Monday, May 13, 2013

Charles Taylor on Ivan Illich

A Secular Age Chapter 20 Conversions, Section 2, Charles Taylor, 2007.

[pages 737 ff]


Is this a loss? One can argue that it is. First, in that in identifying the Christian life with a life lived in conformity with the norms of our civilization, we lose sight of the further, greater transformation which Christian faith holds out, the raising of human life to the divine (theiosis). Secondly, as Ivan Illich has so forcefully argued, something is lost when we take the way of living together that the Gospel points us to and make of it a code of rules enforced by organizations erected for this purpose. I want to follow Illich's argument a bit more fully, because as should become evident, his story is quite close to the one I have been trying to tell in these pages. Indeed, I have learned a lot from him.

     This understanding is rooted in a Christian faith. Illich, who had earlier been a priest, remained a Catholic Christian, orthodox in his theology, but profoundly original and iconoclastic in his understanding of the Church in history. He saw the actual development of the Christian churches and of Christian civilization (what we used to call "Christendom") as a "corruption" of Christianity.

     Scholars agree that the Christian church which arose in the ancient world was a new kind of religious association, that it created around itself new "service" institutions, like hospitals and hospices for the needy. It was heavily engaged in the practical works of charity. This kind of activity remained important throughout the long centuries of Christendom, until in the modern era, these institutions have been taken over by secular bodies, often by governments. Seen within the history of Western civilization, the present-day welfare state can be understood as the long-term heir to the early Christian church.

     Now most people, whether Christian or not, would see this as a positive credit to Christianity, as a "progressive" move in history for which the Church is responsible. Without necessarily denying that good has come from this, Illich sees also its dark side. In particular, he sees in the way this has worked out a profound betrayal of the Christian message.

     Illich starts right off in Chapter 1 to explain this, using what is perhaps the most famous story from the New Testament, the parable of the Good Samaritan. This arises out of a discussion of the meaning of the precept from the Ten Commandments: Love your neighbour as yourself. A scribe asks Jesus: "but who is my neighbour?", and Jesus' answer is the story. A traveler is robbed and beaten and left by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite — that is, important figures in the Jewish community — pass by "on the other side". Finally a Samaritan — that is, a despised outsider — comes, and he takes up the man, binds his wounds, and takes him to recuperate at a nearby inn.

     So what kind of answer is this to the original question? We moderns tend to think that it's obvious. Our neighbours, the people we ought to help when they're in this kind of plight, are not just the fellow members of our group, tribe, nation; but any human being, regardless of the limits of tribal belonging. We can generalize this, and say that all human beings, without discrimination, are the proper beneficiaries of our help, which ought to be given generously, following the example of the Samaritan. This story can be seen as one of original building blocks out of which our modern universalist moral consciousness has been built.

     So we take in the lesson, but we put it in a certain register, that of moral rules, how we ought to behave. The higher moral rules are the universal ones, those which apply across the whole human species. We concentrate on the move out of the parochial. But in Illich's view, in this we are missing what is essential here. What the story is opening for us is not a set of universal rules, applying anywhere and everywhere, but another way of being. This involves on one hand a new motivation, and on the other, a new kind of community.

     Illich's take on the parable can be put in this way: there are earlier forms of religious and social life which (a) are based on a strong sense of "we", more fundamental than the "I", hence a notion of insider/outsider, and (b) have a sense of the demonic, both the powers of darkness which surround us, and the spirits which protect us against them.

     These pre-modern ways of life also (c) have a strong sense of the fitting, of proportion. This means (i) that the things in the world have their appropriate form that they must live out, or live up to (one way of articulating this is the Plato-Aristotle notion of Forms), and (ii) they are set in a cosmos, where different parts correspond to other parts, and on different levels: heaven and earth, up and down, male and female, etc. (chapter 9).

     The Gospel opens up a new way, which breaks open these limits. The parable of the Samaritan illustrates this. So far, Illich agrees with the standard view. The Samaritan is moved by the wounded man; he moves to act, and in doing so inaugurates (potentially) a new relation of friendship/love/charity with this person. But this cuts across the boundaries of the permitted "we's" in his world. It is a free act of his "I". Illich's talk of freedom here might mislead a modern. It is not something he generates just out of himself; it is that he responds to this person. He feels called to respond, however, not by some principle of "ought", but by this wounded person himself. And in so responding, he frees himself from the bounds of the "we". He also acts outside of the carefully constructed sense of the sacred, of the demons of darkness, and various modes of prophylaxis against them which have been erected in "our" culture, society, religion (often evident in views of the outsider as "unclean").

     This shakes up the cosmos and the proportionalities which are established in it in "our" society, but it does not deny proportionality. It creates a new kind of fittingness, belonging together, between Samaritan and wounded Jew. They are fitted together in a disymmetric proportionality (chapter 17, p. 197) which comes from God, which is that of agape, and which became possible because God became flesh. The enfleshment of God extends outward, through such new links as the Samaritan makes with the Jew, into a network, which we call the Church. But this is a network, not a categorical grouping; that is, it is a skein of relations which link particular, unique, enfleshed people to each other, rather than a grouping of people together on the grounds of their sharing some important property (as in modern nations, we are all Canadians, Americans, French people; or universally, we are all rights-bearers, etc.). It resembles earlier kin networks in this regard. (In a tribe, the important thing is not the category we share in, but that I am related to this person as my father, that as my uncle, that other as my cousin, etc. Which is why anthropologists discover to their surprise that in "primitive" societies in the Amazon, say, people had words for the different roles, moieties, clans, etc., but no name for the whole group.) But it is unlike tribal kinship groups in that it is not confined to the established "we", that it creates links across boundaries, on the basis of a mutual fittingness which is not based on kinship but on the kind of love which God has for us, which we call agape.

     The corruption of this new network comes when it falls back into something more "normal" in worldly terms. Sometimes a church community becomes a tribe (or takes over an existing tribal society), and treats outsiders as Jews treated Samaritans (Belfast). But the really terrible corruption is a kind of falling forward, in which the church develops into something unprecedented. The network of agape involves a kind of fidelity to the new relations; and because we can all too easily fall away from this (which falling away we call "sin"), we are led to shore up these relations; we institutionalize them, introduce rules, divide responsibilities. In this way, we keep the hungry fed, the homeless housed, the naked clothed; but we are now living caricatures of the network life. We have lost some of the communion, the "conspiratio", which is at the heart of the Eucharist (chapter 20). The spirit is strangled.

     Something new emerges out of all this: modern bureaucracies, based on rationality, and rules. Rules prescribe treatments for categories of people, so a tremendously important feature of our lives is that we fit into categories; our rights, entitlements, burdens, etc., depend on these. These shape our lives, make us see ourselves in new ways, in which category-belonging bulks large, and the idiosyncratically-enfleshed individual becomes less relevant, not to speak of the ways in which this enfleshed person flourishes through his/her network of friendships. For Illich, there is something monstrous, alienating about this way of life. The monstrous comes from a corruption of the highest, the agape-network. Corrupted Christianity gives rise to the modern.

     Illich's vision goes beyond this understanding of the bureaucratic hardening of the Church, which happened relatively early on, and affects most branches of the Church, even Oriental ones. He sees that the process was taken much farther in Latin Christendom. We see it in the criminalization or judicialization of sin and its remission (chapter 5). Rules, oughts, and punishments take over more and more. But he also sees it in a series of developments which everyone recognizes as central to Western modernity, but which are hard to conceptualize: things like the growth of an objectifying standpoint on everything, including human life, which steadily becomes more and more dominant.

     We see this in what he calls the medicalization of the body. The medical knowledge of the body, which tracks the way our organs work, the various chemical processes which underlie these workings, and so on, involves our taking a standpoint outside ourselves. They devalue and set aside the lived body and its experience. This is not the source of real, scientific knowledge, and it must be set aside if we want really to understand what is going on within us. We get trained to see ourselves from the outside, as it were, as objects of science. But this doesn't just displace lived experience, it also alters it. The sense of imbalance, of not being "dans mon assiette", for instance, is no longer taken as a primary phenomenon, but just as a symptom of some underlying malfunction; and so is not attended to any more in the same way. Instead, I become more acutely aware of the things I am trained to see as important symptoms of life-threatening malfunction.

     So medicalization alters our phenomenology of lived experience, suppressing certain facets of this experience, making other recessive, bringing out still others. But it also covers its tracks; we don't see that we're being led to see/feel ourselves in different ways, we just believe naively that this is experience itself; we imagine that people have always experienced themselves this way. And we are baffled by accounts of earlier ages.

     Illich follows this development of the decentred, outside view through a series of often startling analyses: e.g., the development of the gaze, our eventual capture by a view of ourselves as we show up in media images, or in X-ray imaging, or in various ways of representing underlying processes visually, on graphs, etc. ("visiotypes"; pp. 158-160). We are in the process alienated from our anchoring in the world, in real fleshly reality; which we can only recover access to through the lived body, whose testimony is being distortively shaped or even denied by "virtual" reality.

     Similarly in his tracing of our self-conception as users of tools, as separable instruments; and then into our sense of ourselves as parts of systems (chapter 13). We move ever farther away from the lived body. This is the process I spoke about earlier with the term "excarnation".

     This takes us ever farther away from the network of agape. This can only be created in enfleshment. Agape moves outward from the guts; the New Testament word for "taking pity", splangnizesthai, places the response in the bowels. We cease being able to make sense of this the more we go along with these alienating self-images. Resurrection only makes sense when we take seriously enfleshment (p. 214), i.e., overcome excarnation.

     But the alienating view is also partly a creation of Christianity. There is a desire for power here, of course, but also the aspiration to help, heal, make life better. (Bacon links the new science to "improving the condition of mankind".) It is another monstrous creation of (corrupted) Christianity. And the corruption of the best is the worst (Corruptio optimi pessima).

     Illich's text here also offers a very deep insight, still in some ways inchoate, of our fears of darkness, and the powers of evil. In the earliest forms of religious life, we kept these at bay partly by propitiating them, and partly by turning for protection to benign spirits, eventually God. The new path of the Gospel invites us to step out of the old protections, erected by the old "we's", confident in our impunity before these forces. But this impunity is the obverse side of our fidelity to the network of agape; and as we turn our back on that, try to "organize", to regulate the network, we fall away, and the fears recur. But now in a new register; we face them more and more alone, without the "cover" of the old collective protections (chapter 6).

     This drives us further in the direction of objectification/disenchantment. Science just negates, denies this whole dimension of dark forces. We are now reassured, our fears calmed. But our sense of them remains in two ways: first, the fascination with the idea of such forces, and benign counter-forces; so much of popular stories, films, art, recreates them (Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Matrix, Pullman, Harry Potter). We give ourselves frissons, while still holding the reality at bay. Second, they re-emerge in modes of diabolical evil which we find ourselves involved in (Holocaust, genocides, Gulags, killing fields, etc.).

We can see that Illich's story is not just about Christianity, but also about modern civilization. The latter is in some way the historical creation of "corrupted" Christianity. This in many ways comes close to the story I have been trying to tell: how the modern secular world emerged out of the more and more rule-bound and norm-governed Reform of Latin Christendom.

     This civilization has pushed to its farthest limits the move which Illich describes as the corrupting of Christianity: that is, in response to the failure and inadequacy of a motivation grounded in a sense of mutual belonging, it erects a system. This incorporates (a) a code or set of rules, (b) a set of disciplines which make us internalize these rules, and (c) a system of rationally constructed organizations (private and public bureaucracies, universities, schools) to make sure that we carry out what the rules demand. All these become second nature to us, including the decentring from our lived experience which we have to carry through in order to become disciplined, rational, disengaged subjects. From within this perspective, the standard account of the Good Samaritan story appears just obvious: it is a stage on the road to a universal morality of rules.

     Modern ethics illustrates this fetishism of rules and norms. Not just law, but ethics is seen in terms of rules (Kant). The spirit of the law is important, where it is, because it too expresses some general principle. For Kant, the principle is that we should put regulation by reason, or humanity as rational agency, first. In contrast, as we have seen, the network of agape puts first the gut-driven response to this person. This can't be reduced to a general rule. Because we can't live up to this, we need rules. "Because of the hardness of your hearts". It's not that we could just abolish them. But modern liberal civilization fetishizes them. We think we have to find the RIGHT system of rules, norms, and then follow them through unfailingly. We can't see any more the way these rules fit badly our world of enfleshed human beings, we fail to notice the dilemmas they have to sweep under the carpet: for instance, justice versus mercy; or justice versus a renewed relation — the kind of dilemma which post-Apartheid South Africa faced, and which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was meant to meet, as an attempt to get beyond the existing codes of retribution. We connect up here with the discussion in Chapter 18, section 12.

     In this perspective, something crucial in the Samaritan story gets lost. A world ordered by this system of rules, disciplines, organizations can only see contingency as an obstacle, even an enemy and a threat. The ideal is to master it, to extend the web of control so that contingency is reduced to a minimum. By contrast, contingency is an essential feature of the story as an answer to the question that prompted it. Who is my neighbour? The one you happen across, stumble across, who is wounded there in the road. Sheer accident also has a hand in shaping the proportionate, the appropriate response. It is telling us something, answering our deepest questions: this is your neighbour. But to hear this, we have to escape from the monomaniacal perspective in which contingency can only be an adversary requiring control. Illich develops this theme profoundly in chapters 3 and 4.

*     *     *

What is Illich telling us? That we should dismantle our code-driven, disciplined, objectified world? Illich was a thoroughgoing radical, and I don't want to blunt his message. I can't claim to speak for him, but this is what I draw from his work. We can't live without codes, legal ones which are essential to the rule of law, moral ones which we have to inculcate in each new generation. But even if we can't fully escape the nomocratic-judicialized-objectified world, it is terribly important to see that that is not all there is, that it is in many ways dehumanizing, alienating; that it often generates dilemmas that it cannot see, and in driving forward, acts with great ruthlessness and cruelty. The various modes of political correctness, from Left and Right, illustrate this every day.

     As does also the continued pull to violence in our world. Codes, even the best codes, are not as innocent as they seem. They take root in us as an answer to some of our deepest metaphysical needs, that for meaning, for instance, or that for a sense of our own goodness. The code can rapidly become the crutch for our sense of moral superiority. This is, of course, another important theme of the New Testament, as we see with the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican.

     Worse, this moral superiority feeds on the proof offered by the contrast case, the evil, warped, inhuman ones. We even give our own goodness its crowning proof when we wage war on evil. We will do battle against axes of evil and networks of terror; and then we discover to our surprise and horror that we are reproducing the evil we defined ourselves against.

     Codes, even the best codes, can become idolatrous traps, which tempt us to complicity in violence. Illich can remind us not to become totally invested in the code, even the best code of a peace-loving, egalitarian, liberalism. We should find the centre of our spiritual lives beyond the code, deeper than the code, in networks of living concern, which are not to be sacrificed to the code, which must even from time to time subvert it. This message comes out of a certain theology, but it could be heard with profit by everybody.

I have been arguing, in part following Illich, that there has been a long-standing tendency in the West to slide towards an identification of Christian faith and civilizational order. This not only makes us lose sight of the full transformation that Christians are called to, but it also makes us lose a crucial critical distance from the order which we identify as Christendom, whether it be the one at present established, or some earlier one which we are fighting to restore.

     Illich thinks that this take-over of Christianity by an order which negates its spirit is the mystery of evil (mysterium inequitatis, pp. 169-170). Even if one doesn't go this far, one can see the dangers inherent in it. The belief that God is on our side, that He blesses our order, is one of the most powerful sources of chauvinism. It can be a fertile inspiration to violence. For our enemies must be His enemies, and these surely must be fought with every means at our disposal. That is the danger that the Catholic Church eventually perceived, which led to the Papal condemnation of Action Francaise in 1926. And this in spite of the fact that the particular civilizational order which this movement was struggling for, a restored Catholic monarchy, was highly attractive to many churchmen. Maurras tried to reassure his Catholic followers with his slogan "Politique, d'abord", implying that the political alliance was merely provisional, and didn't imply an identity of goal; but in fact what was going on was a kind of integral fusion of faith and political programme, which nourished a kind of conflict which hovered constantly on the edge of violence, with Maurras calling for the assassination of Republican politicians.

     The Papal condemnation was the occasion of Maritain's break with Maurras, and his move towards a very different position, one in which he came to see the reconstruction of Christian civilization in novel terms; not as a return to Christendom, that is, to a single civilization homogeneously and integrally Christian, but limited to one area. Rather he sought a unity of Christian culture on a global scale, but in a dispersed network of Christian lay institutions and centres of intellectual and spiritual life. "Au lieu d'un chateau fort dressé au milieu des terres, il faudrait penser a l'armée des étoiles jetées dans le ciel." (Instead of a fortified castle erected in the middle of the land, we must think of an army of stars thrown into the sky.) The central feature of this new culture will be "l'avenèment spirituel, non pas de l'ego centré sur lui-même, mais de la subjectivité créatrice" (the spiritual advent, not of the self-centred ego, but of creative subjectivity). This new understanding of philosophy and the modern condition reached its fullest expression in Maritain's Humanisme Intégral.

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