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: 

[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

[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.”







A Review of Arthur Melzer's Philosophy Between the Lines




I picked up this book, after seeing it reviewed, because I had been thinking about the claim I recently encountered that the work of Ivan Illich is a disguised form of theology.  (This claim is made in Todd Hartch’s new book The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West, where he says that “Illich’s writing had a hidden purpose.”)  I am currently writing about Illich, and I thought that Melzer’s book might teach me something about esoteric writing and so help me to assess the claim that Illich is an esoteric writer.  I soon found that this was a book that could do a lot more than that.


The word esoteric itself is probably one of the reasons that I was not expecting a work of such breadth as this one proved to be.  I don’t mean that Melzer should have used a different word.   Esoteric is certainly the accepted term of art for what Melzer discusses – philosophical writing that disguises some part of its purpose or hopes to be understood in different ways by different readers – but, for most contemporary readers, the word connotes something arcane and out of the way, while Melzer’s book concerns crucial issues in the history of both philosophy and politics.  This, in fact, illustrates one of Melzer’s main points.  Contemporary readers have lost any feel for the esoteric, sensing it as nothing more than a childish game, a form of “perverse ingenuity” as one critic says.  But lacking this feel, he says, they become unable to understand how philosophy has been written through most of its history.  And that misunderstanding is the occasion for his book.  It is not, he tells us, that he has some esoteric purpose of his own, or even any particular liking for the genre – “I can barely tolerate subtlety,” he jokes in his introduction – but that he wants to make readers aware of a practice that he believes coloured “the whole conduct of intellectual life in the West over two millennia.”


He establishes the reality of this modern neglect early in the book with a quotation from Goethe, who wrote to a friend in 1811: “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.”   Melzer then goes on to offer evidence of the predominance of this practice up to the last years of the 18th Century (and, indeed its continuance by other names into our own time, as we shall see).  Here I will cite several key pieces of this evidence, just to give the flavour.  First Plato from the Seventh Letter:

If it seemed to me that these [philosophical] matters could adequately be put down in writing for the many or be said, what could be nobler for us to have done in our lifetime than this, to write what is a great benefit for human beings and to lead nature forth into the light for all?  But I do not think such an undertaking concerning these matters would be a good for human beings, unless for some few, those who are themselves able to discover them through a small indication; of the rest, it would unsuitably fill some of them with a mistaken contempt, and others with a lofty and empty hope as if they had learned awesome matters.


And two thousand years later, here is Jean Jacques Rousseau explaining, also in a letter, how his first discourse (On the Origin of Inequality) should be read:


It was only gradually and always for a few readers that I developed my ideas…I have often taken great pains to try to put into a sentence, a line, a word tossed off as if by chance the result of a long sequence of reflections.  Often most of my readers must have found my discourses badly connected and almost entirely rambling, for lack of perceiving the trunk of which I showed them only the branches.  But that was enough for those who know how to understand, and I have never wanted to speak to the others.


These are strong examples, but not at all isolated.  Melzer offers considerable  evidence that no philosophically minded writer before the 19th century believed that he could or should write entirely transparently, though the required degree of discretion and strategic obscurity remained a matter of dispute and discussion.  For example, Melzer offers this wonderful quotation from Erasmus, opposing Luther’s all out attack on Rome, despite Erasmus’s sympathy for Luther’s aims:


For seeing that truth of itself has a bitter taste for most people, and that it is of itself a subversive thing to uproot what has long been commonly accepted, it would have been wiser to soften a naturally painful subject by the courtesy of one’s handling than to pile one cause of hatred on another…A prudent steward will husband the truth – to bring it out, I mean, when the business requires it, and bring it out so much as is requisite and bring out for every man what is appropriate for him – [but] Luther in this torrent of pamphlets has poured it all out at once, making everything public.


Here Erasmus criticizes Luther for being insufficiently esoteric.  And differences of this kind continue through the modern period.  Everyone agrees on the need for some degree of indirection, but how much may be in dispute.  For example, figures associated with the more radical wing of the Enlightenment sometimes criticized their more cautious confrères like Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire for their hesitancies, but even they preserved some elements of esotericism.  One such radical Denis Diderot still believed that “one must be wise in secret,” and Pierre Bayle, another, writing earlier, during the first wave of Enlightenment, had reproved the followers of Descartes with not knowing “what must be said and what must not be said.”


But here we come again to the difficulty which I have already mentioned with the term esoteric or esotericism.   Erasmus’s difference with Luther could certainly be said to concern the proper degree of esotericism, i.e. Erasmus wishes Luther had spoken more esoterically, and Melzer uses the word in that broad sense.   But it seems to me that it would be more accurate to say that Erasmus wishes Luther more discreet, more prudent, more diplomatic.  Using the word esoteric cannot but invoke an element of dissimulation, unhealthy secrecy, perhaps even of conspiracy simply because these are connotations of this word as it is currently used.  But I see nothing of this in what Erasmus says.  In this sense, the word esoteric seems to unduly confine and limit Melzer’s meaning.


Let me expand this point slightly before going on.  One of the things that excited me about Melzer’s book was that I began to see almost immediately that it could be understood as a book about something much more than an outré, superceded and slightly suspect practice of elitist philosophers who wanted either to deceive or manipulate their publics.  Esoteric denotes willful secrecy – something intended only for initiates – but there is a sense in which  all writing is esoteric writing.  This is obviously true if one can’t read, but it remains true even as the various degrees of reading are achieved.  For most people there will always be types of literature for which they have neither interest nor aptitude and which will therefore remain in that sense esoteric.  But, all writing is esoteric in another sense as well because all writing of any ambition is bound to be more or less misunderstood.  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.   This is not just because, as Socrates says in Phaedrus – Melzer quotes the passage – “every [written] speech rolls around everywhere, both among those who understand and among those for whom it is not fitting, and it does not know to whom it ought to speak and to whom not.”  It is also because nearly 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 from, 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.


To say writing is esoteric in this sense is just to recognize its frailty as a vehicle.  If the word is taken in this way, one gets around the charge that has been put against Melzer, as well as against Leo Strauss whose Persecution and The Art of Writing (1952) was the first book in recent times to draw attention to the importance of esotericismfor understanding philosophical writing.  Bernard Yack, in his review of Melzer’s book for the electronic journal Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews ( sums up this objection:


Those of us who were introduced to the history of moral and political philosophy by students of Leo Strauss -- in my case, Allan Bloom -- would sometimes ask for evidence backing their claim that the great writers of the past practiced a lost art of esoteric writing. The answers we received, I'm sorry to say, were never very satisfying: a scrap of Bacon here, a letter from Diderot there, a passage or two from Plato's Seventh Letter. Surely, so vast a conspiracy must have left a larger mark on Western literary culture? Where were the books and articles that connected all the dots? Without such confirmation, it was hard to dispel the suspicion that it was Strauss's charismatic authority, more than anything else, that confirmed the existence of this esoteric tradition for our teachers.


In this review, Yack goes on to say that he thinks Melzer has supplied what Strauss never did: a convincing compendium of evidence which includes “testimony from major figures in every age from Classical Antiquity through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, confirming knowledge and approval of these ways of esoteric means of communicating philosophic ideas.”  And yet Yack says he is still unsatisfied, and thinks skeptics will remain unconvinced.  The problem, he says, is that while Melzer has supplied plenty of persuasive testimony that philosophers thought they were writing, in some sense, esoterically, he has not given much evidence that “philosophers… let alone playwrights like Shakespeare and Sophocles, produce works that continuously subvert their most prominent arguments in ways that help readers construct an alternative, esoteric argument to take their place.”  Yack goes on to say that he believes this type of esotericism to be “extremely rare” and to claim that Melzer has furnished no convincing example of it.  The example that came to mind for me in reading Yack’s criticism of Melzer was Shakespeare’s Henry V where no less an authority than Northrop Frye finds beneath the plays seemingly jingoistic surface – “once more into the breach, dear friends” – a counter-current which subverts and counteracts the more conventional surface.  Literature, whether philosophical, poetical or narrative, does, again and again, subvert, relativize and destabilize its ostensible commitments.  But my point is that the word esoteric, as used in Melzer’s book, suggests something much more restricted than he has, in fact, indicated in his book.   He raises issues concerning the nature of writing, the limits of politics, and the proper purpose of philosophy which go so far beyond the more limited question of whether writers have hidden agendas that I think he might have done well to scrap the words esoteric and esotericism in framing his argument.


That said, let me return to my discussion of the book and resume using the word he uses.  Melzer, as I have said, has provided a scholarly treasure trove of evidence that philosophers from Pythagoras to Kierkegaard have held to some variation of Lao Tzu’s “those who know do not tell,” or at least do not tell in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong people.  Some of this evidence comes from the New Testament, and Melzer’s discussion of the Gospel passages which recommend silence, secrecy and discretion was one of the sections of his book that I found most interesting.  These passages are familiar, and, in that sense, it is not surprising that the New Testament should be included in a history of esotericism.  But in another way it is surprising.  Christianity, Nietzsche quipped, was “Platonism for the people,” and the remark has its point insofar as the church believed it could spoon out a subversive and explosive doctrine to everyone.  It is surprising, therefore, to recall how often Jesus seems to recommend something more like what Melzer calls philosophical esotericism.  Jesus was, first of all, like Socrates, an oralist who committed none of his teaching 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.”  He warned against casting “pearls before swine” lest “they [the swine] turn and rend you.”  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.  Likewise when he was transfigured with Moses and Elijah, he warned Peter, James and John to keep the whole story to themselves.  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.  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 huge tension between this esoteric practice, and the triumphalist strain in which trumpeting angels unfurl banners and shout the good news from the skies.  Likewise there is a strain 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.”) Arguably this tension continued in Christianity once it began to be formulated as a religion.  This is not the place to argue the point but one might cite the resurrection as the very archetype of a doctrine that should have remained esoteric and been discussed only with the greatest discretion and reserve.  Simone Weil held such a view.  For her 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 shouted from the rooftops i.e. made exoteric. 


Esoteric writing continues to the end of the 18th century, and, in some cases beyond – among 19th century writers, Melzer quotes Kierkegaard on the necessity of deceiving those who are deceived, as well as Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poem which begins “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” – and the subject was never so hotly discussed as during the second half of the 18th century.  This discussion culminated, Melzer says, during a thirty year period between 1750 and 1784.  In 1750 Rousseau published his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts in which he criticized popularizers who have “indiscreetly broken down the door of the sciences and let into their sanctuary a populace unworthy of approaching it.”  In 1784Kant published his famous essay “What Is Enlightenment?”   In between there was a discussion whose scope was unprecedented.  Never in two millennia, Melzer says, had there been so intense and so open a discussion of “the social utility of truth and falsehood.”  But this debate was concerned only with the tactical form of esotericism that Melzer calls political esotericism – everyone agreed on the aims of progress and universal enlightenment but disagreed on the proper pace of change.  Ancient esotericism, which was much more thoroughgoing, had by then already been rejected by early modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Bacon and Hobbes.


The great dividing line between ancient and modern philosophy, in Melzer’s account, runs between their respective views of the relations between theory and practice (he retains the Greek term praxis, but I’ll use practice here.)  The ancients held that these relations were fundamentally conflictual – that the world could never be brought into conformity with the dictates of reason, and that to try to do so would be fatal to the health of society, as well as to the health of philosophers.  Society, or the city, its ancient archetype, must live according to unreason, its security and continuity dependent on various noble lies – the sacred origin of the laws, the brotherhood of the citizens, the providential character of the division of labour, the sanctity of marriage etc.  Philosophers might think beyond these necessary fictions, but, if they did so, they would practice various forms of esotericism in order to safeguard both themselves and their cities.  Melzer lists four main forms of this esotericism: protective, by which  the institutions of the city were shielded from the potentially corrosive effects of pure reason; defensive, by which the philosopher avoided persecution by veiling his doctrines in obscurity, ambiguity or outright misdirection; pedagogical, by which would-be initiates were guidedto pursue their own enlightenment rather than being handed ready made answers; and finally political, in which caution with dangerous truths was employed to some political end. 


All these forms of esotericism were premised on the underlying conviction that political community and philosophical rationality must always follow different principles and that the “the two lives,” the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, could never be brought into complete harmony.  Plato’s Republic, read esoterically, is a demonstration that this is so.  But, once this art was lost, it was possible to get readings like the one offered in Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) in which Plato is treated as a proto-fascist, a harbinger of modern totalitarianism who is offering, straight-faced, a blueprint for utopia.  Melzer, like many other Platonists, sees Plato as ironic, offering the whole machinery of eugenics, banished poets, children removed from their parents, guardians, philosophers kings and all the rest as a satire on reason rampant and not a blueprint.


Modern philosophy begins with what German/American political philosopher Leo Strauss called “a lowering of the sights.”  (There is a close relationship between Melzer and Strauss – some readers will already have recognized it – which I’ll come to presently.)  Ancient philosophy pursued the highest good, even if it could not be realized.  It was an attempt, as Melzer says, “to live in the mysterious light of the whole.”  The moderns, beginning with Machiavelli, adopt more realistic aims.  Fundamentally they reject the idea of an inherent disharmony between reason and political society.  Classical philosophy had its head in the clouds – even in ancient Athens this was Aristophanes’ charge against Socrates in his play The Clouds – let it now come down to earth and formulate more practical aims.  If the sights were set on comfortable self-preservation – on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and, if we were, as Bacon advises, to get control of nature by first following her, then reason and society could gradually be harmonized.  Already in distant view is Marx’s famous maxim in his Theses on Feuerbach:  Up ‘til now “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways.  The point, however, is to change it.” Philosophy, Melzer says, became militant. 


This had several consequences.  It put philosophy at perpetual risk of corruption by creating a temptation to rate political expediency higher than truth, or even to argue in extremis that political expediency is truth – Orwell followed this road to its end in 1984 and Animal Farm.  It projected the ideal of progress, and, on the model of natural philosophy-becoming-science, made knowledge cumulative.  Ancient pedagogical esotericism had demanded that each student should re-ascend the heights of philosophy for him or herself, rung by laborious rung.  The idea of progress and accumulation allowed the philosopher to stand, with Newton, “on the shoulders of giants,” but it also left the assumptions that comprised these shoulders unexamined.  So modern thought, Melzer says, grew abstract and out of touch with the long chains of ungrounded presuppositions on which it was founded. 


A key reason for the militancy of modern thought was its sense, particularly during the Enlightenment, that it was locked in a life and death struggle with superstitition, priestcraft and dogmatic religion, which Hobbes summarized as“the kingdom of darkness.”  This antagonism, Melzer argues, was born of the relationship between Christianity and philosophy during the centuries in which Christianity was establishing its spiritual dominion.  Christianity, he says, was a religion without law – it had no sharia or halakhah.  It was a spiritual religion declaring, as the apostle Paul says, that “we are released from the Law, having died to what was binding us, and so we are in a new service, that of the spirit, and not in the old service of a written code.”  This was a revolutionary departure, in Melzer’s view, because religion and politics had up to this point been two faces of the same “theologico-political realm.  In support of this point he quotes the French scholar Fustel de Coulanges who says in his book The Ancient City that “all political institutions had been religious institutions…the laws had been sacred formulas, and the kings and magistrates had been priests.”  Christianity separated politics and religion, planting the seeds of the modern secular by positing, as Augustine would eventually say, two cities, the civitas dei and the civitas terrena, the city of God and the earthly city.  It was moreover a “remarkably apolitical” religion because it failed to address “concrete social customs, mores and usages” as its Judaic matrix had, and as later religions like Islam would.  Its character, Melzer argues, was of a “transcendent or universal religion of faith” which specified spiritual principles without offering practical or political guidance.  This rather cloudy, abstract character, Melzer goes on, put it in particular need of philosophical elaboration.  Bishops might fulminate against it – “It is not by philosophy that it has pleased God to save his people,” says Ambrose of Milan (337-397) – or ask with Tertullian (160-220), “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”; but Christianity needed philosophy in Melzer’s view, because, as a religion without law, it was destined to become “a doctrinal or dogmatic theological religion that made salvation contingent on the acceptance of certain often obscure or controversial dogmas.”  In the elaboration of this doctrinal apparatus philosophy became a necessary accomplice. “Christianity kept philosophy alive but subdued and under house arrest,” is Melzer’s pithy formula.  (Melzer doesn’t speak of specific teachings but I imagine he is thinking of doctrines like the Trinity, which achieved its canonical form at the Council of Constantinopole in 360, or the two natures of Christ hammered out at Chalcedon in 451.)


Christianity became a dogmatic religion, so concerned with its doctrinal integrity that it began to persecute and kill those it viewed as heretics.  This created the paradox that preoccupied Voltaire: “Of all religions,” he wrote, “the Christian should…inspire the most toleration, but till now the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”  It also created a fatal animus within philosophy towards religion and its “dark kingdom,” fatal because it led philosophy so deep into history and projects of historical change that philosophy finally came to see itself as a pawn of history.  In short, philosophy became “historicist” or “relativist.”  Melzer defines these two terms, to which he assigns a rough equivalence, as follows: “the view that moral values and social norms have no objective or universal validity but derive from the arbitrary commitments of one’s culture, which are not intrinsically superior to the different or opposite commitments of other cultures.”  Karl Mannheim in an essay called “Historicism” written in 1924 claimed that this view “not only organizes, like an invisible hand, the work of social and cultural sciences but also permeates everyday thinking.”  Hans Georg Gadamer says that “historical self-consciousness” is “the most important revolution among those we have undergone since the beginning of the modern epoch.”  Closer to home, GeorgeGrant said the same in his 1969 Massey Lectures Time as History.   We feel ourselves as so much the prisoners of time and circumstance, as Grant said in his agonized “A Platitude” in Technology and Empire, that we can experience what is absolutely and unquestionably good only through our desperate “intimations of deprival.” 


It is, in a way, appropriate to quote and remember Grant here because Leo Strauss, who is the presiding intellectual influence in Melzer’s book, also played a decisive part in Grant’s life.  It was in reading Strauss, Grant told me in an interview in 1985, that he came to the shattering thought that “perhaps the Western experiment, the experiment that had gone on since the 17th century in both natural science and political science, had been a mistake.”  Now Strauss is a polarizing figure, and those who hate him, hate him a lot.  In Canada Shadia Drury, a professor of Political Science at the University of Regina, has led the charge, portraying Strauss as a sinister elitist and the godfather of American neo-conservatism who espouses “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.)  Melzer acknowledges the fuss – “If you don’t like Strauss…just try not to think about him,” he advises early in his book – but thinks it is all largely misunderstanding.  Strauss’s “project,” Melzer says, “concerned not politics, as is almost universally assumed, but philosophy.” Reviewers like Bernard Yack, whom I cited above, have found this claim to be disingenuous – or, more politely, to be a form of defensive esotericism – and this seems true insofar as a project of defending philosophy from politics can certainly be described as itself political, but Melzer does make a good case that the history of philosophy was Strauss’s central concern.


Melzer’s book culminates in an assessment of Strauss’s critique of historicism and his plea for a return to the philosophical posture of the classical philosophers.  Esoteric writing plays an important part in this critique.  Beginning with his 1952 book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss argued that an understanding of esotericism was crucial for an understanding of philosophy, and he continued to develop this idea in later works.   Melzer digests his argument into six main points: 1) Historicism partly rests on the argument that philosophers chronically disagree and that this shows them to be enclosed within their own time, place and temperament.  But if it is accepted that philosophers adopt various protective and pedagogical disguises, then careful reading may show them to be not so different as they appear at first glance. 2) Philosophers practicing defensive esotericism appear to be in greater agreement with the ruling ideas of their time than they actually are. 3) Without understanding esotericism we can’t appreciate the abyss the separates the ancients from the moderns. 4) Classic thought can only defend itself effectively if it is reinterpreted as radically skeptical, possessing no completed metaphysical system, but living rather, as Melzer says, “in the light of the mysterious character of the whole.”  5) Historicism can be understood as a reaction against the harm done to society by the abandonment of esotericism i.e. once philosophy threw caution to the winds and oversold reason, its Enlightenment pretensions had to be tamed, and this was done by re-grounding reason in historical circumstance. And, finally, 6) Historicism reflects the harm done to philosophy by the decline of esoteric writing.  The idea here is that modern thought, insofar as it was militant and progressive, was also “abstract and derivative” i.e. it lacked the “direct connection to [the] pre-theoretic, commonsense experience” which had nourished ancient philosophy. In other words, the practice of esotericism was partly based on the idea that “pre-theoretic, commonsense experience” required protection from the corrosive effects of ungrounded reason.  When this idea was abandoned, philosophy lost its grounding, and historicism became a plausible correction of the excessively abstract character which was imparted to modern philosophy by its overweening ambition.


Leo Strauss who died in in 1973, wrote of what he called the “crisis of modernity.”  According to Melzer he understood it in the following way:


The legitimacy of Western science, philosophy and rationalism is being radically challenged by two opposite but mutually reinforcing movements – the ancient force of religious orthodoxy and the “postmodern” one of historicism or cultural relativism.


This crisis had come about because of the inherent defects of modern rationalism – Strauss speaks of the “self-destruction of rational philosophy.” The main reasons for this self-immolation were its dogmatic demand for certainty and presuppositionless “foundations”; its attachment to political realism, practical efficacy and historical progress; and, above all, its insistence on the harmony of theory and practice, rationality and politicality – a deformity produced by the intensity of its struggle with religion.  Strauss hoped, and Melzer shares and has extended this hope, that, in Melzer’s words, “the rediscovery of esotericism may possibly open the path to a ‘posthistoricist or ‘post-modernist’ re-legitimation of reason through a new return to authentic Socratic rationalism.”   


One reason why this desired goal may someday come about is that historicism in Strauss’s view destroys its own foundations. He felt for example that toleration, the primary virtue produced by cultural relativism, tends to reach its inherent limit when it discovers that it has no reason not to tolerate intolerance i.e. it possesses no internal resources by which it can discover what should be tolerated and what not. And Melzer has other reasons to hope.  He argues, for example, in his book’s final pages, that classical thought is “a philosophy not of progress and enlightenment but of return.”  Return, for me, evokes the great emphasis on homecoming and restoration in contemporary ecological thought and suggests that Melzer is shares this widespread longing.  Classical thought, he goes on, “remains remarkably concrete, self-aware and rooted in ordinary experience.”  Esotericism, in this attractive rendering, protects not only the elite space of the philosopher – elitism, a word usually spoken as a curse in our day, was always the weightiest charge against Strauss – but also the vernacular, untheorized world.  Philosophy and vernacular life, in this view, are complements, not replacements for one another as they became in modernity when reason sought to remake society and was then supplanted in turn by periodic restorations of the claims of the irrational.   Esotericism, understood this way, stands for the restraint that keeps philosophy within bounds, preserving its integrity, and preventing it from overstepping its proper sphere.


This is where Melzer ends, and I think it’s worth quoting fairly fully the contrast he draws on his final page between classical and modern thought.


Classical philosophy endeavored to legitimize itself, to illuminate and test its basic presuppositions, through the constant return to and confrontation with the world of pre-philosophic experience (relying on esotericism to preserve that world from transformation in the face of this confrontation.)


Modern thought is built on the opposite hope that by its success in transforming, enlightening and disenchanting the world and by its continual progress in explaining the kind of things it can explain, it will make all testimony to or experience of the kinds of things that it cannot explain to simply wither away.  The world of traditional society, with its spirits, gods and poets, will simply disappear, refuted by history.  In short modern thought hopes to legitimize itself precisely through the obliteration of pre-theoretic experience.


This is an inspiring conclusion, I think, though, as I have already said several times, I fear that the word esoteric unduly restricts the scope of the argument.  Modesty, discretion, the ethics of concealment and unconcealment, the sense for the fitting or proportionate, the proper scope of prudence, the limitations of language, even the inherent contradictoriness of existence – all these are at some point in the book implications of the word esoteric.  That’s a lot of work for one word to do, especially when its primary sense evokes the modern bugaboos of hierarchy and elitism.  One can only hope that this book will make other readers see how fruitful a concept it can be in the hands of a lucid and generous writer like Melzer.


And what finally of the hope with which I began that I might get some insight into the question of whether Ivan Illich is an esoteric writer?  Well, respecting all the provisos I have already made about the meaning of esoteric, I would answer with a qualified yes.  Illich was certainly a writer who strictly limited his means, writing in a formal and highly condensed style that required considerable unpacking – it was a standing joke in the milieu we shared that some of his oldest friends had told him that it was only after I put out a book called Ivan Illich in Conversation in 1992 that they finally understood what he was talking about.  It also true that he spoke only when he felt called to do so.  The call might come from a friend or from some perceived public emergency but there was always an occasion, and no attempt to produce a summa or system that went beyond these occasions.  Likewise, he made no systematic exposition of his Christian faith though it completely coloured his work. (I have never been happy with calling this “a hidden purpose,” as I quoted Todd Hartch as saying at the beginning of this review – there’s more on this point in my earlier review of Hartch’s book on this blog – but there’s no doubt that it was not always fully revealed either.) 


So I would say that Illich as a teacher and writer observed some of the ethics that Melzer associates with esotericism.  I would also say that attention to the esoteric dimension in the New Testament contributes to an understanding of Illich’s hypothesis that corruptio optimi pessima, the corruption of the best is the worst.  Illich believed that the good news of the New Testament was something volatile and evanescent – the announcement of a freedom to love that could never be commanded or produced on demand.  When this freedom was institutionalized and made to perform punctually and reliably, the best became the worst.  The church, in this sense, is the essence of the exoteric, of that “brutal earnestness,” as Illich once called it, which believes that the truth can be shouted from the rooftops without irony or reserve and with no fear that it will be denatured in the process.   So, insofar as Illich holds that the explosiveness of the Gospel demanded more tact and less triumphalism than the church would eventually show, he can also be understood as on the side of the esoteric.  And finally I would say that Melzer’s book also contributed something to my understanding of the spirit of complementarity in Illich’s work.  Illich, for me, is the great critic of monism – not a very satisfactory word I know, but I don’t know another for what I want to point to – a view of the world as a single homogeneous field reducible to a single principle or a single stuff.     Illich wrote against the transformation of the duality of gender into the monism ofsex, against the overwhelming of vernacular life by professional service and expert opinion, against the reduction of imaginative talk to the uniform code of mediaspeak.  Melzer’s view that philosophy should properly be in a relationship of mutual restraint, of complementarity, with what he calls the pre-theoretic or commonsense world accords very well with this disposition of Illich’s.  Indeed what Melzer calls philosophy in its modern phase, marked as it is by universalism, political militance, and exoteric overreach, is very like what Illich sees as “Christianity,” trying to bring the whole world into line.  But to pursue this thought would demand a complex adjustment of the vocabulary of Strauss and his school to the vocabulary of Illich and his tribe – school doesn’t quite seem to fit in Illich’s case – and that’s a task for another day.     

Nils Christie: In Memoriam


On May 27th in Oslo, my friend Nils Christie died at 87.  The news was a blow, and it was a solace to set down some of my memories of this dear man.  The result was the following reminiscence.  It reflects on the significance of Nils’ work, and the way my life became intertwined with his:


Nils Christie was born in 1928 and was just entering his adolescence when Nazi Germany occupied his native Norway.   After the war, as a student of criminology, he was asked by his professor, Johannes Andenæs, to investigate what had gone on during the occupation in the northern camps where the Nazis had imprisoned captured Yugoslavian partisans, brought to Norway,  without being told where they were going, as part of Hitler’s campaign of Nacht und Nebel, or night and fog.   Conditions in these camps were terrible – during one year seventy per cent of the prisoners had died – and this could not be written off as a purely German atrocity, because several hundred Norwegian guards had also worked there.  Nils’ assignment was to find out why some of these guards had killed or maltreated prisoners.  He interviewed former prisoners and a cross-section of the guards, including both those who had behaved cruelly and those who had behaved decently.   A stark conclusion presented itself: those who had behaved relatively well had gotten to know something about their prisoners – they had talked with them and had often seen pictures of their families – while those who had been vicious had made sure they knew nothing beyond what the Germans told them – that these were sub-human savages from the Balkans.  


The insight he gained through this study became the central principle of Nils’ criminology:  how punitive we are varies with how much we know about the one whom we believe ought to be punished.  He pursued it through many books and articles during a long and fruitful career in which he became, first, a leading voice for the steady reduction in imprisonment that took place in Europe and North America after the Second World War, and, then, when this trend reversed and rates of imprisonment began a rapid rise after the 1980’s, a voice of prophetic warning against the dangerous political implications he saw in this increase.  Again and again he demonstrated that the rate of imprisonment is largely unconnected to the rate of crime, and that the rate of crime itself is an easily manipulated artifact.  (He called one of his books A Suitable Amount of Crime.)  During his own career, imprisonment fell while crime was rising, and then increased while crime was falling.  Crime control, he showed, is always a question of policy, and not of some necessary and predetermined response to crime.


Nils wrote in English in what he called “the saga style,” and he claimed that whatever virtues his vigorous and rough-hewn English prose possessed were born of necessity.  He didn’t have the ability to write elegant, swirling English sentences, he said, so he was forced to carve out his words and concepts, as if writing with a chisel in rock.   I found it an eloquent style, which needed no other justification, but it also supported a lifelong campaign against euphemism in criminology.  This campaign and the saga style came together in the first book he wrote in English, 1981’s Limits to Pain.   Here he argued that the operations of criminal justice are typically swathed in soft words that conceal what is going on.  Imprisonment is the intentional infliction of pain, but it often speaks of itself as correction (the Correctional Service of Canada), or penitence (the penitentiary), or reform (the reformatory).  Call a spade a spade, Nils argued, and it would be less easy to punish.


Nils is often credited as one of the inspirers of restorative justice, and this is true, but he was also an opponent of professionalization; and, insofar as the once vital movement for restorative justice has been professionalized, bureaucratized and turned into a minor subdivision of the criminal justice system in recent years, he was also a critic.   A look at one of his most influential articles shows why.  “Conflicts as Property” appeared in the British Journal of Criminology in 1977, and it argued in Nils’ bold, direct way that conflict belongs to the community in which it occurs. The criminal justice system appropriates it and translates it into its own terms.  To take a real example from my experience, a shooting of a citizen by the police at the end of my street was treated as none of my business because it was under confidential investigation by the special branch of the police set up to investigate police shootings.   What concerned me personally, and them only professionally, belonged entirely to them.  To tell me anything about it would have been a violation of their duty.  In similar way, court proceedings are limited to what is considered relevant under legal rules, which often involve what Nils calls a “trained incapacity” to see the case in dispute as a whole.   Conflict is expropriated and turned into a legal resource.   The effect is to weaken the community.  Conflict builds moral muscle, and when it is habitually referred to professional authorities these muscles grow flabby. 


What Nils argues for in this article is a balance between the formal justice system and the informal processes by which people try to get along with one another and keep the peace – what his friend Ivan Illich called “people’s peace”.  Formal justice is blind.  In the personification of Lady Justice that has come down to us from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman sources, the scales and double-edged sword she is holding are complemented by a blindfold, and Nils never tired of pointing out that this showed not just her impartiality but also her inability to see beyond what could be accomplished with sword and scales.  As a final resort against violence, the formal legal system is infinitely precious.  When it monopolizes all conflict and undermines the community’s capacity for reconciliation, it becomes tyranny.   This was the basis for his position on restorative justice: by all means address conflict in the community but never allow this capacity to be professionalized and reabsorbed into the formal system.


I met Nils Christie at the urging of our mutual friend Ivan Illich.  Nils and Ivan had known each other since the early 1970’s when they found common ground in their attitude to schooling.  Nils had written a book, not yet translated from the Norwegian, whose title he rendered in English as “What if there were no school?” Ivan had just published his book Deschooling Society.  Nils also took part in meetings at CIDOC (the Centre for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico) on the role of law in a convivial society.  They kept in touch, and, when I came under Ivan’s influence around 1990, one of the first things he insisted that I do was to visit Nils Christie in Oslo and produce a radio series on his thought.   So, early in 1993, I took the overnight train from Hamburg to Oslo and found Nils waiting for me on the platform.   The next few days produced not just an inspiring set of broadcasts, which you can find under his name in the podcast section of this site, but also an enduring friendship, not just with Nils but also with his wife and fellow criminologist, Hedda Giersten.  She welcomed me at their table, just as Nils had welcomed me at the station, and I returned to Oslo, and to that table, several times in subsequent years, as well as several times receiving Nils at my home in Toronto. 


In 1993, when I first went to Oslo, Nils was about to publish a book called Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags Western Style?  It went through several editions, and, after the first, he removed the question mark from his subtitle.    It was his rueful reflection on the ever-increasing rates of imprisonment that he had been observing in the years before he wrote – most notably in the United States, and the former Soviet republics, but even under mild social democratic regimes – the Netherlands, for example, which had gone down to an astonishingly low 17 prisoners per hundred thousand of population in the 1960’s had reverted to 85 per hundred thousand by the time the third edition of  Nils’ book appeared in 2,000.   Crime Control as Industry asked why prison rates were growing so fast, and then considered the dystopian possibility that large prison complexes might offer considerable advantages to the emerging neo-liberal state and so become a permanent part of its social landscape.   Imprisonment provides jobs for those who build, supply and staff the prisons, but it also provides jobs for the prisoners, and in two senses: they become the raw material that the prison/industrial complex requires, and at the same time serve as convenient enemies for a society held together only by loose and provisional bonds.  Once capital abandons all local loyalties, Nils says, and even the winners in the economic sweepstakes feel how precarious their position is, a supply of certified losers can acquire a crucial symbolic function. 


Nils viewed the prison boom as, above all, a political emergency.   The societies that emerged from the Second World War contained a lot of people who knew at first hand the terrors of imprisonment.  Nils himself experienced a terrorized society as a teenager and knew in his bones what had happened in the Norwegian prison camps.  Post-war societies managed to control and reduce rates of imprisonment because they contained enough people who remembered concentration camps and refugee camps and who felt the awe and trepidation that the administration of pain ought to inspire.  But memories are short where mass media relentlessly highlight the present, and the appetite for enemies grew as societies polarized and became more complex after the 1960’s.   Nils worried about the emergence of “Gulags Western style” on two levels – the first was his compassion for the sufferings of the prisoners, the second, equally important, was his fear of the coarsening and desensitizing effect that large prison complexes have on political sensibilities.  Deprivation of liberty comes to seem normal and necessary; the state expands, while an intimidated civil society contracts; and the law wastes the majesty it ought to hold in reserve by involving itself in matters best left to the concerned community.  


In 1995, Nils’ sense of a dire political emergency inspired him to summon many of his old allies in the fight against mass imprisonment to Oslo for a consultation.  He also asked a number of prison insiders to join this gathering.  The head of the Correctional Service of Canada was there, as was the director of the prison system for the state of Texas, which then had a prison rate in almost vertical ascent, moving from under 200 per 100,000 in 1980 to almost 800 per 100,000 by 1995.   When this conference was in preparation, Nils called me and asked for my help in publicizing its findings. This was a moment of crisis for me because I had other projects in hand, and no desire at that moment to delve further into criminology.  However, with a little reflection, I soon saw that for years the success of my work as a broadcaster had depended on others saying yes, when I asked, and that it was now my turn to say yes.  I never regretted it, despite the diversion of my plans.  I went to Oslo and set to work on the first of the several series of broadcasts that I would end up making on the subject of criminal justice over the next five years. 


I recorded a number of excellent interviews, with Nils and others, after the conference in Oslo, and then when I returned home continued to explore alternatives to imprisonment.  In Oslo, I had sensed discouragement among many of the people there, people who had worked so hard to reduce rates of imprisonment only to see them take a sharp U-turn in the later 1980’s.  Back home in Canada I found more optimism.   Canada’s rate of imprisonment was a small fraction of the American rate, but it had still been inching up from 91 in 1981 to 114 in 1995 according to Correctional Service of Canada data.  (The American rate, by Nils’ calculation, was then nearing 600.)  The government would soon have to make a decision about whether to expand the existing prisons or build new ones.   The surprise to me, given the mood in Oslo, was that there was a lot of opposition to any prison expansion – within the Correctional Service and the Department of the Solicitor General, in the judiciary, and amongst the proponents of what was then just beginning to be called, in a new articulation of an old idea, restorative justice.   This preference for controlling Canada’s rate of imprisonment won the day, and the reaction I received made me believe that “Prison and Its Alternatives,” the series of ten broadcasts I presented on CBC Radio’s Ideas in 1996, might have played some small part in helping to consolidate this consensus in favour of holding the line.  Canada built no new prisons, and the rate of imprisonment declined slightly in subsequent years, until our current government began to deliberately force it up again.


 “Prison and Its Alternatives” told stories about promising alternatives to imprisonment around the world.  It did not make extravagant claims for these new/old forms of resolving conflict, but the series certainly had a “blue skies” element to it.  One of its interesting sequels was a call I received from David Cole, a provincial court judge here in Toronto.  He proposed that I spend a day “watching the parade”, as he put it, in his Scarborough court room.  The suggestion was not hostile, just a friendly attempt to bring me down to earth.  I went, learned something about the painful dilemmas involved in the day-to-day operations of the justice system, and later attended a conference of the Canadian Criminal Justice Association that David Cole helped to organize in Saskatoon on the pros and cons of restorative justice.   Nils was also there, and, in connection with the conference, he and I and the Australian criminologist John Braithwaite were invited to visit a “healing lodge,” a new type of prison  developed by the Correctional Service of Canada for aboriginal inmates.  There are now eight of these small institution altogether.  The one we visited was the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, a women’s prison in the Cypress Hills near Maple Creek.  We were very hospitably received and all three of us, as I recall, were terrifically impressed by an atmosphere that seemed to justify the prison’s ambitious name.  One of the people who show us round was Yvonne Johnson, a long term prisoner who had recently published a memoir, written with novelist Rudy Wiebe, called Stolen Life: A Cree Woman’s Journey.  (A very painful book to read, but, for me, a revelation, and I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone who thinks they can bear the ordeal.)

The Saskatoon conference became the seed of a radio series called “To Hurt of To Heal”, broadcast in 2,000.  The year before I had also published The Expanding Prison: The Crisis in Crime and Punishment and the Search for Alternatives, a book which I dedicated to Nils, since he not only inspired it but also, in a certain sense, asked for it when he sought my help in his dark hour in 1995.   And the work I did, at Nils’ instigation, was just one instance of the influence he exercised on reformist criminology in Canada.  Mary Campbell, who retired in 2013 as Director General, Corrections & Criminal Justice in the federal government, says that “his intellectual influence on Canadians over the decades cannot be overstated.”  (Her obituary, for Policy Options, is at  She particularly mentions Ole Ingstrup, twice the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, who was a good friend of Nils, and Judge David Cole.  I would also add the whole broad movement for restorative justice, which was permeated by Nils’ thinking.

What I have said so far might lead you to think that Nils’ influence was limited to criminology, but this is not so.  One of his most profound books, for me, is a short work – Nils was always wonderfully terse – called Beyond Loneliness and Institutions.  It describes the life of a rural Norwegian community called Vidaråsen, with which Nils was closely involved for many years and where he lived for a time.  It is one of the communities established world-wide under the influence of Rudolf Steiner that welcomes people with mental handicaps – Nils in his subtitle speaks of “communes for extraordinary people,” his preferred term for his friends there.  (In English these communities are usually called Camphill villages after the place near Aberdeen in Scotland where Austrian émigré Karl König and his associates established the first one.)  Nils admired and enjoyed the vivid and elemental quality of life there and also liked the challenge of presenting his ideas to people so far outside the ambit of academic discourse.  During one academic term, he had his University of Oslo seminar on “principles of justice” meet alternately at the university and at Vidaråsen.   What he discovered, he said, was that normal academic presentations were a flop, but when he “took up…concrete cases of justice, then the audience turned into a very vivid and active group.”  He compared the atmosphere in these seminars to what he experienced at the University of California at Berkeley when he lectured there in 1968 and “when the whole place was filled with vivacity and energy and student activity.”  (The quotations are from “Beyond Institutions,” a series I did in 1994 in which Nils discussed his experiences at Vidaråsen.)  He summarized his “life in the villages” by saying that “the increasing circle of extraordinary people I meet has made me aware of how handicapped we ordinary people are, when we are kept away from people who are extraordinary.”  This view was of a piece with his feelings about crime – the community is diminished when it doesn’t include everyone, just as it is diminished when it loses its power to resolve conflict. 

I cannot conclude without again mentioning Nils’ relationship with Ivan Illich.  Nils dedicated Crime Control as Industry to Ivan and gave him an honoured place at the conference in Oslo in 1995.  (An account of Ivan’s remarks on that occasion is given in my book The Expanding Prison.)   In the years after Ivan died in 2002, Nils and I had several long conversations about him.  I was trying to orient a book I writing about Ivan, but Nils was just as eager to ponder his friend’s legacy.  The two men couldn’t have been more different – Ivan, the Christian; Nils the humanist who recalled, the last time we spoke, that he had edited an anti-Christian newspaper while he was in high school.  And yet they were fast friends, and inspirations to one another.  Nils said that he got on best with Ivan when he treated him as “a visitor from the 12th century.”  Ivan doted on Nils and, early in their acquaintance, learned enough Norwegian to read  Nils’ book on schools.  Nils, doubtful, said that he examined him on the text and found that he had indeed understood it.  I see them as complements to one another, reaching the same place by very different routes, but both, in the end, equally devoted to the human scale and the face of the neighbor.

Nils died in hospital in Oslo on May 27th, the day after a collision with a tram while riding his bicycle.  He never recovered consciousness.  Nils was a lifelong cyclist and the last time I was with him in the summer of 2013 he took me riding through his hilly Oslo neighborhood on the electric bicycles he and Hedda had recently bought.  For me there is something glorious in knowing that he died as he lived, active and vigorous to the end, in the streets of the Oslo neighborhood where he was well known and well loved.  He will stay with me until the end of my days.  

What Is Religion?

A lecture to a legal symposium on Religion: A Public and Social Good, convened by the Canadian Council of Christian Charities at the University of Toronto.  It was delivered on May 11, 2015...                                                                      


Years ago, the Canadian philosopher George Grant told me a joke which he said he had heard from Bertrand Russell.  It tells of two atheists who are engaged in a long and fruitless debate.  Finally, recognizing that they’re getting nowhere, one turns to the others and says, "Look, let’s just give this up.  I’m a Protestant atheist and you’re a Catholic atheist and we have nothing in common.”  It’s a joke with a sharp and pertinent point in relation to my theme this evening the slipperiness of the word religion and the difficulty of telling who has it and who doesn’t.   Religion may be renounced but that does not mean that it is not still conserved, in both the institutions and the thought styles that bear its genetic imprint.  Atheism, as one such renunciation, is entirely defined by what it rejects and can never be anything more than a slogan until it specifies what that is.  Which God don’t you believe in is always the logical next question?  And that question, when it’s taken seriously, and not answered by an attack on some celestial straw man that no one ever believed in in the first place, must necessarily involve sustained historical, psychological and existential inquiry. 

The difficulty of defining atheism is one aspect of the more general difficulty involved in trying to define religion, and I don’t intend to try.  Rather I would like, first, to explore the bewildering multiplicity of meanings that are bound up in this everyday word, religion, and then, second, to show that the institutions by which we normally define it are but the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  Most of the mass lies hidden underwater in the form of thoughts and practices that we confidently define as secular.  This matters, I think, because religion is a contested object: in law, in education, in politics, in daily discussion.  And, if we don’t really know what we’re talking about, and if all sorts of rules are being made to contain this “x,” then it is probable that what we are doing is regulating the forms of religion our definitions can catch, while giving its many unrecognized forms a free ride.  Expanding our understanding, therefore, holds a certain promise and allows us at least to imagine a way out of the perennial modern culture war in which religion has always played such a divisive role.  

According to Eric Vogelin, the first writer to create a single compact category for the proper worship of the gods was Cicero.  Before this time, Vogelin says, many of the things that we unify under the name of religion had distinct and separate existences.   No one imagined that cosmological myth, Mosaic law, Buddhist dharma, and Platonic philosophy all belonged in the same bag.   Cicero’s motive, according to Vogelin, was conservative – he wanted to protect the truth in the face of a disconcerting and, he feared, disintegrating diversity of opinion and practice regarding the gods.   However that may be, the word was taken up by nascent Christianity, but still not used in our contemporary sense for a long time to come.  Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the great Canadian scholar of religion writing in the 1960’s argued that religion doesn’t even begin to acquire its contemporary flavour before the 16th century.   “Religion as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics and other areas of life,” says Cantwell Smith, “is an invention of the modern West.”  Before the 16th century - at the earliest - the word can denote a virtue, a disposition, a habit – a practice let’s say - but not the adoption of a set of propositions or beliefs as “my religion.”  In fact Cantwell Smith goes on to say that “the rise of the concept of religion is in some ways correlated with a decline in the practice of religion itself.”   (Just as an aside here some of the slipperiness of the word can be seen in that quote, in which Smith, having just said that religion is not a transhistorical essence but a modern invention then goes on to speak of “religion itself” as if it were just such an essence.  This shows, I think, the difficulty we still have in speaking of these matters.)  John Bossy, the historian of Christianity, concurs with Cantwell Smith in finding that religion remains inextricable from culture until the time of the Reformation.  Only then, did the idea of religion as a matter of rational belief and private choice begin to take shape.  By 1700, he says in his book Christianity in the West, 1400-1700, this process was relatively complete.  By then, he writes, “the world was full of religions, objective social and moral entities characterized by system, principles and hard edges.”  

Religion was isolated and packaged.  And, once it had been withdrawn from culture, it could then serve as a scapegoat, a cypher for violence and arbitrary opinion.  For example, the wars that convulsed Europe between the beginning of the Reformation and the Peace of Westphalia became known as the wars of religion.  But, as William Cavanaugh has shown in his book The Myth of Religious Violence, this name conceals more than it reveals.  What it conceals is that these wars were primarily wars of national self-assertion, the birth pangs of the modern national state, in which religion was often no more than a convenient marker for other interests.  It also effectively hides the sacred and church-like character of the emergent modern state by make this state appear to be the harbinger of freedom from religious violence.  Religion became the scapegoat of Enlightenment, the shadow in which it hid its violence.

A second important point to note is that this concept of religion was no sooner  formed than it was exported. Wherever an expanding Europe conquered, the template of religion was applied.  In India, for example, no clear distinction was drawn between religion and philosophy, and there was no thought that one ought to belong exclusively and as a matter of identity to one community of belief.   This does not mean there was never friction between communities, just that there was no object resembling what the modern West had come to call religion.  Today Hinduism defines itself as a religion; conflict between religions is endemic; and a superior secular authority is required to keep the peace and adjudicate these conflicts.

The isolation of religion was a key part of what French thinker Bruno Latour calls the modern constitution, that series of “purifications” – Latour’s word – which also included the equally artificial distinction then being established between nature and society.   Charles Taylor speaks of a “subtraction narrative” rather than a purification,  in his A Secular Age, but he has essentially the same idea.   In the conventional narrative of secularization, Taylor says, secularity is considered to be a primordial condition which is concealed by obscurantist religion.   Remove the religion and, presto, there’s the secular.  This story is no longer persuasive.  Taylor has shown convincingly that the secular is a child of Latin Christianity, and quite unthinkable without it.  Latour, likewise, has shown that the once plausible separations characteristic of the modern constitution are now in shambles.  If you had told Immanuel Kant, Latour once joked to me, that human beings were changing the weather, he would have patiently explained to you that you were a victim of outmoded mythic thinking – nature here/society there was a model that still worked for him as a demystification of occult powers.  In the new era that Latour likes to call the Anthropocene, when humans really do change the weather, it won’t work any longer.  And, I would argue it’s just the same with the separation of the religious from the secular – the fingerprints of religion on the secular are becoming too obvious to ignore.

Nevertheless they are ignored, and many still think that the category of religion covers only what goes on in mosques, churches, synagogues and temples or what goes on in our heads concerning the ultimate nature of things.  This continuing attempt to isolate and privatize religion runs into two main objections: first that religion exists in so many displaced forms, and second that it is built in to our institutions, and to our ways of thinking and speaking.  As far as its displaced forms, I think, this is pretty well worked ground, and I probably don’t need to go into it here.  I recently read a persuasive essay arguing that baseball is a religion, and I don’t think the idea is trivial.  If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck etc.  We use the word colloquially to describe any habit whose identical repetition we cherish.  One can be religious about a certain way of making coffee.   At a more serious level, millenarian political movements are commonly understood as displacements of religion.   In his book Migrations of the Holy, William Cavanaugh makes an excellent case for hiscontention that the modern state is now the primary site of the sacred.  Carl Schmitt makes the famous claim that, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” and adds the corollary that this is not just a question of historical precedence – the sovereignty of God comes before the sovereignty of the modern state – but also of structure – the analogy between the exception in jurisprudence and the miracle in religion is not accidental but derives from their identical function.   Schmitt took his insight in disastrous reactionary directions, but I think he is right nonetheless.  I don’t  see how we could get to the modern concept of sovereignty except via our idea of God, and, more than that, I don’t see how we can ever resolve the dilemmas of modern sovereignty without addressing their religious origin – a point I’ll come back to a little at the end.

A second aspect of the question of displaced religion concerns liturgy or ritual – the terms can be distinguished but are often used in overlapping ways.  Many modern students of religion have made the point that the relationship between liturgy and belief, or between ritual and myth is reciprocal.  Liturgy doesn’t just institute or incarnate a pre-existing belief, it also engenders that belief.  The British theologian John Milbank puts it this way: “The Christian God can no longer be thought of as a God first seen but rather as a God first prayed to,  first imagined, first inspiring certain actions.”  Liturgy enacts the church; it brings it into being.   But this is true not just of the church.   Its modern descendants – the school, the hospital, the prison – are also generated and maintained by certain rituals, or perhaps it would be better to say that their institutional practices are rituals, whose repetition produces a certain belief.  Consider for example the way in which the Canadian government has recently been able to generate a belief in public safety by intensifying the ritual of imprisonment, and has been able to do so in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are actually doing the opposite of what they say.   I won’t pursue this claim further here, but I think analysis of contemporary institutions a mytho-poetic (myth-making) rituals is a promising line of inquiry, and apt to show our supposedly secular society as a religious ceremony of unprecedented scale – to say nothing of cost.

I have already begun to touch on what I said would be my second point: the way religion is built in to the foundations of our society.  Here I will just briefly mention two of my most important teachers.  The first is Rene Girard, the French literary critic, anthropologist, and philosopher – his work is not easily  pigeon-holed.  His argument is that without religion, by which he essentially means sacrifice and prohibition, there would never have been human cultures in the first place.  Only religion, he says, could ever have contained our tendency to get stuck in self-perpetuating structures of reciprocal violence.  On this reckoning religion is the genome of human culture – its genetic constitution. 

Ivan Illich, the second thinker I want to mention, holds that modernity can only be understood as a perversion of what is given in the New Testament.  This is an argument to which I can’t do justice here, but it holds, in a phrase, that modernity is the Gospel upside down.   Jesus announces freedom from religion.  The point is complicated because this announcement is very hard to disentangle from the anti-Semitism that is always implicit and sometimes explicit in the attack on the legalistic Pharisees, but, nevertheless, again and again, religious prohibitions, even family ties and funeral obligations, are denounced in favour of a freely chosen love.   The Church makes this love the law.  It institutionalizes it and tries to make it perform punctually and reliably.  The result, claims Illich, is the vast architecture of institutionalized care which arguably defines modernity.

Now that’s almost criminally condensed, but my point is that our apparently secular world is nothing of the kind – rather it’s a kind of frozen religion – and it remains that regardless of how many people sit, or don’t sit in churches.  This realization has been dawning on people in many ways in our time, I think.  Another place to look is at the so-called return of religion in European philosophy – the descendants of Heidegger, thinking within the horizons of the New Testament.  Jean Luc Nancy calls Christianity “the nervous system” of the West.  Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou publish commentaries on the apostle Paul.  Jacques Derridawrites his Circonfession in homage to Augustine’s Confessions.  All these thinkers in some way recognize religion as a limit – something that we can’t get beyond.  Derrida, for example, shows how the messianic belongs to structure of experience, of time, of language.  “I’m afraid we’re not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar,” as Nietzche wrote in The Twilight of the Idols.  Many of these writers I’ve mentioned identify as atheists – Jacques Derrida puts it wittily and carefully when he says “I rightly pass for an atheist” – a statement which characteristically allows him to open the very door he appears to be closing.  A favourite work of mine, along these lines, is Richard Kearney’s Anatheism.  Kearney is an Irish philosopher and novelist and poet who now teaches at Boston College.  By adding the prefix ana – up, back, again – he tries to unsettle the theism/atheism distinction, and to highlight the atheistic moments even within theistic religion.  A simple distinction God/not God, he shows, is not true to our experience.

Now let me finally try to draw out two implications of what I have been saying. I have been arguing first that religion has changed its meaning over time, so we need to know what we’re referring to when we use the word – there may, for example, be a virtue of religion, expressing itself in a habit of humility and reverence, which is quite distinct, in our peculiar circumstances, from membership in a religious institution.  Secondly, I have been arguing that conserved religion – to give it only a very tentative name – is constitutive of our very way of life.  To me this points to the need for what Harold Bloom calls “religious criticism.”  This is the first implication to which I want to draw attention.  Bloom uses this term in his book The American Religion, and defines it by analogy with literary criticism, naming Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James as his two great predecessors in the practice of this art.  Literary criticism attunes itself to the voices of a text; religious criticism reads religion in the same spirit.  Now Bloom is interested in a taxonomy of the unique forms religion has taken in the United States, whereas I have talking here about how religion has conditioned our civilization as a whole, but I still find his term evocative.  Religiosity pervades our supposedly secular existence, and religious criticism suggests the discerning eye with which I think we need to examine it. 

The second implication, and here I will end, is that the only road open to the future may run through the past.  Only there will we find what John Milbank calls “the future we have missed.”  Suppose it is true that our present way of life is a product of religious misunderstanding – a perversion of the promise of salvation that has led into what begins to look like a historical dead end.  Suppose that the word religion, even after we have patiently deconstructed it, continues to name something essential about us, that, as William Blake says, “More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.”  Then I think it follows that only by understanding what has gone wrong will we be able to set it right.  This does not mean rejecting secular society and instituting utopia.  So long as religions generate oppression and war, a secular power will be necessary to restrain them.  The existence of such a power is already a remarkable religious achievement.  But it does mean re-understanding what has happened to us, which, I think, is what conversion is – not changing what has been, but seeing it with new eyes. 








A Review of Todd Hartch's The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the Modern West

Todd Hartch, The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West, Oxford University Press, 2015


Reviewed by David Cayley


In 1999, near the end of his life, I asked Ivan Illich how he would square the injunction which ends the Gospel of Matthew to “make disciples of all nations” with his opposition to the missionary activity of the American Catholic Church in the 1960’s.  The interview was being done for the radio arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and we both knew, as Illich remarked a little later in this conversation, that we were engaged in what he called “a shadow battle on radio.”  Accordingly, he let me have it.  “I reject your imputation,” he said, “that in the 1960’s I took a stand against the missionary activities of the Church.”  “Those were the days,” he goes on to say, “when an American manipulator, journalist and priest, who had glorified the missionary activities of the American Maryknoll Fathers in China, found a new vocation for this Catholic missionary order by inveigling Pope John XXIII into signing a document in which he asks North American bishops and religious superiors to send 10 percent of their ordained, trained priests to South America, the new mission field of the Church.  This man also wrote a paper, which he then had signed by the Vatican authorities, creating, as a parallel to the secular Peace Corps, an agency called Papal Volunteers for Latin America.  And I denounced this as an obvious, easily understandable caricature, as a corruption of the mission given by Jesus to his apostles.” 


This sounds like a pretty open and shut case, but readers of Todd Hartch’s just published The Prophet of Cuernavaca will soon discover a more tangled tale.  In 1961 Illich and several colleagues set up the Center of Intercultural Formation (CIF), in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with the announced purpose of training missionaries to Latin America.  (CIF later gave birth to the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC), a less church-centered organization which, for a time, operated in parallel with CIF and then displaced it.) This was a continuation of work Illich had begun in Puerto Rico some years before when he founded and directed the Institute for Intercultural Communication, which had trained New Yorkers who were working with Puerto Rican immigrants.  Here, Hartch reports, “hundreds of priests and nuns and some teachers, firefighters, police officers” were introduced to the Spanish language and the rudiments of Puerto Rican culture.   John Considine, the Maryknoll priest about whom Illich spoke to me, was a key figure in the launching of CIF.  Considine was then the director of the Latin American Bureau (LAB) of the Catholic Welfare Conference, and his concern was the implementation of the missionary plan for which he had gained the support of the Pope.  Illich’s work in Puerto Rico had given Considine a high regard for Illich’s abilities, and he had insisted that Illich was by far the best man to direct the training of these new missionaries, even when Paul Tanner, the general secretary of the association of American bishops, had argued with him that Illich was too much of a wild card to be trusted in such a position.  As the  director of the LAB, Considine was crucial to the flow both of both funds and students to the new center, and he served on its board of directors.  Without him, it’s unlikely, on Hartch’s evidence, that CIF would ever have got off the ground.  


Illich maintained cordial working relations with Considine for a number of years.  In a letter written to Considine in 1963 he acknowledges “frequent differences in opinion” but then goes on to say that these had only “strengthened rather than weakened our mutual respect.”   So, if Illich from the start had regarded the missionary initiatives for which Considine had won the Pope’s backing as “an easily understandable caricature” of the Gospel imperative to spread the good news, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the main manipulator in this story was Illich and not the earnest and somewhat credulous Considine.  But perhaps it’s the case that Illich turned against the missionary effort in Latin America more gradually than he allowed in his summary recollection to me nearly forty years later?  Todd Hartch does not think so.  He quotes a remark Illich made in connection with his years in Puerto Rico before ever establishing CIF.  “I learned in Puerto Rico,” Illich recalled, “that there are only a few people who are not stunted or wholly destroyed by lifelong work ‘for the poor’ in a foreign country.”  And Hartch thinks that this impression was fortified during a 3,000 miles journey that Illich made over a four-month period in 1960, winding his way from Santiago, Chile to Caracas, Venezuela.  Hartch calls it a pilgrimage; it was certainly a voyage of discovery.  Illich was impressed by Latin American folk Catholicism but repelled by the American missionaries he encountered.  “Remarks by Illich,” Hartch writes, “implied that the missionaries he met during this time conceived of their role as making the Latin American Church look more like the Church in the United States, saving Latin America from communism and building costly schools and church buildings.  Illich was so angered by these Americans that in 1960, probably on this trip, he told Bishop Manuel Larrain, president of the Latin American bishops’ organization that he was ‘prepared if necessary to stop the coming of the missionaries to Latin America.’”  What one can certainly say, it seems to me, is that Illich, from the beginning, believed that mission must be a vocation and not a programme with a target or a diversion of ecclesiastical personnel to an underserviced area.  Accordingly it’s hard not to share Hartch’s conclusion that, at the least, Illich’s relation with Considine involved a certain amount of “ambiguity, flattery and misdirection.” 


I begin with this vignette because I think it illustrates the value of Todd Hartch’s book for those of us who know something of the legend of Illich’s CIDOC years but not much of the historical record.    And Hatch discovered an extensive record deposited in archives at Harvard, Notre Dame, Indiana, Fordham and the Catholic University of America.  Drawing on letters, periodical literature, the recollections of teachers and students, and the many publications of CIF/CIDOC, as well as Illich’s own writings, Hartch has pieced together the story of Illich’s Cuernavaca years, beginning with the establishment of CIF in 1961 and ending with the closing of CIDOC in 1976.  Particular attention is given to what Hartch calls “the Catholic period” from 1961 to 1967.   He also provides a biographical sketch of Illich in the years before 1961, and concludes with an assessment of Illich’s work as a whole, but the greater part of the book is taken up with the goings on at CIF/CIDOC and with the question of mission.


Before he ever started CIF, Illich had developed a philosophy of mission.  The best introduction to it is a book called The Church, Change and Development (1970) which includes several substantial statements of Illich’s views.  The qualities that Illich urges missionaries to cultivate are humility, poverty of spirit, and silence in the face of all that they do not know and may never understand.  Missionaries may know the Gospel, but they can have no idea initially what it means in the new context they have entered, and, in that sense, they enter empty-handed.  He also urges the need for some formation in the sociology of religion, an education he himself had undergone in the 1950’s through writers like Will Herberg, Martin Marty and others who had shown that much of what passes for Christianity is no more than cultural accretion and the sanctification of civic piety.  Such an education was particularly necessary for Americans, he thought, because the power and influence of the United States made it easier for them to confuse the Gospel with the particular form of their church and therefore to become what he calls “ecclesiastic conquistadors.”


So Illich certainly began his work at CIF with the view that many, perhaps most of the Americans who were apt to end up in Latin America under a plan like Considine’s would likely do more harm than good unless they underwent drastic reorientation.  This was reflected in the CIF training courses.  In the very first session, Hartch writes, only thirty-two of sixty-two students managed to get through the course.  At all times Illich was, as his friend Joe Fitzpatrick said, “a sign of contradiction” who quite deliberately evoked strong reactions.  Hartch quotes one priest as saying, “The Monsignor is aiming too high, too high for me and others of my capacity.”  Another unhappy priest complained of Illich and his staff’s “rigorism.”  A French Canadian woman who attended in 1962 felt that the “program…brings students to the edge of hysteria and chase[s] half of them away.”  By 1965 even John Considine, finally disillusioned, was complaining that the students “morale” was being undermined.  There were of course also those who experienced CIF training as an awakening, and Hartch occasionally quotes them too, but the voices of the disappointed and offended tend to predominate.  Perhaps one can get the flavour of the good Illich did from a remark his friend the Bishop of Cuernavaca, Méndez Arceo, made to Francine Duplessix Gray who quotes it in her 1970 profile of Illich for The New Yorker.  “I love the way Illich tortures his missionaries,” the bishop told Gray.  “Sometimes I cry with emotion at seeing aged men, elderly priests shed their old selves under his care.”


CIF was established as a missionary training centre but soon began to open  other avenues as well.  Its library expanded, its journal, CIF Reports, became a voice for various cultural ferments then bubbling in Latin America, and the ambitious publishing programme that was later characteristic of CIDOC was begun.  As a result of meetings held under CIF auspices, a separate institute devoted to specifically Latin American pastoral methods was established.  Its stated purpose was to foster “vernacular pastoral methods in a prophetic, servant Church of the poor.”  This was one of the first stirrings of what became known as “liberation theology,” a movement in which CIF initially played a founding role.  Illich later opposed this tendency, insofar as it involved a politicization of the church, but the project of a distinctive Latin American theology was initiated at a meeting he convened at CIF’s Brazilian outpost in Petropolis in early 1964, and CIF Reports was the journal in which its first expressions were exchanged.  These developments constituted the positive side of Illich’s programme.  He wasn’t just trying to keep away missionaries who had an ethnocentric and clerical/bureaucratic conception of the Church; he was also trying to put forward a new image of Latin America as a potential source of renewal.  In 1963 he expressed his hope that Latin America, both in the sense of “occupation with it and preparation for it,” would have a “revolutionary influence on Church institutions outside of Latin America.”  “We can therefore,” he said, “ever more speak of the responsibility which Latin America has towards the world and which it is exercising though CIF.”  Illich, in other words, did not see North America as a rich civilization whose bounty ought to be made to overflow into the lands of its southern neighbours.  He saw it as a world itself in need of healing and rededication.


Illich’s hope that Latin America might assert a “revolutionary influence” on a complacent Church in the “developed” countries is characteristic.  He may have given the term his own twist, but he speaks frequently during this period of revolution.  His first book, Celebration of Awareness (1970), is subtitled A Call for Institutional Revolution.  Particularly telling, for me, is a letter Hartch  reproduces from 1962.  Illich was writing to his friend Joe Fitzpatrick, a Jesuit priest and professor of sociology at Fordham who had been Illich’s ally since the early 1950’s when they worked together on the integration of Puerto Rican immigrants into the Catholic Church in New York City.  In the letter he urges him to abandon “the institutional frameworks that now allow you to be courageous” and to risk “total involvement” in CIF even at the cost of losing “respectability among your peers.”  If Fitzpatrick were to embrace this professional and spiritual “exile,” then “in a way,” Illich concludes, “you might be the first North American priest who with full consciousness of what it involves…joins the revolution.”  This is a letter to a dear friend – I can still remember with what pleasure Illich, many years later, introduced me to Joe Fitz, as he called him.  It says something about what Illich himself was giving up, since his abilities would certainly have afforded him the comfortable priesthood and secure academic career that he is asking his friend to renounce.   But more than that it shows that Illich, at this time, was in full earnest about revolution.  The object of this revolution was what he spoke of in his late interviews with me as “the resurrection of the Church,” the Church he refers to in various writing of the 1950’s and 60’s as a “sinking ship” and a “giant [which] begins to totter before it collapses.”  The only way to save it, as he argued in his essay “The Vanishing Clergyman,” would be to dismantle its whole corporate, clerical bureaucratic structure and return to mystery, surprise and celebration – Illich’s three great watchwords.  The Church, he said, is “that surprise in the net, the pearl,”  “a divine bud which will flower in eternity,” and “a sign to be lifted up among the nations.”  This was the Church’s proper vocation, not manpower planning for Latin America, and, on the consistent evidence of what he said during his years as a churchman, he believed, in the spirit of the times, that the revolution he imagined could happen and that he was called to do everything in his power to see that it did.


This brings me to what I see as an ambiguity, and perhaps an ambivalence in Hartch’s book.  Hartch understands and states clearly that Illich was not against mission as such.  “He decried cultural imperialism posing as mission,” Hartch writes, “not the concept of mission itself.”  And yet elsewhere he refers to Illich’s “anti-missionary” campaign and even, on one occasion, to an “anti-missionary plot.”   This seems wrong to me.  Illich had a clearly articulated philosophy of mission, which honoured his Lord’s instruction to spread the Gospel.   How else call the Church “a sign to be lifted up among the nations”?  But Illich also believed that a staid, complacent and unimaginative American Church could not be such a sign under the conditions that prevailed in the 1960’s.  Consider: first, that the United States was then actively supporting dictatorships in Latin America which used torture as an instrument of government.   Illich had first hand experience with one such the murderous military junta that ruled Brazil with American connivance after 1964 – and, later, he published an open letter to Paul VI in Commonweal condemning the Pope’s silence about the atrocities of this regime.  Second, a development crusade was then underway – in Latin America it took the form of the Alliance for Progress.  Illich characterized development on the terms dictated by the donors as a “modernization of poverty” and offered evidence for his belief that development and mission were being conflated.  And, finally, the American missionary initiative was a bureaucratic programme and not an expression of missionary vocation.  As early as 1946 John Considine had written a book called Call for Forty Thousand, in which he called for the American church to send that many missionaries to Latin America.  That call later translated into the plan endorsed by Pius XII, implemented by John XXIII, and continued by Paul VI that the American Church should assign 10% of its personnel to Latin America.  (The number 40,000 was chosen as a “tithe,” which traditionally was the 10% of one’s income due to the church.)  Illich viewed this plan as a colonial, rather than evangelical undertaking.  These are substantial reasons, and, for me, they explain why Illich opposed a certain practice and interpretation of mission without opposing evangelization as such.



Hartch’s ambivalence’s also extends to his characterization of Illich.  Here I should confess a prejudice.  Although I met Illich in the later 60’s, I knew him mainly in the last fourteen years of his life, and I’m sure that the man I knew was an altogether sweeter and mellower man than the angular, ambitious and sometimes proud campaigner whose portrait Hartch attempts.  Nevertheless, I think there may be some confusion in this portrait between Illich’s personality and certain calculated gestures – poses, one might say – that he felt were required to accomplish the purposes he had set himself.   Illich was certainly a theatrical man, who liked to shock, but I bridled a little at the description of him as “difficult,” “prickly” “confrontational.”  Again I would say that his action should not be separated from his purposes and his calling.


Hartch’s critique of Illich culminates in his conclusion.  There he argues that Illich’s opposition to Considine’s crusade was uncharacteristic.  He speaks of “the anomaly of Illich’s prolonged disobedience.”  The idea is that even though the young Illich, in Hartch’s words, “often ignored rules and regulations,” and even though the later Illich trounced virtually every major modern institution in his writings, the period of the 1960’s stands out because only then did he defy the whole hierarchy of the Church.  The relevant passage is worth quoting in full:


Illich convinced himself that he knew better than one pope, then another, and then another. He knew better than the Pontifical Commission on Latin American.  He knew better than he American and Latin American bishops.  He knew better than the Second Vatican Council.  The popes and the bishops and the most important Church council since the Council of Trent were all wrong: American missionaries were so dangerous that he was justified in using any means necessary to foil their plans.


The tone here seemed to me, at first reading, almost bullying, as if the sheer number of pontiffs he was opposing should have cowed Illich into submission, but I think it does reflect a serious and substantial difference between Hartch and Illich on the question of obedience.   Hartch says that Illich, in standing against the whole hierarchy of his church,  “was flirting with the Promethean arrogance that he condemned in others.”   And yet, Illich loved the Church above all things and, more than once, spoke of himself as an obedient son.  How can this be understood?  I think the answer lies in a distinction Illich made in his conversations with New Yorker  writer Francine Du Plessix Gray between the Church as “She” and the Church as “It.”  (Gray’s profile of Illich can be found in her book 1970 Divine Disobedience)  The Church as “She” – I quoted part of this passage earlier – is “that surprise in the net, the pearl.  She is the mystery, the kingdom among us.   The identity of the Church as She will remain through whatever changes she is currently undergoing.”  The Church as It, on the other hand, is “the institution.”  “I can talk about It,” he goes on, “only in sociological terms.  I’ve never had trouble creating factions and dissent towards the Church as It.”   This quotation allows us to see, I think, why Illich did not consider himself to be in the grip of “Promethean arrogance” in opposing what he regarded as a corrupt and colonial account of mission.  He was not standing against the Church as She.  He disputed no item of faith and in no way questioned the Church’s magisterium, the Latin word by which the Roman Church designates its teaching authority.   He opposed the Church as It, arguing against its policy not its doctrine, and this is why he could take the position he did without compromising his duty of obedience.


In the final section of the book from which the above passage is drawn Hartch also reveals that he thinks he knows where Illich went wrong.  “The missing procedure in Illich’s investigations,” he says, “was a careful inquiry into the nature of mission itself.”  Then he goes further and argues that Illich betrayed his own convictions.  “Personal experience with oafish priests in Puerto Rico, Americanizing missionaries in Colombia, and indelicate Papal Volunteers in Cuernavaca led him not to deeper reflection but to setting aside or bracketing his beliefs about missions.  If questioned directly he affirmed the missionary call of the Church, but in practice he did not want to see missionary activity in Latin America.”  Now Hartch knows, and acknowledges elsewhere, that Illich conducted an extensive inquiry into the nature of missions, and left behind an inspiring record of it in several of the essays that are published in The Church, Change and Development.  So why does he say that Illich failed to carry out “a careful inquiry?”  It seems plain that he does not think that Illich carried out a careless inquiry, but rather that he was wrong.   Hartch gives two main reasons: the first is that he thinks the transmission of Christianity can occur even through the most flawed media.  African Christianity, he argues, is now a vibrant, “indigenized” faith despite its problematic colonial origins.  “Regardless of their intention, and often in direct contradiction of their intentions, he says, “missionaries can serve as catalysts of cultural revival.”  Second he thinks that ‘‘the mission field” is an irreplaceable and indispensable scene of dialogue.  The “thousands” of missionaries whom Illich drove away, in Hartch’s view, were an opportunity foregone – each one a bridge that was never crossed, a chance of greater intercultural understanding that died in its crib.  In fact, Hartch even thinks that Illich shot himself in the foot by so effectively discrediting missions because, by doing so, Illich deprived himself of the very ground on which he might have made himself understood.


The largely non-religious friends and colleagues with whom he collaborated in Germany lacked the theological background to engage the religious side of his argument, while most Christian intellectuals either could not escape the shackles of … modernity itself or lacked the cultural and historical resources to appreciate its profundity.  Only on the mission field could Illich have found his peers. [My italics]


Hartch’s disagreement with Illich, it seems to me, reproduces the perennial debate between reform and revolution.   Illich was explicitly revolutionary.  His claim may have rested on the witness of the New Testament, and the practice of the early Church, rather than some projected utopia, but it was still effectively revolutionary in the face of a Church that had become, in his words, “the world’s largest non-governmental bureaucracy.”  He called for a new, de-clericalized church, and for a practice of mission that followed the spirit of Jesus who sent his disciples out to preach and heal with the instruction “to take nothing for your journey but a staff.” (Mark 6:8)  In the absence of such changes, he saw the American church as “standing on the side of W.R. Grace and Company, Esso, the Alliance for Progress…and whatever is holy in the Western pantheon” and, therefore, as a fatally compromised source of aid for the Latin American church.


Hartch doesn’t refute these claims.  He doesn’t even dispute them.  In a sense, he simply turns away from them at the end, and declares Illich’s procedure to have been self-defeating.  This is a substantial argument, and one that Illich was often taxed with: a critique so total, his opponents said, removes any grounds for constructive action.  In the case in question, no missionaries go, the Gospel is not preached, not even badly, isolation intensifies, and Illich ends up with no one to talk to.    But this argument also overlooks something: that Illich envisioned a different way of doing things, and invited others to share his vision.  Had more than a few accepted, new paths would have opened, other encounters would have occurred, the Gospel would have been preached in a different way.   Even as it was, Illich never said, don’t come to Latin America, any more than he said, don’t preach the Gospel.  He argued that the missionary enterprise, as then imagined by a bureaucratic Church deeply entangled in American geo-political hegemony, was a Trojan horse, a poisoned gift.  If Illich was right in this view, then surely he was not wrong to follow its consequences to the lengths he did in trying to undermine this enterprise.  He never, to my knowledge, denounced or failed to recognize a true missionary.


The Prophet of Cuernavaca, as I’ve said, focuses mainly on the years of the years between 1961 and 1976, and most intensively on the years before 1969 when Illich resigned from Church service.  But Todd Hartch also tries to take the measure of Illich’s work as a whole.  One chapter called “The Grammar of Silence” begins with a letter John Holt wrote to Illich in 1971.  “I am distressed and discouraged to note,” Holt says in this letter, “how little even those people who spend many weeks or months at CIDOC understand what you are saying and how little their own lives or ways of thinking are touched by it.”  Hartch  endorses Holt’s view that Illich was not well understood and says that he finds it “surprising  that someone as intelligent as Illich…caused such confusion.”  “Many of his friends and supporters,” he goes on to say, “longed for the day when he would produce a clear, direct and simple speech or text, but he never did.”  No evidence is given for this statement, i.e. no friends or supporters are cited, and, though it’s certainly true that lots of people, at one time or another, found Illich hard to understand, I think it’s quite an exaggeration to say that his friends waited in vain for him to clarify his position.   It’s probably also worth noting in passing that, in my experience, people who said they didn’t understand Illich often actually meant that they didn’t accept his arguments. But, however that may be, what I would like to take up here is not Hartch’s claim but his explanation of it.  “The reason for this lack of lucidity,” he says “was that most of his teaching and writing had a hidden purpose.”   The term “hidden” is then supplemented, in the following pages, by a number of other equally pregnant words including “coded” and ‘camouflaged” and “obscured.”   What is being kept out of sight, of course, is Illich’s theological agenda.


I think a serious misapprehension is at work here.  One of Illich’s most sensitive and attuned interpreters, the Italian scholar Fabio Milana, has written that after his withdrawal from the church Illich’s condition was one of “exile.”  This seems true – Illich did not cease to be a priest just because he was forced to withdraw from the formal exercise of clerical functions, rather he moved into what could well be understood as missionary settings where his faith was often not intelligible on its face.  He himself told an assembly of the American Catholic Philosophical Association in 1996 that, “when speaking in Bremen or Philadelphia [i.e. in a secular setting] I felt I ought to shroud my ultimate motive in apophasy [i.e. proceeding by way of negation rather than affirmation].  I did not want to be taken for a proselytizer, a fundamentalist or worse, a Catholic theologian; I do not have that mission.”  But this discretion was something other than camouflage.  Illich sought common ground with his auditors in analyzing those institutions which modern persons most devoutly believe in – schools, hospitals, prisons, and the like.  He believed that these institutions were descendants of the Church and would have been unthinkable without the Church’s prior effort to guarantee salvation and render it punctual and reliable.  But this does not mean that his analysis was only valuable as a coded critique of the Church.  The school and the hospital are the effective forms of the Church among us – their “liturgies” are the ones that matter to us.  To understand what they do, and what they say to us about who we are, is not merely coded theology, or an allegory of church reform.  The church may have pioneered the dispensing of grace, but who now promises us “life more abundant,” if not the institutions of health and life-long learning? 


It is also important that Illich never disguised his idea that modern institutions bear the genetic signature of their church originals.  It is quite explicit in Deschooling Society where he says that the school system is “the repository of society’s myth” and performs functions “common to powerful churches through history.”  He speaks of the school as a “sacred precinct, ” a “sacred milieu,” a “drawn-out labyrinthine ritual,” and a place where “the intricate rubrics of initiation” are enacted.  This is not to deny that Illich at the end of his life said things he had never said before about what the corruption of the Church meant to him.   But he also insisted, when talking to me about these matters, that he spoke “not as a theologian, but as a believer and an historian.”   And to speak as an historian meant to recognize that “the Incarnation… represents a turning point in the history of the world for believer and unbeliever alike.  Belief refers to what exceeds history, but it also enters history and changes it forever.”  This is not the place to pursue the point further, but I do think that if Illich manifestly thought that the historian could follow the rocky road from the Incarnation to modern worship of life and health, and felt that tracing this road was his vocation as an historian, then not much is gained by calling him, against his wishes, a theologian.


The question remains: did Illich, as Hartch intimates, “stop just short of clarity”?  I obviously don’t think so.  He may have sometimes “veiled his ultimate motive”, as he told the Catholic philosophers, because he didn’t want to be misunderstood or too easily categorized as “fundamentalist…. proselytizer…or…theologian.”  But this to me does not mean he pulled his punches or obscured his meaning.  I would rather say that he tried to discern how much it was possible to say in a given setting.   This does not mean that he did not sometimes misjudge.  And it’s true that as an old man he did sometimes feel that he should have been more explicit about the faith that animated his critique.   But it is also true that his effort to make himself understood in settings where he could not presume on a shared faith produced an extraordinary and illuminating analysis of modern institutions, an analysis which is much more than encoded theology.


Todd Hartch, in his title, calls Ivan Illich a prophet.   This was a word that  Illich himself foreswore, once telling the then President of Italy, Romano Prodi, when Prodi asked him if he wasn’t engaged in “a continuation of prophecy for our time,” that “the time of prophecy lies behind us.  The only chance now lies in our taking this vocation as that of the friend.”  This is an interesting statement because it recognizes that prophecy remains a vocation – a calling – but then claims that this summons is now best answered through friendship.  Still, the word is hard to avoid when writing about Illich because prophetic is probably the most readily understandable word for the mode of clairvoyant denunciation in which Illich often writes.   My question would be whether Todd Hartch has allowed the full prophetic force of Illich’s work to reach him, or whether he has not rather tried, at certain points in his book, to have his cake and eat it too: on the one hand building up the image of Illich’s volcanic genius, on the other standing safely aside in judgment of his misguided radicalism.  I do not want to say that this ambivalence undermines the value of the work.  It doesn’t.  Hartch seems to me a fair-minded and even handed reporter when it comes to the historical record, and I am extraordinarily grateful to him for the work he has done in opening a window onto Illich’s CIF/CIDOC years.   I should say also that in his conclusion he recognizes the power and continuing pertinence of Illich’s critique of modern institutions.   More than that Hartch acknowledges that Illich “risked everything he had to present his message to the world.”  So the difference I am left with, I suppose, is that Hartch thinks that Illich, in at least one critical respect, was wrong, while I think he was right.   







A Review of Humanism and Embodiment

Susan Babbitt, Humanism and Embodiment: From Cause and Effect to Secularism, Bloomsbury, 2014


This book came to my attention because its author, a professor of philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario wrote to me to let me know that, in writing it, she had made considerable use of the work of Ivan Illich.  She focuses particularly on The Rivers North of the Future, a book made from my late interviews with Illich that was published in 2005, three years after Illich’s death.  Illich’s work has rarely received serious philosophical attention – Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s engagement with Illich in his preface to The Rivers North of the Future and in his own A Secular Age is exceptional – so I read the book avidly.  I do not really consider myself competent to review it, since it belongs to a series called Bloomsbury Research in Analytical Philosophy, and I have at best a very scant and mostly second-hand knowledge of analytical philosophy; but, since Illich’s work concerns me so closely, I thought I would pass along what I was able to glean of the argument. 


Babbitt’s book is about humanism, a vast word which has been deployed in many different ways over the centuries.  It is interesting to note in passing that when Erich Fromm introduced Celebration of Awareness, a collection of Illich’s essays from the 1960’s, he could find no better characterization of Illich’s stance than “humanist radicalism” which he defined as “radical questioning guided by insight into the dynamics of man’s nature.” Babbitt defines humanism as faith in “the possibility of (approximate) truths about human well-being…that is, about how best to live.”  These truths are to be discovered, Babbitt thinks, in a bodily way, which explains the second half of her title.  Humans, for her, are thinking bodies, not brains in vats, and “dualism” insofar as it separates mind and body is one of her bêtes noires.   Embodiment, she says, is “a philosophical challenge [which] reaches further than feminist philosophy typically ventures,” though the implied critique of feminist philosophy isn’t really developed in the book.  (Her subtitle “From Cause and Effect to Secularism,” I found a bit mystifying, since secularism is not extensively treated and no trajectory towards it from “cause and effect” is identified.)


A philosophy of embodiment, in her view, is “best conceptualized from within one of the core areas of analytic philosophy, the philosophy of science.”  The gist, as I understand it, is that, on the one hand, she wants to retain the idea that the world exists apart from our theories about it and is knowable as such. “However persuasive we may be in describing the world,” she writes, “the causal structures of the world do not change as a result.”  On the other hand she does not accept “positivism” which she defines as the view that all knowledge is justified by appeal to foundational beliefs with a privileged status – an example would be beliefs based on observation.   Positivism, she says, has failed because all beliefs depend on other beliefs, as well as on circumstances and conditions.  But this “context relativity” does not defeat our aspiration to truth because “there is a world with which we engage causally” and this world “acts on us, affecting us bodily.”


Cause, obviously, is a very important word here, and Babbitt says surprisingly little about what the term has meant historically, or even what it means in the context of this book.  The best definition I can offer, if I have read her well, is to say that the word refers to undeniable bodily experience which could guide us, if we would only allow ourselves to trust it.  But our ability to recognize the unchanging “causal structures of the world” is menaced by the fact that truth is only persuasive insofar as it is plausible or “projectible” – a term she borrows from American philosopher Nelson Goodman.  She illustrates by Eugene Ionesco's absurdist theatrical fable Rhinoceros, in which people in a small town gradually turn into rhinoceroses, until only one man is left who is not a rhino.  Now he is the monster.  Human-ness is not projectible in a world where rhinoceritis is the norm.  The same can be said where injustice is so pervasive and normalized that justice is unprojectible – think of the way in which slavery was taken for granted in the ancient Greek culture that we still think of as one of the seedbeds of humanism.  


Projectibility, then, threatens our ability to recognize, name and cultivate what is properly human, but it does not prevent it altogether.  And this ability, Babbitt thinks, is crucial   Early on in her book she gives two examples of writers whom she thinks have failed in this task.  The first is Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis who has written eloquently about saving languages and cultures, but who cannot, she says, tell us how to distinguish what is good in culture from what is reprehensible.  All cultures as such deserve preservation.  Her second example is philosopher/economist Amartya Sen who argues, in her words, “that  development aims for the realization of human capacities” but then fails to explain “how to know which capacities are the essentially human ones.”   Sen assumes, she says, “that human-ness is known.”   In other words, he takes as given what Babbitt thinks must first be discovered.


How human-ness is to be discovered is the main subject of her book.  She draws on three traditions, or streams of thought which she names as historical materialism, eastern philosophy and Christian scripture.  These three have certainly come into contact and even dialogue, but it is still somewhat unusual to find them aligned in the way Babbitt aligns them  – Marx mixing with the ancient Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu and L’Arche founder Jean Vanier rubbing shoulders with the Italian reform Communist Antonio Gramsci, and all being treated as equal, and, in some sense, compatible authorities.  What they have in common, in Babbitt’s view, is their respect for embodied experience.  She begins with Marxist thought and with the dialectical interplay of theory and practice that its exponents have preached.  For example, she quotes, Lenin on the pursuit of self-understanding as a passage through “dark waters” in which the subject must sometimes be transformed in order to understand himself or herself.   And she cites Gramsci who says that “only the man who wills something strongly can identify the elements that are necessary to the realization of his will.”   These ideas, she says, are “resources” for a philosophy of embodiment.  She does not endorse Marxism, or historical Communism;  she says only that historical materialism is right in insisting that we can only act, learn and grow by engaging with the real conditions in which we live.


Her second resource is Eastern philosophy.  The Buddha, she says, understood the role of projectibility in intellectual reasoning, and, for that reason, insisted on close attention to actual experience or what Babbitt calls “cause and effect within the body.”   Feelings count for more than thoughts because they are not subject in the same way to the “constraints of plausibility.”  Meditation, on this view, is ruthless and unsentimental attention to everything that happens to and within the body.  It is not a way of escaping the world but of understandinghow it comes to be. 


Her third resource is Christian scripture.  She finds in the New Testament a strong emphasis on faith grounded in experience, rather than in ideology or “belief system.”  What Jesus calls the Kingdom of God is present in the world, but it can only be found by overcoming the self.  “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it,” he says, “but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”  (Matthew 16:25)  “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” he says on another occasion, “it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24) This teaching corresponds, for Babbitt, with Buddhism’s recognition of the illusory character of the self and the Marxist insistence that we can change neither ourselves nor the world without submitting to the actual historical conditions in which we live.  The over-arching idea is that we find our humanity in encounter and not in preoccupied subjectivity. 


In connection with Christian scripture, Babbitt also cites French philosopher Alain Badiou’s book on St. Paul.  Badiou says that, for Paul, “it is not the signs of power that count, nor exemplary lives but what a conviction is capable of here, now and forever.”  Paul’s conversion is what Badiou calls an Event – “an utterly original happening which is out of joint with the smooth flow of history and which is unnameable and ungraspable within the context in which it occurs.”  (The quotation is from Terry Eagleton, whose paraphrase of Badiou Babbitt quotes.) The idea, once again, is that what counts is what happens.  Paul’s experience of a universal Christ in whom there is “neither Jew nor Greek” is, in no sense, projectible.  To understand it will be the work of a lifetime for Paul, and, inasmuch as Christianity subsequently remakes the world, it is not wrong to say that we are still absorbing it.  But everything begins, as Paul says repeatedly, “in the flesh.”


At this point readers of Illich will probably begin to see where his reading of the parable of the Samaritan fits in.  Jesus tells the story in response to a question from “a certain lawyer” who asks him, “Who is my neighbor?”  A man was going down to Jericho, he says, and was set upon by robbers and left for dead in a ditch.  Two of his co-religionists, a priest and a Levite, come along but “pass by on the other side” – either because they have more important religious duties to fulfill or because they are avoiding contaminating contact with what may be a corpse.   The next to pass is a Samaritan, someone not of same religion or community as the man in the ditch.  He stops, binds his wounds and takes him to an inn where he can be can recuperate, promising the innkeeper that he will reimburse him for any unforeseen expenses on his return.   This story, Illich says, has for centuries been misunderstood as a teaching about the duty of care.  But its real point, for Illich, is to show that who the neighbor is cannot be known in advance.  The Samaritan turns out to be the neighbor because he responds bodily to the call of the wounded man.  It is not a duty that calls him – according to the ethics of the time his duty would have extended only to his own people, and not to some half-dead foreigner beside the road – it is an urgent bodily response which he feels that he cannot refuse. 


Babbitt drawsattention to several features of Illich’s account.  First the man in the ditch does not “fit” from the point of view of the Samaritan.   No “skein of relations” or “network of concern” exists at the moment of their encounter.  There is no category or a priori understanding which can guide the passer-by.  In acting as he does he reaches beyond all existing horizons.  Second his response is a bodily one – the King James Bible says that he felt compassion but the Greek refers more graphically to what we would call his gut. And, finally, the occurrence depends on chance – the Samaritan happens upon the wounded man.  “Embodiment,” Babbitt says, “implies radical contingency, not just of meanings, but also of meaningfulness.”  She means, I think, not just that various meanings might be assigned to a given event, but that event itself may give birth to the meaning. 


By this point in my reading it had become clearer to me what Babbitt means by saying that we engage “causally” with the world.  As far as I can understand her, she is saying that there is a world that exists beyond the horizons of our theories and beyond what we can reach so long as we remain entrapped in a self that pretends to a certain sovereignty over its own experience – she sometimes adopts Charles Taylor’s term “the buffered self” to describe this modern sovereign stranded in its own subjectivity by its pretension to choice, planning and control.  This world can speak to us and change us but only if we recognize the authority of chance and trust our embodied experience.  (In case this should seem like a truism – who doesn’t trust their embodied experience? -  consider the case of the trained professional who has, in Babbitt’s words “no need to be experientially aware of the person [he or she is] assisting” because the professional, in effect, knows the case in advance.) This trust in embodied experience can potentially lead us towards an understanding of what is properly human. 


I’ve already said that I know little of analytic philosophy, but what little I do know leads me to suppose that Babbitt’s undertaking is both brave and novel.  This is evident in the variety of resources she brings to bear, as well as in the fact that she calls them resources i.e. recognizes that she is intimating andsketching a direction rather than producing a finished philosophy.  A book that yokes together historical materialism and Christian mysticism, Buddhist psychology and analytic philosophy of science must necessarily set aside obvious dissonances and incongruities in order to highlight the common features of these traditions.  I take this not as a fault but as an indication of the direction in which she wants to encourage thought to move.


Looking, finally, with the eye of someone who remains involved with the work of Ivan Illich, I would say two things.  First I am delighted, as I said earlier, to find Illich given such serious and sustained treatment in a work of philosophy.  Second I think he has much more to give.  Babbitt relies mainly on Illich’s interpretation of the story of the Samaritan, though she does refer to other works, and I rejoiced to find an accurate and friendly digest of Gender, a book often vilified by feminists.  A fuller account of Illich’s understanding of embodiment and why he found modern risk society so fatally disembodying remains to be written.   I hope to write this account, and I am happy to have found a sympathetic fellow traveller in Susan Babbitt.