Ivan Illich

"The Apocalypse Has Begun": Ivan Illich and René Girard on Anti-Christ

 This article was written for a handbook on the work of René Girard that is currently being prepared for publication under the editorial direction of theologians James Alison and Wolfgang Palaver.  Wolfgang, a friend, asked me to "build a bridge" between Illich and Girard.  The 3,000 word limit the editors imposed was a challenge, and I'm not sure the bridge is safe to walk on yet,  but here at least is a sketch:


The figure of Anti-Christ carries a lot of colorful, historical baggage.  Building on fairly slight New Testament evidence, the legend of an Anti-Christ whose appearance will initiate the last battle begins to grow in early Christian times.  By the second century Irenaeus can specify the length of time for which he will reign before Christ’s return – he puts it at three and a half years.  Hippolytus, a little later, knows that the Deceiver will resemble Christ in every particular.  By the fifth century certain familiar kitsch elements have begun to enter the Anti-Christ’s appearance, as in this description from the apocryphal Apocalypse of the Holy Theologian John:

The appearance of his face is gloomy; his hair like the points of arrows; his brow rough; his right eye like the morning star, and the left like a lion’s.  His mouth is a cubit wide, his teeth a span in length, his fingers are like sickles.  His footprints are two cubits long, and on his forehead is the writing “The Anti-Christ.”[i]

Beginning in the late Middle Ages, reformers associate anti-Christ with the Papacy.   Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and William Wycliffe, among many others, all called the Pope by this name, and to this day certain Protestant churches in the U.S. keep up the perfervid rhetoric associated with this tradition.  As recently as 2,000, for example, the United States Congress felt it necessary to censure Bob Jones University for this view.[ii]

In modern times, Anti-Christ has faded from awareness.  Despite the persistence of the idea at the fringes of American Protestantism, the historian and theologian Bernard McGinn seems broadly correct when he asserts, in his history of the Anti-Christ legend, that “the last Enemy rapidly became the hobby of cranks after 1660.”[iii]  McGinn does acknowledge a couple of exceptions: Vladimir Solovyev, the late nineteenth century Russian theologian, poet, and pamphleteer; and psychologist C.G. Jung.  But these were “the last major Western thinkers,” McGinn wrote in 1994, “who were convinced that real consideration of the problem of evil necessarily involves Anti-Christ.”[iv]   His judgment may have been premature.  In my view, Ivan Illich and René Girard are both major thinkers of our time; and both, in full awareness of the turbid waters into which they were wading, have revived and repurposed the figure of Anti-Christ.  In what follows I will try to summarize each of their views and then compare them. 

Ivan Illich was a Roman Catholic priest, who lived from 1926 to 2002.  In 1969, he withdrew from all church office after inquisitorial proceedings were begun against him in Rome.[v]  His remaining reputation largely rests on books he wrote in the 1970’s, notably Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis, in which he argues that institutions like education and medicine have become counterproductive monopolies that defeat their own purposes, smother personal responsibility and frustrate popular initiative.   Late in his life, at my initiative, he agreed to share his thoughts on how the institutionalization of Christianity has shaped the modern civilization that grew out of Latin Christendom.  I had been intrigued by his saying to me at the end of a long interview in 1988 that “Western culture” could only be fully accounted for by recognizing it as a corruption of the New Testament.  He used the old Latin adage corruptio optimi pessima – the corruption of the best is the worst.  He had recently expressed the same idea in a lecture at the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago:

I want to explore with you a phenomenon that I consider constitutive of the West, of that West which has shaped me, body and soul, flesh and blood.  This central reality of the West is marvelously expressed in the old Latin phrase: Corruptio optimi quae est pessima – the historical progression in which God’s Incarnation is turned topsy-turvy, inside out.  I want to speak of the mysterious darkness that envelops our world, the demonic night paradoxically resulting from the world’s equally mysterious vocation to glory.[vi]

In the interviews in which Illich laid out this idea for me he took as his paradigm the parable of the Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke.[vii]  This parable he says represents “the new flowering of love” that the Incarnation, the appearance of God in the flesh makes possible. [viii]  In the story, the Samaritan comes across a man who has been beaten and left for dead in a ditch by the road.  A priest and a Levite happen upon him.  These are, Illich says, “men associated with the Temple and the community’s approved sacrificial rites,” but they “pass by on the other side.[ix]   The Samaritan stops, moved by the man’s suffering.   He binds the man’s wounds and pays for his care at a nearby inn.  

According to Illich, this story has for centuries been taken as enjoining an unproblematic duty of care, but to its original auditors, he says, it would actually have seemed “utterly destructive of ordinary decency.”[x]  Responsibility to others, until this moment, occurred within limits.  One cared only for one’s own: Samaritans looked after Samaritans, Judaeans after Judaeans, Greeks after Greeks.  Jesus makes the revolutionary claim that “my neighbor is who I choose, not who I have to choose.  There is no way of categorizing who my neighbor ought to be.” 

In antiquity hospitable behavior, or full commitment in my action to the other, implies a boundary drawn around those to whom I can behave in this way…Jesus taught the Pharisees that the relationship which he had come to announce to them as most completely human is not one that is expected, required or owed.  It can only be a free creation between two people, and one which cannot happen unless something comes to me through the other, by the other, in his bodily presence.[xi]

This possible new relationship, Illich insists, is “a free creation.”  It cannot be commanded or made the subject of a rule.  It constitutes, he says, “an ‘ought’ [which] cannot be reduced to a norm.  It has a telos.  It aims at somebody, some body, but not according to a rule.”[xii]

The relationship between the two unrelated men in the story is not something that could have come about in the ordinary course of things.  It is a revealed possibility, disclosed by the Incarnation, the presence of God amongst us.  It doesn’t belong to the natural repertoire of human beings, who, of themselves, would stick to circumscribed societies built on secure religious foundations.  In theological language, the bridge the Samaritan improvises across the abyss separating his culture from the injured Judean’s is an effect of grace.  In Illich’s terms it “prolongs the Incarnation.”[xiii]

With the revelation of this new, ungovernable potentiality, a second possibility is also created: that the offer will be refused.  “With the creation of this new mode of existence,” Illich says, “the possibility of its breakage also appears.  And this denial, infidelity, turning away, coldness is what the New Testament calls sin, something which can only recognized by the light of this new glimmer of mutuality.”[xiv]  Sin thus changes its meaning with Jesus’ demonstration of a new participation in God’s love through one another.  It is no longer the violation of a law, God’s law; it is the refusal of an invitation which has been put before us.  The risen Christ tells his disciples to preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins…to all nations” – just that. [xv]  Sin acquires a new color and a new character in the light of its forgiveness.

Freedom, for Illich, is the keynote of the New Testament.  But freedom is also what gives the New Testament its unique volatility, its liability to corruption once its institutionalization is attempted.  “And that was what began to happen,” Illich argues, “after the Church achieved official status within the Roman Empire.

There is a temptation to try to manage and, eventually, to legislate this new love, to create an institution that will guarantee it, insure it, and protect it by criminalizing its opposite.  So, along with this new ability to give freely of oneself has appeared the possibility of exercising an entirely new kind of power, the power of those who organize Christianity and use this vocation to claim their superiority as social institutions.  This power is claimed first by the Church and later by the many secular institutions stamped from its mold.  Wherever I look for the roots of modernity, I find them in the attempts of the churches to institutionalize, legitimize, and manage Christian vocation.[xvi]

This, in a nutshell, is Illich’s hypothesis.  A love which is pure gift – unmerited, unconstrained, inconceivable - becomes an entirely new kind of law and a new kind of power.  And the process is progressive.  It begins when the Church becomes the welfare department of the crumbling Roman Empire.  It continues in the high Middle Ages when the “criminalization of sin” turns the Church into a law-governed prototype of the modern state.  And it culminates in our time in the creation of a vast architecture of secular service institutions.

Illich boldly refers to this history as the elaboration of anti-Christ, despite “the risk [of] being taken for a fundamentalist preacher in applying [this] monstrously churchy term.”[xvii]  He takes as his proof text a passage in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians.  This letter evokes a figure which tradition has identified as anti-Christ, though not named as such, who “takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”  Associated with this figure whom, at the end of time, “the Lord Jesus will slay…by the breath of his mouth” is something called the “mystery of evil” which is said to be “already at work.”[xviii]  This text, Illich argues, shows that the early church was aware thatwith the Incarnation a mysterious and conjoined evil had also entered the world.  “This final evil that would bring the world to an end…was called anti-Christ,” Illich says, “and the Church was identified as the milieu in which it would nest.”  Awareness of this mystery, however, did not last.  “What is impressive about the transition from the early Church to the established Western Church,” Illich continues, “is how thoroughly this mystery disappeared from the Church’s teaching and the concern of most of its members.  It reappeared from time to time in the prayers, writings and sermons of mystics and reformers, but the Roman Church did not center faith on its existence and neither did most of the Reformed Churches.” [xix]

The anti-Christ is Christ’s simulacrum and shadow: “the conglomerate,” in Illich’s words, “of a series of perversions by which we try to give security, survival ability and independence from individual persons to the new possibilities that were opened through the Gospel.”  The difference between the two is the presence or absence of freedom.  In the realm of the Anti-Christ, love becomes law and gift becomes guarantee.  But the Church and its secular descendants have long since given up trying to discern this difference.  This conglomerate, consequently, grows and advances, and all the more effectively in its modern secular disguises.  The result, Illich says, is that “the mysterium iniquitatis has been hatching.”  He, therefore, emphatically rejects the idea that ours is a post-Christian era.”  “On the contrary,’ he says, I believe this to be the most obviously Christian epoch, which might be quite close to the end of the world.”[xx]

So, to summarize, Illich believes that the Incarnation is something that manifests interpersonally, between persons.  It’s a gift that becomes “most fully visible at the moment of its rejection” – on the Cross – but once this gift is claimed as a source of power and an object of administration, the dominion of anti-Christ begins steadily to grow, achieving its mature form in modernity and something approaching its full articulation in our time. [xxi]  History, therefore, follows an apocalyptic logic – not apocalyptic in the sense in which the word is now used colloquially to refer to catastrophes of all kinds but in the word’s original sense of revelation or uncovering.  History tends to the fuller and fuller revelation of the mystery of evil.  This result, in its material manifestations, is visible to all and can be studied by the historian.  Many understand it as progress; others feel its uncanniness without quite knowing why.  Only the eye of faith can recognize it as sin and a mystery of evil by which the best becomes the worst.  The ability to disguise sin defines Anti-Christ.

All this, I think, fundamentally agrees with Girard’s view, even though each thinker emphasizes a different aspect of the Incarnation.  For Girard, the Cross proclaims the innocence of the victim and, in doing so, disables the mechanism by which all cultures had previously maintained peace – the unanimous murder of a victim whose death restores order and so reveals the victim as a god.  Sacrifices and prohibitions instituted in the name of this victim/god are the substance, according to Girard, of all archaic religions.  But this mechanism is gradually demystified in the Hebrew scriptures and then decisively unveiled in the New Testament, when God himself becomes the sacrifice – the last sacrifice because Christ’s voluntary and blameless submission exposes the terrifying trick by which Satan had formerly kept the peace and maintained his kingdom by allowing communities to disown, project and contain their own violence.  This exposure initiates the apocalyptic logic that history will follow wherever the Gospel is introduced.  Deprived of effective sacrifices, people face a choice: accept what Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven as the inspiration for their earthly existence or try to restore the effectiveness of sacrifice by ramping up the number of victims.  In the book of Deuteronomy, God had already said, through the mouth of Moses, “I have set before you life and death.  Therefore, choose life.”[xxii]  The Crucifixion and Resurrection impose this choice on “all nations,” though this will not finally become clear until Christianity gives birth to a world-wide civilization.   “The apocalypse has begun,” Girard says, as soon as this turning point is reached.  He described this new situation bluntly in an interview with me:

The Apocalypse is not some invention.  If we are without sacrifices, either we’re going to love each other or we’re going to die.  We have no more protection against our own violence.  Therefore, we are confronted with a choice: either we’re going to follow the rules of the Kingdom of God or the situation is going to get infinitely worse.[xxiii]

This logic determines the apocalyptic character of our civilization – its propensity, as Girard says, to get better and worse at the same time.  On the one hand is our unprecedented sensitivity to victims, on the other the shadow of terrorism, nuclear winter, a destabilized climate etc.  As in the parable of the wheat and the tares, Christ and anti-Christ are intermingled and concomitant until apocalypsis, the moment of vision and decision, is reached.[xxiv]

So Girard and Illich agree that history is a continuous and cumulative revelation whose motive principle is the New Testament.  They also agree that our world is, for the most part, willfully blind to this reality.  Illich says that the temptation of anti-Christ “disappeared” from the Church’s teaching and has remained invisible to its secular offshoots.  Girard finds “anti-Christ” in the contemporary stance that repudiates Christianity and claims superiority to it, while at the same time drawing on it.  We “criticize Christianity with Christianity,” he says but never acknowledge where our superior airs have come from.  He calls it “an imitation of Christ which [is] at the same time a total betrayal of Christianity.” 

Illich sees modern institutions as perversions of a Gospel imperative.  Girard sees a similar perversion in the way in which a claim of victimization can become a potential source of power and social advantage in the modern world.  In both cases, love fuses with resentment and the desire for power in a way that betrays its inspiration and, as William Blake says, “builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”[xxv]  They have, of course, many differences – a matter for another essay – but they are united, and equally unusual, in their apocalyptic mode of thought and in their sense that sin to be faced must first be recognized.



[i] This quotation and the two foregoing references are taken from Bernard McGinn, Anti-Christ: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil, HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 59-69

[ii] Dennis Pettibone, “Martin Luther’s Views on the Anti-Christ,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 18/1, Spring, 2007, p. 81.  He cites U.S. Congress, 106th Congress, 2d Session, S. Con. Res. 85, Feb. 29, 2,000.

[iii] McGinn, op. cit., p. 230

[iv] ibid., p. 266

[v] The story is told in the introduction to my book, Ivan Illich in Conversation (House of Anansi, 1992); and again in the introduction to my TheRivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (House of Anansi, 2004).

[vi] This paper, called “Hospitality and Pain,” has yet to be published in English.  It can be found here: http://www.pudel.uni-bremen.de/pdf/Illich_1423id.pdf 

[vii] Luke 10:25-37

[viii] The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley, House of Anansi, 2004, p. 47

[ix] ibid, p. 50

[x]  ibid, p. 51

[xi]  ibid, p. 51

[xii] ibid, p. 52

[xiii] ibid, p. 207

[xiv] ibid, p. 52

[xv] Luke 24:47

[xvi] Rivers, pp. 47-48

[xvii] ibid, p. 62

[xviii]  Second Thessalonians, 2:1-12.  The Revised Standard Version translates “mystery of lawlessness” but Illich prefers mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, which is Jerome’s translation in the Vulgate. 

[xix] Rivers, pp. 59-60

[xx] ibid, pp. 169-170

[xxi] ibid, p. 49

[xxii] This is the King James rendition of Deuteronomy 30:19.

[xxiii] The Scapegoat: René Girard’s Anthropology of Violence and Religion, a five-hour radio series I presented on the national radio network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2001, transcript, p. 40.  All subsequent quotes are taken from the transcript of the series which, unhappily, is no longer available to the public.  Audio can be found in the podcasts section of www.DavidCayley.com.

[xxiv] Matthew 13:24-30

[xxv] “The Clod and the Pebble” in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, Anchor Books, 1988. p.19





In his recent book, The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West, Todd Hartch argues that Ivan Illich was “mistaken” in taking what Hartch calls an “anti-missionary”stance during the 1960’s when Illich directed the Center for Intercultural Formation, and later the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico.  In his book, Hartch mentions a number of texts which he thinks show the path Illich should have followed.  In further correspondence with me, he singled out two of these texts as particularly crucial for the case he makes that Illich failed to carry out “a careful inquiry into the nature of mission…”  These two books are Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai (Fides/Claretien, 1978) and Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis Books, revised 2nd edition, 2009, first published 1989). I recently read both and was surprised to find that, far from contradicting Illich, they seemed rather to confirm, extend and illuminate his position.  In what follows, I digest both books, show how Illich’s thought and practice is consonant with them, and conclude by arguing that Hartch is, therefore, wrong to characterize Illich as anti-missionary.  


Mission, a friend remarked to me recently, has baggage.  Yes, it does.  Though our world remains pervaded by the idea of mission – what respectable organization is without its “mission statement”? – mission, in the Christian sense, is in bad odour with many people.  “Many misgivings, fear and suspicions,” Vincent Donovan wrote in 1978, “revolve around the missionary movement and missionary history – the violence done to cultures, customs and consciousness of peoples.”   

Vincent Donovan, who died in 2,000, was a member of The Congregation of the Holy Ghost, a Roman Catholic religious order.  In 1965 he arrived in East Africa as a missionary priest.  After a year at the Loliondo mission, and some reflection on what he could learn of the history of the mission, he concluded, remarkably, that it had never really seen its task as simply preaching the Gospel and leaving it at that.  The establishment and maintenance of new institutions had always taken precedence.  At first the missionaries had purchased people out of slavery in order to convert them, but this had created a situation, as Donovan writes in his book Christianity Rediscovered, in which the adoption of Christianity was not a free choice but rather the price of freedom.  In the 20th century the mission had focused on education and made schooling it priority.  An Apostolic Visitor to East Africa, Monsignor Hinsley, told a gathering of bishops in Dar es Salaam in 1928: “When it is impossible for you to carry on both the immediate task of evangelization and your education work, neglect your churches in order to perfect your schools.” 

Conversion to Christianity had been thought of as something that would be induced by “civilization” or “education” or “development,” not as something to be hoped from a direct and unvarnished encounter with the Gospel.  But, amongst the Masai of East Africa, it hadn’t worked.  There were, Donovan wrote to his bishop in 1966, “no adult Masai practicing Christians from Loliondo mission.”  Students might do what was required of them while at the school, but they made no lasting commitment.  Donovan decided it was time for a new tack.  In his letter to his bishop, he wrote: “I suddenly feel the urgent need to cast aside all theories and discussions, all efforts at a strategy – and simply go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa.”  His request, which was granted, was to be allowed to “cut himself off from the schools and the hospital, as far as these people are concerned…and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message. 

This he proceeded to do.  His book is his account of what he accomplished and what he learned.  On his very first visit to a Masai kraal – the circular encampment in which this pastoral people live – he asked an influential elder if he could talk to the people about God.  The elder replied, “Who can refuse to talk about God?”  Donovan then told him that the purpose of the mission was to explain “the message of Christianity.”  “Ndangoya [the elder] looked at me for a long time,” Donovan writes, “and then said in a puzzled way, “If that is why you came here, why did you wait so long to tell us about this?”

It was agreed that the people would gather, from time to time, to listen to Donovan “talk about God.”  He spoke to them in a language – Masai – with no word “for person or creation or grace or freedom or spirit or immortality,” and he soon found that “every single thing I prepared to teach them had tobe revised or discarded once I had presented it to them.”  At his lowest ebb, he says, “I had to make the humiliating admission that I didn’t know what the Gospel was.”  What was the Good News when it was stripped of all it cultural and linguistic supports and presented without any blandishment beyond its claim to be the truth?  He concluded, in time, that what he had to tell was a story.  “The gospel,” he says, ‘is, after all, not a philosophy or set of doctrines or laws.  That is what culture is.  The gospel is essentially a history at whose center is the God-man born in Bethlehem, risen near Golgotha.” 

Along with this discovery of what he did have to say went the discovery of all the things that he didn’t need to say: almost, but not quite everything.  “Goodness and kindness and holiness and grace and divine presence and creating power and salvation were here before I got here,” he says.  What he thought he could add was something that he believed the people could not find out for themselves: the truth that had to be revealed by the God-man, the news that God is friendly and desires our freedom.

Creation is a key part of revelation.  No nation, no culture could have come to it on its own.  For the cultures outside of Christianity the earth is complete once and for all, and the world is not going anywhere in particular, everything is chaotic and directionless.  People of these cultures are trapped in the terrible dilemma of a fatalistic world vision – empty of the notion of continuing creation and personal responsibility and opportunity.  A missionary’s greatest contribution to the people for whom he works might well be to separate them from God, free them from their idea of God.

Donovan’s break with a century’s missionary tradition in East Africa allowed him to return, as he saw it, to the simplicity of the early church.  In his travels from kraal to kraal, he was aided by something the apostle Paul never had – a Land Rover – but he had Paul very much on his mind just the same.  In his reading of the New Testament, Paul came to town, preached, sometimes stayed a while, then left, keeping in touch as best he could, subsequently, by letter.  He framed no institution, let alone undertaking to staff it and prescribe the character its worship should take.  In the Acts of the Apostles, those that hear the word from Peter and his companions are said, afterwards, to have devoted themselves to “the apostles’ teaching… fellowship… the breaking of bread and prayers.”  That’s all.  Donovan conceived his mission to the Masai in much the same way.  “A permanent mission,” he says, centered on its “compound” as so many African missions were, “necessarily carries with it the atmosphere of foreignness, of colonialism.

The word ‘mission’ should really mean something in action, in motion, in movement as it did for St. Paul.  Mission compound, on the other hand, implies that the movement has come to a standstill.  In the latter case it is no longer a centrifugal force reaching out forever as far as it can.  It becomes instead centripetal, attracting everything to itself. Instead of symbolizing movement towards another thing (in this case, church) it becomes itself the end of the line.”

Related to this idea of mission as something “in motion” is Donovan’s sense that he was imparting the Word to a community, not just to individual persons, and that, once the community accepted the Word, it must be free to interpret it in its own way, reinventing worship and church after its own fashion.  In Donovan’s view missionaries had implanted in Africa “an inward-turned, individual salvation-oriented unadapted Christianity.”  Whether this orientation was any more “adaptive” in its homeland, even if invented there, is a question he leaves hanging, but he is clear that it didn’t fit the Masai context where individual salvation was quite unthinkable.  How they would worship, including their interpretation of priesthood, must be left up to them. His proclamation, he says, was freedom, not submission to a new style of priestcraft.

I really could not go to the Masai and tell them that this is the good news that I had brought them: they would no longer have to rely on the power of the pagan witch doctor; now could transfer their trust to the power of the Christian witch doctor.  That is no good new at all.  It is not worth travelling eight thousand miles to impart that news.  Does not the good news consist in the proclamation that we no longer need…a privileged caste to lead us to God?  Is it not that we believe that the people of God, the laity, can reach even to the throne of the living God by the power given to them as a Christian community by Christ?

The idea that Christianity is something given to the world, for the world, and not something to be treasured by individuals as a private “salvation” runs like a bright line through Vincent Donovan’s book.  It is one of his main criticisms of previous missionary efforts that they attempted to save individuals without regard to the fate of their communities.  The “only hope of achieving Christianity,” he writes, lies in adopting an “outward-turned” version of the faith.

An inward-turned Christianity is a dangerous counterfeit, an alluring masquerade.  It is no Christianity at all.  The salvation of one’s own soul, or self-sanctification, or self-perfection, or self-fulfillment may well be the goal or Buddhism or Greek philosophy or modern psychology.  But it is not the goal of Christianity.  For someone to embrace Christianity for the purpose of self-fulfillment or self-salvation is, I think, to betray or to misunderstand Christianity at its deepest level. 

What is being preached here, in my view, is not really a religion at all, but rather a stance towards the world and others.   Once this is seen, it becomes possible to conceive mission as something other than the attempt to replace one religion by another – an attempt that is always bound to have something invidious about it.   Even if the new religion isn’t a direct concomitant of colonial power, it is still claiming its superiority as religion.  But careful anthropological analysis is apt to reveal that in essence and structure the new religion and the one it seeks to replace are the same.  Indeed it was considered a great point for the Enlightenment critique of religion when it was shown that Christianity with its dying and rising god is quite indistinguishable from other members of the class of mystery religions to which it belongs.  The nature of the missionary encounter changes, however, when what is being preached is a modification of the very idea of religion.  There is no need for a competition between religions, or any need to change what is good in the religions that exist across all cultures – for example, the spirit, common to most religions, of reverence, gratitude and humility in the face of the unfathomable mystery of the world’s existence.  What Christianity adds is freedom from fear – from “fatalism,” Donovan says – and the news that God doesn’t belong to a priestly enclosure of any kind. 

[We must move] towards establishing the church of Christ which is the sign of salvation and hope raised up for the nations, the light of the Gentiles, not the Ark of Salvation for those who dwell in it, the church for the “non-church,” the community “for others.”  Missionary work should not envision the setting up of mission compounds or permanently dependent ecclesiastical colonies but rather the coming into being of autonomous, adult, self-propagating, open-ended, unpredictable, Spirit-controlled, many-cultured responses to the Gospel which are the church of Christ.  Missionary work is directed towards the establishment of that church not the continuing, permanent pastoral life and running of that church.

If one takes Donovan seriously on this point, it follows that most of what is called mission is not, in fact, mission at all according to his definition but rather the care and feeding of “ecclesiastical colonies.”  And this is indeed what he more or less says.

White missionaries in social and pastoral work in the already established churches make up by far the greatest number of missionaries in Africa today.  Missionaries involved primarily in direct evangelization have never been more than a handful in Africa.  In modern times, in the Catholic Church, there were never more than a thousand of them. 

Given these shocking estimates, it is not surprising to find Donovan recommending that a lot of “missionary” activity should be wound down.

There are a great number of white missionaries who are still involved in pastoral and social work in the already established Protestant and Catholic churches of Africa.  Are they really needed there?  Have they already overstayed their time?  Are they burdening those churches with their control and organization? Are they keeping those churches from the freedom and justice and peace which is rightfully theirs?  Are they giving those churches enough living and breathing space “to be alone to find their God”? 

The second book I want to try and digest is Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, a very different work than Vincent Donovan’s memoir of his missionary adventure in East Africa.  Sanneh’s is a big, wide-ranging academic book which aims at nothing less than a reconstruction of the “modern historiography” of missions.  This historiography, he says, “has established a tradition that mission was the surrogate of Western colonialism and that…together these two movements combined to destroy indigenous alien cultures.”   During his own education, “no serious scholar took issue with this viewpoint.”  Sanneh contests it vigorously and eloquently in his book.

The nub of his argument is that Christianity from its very origins was a message in translation, and that this gave it a unique ability to interact with every new vernacular it encountered.  The story begins with what Sanneh, following the usage of other New Testament scholars, calls “the Gentile breakthrough” – the realization by the first apostles that the good news that they had been told to “preach to all nations” did not have to remain bound within the Judaic cultural matrix within which it had first appeared.   The first Christians were not yet Christians, they were Jews, and their Lord himself, though he had told them to preach to all nations, had also said that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” and that he had come “not… to abolish the Law and the Prophets…but to fulfill them.”     A formidable barrier still hemmed them in, as they tried to decide first, whether they should preach to Gentiles at all and, second, if they did, whether they should then require their gentile converts to observe the Mosaic Law.  Even at the Pentecost, when they had found themselves able to speak in tongues and have their auditors understand them “each his own language,” these auditors had still been Jews from other countries who had gathered in Jerusalem.  The paradigmatic moment of breakthrough occurs in the Acts of the Apostles when the apostle Peter falls into a trance and sees a vision of all the creatures of the earth let down from heaven as if in a “great sheet.”  A voice tells him to eat; he protests that he may not eat what is “unclean”; and he is told that “what God has cleansed” he should no longer call “unclean.”  He then proceeds to the house of a devout Roman soldier named Cornelius, though he knows that “it is unlawful…for a Jew to associate with one…of another nation,” and there he announces: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  His Jewish companions – “believers from among the circumcised” – are “amazed because the gifts of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”     

This was the beginning.  The Gospels, written in Greek, were already a translation of what was spoken in Aramaic.  And translation continued throughout Christian history at ever new cultural frontiers.  Sometimes translations became, for a time, standard.  Jerome’s Latin Bible, the Vulgate, achieved such authority that copies of William Tyndale’s English translation were seized and destroyed at English ports in the years before the English Reformation, and Tyndale himself was burned at the stake as a heretic.  But no “definitive” version ever lasted.  An appendix to Sanneh’s book, enumerating “complete printed Bibles in vernacular translations”, lists three hundred and forty-nine now in circulation.

The decision for translation was momentous and created within Christianity what Sanneh calls in one place a vernacular “pulse” and, in another, a vernacular “ferment”.   “Translation,” he says, “forces a distinction between the truth of the message and its accompanying mode of cultural conveyance within Christianity.”  It leads, ultimately, to a de-centering of the message – it has no primary or privileged locus but exists in multiple versions – and to a radical cultural pluralism.  Indeed, Sanneh goes further and speaks of mission as a force for “cultural relativism,” a term he uses in a positive sense to signify, first, the reduction of Western culture to subsidiary status, and, second, the way in which the denial of special or privileged status to any particular culture brings all cultures equally under judgment.  

To show how decisively Christianity is marked by its willingness to undergo translation, Sanneh compares it with Islam in which “culture and religion” are “definitively sealed [together] once and for all.”  The Koran may be translated, but its Arabic text remains canonical and definitive wherever it goes.  Consider, by way of contrast, the account Sanneh quotes of how the Xhosa people of southern Africa experienced their first encounter with a Christian missionary.

He made enquiries among us, asking: “What do you say about the creation of all things?”  We replied “We call him who made all things uTikxo.”  And he inquired, “Where is he?”  We replied, “Usezulwini; he is in heaven.”  The missionary said, “Very well, I bring that very one – all that relates to or concerns him – to you of this country. 

There is a powerful but unmistakable irony at work here.  Once the God about whom the missionary wants to instruct the people is called uTikxo, a situation is created in which the people in fact know a great deal more about this God than the missionary does.  Nor need the missionary recognize this for it to be true nonetheless.  The vernacular, Sanneh says, is “trumps.”  It will shape the concepts which the missionary wants to convey, even as the missionary tries to reshape that vernacular to his own purposes. 

Sanneh’s name for this process is reciprocity, and he believes an understanding of it can lead out of the impasse in which de-colonizing discourses are stuck.   This impasse has come about, according to Sanneh, through the stigma attached to any perceived foreign domination.  This stigma attaches, he says, whether one converts or resists because in, either case, one is still reacting to and measuring oneself against the foreign incursion.  (Presumable, though Sanneh doesn’t explicitly say so this can’t-win situation, where the dominating influence gets you however hard you try to remain uncontaminated,  says something about the pretzel shapes into which people now twist themselves in the interests of “political correctness.”)   Through the model of reciprocity, Sanneh “tries to move beyond this impasse without ignoring the tension and critical challenge involved in this encounter.” 

What is the nature of this reciprocity?  I’ve already quoted Sanneh’s view that, in the process of translation, the receiving vernacular is “trumps.”  The missionary who is trying to preach the Gospel in Xhosa is, at the same time, struggling to understand the Gospel in Xhosa.  He must himself be converted, even as he tries to convert others.

Missionary translators groped and stumbled after rules and procedures to guide them in the more deeply shaded layers of meaning in the world’s virgin languages.  The more enlightened ones among them understood that they were as good as having lost their footing if they had to have recourse to Western validation.  European languages were little help in the impetuous stream of clicks, tones and sounds of the unknown tongues of unknown people. 

The missionary translator can only keep “his footing” by establishing himself on entirely new ground and allowing a concomitant change in his own assumptions.  He gives up his religion in order to receive it back in a reconstructed and revitalized form.

The language and culture into which the Gospel is translated is also changed.   Many of the missionaries Sanneh writes about were explorers of language, inventing grammars, orthographies and sometimes new scripts into which to render unwritten languages.  In the process these languages were profoundly changed.  “Dormant or dimly apprehended symbols” of the receiving culture might awaken as result of contact with the Gospel.   The vernaculars were strengthened and gained political as well as cultural confidence.  “Rooted in the vernacular,” Sanneh writes, “an African church must inevitably come into conflict with a political system based on the superiority of foreign domination…At the heart of the nationalist awakening was the cultural ferment that missionary translations and the attendant linguistic research stimulated.”  In another place, he says:

Mission deliberately fashion[ed] the vernacular instrument that Africans …welded again their colonial overlords.  Then, behind the backs of imperial masters, came the momentous outpouring of Christian conversion throughout the continent, suggesting that missionaries were effective in fertilizing the vernacular environment rather in making Christianity a sterile copy of its Victorian version.

It should be said, at this point, that Sanneh’s idea of a fundamental reciprocity built in to the very process of translation in no way denies conflict.  Mission as “imperialism at prayer” may be a stock figure, but Sanneh certainly doesn’t deny that it became one by embodying a certain truth.   Likewise, he recognizes that many missionaries, even some who fell under the spell of local languages, still entertained the erroneous belief, of which Donovan also writes, that Christianity would only take root when accompanied and supported by Western “civilization.”  Sanneh admits further that translation sometimes miscarried.  In fact he can be quite funny about it.  My favourite, among the several examples he gives of egregious mistranslation, concerned the missionary in central Africa who thought he was inviting his audience to “Enter the kingdom of heaven,” when he was in fact telling them “to go sit on a stick.”  So there is no sense, in Sanneh’s book, that he thinks either that translation is a transparent process, or that it produces reciprocity automatically.  All he is saying I think is that a powerful tendency towards reciprocity is built into Christianity’s virtually genetic disposition in favour of translation.

This disposition, in his view, has large consequences, which go beyond even the stimulus and ferment it introduces into local vernaculars.  It also supports the modern philosophy of language which Sanneh associates with Willard Quine, Ernst Cassirer and Ludwig Wittgenstein – a philosophy that holds, in brief, that the word is a symbol, not “a locus of things and classes [of things.]”  Words are elastic.  When “God” comes in contact with the Zulu “uNkulunkula” both are going to change their meaning.     This puts translation, in Sanneh’s bold formulation, on the side of “syncretism, sects, heresy and apostasy.”   Allowing new cultural horizons to open, he says, works against the very idea that Christianity is a fixed and finished structure.

Standard theological models of Christianity have presented it as a closed-circuit organism whose main pathways of communication have been laid in cognitive, normative channels.  Faced with this imposing, immobile system, the task of the theologians was seen as codifying the religion, mapping the contours of its form and the lineaments of its function…preventing foreign matter from entering it, repairing deviations and aberrations, fixing the qualities that alone define – and do not define – the religion, and generalizing about how God works in the world. 

Mission with its practices of translation is, in Sanneh’s view, decisively on the side of pluralism, decentralization and open-endedness.  But this does not mean that Christianity is no more than what a particular culture makes of it.   All “cultural forms” are fit “to bear the truth of Christianity,” but none is fully adequate.  

The ambiguous relation of Christianity to culture hinges on the necessity for the message to assume the specific terms of its contact and the equal necessity for the message to inveigh against cultural idolatry.  As a historical movement, Christianity is parallel to culture but, in its truth claims, it is not exactly proportionate to culture.  The religion is not culture, but it is not other than culture.  

Christianity, for Sanneh, is relative to culture in a double sense: its message is continually reconstructed by culture in a way that condemns “uniformity and centralization” and promotes what Sanneh is not afraid to call “cultural relativism”; but, at the same time, it relativizes culture by introducing a standard that condemns all “cultural idolatry.” 

This relativity presents what Sanneh calls “an acute paradox.”  Christianity is rooted in “a culturally specific experience [which] is in some fashion normative of the divine truth.”  God was revealed in one man who was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth, and died a condemned criminal at Golgotha outside the walls of Jerusalem.  He spoke Aramaic, and he framed his teaching in the terms of the law and prophecy of his own people.  All this is “culturally specific.” And yet at the same time this story, by the risen Christ’s own command, must be retold in all cultures.  In being retold, it will inevitably be liable to the vicissitudes of what Sanneh calls “relationship and communication,” but, even so, how can this retelling be done without privileging the original culture and making all other subservient to it?  Sanneh’s answer is that, although Jesus “bursts into history” in a certain place and culture, he also brings “the light of discernment” into human affairs, and, by this light, all “projects of cultural superiority” will sooner or later be indicted.  This “light of discernment” is well-illustrated, I think, by the parable in which Jesus asks in the Sermon on the Mount: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”  (This is King James language – modern translations say “speck” and “plank” for mote and beam.)  This teaching, to me, doesn’t just say, make sure you’re right before you put someone else in the wrong, it says rather, the very thought that you are right puts you inevitably in the wrong.   By such “a light of discernment,” what begins in one place can spread everywhere without the origin claiming or deserving priority.   The parable founds a hermeneutic circle in which we turn endlessly with none able to claim righteous superiority.  Jesus doesn’t even exempt himself.  “Why callest thou me good?” he says in Luke 18:19.  “None is good, save one, that is, God.”

I have examined these two books in such detail, as I said at the outset, because historian Todd Hartch in his recent book The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West claims that they embody “the careful inquiry into the nature of mission” that Illich failed to undertake before denouncing the missionary initiatives of the American Roman Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1960’s.   I think, on the contrary, that both books are entirely consonant with what Illich said and did during the 60’s.  Donovan, in fact, was aware of his affinity with Illich and quotes him approvingly in his book.  “As Ivan Illich pointed out long ago in reference to South America,” Donovan writes in Christianity Re-discovered, “we must get out of the this business, this business of identifying the gospel with system, any system, or we leave to a future generation the agony of separating once again the two realities.”  Donovan, moreover, is as manifestly “anti-missionary” as Illich both in his remark that no more than “a handful” in his time have actually done direct evangelization, and in his strictures on white priests who have “overstayed their time.”  Sanneh, so far as I know, is unaware of Illich, as Illich, apparently, was unaware of Sanneh.  But I find the same affinity. 

Illich put forward his “missiology” in several essays that were published in his books Celebration of Awareness and the partly overlapping The Church, Change and Development.  I will try to summarize his thought briefly before saying how I think it chimes with Donovan and Sanneh.   Illich believed that the overwhelming and unquestionable mandate of the New Testament is that the Word of God must be shared.   In an early essay called “The American Parish” he writes, “If Catholics ever lose their concern for those who do not have God, they lose their charity.”  He goes on to criticize the lack of “missionary spirit” among American Catholics.  But the question of how this sharing is to be done brings Illich to the same issue that preoccupies Sanneh and Donovan: distinguishing the Good News from its cultural containment.  Mission, Illich says, involves making the Church, as a sign, perceptible within a new cultural context.  The Gospel arrives, always, with baggage.  “Never does the missionary bring the World of God in a way that is abstracted from culture.”  This was true from the beginning, Christ being “not only an actual person but a Jew…[who] lived at a particular time of world history.”  Translation is always necessary, and translation may fail if the missionary church tries to preserve its own embodiment.   “In South America,” Illich says, “it didn’t work; no Indian church was established, but a Spanish church on an Indian ground, and the cultural world of the indigenous people collapsed.”  A successful translation requires, above all, a certain poverty of spirit on the part of the missionary.   He/she does not know and cannot know what form the church will take in its new surroundings.  The new church will be built up “in the imagination and the wishes and the dreams of the community” and “its structure will be expressed through the people’s own words and gestures.”  The missionary, as a stranger and an “adoptee,” has no way of knowing what these dreams and gestures are.  He must learn them, rather than imposing them. 

The missioner, in Illich’s view, stands at a frontier “between people and people, epoch and epoch, milieu and milieu.”  Through him “faith becomes transparent in a new language.”  But because the dialogue between cultures takes place in and through the missioner – it is “his witness [which] forms [the] dialogue” – he is “exposed to a double danger – either to betray his own past, or to rape the world to which he has been sent.”  To walk this knife edge, he must, in T.S. Eliot’s words, “go by the way of ignorance.”  In this voluntary dispossession, Illich says, the missionary imitates Christ.  In Christ, God “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”  “To communicate himself perfectly to man,” Illich comments, “God had to assume a nature which was not His, without ceasing to be what He was.  Under this light the Incarnation is the infinite prototype of missionary activity, the communication of the Gospel to those who are ‘other,’ through Him who entered a World by nature not His own.”  The missioner may receive his own tradition back enriched but only if he can first learn to bracket it.  He may see the church flourish on its new ground but only if he allows it to be born again – a rebirth that may take a form so new and surprising that the church, as it has been, will have to “strain to recognize her past in the mirror of the present.”  Indeed, this changed form is so certain, if it is allowed, that missiology, the science of mission, can be defined as “the study of the Church as surprise, the Church as divinely inspired contemporary poetry; the developing of human society into a divine bud which will flower in eternity.”

Because mission lives on the razor’s edge between betrayal and rape, and is therefore a task requiring extraordinary delicacy and tact, Illich proposed quite stringent conditions for judging who was fit to do it.  In his long essay “Mission and Midwifery,” he describes several classes of persons through whom mission may “miscarry” and who should therefore be “discouraged from seeking missionary service.”  The first he mentions are those who“cannot endure their heritage” but, rather than face their rejection of their inherited way of life, choose mission as a way of putting “a holy label” on their “psychological escapism.”  The second class are the national chauvinists who believe their national church to be the church in its best and final form and “try to sell overseas ‘what has worked so well at home’.”  Next are the adventurers “fired by sensuous dreams of a jungle or martyrdom or growing a beard.” These yearnings can be trained and re-deployed, Illich says, but instead they are being actively fostered by “the organized promotion of apostolic tourism.”  (This was a swipe at programmes like the Papal Volunteers for Latin America (PAVLA) which Illich viewed as an unctuous imitation of the Peace Corps.)  And, finally, Illich indicts “the ecclesiastical conquistador of modern times…who wants to ‘save more souls’ or who derives satisfaction from heaping up baptisms at a rate undreamt of at home.”

Illich thought that these “missionary miscarriages,” as he called them, could be avoided in two main ways: first by unsentimentally weeding out the patently unfit, and, second, by offering rigorous training to those who showed more aptitude.  He and his colleagues offered such training first through the Institute for Intercultural Communication which Illich instituted at Ponce in Puerto Rico in 1956, and later at the centres he established in Cuernavaca, Mexico after 1961.  It had five basic components.  The first, always, was intensive language teaching.  The second was transmission of cultural knowledge.  The third was a grounding in the sociology of religion.   It was sociologists of religion like Will Herberg and Martin Marty that had helped Illich to understand the peculiar form Roman Catholicism had taken in the United States, and he believed that all missioners needed to look “in the mirror which the behavioural sciences can offer to [them.]”  Seeing one’s own church dispassionately as a limited and socially condition object, he believed, could lead to self-awareness, critical distance from one’s “inherited social system,” and, most crucially, an ability to distinguish between the church as a divine ordinance and the church as “a power among powers.”  The fourth desideratum of missionary training was some grounding in “religious science.”  What is necessary, Illich says, is a grasp of “fundamental mythology: the science which studies the way heroes and symbols grow into gods.  [The missioner] must do so to understand that one people’s valid representation of the true God [ikons] can easily become another people’s idols, or representations of the psychological experience of sham-gods.”  The final requirement was prayer by which one could begin to understand “the grammar of silence.”  The missionary must be silent before a world in which he has not yet learned to speak, and this is yet another instance of the missionary as the very paradigm of Christian life, for only in silence can any of us face a God who is “infinitely distant, infinitely foreign.”

Illich believed that mission was a field which contained seeds of renewal for the Church.  In 1963, he expressed the hope that contact with Latin America might have “a revolutionary impact on Church institutions outside of Latin America.” The roots of this hope lay in the philosophy of mission that I have just summarized.   Mission, for him, was a paradigm of Christian life.  He defines it as “bringing the church into view as a sign of Christ.”  “Every Christian,” he says, “is a missionary who is sent out from the church in one world into another world.”  The new world could be a new people but just as easily “a new scientific milieu or a different social structure.” The Church is expressly portrayed as a “sign” rather than an institution.  It points at a reality which it can never fully embody.  Elsewhere he calls the Church “a sign lifted up among the nations,” and “the worldly sign of the other-worldly reality.”  The emphasis on the Church as sign is interesting in two respects: first, as I’ve said, a sign points at something but does not replace it or substitute for it, and second a sign is only intelligible from within a given cultural horizon. 

This should be enough about Illich’s philosophy of mission to illustrate the affinity between him and Sanneh and Donovan.  They agree in seeing the  church as a “sign” to be “lifted up” rather than imposed;  they are at one in seeing mission, as Donovan says,  as something “in motion” and on its way to a  destination that can neither be predicted nor planned;  they all feel that the gift of the Word, once given, has to be set free without further stipulations from the donor as to how it is to be understood and celebrated; and they all see mission as self-emptying, self-abnegation, and cession of control whether this is chosen voluntarily or comes about, in Sanneh’s terms, through the “vernacular ferment” implied in the very process of Bible translation.   But this concord is not what Todd Hartch sees.  He thinks that Illich’s critique of American missionary programmes in Latin America foreclosed the possibilities and pathways opened up by Donovan’s return to naked and unsupported evangelism, and Sanneh’s demonstration that translation alters both parties to it, whatever their conscious attitudes may be.  Illich, Hartch says, turned “anti-missionary,” a term he uses repeatedly, and thereby deprived Americans of that experience of reciprocity, dialogue and mutual correction that is inherent in the missionary encounter. 

The problem here partly lies in comparing apples and oranges.  Donovan describes an experiment in direct evangelization which he says his mission had never tried, and no more than “a handful” had attempted elsewhere.  He is generally quite sour about ecclesiastical business-as-usual missionary work in Africa.  Sanneh’s examples are mostly drawn from the history of missions in Asia and, for the greater part, Africa, and also mainly concern direct evangelization following first contact.  Illich was trying to contend with an intra-church programme designed to remedy a perceived personnel shortage in the Latin American Church.  Its history went back to 1946 when a Maryknoll priest called John Considine in a book called Call for Forty Thousand had argued that the Latin American Church needed this many priests to bring it up to what he regarded as a proper complement of one priest per one thousand Catholics.  His call was eventually heard and heeded in the Vatican, and by the end of the 1950’s Pope John XXIII had made a commitment that the American Church would send ten percent of its personnel – a traditional tithe – as missionary assistance to Latin America. 

Illich regarded this a colonial rather than an evangelical undertaking.  He deplored the fact that it was launched at the same time as the Alliance for Progress, at the beginning of the so-called “development decade,” and carried, as far as certain elements in the American church were concerned, some of the same patriotic and anti-Communist aims.  Above all he feared two things:  first, that a self-satisfied, American-style Catholicism would swamp the very different style of Christian celebration that had developed in Latin America; and, second, that American assistance would reinforce the existing structure of a sclerotic and reactionary Latin American church and, thereby, forestall needed changes.  He therefore opposed the “papal” programmes, as they were called, and tried to minimize their impact on Latin America. 

This was not, in my view, an “anti-missionary” undertaking.  Rather it was an attempt to change the church in order that it might become truly missionary.   It can properly be called “anti-missionary” only if Hartch can demonstrate that Illich was wrong, in his analysis, of the potentially sinister effects of massive American “missionary” aid on the Latin American Church.  But he does not.  Rather he rests his case on the good things that might have happened if Illich had been less stringent in discouraging and subverting the American programme.  The result in my view is a terrible misunderstanding.  Illich, I believe, should be counted, along with Donovan and Sanneh, among the pioneers of those who have tried to lift mission out of the shadow of imperialism and renew its philosophical and theological foundations.  Instead, in one of the first major English-language studies of his work, he had been pinned with a label he does not deserve.  


Principles for the Training of Missionaries by Ivan Illich

What follows is a lecture by Ivan Illich to a Jesuit organization called Pro Vita Mundi at their first international congress in Essen, Germany, held between September 3rd and 5th, 1963.  The conference was called "Die Not Der Kirche Und Die Aufgabe Der Ordensleute" - The Predicament of the Church and the Task of the Religious Orders.  The German text of Illich's talk was recently recovered from the conference proceedings by Italian scholar Fabio Milana.  Milana is working on a book on Illich's formative years that will soon appear in Italy.  My wife, Jutta Mason, translated the text he provided from German to English, and we then edited the English text together.  The paper is a valuable supplement to Illich's essays on mission in The Church, Change and Development and should help to inform the debate begun by Todd Hartch's characterization of Illich as "anti-missionary" in his book The Prophet of Cuernavaca. 


Mission work can be considered either from a sociological or a theological vantage point. Both ways of seeing require attention to two fundamental facts. In the first place, mission work always has to be understood as a way of enabling the act of faith in a new cultural context (and that assumes on the one hand a certain insight into the theology of the Word and on the other hand at least an approximate assessment of the mission territory in question in a sociological sense). 

In the second place, it must be remembered that the missionary church today everywhere in the world does not find itself facing just an individual state structure, but rather a world of international development.



The science of missiology researches the growth of the church in time and space. Its object is the encounter of the church with a foreign people, whose language and culture must be made receptive to the good news. One can apply a sociological interpretation to this encounter, as an encounter between two groups, or a theological one, as a contact between the word of God and a people which hears that Word.


 1. The concept of mission from a sociological standpoint

For anthropologists and sociologists the church represents a social phenomenon, namely a group which is held together by a number of customs and understandings. For politicians the church forms a “pressure group” [Illich uses the English here] and has its own ideology and culture (and how often has the church been misused that way, in order to serve politics!). For many social psychologists the church counts as a particular phase in the evolution of the self-understanding of humanity; in this regard it must be seen as the high point in the alienation of man in his relation to the world, since it wants to fix him in an earlier station of evolution.  In this sociological view the missionary appears to the potential believer, not as a messenger from God, but primarily as a member of a particular social grouping, in relation to whom one might be either positive or negative or perhaps just indifferent.


2. The understanding of mission from a theological standpoint

Here the church is seen as the coming into being of the church, as the word of God made flesh in a new human community. That point of view offers two important perspectives. On the one hand the church is only built up in the relevant community through individual conversions. On the other hand the local church only acts as an outward sign when a Christian group comes into being.  And it becomes such a sign for those particular people when it is expressed in the unique terms of their culture. So the individual and the community depend on one another in the mission. The concept of mission should therefore signify the building up of the church in the imagination and in the wishes and dreams of the community. Its structure will be expressed through the people’s own words and gestures.


3. The missionary

Every Christian is a missionary who is sent out from the church in one world into another world, specifically with the task of bringing the church into view as a sign of Christ in that other world’s own language and way of living. This new world could be a new people, but it could just as well be a new scientific milieu or a different social structure. Never does the missionary bring the Word of God in a way that is abstracted from culture. Christ himself was not only an actual person, but a Jew, and in addition lived at a particular time of world history. The church is forever identified with its semitic origin: through the language and the cultural milieu of the Old as well as the New Testament, she remains rooted in Israel. When later Roman missionaries announced the word of God in northern Europe, it was only able to become a broadly comprehensible sign when the Germanic people were able to comprehend the message from within their own representational world. This obstacle again and again presents the greatest difficulty for mission work: to carry the particular, enfleshed, acculturated word of God into another cultural world. In South America it didn’t work; no Indian church was established, but a Spanish church on an Indian ground, and the cultural world of the indigenous people collapsed. For that reason the missionary must not attack or simply replace the traditional texts and customs of a people who have not yet found Christ in the church. Rather, he must bring the indigenous culture into relationship with the texts and customs of a people who have already succeeded, at least in part, at making their own culture into a genuine sign of the church. Putting the two cultures side by side in this way must not lead to a suppression. Instead it should foster a mutual cultural exchange. In consequence, the group which is the object of the mission, will find its own culture being fermented with a new spiritual principle, and at the same time the mission church will be enriched through a new expression of the faith.


In the theological sense the missionary is therefore the one through whom faith becomes transparent in a new language. In human terms his witness forms a dialogue between two cultures. But in this way he is exposed to a double danger – either to betray his own past, or to rape the world to which he has been sent.

The best image for mission might be a marriage. Think of a very elderly married couple, who sit in front of their little house. In the course of their lives, he became more a father and a man; she became morea mother and a woman.  And now in the evening of their lives they see themselves as equally brother and sister.

In the same way the missionary becomes to an ever-increasing degree, the son of his own homeland, and a conscious member of his own mother church in the homeland.  And yet he has been totally accepted into the new people, in the sense that the adoption in which he has taken part has become the starting point for the growth of the church. In this perspective it is compelling to read the letters that the sixteenth century missionary Matteo Ricci wrote in his old age. The man who became Chinese among the Chinese as probably no one after him ever did, appears in these letters as a man who to an in ever-increasing extent was concerned about the reports he got from his brother in Italy about the condition of the family wine stocks.



The missionary must be adopted into his new homeland.  He always remains the man who is just tolerated, the guest and foreigner, even in the practice of his fatherly task. His acceptance into the lap of a new people remains a favour and a gift, which he cannot earn but of which he needs to prove himself worthy.

For that reason not everyone is suited to being trained as a missionary. There are certain types of applicants for mission, who must be excluded right from the beginning, whereas there are others whom one can immediately recognize as suitable. So those who seek to escape from their own homeland for one or another reason, are almost all completely unsuitable for the career of a missionary.  Then again there are others who are very nationalistically minded and who defend – usually because of a lack of a deep inner and personal spiritual life – the views of their previous homeland in their new home. One must very tactfully help such types to reach a deeper and more original spiritual life.  

Others see mission as an exciting adventure. Here serious character formation is necessary, to transform the willingness to become an offering, born from fantasy, into virtue. Others again show up as churchly conquistadores, who either want to baptise as many souls as possible, without even taking account of the need for a thorough education and for building a solid community, or who seek only to lift up the people as fast as possible to their own European or American way of living, thus overlooking their cultural uniqueness. 

The education of the missionary must enable him to keep in mind that it is not he but his friends that will be making the church comprehensible by means of local understandings, and that ultimately he can only play a secondary role. That kind of a spiritual stance assumes a deep reverence toward the difference in the other, and toward the secret of the singular aspect of each people.


2. Inseparably entwined with the education of the missionary is the development of the gift of making  distinctions. The candidate must be able to distinguish between:


a) the revealed truth, which we must read in the revelation;

b) the actualization of the same truth, in the form familiar to us in the church of the homeland and

c) the form this actualization takes, as it appears, in endlessly varied shapes, to viewers from other cultural worlds.


The missionary must do more than just learn to recognize new forms in which a Christian sense of shame or a Christian form of brotherly love can find expression. At the same time he must be ready and remain ready to see more deeply into the nature of Christianity itself, by opening himself to the truth of his tradition as it appears in the frame of a new spiritual world, even though this world remains for him in part still incomprehensible. 


3. It is of course also important that the religious, who is preparing himself for the work of mission, not only sees and learns his task as apostle, but also as a divinely consecrated witness. The religious missionary arriving in in a modern developing country may come with three different points of view. As a well-educated member of a high status community he almost always expects to take on the task of a technician working on secular development. But as a missionary he also cares for souls and carries a churchly office. Finally, as a religious he is and remains, even though in completely different circumstances than in his home, the poor witness and announcer of the greatness of God.  In his character as a religious, it is also his task to share this witness within the church in community with others. The preparation of the religious for their work of mission must take account of all these almost incompatible viewpoints. As a consequence of his activities in the mission, new opportunities offer themselves for the religious to observe his three evangelical oaths in a very special way.  In his new situation poverty is experienced in the cultural domain. The cultural accomplishments he brings with him appear largely worthless in his mission. In relation to the culture of the inhabitants of his new home he will always be the one who receives more than he is able to give. Nor should he confuse his dominance in the technical sense with capability in the genuine Christian sense. He will have to remain, as an individual as well as a community member, a symbol of renunciation and of freedom, despite his collaboration in technical progress.  


His obedience will also present much more severe demands; especially regarding the orders that his superior at his old home gives him. The missionary will have to carry out these orders in such a way that one the one hand he does not use them as an excuse for his inability to adapt the Gospel to its new setting and yet on the other hand he must know how to give full and total respect to his superior’s actual intention.

As to chastity, he will ultimately need to learn to see it in its positive sense as the virtue which enables him to love the individual, always starting anew, instead of only seeing the “souls” as a kind of material on which he can practice the virtue of the apostles. For the missionary, chastity in the activities of the mission means the flourishing of such tenderness in love that he is able to see the unique and singular personality, even in the people most foreign to him



1. The church has always had to penetrate a world still in the process of becoming. But in our time, new elements have been added to this forward movement. The difference between the culture of the occident, from which the missionary originates,  and the civilization of the mission regions is more and more experienced as the contrast between the rich and the poor; and these poor become aware of this, and experience it as an injustice. More and more people realize that they ought to have more opportunities, and should have the right to a higher standard of living, and that they don’t want to wait any longer. This demand for an immediate alteration of the psychological and social structure in various domains announces itself everywhere with an unbelievable speed. The acceleration of this growth process requires a Christian interpretation and a Christian position.


2.  During the last century, the church in its mission work sometimes encountered peoples who still lived in complete independence from the rest of the world. In most cases during that period the church was not successful in taking root in the cultures of these peoples.

Now, as these peoples are dragged along the wild evolutionary process of today, they are in danger of seeing their traditional ways of living abruptly disappear. So the man who finds himself in the situation of pastor as well as helper in the work of development, faces a doubly difficult task. For on the one hand these new peoples strive to get ahead quickly, with the support of international development assistance, and they regard the missionary as a cheap aid in this task of development. On the other hand they try to protect their national traditions, and then they regard the missionary as a dangerous element and a potential source of alienation.  


3. So what then is the specific task in this chaotic situation?

The question for the missionary is whether he can make the church, which has come from an established state, into a source of spiritual dynamism in this more fluid development domain. In many areas of mission that would have to involve giving up much of the existing supply of church capital (in schools and buildings); for in the hasty evolution of the affected society the scant resources of the mission ought not to be expended in rapidly aging and numerous material investments but should rather be a spiritual investment in persons.

In this regard, the education of the missionary can hardly be called complete, if it does not prepare him to humbly and discreetly take account of the resistance that he must unavoidably expect from his predecessors.  



1. Technology has created possibilities for learning languages systematically, whose consequences we cannot yet comprehend. The average student in the Mexican mountain city of Cuernavaca (the original Ouauhuahuac) speaks Spanish better after a couple of months of instruction than the average missionary after a stay of about ten years.  In Cuernavaca just as in the elegant Brazilian city of Petropolis, we demand of our pupils (mostly in small groups of three with a teacher originating from the relevant place) that they settle into the rhythm of the language. Language teaching is thus done with scientific seriousness, and yet also accompanied by a deeply-experienced encounter with the entire thought- and emotional world which is so tightly bound up with language. On top of that we must consider the way in which the influence of socio-economic development, expressed in every language, affects this language study. Every social development is preceded by a psychological development, and that means a decisive alteration in the language. So one notices that a training for greater productivity will always also be a lesson in new words and things.


2. The missionary must try to protect the language and the character of a people from alienation, both from the outside (coming from other countries) and from the inside (internal reversal due to technological change). He must know how to accommodate himself to the old traditions and often also, as in Latin America, to an already existing Christianity, in order later on to help further develop that Christianity from the inside out.  


3. A final and broader task, which defines the missionary of our day, can be delineated by the concept of mutuality between church communities. After all, the missionary carries an apostolic responsibility toward his own country of origin. Only through him and his experiences will his homeland become aware that what he clearly observes in the mission land can just as well apply to his homeland. Who else in Europe would think of asking the questions which occupy us day in, day out, in South America:  “Do we really need seminaries to make sure that we get new priests?” – “Do we really still have to ensure that each child that’s born is also baptized, and thereby to make sure that a community of baptized catechumens continues to exist?” – “Does it make sense for the church to hold on to the requirement that the baptized attend mass every Sunday, or shouldn’t we rather come to a kind of ‘disciplina arcani,’ and teach that only those must attend Sunday mass, who are also aware of what is at issue?”

In order to make possible this mutual relationship, an ongoing contact between ‘young’ and ‘old’ churches is completely essential.




This congress is a new kind of event in the history of the church. The boundaries between the traditional mission domain and the old established Christianity have been breached. The need for more effectiveness in pastoral strategy is clearly felt. But on the one hand there is a danger concealed in the erection of the “Pro Mundi Vita” Foundation, namely to forget that religious only fulfil their pastoral task as they increase in the supernatural virtue of renunciation. On the other hand the religious can only observe their vows in a way pleasing to God and in a way that fits their time, if they do so in a place where the church is called to act.


Christ and Anti-Christ in the Thought of Ivan Illich

(A talk given, at the invitation of Travis Kroeker, to students and faculty in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University, Oct. 21st, 2015)

With a few important exceptions, I don’t know exactly whom I’m talking to here today, so I’m just going to assume that many of you have only a limited familiarity with the work of Ivan Illich and begin with a short survey of his career before getting to my main theme.  Ivan Illich came from central Europe – his father from a landed family in Dalmatia, his mother a converted Jew from Vienna.  In 1951 he was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in Rome and shortly afterwards emigrated to the United States.  There he became known as an advocate of intercultural dialogue within the Church – first as an assistant parish priest in a part of Manhattan where newly arrived Puerto Rican were getting short shrift from the more settled Irish and Italian populations, then in Puerto Rico where he became the vice-Chancellor of the Catholic University in Ponce, and finally in Cuernavaca, Mexico where he founded an institute that was initially devoted to the training of missionaries but eventually grew into one of the focal points of the  cultural revolution of the 1960’s.  In 1968 Illich was summoned to Rome by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or Holy Office, and subjected to inquisition.  The following year the Vatican instituted a ban against CIDOC, the centre I mentioned which Illich directed in Cuernavaca.   Illich had offended in neither faith nor morals, and his theology, as he always insisted, was radically orthodox – a term he used thirty years before British theologian John Milbank launched Radical Orthodoxy - but he had publicly criticized the Church and advocated its declericalization, he had called American missionaries ecclesiastical conquistadores, and he had made CIDOC a centre of radical thought.  Reactionary forces in the Church, accordingly, wanted his head.   He judged it best, at that point, to withdraw from Church service, rather than to allow the Church he loved, in spite of  all that happened, to continue to make a scandal of him.  He never renounced his priesthood, and he was still, officially speaking, a Monsignor of the Roman Catholic Church when he died in 2002.   But from 1969 on he acted as a lay Christian.  He then began to publish, in short order, a series of books intended to foment what he called “institutional revolution.” these included Deschooling Society, Tools for Conviviality, and Medical Nemesis.  These books were widely read and reviewed, and, along with Illich’s personal charisma, made him for a few years one of the best known and most sought-after intellectuals in the Western world.   The argument that ran though these books was that modern institutions like medicine or mass compulsory schooling had reached and were already surpassing a threshold at which they would become counterproductive.  In the later 1970’s when it had become clear that the institutional revolution he was promoting would not take place, he turned to historical investigation of the sources of the certainties in which these institutions are anchored.  This more searching inquiry produced books like Shadow Work, Gender, In the Mirror of the Past and In the Vineyard of the Text.   Illich’s celebrity began to wane.   One, among many reasons, was that Gender, a book that was published in 1982, was widely misrepresented as a reactionary and anti-feminist work, and this tended to interrupt Illich’s relationship with the social movements of the time.  He wrote and taught, mainly in Germany and the U.S., until his death in 2002, but he never again had the public ear as he had it between 1965 and 1980.


I knew Illich briefly in the late 1960’s when I visited CIDOC in Cuernavaca, and, with others, brought him to Toronto as the keynote speaker at a teach-in we had organized on international development.  A closer relationship began when I met up with him again in 1987 at a conference I was covering for Ideas.  He agreed to let me come down to State College Pennsylvania where he was then teaching during the fall semester at Penn State to do a major interview.  It lasted, episodically, through eight days and became the basis for a five hour radio series for Ideas and later a three hundred page book called Ivan Illich in Conversation.  I had prepared myself for these interviews by reading all of Illich’s published work, but there was a great deal in what he said for which I was quite unprepared.   One especially notable surprise was a statement he made towards the end of our time together: 


My work is an attempt to accept with great sadness the fact of Western culture.  [Historian Christopher] Dawson has a passage where he says that the Church is Europe and Europe is the Church, and I say yes! Corruptio optimi quae est pessima.  [The corruption of the best which is the worst]  Through the attempt to insure, to guarantee, to regulate Revelation, the best becomes the worst.


The essential idea here can be expressed in various ways: that modernity can be studied as an extension of church history, that ecclesiology is the matrix of sociology, that the peculiar degradations that characterize modern society can be understood as proportional to the New Testament’s exalted claim that God has entered the world as a human person.  The novelty of the thought was expressed by philosopher Charles Taylor in the following way:  one is used to the idea, Taylor said, that modernity fulfills Christian ideals, or its opposite, that it betrays them, but not that modernity is a perversion of the Gospel.  The idea was certainly new to me, and, as I got to know Illich better, I began to press him for a more thorough presentation of his hypothesis – ideally a book.  He agreed that this was desirable, but for various reasons that I won’t go into here, it didn’t happen.  When I realized, finally, that it wasn’t going to happen, I proposed that he dictate at least the basic lines of his thought to me, so that I could make a second radio series and potentially a second book.  He agreed, and these interviews took place in the later 1990’s. They produced, in the year 2000, a radio series called “The Corruption of Christianity” and, finally, in 2004, two years after Illich died, a book called The Rivers North of the Future.  (“The Corruption of Christianity,” just by the by, was not my choice of title for the radio series.  In fact I argued, unsuccessfully, against my superior’s decision to impose it.  It was my view that there isn’t a religion called Christianity, which is then corrupted, rather the corruption is its institutionalization as a religion, which makes the title a complete and crucial mystification of the central idea.) 


Well, I’ve told a little of the history of the book to indicate, first, that it is a tentative, vulnerable and unfinished work – an old man’s ex tempore recitation of the thoughts he has been unable, with a few exceptions, to put before the public in a polished and fully thought out form – and, second, that it is a work that was, in many senses, entrusted to me – it was his trust in me that enabled him to speak as he did, and it became my trust to share and, if possible, to unfold and extend what he had given me. 


So now, at last, I come to my theme.  Illich sets it out forthrightly in the first sentence of the book: “I believe,” he begins, “that the Incarnation makes possible a surprising and entirely new flowering of love and knowledge.”  This says, first, that God has become fully incarnate, embodied, in a human person; second that this is surprising − that is it couldn’t have been anticipated, or claimed or thought in any way necessary – it’s a gift;  third that it’s new – it hasn’t happened before and couldn’t have happened before because it’s a revealed possibility, not one that could have been discovered or produced; and finally it says that this revelation expresses itself as both love and knowledge.  He goes on to say that this freedom to love that the Incarnation makes possible is immediately shadowed by two dangers:  the first is that it threatens the integrity of families, communities and cultures by undermining their right to entrain and direct love within proper boundaries; the second is the danger of institutionalization- “a temptation,” as Illich says, “to try to manage and, eventually, to legislate this new love, to create an institution that will guarantee it, insure it, and protect it by criminalizing its opposite.”


Illich takes the parable of the Samaritan as the paradigm of this revelation.  I’ll quote his telling of the famous story from the Gospel of Luke:


Jesus tells the story [Illich says] in response to the question of “a certain lawyer,” that is, a man versed in the law of Moses, who asks, “Who is my neighbor?”  A man, Jesus says, was going from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by robbers, stripped, beaten and left half-dead in a ditch by the road.  A priest happens by and then a Levite, men associated with the Temple and the community’s approved sacrificial rites, and both pass him by “on the other side.”  Then comes a Samaritan, a person whom Jesus’ listeners would have identified as an enemy, as a despised outsider from the northern kingdom of Israel who did not worship at the temple.  And this Samaritan turns to the wounded one, picks him up, takes him in his arms, dresses his wounds and brings him to an inn where he pays for his convalescence.


This story, Illich says, has been so thoroughly assimilated into Christian religion that its meaning seems obvious and unproblematic: it illustrates a universal ethical duty to those in need.  But Illich reads it differently.  He draws attention to the ethnic difference between the two men. The Samaritan, as an outsider, has no duty whatsoever to the wounded man – his duty is only to his own kind – and therefore his action, in historical context, is a violation of ethical decency, not an instance of it.  He does what he does because he is moved by what most English translations call compassion, but what the original Greek text describes more literally as a stirring in his guts.  And this is crucial for Illich.  For him, the answer to the question – who is my neighbor? – is: it could be anybody, so long as it is a fully embodied relationship and one that is actually felt as a personal call.  Remove this embodied quality, turn a personally experienced vocation into an ethical norm, and you have Illich says, “a liberal fantasy.”


This, in a nutshell, is Illich’s view of the relationship between Christ and anti-Christ.  Christ sets us free to love whom we will.  Who it will be, Illich says, may “appear arbitrary from everyone else’s point of view.”  This is an important point with him, reiterated in many places: that the “sociality of two,” as he once called it, contains an intimate and incommunicable depth that must necessarily remain shaded from other eyes.  The choice of the other can’t be predicted or commanded.  What it sets us free from can be expressed in various ways: it sets us free from family – “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew (10:35-36) “and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household” – it sets us free from community – it is the Samaritan woman at the well who asks Jesus for living water, the Roman soldier at the cross that perceives the crucified one as God – and it sets us free from religion – in his telling of the parable Illich highlights the fact that it is the indifferent Temple officials – the priest and the Levite – who are engaged in what he calls “the community’s approved sacrificial rites”.  Elsewhere he says plainly that “faith in the incarnate Word sacrificed on the cross is not a religion and cannot be analyzed within the concepts of religious science.”  The teachings of Jesus are full of anti-religious statements and satires on the scrupulous observances of his opponents as in his pregnant statement (Mark 2:27) that the Sabbath was made for man, notman for the Sabbath.  So Illich is at one with René Girard in seeing the cross as the abolition of the sacred, if the sacred is understood as the hallowed boundary which secures the unanimity of the community.


However, all these liberations, Illich says, are conditional.  They depend, in the first place, on what the church would later call grace.  Yes, the Samaritan can fearlessly defy the mythical terrors that guarded ethnic boundaries and reach out to his wounded enemy but not through his own unaided powers.  This is a possibility that Jesus reveals.  Illich speaks of charitable acts as acts which “extend the Incarnation” which implies that they occur within the Incarnation – that “the new dimension of love” [which] has opened” has been opened for us through God’s generosity.    Humans require by their nature what Husserl calls a “homeworld” and a homeworld cannot exist without a horizon– it exists by definition in tension with some other homeworld.   Between homeworlds there must be a no man’s land – an area where the referential contexts of the two worlds in effect cancel each other.  The Samaritan in establishing a relationship with the man in the ditch begins a new world and thus demonstrates a power that has been super-added to him through the Incarnation, not one that could ever belong to his natural repertoire.   He acts, as Illich repeatedly says, on a call.*


The vocation of the Samaritan, in other words, is deeply ambiguous.  It can build glorious new worlds, but it can also be the door through which the unlimited enters human societies and begins its slow work of denaturing them.  Illich called this denaturing tendency anti-Christ – a bold and, to me, at the time he chose to put this term in play, thoroughly astonishing choice of words.  He knew, he said, that he “risk[ed] being taking for a fundamentalist preacher in applying the monstrously churchy term anti-Christ” to the new and unprecedented evil that he wanted to name, but, if he simply followed his preference and called it sin, he went on, he would be even more likely to be misunderstood.  So let me digress for a moment on this dramatic concept of anti-Christ, before returning to the precise way in which Illich deploys it.


There are only a handful of references in the New Testament to anti-Christ. Jesus in the apocalyptic discourses of the synoptic Gospels warns against false Christs, and the first letter of John seems to carry on this usage in claiming, as a sign of the nearness of the end, that many of these anti-Christs have already come, but the locus classicus, and the passage Illich draws on, occurs in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, though I believe that Paul’s authorship of this epistle is now doubted by a majority of scholars.   In this letter Paul, or his imposter, says that “the day of the Lord…cannot come before the rebellion [Greek apostasia] against God, when the Man of Sin [or, alternately, lawlessness] will be revealed….  He is the Enemy.  He rises in pride against every god, so called, and every object of men’s worship and even takes his seat in the Temple of God claiming to be God himself. You cannot but remember that I told you this while I was still with you; you must now be aware of the restraining hand [katechōn] which insures that he shall be revealed only at the proper time.  For already the secret [mystērion] power of wickedness is at work, secret only for the present until the Restrainer [katēchon] disappears from the scene.  And then he will be revealed, that wicked man [lawless is again an alternate] whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth.”  (This is theologian Bernard McGinn’s translation, from his book on Anti-Christ, but you should know that what he calls the secret power of wickedness, was rendered into Latin by Jerome as mysterium inequitatis, and this is the phrase that Illich picks up – the mystery of evil.)


This passage that I’ve quoted founded an entire tradition.  By the second century Irenaeus can specify the length of the anti-Christ’s reign – three and a half years, he says;  Hippolytus, a little later, knows that the Deceiver will resemble Christ in every particular;  the Apocalypse of the Holy Theologian John, uncertainly dated to the early fifth century, gives a detailed description of his appearance – “his face…gloomy, his hair likes the points of arrows… his right eye as the morning star and the left like a lion’s…his fingers like sickles…and on his forehead is the writing “The Anti-Christ.”  This tradition, as you will probably gather from the harbingers of Hollywood in that last description, became, as it went on, more mythological than theological, but it remained vivid into early modernity and then gradually died out.  Today the term persists on the fringes of Protestantism, and, to an extent, in popular culture – I remember my surprise at coming across a book a few years ago called How To Tell If Your Boyfriend Is the Anti-Christ.  Nietzsche also called his anti-Christian polemic The Anti-Christ but this title might just as well have been translated The Anti-Christian and is, in any case, a way of characterizing his own stance rather than a reference to the traditional figure.  So Illich seems substantially right when he says: “What is impressive about the transition from the early Church to the established Western church is how thoroughly this mystery – [the mystery of evil] – disappeared from the Church’s teaching and the concern of most of its members.”


There are, however, two important exceptions: one crucial for Illich, the other crucial for me.  The important exception for Illich was a work by the 19th century Russian writer,  theologian, poet, pamphleteer – Vladimir Solovyov.  It’s called The Story of the Anti-Christ and it’s one of the first books I can remember Illich recommending to me.  Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, also important to Illich, summed up Solovyov’s view as follows: “The ways of history do not lead directly upwards to the Kingdom of God, they pass by way of the final unveiling of the anti-Christ who conceals himself under the last mask to be stripped away – the mask of what is good and what is Christian.”  [That last phrase, I think, bears repeating: the mask, von Balthasar says of “what is good and what is Christian.] The second more or less contemporary writer to take anti-Christ seriously, and the one who’s crucial for me, is the psychologist Carl Jung.  “In the empirical self,” Jung writes in his book Aion, “light and shadow form a paradoxical unity.  In the Christian concept, on the other hand, the archetype is hopelessly split into two irreconcilable halves, leading ultimately to a metaphysical dualism – the final separation of the kingdom of heaven from the fiery world of the damned.”  In Jung’s understanding, the Christian account of a God who is all goodness, and a Christ who is all light, cannot but provoke a psychic compensation, an anti-Christ.  This is not just “a prophetic prediction” Jung says but “a psychological law.”  For Jung it explains not just the powerful anti-Christian animus which develops in the modern West but also, interestingly, what he calls “the plague of ideologies” that have characterized our time.


Now back to Illich.  The Gospel for him is ambiguous, and the depth which it harbours is proportional to the height to which it invites us.  He claims that the function of the prophets who are mentioned in the New Testament was to remind nascent Christian communities of this ambiguity, of the fact, as he puts it, “that the Church had gone pregnant with an evil which would have found no nesting place in the Old Testament.”  I’m not sure that this claim can be sustained – I can’t see much evidence in the New Testament that early Christian communities were aware of the ambiguity of their gospel – but, whether it disappeared or never existed, Illich is surely right that awareness of this ambiguity is absent in later antiquity when the church becomes a crucial social institution, and equally so, at the time of the Gregorian reform in the Middle Ages, when sin becomes a crime and love becomes the law.  I don’t have time here to relate the lengthy history and the various stages by which Illich thinks that the best becomes the worst but he gives a good overall characterization when he speaks in Deschooling Society of the growing conviction “that man can do what God cannot, namely manipulate others for their own salvation.”  This domestication, let’s say, of the Gospel is, on the one hand, a historical process, perceptible by all – Christianity changes the world – but it is also, says Illich, quoting Paul, a “mystery of evil”  - a mystery because its meaning, and perhaps its dynamism as well, depends on and derives from the Revelation which it corrupts and betrays.  This mystery, Illich says, “is now more clearly present than ever before.”  In other words, the attempt to make institutions perform in place of persons is now reaching a kind of theoretical maximum.  One of the ways in which this is expressed is through chronic fiscal crisis – we can never afford all the services we believe we need. 


I may be beginning to try your patience, so let me try to sum up.  Illich, I would say, holds a tragic view of the fate of the Gospel – he sees that what he most deplores has entered the world through what he most loves.  He will not say that the Gospel was destined to be overshadowed by its institutional counterfeit, but he will say that this is how it happened.  Likewise he may not agree with Jung that a psychological law is being enacted, but he certainly says that the Church cast a shadow which it increasingly refused to recognize. Illich’s answer to this dilemma, let me say finally, is summed up in the word awareness.  His first book was called Celebration of Awareness.  The Church could not have avoided casting a shadow, but it could have maintained its awareness of the ambiguity and the volatility that were entailed in its revelation.  It didn’t, and its modern offshoots have preserved the same one-sided attitude – the same “brutal earnestness,” Illich says – with the consequence that we now live, he thinks, in a vast dominion of anti-Christ.  This is why he insists that our era is quite wrongly characterized as “post-Christian.”  “On the contrary,” he says, “I believe this to be, paradoxically, the most obviously Christian epoch.”  In other words, the perilous dynamism of our world – its paralyzing momentum – may have, so to say, a secret source.  Rewinding the string and reappropriating this source in a new spirit will not be easy, but I believe that’s the direction in which Illich urges us.


*The argument in this paragraph is indebted to an unpublished paper by German philosopher Klaus Held called “Ethos and the Christian Experience of God.”







A Review of Todd Hartch's The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the Modern West

Todd Hartch, The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West, Oxford University Press, 2015


Reviewed by David Cayley


In 1999, near the end of his life, I asked Ivan Illich how he would square the injunction which ends the Gospel of Matthew to “make disciples of all nations” with his opposition to the missionary activity of the American Catholic Church in the 1960’s.  The interview was being done for the radio arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and we both knew, as Illich remarked a little later in this conversation, that we were engaged in what he called “a shadow battle on radio.”  Accordingly, he let me have it.  “I reject your imputation,” he said, “that in the 1960’s I took a stand against the missionary activities of the Church.”  “Those were the days,” he goes on to say, “when an American manipulator, journalist and priest, who had glorified the missionary activities of the American Maryknoll Fathers in China, found a new vocation for this Catholic missionary order by inveigling Pope John XXIII into signing a document in which he asks North American bishops and religious superiors to send 10 percent of their ordained, trained priests to South America, the new mission field of the Church.  This man also wrote a paper, which he then had signed by the Vatican authorities, creating, as a parallel to the secular Peace Corps, an agency called Papal Volunteers for Latin America.  And I denounced this as an obvious, easily understandable caricature, as a corruption of the mission given by Jesus to his apostles.” 


This sounds like a pretty open and shut case, but readers of Todd Hartch’s just published The Prophet of Cuernavaca will soon discover a more tangled tale.  In 1961 Illich and several colleagues set up the Center of Intercultural Formation (CIF), in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with the announced purpose of training missionaries to Latin America.  (CIF later gave birth to the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC), a less church-centered organization which, for a time, operated in parallel with CIF and then displaced it.) This was a continuation of work Illich had begun in Puerto Rico some years before when he founded and directed the Institute for Intercultural Communication, which had trained New Yorkers who were working with Puerto Rican immigrants.  Here, Hartch reports, “hundreds of priests and nuns and some teachers, firefighters, police officers” were introduced to the Spanish language and the rudiments of Puerto Rican culture.   John Considine, the Maryknoll priest about whom Illich spoke to me, was a key figure in the launching of CIF.  Considine was then the director of the Latin American Bureau (LAB) of the Catholic Welfare Conference, and his concern was the implementation of the missionary plan for which he had gained the support of the Pope.  Illich’s work in Puerto Rico had given Considine a high regard for Illich’s abilities, and he had insisted that Illich was by far the best man to direct the training of these new missionaries, even when Paul Tanner, the general secretary of the association of American bishops, had argued with him that Illich was too much of a wild card to be trusted in such a position.  As the  director of the LAB, Considine was crucial to the flow both of both funds and students to the new center, and he served on its board of directors.  Without him, it’s unlikely, on Hartch’s evidence, that CIF would ever have got off the ground.  


Illich maintained cordial working relations with Considine for a number of years.  In a letter written to Considine in 1963 he acknowledges “frequent differences in opinion” but then goes on to say that these had only “strengthened rather than weakened our mutual respect.”   So, if Illich from the start had regarded the missionary initiatives for which Considine had won the Pope’s backing as “an easily understandable caricature” of the Gospel imperative to spread the good news, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the main manipulator in this story was Illich and not the earnest and somewhat credulous Considine.  But perhaps it’s the case that Illich turned against the missionary effort in Latin America more gradually than he allowed in his summary recollection to me nearly forty years later?  Todd Hartch does not think so.  He quotes a remark Illich made in connection with his years in Puerto Rico before ever establishing CIF.  “I learned in Puerto Rico,” Illich recalled, “that there are only a few people who are not stunted or wholly destroyed by lifelong work ‘for the poor’ in a foreign country.”  And Hartch thinks that this impression was fortified during a 3,000 miles journey that Illich made over a four-month period in 1960, winding his way from Santiago, Chile to Caracas, Venezuela.  Hartch calls it a pilgrimage; it was certainly a voyage of discovery.  Illich was impressed by Latin American folk Catholicism but repelled by the American missionaries he encountered.  “Remarks by Illich,” Hartch writes, “implied that the missionaries he met during this time conceived of their role as making the Latin American Church look more like the Church in the United States, saving Latin America from communism and building costly schools and church buildings.  Illich was so angered by these Americans that in 1960, probably on this trip, he told Bishop Manuel Larrain, president of the Latin American bishops’ organization that he was ‘prepared if necessary to stop the coming of the missionaries to Latin America.’”  What one can certainly say, it seems to me, is that Illich, from the beginning, believed that mission must be a vocation and not a programme with a target or a diversion of ecclesiastical personnel to an underserviced area.  Accordingly it’s hard not to share Hartch’s conclusion that, at the least, Illich’s relation with Considine involved a certain amount of “ambiguity, flattery and misdirection.” 


I begin with this vignette because I think it illustrates the value of Todd Hartch’s book for those of us who know something of the legend of Illich’s CIDOC years but not much of the historical record.    And Hatch discovered an extensive record deposited in archives at Harvard, Notre Dame, Indiana, Fordham and the Catholic University of America.  Drawing on letters, periodical literature, the recollections of teachers and students, and the many publications of CIF/CIDOC, as well as Illich’s own writings, Hartch has pieced together the story of Illich’s Cuernavaca years, beginning with the establishment of CIF in 1961 and ending with the closing of CIDOC in 1976.  Particular attention is given to what Hartch calls “the Catholic period” from 1961 to 1967.   He also provides a biographical sketch of Illich in the years before 1961, and concludes with an assessment of Illich’s work as a whole, but the greater part of the book is taken up with the goings on at CIF/CIDOC and with the question of mission.


Before he ever started CIF, Illich had developed a philosophy of mission.  The best introduction to it is a book called The Church, Change and Development (1970) which includes several substantial statements of Illich’s views.  The qualities that Illich urges missionaries to cultivate are humility, poverty of spirit, and silence in the face of all that they do not know and may never understand.  Missionaries may know the Gospel, but they can have no idea initially what it means in the new context they have entered, and, in that sense, they enter empty-handed.  He also urges the need for some formation in the sociology of religion, an education he himself had undergone in the 1950’s through writers like Will Herberg, Martin Marty and others who had shown that much of what passes for Christianity is no more than cultural accretion and the sanctification of civic piety.  Such an education was particularly necessary for Americans, he thought, because the power and influence of the United States made it easier for them to confuse the Gospel with the particular form of their church and therefore to become what he calls “ecclesiastic conquistadors.”


So Illich certainly began his work at CIF with the view that many, perhaps most of the Americans who were apt to end up in Latin America under a plan like Considine’s would likely do more harm than good unless they underwent drastic reorientation.  This was reflected in the CIF training courses.  In the very first session, Hartch writes, only thirty-two of sixty-two students managed to get through the course.  At all times Illich was, as his friend Joe Fitzpatrick said, “a sign of contradiction” who quite deliberately evoked strong reactions.  Hartch quotes one priest as saying, “The Monsignor is aiming too high, too high for me and others of my capacity.”  Another unhappy priest complained of Illich and his staff’s “rigorism.”  A French Canadian woman who attended in 1962 felt that the “program…brings students to the edge of hysteria and chase[s] half of them away.”  By 1965 even John Considine, finally disillusioned, was complaining that the students “morale” was being undermined.  There were of course also those who experienced CIF training as an awakening, and Hartch occasionally quotes them too, but the voices of the disappointed and offended tend to predominate.  Perhaps one can get the flavour of the good Illich did from a remark his friend the Bishop of Cuernavaca, Méndez Arceo, made to Francine Duplessix Gray who quotes it in her 1970 profile of Illich for The New Yorker.  “I love the way Illich tortures his missionaries,” the bishop told Gray.  “Sometimes I cry with emotion at seeing aged men, elderly priests shed their old selves under his care.”


CIF was established as a missionary training centre but soon began to open  other avenues as well.  Its library expanded, its journal, CIF Reports, became a voice for various cultural ferments then bubbling in Latin America, and the ambitious publishing programme that was later characteristic of CIDOC was begun.  As a result of meetings held under CIF auspices, a separate institute devoted to specifically Latin American pastoral methods was established.  Its stated purpose was to foster “vernacular pastoral methods in a prophetic, servant Church of the poor.”  This was one of the first stirrings of what became known as “liberation theology,” a movement in which CIF initially played a founding role.  Illich later opposed this tendency, insofar as it involved a politicization of the church, but the project of a distinctive Latin American theology was initiated at a meeting he convened at CIF’s Brazilian outpost in Petropolis in early 1964, and CIF Reports was the journal in which its first expressions were exchanged.  These developments constituted the positive side of Illich’s programme.  He wasn’t just trying to keep away missionaries who had an ethnocentric and clerical/bureaucratic conception of the Church; he was also trying to put forward a new image of Latin America as a potential source of renewal.  In 1963 he expressed his hope that Latin America, both in the sense of “occupation with it and preparation for it,” would have a “revolutionary influence on Church institutions outside of Latin America.”  “We can therefore,” he said, “ever more speak of the responsibility which Latin America has towards the world and which it is exercising though CIF.”  Illich, in other words, did not see North America as a rich civilization whose bounty ought to be made to overflow into the lands of its southern neighbours.  He saw it as a world itself in need of healing and rededication.


Illich’s hope that Latin America might assert a “revolutionary influence” on a complacent Church in the “developed” countries is characteristic.  He may have given the term his own twist, but he speaks frequently during this period of revolution.  His first book, Celebration of Awareness (1970), is subtitled A Call for Institutional Revolution.  Particularly telling, for me, is a letter Hartch  reproduces from 1962.  Illich was writing to his friend Joe Fitzpatrick, a Jesuit priest and professor of sociology at Fordham who had been Illich’s ally since the early 1950’s when they worked together on the integration of Puerto Rican immigrants into the Catholic Church in New York City.  In the letter he urges him to abandon “the institutional frameworks that now allow you to be courageous” and to risk “total involvement” in CIF even at the cost of losing “respectability among your peers.”  If Fitzpatrick were to embrace this professional and spiritual “exile,” then “in a way,” Illich concludes, “you might be the first North American priest who with full consciousness of what it involves…joins the revolution.”  This is a letter to a dear friend – I can still remember with what pleasure Illich, many years later, introduced me to Joe Fitz, as he called him.  It says something about what Illich himself was giving up, since his abilities would certainly have afforded him the comfortable priesthood and secure academic career that he is asking his friend to renounce.   But more than that it shows that Illich, at this time, was in full earnest about revolution.  The object of this revolution was what he spoke of in his late interviews with me as “the resurrection of the Church,” the Church he refers to in various writing of the 1950’s and 60’s as a “sinking ship” and a “giant [which] begins to totter before it collapses.”  The only way to save it, as he argued in his essay “The Vanishing Clergyman,” would be to dismantle its whole corporate, clerical bureaucratic structure and return to mystery, surprise and celebration – Illich’s three great watchwords.  The Church, he said, is “that surprise in the net, the pearl,”  “a divine bud which will flower in eternity,” and “a sign to be lifted up among the nations.”  This was the Church’s proper vocation, not manpower planning for Latin America, and, on the consistent evidence of what he said during his years as a churchman, he believed, in the spirit of the times, that the revolution he imagined could happen and that he was called to do everything in his power to see that it did.


This brings me to what I see as an ambiguity, and perhaps an ambivalence in Hartch’s book.  Hartch understands and states clearly that Illich was not against mission as such.  “He decried cultural imperialism posing as mission,” Hartch writes, “not the concept of mission itself.”  And yet elsewhere he refers to Illich’s “anti-missionary” campaign and even, on one occasion, to an “anti-missionary plot.”   This seems wrong to me.  Illich had a clearly articulated philosophy of mission, which honoured his Lord’s instruction to spread the Gospel.   How else call the Church “a sign to be lifted up among the nations”?  But Illich also believed that a staid, complacent and unimaginative American Church could not be such a sign under the conditions that prevailed in the 1960’s.  Consider: first, that the United States was then actively supporting dictatorships in Latin America which used torture as an instrument of government.   Illich had first hand experience with one such − the murderous military junta that ruled Brazil with American connivance after 1964 – and, later, he published an open letter to Paul VI in Commonweal condemning the Pope’s silence about the atrocities of this regime.  Second, a development crusade was then underway – in Latin America it took the form of the Alliance for Progress.  Illich characterized development on the terms dictated by the donors as a “modernization of poverty” and offered evidence for his belief that development and mission were being conflated.  And, finally, the American missionary initiative was a bureaucratic programme and not an expression of missionary vocation.  As early as 1946 John Considine had written a book called Call for Forty Thousand, in which he called for the American church to send that many missionaries to Latin America.  That call later translated into the plan endorsed by Pius XII, implemented by John XXIII, and continued by Paul VI that the American Church should assign 10% of its personnel to Latin America.  (The number 40,000 was chosen as a “tithe,” which traditionally was the 10% of one’s income due to the church.)  Illich viewed this plan as a colonial, rather than evangelical undertaking.  These are substantial reasons, and, for me, they explain why Illich opposed a certain practice and interpretation of mission without opposing evangelization as such.



Hartch’s ambivalence’s also extends to his characterization of Illich.  Here I should confess a prejudice.  Although I met Illich in the later 60’s, I knew him mainly in the last fourteen years of his life, and I’m sure that the man I knew was an altogether sweeter and mellower man than the angular, ambitious and sometimes proud campaigner whose portrait Hartch attempts.  Nevertheless, I think there may be some confusion in this portrait between Illich’s personality and certain calculated gestures – poses, one might say – that he felt were required to accomplish the purposes he had set himself.   Illich was certainly a theatrical man, who liked to shock, but I bridled a little at the description of him as “difficult,” “prickly” “confrontational.”  Again I would say that his action should not be separated from his purposes and his calling.


Hartch’s critique of Illich culminates in his conclusion.  There he argues that Illich’s opposition to Considine’s crusade was uncharacteristic.  He speaks of “the anomaly of Illich’s prolonged disobedience.”  The idea is that even though the young Illich, in Hartch’s words, “often ignored rules and regulations,” and even though the later Illich trounced virtually every major modern institution in his writings, the period of the 1960’s stands out because only then did he defy the whole hierarchy of the Church.  The relevant passage is worth quoting in full:


Illich convinced himself that he knew better than one pope, then another, and then another. He knew better than the Pontifical Commission on Latin American.  He knew better than he American and Latin American bishops.  He knew better than the Second Vatican Council.  The popes and the bishops and the most important Church council since the Council of Trent were all wrong: American missionaries were so dangerous that he was justified in using any means necessary to foil their plans.


The tone here seemed to me, at first reading, almost bullying, as if the sheer number of pontiffs he was opposing should have cowed Illich into submission, but I think it does reflect a serious and substantial difference between Hartch and Illich on the question of obedience.   Hartch says that Illich, in standing against the whole hierarchy of his church,  “was flirting with the Promethean arrogance that he condemned in others.”   And yet, Illich loved the Church above all things and, more than once, spoke of himself as an obedient son.  How can this be understood?  I think the answer lies in a distinction Illich made in his conversations with New Yorker  writer Francine Du Plessix Gray between the Church as “She” and the Church as “It.”  (Gray’s profile of Illich can be found in her book 1970 Divine Disobedience)  The Church as “She” – I quoted part of this passage earlier – is “that surprise in the net, the pearl.  She is the mystery, the kingdom among us.   The identity of the Church as She will remain through whatever changes she is currently undergoing.”  The Church as It, on the other hand, is “the institution.”  “I can talk about It,” he goes on, “only in sociological terms.  I’ve never had trouble creating factions and dissent towards the Church as It.”   This quotation allows us to see, I think, why Illich did not consider himself to be in the grip of “Promethean arrogance” in opposing what he regarded as a corrupt and colonial account of mission.  He was not standing against the Church as She.  He disputed no item of faith and in no way questioned the Church’s magisterium, the Latin word by which the Roman Church designates its teaching authority.   He opposed the Church as It, arguing against its policy not its doctrine, and this is why he could take the position he did without compromising his duty of obedience.


In the final section of the book from which the above passage is drawn Hartch also reveals that he thinks he knows where Illich went wrong.  “The missing procedure in Illich’s investigations,” he says, “was a careful inquiry into the nature of mission itself.”  Then he goes further and argues that Illich betrayed his own convictions.  “Personal experience with oafish priests in Puerto Rico, Americanizing missionaries in Colombia, and indelicate Papal Volunteers in Cuernavaca led him not to deeper reflection but to setting aside or bracketing his beliefs about missions.  If questioned directly he affirmed the missionary call of the Church, but in practice he did not want to see missionary activity in Latin America.”  Now Hartch knows, and acknowledges elsewhere, that Illich conducted an extensive inquiry into the nature of missions, and left behind an inspiring record of it in several of the essays that are published in The Church, Change and Development.  So why does he say that Illich failed to carry out “a careful inquiry?”  It seems plain that he does not think that Illich carried out a careless inquiry, but rather that he was wrong.   Hartch gives two main reasons: the first is that he thinks the transmission of Christianity can occur even through the most flawed media.  African Christianity, he argues, is now a vibrant, “indigenized” faith despite its problematic colonial origins.  “Regardless of their intention, and often in direct contradiction of their intentions, he says, “missionaries can serve as catalysts of cultural revival.”  Second he thinks that ‘‘the mission field” is an irreplaceable and indispensable scene of dialogue.  The “thousands” of missionaries whom Illich drove away, in Hartch’s view, were an opportunity foregone – each one a bridge that was never crossed, a chance of greater intercultural understanding that died in its crib.  In fact, Hartch even thinks that Illich shot himself in the foot by so effectively discrediting missions because, by doing so, Illich deprived himself of the very ground on which he might have made himself understood.


The largely non-religious friends and colleagues with whom he collaborated in Germany lacked the theological background to engage the religious side of his argument, while most Christian intellectuals either could not escape the shackles of … modernity itself or lacked the cultural and historical resources to appreciate its profundity.  Only on the mission field could Illich have found his peers. [My italics]


Hartch’s disagreement with Illich, it seems to me, reproduces the perennial debate between reform and revolution.   Illich was explicitly revolutionary.  His claim may have rested on the witness of the New Testament, and the practice of the early Church, rather than some projected utopia, but it was still effectively revolutionary in the face of a Church that had become, in his words, “the world’s largest non-governmental bureaucracy.”  He called for a new, de-clericalized church, and for a practice of mission that followed the spirit of Jesus who sent his disciples out to preach and heal with the instruction “to take nothing for your journey but a staff.” (Mark 6:8)  In the absence of such changes, he saw the American church as “standing on the side of W.R. Grace and Company, Esso, the Alliance for Progress…and whatever is holy in the Western pantheon” and, therefore, as a fatally compromised source of aid for the Latin American church.


Hartch doesn’t refute these claims.  He doesn’t even dispute them.  In a sense, he simply turns away from them at the end, and declares Illich’s procedure to have been self-defeating.  This is a substantial argument, and one that Illich was often taxed with: a critique so total, his opponents said, removes any grounds for constructive action.  In the case in question, no missionaries go, the Gospel is not preached, not even badly, isolation intensifies, and Illich ends up with no one to talk to.    But this argument also overlooks something: that Illich envisioned a different way of doing things, and invited others to share his vision.  Had more than a few accepted, new paths would have opened, other encounters would have occurred, the Gospel would have been preached in a different way.   Even as it was, Illich never said, don’t come to Latin America, any more than he said, don’t preach the Gospel.  He argued that the missionary enterprise, as then imagined by a bureaucratic Church deeply entangled in American geo-political hegemony, was a Trojan horse, a poisoned gift.  If Illich was right in this view, then surely he was not wrong to follow its consequences to the lengths he did in trying to undermine this enterprise.  He never, to my knowledge, denounced or failed to recognize a true missionary.


The Prophet of Cuernavaca, as I’ve said, focuses mainly on the years of the years between 1961 and 1976, and most intensively on the years before 1969 when Illich resigned from Church service.  But Todd Hartch also tries to take the measure of Illich’s work as a whole.  One chapter called “The Grammar of Silence” begins with a letter John Holt wrote to Illich in 1971.  “I am distressed and discouraged to note,” Holt says in this letter, “how little even those people who spend many weeks or months at CIDOC understand what you are saying and how little their own lives or ways of thinking are touched by it.”  Hartch  endorses Holt’s view that Illich was not well understood and says that he finds it “surprising  that someone as intelligent as Illich…caused such confusion.”  “Many of his friends and supporters,” he goes on to say, “longed for the day when he would produce a clear, direct and simple speech or text, but he never did.”  No evidence is given for this statement, i.e. no friends or supporters are cited, and, though it’s certainly true that lots of people, at one time or another, found Illich hard to understand, I think it’s quite an exaggeration to say that his friends waited in vain for him to clarify his position.   It’s probably also worth noting in passing that, in my experience, people who said they didn’t understand Illich often actually meant that they didn’t accept his arguments. But, however that may be, what I would like to take up here is not Hartch’s claim but his explanation of it.  “The reason for this lack of lucidity,” he says “was that most of his teaching and writing had a hidden purpose.”   The term “hidden” is then supplemented, in the following pages, by a number of other equally pregnant words including “coded” and ‘camouflaged” and “obscured.”   What is being kept out of sight, of course, is Illich’s theological agenda.


I think a serious misapprehension is at work here.  One of Illich’s most sensitive and attuned interpreters, the Italian scholar Fabio Milana, has written that after his withdrawal from the church Illich’s condition was one of “exile.”  This seems true – Illich did not cease to be a priest just because he was forced to withdraw from the formal exercise of clerical functions, rather he moved into what could well be understood as missionary settings where his faith was often not intelligible on its face.  He himself told an assembly of the American Catholic Philosophical Association in 1996 that, “when speaking in Bremen or Philadelphia [i.e. in a secular setting] I felt I ought to shroud my ultimate motive in apophasy [i.e. proceeding by way of negation rather than affirmation].  I did not want to be taken for a proselytizer, a fundamentalist or worse, a Catholic theologian; I do not have that mission.”  But this discretion was something other than camouflage.  Illich sought common ground with his auditors in analyzing those institutions which modern persons most devoutly believe in – schools, hospitals, prisons, and the like.  He believed that these institutions were descendants of the Church and would have been unthinkable without the Church’s prior effort to guarantee salvation and render it punctual and reliable.  But this does not mean that his analysis was only valuable as a coded critique of the Church.  The school and the hospital are the effective forms of the Church among us – their “liturgies” are the ones that matter to us.  To understand what they do, and what they say to us about who we are, is not merely coded theology, or an allegory of church reform.  The church may have pioneered the dispensing of grace, but who now promises us “life more abundant,” if not the institutions of health and life-long learning? 


It is also important that Illich never disguised his idea that modern institutions bear the genetic signature of their church originals.  It is quite explicit in Deschooling Society where he says that the school system is “the repository of society’s myth” and performs functions “common to powerful churches through history.”  He speaks of the school as a “sacred precinct, ” a “sacred milieu,” a “drawn-out labyrinthine ritual,” and a place where “the intricate rubrics of initiation” are enacted.  This is not to deny that Illich at the end of his life said things he had never said before about what the corruption of the Church meant to him.   But he also insisted, when talking to me about these matters, that he spoke “not as a theologian, but as a believer and an historian.”   And to speak as an historian meant to recognize that “the Incarnation… represents a turning point in the history of the world for believer and unbeliever alike.  Belief refers to what exceeds history, but it also enters history and changes it forever.”  This is not the place to pursue the point further, but I do think that if Illich manifestly thought that the historian could follow the rocky road from the Incarnation to modern worship of life and health, and felt that tracing this road was his vocation as an historian, then not much is gained by calling him, against his wishes, a theologian.


The question remains: did Illich, as Hartch intimates, “stop just short of clarity”?  I obviously don’t think so.  He may have sometimes “veiled his ultimate motive”, as he told the Catholic philosophers, because he didn’t want to be misunderstood or too easily categorized as “fundamentalist…. proselytizer…or…theologian.”  But this to me does not mean he pulled his punches or obscured his meaning.  I would rather say that he tried to discern how much it was possible to say in a given setting.   This does not mean that he did not sometimes misjudge.  And it’s true that as an old man he did sometimes feel that he should have been more explicit about the faith that animated his critique.   But it is also true that his effort to make himself understood in settings where he could not presume on a shared faith produced an extraordinary and illuminating analysis of modern institutions, an analysis which is much more than encoded theology.


Todd Hartch, in his title, calls Ivan Illich a prophet.   This was a word that  Illich himself foreswore, once telling the then President of Italy, Romano Prodi, when Prodi asked him if he wasn’t engaged in “a continuation of prophecy for our time,” that “the time of prophecy lies behind us.  The only chance now lies in our taking this vocation as that of the friend.”  This is an interesting statement because it recognizes that prophecy remains a vocation – a calling – but then claims that this summons is now best answered through friendship.  Still, the word is hard to avoid when writing about Illich because prophetic is probably the most readily understandable word for the mode of clairvoyant denunciation in which Illich often writes.   My question would be whether Todd Hartch has allowed the full prophetic force of Illich’s work to reach him, or whether he has not rather tried, at certain points in his book, to have his cake and eat it too: on the one hand building up the image of Illich’s volcanic genius, on the other standing safely aside in judgment of his misguided radicalism.  I do not want to say that this ambivalence undermines the value of the work.  It doesn’t.  Hartch seems to me a fair-minded and even handed reporter when it comes to the historical record, and I am extraordinarily grateful to him for the work he has done in opening a window onto Illich’s CIF/CIDOC years.   I should say also that in his conclusion he recognizes the power and continuing pertinence of Illich’s critique of modern institutions.   More than that Hartch acknowledges that Illich “risked everything he had to present his message to the world.”  So the difference I am left with, I suppose, is that Hartch thinks that Illich, in at least one critical respect, was wrong, while I think he was right.   







Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Complementarity in the Thought of Ivan Illich

This paper was prepared for a small gathering of friends held at a monastery in the small Italian town of Pescia (between Florence and Lucca)  in the summer of 2014...





In one of the titled footnotes in Gender, Ivan Illich suggests that a promising  philosophy of complementarity died still-born within the social sciences.  The footnote, titled Ambiguous Complementarity, discusses the work of the Frenchman Robert Hertz who died in the trenches during the First World War.  Hertz, Illich says, had “tried to incorporate this notion into the social sciences at a time when the concept had begun to be fruitful in the physical sciences.”  The essay Illich commends is “The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand: A Study in Religious Polarity” and, in it, Hertz claims that “dualism is the essence of primitive thought [and] dominates primitive social organization.”   But this idea, Illich goes on, was declawed and domesticated by Marcel Mauss, on whom the inheritance of Hertz’s youthful and foreshortened genius fell.  Mauss, according to Illich, took “the disconcerting asymmetry and ambiguity contained in Hertz’s idea of complementarity” and made it the foundation of a universal process of exchange.  Mauss was then annointed by Claude Levi-Strauss, who claimed that Mauss had been “the first to have treated the total social fact as a system of exchanges and that Hertz had been his inspiration.  “The fuzzy, partly incongruous complementarity that can be understood only by means of metaphors which Hertz had begun to recognize as the root of all culture,” Illich concludes, “was repressed in the social sciences in favour of operational concepts such as role, class, exchange, and, ultimately, “system”. 


I leave it those better acquainted with the work of Marcel Mauss to say whether this is fair to Mauss.  I can say that when I looked into Hertz’s essay I found what one sometimes does when dipping into Illich’s sources – that he had read more into Hertz than the latter may have intended, or, indeed, could have intended, writing, as he was, during the very infancy of his science.  I was also disturbed to find that, in Hertz’s essay, as its title suggests, the preeminence of the right hand is so total in much of his evidence that the left hand is as much scapegoat, victim and pariah as it is the ambiguous complement of the right hand.  I’ll let a Maori proverb Hertz cites stand for a great deal more of the same tenor.  “All evils, misery and death,” it says, “come from the female element” which is, of course, associated with the left hand.   Hertz ends his essay by approving the contemporary tendency, as he says, “to level the value of the two hands.”  “A liberated and foresighted community, he concludes, “will strive to develop better the energies dormant on our left side.”  Now this does not sound to me like the words of a man who wants to make complementarity either the horizon of social science or a bulwark against all universal concepts.  But, whether a philosophy of complementarity in the social sciences died aborning with Hertz or not, Illich’s attempt to construct its genealogy got me thinking about how the quest for such a philosophy motivated Illich’s own work. 


As it happened, not long before I reread Gender and was impressed by this footnote, I had finally braved a 500+ page tome entitled The Complementary Nature of Reality – a book that had been sent to me unsolicited by its publisher after he had heard and liked a long radio series I had done called How To Think About Science.  The book’s author Peter Barab argues that:   “Today’s science is akin to magic: it manipulates nature with dazzling technological displays and mathematical acrobatics, but the primary theories…, especially of physics, lack all meaning, in that scientists cannot explain what they are doing or identify the broader patterns that are involved.”  The consequence is, and here he quotes Neil Postman: “The world we live in is incomprehensible…but never surprises us for long, since we have no consistent picture which new events could alter.”  The solution, according to Barab, is to take complementarity seriously, not just as a pragmatic description of what occurs, but as the deep structure of reality.  In physics this task was begun by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr who reflected on the experimentally demonstrated fact that a given quantum might manifest now as a wave, now as a particle, and also on his German colleague Werner Heisenberg’s finding – the famous Uncertainty Principle – that there is a limit to how precisely one can measure certain paired qualities like position and momentum at the same time.   Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, as it came to be called, held, in effect, that everything comes in pairs.  The findings of quantum physics were not paradoxes or artifacts or mere appearance which would all eventually be resolved, as Einstein hoped, in a unified theory.  Nature is fundamentally dual, not unitary, according to Bohr, and Barab thinks that this can be elaborated into a comprehensive and consistent philosophy of science which thinks in pairs and not always of a reduction to one underlying principle or substance. 


Peter Barab’s book confines itself to physics, but I was led next along the pathways of my eccentric reading to Carl Jung who I think can be said to have advanced a philosophy of complementarity in psychology.  I don’t want to tarry long here with Jung except to say that he insists that nothing can be illuminated without casting a commensurate shadow, that man is unconsciously woman and woman unconsciously man, and that consciousness and unconsciousness exist in a compensatory, or complementary relationship.  Two others also deserve mention before I go on to Illich: the first is Nicolas of Cusa, with whom, I confess, I have only a slight acquaintance.  His idea that we can grasp God only as a complexio oppositorum, a complex of opposites, an idea Jung took over and bent somewhat to his own purposes, I understand as a way of unifying without reducing, of resolving without dissolving you might say.  He yearns beyond duality but never tries to deny it, and I think this is very much in Ivan’s spirit, though I never remember him mentioning Cusanus.  The second is the English poet William Blake who says memorably that “Opposition is true friendship” and that “Without contraries there is no progression.”


I mention these names in passing to hint at possible lineages, and in the hope of starting conversations with those who may know more than me, but what I mainly want to do here is to focus on Illich’s philosophy of complementarity and how it informs his work.  Gender is surely its centerpiece, but I would argue that the idea is there from at least the time of Tools for Conviviality.  There we find the idea of multi-dimensional balances.  And what is balance? Opposing forces in equilibrium, a scale on which opposing weights are suspended, domains that restrict and limit one another in a harmonious way. This idea is developed in various ways, but always a single mode of production, a single mode of thought, the radical monopoly of a single institution is deprecated.  “Well being,” as defined in Shadow Work, is “a balance,” which occurs when “use values and commodities fruitfully mesh in synergy.”  Modernity and the industrial mode of production are not rejected – rather they are to be brought into a complementary relationship with vernacular and communal imperatives.


Gender brings this idea into new relief, and begins to make visible some of its underlying assumptions.  The book was criticized, most pointedly and substantially, in my view, by Nancy Scheper Hughes, a professor of Anthropology at Berkeley, and one of the seven women who responded to Illich’s performance of the text of Gender in Berkeley in the fall of 1982.  Drawing on her own work, she claims that Illich is a naïve and partial anthropologist who has mistaken ideology for practice, exaggerated the extent to which tasks are gendered in pre-capitalist society, and downplayed the perverse, destructive, and arbitrary elements of gender.   “No society or culture could sustain itself for very long,” she says, “under the kind of extreme sexual segregation that Illich posits as characteristic of pre-industrial ‘Vernacular Gender’ societies.” (Feminist Issues 3:1, Spring ‘83, p.34)  This critique may have merit and, I would even say, justice – Gender, to me, is an arrogant book, inasmuch as its author is so preoccupied by his own discoveries and his own agenda that he pays almost no attention to the milieu he is addressing, and is, in addition, quite free with his insults.  For example, “Women academics grab at the semblance of legitimacy that comes from putting on the hand-me-down Marxoid categories discarded by social historians.”  This might be true of some woman academic, or even a whole school of women academics but carelessly aimed, as it appears to be, at all women academics, it seems more inflammatory than enlightening. However, now that I’ve got that off my chest, my point is that Illich is not finally writing anthropology.  Listen to the ways he talks about gender – he calls it “the best heuristic he has yet discovered for the investigation of the pre-industrial past” – this is from memory and I can’t place its source – it may have been written or said somewhere other than in Gender – but clearly a heuristic is a way of seeing, an aid to discovery, rather than an historical claim as such.  He speaks of gender and sex as ideal types.  He says that what is needed more than anything else is an epistemology of gender – that gender, in other words, is a way of knowing and not just a historical object to be known.  He asserts that his understanding of gender is “rooted in the deepest mystical experiences” and that it is nourished by the scholastic concept of relation subsistens.  Relatio subsistens, as Lee Hoinacki would later explain, is a scholastic redescription of the mystery of the Trinity with its three persons who are one and yet distinct, independent as a whole and yet dependent among themselves.  He claims that “gender is a metaphor for the ambiguous symbolic complementarity that constitutes each of the two genders…as metaphors for each other” – in short a metaphor for a metaphor which reminds of Marshall McLuhan’s witty twisting of Robert Browning’s “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/ Else what’s a heaven for?” into “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/ Else what’s a meta-phor?”  He also calls gender a way of “incarnating symbolic duality.”


All of this suggests to me that gender is something much more than a historical category for Illich, though I’m not at all denying that it is that as well.  It’s a way of reinstating here and there, and you and me in their proper relation of mutually dependent otherness.  I can still remember the relief I felt in reading the book – that in place of the unlimited and impossible demand that seemed to arise from feminism, as it had from earlier revolutions, an inexhaustible mystery was being restored – along with the possibility of respect, limitation, modesty and friendship.  Illich sums this up in the idea of gender as metaphor – that each, in a beautiful sense, stands for the other.


What this points to is that Illich is not actually all that interested, as he may sometimes appear to be and as many critics claimed he was at the time the book was published, in vindicating this or that historical form of vernacular gender.   Gender, as he explicitly says, stands for a principle of mutual dependence and mutual limitation, and for an otherness that cannot, by definition, be overcome.   It represents the idea that a stable and sustainable social order can only stand on two legs.  And, above all, it blocks what I can only call mon-ism, though it’s ungainly and unfamiliar word.  Monism is universal competition, unlimited growth, denatured language - whatever circulates without impediment because it has no necessary complement by which it could be limited.


Illich struggled for words in which to expound this philosophy.   At the time of Gender, he was still leaning heavily on the idea of ambiguity and asymmetry.  Later on he hit on the idea of di-symmetry, of opposing domains that fit each other and are answerable to each other without being an identical image of each other.  The word didn’t make much of a slogan, dissymmetric complementary being even more of a mouthful than the earlier paradoxical counterproductivity, but it says what Illich wants to say:  that only by opposition do things hold together, only by a plurality of powers can freedom be nourished, only by limitation can language live.


A beautiful statement of this philosophy occurs in Ivan Illich in Conversation: “I like to walk along the watershed,” he says, “and to know that left and right are profoundly different from each other and contradictory to a high degree. The world of sex holds together only because of the rests of gender that survive in it and sprout in it.  The world of cybernetic modeling, of computers as root metaphors for felt perception, is dangerous and significant only as long as there is still textual literacy in the midst of it.  Transportation systems can function only as long as people have legs to walk to the car and open the door.  Hospital systems can make sense only as long as people still engage in that totally intransitive activity which is living.  I wish I could find a way of never appearing like a preacher who focuses your attention on the scenery on only one side of the watershed…Once thinking becomes a monocular perception of reality it’s dead.” (Ivan Illich in Conversation, p. 241)


Complementarity is two-sidedness – not the two-sidedness that William Blake calls “the cloven fiction,” the divorcing of subject from object, but the two-sidedness of man and woman, night and day, breath and heartbeat.  It can also be contradiction, depending on what one wants, at a certain moment, to emphasize – mutual dependence or mutual limitation – the fact that I can’t do without you or the fact that you’re in my way.  It expresses the condition of existence of a world – world in the sense in which Hannah Arendt says that we are now world-less – a limited, bounded state in which action, submission, gratitude and unobstructed listening are still possible.  Without the sense of complementarity we lose what I can only call the otherness of the other, and it was Illich’s conviction that, after the Incarnation, after God has emptied himself into a human person, that it is only through the other that God’s word can reach us.  What is at stake for him, in other words, is not less than everything.


Recognition of complementarity is a mode of awareness, sometimes of tragic awareness, insofar as it’s a principle of opposition, limitation and ultimately nemesis.  And awareness is an important term in Illich’s thought.  It’s what he unreservedly recommends in place of programmes, plans and agendas intended to bring the future into line.  Reality is refractory to our will – it has aspects not just that we haven’t seen yet but that are and must remain, in the very nature of things, beyond our horizon because our horizon always moves with us.  Our salvation doesn’t lie within ourselves – it comes to us and perhaps in an unexpected form.  “I fear the Lord is passing me by,” was one of Illich’s watchwords.   All this is part of complementarity, I think, because complementarity is the very constitution of the reality that allows us to be surprised.


Illich, as I am beginning to understand him, has several rhetorical modes.  Let me call them the prophetic – a term I can’t avoid using, even though I understand why he foreswore it in favour of friend; the sociological; and the satirical.  The prophetic is an inspired seeing that invokes judgment – when Ivan says, as he does in his “Health As One’s Own Responsibility: No, Thank You”, that our world is marked by “a growing matter-of-fact acceptance of a bottomless evil which Hitler and Stalin did not reach” he cannot be refuted with statistics that point to a reduction in poverty or an improvement in dental hygiene. If one could erase the “Onward Christian Soldiers” overtones from the word salvation, then one could say that salvation is his point of view in this mode.   The second mode is the sociological – and it was in the sociology section that Illich was generally filed when his books were still to be found in bookstores (and there were still bookstores to find them in).  This is the Illich of laws, who says, for example, that beyond a certain rate of acceleration mobility is inversely proportional to speed, that shadow work will necessarily expand in lockstep with waged employment, that there are identifiable thresholds at which institutions will begin to get in their own way and frustrate their own purposes, that the wage gap between men and women will never close or be reduced.   These laws, in my view, are sometimes doubtful, but they are certainly essays in social morphology which are subject to evidence and argument.  And finally the satirical.  The existence of this mode only dawned on me gradually, and I don’t know why since Illich very often referred to his productions as caricatures, and he said much the same when he called his more polemical works of the 70’s pamphlets.  When we hear of “life-long bottle babies wheeled from medical centre to school to office to stadium” or “apartment towers that store people between trips to the supermarket” or “the colourless mumbling” of American college students, then we are in this satirical mode. Like the prophetic mode, it has to be taken for what it is – a nightmare vision of modern existence which can’t really be refuted because it takes no account of whatever meaning and purpose these mumblers and bottle-babies may themselves find in their wheeled existence.


I doubt if these three modes exhaust Illich’s considerable rhetorical spectrum, but three are enough for me to make the point I want to make here, which is that these different inflections change the way complementarity is treated.   Illich says that when he walks the watershed he very much appreciates the profound difference between left and right, and he hopes never to be found to be a preacher who directs his reader’s attention to only one side.  And yet when, in prophetic mode, he exposes the contemporary world as a revelation of evil, when he says, in a white hot passage at the end of the essay on shadow work, that modern forms of enclosure are not just cruel and degrading but actually demonic (p. 115), it would seem that he is not just calling for a balanced and complementary relationship between use values and exchange values, or a vernacular sphere and a free market, he is denouncing the modern entirely.  I know Illich can and should be read in very different ways, as befits someone who spoke only as friends, occasions and the urgencies of his time seemed to demand, who never proposed a consistent system of thought, and who definitely did not speak all of his mind on all occasions.   I simply want to raise the question here of whether there is, in Illich’s work, a conflict, a tension if you want, between the Romantic modernist who looks for a reformed and rebalanced modernity, a recovered art of living, as he says at the end of Gender, and the Catholic anti-modernist who was still required to swear the Oath against Modernism before his ordination, and who never really renounced it.


Let me take another example of the way in which I think the understanding of complementarity can be vitiated by the prophetic mode even when Illich is ostensibly working as an historian.  In the essay on Vernacular Values in Shadow Work, he describes the petition the humanist grammarian Antonio Nebrija submitted to Queen Isabella of Spain in the hope, vain as it turned out, that the Queen would patronize his project of creating a grammar of the Castilian language.  This was in the same year that Columbus sailed fatefully westward.  Nebrija’s project is presented in an entirely negative light – a 500 year long war on subsistence is being initiated, and the Castilian people are losing their vernacular, which will be taken away for processing by a new professional elite and then sold back to them as taught mother tongue.  It’s a wonderful essay, full of insight and instruction, but I could never help wondering, as someone who grew up loving grammar and parsed sentences with a relish that many of my contemporaries seemed to reserve for the workings of internal combustion engines, whether a grammar could really be that destructive.  Was not Cervantes also waiting in the wings, or Shakespeare, or Rabelais if one switches the national context?  Wasn’t the ideal a balance between an ever-evolving vernacular and the scholarly anatomy of language Nebrija proposed. Was there nothing good in getting the European vernaculars out of the shadow of Latin?  Could not lengua and habla, tongue and language have made peace and co-existed?  Again a vision of balance seems to be pitted against an all devouring monism, which causes the monopolizing mode to lose its legitimacy altogether, and puts the very idea of a possible balance into the shadows.


One final point: Complementarity, as I have been trying to say, has both its harmonious and its tragic aspect.  There is no action without an equal and opposite reaction – that’s Newton’s third law of motion which can be paraphrased as all forces exist in pairs, or as whenever one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body will exert a force of equal magnitude in the opposite direction.  Christ invokes anti-Christ.  This was the mystery that Illich spent a life-time contemplating, that caused him to say to me - that “the more you allow yourself to conceive of the evil you see as evil of a new kind, of mysterious kind, the more intense become the temptation – I can’t avoid saying it, I can’t go on without saying it – of cursing God’s Incarnation.” (Rivers North of the Future, p.61) You can probably imagine the trepidation with which I broadcast this statement, the layers of script in which I defensively muffled it, and the rueful amusement I then felt when no listener ever even commented to me on what I had thought was an utterly explosive statement; but I quote it here a master instance of complementarity – that the world is “called to glory,” as he put it elsewhere, but the paradoxical consequence is that it ends up enveloped in “demonic night”. (Hospitality and Pain, p. 1) Could this fate, this mysterious darkness, have been avoided?  Yes, Illich says, but not by eliminating the possibility of its occurrence.  It was in the nature of things that the Incarnation would cast a proportionate shadow.  Awareness of this necessity, however, might have mitigated its effect, and produced a church less “brutally earnest” – Illich’s words again – and less fatally convinced of its own rectitude.  Here again I find Illich converging with Jung and Cusanus.  One cannot avoid the opposites, for that is how the world is constituted, but one can dance with them and laugh.   



Politics and Religion in the Thought of Ivan Illich

This paper was prepared for a symposium held at the Oakland High School for the Arts under the auspices of California Governor Jerry Brown in the summer of 2013.  The occasion was the publication of Beyond Economics and Ecology, a collection of Illich's essays on these themes, edited and introduced  by Sajay Samuel.  The conference was called After the Crisis: The Thought of Ivan Illich Today...



The heading of today’s session is politics and religion, so I’d like to begin by reflecting on these terms, both of which can be extremely slippery.    I know they have practical, everyday meanings –  we will usually agree in ordinary talk that what goes on in churches and mosques, synagogues and temples is religion, while what is discussed in legislatures and government offices, is politics – but if we inquire a little more deeply, they become quite difficult to distinguish.  One of the hallmarks of the modern age was the distinction between a private sphere in which one was free to cultivate one’s religion, and a public realm governed by the canons of secular reason.   This regime began to take shape at the beginning of the modern age, roughly the 16th century, and it’s arguable that before that time there was no such thing as religion in the sense in which the word is used today.  Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the great Canadian scholar of religion writing in the 1960’s says: “religion as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West.”  Before the 16th century - at the earliest - the word can denote a virtue, a disposition, a habit – a practice let’s say - but not the adoption of a set of propositions or beliefs as “my religion.”  In fact Cantwell Smith goes on to say that “the rise of the concept of religion is in some ways correlated with a decline in the practice of religion itself.”   (Just as an aside here some of the slipperiness of the word religion can be seen in that quote, in which Smith, having just said that religion is not a transhistorical essence but a modern invention then goes on to speak of “religion itself” as if it were just such an essence. This shows, I think, the difficulty we still have in speaking of these matters.)  By the beginning of the eighteenth century, according to the historian of Christianity John Bossy, the idea of religion is well established.  “By 1700,” he writes, “the world was full of religions, objective social and moral entities characterized by system, principles and hard edges.”   And religion once distinguished from politics became in many ways its scapegoat:  the conflicts between the nascent national states of the 16th and 17th centuries, to take just one example, became known as the wars of religion, when they could just as plausibly – more plausibly - have been called the wars of state-making, and taken as illustrating the arbitrary and violent character of state power, rather than the violent and arbitrary character of religious belief.   


One could say a lot more about the segregation of the secular from the religious in the modern world, and about the fateful imperial reorganization of other civilizations and cultures along these lines during the colonial era, but the point that I want to make here is that this whole mythology has come undone in our time – undone to the extent that, in some circles at least, one hardly needs to argue the point any more.   There are a lot of people to whom it now seems obvious that religion and politics were never really separate – we can see, for example, that millenarian political ideologies like Communism were transpositions of Judaeo-Christian originals, that civilizations are spun out of something more fundamental than either reason or belief,  that we enter public and political life as  all that we are and not just as disinterested and disembodied units of discourse, that there will always be a sacred – something for which we will sacrifice – because it’s in the nature of human beings to produce one.   The holy, as William Cavanaugh says, only migrates, never disappears, and, in the modern era, it is as likely to appear in the trappings of the state as of the church - in fact, at the moment, in countries like mine and yours, one can probably more safely abuse religious symbols than desecrate a flag or some other sign of the state.

What this means, in brief, is that when we talk about religion – let’s leave politics aside for the moment - we don’t always know what we’re talking about.  The German legal scholar Carl Schmitt says that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”  All right, but even this bold and often quoted statement still imagines two domains between which there is a not quite legitimate intercourse called secularization – the very point that Hans Blumenberg argued with Schmitt in his Legitimacy of the Modern Age.   The map we have inherited doesn’t fit the territory in which we’re living, and the apparent resurgence of religion, I think, confirms rather than refutes this diagnosis.  With no visible way ahead one tries to go back.  But there is no going back.  And this is what it means to live, as the title of our gathering has it, after the crisis.  There is a crisis, but it is by now so diffuse, so familiar, so total, and so intractable that it makes no sense to call it a crisis in the absence of some way of getting a handle on it.  Modern concepts like religion and politics, private and public, sacred and secular no longer open the door we’re trying to open.


This is a situation in which I think Ivan Illich’s work can be helpful.  This is a subject for a book not a half hour’s talk, and I hope to write such a book during the next couple of years, but let me try to just give you a short sketch of why I think he matters.  Many thinkers in recent years have developed the idea that I can remember Illich first quoting to me from the historian Christopher Dawson: that the Church is the West and the West is the Church.  Jean Luc Nancy, a French philosopher, whom I have been reading recently, says that the nervous system of the West is Christian – an interesting image.   It’s no longer a surprise to find a contemporary philosopher like Nancy expounding the Epistle of James, as he does in the book I mentioned, or to find Alain Badiou or Giorgio Agamben poring over the letters of the apostle Paul, but these thinkers are, you might say, trying to crack the code of their civilization without ever really declaring themselves in relation to the Gospel.  Illich, I think, can tell us more because with him here is still something left to recover once Christianity has been, as Nancy says, deconstructed.


Here again we run into a difficulty with words, and specifically the word Christianity.  When I was about to present my last interviews with Illich on CBC Radio in 2000, I got into an argument with my usually indulgent executive producer about the title.  I wanted to call it “The Corruption of the Best is the Worst” because that title stuck most closely to the hypothesis Illich wanted to argue.  My superior thought the phrase awkward and obscure and insisted that I call the series, The Corruption of Christianity.   But, I protested, that implies that there was once some uncorrupted thing called Christianity which then was spoiled, and Illich doesn’t believe that.  Christianity names the corruption that was inherent in the Christian revelation from the outset – the world being what it is.  Christ and anti-Christ enter the world together.  I lost the argument and thought it better to present the series under a mystifying title than not to present it at all, but the problem remains.   Jacques Ellul got around this difficulty by using the word Christianity for the institutional religion, and an algebraic ‘x’ for the revelation itself.  If you’ll allow me I’ll just speak of the Gospel as a way of pointing at this ‘x’.  


Illich claimed that the Gospel was and is something peculiarly  volatile or unstable.   It’s the charter of our freedom to love wherever and whenever we feel called – a possibility that must be revealed since it doesn’t lie within humanity’s natural repertoire – but it is also the source of a unique evil which is generated whenever this love is made compulsory, and power is exercised in its name.  This faith, initially, is not a religion.  Illich says so explicitly: “faith in the incarnate word sacrificed on the cross is not a religion and cannot be analyzed with the concepts of religious science.” (Illich in Conversation, p. 268.)  But it became a religion: what escapes all bounds was confined and controlled, what can only be a response to a call was delivered on demand.   Illich traces out this institutionalization over centuries.  It can be summed up as the breaking and dissolution of boundaries.  What begins with the Samaritan daring, by God’s grace, to reach across the ethnic and ethical divide which separates him from the beaten man in the ditch ends with globalization, the universal circulation of commodities, a morality of relative values, and the fathomless virtuality of life in a here with no beyond.


Christianity, and now I mean Christianity, confronts us today not just as a creed, not just as the sum of its millions of adherents, but as a fully achieved historical Juggernaut.  Our way of speaking, our habits of thought and our institutions all emerge from the historical crucible in which, first the church, and then secular governments attempted to make the Gospel perform punctually and reliably.  Care is now the primary commodity in which we trade, life the primary idol which we worship.


Illich describes the gradual unfolding of the perverse consequences of the Incarnation as apocalyptic, using this much abused word in its root sense of revelation or unveiling.    Over time these consequences accumulate and become visible – visible in a way they were not to the believers who first planted their seeds.  To take a simple example – the pioneers of public health insurance in Canada thought of their programme as an obvious desideratum of Christian charity.  They did not foresee what Illich called medical nemesis – the way in which the blanket of professional care would eventually suffocate vital abilities and turn life itself into a resource.  But we can see it, and this disillusionment is our gift as well as our burden.


Through Illich’s eyes, I can see that our religion is our way of life, and not our profession of “belief.”  In his study of theology, he says, he was always drawn to ecclesiology – the study of the church as an institution – and within ecclesiology to the study of liturgy.  Liturgy is the way in which the church manifests itself, the practices of penitence and prayer, praise and procession, eating and drinking by which it comes alive as a social body.  Aidan Kavanagh, a historian of liturgy, describes early Christian liturgies that took entire cities as their scale and occupied most of the day on Sunday.   There was no congregation meekly seated in rectilinear rows following along in a printed programme – faith was enacted.  Theologians say relatively little about the church in the first millennium, Kavanagh says, because they simply take it for granted that “Christian faith could not be lived in any other way than socially, communally and sacramentally.”


Today we perform different liturgies.   Modern schooling is a liturgy, Illich says, a public service whose ritual repetition produces a social body, and I think we need to take this idea seriously.  Our consciousness of who and what we are is produced by what we do.  Our religion is defined by our actions not our speculative beliefs.   Illich liked the term religiosity because he thought it reached past explicit creeds to capture the atmosphere, the climate of opinion, as one says, in which we live.  And our religiosity is generated by our liturgical practices – in schools and hospitals, museums and prisons, hotels and cinemas where we enact what we really believe. 

Illich was a proscriptive thinker, as his friend John McKnight said long ago.  He engaged in proscription, not prescription.  Another way of saying this is to call him an apophatic theologian, one who tells you what God is not, not what God is, but since Illich so emphatically denied being a theologian, I prefer to take him at his word and not call him one.  Proscriptive thinker is all right, and  the term may  even shed some light on the question of how to locate him in relation to the problematic categories of politics and religion.   Illich, in his campaigning days, between - let’s say - 1960 and 1980, was often understood as a political thinker, and as far as the term goes I think he was.  He referred to his own efforts as political campaigns and many of his most celebrated books end with a call for “political counter-measures” against this or that form of institutional overgrowth.   But as he went on and began to contemplate the extraordinary inertia of the institutions whose growth he had thought to limit, he finally came face to face with a conclusion that I think had been gradually dawning on him all along: that modern certainties are so tenacious because their roots go so deep.  “Everywhere I look for the roots of modernity,” he says, “I find them in the attempts of the churches to institutionalize, legitimize and manage Christian vocation.”

Our politics, in short, are rooted in our religion, unsatisfactory as both these terms are, and our religion moreover is a derivation of something that in its nature could never be a religion, which makes things even more complicated.   This is not to dismiss politics in the instrumental sense of the term, nor to say that nothing is at stake – a great deal is sometimes at stake, and Thomas More’s maxim – If you can’t achieve the best, at least prevent the worst – continues to apply.  But it is to say that if politics as a discussion about what is good, a discussion in which all options have not been foreclosed by economic and technological forces that have long since escaped our control – if politics in that sense is ever to resume, we will first have to understand the liturgies, the rituals, the raindances, as Illich liked to say, by which we produce and reproduce the world that surrounds us.  We will have to learn to swim against the current and seek in our tradition what British theologian John Milbank calls “the future we have missed.”

It seems to me that the time is propitious for such a reconsideration.  Religion persists – against the prediction of universal secularization that was one of sociology’s founding certitudes until not so very long ago – but it doesn’t necessarily persist as “religion” in the modern sense – that is as private, incommunicable, and antagonistic belief.  As modern definitions weaken, we can begin to see that religion is not a private property but a human propensity, and, as such, can be thought of as a commons rather than a private enclosure.   In the face of the recognition that “the crisis”, as I said earlier, has ended only by becoming total, I think we have entered a clearing, an opening where it may become possible to think differently about our tradition.

So let me conclude with another story about the same colleague and friend I spoke of earlier – my old executive producer whose indulgent and understanding supervision of my work was one of the great blessings of my life, even though I may appear to be picking on him here.  Sometime in the late 1990’s I presented him with a plan for four series of broadcast all dealing, I think I said, with contemporary appropriations of Christianity – the four subjects were to be Simone Weil, René Girard, Ivan Illich, and Herman Bianchi, a Dutch jurist, less well known than the other three, who was then trying to reintroduce the theory and practice of sanctuary into criminal justice.  My friend approved my plan, but then expressed a hope that afterwards I would return to more political and social subjects.  I understood at that moment that I did not feel as my colleague seemed to that these “religious” subjects were somehow set aside from social and political concern as if they pertained to some other world than this one.  So I said that I thought that “religion” was precisely what needed to brought to light in the public square, and that nothing could be more political than curious, disinterested inquiry into the religious roots of contemporary predicaments.  I’m not sure I convinced him, but I continue to think that’s true.