Christ and Anti-Christ

"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



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.”