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.”