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.