On Being Without a Scaffold

On Being Without a Scaffold

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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