Echoes, Affinities, Resonances: Ivan Illich in Contemporary Thought



(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.) 



In the year before he died, Ivan Illich was the guest of his friend Jerry Brown in Oakland, California where Brown was then the mayor.  Brown lived in what he called a loft, a large building near Jack London Square and the Oakland inner harbour, which he had renovated to make space for offices, meetings rooms and an ample number of guest rooms, along with his own apartment.  Beginning in the year 2000, he had invited Illich and his associates to use this space for a couple of months in the early fall to conduct meetings and seminars– an event that became known as The Oakland Table.[1]  During its second 2001 edition, Brown recalled, in an obituary tribute to his friend…                                  

[Illich] invited the local archbishop to discuss matters of Catholic theology that greatly troubled him. Before he died, Illich wanted to engage ecclesiastical representatives in a conversation about corruption in the early church and the evolution – as he saw it – of Christian charity from a personal act to planned institutional services. This he called the corruption of the best becoming the worst – Corruptio optimi quae est pessima . His interlocutors arrived at my loft and were ushered into the library. Illich spoke at length, summoning up his vast store of Church history. He tried one subject, then another, but the bishop and his clerical assistants seemed nonplussed, even uncomfortable. Soon the conversation was over and our guests excused themselves and left. I am sure they were wondering what in the world Illich was getting at.[2] 

This failed encounter typified Illich’s relationship to the Church from whose service he had withdrawn in 1969 – the year in which he concluded that the climate of scandal and innuendo which his opponents had generated around his name made it impossible for him to continue as a churchman.  His disappointment with the archbishop continued a theme he had sounded with me in 1993, when he said that, on the subject of how modern service institutions express “a perverse transmutation of…Christian vocation…I have not even found a first conversational partner within any of the established churches.”[3]  And it was not just the Church that was deaf to what Illich had to say.  In the 1970’s his lectures were mobbed, princes and prime ministers sought him out, and his essays were published in the Saturday Review and the New York Review of Books.  By the later 1980’s he was still in demand, and still the centre of a lively intellectual circle, but no longer quite au courant.   This was in many ways good.  Illich had no wish, as he said, to become “a jukebox,” spinning the same old tunes, and he could never have maintained the fevered pace of the early 1970’s when, as I related earlier, he once came to Vancouver and thought he was in Seattle.   He was never going to be an ordinary man – there was nothing ordinary about him – but the smaller settings and unhurried friendships of his later years were certainly a gift to his friends and, I think, to him as well.  Nevertheless there was the sense of a voice unheeded, and of seeds that, outside a small circle of friends, and a few outposts of unreconstructed 60’s radicalism, had fallen on “stony places where they had little earth.”[4] 

This was the situation, as I understood it as well, when I broadcast “The Corruption of Christianity” on CBC radio the beginning of January, 2000, when people were still adjusting to the fact that their computers hadn’t all gone haywire at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day.  My standing at Ideas, and the traces of celebrity that still clung to Illich’s name, were enough to justify my launching, just twelve years after “Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman,” a second week-long series of broadcasts which otherwise would have faced the objection that we had already “done” Illich.  But I had no sense that I was presenting something that dovetailed with any contemporary school of thought or body of opinion that I could identify.  I understood that “secularization” theories were abundant, and that Illich was hardly the first to suggest that Christianity had had a formative influence on the West, but the way he had framed his account of modernity – neither as a transformation of Christianity, nor as its repudiation, but as its perversion – was entirely new to me and seemed to hold implications far beyond what I could then think or imagine.  It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that it’s taken much of the twenty years that have elapsed since my final interviews with Illich were recorded to get me to the place where I feel I have some perspective on “the testament,” as I called it, with which Illich left me.  This effort to become equal, or at least adequate, to what I had been given took two forms: reflection on Illich’s hypothesis as it touched my life and the interpretation of his work, and a research aimed at discovering other contemporary thinkers in whom Illich’s corruptio optimi pessima has some echo, intimation or resonance. The first straw in the wind was a call from Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, while “The Corruption of Christianity” was being broadcast, to tell me that “the basic thesis” of the account of Western modernity on which he was then working “was similar to Illich’s.”[5]  (Taylor had first advanced his thesis that “secular civilization” is a mutation of Latin Christendom in his 1998-99 Gifford Lectures and would publish his work in finished form in 2007’s A Secular Age.)  Taylor’s championing of The Rivers North of the Future, both in the preface he wrote for the book and his sympathetic discussion of it in A Secular Age, gave my book a broader readership than it might otherwise have had. 

I soon noticed many other resonances.  One example, on which I have already commented several times, is the theological movement known as “Radical Orthodoxy.”  Its first proponents were British theologians John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward.[6] I had already read Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy at the time of the interviews that comprise the second half of The Rivers North of the Future, and an echo of Illich endorsement of Pickstock’s thesis can be found on the last page of Rivers where Illich supposes that “those who propose a new orthodoxy” and claim that philosophy must culminate in praise, not propositions, are in harmony with his lifelong attempt to put celebration at the centre of social existence.[7]  Further reading, particularly in John Milbank’s monumental, and yet still manifesto-like Theology and Social Theory, convinced me that there are profound and far-reaching affinities between Illich’s thought and Milbank’s. 

Radical Orthodoxy is just one version of the radical potential of a perfectly orthodox Christianity.  G.K. Chesterton, himself an instance of this potential, has a chapter in his book The Everlasting Man called “Five Deaths of Faith,” in which he isolates the moments at which he thinks Christianity has died and revived.  He mentions the heresies that threatened to engulf the early Church, the Albigensian heresy, skeptical Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment rationalism, and “after Darwin.”  In each case some form of revival or awakening has followed, and several, beginning with the great religious revival of the 1730’s and 1740’s, have been called Great Awakenings.[8]  Robert Inchausti in a book called Subversive Orthodoxy wonders whether the post-modern moment might not be another.  (Inchausti’s book in which Illich is featured alongside a long list of radical Christians, from William Blake to Wendell Berry, makes no reference to Radical Orthodoxy, but its title is a variation on the same theme.) 

Another important encounter was with the theologically-oriented Irish philosopher Richard Kearney whom I featured in an Ideas series in 2005.  Through him I began to discover the “theological turn” in phenomenological philosophy.  Kearney in a book called The God Who May Be introduced me to the idea that God exists in the mode of potentiality, or possibility, rather than as a definite and substantial being of whom one can ask the question, is he there or not, yes or no?  When Moses comes across the bush in the wilderness that burns without being consumed and the voice of the Lord calls on him to lead the people of Israel out of captivity, Moses asks the Lord how he should respond, if the people should ask, what is the name of the one who sent you to us?  Most translators have given God’s answer as “I am who I am…say to the people of Israel, ‘I Am’ has sent me to you.”  Modern translators, beginning with Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber in their rendering of the Hebrew Bible into German, have suggested, “I will be who I will be” is also a possible translation i.e. God’s manifestation is linked to human manifestation, each depending on the other.  What God will be depends on the answer we give to a call, a voice, whose existence we will partly determine by our response, not because we make God, but because Man and God are a mutually interpenetrating polarity, in which God is discovered in Man, just as Man is discovered in God.          

Through Kearney I began to see that atheism could be considered a cultural phase, a period of purgation and darkness, which potentially has a farther shore.  Nietzsche presents the death of God as a happening, indeed a killing.  His “Madman” who declares “the death of God” in The Gay Science says that “what was holiest…has bled to death under our knives.”[9] The death of God to this way of thinking is a historical event – the divine image that had prevailed in the West had atrophied in the hearts of Nietzsche’s contemporaries.  That’s why he gives them such an active role as murderers.  But what has died is only one historical and psychological image of the living power in which we “live and move and have our being.”[10]  To let go of what Kearney calls the “omni-God” does not necessarily imply atheism.  His alternative is what he calls “anatheism,” a disposition in which the absence and the presence of God are both allowed their moment, an attitude in which the couplet God/man is not fatally divided, and an isolated and self-enclosed humanity left to wonder where God has gone.  

Kearney’s anatheism points to a “zone of indecision,” a moment of not knowing which is the inseparable complement of knowing, the moment when Mary is confronted by a messenger who tells her – is he mad? – that she will conceive the Son of God in her virgin womb.  At this moment, the event on which, according to Christians, all history pivots, hangs in the balance.  It will happen, evidently, only if this obscure teenager in Galilee says yes.  Reality at this point is unknown, unformed, undecided – a true surprise, as Illich says.  God may, by definition, foresee the outcome, and theologians may offer subtle accounts of how it is possible that the outcome of free actions can be foreknown – Einsteinian physicists too have their way of proving that time is an illusion and the future already exists – but from the point of view of the present this is only speculation.[11]  This zone of indecision represents a limit for philosophy – a darkness in which it cannot easily be distinguished from theology.  Such a distinction was crucial, even in Heidegger’s early writings, because theology is, in Heidegger’s words, “a positive science,” i.e. it reflects on a content already given by divine revelation, while philosophy is free, speculative thought.  But, once philosophy discovers that what is given in revelation is both a structure of experience, and an implication of language, the distinction begins to dissolve.  Philosophy, in a sense, discovers that it has as much faith as theology, even if this faith is framed in atheist terms.  Jacques Derrida’s celebrated bon mot that he “rightly passes for an atheist” perfectly captures this new mood.  Yes he is an atheist in that he lives within the horizon of “the death of God,” and yet he only “passes” for an atheist, even if “rightly,” because what he discovers at the limit of his experience is “the gift of death” and “a messianism without religion.”[12]  Derrida’s “acts of religion,” as one of his books is called , are echoed in the works of Jean Luc Nancy, Slavoj Zizek, Gianni Vattimo, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and others – all of them philosophers who could say with Derrida that they rightly pass for atheists, and yet all of them recognizing what is given in Christianity as an unsurpassable horizon, the very “nervation” of the West as Nancy says.[13] 

Rudolf Steiner, who believed that human consciousness undergoes evolution, characterized the modern period as the time when what he calls Consciousness Soul develops.  According to Owen Barfield, Steiner’s wonderfully lucid interpreter, “The Consciousness Soul indicates the maximum point of self-consciousness, the point at which the individual feels himself to be entirely cut off from the surrounding cosmos and is for that reason fully conscious of himself as an individual.”[14] Shakespeare’s Hamlet, plunged into the abyss of self-consciousness, and thus into endless indecision, is the proto-type of Consciousness Soul.  Consciousness soul, Steiner says, cannot believe, because all that is finally real for it is the self.  Steiner’s response was to ask his students “not to believe.”  “Think these thoughts without believing in them,” he once said.[15]  This is germane to the theological turn in philosophy, I think.  If it is true, as I said earlier, that the death of God is an event not an idea, an experience, not the failure of some cosmological hypothesis, then it is very natural for philosophers to now be exploring Christianity without belief.  Kearney’s anatheism is a way of naming the disposition within which this can occur.  The prefix ana indicates up, back, again – it refers to the moment before we know what we are facing, the moment when we are thrown back on ourselves, the moment that repeats but always repeats differently.  It allows atheism and theism to coexist, making neither final.   

Illich’s corruptio optimi pessima has various implications: it urges us to see a displaced and degenerate salvation being enacted in our great “service” institutions, and it invites us to return to the Incarnation and its witness in the Gospel in order to understand them again differently in the light of their corruption.  I want to argue that the developments I have sketched above, in both philosophy and theology, have created a climate which is much more receptive to what Illich has to say than the one in which he thought he was operating towards the end of his life.  I say “thought he was operating” because the first intimations of this new climate are clearly evident, at least in retrospect, during the last years of his life – Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory, for example, was published in 1990.   In what follows I want to examine several of the thinkers who have treated the same themes as Illich, and, in the process, helped me to understand these themes. 


Giorgio Agamben is a prolific Italian philosopher, now seventy five years old, who has explicitly recognized his affinity with Illich.  He has acquired Illich’s Italian literary rights and already introduced a new edition of Illich’s Gender (Genere in Italian) to the Italian public.  In his introduction to this new edition, he asserts that Illich’s work, misread and misunderstood when it was first presented, has now reached its “hour of legibility” and that Illich is unique in contemplating “the catastrophic consequences of [Christianity’s] secular perversion” from a position deeply rooted in its tradition.[16]  Agamben has also written an introduction to a new collection of Illich’s essays and lectures, mostly written when he was still in Church service, that the Penn State Press has just published as The Powerless Church.  In this essay, Agamben argues that the “thought of the kingdom” is central to Illich’s thought as a whole, a reading which coincides with the emphasis on the messianic moment in Agamben’s own thought, but is still, I think, substantially correct.  This is one of many overlaps between Agamben’s themes and Illich’s.   

Agamben’s concern, according to one recent commentator, is with nothing less than “the metaphysical structure of modernity.”[17] I think this term, though grander, corresponds fairly closely with Illich’s “certainties” – those things we don’t think about because they are, in effect, what we think with.  Agamben’s ultimate aim is liberation from this metaphysical structure – a task in which he thinks the messianic plays a crucial role.  Speaking in Notre Dame Cathedral in March of 2009, in the presence of the Bishop Paris and other high-ranking church officials, Agamben gave what he was not afraid to call a homily on the subject.  “The Church,” he said, “has lost the messianic experience of time that defines it.”[18]   He went on to distinguish the messianic from the apocalyptic, or what he elsewhere calls the eschatological.  Eschatology is concerned with the last or final things, with the end of time, and of the world.  The Messianic is possible at any moment.  Agamben’s watchword, here as in other texts, is Walter Benjamin’s saying that “every day, every instant is the small gate through which the Messiah enters.”[19]  The messianic, in other words, is not the end of time but a changed experience of time occurring within time.  So long as we live in what Benjamin calls “empty homogeneous time” – that indifferent, inexorable carriage that speeds us helplessly from moment to moment – and believe that this is the only time, then “the time in which we believe we live [will] separate…us from what we are and transform…us into powerless  spectators of our own lives.”[20]  The messianic, in effect, makes time real – it allows us to seize it and inhabit it, and, in this way, to realize its inherent relationship to eternity, and the end of time.  In Agamben’s words: “What is messianic is not the end of time but the relationship of every moment…to eternity.”[21]  (Agamben doesn’t say so explicitly, but I would add this is because the terms, time/eternity, are generative polar opposites interpenetrating in the field which their polar opposition creates.)   

Agamben’s scriptural proof text, mentioned in the Notre Dame talk but analyzed at much greater length in his book The Time That Remains, is the passage in the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, in which Paul advises his brothers and sisters there that “the time has grown very short.” (This is the translation in the Revised Standard Version, Agamben prefers “the time has contracted.”)  In view of this shortening or contraction, he advises the Corinthians that each should remain in his/her existing status. “Let those who have wives,” Paul writes, “live as though they had none, and those that mourn as though they were not mourning, and those that rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those that buy as though they had no goods, and those that deal with the world as though they had no dealings with the world. For the form of this world is passing away.”[22]  This “as though,” or, “as not” is crucially important to Agamben.  It signifies, he says, “the revocation of every vocation.”[23] This is the condition – he sometimes calls it “inoperativity” – towards which Agamben strives in his writing.  It’s a state in which all that holds our world and ourselves in thrall and pre-determines the way we will go, is cancelled or held at bay – an awakening to all that is held down and imprisoned by our habits, by our unthought assumptions, by the weight of history, and by a conception of time as railway on which we are hurried along.   

Agamben reads Paul very selectively.  He does not draw attention to the passage in 1 Thessalonians where Paul imagines a cinematic Second Coming in which “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpets of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”[24] So extravagantly mythological an account would not suit Agamben’s purposes, for it would show that Paul was not seeking a renewed experience of the inwardness of time, but a positive Rapture in which the faithful are swept up.  But there is another Paul, the Paul who says in the same letter I have been quoting that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” an event unlikely to be heralded by a trumpet.[25]  He also says, to the Corinthians, without any apparent reference to futurity or celestial light-shows, “Now is the day of salvation.”[26]  Agamben recuperates this side of Paul and demonstrates how it might be possible for those of us, who are on the other side of the death of God, to understand Paul anew – to, as it were, recover messianic Paul from eschatological Paul. 

Agamben’s argument in Notre Dame cathedral was that, once it became clear that the once-and-for-all end of the world was imminent only in the elastic sense in which the apostle Peter says that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” the Church largely forgot about the messianic as an experience of the present and got on with the task of government.[27]  For the early Church – “in the eyes of the Church Fathers, Agamben says – “history [is] a field traversed by two opposing forces.”  The first is that binding, worldly power that the Second Letter to the Thessalonians calls “the Restrainer” (to katechon), that force which “maintains and ceaselessly defers the end along the linear and homogeneous line of chronological time.”[28] The second is the force that Agamben calls Messiah, which revokes all vocations and turns time inside out, showing it, in the words of William Blake, as “the mercy of eternity,” the mirror in which eternity becomes visible to us as embodied creatures enclosed in what Paul calls “this body of death.”[29]  It is the task of the Church to reveal this dimension of time, and, only when it does, Agamben continues, can a truly human community be created.  “The only way a community can form and last” is if both poles – both the restraining and the liberating force – “are present and a dialectical tension between them prevails.”[30] The Church, however, has put itself on the side of the restraining force.  “Let us call this force Law or State,” Agamben writes, “dedicated as it is to economy, which is to say, dedicated as it is to the indefinite – and indeed infinite – governance of the world.”[31]   Agamben then concludes his homily with these words: “The question I came here today to ask, without any other authority than an obstinate habit of reading the signs of the times, is this: Will the Church finally grasp the historic occasion and recover its messianic vocation?”[32] 

Thus Giorgio Agamben to the Bishop of Paris in 2009.  One would like to say these words resounded like Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517.  I don’t see much evidence as yet, but, of course, most historians now say it is mere legend that Luther’s theses were ever nailed to that famous door in the first place, so perhaps one day it will be said that Giorgio Agamben nailed his manifesto for a messianic church to the great doors of Notre Dame and started a revolution.  Certainly one can see the deep affinity with Illich.  “The entirety of Illich’s thought,” Agamben writes in his introduction to The Powerless Church, “appears as the thought of the kingdom [and] of its special presence among us, already accomplished and not yet accomplished.”  Entirety may be overdrawn – Illich was a shrewd sociologist, as well as an evangelist – and yet I think Agamben, in the end, is right.  The constantly recurring emphasis in Illich on celebration, on surprise, and on relationship is, finally, “the thought of the kingdom” – the thought of a reality that can steal upon us, like Paul’s thief, only when our management of the world and ourselves is modified, complemented and undercut by a counter-vailing emphasis on the power that can turn time inside out.  Agamben has adopted Illich because Illich, writing from a position, as Agamben notes, “deeply rooted in [Catholic] tradition,” consistently denounced the absence of the Messiah in the discourses of the Church and its many offspring.  This was rarely done explicitly because Illich judged that he would inevitably be misunderstood.  “I did not want to be taken for a proselytizer, a fundamentalist – or worse, a Catholic theologian,” he told the Catholic Philosophical Association in Los Angeles in 1996.  “When speaking in Philadelphia or Bremen,” he went on, “I felt I ought to shroud my ultimate motive in apophasy.”  (Apophasy, as sometimes happens with Illich, is a word none of my dictionaries even recognize – they show only apophasis as the name of the rhetorical device whereby a speaker brings something up by saying he’s not going to bring it up – but I think Illich intends the practice of apophatic, or negative theology. ) This was “the tightrope,” he says, “on which he had to do his balancing act as a teacher.”[33]  This reticence was real, but never quite as total as Illich sometimes made it seem in looking back.  Deschooling Society, for example, is explicit that confusing education with schooling is equivalent to “confusing salvation with the Church.”[34]  And this corresponds exactly with Agamben’s point.  Instead of taking its stand at a point outside history (though one could equally well say inside history) the Church has identified salvation with its own history.  It has seen its task as, primarily, one of government during the interval between the Christ’s ascension and return and thus has deferred the end, as Agamben says, “along the…homogeneous line of chronological time.”  The end is never now.  But now, Illich says, is all we ever  have.  “The only time the Lord is present to us is at the present moment which we celebrate together,” Illich says. “We have no idea if there is a future.  To live as a Christian means to live in the spirit of the Maran Atha – the Lord is coming at this moment.  It means to live and enjoy living at the edge of time, at the end moment of time.”[35]  This is completely in the messianic spirit that Agamben feels has been otherwise absent from the Church. 

It is interesting – as an aside here – that Agamben who is not explicitly a Christian (though not explicitly not a Christian either, a point I’ll get to presently) should be so open about what Illich felt should remain “shrouded” in his teaching.  The difference is an index of the changed times, I think.  Illich remained protective of the Church – it was because he wanted to protect the Church from further self-inflicted scandal that he resigned from church service in 1969.  It was only towards the end of his life, I think, that Illich, as a man who had always quite rigorously “abstained from making apocalyptic statements,” felt able to say publicly that it might be “quite close to the end of the world.”[36] Agamben, on the other hand, has more or less taken “the end of the world” for granted throughout his writings.  He has identified the concentration camp as “the hidden matrix…of the political space in which we…live.”[37]  He has described the condition in which we live as a permanent state of emergency and exception.[38]  And he has noted that “the nations of the earth” are all being driven “toward a single common destiny” as a result of “the alienation of linguistic being, the uprooting of all peoples from their vital dwelling in language.”  This last is part of his larger point that definite, local forms-of-life are increasingly being reduced to “bare life,” a point I’ll develop at more length in a moment.  Agamben, in other words, takes as a starting point a condition that Illich is hesitant to reveal, or interpret in terms of Biblical prophecy, even though awareness of this condition continually breaks through in his last texts.[39]  And, Agamben, accordingly, honours Illich as one who recognized the condition in which Agamben thinks we live and tried to change it.  Illich, in the first half of his career, could still imagine the apocalyptic tide stemmed, and the world brought back within politically-defined limits; Agamben thinks only of the new possibilities that might open when this tide reaches its flood. 

Illich’s works are full of hints at the ecclesiastical and theological origins of contemporary styles of thought and ways of life.  In his final interviews with me he made his “hypothesis that modernity can be studied as an extension of church history” more explicit and sketched a few of the “lines of evolution” along which he saw the metamorphosis of the medieval church into the modern state taking place.[40]  Agamben has now gone much farther along these lines, notably in his The Kingdom and the Glory.  This book, to simplify a little, describes the way in which “the economy of salvation,” the figure by which the early church tried to understand the historical effect of the Incarnation, became in time the limitless economy without salvation in which we presently live.  Oikonomia in Greek meant the management of a household.  The Christian church adopted the term to describe the workings of divine providence, operating within the interactive image of a God “in three persons” – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – each giving way to the other, each mediating the other, so that the Son is the image of the Father, the Spirit is the love between the Father and the Son, etc.[41]  The idea of history as a meaningful process appears first, Agamben says, as the “economy” of salvation.  Oikonomia names the process or plan by which God realizes his intention and the three persons of the Trinity work their will.  It allows a transcendent God to be both one and three – to found a worldly art of government while remaining above it all.  One might say, though these are not Agamben’s words, that it takes a mystery – Illich’s “surprise” that must, but its nature, “remain a surprise” – and turns the mystery into mechanics, though a mechanics always oiled and, at the same time, obscured by an effulgent glory that blinds the too eager or too attentive gaze and prevents us from getting too close.  In establishing this idea that the world is the object of divine government, Agamben says, Christianity “sunders being and praxis” i.e. creates a situation in which our doing will no longer necessarily follow the contours of a nature or being that defines us.  The Greek gods express nature – they do not make it.  The Judeo-Christian God makes the world as a gratuitous act – quia vult, because he wanted to, Augustine says– and so it is not necessary that things be or remain as they are.[42]  

Agamben’s archaeology of the idea of divine economy supplements and spells out the intuition of Michel Foucault’s that modern “governmentality” has its roots in the Christian exercise of pastoral power.  Prolonged reflection on the inner workings of divine providence creates an entrenched habit of thought.[43]  What we first imagine of God, we later execute on our own behalf.  The Panopticon, the figure of universal visibility that Foucault borrows from Jeremy Bentham, is unthinkable without the all-seeing God as its ultimate paradigm, “the ceaseless flow” that constitutes the inner life of the Trinity becomes the endless circulation that we glorify and depend on in the modern economy.    Theological oikonomia “transmits [a] structure,” Agamben writes, to modern governmentality.[44] One of the ways in which this is done is through what he calls “signatures.”  A signature is a sign that “retains its identity in displacement.”  The inner identity of theological oikonomia and modern economy is an example.  “Archaeology” is one Agamben’s names for the attempt to unearth the foundations on which our unconscious thinking rests, and “archaeology,” he says, “is a science of signatures.”[45] 

Agamben’s book also makes many evocative observations about what he calls “the theology of glory” – observations which I think help us to understand why we remain speechless and disarmed in the face of the many quasi-theological manoeuvres by which the present day economy is explained and justified.  The intricacies of the economy of salvation, with its “general providence” now and then requiring modification by the interventions of “special providence,” constitute what Agamben sometimes calls a “machine.”  The stuff which this machine produces, and which, at the same time, hides the operation of the machine is called glory.  Glory is “praise without content.”  The concluding amen which “says nothing but merely assents to and concludes what has already been said” is an example.  Alleluia which praises God as such is the same.  Hymns are often pure praise –a “radical deactivation of signifying language,” Agamben says.[46] “Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide thee,” says a hymn that imprinted itself strongly on my mind in childhood. “Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,/Only though art holy; there is none beside thee,/perfect in power, in love, and purity.”[47]  This does not, in Agamben’s terms, “signify,” i.e. point to something, because it is entirely assertion, or acclamation, the production of a radiance so intense that “the eye of sinful man” cannot even see it.  This glory passes back and forth in the ruling economy.  “Father glorify your son, that the Son may glorify you,” Jesus prays, in the Gospel of John, on the day before his crucifixion.[48]  Likewise, Agamben says, in the subsequent economy of salvation “Government glorifies the kingdom, and the kingdom glorifies government.”  But at the centre of all this glory sits “an empty throne.” “The centre of the machine is empty,” Agamben says, “and glory is nothing but the splendor that emanates from this emptiness.”[49] “Glory,” he goes on, “both in theology and politics, is precisely what takes the place of that unthinkable emptiness that amounts to the inoperativity of power.  And yet precisely this unsayable vacuity is what nourishes and feeds power.”[50]  Inoperativity, as we shall see, is a word that plays a big part in Agamben’s philosophy, but, for the time being, it can be read simply as what does not work.  “Glory must cover with its splendor the unaccountable figure of divine inoperativity.”[51]  

Inoperativity, in Agamben, refers to anything that is reduced to its pure potentiality, the point at which it has been deprived of all its existing uses and may therefore be put to use in some new way.  Poetry, for example, “exemplifies inoperativity” – it is language, Agamben says, “with its informative and communicative functions deactivated…language contemplating its own power of saying.” It answers no need, performs no function, but is pure celebration – language which does nothing and wants nothing but, like Walt Whitman, celebrates itself and sings itself with “all creeds and schools in abeyance.”[52]   By inoperativity people are liberated from “biological and social destinies” and, to that extent, made free for “the indefinable sphere of politics” – the sphere in which, for Agamben as for Hannah Arendt, a human life may be made.  In another place he calls politics the “sphere of pure mediality without end,” which I take to mean what is neither a means to an end, nor an end in itself, but pure play, or, so to speak, a means in itself.[53]  In a passage that Agamben cites more than once, Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, says that man as such has no vocation, i.e. no path determined by nature.  He is free and must make himself – he is a “good for nothing,” in Agamben’s joking paraphrase, who is also by the same token a good for everything.[54]  Inoperativity returns people to this condition of potentiality.  When the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians “I no longer live but Christ lives in me,” this is, for Agamben, “a figure of inoperativity.” The messianic life which Paul says he now lives is a life beyond any predetermined form, a life that begins when every predetermined form is cancelled and revoked – when “those that mourn are as though they were not mourning, and those that rejoice as though they were not rejoicing.”[55]  

Agamben is a keen reader and interpreter of Walter Benjamin – he was the Italian editor of Benjamin’s collected works – and traces of Benjamin’s highly original Marxism can be found in Agamben’s work, along with Benjamin’s emphasis on the messianic.  In one of Benjamin’s fragments, called “Capitalism as Religion,” he asserts that capitalism is “a pure religious cult, a cult without dogma.”  Agamben’s paraphrase of the central idea of this essay is that we live in “a single uninterrupted holiday [holy day] in which work coincides with the celebration of the cult”[56]   I find Benjamin’s essay elusive, but I think he is trying to say that capitalism, far from being an irreligious way of life, is a kind of quintessence or distillation of religion.  Christianity “changed into capitalism,” and became unconscious in capitalism, and so we are doomed to perpetual celebration that never finally feels like celebration because there is nothing but celebration and therefore no celebration at all.  I don’t really know if this is an accurate rendering of Benjamin’s thought, but the idea is certainly visible in Agamben, and perhaps a spelling out of the not-quite-articulate nuggets of Benjamin’s thought has been one of Agamben’s tasks.  In what Benjamin calls capitalism, the world has withdrawn and become inaccessible, just as in Marx’s thought of the “commodity form” which he already identifies as having its only analogy in “the misty realm of religion.”[57] The commodity, taken in its broadest possible sense – Illich’s sense in which even services count as “commodifications” of charity – withdraws into a religious sphere in which it is available to us and yet not available.  Two of Agamben’s figures for this availablility/unavailability are the Museum and the Tourist.  “The Museum,” he says, “occupies exactly the space and function once reserved for the Temple as the place of sacrifice.”  The potsherd, the warrior’s shield, the trade blanket encased at the museum have been “sacrificed,” or dedicated to the gods, and can no longer be used.  The tourist, in effect, moves through such a museum, a world arranged and ordered in such a way that he/she may never touch it or alter its predetermined meaning.  “Inasmuch as it represents the cult and central altar of the capitalist religion,” Agamben writes, “tourism is the primary industry in the world…Nothing is so astonishing as the fact that millions of ordinary people are able to carry out on their own flesh what is perhaps the most desperate [experience] that one can have: the irrevocable loss of all use.”[58]  The tourist, Agamben says, is a continuation of the Christian pilgrim who also expressed his “irreducible foreignness to the world.”[59] But, while the Christian peregrinus found at least a glimmer of the transcendent God at the shrine that was his destination, the modern tourist, devotee of the pure cult in which God has been absorbed and entombed, can only go on in mirthless celebration, accumulating experiences he can never assimilate.  Capitalist modernity, Agamben says, is a condition in which the law is “in force without signifying” – the cult solicits and compels our obedience/participation but its meaning is obscure.[60] 

Another example of what is withdrawn from use and made untouchable is the sphere of the media.  Agamben, here influenced by Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, identifies the social formation in which we live as “the spectacular democratic regime.”[61]  In another place he refers to “the spectacular religion.”[62] Language, when consigned to “the spectacular sphere” loses its potential.  The apparatuses of the media, Agamben says, “prevent language from disclosing the possibility of a new use.” Words and concepts acquire an impenetrable gloss which disables them for any other use than the intended one.  “In the spectacular religion the pure means, suspended and exhibited in the sphere of the media, shows its own emptiness, speaks only of its own nothingness, as if no other use were possible, as if no other experience of the word were possible.”[63]  This saturation of language, in which its capacity for redeployment is quenched and eliminated, was also extremely important to Illich – he speaks of the “extraordinarily beautiful freedom which is implicit in language, and which requires of my interlocutor the patience to allow his words to be turned around in my mouth” and of the way in which this freedom is lost in a world of icons, compulsory feelings, and other veiled commands issuing from “the media.”[64]   

Behind Agamben’s apprehension of the “irrevocable loss of all use,” which the contemporary consumer experiences even while his every need is satisfied, lies his sense of the sacred and the profane which is the fundamental structure of alienated human experience.  Something is consecrated, or made sacred, in Agamben’s understanding when it is removed from the free use of people and reserved for the gods.  Religion names the sphere to which it is removed, and sacrifice is the “apparatus” that effects the separation and makes the separated item untouchable.[65] So much is universal.  But Christianity complicates the picture.  The idea of God himself as a sacrificial victim – God sacrificed to God – puts God in the place where humans had once been and thus “threatened to paralyze the sacrificial machine of Christianity.”  This “put the distinction between the sacred and profane into crisis” by creating “a zone of undecideability” in which “the divine sphere is always in the process of collapsing into the human sphere and man always already passes over into the divine.”[66]  This is as close as Agamben comes, in the books I have read, to Illich’s corruptio optimi pessima.  He does not go as far as René Girard in saying that the Gospels unmask the sacrificial machine, or as far as Illich, Girard and  many others in saying that Christianity is, potentially, the overcoming and fulfillment of religion rather than its continuation; but he does recognize, with Benjamin, that Christianity, by paralyzing the sacrificial machinery, potentially extends its sway and eventually makes it total, producing a cult helplessly unaware of itself as such – a condition often decried as one in which nothing is sacred, when its predicament is just the opposition: everything is sacred. 

The sacrificial machine creates and enforces separation, removing what it hallows by sacrifice from both analysis and use, and Christianity extends this operation via secularization to all domains.  “Christianity generalizes in every domain the structure of separation that defines religion…there is now a single, multiform, ceaseless process of separation that assails everything, every place, every human activity in order to divide it from itself.”[67]  Agamben’s answer to this universal domination of the sacred is to praise “profanation.”  To profane, he says, is to return something that has been reserved for the gods to use “free of sacred names.”  Such profanation is sharply distinguished from mere “secularization.”  The latter term is how he names the process we have been discussing in which the sacred runs everywhere.  The transcendence of God, for example, becomes the paradigm of sovereign power, and the earthly sovereign preserves all the powers and prerogatives of the heavenly one.  Profanation, on the other hand, “neutralizes what it profanes.”  What was “unavailable and separate loses its aura and is returned to use.  Both are political operations: the first guarantees the exercise of power by carrying it back to a sacred model.  The second deactivates the apparatuses of power and returns to common use the spaces that power had seized.”[68]   

To make visible and overcome “the impossibility of using” is clearly Agamben’s aim.  That is how he defines the messianic: “Every worldly condition is released from itself to allow for its use.”[69]  And he holds that as the world moves inexorably to a condition of dispossession, the possibility of a reversal, of returning to use, occurs.  Take, for example, language.  Agamben says, in a passage I quoted earlier, that “all peoples” are being “uprooted…from their vital dwelling in language.”  But this very deprivation, he says, affords people the opportunity “to experience their own linguistic essence,” the opportunity “to experience not some language content or true proposition but language itself [my italics].”  Those who become aware of language as such “will become the first citizens of a community with neither presuppositions nor a state…the citizens of this community will enter the paradise of language.”[70]  This remarkable passage is the clearest and most explicit statement I can find in Agamben of a model/mechanism/paradigm that seems to be everywhere in his thought: dispossession as the possibility of repossession.  It clearly owes something to the mystical Marxism he inherits from Benjamin – the proletariat is the universal class, and the bearer of liberation, because it loses everything - but it also makes me think of Eliot: “In order to possess what you do not possess/ You must go by the way of dispossession./ In order to arrive at what you are not/ You must go by the way of dispossession.”  In this way we will at last “arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”[71]  Carl Jung, though never mentioned by Agamben, speaks of enantiodromia, or the tendency of things to turn into their opposites when pushed to their extreme.  Many of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount speak of similar reversals, as, for example, the meek inheriting the earth.  But, whether this reversal occurs by a conscious praxis, according to Agamben, or is automatic, is unclear to me.  When there are no longer any words that speak of me, or to me, will I necessarily experience my own “linguistic essence” and thereby stand on the thresh-hold of the paradise of language, or must I painfully, gradually, improbably awaken to this condition? 

Another case in which an apocalyptic (i.e. revealing) extremity is being reached in our time, according to Agamben, is what he calls “bare life,” that is life deprived of all the qualities and qualifications it acquires in a form-of-life, or culture, and reduced to a state in which “our private biological body has become indistinguishable from our body politic,” or, one might also say, a condition in which we have been completely naturalized.[72]  “Political power,” Agamben says, “…always founds itself – in the last instance – on the separation of a sphere of naked life from the context of a form of life.”[73] He makes this statement without exception.  Political power rests for him, not on a contract, but on a ban or exclusion – on the possibility that someone will be stripped of all standing and all dignity and made expendable.  His paradigm of bare life, Homo Sacer, a figure in Roman culture who “persists into codified Roman Law,” is an outcast who may be killed with impunity but not sacrificed to the gods.  The name, Homo Sacer, is important because the term, in its Roman context, signifies both sacred and accursed and thus demonstrates the inner link between the two concepts – the sacred is maintained by what it bans or curses.  Homo sacer stands, in Agamben’ discourse, for “a figure that belongs to the primitive life of many peoples.”  It also “includes the bandit, the outlaw, and the wolfman (wargus) or friedlos (man without peace) of German antiquity.” [74]  

Ostracism or exclusion, for Agamben, has been the basis of political power, so long as there has been political power, but it remained for a long time an exceptional or limiting case.  In modernity, bare life moves to the centre of political discourse, and so reveals itself as the true basis of sovereignty.  “The realm of bare life…originally situated at the margins of the political order gradually begins to coincide with the political realm, and exclusion and inclusion, outside and inside, bios [social status] and zoē [aliveness as such], right and fact enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction.”[75] In saying this, Agamben announces himself as the successor and inheritor of Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt (and he might have added Ivan Illich, had he known Illich’s reflections on “life” when he wrote Homo Sacer.)  Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition had written that “biological life as such…occup[ies] the very center of the political science of modernity.”[76]  Her thought was that modernity’s emphasis on making rather than doing, and its preoccupation with production, had gradually turned society into a giant metabolism concerned only with its own maintenance and reproduction.  Foucault in his lectures at the Collège de France, beginning in 1977, introduced the concepts of bio-power and governmentality.  He argued, as is now entirely obvious, that, in modernity, life itself had increasingly become the object of government.  But these insights, in Agamben’s view, were not systematically followed up. He saw himself in Homo Sacer as offering the political theory that neither Arendt or Foucault ever fully spelled out. 

“The politicization of life as such,” Agamben says, “constitutes the decisive event of modernity.”  The contrast with “life as such” is life-in-context.  Agamben often speaks of forms-of-life, a term which began its philosophical career with Ludwig Wittgenstein and refers generally to an accustomed way of doing things, but culture, and way of life are also rough synonyms.  It is Agamben’s contention that people everywhere are gradually being deprived of their characters and made into interchangeable units of life.  The refugee, deprived of a state and the rights of citizenship, and the concentration camp, where law is suspended altogether, are his paradigms, but he argues that life-as-such has become the subject of political life generally.  The discourses of medicine in which people appear as sets of symptoms or as statistical abstracts of the class to which they belong can serve an example.  But wherever our “buttons are pushed,” whether by political rhetorics or popular entertainments, and whenever we are addressed at our lowest common denominator, life-as-such has triumphed. 

One of Agamben’s examples in Homo Sacer is the doomed gathering of young Chinese citizens in Tienanmen Square in 1989.  He notes “the relative absence of specific contents in their demands” and says that they were “a force that could not and did not want to be represented but that presented itself nonetheless as a community and a common life.” They were “without either presuppositions or conditions of belonging.” Agamben’s describes the Tienanmen manifestation as a harbinger of “the whatever singularity – the singularity that wants to take possession of belonging itself as well as of its own being-into-language, and that thus declines any identity and any condition of belonging.”  “The whatever singularity,” he concludes, “is the new protagonist of the coming politics.”[77]  Subsequent events appear to have borne Agamben out – with movements like Occupy and Idle No More seeming to assert their mere obstinate existence more than any actual political programme. 

With the “whatever singularity,” as with our expulsion from our home in language, and our reduction to bare life, we are again face to face with Agamben’s curious optimism: the “coming politics” in which we will encounter ourselves anew at the extremity of loss, discovering belonging through not belonging, our linguistic essence through being uprooted from our dwelling in language, our pure potentiality in our estrangement from all definite forms of life.   It seems partly Hegelian/Marxist – the negation of the negation, the expropriators expropriated etc. – and partly Christian – “the stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” – and yet one still wants to ask what is its basis.[78]  On what ground does Agamben stand when he excoriates the church for having forgotten its messianic mission?  He never declares himself to be a Christian.  The throne obscured by the circulation of glory in the divine oikonomia is said to be empty.  In The Time That Remains, he says that “revelation is always and above all a revelation of language itself, an experience of a pure event of the word.”  This “pure event [which] exceeds every signification,” he goes on, “is …animated by two opposing tendencies.  The first which Paul calls nomos [law] attempts to encapsulate the excess by articulating it in precepts and semantic concepts.  The second which coincides with pistis [faith] is oriented on the contrary, toward maintaining it open beyond any determinative significance.”[79]  Elsewhere he says, “The name of God, that is the name that names language is, therefore, a word without meaning, the place of pure signification without anything being signified.”[80] This seems to indicate a limit of what we can know about revelation.  If language exceeds its own significance, addressing us, soliciting us, and commanding us in ways that form the ultimate horizon of what we can understand, then the question of what stands behind language is simply by-passed.  And indeed Agamben says in one place that he does not want to evade “the problem of God” so much as to “suppress” it.[81] 

This has led some theologians to call him a nihilist. This is Connor Cunningham’s approach in his article “Nihilism and Theology: Who Stands at the Door?” in The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought.[82] For Cunningham nihilism equates roughly with materialism – there is no soul, no spirit, no God – but nothing, not even nihilism, can define itself as “mere lack,” so it has moved in our time “to colonize theology” and set up “counterfeit theologies.”  Agamben, for Cunningham, is among these counterfeit theologians.  One of Agamben’s recurring touchstones is the figure of Bartleby the Scrivener, the eponymous hero of a story by 19th century American writer, Herman Melville.  The story is told in the voice of a Wall St. lawyer who hires a copyist – a scrivener – who at first does skillful work but then begins to answer all requests with the enigmatic phrase, “I’d prefer not to.”  For Agamben the story embodies the ambiguity that he thinks is characteristic of so many contemporary phenomena – that “zone of indecision” about which I quoted him earlier.  Erasure of the distinction between biological and political existence is an example.  Bartleby says neither yes, nor no, but, cryptically, refuses the alternatives.  He dwells “obstinately in the abyss of potentiality,” Agamben says.[83] As Cunningham paraphrases Agamben, Bartleby’s refusal “loosens the chains of the system’s logic, sending it into a sort of fibrillation.”  And thus we are plunged into the “abyss of potentiality” where radical change, as for example the entry into “the paradise of language,” becomes possible.

For Cunningham, a cheerful and occasionally bombastic apologist for orthodox Christianity, this is all mostly an empty play with words, a “counterfeit theology,” because it is purely formal.  For him, “the swamp of potentiality,” as he calls it, offers no way out of “the zone of indecision.”  I am perhaps too much in that zone myself to speak quite as confidently.  To me Agamben appears not as a nihilist, but as what one writer on his work calls “a non-non-Christian.”[84]  The phrase is absurd – non’s could be added indefinitely – and yet it also expresses a certain desirable reticence to give positive names to what stands at the very edge of possible understanding.   Agamben is certainly not a Christian in that he seems to affirm nothing beyond the horizon of language and to treat the messianic as a way of apprehending time rather than as an encounter with an actual Messiah.  And yet he is also not not a Christian in his insistence that the “metaphysical structure of modernity” is composed of theological figures. We are all Christians in this sense because, if Christianity is, as Nancy says, the “nervation” of the West, then it must necessarily think us as much as we think it.  Hostile Cunningham sees Agamben’s “counterfeit theology” as “diabolical.”  I see it as an attempt to understand how our world has been made and how it might be remade, an attempt undertaken from within the enclosure of contemporary consciousness, from within, one might say, “the death of God.” 

Earlier, I mentioned the term Consciousness Soul which was coined by Rudolf Steiner, and also elaborated by his English interpreter Owen Barfield, to describe modernity’s characteristic state of mind.  Before the dawn of Consciousness soul, in Steiner’s scheme, there was Intellectual Soul, which still participated in nature and believed that mind belonged to a rational order that it could understand because it belonged to it.  Consciousness Soul believes only what appears to consciousness – “nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so,” says Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who speaks as the very archetype of this new state of mind.  For Steiner/Barfield, this is a necessary phase in the evolution of consciousness, because it puts everything to the test, banishing “occult forces” from science and challenging what Francis Bacon calls “the idols of the mind,” but it results in extreme isolation and self-enclosure.  I see Agamben as operating at this extreme.  As a proper philosopher who is trying to “overcome metaphysics” he cannot admit a reality that is outside and beyond consciousness – a real Christ, let’s say.  And yet he has also understood that religion comprises real experiences.  Thus he is put to ingenious, sometime merely clever, but often enlightening explanations of the nature of these experiences.  He shows us, for example, how the apostle Paul’s messianism is a structure of experience, and an implication of language, that can be understood and practiced without in any way affirming Paul’s eschatology.  Perhaps one could say that he sticks to the phenomena that present themselves to his consciousness without his being able to ask what stands beyond, behind, or within them.  Homo religiosus has returned, i.e. there doesn’t seem to be anything else that’s as important to think about as the matters that lie “occulted” so to speak in theology and religion, but the whole inquiry is carried out within the basic presumption of “consciousness soul,” i.e. that all we can know is what the thinking and speaking mind can discern and explain.  Accordingly, when Agamben says that “revelation is always and above all a revelation of language” he is making an axiomatic statement, something that on his first principles must be the case.  What else, for Consciousness Soul, could it be?

Be that as it may, there is still a remarkable congruence between Agamben and Illich.  Agamben may be an a-theist, and Illich a believer, but their conclusions are so similar, as to raise puzzling questions about the nature of this difference – the kind of question Simone Weil raises when she calls atheism “a purification” and says that “of two men who have no experience of God, he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other.”[85] Richard Kearney’s attempt to destabilize the theism/atheism distinction with his anatheism is also germane.  But what do Agamben and Illich agree about?  Essentially that the attempt to quench the messianic spirit and yoke the Kingdom of God to the earthly progress of the Church – to “confuse salvation with the Church,” as Illich says[86] - has produced a condition of total administration in which power, set free to act in the name of love, life, health and happiness, threatens to efface every boundary, every distinction, every limit within which humans beings once celebrated and suffered their condition.  Agamben and Illich are likewise agreed on the symptoms of this condition: forms of life reduced to bare life, a “hypertrophy of law,” loss of language, loss of judgment in an endless temporization with “crisis” and “emergency” etc.  The main difference would seem to be Agamben’s idea of a “coming community” which will have learned, through dispossession and “absolute impotence”, to live in the very heart of its own inexhaustible potential.[87]  This post-modern Dream-time, or restored paradise of the archetypes, is not a hope shared by Illich.  Illich said little about the future, once it was clear that “conviviality” was not a political option, and even made it a matter of principle to refrain from doing so, but it is clear from his vehement rejection of the idea of “post-Christianity” that he believed that no restored innocence, no new Dreaming, was possible.  The Incarnation was the final role of the dice – “the mystery of evil” will continue to be “the entrance door into the entire mystery of the Incarnation” until it is either grasped or its dominion becomes total.  But then, again, one has to ask: if Illich rejects all mythological accounts of this Day of Judgment, and sees it rather as playing out within history, then perhaps he is not so far from Agamben after all.  Both await the Kingdom.  And to say that “the name of God is pure signification without anything being signified,” as Agamben does, is to say what many believers would say – that God is not a meaning, but the very possibility of meaning.  Behold, I show you a mystery.[88] 



Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) is a political philosopher whose work, I think, sheds light on Illich’s account of the West as a corruptio optimi pessima, a corruption of the best which is the worst.  Voegelin, though a generation older, grew up, like Illich, in Vienna.  Also like Illich, he was driven into exile by the Nazi occupation and, after 1938, made his career and his name in the United States.  His collected works run to thirty-four volumes, and his best known work, the series Order and History, already runs to five full volumes, but I will rely here on his The New Science of Politics in which he outlined the main contours of this thought.  I will first summarize the parts of Voegelin that I think are germane to Illich, and then briefly compare the two. 

A society, Voegelin says, “is a whole little world, a cosmion [a cosmos in miniature], illuminated with meaning from within by human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization.”  The source of this illumination is “an elaborate symbolism…from rite, through myth to theory.”[89]  Voegelin calls this compact and interlaced symbolism, from which a world is spun, a “civil theology.”  In the ancient empires, this civil theology was the whole of theology – “the order of society and truth [were] identical,” Voegelin writes[90] – but this changed during the period, between, approximately, 800 and 200 B.C.E., that German philosopher Karl Jaspers called “the Axial Age.”  During this time a truth beyond society, and in potential contradiction with it, was announced by voices as diverse as Plato in Greece, Isaiah in ancient Israel, and Lao-Tzu in China.  Voegelin speaks of a “psychic differentiation” in which philosophers, prophets, and mystics discover “a new center in man at which he experiences himself as open towards transcendental reality.”[91]

Christianity belongs to this “opening of the soul.”  It de-divinizes, Voegelin says, both the city and its gods, and nature and its divinities.  Nature “loses its demonic terrors” – all “petty demons,” says Tertullian, “[are] subdue[d and] put to daily disgrace.”  Set free in Christ, the Christian is, as Illich also says, ““superior to the most powerful demons, watchdogs, dragons, horrors and menaces which, in the world before Jesus, guarded the ‘we’.”[92] What the Christian fears is not the old gods but his own back-sliding.  But the Church Fathers, according to Voegelin, failed to see that “paganism [as a “civil theology”] symbolized the truth of Roman society.”  It could not simply be replaced by otherworldly Christianity.  Bishops like Ambrose of Milan [c.340-397] and Augustine of Hippo [354-430] were obtuse in not recognizing that Christianity’s progress in the late Roman Empire did not consist merely in “a conversion of individual human beings to a higher truth” but in “the imposition of a new theologia civilis on society.”[93] This, I think, is very close to Illich’s understanding.  Illich’s whole philosophy of mission boils down to the idea that the Gospel should be added to other societies as a “crowning proportion,” rather than as a “civil theology” which attempts to replace the existing one.

The Christian Church, at first, Voegelin writes, “oscillated between expectation of the Parousia [Christ’s return] that would usher in the Kingdom and “the understanding of the Church as the apocalypse of Christ in history.” This latter view, which became known as “realized eschatology,” argued that the Church, in effect, is the Kingdom.  From there it was only a short step to becoming an earthly government.  A fatal confusion between city of God and the earthly city began to set in.  But Christianity was in no way suited to play the part of a civil theology.  The Gospel brings every social institution into question.  The sacred is questioned – “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath[94] - filial duty is relativized – “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?”[95] – the ways of the “world” are portrayed as nothing, when compared to that “pearl of great price,” the Kingdom.[96]  And Christianity, moreover, offers an extremely difficult path – “Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth to life, and few there be that find it”[97] – a crucial point in Voegelin’s account.  Faith, according to Paul, is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”[98]  This says, in effect, that faith is its own substance, its own evidence.  It has no other, and can have no other, because if it did it would no longer be faith but its antithesis, certainty.  While we live, we see “though a glass darkly,” and only at the end will we see “face to face.”[99] Faith, as a conviction that is its own evidence and rests on no other proof, is defined by uncertainty.  “I am quite sure,” says Simone Weil, that “God [is] nothing…like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word.”[100] Her only certainty, in other words, is uncertainty because whatever the imagination can grasp and hold becomes an idol.  Faith must reach beyond conception.  “I pray God to rid me of God,” Meister Eckhart says.[101]  But this trembling on the edge of certainty, a certainty so evanescent that it can never be gained without, by the same token, being lost, creates, Voegelin says, an arduous and disappointing vocation.  And the difficulty is compounded by the fact that most Christians, at any time, are only nominal Christians who have been “drawn or pressured into the Christian orbit” and who, therefore, must, in the nature of the case, “lack the spiritual stamina for the heroic adventure of the soul that is Christianity.”[102]

The result of this predicament was that Christianity was eventually recast in more achievable, more accessible, and more satisfying forms.  Voegelin sees the beginnings of this move in the writings of the 12th century Cistercian monk Joachim of Flores (or Fiore) (1135-1202).  Joachim applied the symbolism of the Trinity to history, where he discerned an Age of the Father, corresponding with the “Old” Testament, an Age of the Son, in which Christ and his Church mediated between God and man, and an about-to-begin Age of the Spirit – he set the date at 1260 - when there would be no further need for mediating institutions and doctrines because man would know God, as it were, face to face.  Joachim had a mixed reception within the Church.   Dante discerned a “prophetic spirit in him,” and Joachimite movements sprang up; but some of his ideas were condemned by the Lateran Council of 1215, and both Aquinas and Bonaventure firmly opposed his thinking.[103]  Voegelin is interested in him mainly as an exemplar or prototype.  Joachim, in his view, was the first to perceive an eidos, or pattern in history and, more than that, to perceive the tripartite, or Trinitarian pattern that would be put forward again and again in Western history.  As examples, Voegelin mentions, among others, Vico (Gods/heroes/men), Hegel (thesis/ antithesis/synthesis) Marx (primitive society/class society/communism), as well as National Socialism’s view of itself as the Third Reich, and the Eastern church’s claim, after the fall of Constantinople, to be the third Rome. 

Joachim, in Voegelin’s view, represented the self-assertion of a confident and expansive society eager to thrown off “Augustinian defeatism with regard to the mundane sphere of existence.”[104] But his vision was founded on a fallacy.  For Voegelin, there is no pattern in history because the course of history as a whole is not an object of experience, and never can be, so long as history includes an unknown future.  “The meaning of history,” he writes, “is an illusion…created by treating a symbol of faith as if it were a proposition concerning an object of immanent experience.”[105] “Immanentization,” in Voegelin’s philosophy of history plays the role that “misplaced concreteness” play in the philosophy of A.N. Whitehead: it refers to an illegitimate transposition from the spiritual to the historical plane (or, in Whitehead’s terms, from the abstract to the empirical.)  It is well attested, though I have never quite been able to believe it, that when Voegelin’s thought enjoyed a vogue at William Buckley’s National Review in the 1960’s the phrase “don’t immanentize the eschaton” became a byword.[106]  People fell for this elementary fallacy, Voegelin says, because they wanted to.   Christianity was too hard, and too unavailing, so people sought “experiential alternatives” that mimicked the experience of faith without its rigors and uncertainties.  They could not simply fall back on themselves (which would be absolute despair, Voegelin says), so they “fell back on a less differentiated culture of spiritual experience.”[107]

Voegelin’s names this new historicized faith Gnosticism.  Conditioned by Christianity and so unable to “fall back” either on themselves or on pre-Christian worldviews, Christians fell into the heresy “which had accompanied Christianity from its very beginnings.”[108]   Man and society were “re-divinized,” but not by an impossible revival of polytheistic antiquity (though this was sometimes pretended) but rather by the adoption of ideas “that were suppressed as heretical by the universal church.”   By Gnosticism, Voegelin means, roughly speaking, the view that the world, as it is, is alien and unsatisfactory and ought to be redeemed or remade by initiates capable of taking the actions for which they alone know the formula.[109]  The term Gnosticism derives from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis, and, according to Voegelin, this is what it promises: “Gnostic experiences” offer the possibility of “bringing our knowledge of  transcendence into a firmer grip than the cognitio fidei [knowledge derived from faith] will afford.”   Through this lens, Voegelin is able to align most of what Charles Taylor includes in the central trope of his A Secular Age, the “Reform Master Narrative,” the “drive to Reform [that] was the matrix out of which the modern European idea of Revolution emerges.”[110]  Whether he’s discussing Calvinism or Communism, Voegelin sees Gnosticism: an elect animated by a “cause” and opposed by “anti-social elements” that must be eliminated. But behind it all he sees the same elementary mistake: the confusion of the spiritual and the historical.  “Faith is the anticipation of a supernatural perfection of man,” he writes, “it is not this perfection itself.  The realm of God is not of this world, and the representative of the civitas dei [the city of God] in history, the church, is not a substitute for civil society.”

Modernity, Voegelin claims, constitutes an entry into “the higher realm of the Gnostic dream world.”  He applies this phrase to the thought of Thomas Hobbes, claiming that in Hobbes the thought of transcendence is eliminated and replaced by the “mortal god.”  Hobbes supposed a world, says Voegelin, in which the truth of the soul would no longer “agitate men” because in trading their obedience for peace and security they would extinguish their “longing for transcendence”[111]  And this “dream world,” Voegelin says, substitutes itself for reality ever more completely as modernity unfolds.  By our time, he wrote in 1950’s, “the dream world has blended into the real world terminologically.”  In the hope of replacing reality by its transfiguration, “the dreamers adopt the vocabulary of reality while changing its meaning, as if the dream were the reality.” “In the Gnostic dream world,” he concludes, “non-recognition of reality is the first principle.”[112]

So Voegelin holds, in brief, that Christianity is characterized by a disposition, faith, that can never achieve worldly certainty or definitive institutional form, but that this precarious stance is increasingly abandoned in favour of a world-denying and world-improving Gnosticism which promises fulfillment in history.   Illich knew Voegelin’s theory and cites it approvingly in Limits to Medicine, where he says that modern medicine exactly conforms to Voegelin’s description of modern Gnosticism i.e. the world is unsatisfactory and “intrinsically poorly organized,” but salvation from it is possible for an elect who take the “technical actions” for which they “monopolize the special formula.”[113]  This is the only reference to Voegelin that I know of in Illich’s work, and he doesn’t seem to have thought of Voegelin when he elaborated his idea of the modern West as a corruption of the best which is the worst.  Nevertheless I find the overlapping of their thoughts quite striking, and I think that Voegelin spells out a good deal that Illich leaves implicit.  Illich from the very beginning of his work showed an awareness of the “other-worldly” roots of the kingdom of God and the impossibility that the church could ever replace civil society.  For example, when he went to Puerto Rico 1956 as a university administrator, he decided to get out of “any kind of official relationship to a bishop for whom I would work in the pastoral care of his people.”  The reason, he says, was because, “I didn’t want to get mixed up in a conflict between the priestly office of making the other-worldly unity and brotherhood of the liturgy real and my personal stance as a politician.”[114]  The Kingdom of God, or Kingdom of Heaven, can be recognized and celebrated.  It can leaven and brighten every social occasion, relationship, and institution, and, in that way, illuminate and change the world.  But it can never be harnessed, predicted, or made to perform as what Voegelin calls “a civil theology.”  I return to Wendell Berry’s wonderful formula: “It floats among us like a cloud and is the realest thing we know and the least to be captured, the least to be possessed by anybody for itself.”  This was Illich’s view, I think, and it conditioned his view of the Church as both a mysterious She – the Kingdom among us – and a corporate It, not essentially any different in its obedience to worldly necessities than General Motors or General Dynamics.  That the Church should have the aspect of an It could not have been avoided.  It was an object in the world, faced with unanswerable historical predicaments, like the decline of the Roman Empire and the resulting  power vacuum into which the Church was drawn willy-nilly, and it was subject to worldly necessities.  But awareness of the difference between She and It could have been maintained and upheld.  I remember, as an example, the delight with which Illich told me the story of Girolamo Savonarola’s last day on earth.  As Savonarola, and his two monastic brothers, approached the scaffold on which they would be hung and then burned in Florence in 1498, they confronted the special delegate of the Pope, who told Savonarola that “he was being condemned as a heretic and schismatic and…excluded henceforth from… the Church on earth and the Church in heaven… Savonarola responded in his usual quiet, strong, unbroken voice, as the official observer of these proceedings noted, ‘You may exclude me from the temporal church, sir,’ he said, ‘but only from the temporal church.  You don’t have the authority to decree the second [exclusion from the Church in heaven.]’”[115] 

Know the difference, could have been Illich’s motto, as much as the one he chose for himself – “I fear the Lord is passing me by” – and it seems also to have been a crucial idea for Eric Voegelin.  He reproaches pillars of the early Church, like Ambrose and Augustine, with forgetting this difference.  They did not see, he says, that “dissolving the civic religion” of Roman society would “leave a vacuum” – a vacuum which would pull Christianity into a vocation for which it couldn’t have been more unsuited.[116]  Likewise Illich reproaches the Church, as it established itself, with forgetting the temptation of anti-Christ.  From that point on their stories diverge somewhat.  Voegelin locates the roots of Protestant sectarianism and political revolution in a decay of Christian faith into Gnostic certainty, while Illich is concerned with how the Catholic church itself created the template for the modern state, but they have in common the idea, in Voegelin’s words, that “the church is not a substitute for civil society” and also the idea that, as this substitution occurs, it becomes harder and harder to know the difference and harder and harder to tell the truth.  Voegelin’s speaks of the “Gnostic dreamworld,” Illich of modern institutions as unconscious churches, but, in either case, one lives “as if the dream were the reality.”  That one ought to know the difference between heaven and earth seems a simple, even obvious idea, and yet it seems not to be.  Illich says that our ostensibly post-Christian era, in fact, “the most obviously Christian epoch,” Voegelin that “the dream world has blended into the real world.”  I think these statements are very close, and their evidence is all around us in the strangely altered and unrecognized faith, yet not faith, that animates the fantastic hopes of an unsustainable and increasingly uncivil society.  For this reason I think it is illuminating to read Voegelin and Illich together.




In 2013 Irish scholar Felix Ó’Murchadha, a professor of philosophy at the National University of Ireland in Galway, published a book called A Phenomenology of Christian Life: Glory and Night.  He described it as “an experiment [in] think[ing] philosophically in a Christian manner.”[117]  I  found that it illuminated many of Illich’s themes, and I wonder if the reverse might also be true: if Illich’s work might also help to draw out some of what is implicit in Ó’Murchadha’s approach. 

“It is not by philosophy,” said Bishop Ambrose of Milan (340-397) “that it has pleased God to save his people.”  He echoed the famous challenge of Tertullian of Carthage, who earlier had asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”[118]  The relationship of Christianity and philosophy has been at issue ever since.   Benedict XVI in his celebrated Regensburg Address of 2006, argued that, since Ambrose and Tertullian’s time, an “inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry” had taken place within Catholic Christianity and that this harmonization of faith and reason had not only defined the Western Church but was also “an event of decisive importance…from the standpoint of…world history.”[119]  This is a contested opinion.  Luther wished “to liberate the Christian experience hidden beneath Greek philosophical terms” and sometime spoke of this negative function of his theology of the cross as destruction, a term later adopted by Heidegger as Destruktion and then by Jacques Derrida as deconstruction.  Ó’Murchadha, too, generally opposes Christianity to philosophy, but, interestingly, he does so in the name of a new style of philosophy – phenomenological philosophy which, in his view, dovetails with Christianity in a way that metaphysical philosophy never did.  In fact, he argues that theology has been nothing else but an attempt to manage “the tensions arising from the marrying of Platonism and scriptural revelation.”[120]

This is no place for a history of phenomenology – nor would I be capable of one – but the essential idea lies in what Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, called the “phenomenological reduction.” Husserl wanted to get back, as he said, to the “things themselves” rather than viewing them in the light of some pre-established metaphysical system by which they were, in effect, known in advance.  He proposed a “bracketing” – his term was epoché, an ancient Greek word meaning suspension – by which one would attempt to hold at bay all assumptions, both practical and theoretical, about what a given object is.  With this procedure, Ó’Murchadha thinks, phenomenology gave up philosophy’s main pretension – to bring things to light as elements of some comprehensive and perspicuous system – and entered into the dark.  Reduction, in Husserl’s sense, is kenosis, self-emptying, the word the apostle Paul uses when he says that “Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”[121]  We can only make room for something by giving up our own instrumental/practical interest in it.  Prayer, Simone Weil says, is “empty thought,” or pure attention, and Ó’Murchadha argues that Husserl’s project of getting to the “things themselves” is nothing less.[122]  To seek what Ó’Murchadha calls “the original epiphany of appearance” and “the original radiance of creation” is to be willing to undergo what he calls “a triple dispossession” – “of language, self and time” – and this willingness aligns phenomenology with the practices of prayer and praise more than with the speculative energies of philosophy.[123]

For Ó’Murchadha Plato’s parable of the cave, in The Republic, is paradigmatic of all philosophies of enlightenment.  In the cave sit the prisoners facing a wall on which they observe a play of shadows.  Having been “fettered from childhood,” and so knowing nothing else, they take the shadows for “reality” itself.  Only the philosopher braves the arduous way out of the cave, along “an ascent which is rough and steep.”  Eventually, he is “drawn into the light of the sun” and, once accustomed to its, at first, blinding brilliance, becomes capable of perceiving “its true nature.”[124] This light, once discovered, illuminates all things, making everything appear as it is.  Philosophy can finally know the truth, even if it is hard put to convey it to the cave dwellers.  The light spoken of in the Prologue to the Gospel of John is of quite a different nature.  There the Word which was “in the beginning,” the Word that “was with God…and was God” is also compared to a light.  This light, according to the King James translation, shone “in darkness” but the darkness “comprehended it not.”  The Revised Standard Version emends this to “overcame it not.”  The King James is more evocative, suggesting not only that the darkness could not extinguish the light, but also that it could not understand it, but, either way, the light and the darkness are made to co-exist.  The darkness cannot quench the light, but neither does the light illuminate the darkness in a display of clarifying power.  This light appears only to those who are able, in effect, to perceive it within the dark.  “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.[125] “The uniqueness of Christ,” Ó’Murchadha writes, “is that in the darkness of his form he makes manifest a light which can be seen only through the eyes of faith.”  Indeed, he continues, that’s what faith is: “a sight which is possible only by seeing in darkness.”[126] 

Darkness, and night, the figure Ó’Murchadha uses in his title, are central to his account of Christianity.  Christianity, he says, quoting Karl Barth, “has no cosmology.”[127]  By this I think he means that Christianity offers no general account of things.  It proposes no map or framework in which every item of reality can be assigned its place, function and importance.  The light of John’s Gospel is not a radiance that illuminates everything.  Rather, it is a light that lights the singularity of each being from within.  The story of God-in-the-world does not end in enlightenment – it ends with a judicial murder.  During the three hours that Jesus hangs on the Cross there is “a darkness over all the land” and, at the end, according to Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, he feels himself abandoned even by God.[128]   Resurrection follows, but it is perceptible only to faith.  When he appears he is sometimes, at first, unrecognized.  The disciples on the road to Emmaus spend the whole afternoon walking and talking with him but they do not know him until, at last, he breaks bread with them.[129]  Mary Magdalen at the empty tomb mistakes him for the gardener.[130] Often he vanishes soon after he is recognized.  There are no appearances in the agora or the temple, the court or the palace where his presence might have been officially certified.  Later, when the Resurrection has become dogma  and the Church an establishment, Resurrection will become an item of belief, recited in a compulsory credo, but at first it is the experience of that handful of people who are able to see through the terrorizing power of the Crucifixion and understand that his ignominious death did not disprove his claim to be “the one to redeem Israel.”[131]  They develop the faculty that  Christianity calls faith, the ability, as Ó’Murchada says, of “seeing in darkness.”  The truth comes to those who are called, to those who suddenly understand – it is not a light by which all can see.  Easter doesn’t wipe out Good Friday – it puts it into a different perspective.

O’Murchadha develops his idea of night in many ways.  He points to the many Christian thinkers who have emphasized darkness as the way to God: from John of the Cross’s “dark night of the soul’ to Nicolas of Cusa’s “learned ignorance”; from Meister Eckhart’s “I pray God to rid me of God” to Simone Weil’s “desire without an object.”  All evoke a soul which must know itself, at some point, as nothing but desire, a desire which must burn in darkness, waiting for the One of which it can form no true image. In Plato, on the other hand, desire is the savage part of the soul, symbolized by the unruly, unbroken and unbridled horse, which must be “humbled” and trained “to obey the counsel of his driver,” if the soul is to steer an orderly course towards wisdom.[132]  Desire is extinguished when its object is achieved.  The gods do not philosophize, Plato says, because they are already wise.  They have no need to love wisdom because they do not lack wisdom and love is desire for what is lacking. [133] Wisdom, once achieved, makes desire redundant.  But Christianity, on the other hand “embodies the wisdom of the lover, not the seeker of wisdom.” Love’s wisdom is the “ever deepening realization of desire…without end.”[134] Desire is excited not by lack but by abundance, and superabundance.  French philosopher/theologian Jean Luc Marion speaks of the “saturated phenomenon” which exceeds any concept or horizon that can be imposed on it.[135]  We strive, Ó’Murchadha says, for what we are “fundamentally incapable of reaching,” experiencing desire “for that of which I have no idea, that which I can in no way possess and that which I can receive only through dispossession.”[136]

Darkness, in O’Murchadha’s account, lies at the heart of all appearance.  In reflecting light, he says, objects, in a sense, refuse it – they send it back, and this is the condition of their being seen at all.  But the invisible offends modern sensibilities – we would prefer to treat it as the not yet seen.  Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, speaks of “the despotism of the eye” and continues…

…we are restless because invisible things are not the objects of vision; and metaphysical systems, for the most part, become popular, not for their truth, but in proportion as they attribute to causes a susceptibility of being seen, if only our visual organs were sufficiently powerful.[137]

This is true of “metaphysical systems,” but not true of the Bible where what can be seen is de-emphasized, a point literary critic Eric Auerbach made long ago in his Mimesis when he contrasted the Homeric and the Biblical style.  “The basic impulse of the Homeric style,” writes Auerbach, “[is] to represent phenemona in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations.”  Everything is “brought to light in perfect fullness, so that a continuous rhythmic procession of phenomena passes by, and never is there a form left fragmentary or half illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths.”[138]  This lucidity is entirely foreign to the Bible.  Auerbach chooses as his first example Genesis 22:1: “And it came to pass…that God did tempt Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham! And he said, Behold here I am.”  There follows the story of the command to sacrifice his son Isaac, the journey to the mountain in Moriah, the eventual substitution of a ram for Isaac, and the blessing of Abraham, all narrated in nineteen short verses during which we are not provided with a single unnecessary detail.  There is not a single adjective in the entire passage.  We do not know where God is, or where Abraham is, when the call comes.  We learn nothing of the landscapes through which Abraham and Isaac pass, nor what they wore, nor how they felt, nor what they said.  The story takes place, as it were, in the heart of reality, rather than in any definite natural setting.  It is not intended, like the limpid Greek epics, to charm or captivate us, but to confront us.[139]  O’Murchadha doesn’t mention Auerbach, but he makes the same point.  The Bible is not about what can be seen but what can be heard, and what can be heard above all is a call.  “Now the Lord said to Abram [who would become Abraham], ‘Go from your country, and your kindred, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”  Just that – obedience to the call counts for everything.  Abram doesn’t protest that he has a wedding to attend the following Tuesday.  God’s glory, Ó’Murchadha writes, “is not a ‘name which binds the sky to the earth.’”[140]  It is a rhythm of call and obedient response.  This is all contained in O’Muchadha’s image of night: it is not something that can be seen, or pictured in metaphors that imply visibility.  Hiddenness is another name for the darkness in which we listen.  The apostle Paul tells the Colossians they have died to the world and “your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”[141]  Glory has changed its meaning.  Paul preaches the glory of the Cross, a glory not of this world which glows in darkness and is radiant in humiliation.  From the point of view of what can be seen, Paul’s Christians are “the offscouring of all things” – other translations propose “scum of the earth,” “everybody’s trash,” etc.[142]

Night, finally, is silence.  It is what cannot be said, or reduced to a saying.  “Revelation,” O’Murchadha says, “means nothing” in the sense that it can’t be reduced to a message.  What enters the world with the Incarnation, and, thereafter is in the world, is still not of the world, and so cannot be fully expressed in worldly terms.  Christ is “a broken sign” - broken by incomprehension, broken on the Cross, broken again, in memoriam, in the Eucharist – as well as a sign of brokenness, and this sign “ruptures any system of signs that might contain it.”[143]  Night, silence and hiddenness all represent the presence in the world of something more than the world can contain, a presence which points to the dark and uncontainable excess within each one.   Glory, as I said above, changes it meaning, and this is reflected in the interesting career of the Greek word doxa, which in Christian usage came to mean praise, as in orthodoxy, right praise.  In Plato’s time, doxa still meant opinion, but also fame, as the weight that opinion carries when it is powerful.  But, when the Hebrew scriptures were rendered into Greek, beginning in the 3rd Century BCE – the translation that came to be known as the Septuagint, for the seventy scholars who eventually worked on it – the Hebrew word kabod, which refers to what makes God apparent, or the invisible somehow detectable, was translated as doxa.  And, with this usage, a reversal occurred because the glory of the Lord is invisible.  Unlike fame or reputation, which shine in the world, glory is an excess of light which blinds human vision and is, therefore, fundamentally, darkness.  In Plato, doxa prevails only until things are seen as they truly are by episteme, knowledge.  In the Christian inversion, doxa stands above episteme -  there are things that we can recognize only with praise, not with certain knowledge

The Incarnation, as Ó’Murchadha understands it, represents a radical tear within worldly existence.  As the being “in the world” of what is not “of the world,” it breaks with the orders of the everyday, the scientific and the metaphysical.   Each is relativized by that seeing in the dark that Christians call faith.  The Incarnation breaks with the sacred, as previously understood.  Sacred logic is a logic of purity and classification, even when it is pursued through rational philosophy rather than ritual.  Dirt, anthropologist Mary Douglas says, is what is “out of place” – what violates the order of classification, or endangers the purity of the set aside and untouchable.  But “Incarnational logic,” Ó’Murchadha says, “is…a logic not just of contagion but of contamination, indeed profanation.”  It stands opposed to the “sacred logic which still governs Plato’s texts.”  Sacred logic abhors mixtures and maintains hierarchy through prohibitions inscribed in law, but Christianity mixes what is kept apart in Platonism – above all, the divine and the human, but also matter and form, life and death, being and becoming.[144] And the Incarnation is a contingent event – it reflects no discernible reason or necessity but arises purely from love.  Creation calls for it, Paul says, but that the call should be answered is no more certain than is Abram’s decision to leave Ur or Mary’s assent to the strange prophecy that she will become the mother of God.[145]  Later the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo will arise to account for this contingency.  The world has no frame and no necessary existence other than the one that God has given it.  The Incarnation reveals the character which the Creation had from the outset – it arose from love and was given to humanity as radical freedom.  Creatures are set free from God, and “God is disclosed in every creature as nothing other than the creature itself in its absolute distance from God.”[146] (Recall Illich’s definition of prayer as the moment of maximum distance between man and God.[147]

Incarnation is a rupture in what had been understood as the nature of things.  As an unforeseeable contingency, and a scandalous conflation of the sacred and the profane, it is a singularity.  It is not an instance of something that can be generalized or repeated, but something that is utterly, inexhaustibly itself.  And it points to this quality in each one that it touches.  But the self, insofar as it is unique, is also invisible.  It is non-apparent, by definition, O’Murchadha says, because generalization, and generalizability, is a condition of knowledge.  To happen once, as Catherine Pickstock says, something must happen twice, and so become a recognizable and categorizable instance.[148]  The true self is therefore hidden and must be approached in its concealment, if it is not to be obscenely, or blasphemously exposed.[149]  Singular beings, moreover, are impure insofar as they have not been clarified, categorized or classified, and must inevitably, therefore, constitute some sort of impure mixture.  The messianic, having neither time nor place – “the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head”[150] – displaces and reveals an essence in each one which is not in time or space.[151]

All this points to what Illich calls the “mysterious new glory, thickness [and] phenomenological density that the body takes on under the influence of Christianity.”[152]  O’Murchadha understands, with Illich, that embodiment in the light of God’s Incarnation takes on a novel quality which places it beyond the various dualisms of spirit and matter that have structured philosophy and religion.  Incarnation transforms embodied being.  It adds a new dimension to flesh, rather than mandating domination of the body, or escape from it.[153]  The flesh is the site of spiritual encounter, but each one, as a singular being, remains dark, opaque, unknown until this surprising and revelatory encounter occurs.

O’Murchadha also hints at an understanding of the principle of corruptio optimi pessima, though he doesn’t mention it by name.  First, he remarks that once the possibility of being “not of this world” is opened up, then “the scope of evil [potentially] extends to infinity.”[154] Freedom, unfettered, can as easily be demonic as angelic.  The thought is not developed in Illich’s direction – the Kingdom brought under administration – but it certainly suggests evil escaping worldly limits as an implication of the Incarnation.  The second point is Ó’Murchadha’s recognition of the volatility, or double potential, of the idea of contingency.  Thinking that created beings arise from nothing, as the world arises at God’s word from nothing, may allow us to perceive their singularity and therefore treat them with loving care, but it can also have the opposite effect.  Thinking that beings are nothing in themselves can make them available for unlimited exploitation.  In both cases the best quickly becomes the worst. 

Christianity, as “a transcendence of the world in the world,” produces a condition that Ó’Murchadha calls “worldly worldlessness.”[155]  I found the phrase interesting, particularly in the light of Hannah Arendt’s claim that Christianity has produced the condition that she calls “worldlessness.”   Arendt has various reasons for this claim: that “charity cannot found a public realm,” that the conception of the Christian community as a body and a family was “un-political” and “non-public” in making the private public, and that a world whose end is imagined cannot provide a stable stage for political action.[156] Arendt’s points are all fruitful and suggestive, but the idea of “worldlessness” is one-sided, because it leaves out what has been added, rather than taken away, by the Incarnation – what Illich calls “phenomenological density.”  “Worldly worldlessness” rights this balance. It points to the increased significance of worldly encounters that is just as much a part of the revelation of the world’s roots in heaven as is the undermining of what Arendt’s conceives as “the public realm.”  Christianity is world-less in the sense that it is a-cosmic, and so cannot locate everything in a neat hierarchy of being.  The radical freedom both of God and of the humanity which God absolves and sets free, as the darkness in which faith must learn to see, preclude the existence of the stable, sunlit world that Arendt supposes was once the backdrop for the storied acts that she thinks Christianity has enervated.  But the world in the Christian perspective has also becomes more real.  By refusing an illuminated “world-view” in favour of the darkness in which faith must feel its way, it opens itself to surprise – the genuine surprise that may occur only in the face of what cannot be typified, contained or identically repeated.  The general revolves and recurs, the unique reaches beyond time.  What is less worldly in one sense is more worldly in another.

Perhaps it’s clear why the terms in which Ó’Murchadha unfolds Christianity as phenomenological philosophy seem to me to clarify and perhaps extend the scope of certain of Illich’s most characteristic ideas.  Illich insisted many times on surprise as a defining aim of his life.  This is either the motto of an adventurer, or the statement of a man who, even if with all due prudence, sometimes left the reins of his life in the hands of God.  Illich said that he wished “take the other at his word” – an impossible aim which comes very close to the phenomenological epoché, or bracketing, which attempts to exclude everything that confines and predetermines my understanding.  Illich feared the power of diagnosis – one of the very last lectures he ever gave was called, “Lead Us Not Into Diagnosis,” in imitation of the Lord’s prayer’s, “lead us not into temptation.”[157]  Diagnosis is a generalizing, typifying, categorizing power – a power that drowns the unique case in the class to which it belongs, until individuals are entirely overshadowed by their ghostly, statistical doubles.  But, more than this, Illich implicitly claimed that Christianity might have been something utterly different than what it became, if only it had remembered the temptation of anti-Christ and its vocation to be “in the world but not of it.”  O’Murchadha, in my view, has begun to open the modest, self-critical and self-aware path that Illich himself sought.



(I have used the following abbreviations for Illich’s books in the endnotes: RNF – The Rivers North of the Future, Anansi, 2005; DS – Deschooling Society, Penguin, 1973; IIC – Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992; and LM – Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis, Penguin, 1976.)

[1] Information about the event can be found here:

[2] Brown’s obituary which appeared in the Whole Earth Review is available here:

[3] IIC, p. 279  - I have slightly reorganized the phrases in this quotation to fit my text.

[4] The parable of the sower: Matthew 13, Luke 4, Mark 8.

[5] RNF, p. x

[6] See Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, ed. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, Graham Ward, Routledge, 1999, and The Radical Orthodoxy Reader, ed. John Milbank and Simon Oliver, Routledge, 2009

[7] RNF, p. 229

[8] For the various uses of this soubriquet see:

[9] The Portable Nietzscheop. cit., p. 95

[10] The phrase is the apostle Paul’s during his address to the Athenians on the Areopagus.  (Acts 17:28)

[11] Jacques Maritain, for example, explains God’s omniscience by saying that “God does not foresee the things of time, he sees them…in the pure existential freshness of their coming into being.”  For him, once we grasp that eternity is not “a species of time before and after time” but rather “a limitless instant which indivisibly embraces the whole succession of time,” the problem of how freedom can be part of a “plan,” or foreknowledge compatible with an undetermined present, goes away. (Existence and the Existent, Pantheon, 1948, p. 87, 9, 113)  Maritain’s assurance in describing how the world happens to God is striking and helps to illustrate the innovation of phenomenological philosophy in trying to remain within what is directly given.

[12] The Gift of Death, Chicago, 1996 (first French edition 1992); Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, Routledge, 1994, p. 59.

[13] Jean Luc Nancy,  Disenclosure : The Deconstruction of Christianity, Fordham, 2008, p. 142

[14] Owen Barfield, Romanticism Comes of Age, 2nd expanded edition, Wesleyan, 1966 (first edition 1944), p. 72

[15] ibid. p. 76

[16] Ivan Illich, Genere, Neri Pozza Editore, 2013, p. 7, 14

[17] Mathew Abbott, The Figure of this World: Agamben and the Question of Political Ontology, Edinburgh University Press, 2014, p. 188

[18] Giorgio Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom, Seagull Books, 2010, p. 4

[19] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations, Schocken, 1968, p. 264.  The rendering of Benjamin’s German here is slightly different than Agamben’s, but the thought is the same.

[20] The Church and the Kingdom, op. cit., p. 12

[21] ibid., p. 8

[22] 1 Corinthians, 7:29-31

[23] The Church and the Kingdom, op. cit., p. 18

[24] 1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17

[25] 1 Thessalonians 5:2

[26] 2 Corinthians 6:2

[27] 2 Peter 3:8

[28] The Church and the Kingdom, op. cit., pp. 34-35

[29] Blake, “Milton,” plate 24, line 72, op. cit., p. 121; Romans 7:24 (This is the RSV translation; the King James has the famous “body of this death.”

[30] The Church and the Kingdom, op. cit., p. 35

[31] ibid., p. 35

[32] ibid., p. 41

[33] Ivan Illich, “Philosophy…Artifacts…Friendship,” here:

[34] DS, p. 18

[35] Ivan Illich, The Powerless Church, Penn State, 2018, p. 159

[36] IIC, p. 66; RNF, p. 170

[37] “What is a Camp?” in Means Without Ends, Minnesota, 2000 (first Italian edition 1996), p. 36

[38] The state of exception is the subject of a whole book of that name (Chicago, 2003); the state of permanent emergency is noted, among many other references, in Agamben’s introduction to the new Italian edition of Gender (op. cit.)  where he writes that “the central concept [of] the secularized eschatology of modernity is that of crisis,” a crisis that is “prolonged indefinitely in time” as a result of “decisions that do not…decide anything.”

[39] Typical in this respect is the passage from “Health As One’s Own Responsibility: No, Thank You!”in which he speaks of his contemporaries “matter of fact acceptance of a bottomless evil which Hitler and Stalin did not reach.”  That lecture is available here:

[40] RNF, p. 169. 190

[41] Colossians 1:15; Augustine, On the Trinity XV.17.24

[42] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a TheologicaL Genealogy of Economy and Government, Stanford, 2011, p. 55

[43] ibid., p. 109

[44] ibid., p. 140

[45] ibid., p. 112

[46] ibid., p. 236

[47] The Hymn Book of the Anglican Church in Canada and the United Church of Canada, 1971, #50

[48] John 17:1

[49] ibid., p. 211

[50] ibid., p. 242

[51] ibid., p. 162

[52] Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” begins “I celebrate myself and sing myself” and, for this, he adds at the end of the first section of the poem “all creeds and schools” must be held “in abeyance,” an expression which harmonizes nicely with Agamben’s inoperativity.

[53] Means Without Ends, op. cit., p. 117

[54] ibid., op, cit., p. 141

[55] Galatians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 7:30

[56] Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, M.I.T. Press, 2007, p. 80

[57] Karl Marx, Capital, Penguin Classics, 1990, p. 165

[58] Profanations, op. cit., p. 84, 85

[59] The Kingdom and the Glory, op. cit., p. 140

[60] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford, 1998 (Italian 1995), p. 56

[61] Means Without Ends, op. cit., p. 85

[62] Profanations, op. cit., p. 89

[63] ibid., 87

[64] RNF, p. 159

[65] Profanations, op. cit., p. 73

[66] ibid., p. 79

[67] ibid., p. 81

[68] ibid., p. 77

[69] Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Stanford, 2005 (Italian 2000), p. 43

[70] Means Without Ends, op. cit., p. 85

[71] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1943, p. 15, 39

[72] Means Without Ends, op. cit., 138

[73] ibid., p. 4

[74] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford, 1998 (Italian 1995), p. 57

[75] ibid. p. 9

[76] ibid. p. 3 – I cannot find this precise wording in The Human Condition, but it is entirely faithful to Arendt’s thought in the book.

[77] Means Without Ends, op. cit., p. 89

[78] Capital, Volume One, Chpt. 32; Psalms 118:22; Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11

[79] The Time That Remains, op. cit., p. 134

[80] Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, Stanford, 1999, p. 42

[81] Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, Stanford, 1999, p. 126, note 14

[82] The Oxford Handbook of Theology and Modern European Thought., ed. Nicolas Adams, George Pattison, Graham Ward, Oxford, 2013

[83] Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Minnesota, 1993, p. 254

[84] Hollis Phelps, “Performing Profanation: Giorgio Agamben’s Non-Non-Christianity,” Political Theology Today, Nov. 27, 2001 (

[85] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953,  p. 103

[86] DS, p. 15

[87] The Coming Community, op. cit.; Means Without Ends, op. cit., p. 138

[88] 1 Corinthians 15:51

[89] Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction, Chicago, 1952, p. 27

[90] ibid., p 41

[91] ibid., p. 67

[92] Tertullian is quoted in Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Harvard, 2014, p. 70; RNF, p. 99

[93] New Science of Politics, op, cit., p. 156

[94] Mark 2:27

[95] Matthew 12:48

[96] Matthew 13:46

[97] Matthew 7:14 KJV

[98] Hebrews 11:1 – this is the memorable, and often cited King James translation; the RSV substitutes “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

[99] 1 Corinthians 13:12

[100] Gravity and Grace, op. cit., p. 103

[101] “The Poor in Spirit,” Sermon LXXXVII in Franz Pfeiffer, Meister Eckhart, translated by C. de B. Evans, Watkins, 1952

[102] New Science of Politics, op. cit., p. 123


[104] New Science of Politics, op. cit., p, 119

[105] ibid., 120


[107] New Science of Politics, op. cit., p. 123

[108] ibid., p. 123

[109] Illich gives more or less this digest of Voegelin’s definition of Gnosticism in LM, p. 117, citing Voegelin’s Science, Politics and Mysticism

[110] A Secular Age, op. cit., p. 61

[111] New Science of Politics, op. cit., p. 161

[112] ibid., p. 161

[113] LM, p. 117

[114] IIC, p. 99

[115] RNF, pp. 155-156

[116] New Science of Politics, op. cit., p. 159

[117] Felix Ó’Murchadha, A Phenomenology of Christian Life: Glory and Night, Indiana, 2013, p. 199

[118] Terullian’s question occurs in Chaper Seven of his De Praescriptione Haereticorum; I have not been able to find a citation for Ambrose’s frequently quoted remark.

[119] The text of the lecture is here:  See p. 4

[120] Ó’Murchhadha, op. cit., p. xiii

[121] Letter to the Philippians, 2: 5-8

[122] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 59

[123] ibid., p. 35, 62

[124] Republic, VII, 514 ff. in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntingdon Cairns, Pantheon (Bollingen Series LXXI), 1961, pp. 747 ff.

[125] John 1: 1-10

[126] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 86

[127] ibid., p. 3 – he cites Church Dogmatics, Vol. 3, Part Two, pp. 3-6

[128] Matthew 27:45-47, Mark 15:33-35

[129] Luke 24: 13-35

[130] John 20:15

[131] Luke 24:21

[132] Phaedrus, 254e, in Plato, op. cit., p. 500

[133] Symposium 204a, ibid., p. 556

[134] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 55

[135] The idea appears in various places in Marion’s work, but see particularly Being Given: Towards a Phenomenology of Givenness (Stanford, 2002), p. 199 ff.

[136] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 55

[137] Owen Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, Oxford, 1971, p. 19.  (Barfield cites Biographia Literaria, ed. Shawcross, 62, I, 64)

[138] Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Princeton, 1953/2003 (first German edition 1946), pp. 6-7

[139] ibid., p. 8 ff.

[140] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 76

[141] Colossians 3:3

[142] 1 Corinthians 4:13; O’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 108

[143] ibid., p. 110

[144] ibid., p. 6

[145] Romans 8:22

[146] ibid., p, 53

[147] CA, p. 33

[148] Repetition and Identity, op. cit., p. 73

[149] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 39, 90, 91

[150] Luke 9:58

[151] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 102

[152] RNF, p. 110

[153] Ó’Murchadha, op. cit., p. 141

[154] ibid., p. 126

[155] ibid., p. 85

[156] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago, 1958, pp. 53-54

[157] Matthew 6:9-13; “Lead Us Not Into Diagnosis” remains unpublished and does not appear to be  available on-line in English.