the missionary.   He/she does not know and cannot know what form the church will take in its new surroundings.  The new church will be built up “in the imagination and the wishes and the dreams of the community” and “its structure will be expressed through the people’s own words and gestures.”  The missionary, as a stranger and an “adoptee,” has no way of knowing what these dreams and gestures are.  He must learn them, rather than imposing them. 

The missioner, in Illich’s view, stands at a frontier “between people and people, epoch and epoch, milieu and milieu.”  Through him “faith becomes transparent in a new language.”  But because the dialogue between cultures takes place in and through the missioner – it is “his witness [which] forms [the] dialogue” – he is “exposed to a double danger – either to betray his own past, or to rape the world to which he has been sent.”  To walk this knife edge, he must, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “go by the way of ignorance.”  In this voluntary dispossession, Illich says, the missionary imitates Christ.  In Christ, God “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”  “To communicate himself perfectly to man,” Illich comments, “God had to assume a nature which was not His, without ceasing to be what He was.  Under this light the Incarnation is the infinite prototype of missionary activity, the communication of the Gospel to those who are ‘other,’ through Him who entered a World by nature not His own.”  The missioner may receive his own tradition back enriched but only if he can first learn to bracket it.  He may see the church flourish on its new ground but only if he allows it to be born again – a rebirth that may take a form so new and surprising that the church, as it has been, will have to “strain to recognize her past in the mirror of the present.”  Indeed, this changed form is so certain, if it is allowed, that missiology, the science of mission, can be defined as “the study of the Church as surprise, the Church as divinely inspired contemporary poetry; the developing of human society into a divine bud which will flower in eternity.”

Because mission lives on the razor’s edge between betrayal and rape, and is therefore a task requiring extraordinary delicacy and tact, Illich proposed quite stringent conditions for judging who was fit to do it.  In his long essay “Mission and Midwifery,” he describes several classes of persons through whom mission may “miscarry” and who should therefore be “discouraged from seeking missionary service.”  The first he mentions are those who“cannot endure their heritage” but, rather than face their rejection of their inherited way of life, choose mission as a way of putting “a holy label” on their “psychological escapism.”  The second class are the national chauvinists who believe their national church to be the church in its best and final form and “try to sell overseas ‘what has worked so well at home’.”  Next are the adventurers “fired by sensuous dreams of a jungle or martyrdom or growing a beard.” These yearnings can be trained and re-deployed, Illich says, but instead they are being actively fostered by “the organized promotion of apostolic tourism.”  (This was a swipe at programmes like the Papal Volunteers for Latin America (PAVLA) which Illich viewed as an unctuous imitation of the Peace Corps.)  And, finally, Illich indicts “the ecclesiastical conquistador of modern times…who wants to ‘save more souls’ or who derives satisfaction from heaping up baptisms at a rate undreamt of at home.”

Illich thought that these “missionary miscarriages,” as he called them, could be avoided in two main ways: first by unsentimentally weeding out the patently unfit, and, second, by offering rigorous training to those who showed more aptitude.  He and his colleagues offered such training first through the Institute for Intercultural Communication which Illich instituted at Ponce in Puerto Rico in 1956, and later at the centres he established in Cuernavaca, Mexico after 1961.  It had five basic components.  The first, always, was intensive language teaching.  The second was transmission of cultural knowledge.  The third was a grounding in the sociology of religion.   It was sociologists of religion like Will Herberg and Martin Marty that had helped Illich to understand the peculiar form Roman Catholicism had taken in the United States, and he believed that all missioners needed to look “in the mirror which the behavioural sciences can offer to [them.]”  Seeing one’s own church dispassionately as a limited and socially condition object, he believed, could lead to self-awareness, critical distance from one’s “inherited social system,” and, most crucially, an ability to distinguish between the church as a divine ordinance and the church as “a power among powers.”  The fourth desideratum of missionary training was some grounding in “religious science.”  What is necessary, Illich says, is a grasp of “fundamental mythology: the science which studies the way heroes and symbols grow into gods.  [The missioner] must do so to understand that one people’s valid representation of the true God [ikons] can easily become another people’s idols, or representations of the psychological experience of sham-gods.”  The final requirement was prayer by which one could begin to understand “the grammar of silence.”  The missionary must be silent before a world in which he has not yet learned to speak, and this is yet another instance of the missionary as the very paradigm of Christian life, for only in silence can any of us face a God who is “infinitely distant, infinitely foreign.”

Illich believed that mission was a field which contained seeds of renewal for the Church.  In 1963, he expressed the hope that contact with Latin America might have “a revolutionary impact on Church institutions outside of Latin America.” The roots of this hope lay in the philosophy of mission that I have just summarized.   Mission, for him, was a paradigm of Christian life.  He defines it as “bringing the church into view as a sign of Christ.”  “Every Christian,” he says, “is a missionary who is sent out from the church in one world into another world.”  The new world could be a new people but just as easily “a new scientific milieu or a different social structure.” The Church is expressly portrayed as a “sign” rather than an institution.  It points at a reality which it can never fully embody.  Elsewhere he calls the Church “a sign lifted up among the nations,” and “the worldly sign of the other-worldly reality.”  The emphasis on the Church as sign is interesting in two respects: first, as I’ve said, a sign points at something but does not replace it or substitute for it, and second a sign is only intelligible from within a given cultural horizon. 

This should be enough about Illich’s philosophy of mission to illustrate the affinity between him and Sanneh and Donovan.  They agree in seeing the  church as a “sign” to be “lifted up” rather than imposed;  they are at one in seeing mission, as Donovan says,  as something “in motion” and on its way to a  destination that can neither be predicted nor planned;  they all feel that the gift of the Word, once given, has to be set free without further stipulations from the donor as to how it is to be understood and celebrated; and they all see mission as self-emptying, self-abnegation, and cession of control whether this is chosen voluntarily or comes about, in Sanneh’s terms, through the “vernacular ferment” implied in the very process of Bible translation.   But this concord is not what Todd Hartch sees.  He thinks that Illich’s critique of American missionary programmes in Latin America foreclosed the possibilities and pathways opened up by Donovan’s return to naked and unsupported evangelism, and Sanneh’s demonstration that translation alters both parties to it, whatever their conscious attitudes may be.  Illich, Hartch says, turned “anti-missionary,” a term he uses repeatedly, and thereby deprived Americans of that experience of reciprocity, dialogue and mutual correction that is inherent in the missionary encounter. 

The problem here partly lies in comparing apples and oranges.  Donovan describes an experiment in direct evangelization which he says his mission had never tried, and no more than “a handful” had attempted elsewhere.  He is generally quite sour about ecclesiastical business-as-usual missionary work in Africa.  Sanneh’s examples are mostly drawn from the history of missions in Asia and, for the greater part, Africa, and also mainly concern direct evangelization following first contact.  Illich was trying to contend with an intra-church programme designed to remedy a perceived personnel shortage in the Latin American Church.  Its history went back to 1946 when a Maryknoll priest called John Considine in a book called Call for Forty Thousand had argued that the Latin American Church needed this many priests to bring it up to what he regarded as a proper complement of one priest per one thousand Catholics.  His call was eventually heard and heeded in the Vatican, and by the end of the 1950’s Pope John XXIII had made a commitment that the American Church would send ten percent of its personnel – a traditional tithe – as missionary assistance to Latin America. 

Illich regarded this a colonial rather than an evangelical undertaking.  He deplored the fact that it was launched at the same time as the Alliance for Progress, at the beginning of the so-called “development decade,” and carried, as far as certain elements in the American church were concerned, some of the same patriotic and anti-Communist aims.  Above all he feared two things:  first, that a self-satisfied, American-style Catholicism would swamp the very different style of Christian celebration that had developed in Latin America; and, second, that American assistance would reinforce the existing structure of a sclerotic and reactionary Latin American church and, thereby, forestall needed changes.  He therefore opposed the “papal” programmes, as they were called, and tried to minimize their impact on Latin America. 

This was not, in my view, an “anti-missionary” undertaking.  Rather it was an attempt to change the church in order that it might become truly missionary.   It can properly be called “anti-missionary” only if Hartch can demonstrate that Illich was wrong, in his analysis, of the potentially sinister effects of massive American “missionary” aid on the Latin American Church.  But he does not.  Rather he rests his case on the good things that might have happened if Illich had been less stringent in discouraging and subverting the American programme.  The result in my view is a terrible misunderstanding.  Illich, I believe, should be counted, along with Donovan and Sanneh, among the pioneers of those who have tried to lift mission out of the shadow of imperialism and renew its philosophical and theological foundations.  Instead, in one of the first major English-language studies of his work, he had been pinned with a label he does not deserve.  


Principles for the Training of Missionaries by Ivan Illich

What follows is a lecture by Ivan Illich to a Jesuit organization called Pro Vita Mundi at their first international congress in Essen, Germany, held between September 3rd and 5th, 1963.  The conference was called "Die Not Der Kirche Und Die Aufgabe Der Ordensleute" - The Predicament of the Church and the Task of the Religious Orders.  The German text of Illich's talk was recently recovered from the conference proceedings by Italian scholar Fabio Milana.  Milana is working on a book on Illich's formative years that will soon appear in Italy.  My wife, Jutta Mason, translated the text he provided from German to English, and we then edited the English text together.  The paper is a valuable supplement to Illich's essays on mission in The Church, Change and Development and should help to inform the debate begun by Todd Hartch's characterization of Illich as "anti-missionary" in his book The Prophet of Cuernavaca. 


Mission work can be considered either from a sociological or a theological vantage point. Both ways of seeing require attention to two fundamental facts. In the first place, mission work always has to be understood as a way of enabling the act of faith in a new cultural context (and that assumes on the one hand a certain insight into the theology of the Word and on the other hand at least an approximate assessment of the mission territory in question in a sociological sense). 

In the second place, it must be remembered that the missionary church today everywhere in the world does not find itself facing just an individual state structure, but rather a world of international development.



The science of missiology researches the growth of the church in time and space. Its object is the encounter of the church with a foreign people, whose language and culture must be made receptive to the good news. One can apply a sociological interpretation to this encounter, as an encounter between two groups, or a theological one, as a contact between the word of God and a people which hears that Word.


 1. The concept of mission from a sociological standpoint

For anthropologists and sociologists the church represents a social phenomenon, namely a group which is held together by a number of customs and understandings. For politicians the church forms a “pressure group” [Illich uses the English here] and has its own ideology and culture (and how often has the church been misused that way, in order to serve politics!). For many social psychologists the church counts as a particular phase in the evolution of the self-understanding of humanity; in this regard it must be seen as the high point in the alienation of man in his relation to the world, since it wants to fix him in an earlier station of evolution.  In this sociological view the missionary appears to the potential believer, not as a messenger from God, but primarily as a member of a particular social grouping, in relation to whom one might be either positive or negative or perhaps just indifferent.


2. The understanding of mission from a theological standpoint

Here the church is seen as the coming into being of the church, as the word of God made flesh in a new human community. That point of view offers two important perspectives. On the one hand the church is only built up in the relevant community through individual conversions. On the other hand the local church only acts as an outward sign when a Christian group comes into being.  And it becomes such a sign for those particular people when it is expressed in the unique terms of their culture. So the individual and the community depend on one another in the mission. The concept of mission should therefore signify the building up of the church in the imagination and in the wishes and dreams of the community. Its structure will be expressed through the people’s own words and gestures.


3. The missionary

Every Christian is a missionary who is sent out from the church in one world into another world, specifically with the task of bringing the church into view as a sign of Christ in that other world’s own language and way of living. This new world could be a new people, but it could just as well be a new scientific milieu or a different social structure. Never does the missionary bring the Word of God in a way that is abstracted from culture. Christ himself was not only an actual person, but a Jew, and in addition lived at a particular time of world history. The church is forever identified with its semitic origin: through the language and the cultural milieu of the Old as well as the New Testament, she remains rooted in Israel. When later Roman missionaries announced the word of God in northern Europe, it was only able to become a broadly comprehensible sign when the Germanic people were able to comprehend the message from within their own representational world. This obstacle again and again presents the greatest difficulty for mission work: to carry the particular, enfleshed, acculturated word of God into another cultural world. In South America it didn’t work; no Indian church was established, but a Spanish church on an Indian ground, and the cultural world of the indigenous people collapsed. For that reason the missionary must not attack or simply replace the traditional texts and customs of a people who have not yet found Christ in the church. Rather, he must bring the indigenous culture into relationship with the texts and customs of a people who have already succeeded, at least in part, at making their own culture into a genuine sign of the church. Putting the two cultures side by side in this way must not lead to a suppression. Instead it should foster a mutual cultural exchange. In consequence, the group which is the object of the mission, will find its own culture being fermented with a new spiritual principle, and at the same time the mission church will be enriched through a new expression of the faith.


In the theological sense the missionary is therefore the one through whom faith becomes transparent in a new language. In human terms his witness forms a dialogue between two cultures. But in this way he is exposed to a double danger – either to betray his own past, or to rape the world to which he has been sent.

The best image for mission might be a marriage. Think of a very elderly married couple, who sit in front of their little house. In the course of their lives, he became more a father and a man; she became morea mother and a woman.  And now in the evening of their lives they see themselves as equally brother and sister.

In the same way the missionary becomes to an ever-increasing degree, the son of his own homeland, and a conscious member of his own mother church in the homeland.  And yet he has been totally accepted into the new people, in the sense that the adoption in which he has taken part has become the starting point for the growth of the church. In this perspective it is compelling to read the letters that the sixteenth century missionary Matteo Ricci wrote in his old age. The man who became Chinese among the Chinese as probably no one after him ever did, appears in these letters as a man who to an in ever-increasing extent was concerned about the reports he got from his brother in Italy about the condition of the family wine stocks.



The missionary must be adopted into his new homeland.  He always remains the man who is just tolerated, the guest and foreigner, even in the practice of his fatherly task. His acceptance into the lap of a new people remains a favour and a gift, which he cannot earn but of which he needs to prove himself worthy.

For that reason not everyone is suited to being trained as a missionary. There are certain types of applicants for mission, who must be excluded right from the beginning, whereas there are others whom one can immediately recognize as suitable. So those who seek to escape from their own homeland for one or another reason, are almost all completely unsuitable for the career of a missionary.  Then again there are others who are very nationalistically minded and who defend – usually because of a lack of a deep inner and personal spiritual life – the views of their previous homeland in their new home. One must very tactfully help such types to reach a deeper and more original spiritual life.  

Others see mission as an exciting adventure. Here serious character formation is necessary, to transform the willingness to become an offering, born from fantasy, into virtue. Others again show up as churchly conquistadores, who either want to baptise as many souls as possible, without even taking account of the need for a thorough education and for building a solid community, or who seek only to lift up the people as fast as possible to their own European or American way of living, thus overlooking their cultural uniqueness. 

The education of the missionary must enable him to keep in mind that it is not he but his friends that will be making the church comprehensible by means of local understandings, and that ultimately he can only play a secondary role. That kind of a spiritual stance assumes a deep reverence toward the difference in the other, and toward the secret of the singular aspect of each people.


2. Inseparably entwined with the education of the missionary is the development of the gift of making  distinctions. The candidate must be able to distinguish between:


a) the revealed truth, which we must read in the revelation;

b) the actualization of the same truth, in the form familiar to us in the church of the homeland and

c) the form this actualization takes, as it appears, in endlessly varied shapes, to viewers from other cultural worlds.


The missionary must do more than just learn to recognize new forms in which a Christian sense of shame or a Christian form of brotherly love can find expression. At the same time he must be ready and remain ready to see more deeply into the nature of Christianity itself, by opening himself to the truth of his tradition as it appears in the frame of a new spiritual world, even though this world remains for him in part still incomprehensible. 


3. It is of course also important that the religious, who is preparing himself for the work of mission, not only sees and learns his task as apostle, but also as a divinely consecrated witness. The religious missionary arriving in in a modern developing country may come with three different points of view. As a well-educated member of a high status community he almost always expects to take on the task of a technician working on secular development. But as a missionary he also cares for souls and carries a churchly office. Finally, as a religious he is and remains, even though in completely different circumstances than in his home, the poor witness and announcer of the greatness of God.  In his character as a religious, it is also his task to share this witness within the church in community with others. The preparation of the religious for their work of mission must take account of all these almost incompatible viewpoints. As a consequence of his activities in the mission, new opportunities offer themselves for the religious to observe his three evangelical oaths in a very special way.  In his new situation poverty is experienced in the cultural domain. The cultural accomplishments he brings with him appear largely worthless in his mission. In relation to the culture of the inhabitants of his new home he will always be the one who receives more than he is able to give. Nor should he confuse his dominance in the technical sense with capability in the genuine Christian sense. He will have to remain, as an individual as well as a community member, a symbol of renunciation and of freedom, despite his collaboration in technical progress.  


His obedience will also present much more severe demands; especially regarding the orders that his superior at his old home gives him. The missionary will have to carry out these orders in such a way that one the one hand he does not use them as an excuse for his inability to adapt the Gospel to its new setting and yet on the other hand he must know how to give full and total respect to his superior’s actual intention.

As to chastity, he will ultimately need to learn to see it in its positive sense as the virtue which enables him to love the individual, always starting anew, instead of only seeing the “souls” as a kind of material on which he can practice the virtue of the apostles. For the missionary, chastity in the activities of the mission means the flourishing of such tenderness in love that he is able to see the unique and singular personality, even in the people most foreign to him



1. The church has always had to penetrate a world still in the process of becoming. But in our time, new elements have been added to this forward movement. The difference between the culture of the occident, from which the missionary originates,  and the civilization of the mission regions is more and more experienced as the contrast between the rich and the poor; and these poor become aware of this, and experience it as an injustice. More and more people realize that they ought to have more opportunities, and should have the right to a higher standard of living, and that they don’t want to wait any longer. This demand for an immediate alteration of the psychological and social structure in various domains announces itself everywhere with an unbelievable speed. The acceleration of this growth process requires a Christian interpretation and a Christian position.


2.  During the last century, the church in its mission work sometimes encountered peoples who still lived in complete independence from the rest of the world. In most cases during that period the church was not successful in taking root in the cultures of these peoples.

Now, as these peoples are dragged along the wild evolutionary process of today, they are in danger of seeing their traditional ways of living abruptly disappear. So the man who finds himself in the situation of pastor as well as helper in the work of development, faces a doubly difficult task. For on the one hand these new peoples strive to get ahead quickly, with the support of international development assistance, and they regard the missionary as a cheap aid in this task of development. On the other hand they try to protect their national traditions, and then they regard the missionary as a dangerous element and a potential source of alienation.  


3. So what then is the specific task in this chaotic situation?

The question for the missionary is whether he can make the church, which has come from an established state, into a source of spiritual dynamism in this more fluid development domain. In many areas of mission that would have to involve giving up much of the existing supply of church capital (in schools and buildings); for in the hasty evolution of the affected society the scant resources of the mission ought not to be expended in rapidly aging and numerous material investments but should rather be a spiritual investment in persons.

In this regard, the education of the missionary can hardly be called complete, if it does not prepare him to humbly and discreetly take account of the resistance that he must unavoidably expect from his predecessors.  



1. Technology has created possibilities for learning languages systematically, whose consequences we cannot yet comprehend. The average student in the Mexican mountain city of Cuernavaca (the original Ouauhuahuac) speaks Spanish better after a couple of months of instruction than the average missionary after a stay of about ten years.  In Cuernavaca just as in the elegant Brazilian city of Petropolis, we demand of our pupils (mostly in small groups of three with a teacher originating from the relevant place) that they settle into the rhythm of the language. Language teaching is thus done with scientific seriousness, and yet also accompanied by a deeply-experienced encounter with the entire thought- and emotional world which is so tightly bound up with language. On top of that we must consider the way in which the influence of socio-economic development, expressed in every language, affects this language study. Every social development is preceded by a psychological development, and that means a decisive alteration in the language. So one notices that a training for greater productivity will always also be a lesson in new words and things.


2. The missionary must try to protect the language and the character of a people from alienation, both from the outside (coming from other countries) and from the inside (internal reversal due to technological change). He must know how to accommodate himself to the old traditions and often also, as in Latin America, to an already existing Christianity, in order later on to help further develop that Christianity from the inside out.  


3. A final and broader task, which defines the missionary of our day, can be delineated by the concept of mutuality between church communities. After all, the missionary carries an apostolic responsibility toward his own country of origin. Only through him and his experiences will his homeland become aware that what he clearly observes in the mission land can just as well apply to his homeland. Who else in Europe would think of asking the questions which occupy us day in, day out, in South America:  “Do we really need seminaries to make sure that we get new priests?” – “Do we really still have to ensure that each child that’s born is also baptized, and thereby to make sure that a community of baptized catechumens continues to exist?” – “Does it make sense for the church to hold on to the requirement that the baptized attend mass every Sunday, or shouldn’t we rather come to a kind of ‘disciplina arcani,’ and teach that only those must attend Sunday mass, who are also aware of what is at issue?”

In order to make possible this mutual relationship, an ongoing contact between ‘young’ and ‘old’ churches is completely essential.




This congress is a new kind of event in the history of the church. The boundaries between the traditional mission domain and the old established Christianity have been breached. The need for more effectiveness in pastoral strategy is clearly felt. But on the one hand there is a danger concealed in the erection of the “Pro Mundi Vita” Foundation, namely to forget that religious only fulfil their pastoral task as they increase in the supernatural virtue of renunciation. On the other hand the religious can only observe their vows in a way pleasing to God and in a way that fits their time, if they do so in a place where the church is called to act.


Christ and Anti-Christ in the Thought of Ivan Illich

(A talk given, at the invitation of Travis Kroeker, to students and faculty in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University, Oct. 21st, 2015)

With a few important exceptions, I don’t know exactly whom I’m talking to here today, so I’m just going to assume that many of you have only a limited familiarity with the work of Ivan Illich and begin with a short survey of his career before getting to my main theme.  Ivan Illich came from central Europe – his father from a landed family in Dalmatia, his mother a converted Jew from Vienna.  In 1951 he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in Rome and shortly afterwards emigrated to the United States.  There he became known as an advocate of intercultural dialogue within the Church – first as an assistant parish priest in a part of Manhattan where newly arrived Puerto Rican were getting short shrift from the more settled Irish and Italian populations, then in Puerto Rico where he became the vice-Chancellor of the Catholic University in Ponce, and finally in Cuernavaca, Mexico where he founded an institute that was initially devoted to the training of missionaries but eventually grew into one of the focal points of the  cultural revolution of the 1960’s.  In 1968 Illich was summoned to Rome by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or Holy Office, and subjected to inquisition.  The following year the Vatican instituted a ban against CIDOC, the centre I mentioned which Illich directed in Cuernavaca.   Illich had offended in neither faith nor morals, and his theology, as he always insisted, was radically orthodox – a term he used thirty years before British theologian John Milbank launched Radical Orthodoxy - but he had publicly criticized the Church and advocated its declericalization, he had called American missionaries ecclesiastical conquistadores, and he had made CIDOC a centre of radical thought.  Reactionary forces in the Church, accordingly, wanted his head.   He judged it best, at that point, to withdraw from Church service, rather than to allow the Church he loved, in spite of  all that happened, to continue to make a scandal of him.  He never renounced his priesthood, and he was still, officially speaking, a Monsignor of the Roman Catholic Church when he died in 2002.   But from 1969 on he acted as a lay Christian.  He then began to publish, in short order, a series of books intended to foment what he called “institutional revolution.” these included Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, and Medical Nemesis.  These books were widely read and reviewed, and, along with Illich’s personal charisma, made him for a few years one of the best known and most sought-after intellectuals in the Western world.   The argument that ran though these books was that modern institutions like medicine or mass compulsory schooling had reached and were already surpassing a threshold at which they would become counterproductive.  In the later 1970’s when it had become clear that the institutional revolution he was promoting would not take place, he turned to historical investigation of the sources of the certainties in which these institutions are anchored.  This more searching inquiry produced books like Shadow Work, Gender, In the Mirror of the Past and In the Vineyard of the Text.   Illich’s celebrity began to wane.   One, among many reasons, was that Gender, a book that was published in 1982, was widely misrepresented as a reactionary and anti-feminist work, and this tended to interrupt Illich’s relationship with the social movements of the time.  He wrote and taught, mainly in Germany and the U.S., until his death in 2002, but he never again had the public ear as he had it between 1965 and 1980.


I knew Illich briefly in the late 1960’s when I visited CIDOC in Cuernavaca, and, with others, brought him to Toronto as the keynote speaker at a teach-in we had organized on international development.  A closer relationship began when I met up with him again in 1987 at a conference I was covering for Ideas.  He agreed to let me come down to State College Pennsylvania where he was then teaching during the fall semester at Penn State to do a major interview.  It lasted, episodically, through eight days and became the basis for a five hour radio series for Ideas and later a three hundred page book called Ivan Illich in Conversation.  I had prepared myself for these interviews by reading all of Illich’s published work, but there was a great deal in what he said for which I was quite unprepared.   One especially notable surprise was a statement he made towards the end of our time together: 


My work is an attempt to accept with great sadness the fact of Western culture.  [Historian Christopher] Dawson has a passage where he says that the Church is Europe and Europe is the Church, and I say yes! Corruptio optimi quae est pessima.  [The corruption of the best which is the worst]  Through the attempt to insure, to guarantee, to regulate Revelation, the best becomes the worst.


The essential idea here can be expressed in various ways: that modernity can be studied as an extension of church history, that ecclesiology is the matrix of sociology, that the peculiar degradations that characterize modern society can be understood as proportional to the New Testament’s exalted claim that God has entered the world as a human person.  The novelty of the thought was expressed by philosopher Charles Taylor in the following way:  one is used to the idea, Taylor said, that modernity fulfills Christian ideals, or its opposite, that it betrays them, but not that modernity is a perversion of the Gospel.  The idea was certainly new to me, and, as I got to know Illich better, I began to press him for a more thorough presentation of his hypothesis – ideally a book.  He agreed that this was desirable, but for various reasons that I won’t go into here, it didn’t happen.  When I realized, finally, that it wasn’t going to happen, I proposed that he dictate at least the basic lines of his thought to me, so that I could make a second radio series and potentially a second book.  He agreed, and these interviews took place in the later 1990’s. They produced, in the year 2000, a radio series called “The Corruption of Christianity” and, finally, in 2004, two years after Illich died, a book called The Rivers North of the Future.  (“The Corruption of Christianity,” just by the by, was not my choice of title for the radio series.  In fact I argued, unsuccessfully, against my superior’s decision to impose it.  It was my view that there isn’t a religion called Christianity, which is then corrupted, rather the corruption is its institutionalization as a religion, which makes the title a complete and crucial mystification of the central idea.) 


Well, I’ve told a little of the history of the book to indicate, first, that it is a tentative, vulnerable and unfinished work – an old man’s ex tempore recitation of the thoughts he has been unable, with a few exceptions, to put before the public in a polished and fully thought out form – and, second, that it is a work that was, in many senses, entrusted to me – it was his trust in me that enabled him to speak as he did, and it became my trust to share and, if possible, to unfold and extend what he had given me. 


So now, at last, I come to my theme.  Illich sets it out forthrightly in the first sentence of the book: “I believe,” he begins, “that the Incarnation makes possible a surprising and entirely new flowering of love and knowledge.”  This says, first, that God has become fully incarnate, embodied, in a human person; second that this is surprising − that is it couldn’t have been anticipated, or claimed or thought in any way necessary – it’s a gift;  third that it’s new – it hasn’t happened before and couldn’t have happened before because it’s a revealed possibility, not one that could have been discovered or produced; and finally it says that this revelation expresses itself as both love and knowledge.  He goes on to say that this freedom to love that the Incarnation makes possible is immediately shadowed by two dangers:  the first is that it threatens the integrity of families, communities and cultures by undermining their right to entrain and direct love within proper boundaries; the second is the danger of institutionalization- “a temptation,” as Illich says, “to try to manage and, eventually, to legislate this new love, to create an institution that will guarantee it, insure it, and protect it by criminalizing its opposite.”


Illich takes the parable of the Samaritan as the paradigm of this revelation.  I’ll quote his telling of the famous story from the Gospel of Luke:


Jesus tells the story [Illich says] in response to the question of “a certain lawyer,” that is, a man versed in the law of Moses, who asks, “Who is my neighbor?”  A man, Jesus says, was going from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by robbers, stripped, beaten and left half-dead in a ditch by the road.  A priest happens by and then a Levite, men associated with the Temple and the community’s approved sacrificial rites, and both pass him by “on the other side.”  Then comes a Samaritan, a person whom Jesus’ listeners would have identified as an enemy, as a despised outsider from the northern kingdom of Israel who did not worship at the temple.  And this Samaritan turns to the wounded one, picks him up, takes him in his arms, dresses his wounds and brings him to an inn where he pays for his convalescence.


This story, Illich says, has been so thoroughly assimilated into Christian religion that its meaning seems obvious and unproblematic: it illustrates a universal ethical duty to those in need.  But Illich reads it differently.  He draws attention to the ethnic difference between the two men. The Samaritan, as an outsider, has no duty whatsoever to the wounded man – his duty is only to his own kind – and therefore his action, in historical context, is a violation of ethical decency, not an instance of it.  He does what he does because he is moved by what most English translations call compassion, but what the original Greek text describes more literally as a stirring in his guts.  And this is crucial for Illich.  For him, the answer to the question – who is my neighbor? – is: it could be anybody, so long as it is a fully embodied relationship and one that is actually felt as a personal call.  Remove this embodied quality, turn a personally experienced vocation into an ethical norm, and you have Illich says, “a liberal fantasy.”


This, in a nutshell, is Illich’s view of the relationship between Christ and anti-Christ.  Christ sets us free to love whom we will.  Who it will be, Illich says, may “appear arbitrary from everyone else’s point of view.”  This is an important point with him, reiterated in many places: that the “sociality of two,” as he once called it, contains an intimate and incommunicable depth that must necessarily remain shaded from other eyes.  The choice of the other can’t be predicted or commanded.  What it sets us free from can be expressed in various ways: it sets us free from family – “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew (10:35-36) “and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household” – it sets us free from community – it is the Samaritan woman at the well who asks Jesus for living water, the Roman soldier at the cross that perceives the crucified one as God – and it sets us free from religion – in his telling of the parable Illich highlights the fact that it is the indifferent Temple officials – the priest and the Levite – who are engaged in what he calls “the community’s approved sacrificial rites”.  Elsewhere he says plainly that “faith in the incarnate Word sacrificed on the cross is not a religion and cannot be analyzed within the concepts of religious science.”  The teachings of Jesus are full of anti-religious statements and satires on the scrupulous observances of his opponents as in his pregnant statement (Mark 2:27) that the Sabbath was made for man, notman for the Sabbath.  So Illich is at one with René Girard in seeing the cross as the abolition of the sacred, if the sacred is understood as the hallowed boundary which secures the unanimity of the community.


However, all these liberations, Illich says, are conditional.  They depend, in the first place, on what the church would later call grace.  Yes, the Samaritan can fearlessly defy the mythical terrors that guarded ethnic boundaries and reach out to his wounded enemy but not through his own unaided powers.  This is a possibility that Jesus reveals.  Illich speaks of charitable acts as acts which “extend the Incarnation” which implies that they occur within the Incarnation – that “the new dimension of love” [which] has opened” has been opened for us through God’s generosity.    Humans require by their nature what Husserl calls a “homeworld” and a homeworld cannot exist without a horizon– it exists by definition in tension with some other homeworld.   Between homeworlds there must be a no man’s land – an area where the referential contexts of the two worlds in effect cancel each other.  The Samaritan in establishing a relationship with the man in the ditch begins a new world and thus demonstrates a power that has been super-added to him through the Incarnation, not one that could ever belong to his natural repertoire.   He acts, as Illich repeatedly says, on a call.*


The vocation of the Samaritan, in other words, is deeply ambiguous.  It can build glorious new worlds, but it can also be the door through which the unlimited enters human societies and begins its slow work of denaturing them.  Illich called this denaturing tendency anti-Christ – a bold and, to me, at the time he chose to put this term in play, thoroughly astonishing choice of words.  He knew, he said, that he “risk[ed] being taking for a fundamentalist preacher in applying the monstrously churchy term anti-Christ” to the new and unprecedented evil that he wanted to name, but, if he simply followed his preference and called it sin, he went on, he would be even more likely to be misunderstood.  So let me digress for a moment on this dramatic concept of anti-Christ, before returning to the precise way in which Illich deploys it.


There are only a handful of references in the New Testament to anti-Christ. Jesus in the apocalyptic discourses of the synoptic Gospels warns against false Christs, and the first letter of John seems to carry on this usage in claiming, as a sign of the nearness of the end, that many of these anti-Christs have already come, but the locus classicus, and the passage Illich draws on, occurs in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, though I believe that Paul’s authorship of this epistle is now doubted by a majority of scholars.   In this letter Paul, or his imposter, says that “the day of the Lord…cannot come before the rebellion [Greek apostasia] against God, when the Man of Sin [or, alternately, lawlessness] will be revealed….  He is the Enemy.  He rises in pride against every god, so called, and every object of men’s worship and even takes his seat in the Temple of God claiming to be God himself. You cannot but remember that I told you this while I was still with you; you must now be aware of the restraining hand [katechōn] which insures that he shall be revealed only at the proper time.  For already the secret [mystērion] power of wickedness is at work, secret only for the present until the Restrainer [katēchon] disappears from the scene.  And then he will be revealed, that wicked man [lawless is again an alternate] whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth.”  (This is theologian Bernard McGinn’s translation, from his book on Anti-Christ, but you should know that what he calls the secret power of wickedness, was rendered into Latin by Jerome as mysterium inequitatis, and this is the phrase that Illich picks up – the mystery of evil.)


This passage that I’ve quoted founded an entire tradition.  By the second century Irenaeus can specify the length of the anti-Christ’s reign – three and a half years, he says;  Hippolytus, a little later, knows that the Deceiver will resemble Christ in every particular;  the Apocalypse of the Holy Theologian John, uncertainly dated to the early fifth century, gives a detailed description of his appearance – “his face…gloomy, his hair likes the points of arrows… his right eye as the morning star and the left like a lion’s…his fingers like sickles…and on his forehead is the writing “The Anti-Christ.”  This tradition, as you will probably gather from the harbingers of Hollywood in that last description, became, as it went on, more mythological than theological, but it remained vivid into early modernity and then gradually died out.  Today the term persists on the fringes of Protestantism, and, to an extent, in popular culture – I remember my surprise at coming across a book a few years ago called How To Tell If Your Boyfriend Is the Anti-Christ.  Nietzsche also called his anti-Christian polemic The Anti-Christ but this title might just as well have been translated The Anti-Christian and is, in any case, a way of characterizing his own stance rather than a reference to the traditional figure.  So Illich seems substantially right when he says: “What is impressive about the transition from the early Church to the established Western church is how thoroughly this mystery – [the mystery of evil] – disappeared from the Church’s teaching and the concern of most of its members.”


There are, however, two important exceptions: one crucial for Illich, the other crucial for me.  The important exception for Illich was a work by the 19th century Russian writer,  theologian, poet, pamphleteer – Vladimir Solovyov.  It’s called The Story of the Anti-Christ and it’s one of the first books I can remember Illich recommending to me.  Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, also important to Illich, summed up Solovyov’s view as follows: “The ways of history do not lead directly upwards to the Kingdom of God, they pass by way of the final unveiling of the anti-Christ who conceals himself under the last mask to be stripped away – the mask of what is good and what is Christian.”  [That last phrase, I think, bears repeating: the mask, von Balthasar says of “what is good and what is Christian.] The second more or less contemporary writer to take anti-Christ seriously, and the one who’s crucial for me, is the psychologist Carl Jung.  “In the empirical self,” Jung writes in his book Aion, “light and shadow form a paradoxical unity.  In the Christian concept, on the other hand, the archetype is hopelessly split into two irreconcilable halves, leading ultimately to a metaphysical dualism – the final separation of the kingdom of heaven from the fiery world of the damned.”  In Jung’s understanding, the Christian account of a God who is all goodness, and a Christ who is all light, cannot but provoke a psychic compensation, an anti-Christ.  This is not just “a prophetic prediction” Jung says but “a psychological law.”  For Jung it explains not just the powerful anti-Christian animus which develops in the modern West but also, interestingly, what he calls “the plague of ideologies” that have characterized our time.


Now back to Illich.  The Gospel for him is ambiguous, and the depth which it harbours is proportional to the height to which it invites us.  He claims that the function of the prophets who are mentioned in the New Testament was to remind nascent Christian communities of this ambiguity, of the fact, as he puts it, “that the Church had gone pregnant with an evil which would have found no nesting place in the Old Testament.”  I’m not sure that this claim can be sustained – I can’t see much evidence in the New Testament that early Christian communities were aware of the ambiguity of their gospel – but, whether it disappeared or never existed, Illich is surely right that awareness of this ambiguity is absent in later antiquity when the church becomes a crucial social institution, and equally so, at the time of the Gregorian reform in the Middle Ages, when sin becomes a crime and love becomes the law.  I don’t have time here to relate the lengthy history and the various stages by which Illich thinks that the best becomes the worst but he gives a good overall characterization when he speaks in Deschooling Society of the growing conviction “that man can do what God cannot, namely manipulate others for their own salvation.”  This domestication, let’s say, of the Gospel is, on the one hand, a historical process, perceptible by all – Christianity changes the world – but it is also, says Illich, quoting Paul, a “mystery of evil”  - a mystery because its meaning, and perhaps its dynamism as well, depends on and derives from the Revelation which it corrupts and betrays.  This mystery, Illich says, “is now more clearly present than ever before.”  In other words, the attempt to make institutions perform in place of persons is now reaching a kind of theoretical maximum.  One of the ways in which this is expressed is through chronic fiscal crisis – we can never afford all the services we believe we need. 


I may be beginning to try your patience, so let me try to sum up.  Illich, I would say, holds a tragic view of the fate of the Gospel – he sees that what he most deplores has entered the world through what he most loves.  He will not say that the Gospel was destined to be overshadowed by its institutional counterfeit, but he will say that this is how it happened.  Likewise he may not agree with Jung that a psychological law is being enacted, but he certainly says that the Church cast a shadow which it increasingly refused to recognize. Illich’s answer to this dilemma, let me say finally, is summed up in the word awareness.  His first book was called Celebration of Awareness.  The Church could not have avoided casting a shadow, but it could have maintained its awareness of the ambiguity and the volatility that were entailed in its revelation.  It didn’t, and its modern offshoots have preserved the same one-sided attitude – the same “brutal earnestness,” Illich says – with the consequence that we now live, he thinks, in a vast dominion of anti-Christ.  This is why he insists that our era is quite wrongly characterized as “post-Christian.”  “On the contrary,” he says, “I believe this to be, paradoxically, the most obviously Christian epoch.”  In other words, the perilous dynamism of our world – its paralyzing momentum – may have, so to say, a secret source.  Rewinding the string and reappropriating this source in a new spirit will not be easy, but I believe that’s the direction in which Illich urges us.


*The argument in this paragraph is indebted to an unpublished paper by German philosopher Klaus Held called “Ethos and the Christian Experience of God.”