Media, PA. Ladies and gentlemen, Ivan Illich is dead. Long may he live.

I don’t mean Tolstoy’s famous fictional decedent, Ivan Ilyich, although he is certainly dead, too. No, in this case I refer to the once-famous (or notorious) priest-scholar-anarchist-activist, who died in 2002, and I commend him to you as a worthy addition to the canon of “philosophers and saints” whom we have seen paraded before our eyes since FPR began. One refreshing element of the Front Porch Republic has been its deliberate discernment and display of a kind of communion of the living and the dead, from Chesterton and Belloc to Tocqueville to Flannery O’Connor to Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, to Owen Barfield and our crunchy Pope Benedict XVI, and, perhaps above all, to Wendell Berry. Together again for the very first time, this assembly represents a kind of constellation of interests of Front Porchers, the many and various sources of our commitments to “place, limits, and liberty.” Ivan Illich may seem a curious addition to this already-curious litany, but over the past several weeks I have found my thoughts returning to him more and more as I have considered our FPR conversations. He may just be one of the most provocative and intelligent people you’ve never read.

Ivan Illich garnered quite a bit of attention in the 1970s with his books Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis, but, his fifteen minutes of fame exhausted, he slipped into relative obscurity for a generation of scholars. We may find ourselves on the edge of an Illich renaissance, however, since Charles Taylor’s ponderous A Secular Age has given strategic place to Illich’s thoughts on the nature of modernity. In the last decade or so of his life, Illich began to excavate seams of thought that had lain beneath the surface of his apparently scattered and idiosyncratic oeuvre. Illich was convinced that modernity itself makes sense only as a distortion of the Christian gospel. The medieval church, through the institutionalization and rationalization of Jesus’s command to love one’s neighbor, fundamentally and unintentionally corrupted the very best of the new possibilities for human thought and action introduced through the incarnation, and the result was the regime of modernity. This thesis is developed most fully in a series of interviews conducted by David Cayley for the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s program Ideas in 2000 and later published in a slightly different format as The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (2005). Charles Taylor wrote a preface for the book while he was writing A Secular Age, and he points to the influence that Illich’s thesis has had upon his own thought. Taylor and Illich share the view (a) that modernity is in some fashion an ecclesial creation, and (b) that this historical development is irreducibly complex. But Illich’s sense of the sinister effects of modernity runs much deeper than Taylor’s, leaving him with a darker sense of contemporary life than Taylor can bring himself to claim. If Taylor in the end presents us with a chastened comedy, Illich offers instead a tragedy awaiting redemption.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan provides Illich with a perfect exemplum of the “surprising and entirely new flowering of love and knowledge” made possible by the Incarnation. When asked “who is my neighbor?” Jesus gives the familiar account of a Jew attacked on the road to Jericho and left for dead who is passed by and ignored by both a priest and a Levite before a Samaritan – enemy to all Jews – tends to his wounds, brings him into town, and provides for his needs. As an answer to the question, the story destroys traditional ethnic constraints around neighborliness:

This doctrine about the neighbor, which Jesus proposes, is utterly destructive of ordinary decency, of what had, until then, been understood as ethical behavior… 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. The Greeks recognized a duty of hospitality towards xenoi, strangers who spoke a Hellenic language, but not towards barbaroi. 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.

Illich once surveyed sermons on this parable from the third century through to the nineteenth, and he discovered that it is most often treated as an example of how one ought to act. He was convinced that this rather missed the point. Jesus had been asked not “How should I treat my neighbor?” but rather “Who is my neighbor?” And the answer is that the neighbor cannot be pre-defined. Neighbors emerge only from an encounter, a “call and not a category,” as Illich said. When the call of the neighbor is converted or institutionalized into a rule or duty of behavior, even if with the best of intentions, it is fundamentally altered. “Hospitality is transformed into a service.”

So there is no question that the modern service society is an attempt to establish and extend Christian hospitality. On the other hand, we have immediately perverted it. The personal freedom to choose who will be my other has been transformed into the use of power and money to provide a service. This not only deprives the idea of the neighbor of the quality of freedom implied in the story of the Samaritan. It also creates an impersonal view of how a good society ought to work. It creates needs, so-called, for service commodities, needs which can never be satisfied – is there enough health yet, enough education?—and therefore a type of suffering completely unknown outside of Western culture with its roots in Christianity.

With this, we see the deep root structure of Illich’s earlier work on development, schooling, and medicine in what he believes to be a long and inexorable process that began with the Constantinian establishment of Christianity. But these phenomena only become truly modern when the order of the world in which they are established is severed from its sheer gratuitous contingency upon the creative gift of God. Once the cords of contingency are severed, the ossification of such service institutions –including states themselves– is complete: they become self-perpetuating phenomena.

Illich devoted the early years of his career to opposing grand schemes of “development” like the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. He saw “development” as a “war on subsistence,” replacing, as David Cayley says, “a tolerable absence of goods with a much more painful condition which he named ‘modernized poverty.’” Development, perhaps contrary to its intention, cultivates a culture and an ethic of consumption in “underdeveloped” peoples, such that they become entirely dependent upon costly services provided by global institutions. When development programs are “successful,” they succeed in cultivating needs that outstrip the institutions’ capacity to provide these services. “Underdeveloped” countries thus find themselves in greater need but with fewer indigenous resources. Illich’s crusade against global development programs led to the establishment of the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC), and this, in turn, led to considerable tensions between him and Rome, to the point that he voluntarily stepped away from his title and role as a Catholic priest. He remained a man of deep Catholic faith, but he was careful to respect the terms of his departure, devoting himself entirely to his work in sociology and history.

Deschooling Society (1971) was the first book that brought Illich to the attention of the public. In it, Illich studies educational systems as ritual forms whose major effect was to “make people believe in the necessity and goodness of what they were supposed to achieve.” Although universal education is held to be a great democratic equalizer, Illich found that schooling functions rather as a system of privileging those few who make it through the full fourfold cycle of schooling (elementary, high school, college, and graduate/professional). The schooling system, once universally established, therefore holds a “‘radical monopoly’ insofar as it is the only way to gain employment and social standing.” Illich argues not for the end of schooling or education as such, but rather for the end of this monopoly. Managing the school system should not be the only means of access to good work.

In his other better-known work, Medical Nemesis (1974), Illich traced a similar history. The institutionalization and professionalization of medicine has fundamentally altered our understanding of health, illness, life, and death. He began the book with his typical iconoclastic flair: “The medical establishment has become a major threat to health.” He then explores how the medical profession makes itself the arbiter and manager of health and illness and thereby undermines the patient’s own resources for healing, suffering, and dying well. Indeed, this institutionalization has made the very notion of “dying well” seem odd. We live in a situation of “cultural iatrogenesis” which “sets in when the medical enterprise saps the will of people to suffer their reality.” Thirty-five years later, Illich’s argument has the ring of many of our current medical reform movements, from alternative and holistic medicine to hospice care. Modern medicine is founded upon the principled refusal of the limits pain, suffering, and death, and so has altered deeply and fundamentally our sense of life. If such observations sound to us now rather common, we may still be struck with awe and perhaps confusion at Illich’s willingness to practice what he preached. Although he did not by any means foreswear medical treatment completely, he lived with a tumor that developed on the side of his face and jaw in the late 1970s until his death in 2002. In his last decade, the tumor was as large as a grapefruit, causing him pain and discomfort in his jaw, affecting his hearing and his sleep. But, despite the urging of friends and physicians (One surgeon sitting next to him on an airplane began to palpate the tumor without asking permission!), he determined that it was his cross to bear.

I first discovered Illich as a graduate student writing a dissertation on the history of biblical interpretation. Innocent of any of his earlier work, I found my way to him through his last book, a study of a less well-known but brilliant figure of the 12th century. Illich had nurtured a life-long love and study of several medieval figures, with the canon Hugh of St. Victor foremost. He always referred to Hugh as his teacher, in the same breath with more contemporary figures like Erich Fromm and Gerhart Ladner. When the Sturm and Drang of his popular social criticism had passed, Illich began to study the development of knowledge itself. He co-wrote a book on the development of the alphabet, and, ten years before his death, he wrote In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didiscalion (1993). The book examines Hugh as a figure perched on the cusp of a new era in which scholasticism develops as a technology for the organization of information. In Hugh, we can see the beginnings of a transformation of the relationship between text and reader, and so a transformation in our perception of knowledge itself. The book is remarkable for its combination of close and careful textual reading and measured but substantial claims about the larger issues of technology and knowledge, a model of careful historical study with an eye to present concerns. Above all I grew to appreciate Illich’s even-handedness: He matched a certain sadness for the era of “monastic reading” that was passing away with an even-tempered assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of the technological era that had just begun in Hugh’s time. Illich possessed a tragic sensibility that was far more subtle than most declension narratives. He was a critic of modernity, to be sure, but he refused the cheap consolations of wholesale ideological condemnations.

This tragic sense is found in his broader assessment of modernity as such. While he did not shy away from his bold claim that modernity is the corruption of Christianity (he often quoted the Latin adage, corruptio optimi pessima, “the corruption of the best is the worst”), even here he admitted to a kind of ambivalence. “It is part of this hypothesis,” he tells Cayley, “that the Church’s attempt to give this worldly power, social visibility, and permanence to the performance of Christian charity, is not un-Christian. As I understand the Gospels, … it is part of the kenosis, the humiliation, the condescension of God in becoming man and founding or generating the mystical body which the Church understands itself to be, that this mystical body would itself be something ambiguous. It would be, on the one hand, a source of continued Christian life, through which individuals acting alone and together would be able to live the life of faith and charity, and, on the other hand, a source of the perversion of this life through institutionalization, which makes charity worldly and true faith obligatory.” Illich’s analysis leaves us suspended between beauty and abasement, between perfection and perversion, hoping for gratuity in a world that has grown “immune to grace.” We are left on the tragic horns of a dilemma which only God in his mercy can redeem.

In the meantime, he thought, we can try to learn to live, to suffer, to die well, all this and more through the careful pursuit of disciplines of gratuity. When David Cayley asks despairingly, “So how can one live gratuitously in a world like this?” Illich responds, “Friends, friends… gratuity, just so, for the fun of it, for your sake…” But to live gratuitously requires a new asceticism, the practice of virtues – “repeated acts of faith, hope, and love which slowly create in you, psycho-physically, an ease in performing them.” In this way, we can resist or expose the great lies of massive institutionalization, even if we cannot escape them completely. Instead, we cultivate friendships around their margins, confident, he says, “that things which are finally important must be capable of being shared with others whom I love first and then want to talk to.” Even in the midst of his withering analysis of modernity as corruption, then, there is room for hope.

Illich’s penchant for hospitality was legendary, always with a table, a generous supply of red wine (which he convinced the IRS to let him write off as a business expense), and a lit candle, since “our conversations should always go on with the certainty that there is somebody else who will knock at the door, and the candle stands for him or her.” Having discovered most of his work after his death, I am fortunate that Ivan Illich has knocked on my door. I wouldn’t say that I always agree with his view of things, but I am always challenged to think differently after reading him, and I know he still has much to teach me. Long may he live.


  1. Kevin, thanks for this fine tribute to another author whose writings all of us who are busy trying to rethink and, as it were, “downsize” modernity ought to pay attention to. I also appreciate your note of how the Catholic communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor has taken up Illich in his latest work. So much of our ability to do the aforementioned “rethinking,” it seems to me, hinges upon our ability to develop (or rediscover, as the case may be) a sense of the sacred which does not set us as individuals against the world, but rather enjoins us to take our particular places in it, and be content with such; to be “hospitable,” as you emphasize here. (This goes for secular liberals who have abandoned faith as well; the Americanized and Protestantized Augustinianism that presents salvation as ultimately resting upon individual action continues to help shape the thinking of those without a religious sense through its own absence, I think.) In my view (see here and here), Illich stands alongside such figures as Dorothy Day, Christopher Lasch, and Wendell Berry in giving us resources of the deepest sort of rethinking of everyday practices–practices that gives us bureaucratizing medical establishment, and a meritocratic education one–which localists must prize.

  2. Kevin, thank you for this posting. Now I’ll have to go find Ilich’s books. Anyone who can thoughtfully criticise modernity and provide a believable historical narrative for it, while also writing about Hugh of St. Victor is a must read for me, especially since I trained as a medievalist, even though a lot of my current energy goes into thinking critically about modernity. The idea that the church as institutional power is very much a two-edged sword also seems particularly useful in this time of US and Irish abuse scandals. It both respects the reality of the institution while acknowledging its distance from a certain type of Christian ideals.

  3. I think Illich’s “15 minutes” were predicated on the mistaken belief that he was some kind of cross-cultural liberal. The ambiguously named “Centre for Intercultural Documentation” likely contributed to the confusion. I know I was confused about it back then, and initially passed him off as just another fashionable liberal. That was without reading him (I wasn’t very bright in those days. Still ain’t.) Then I read Deschooling Society. What a revelation.

    One of his short works that doesn’t get much attention is The Right of Useful Unemployment; it is a work that all ink-stained wretches ought to read.

  4. Thanks for your comments!

    John, you’re right, I think many thought that’s what he was. And I think the ambiguity of CIDOC was intentional. They took in many a young missionary sent to help “develop” Latin America, and then gave them something to think about.

    PDGM, a kindred spirit! Medievalists concerned to diagnose modernity, unite! For me, studying medieval theology and culture has given me a useful tool to see the deep irony of history. As Rowan Williams says in “Why Study the Past?”, (I’m paraphrasing badly), the student of church history cannot but wonder at the fact that God has managed to make a coherent story out of such a mixed record.

    Russell, I’ve often thought Dorothy Day is very much in the same spirit as Illich… difficult to pin down on a conventional ‘left/right’ spectrum in many things, willing to actually live differently based on one’s convictions, etc. It’s this last quality, the willingness to liver differently, that I admire and hope to grow into.

  5. The biggest lesson Illich taught me was the difference between process and product. Medical procedures are not the same as health care. Health care is not the same as health. While health is always a positive good, the others are not. Schooling is not the same as education. Education is not the same as the ability to think critically.

    This one lesson has been enough to help me see through the nonsense in so many current political debates.

  6. I hear this Kevin Hughes is a pretty bright fellow. Let’s hope he becomes a regular contributor.

    Dr. Hughes, thanks for a great read. I appreciate Illich’s ambivalence toward the “institutionalization” of Christian faith. While recognizing the potential pitfalls in the path of Christian history, we might also ask how it could have developed otherwise–there are certainly other counterfactual scenarios we might envision, but these are often too facile. It is fashionable to pin the blame on the “Constantinian fall” in an overly simplistic way; so it is especially refreshing to learn that Illich recognized a certain irreducible complexity in the Church’s historical development.


  7. Ah, Patrick, I’ve seen you here and there on the porch! Good to hear from you, and thanks for your comments.

    I hesitated to write the bit about Constantinianism, since I know that this signals for some a particular kind of Mennonite account of the nature of the church, and this was not really Illich’s take. When I teach the history of the church, I often get to the point where, laying out all the needs and crises before your eyes, and having just recovered from the frontal assault on the faith under Diocletian, if you were a bishop, it would be awfully hard not to think that some form of establishment was a blessing. But a terrible blessing at that. And if some might prefer to lay the blame at the Gregorian Reform, there’s plenty of problems there, too, but the same question applies — would it be wise to do otherwise? It’s just important to remember that it’s as often our failures as our successes that God brings to the good in providence. Ilich had that perspective, I think, and it set him free to speak the truth as he saw it about the birth of modernity without, as I say, the cheap consolations of wholesale condemnation.

    It also gave him the tools to maintain a kind of studied distance from modern perspectives and to learn the life of hospitality and gratuity. Limits and liberty….

  8. Kevin and Patrick,
    The institutionalization of the church brought very real strengths and likewise real weaknesses, but I suspect Christianity would have turned out to be a very odd creed and practice without this regularization. When I say this, I bracket it with the premise “speaking as if it’s not guided by the Holy Spirit” or at least as if this premise were irrelevant.

    Christianity before the reformation was generally by its nature hierarchic, and this probably predisposed it to institutionalization. Plus, if one does think that God’s will toward the church is made apparent in history (most basically in that it survive until the end of time), then one probably must conclude that becoming institutionalized is providential.

    That said, it’s definitely a mixed blessing. Those who point to Constantine and see a fall have this position for some good reasons, even if I think they are wrong, and history indicates they are wrong as well. In the same vein, the severing of the connection between Christianity and government bore some positive fruit–Christianity should be about persons making a choice for certain beliefs and concordant actions, not about any form of worldly getting ahead– as well as the negative fruit of secularization and all its attendant ills.

  9. Sure, there might be curious counterfactuals we could generate, and Illich does speculate at the end of Rivers how it might have been otherwise, but he also laughs off the speculative nature of this endeavor. Since the whole narrative is about “unintended consequences,” it’s a bit hasty to hustle in with another scenario… what unintended consequences can we not see in our new way?

    To put things in some perspective with the Front Porch Republic ethos in mind, I think the wisdom gained from Illich is that the desire to do simply everything we *can* do, and to do so through instrumental rationality — institutional forms and technology– can be a (very understandable but) devastating temptation, and it might be at the very root of our sense of modernity’s ills. It’s seductive precisely because there is a real good sought, so it sounds an awful lot like virtue. This, I think, is why Illich invokes the notion from Scripture of the “mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess 2.3)… it’s at work, but it can be hard to sniff out.

    There’s a deep monitory word here about the need to discern limits, and I think for Illich it’s more art than science, a kind of sensibility cultivated through his “practices of gratuity.” So that’s the question we’re left with: How will we cultivate this sense in our lives, in a world(view) immune to grace?

  10. “The institutionalization of the church brought very real strengths and likewise real weaknesses, but I suspect Christianity would have turned out to be a very odd creed and practice without this regularization.”

    The problem for Christianity has been in accepting that apocalypse is a future event in history, the church became sacralmentalized, while abandoning the reality in freedom of the Unknown God revealed in the mystical and experiential theology long overshadowed by school theology which reveals a dry, desiccated God in doctrine.

    The reality of Logos is existentially realized in the freedom of Spirit, that instance revealing freedom itself, going beyond itself. Sadly, one can not experience this in Bible school or catechism class.

  11. Bob,

    Thanks for your comment. But I disagree that sacramentality is the problem. The problem you’re articulating, the division between mystical and scholastic theology, etc., is symptom rather than cause, and it tends to reinforce all sorts of binary oppostions that are part of the logic of modernity that stands in need of healing. Not Yet vs. Already, scholastic vs. mystic; doctrine vs. experience; freedom vs. catechism. I don’t think that’s as accurate a reading of the middle ages as we once thought… it’s a rather whig account of history that ends in the liberal individual set free from institutions and doctrines and scholastic structure.

    If one starts with that reading of history, then modern liberalism is the inevitable outcome, and we’re right back where we started from. In fact, your claim about the “reality of the Logos existentially realized in the freedom of the Spirit” sounds more like Hegel than John of the Cross. The latter you can read in catechism class, to great effect. The former, less helpful.

    Doctrine is nothing other than the spiritual discipline of naming God, which is a part of the mystical tradition since before the sixth century, when Denys the Areopagite wrote the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology as companion pieces (and threw in the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy for good measure) Without doctrine, who would recognize the Spirit, as opposed to any old Spirit of the Age? Without institutions, we find it difficult to distinguish true freedom from presumption and license. Without the disciplines of scholasticism, we can find ourselves unprepared for the disciplines of silence and unknowing.

    And we could just as easily turn these around: Without the Spirit, doctrine is simply letters on a page; etc., etc. But the point is that the logic of modernity tends to separate precisely that which cannot and should not be.

    The power of the language of sacrament lies precisely in this… that it holds the most particular and material together with utter transcendence. We learn in sacrament that particular, material stuff is not only not an obstacle to knowing God but a very form of God’s presence in our midst.

  12. Kevin,
    When you wrote “but *a* very form of God’s presence in our midst”, I’m glad you wrote “a” rather than “the.” One of the problems of institutionalizing a creed in part based in part upon pneumatology is that the institution might often forget that it proclaims “a” form of God’s presence, and not “the” form of this presence: that is, its claims are valid but not exclusive.

  13. Kevin,
    Thank you very much for your insightful comments. At the risk of embarrassing myself by engaging in the dialectic with a learned and distinguished interlocutor, allow me a few comments in response.

    “But I disagree that sacramentality is the problem.”
    I agree with this statement, I don’t think sacramentality is the problem but the result of the “problem” that arose when early Christians discerned/understood that eschatologically speaking the ‘end’ was not going to be in the immediate. The movement toward ‘sacramentality’ is, I think, a rather normal reaction to the above insight and also an attempt-a successful one at that- to provide for the possibility of capturing the pneumatic reality revealed in the Gospel.

    As an aside: the Gospel is presented to “the poor in spirit,” does that mean to those with ‘inquiring minds?’ If so the Gospel is for Man the Questioner, man in his natural/normal condition of seeking and questing while his life is existence in the Platonic metaxy, existentially experienced in consciousness (intentionality and mystery, with the key being ‘mystery’) in movement between the poles of immanence and transcendence.

    “The problem you’re articulating, the division between mystical and scholastic theology, etc., is symptom rather than cause, and it tends to reinforce all sorts of binary oppostions that are part of the logic of modernity that stands in need of healing.”
    (My question: What is the cause?) In the meantime, I understand the ‘great modern spiritual crisis’ is predicated on the separation of these schools of theology and a rejection or shunting aside of the mystical/experiential school of theology. I am speaking in the most general terms here. I’m not intimately aware of the cutting edge thinking, or the new materials related to this problem but merely observing anecdotally what I observe in my very small corner of the world and a few essays read over the years.

    “If one starts with that reading of history, then modern liberalism is the inevitable outcome, and we’re right back where we started from. In fact, your claim about the “reality of the Logos existentially realized in the freedom of the Spirit” sounds more like Hegel than John of the Cross. The latter you can read in catechism class, to great effect. The former, less helpful.”
    Actually, I’m reading several rather brilliant critiques of FW Schelling who may be the ‘real’ father of existentialism and who straightened out certain elements of Hegel’s derailment! My fascination with the German Idealists is in the acknowledgement of their underlying desire to prioritize existence (which includes spirit) in terms of the modern question of science and rights, gleaned from Dr. David Walsh’s (CUA)remarkable book, “The Modern Philosophical Revolution.” Schelling, Walsh tells his readers, was a brilliant philosopher and a devout Christian which if we believe Justin the Martyr is quite logical in that Christianity represents the perfection of philosophy. I think that one may ‘come to Jesus’ via philosophy, but it depends on what Fr. Spearmann(sp)calls “the heart,” and that can be a tricky thing.

    “Doctrine is nothing other than the spiritual discipline of naming God, which is a part of the mystical tradition since before the sixth century, when Denys the Areopagite wrote the Divine Names and the Mystical Theology as companion pieces (and threw in the Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy for good measure)”
    I’d like to discus your definition of ‘doctrine,’ but perhaps some other time. Rather a comment on ‘mysticism’ from Carmel Bendon Davis’s book, “Mysticism and Space”, where she explicates mysticism (from the early Middle Ages to the 16th century) from pseudo-Denis’s “Theologia Mystica” as ‘the secret knowledge of God’ which presents all number of obvious problems for the church, including the monster in the closet, gnosticism, which may be the root cause for the turning away from mystical theology. Is that the case?
    I have not read Origen but I understand that his work is ‘dominated’ by the ‘tension between theologia mystica and theologia dogmatica.’ Does the separation of schools of doctrine and mysticism occur during the time of Origen or later? Or, perhaps, I should say the dominance of doctrine!

    “Without doctrine, who would recognize the Spirit, as opposed to any old Spirit of the Age?”
    The history of man’s metaxical movement reveals not only the quest for the Unknown God but the numerous occasions in which revelatory consciousness became luminous. Christian doctrine was not a function of these revelatory events.

    In total agreement with your final thoughts. I have no problem at all with ‘doctrine,’ man requires doctrine, but doctrine is not a constituent in the revelatory event where the love of God, freely given, is existentially experienced.
    The question, for me: is the decline of the church in the face of modernity a function of the exclusion/suppression of theologia mystica from the body of Christ? My response to this decline is an emphasis/reaffirmation of the mystical/spiritual/revelatory experience in the face of modernity’s sundry psycho-pneumopathologies. A systematic effort on the part of the Christian church to teach that the reality of man’s existence in the metaxical reality spoken of earlier, where consciousness dwells in a tension between immanence and Spirit; where Spirit, rising in freedom, yearns for being in love.

    Now I have a headache and need a cup of coffee!

  14. Bob,

    Thanks once again for your thoughtful response.

    The problem with an account of the separation of scholastic and mystical schools of theology is that these don’t properly exist. Who is Bonaventure? Mystic or scholastic? Who is Nicholas of Cusa? Is Thomas Aquinas a mystic? Is Meister Eckhart not a scholastic? Something happens in early modern theology, to be sure… hard to find a mystical whiff in Suarez…, but what I’m suggesting (and this isn’t quite fair, because I’m writing a book on this very topic now, and so I’m prone to blather on… forgive me) is that there is a basic shift, one that Illich helps me to find, actually, into thinking of theological reasoning instrumentally. Scholastic reasoning becomes a technology, and a technology that can further the institutional distribution of authorized truth-bits (hence the manual theology tradition) So it’s most deeply an epistemological shift before it’s an ecclesial one. There’s a great piece in the journal Modern Theology from 2005, in a special issue on Duns Scotus, by Emmanuel Perrier, OP that gives a very suggestive reading of the whys and wherefores of this shift. He suggests, in brief, theological overconfidence.

    So here we find common cause… that when theology is alienated from the life and practice of faith hope and love it stifles. But it would be a mistake to take that analysis politically/sociologically, as the marginalization of mystical theology per se. Rather it would be better understood as (to my reckoning) bad theology vs. good. You can still find good theology (good doctrine, I dare say) in Teresa of Avila. Teresa, I’ll go out on a limb to say, understands the doctrine of creation, with all it implies for the relationship between Creator and creatures, better than Suarez or his descendants. But it’s also true that you can find that same good theology in well-trained scholastics (and institutional heavies) like Cardinal Archbishop Nicholas of Cusa.

    Going backward, Origen’s commentary on the Song of Songs is marked not by the “tension” between the mystical and the dogmatic but by the seamless movement between them. To understand difference as tension is already to make an interpretive judgment. But for Origen, it’s as seamless as the movement from literal to moral to figural and mystical senses of Scripture… To say there’s a tension between these to Origen would be like saying there’s enmity between honey and its sweetness.

    So you look to Schelling, and you know that stuff better than I do. I find a *ressourcement* back to the patristic and medieval sources more hopeful. But that may just be my ignorance.

    Now I need a (second) cup of coffee!

  15. Kevin,
    Thanks to you for taking the time with an old autodidact. Much to chew on here, and I see new materials in the discussion.
    I would like to review your book when a review copy becomes available. Let me know via FPR, or better yet I’ll send my email address along to your Vill.edu site. Hopefully I can place it prominently.
    Looking forward to more essays.

  16. One of the great problems in reading the Summa is that Thomas comes off as an analytic philosopher. However, his goal was synthetic, a grand synthesis of Sacred Scripture, The Philosopher, The Theologian, The Commentator, The Master of the Sentences, the ecumenical Councils, with a bit of Maimonides thrown in. His sources are truly catholic (small c) and his purpose synthetic. But his method is analytic. Why? Because his students already had a synthesis, and needed analytic skills. His work presumes that a certain view of the faith already exists in his students. By the 16th century, that synthesis is lost, or at least is crumbling. Hence Suarez reads him as an analytic philosopher.

    Having said that, I believe the tension between the mystical and the analytic is present right at the foundations of Scholasticism. For example, St. Anselm the poet has but one topic, the compassion of God. But Anselm the theologian argues that God, being impassable, cannot possibly be compassionate! It is unfortunate that the theologian and the poet could not sit down and talk out their differences. St. Bonaventure grasps this tension as well as anyone. But by the 17th century, all these distinctions are lost, and Thomas becomes a precursor of Enlightenment “objectivity” (which is the way he is still perceived by many Thomists) especially in Descartes and (surprisingly) Spinoza.

  17. Hi John,

    Thanks for weighing in on the discussion.

    Your point about Anselm is well-taken, but for me, it’s a perfect example of the right dynamic at work. You see, the apparent irreconciliability of compassion and impassibility is precisely an analytic problem, one that requires the best kind of scholastic reasoning to handle. To refuse scholastic reasoning in the name of poetic insight is to punt on a fundamental question, which is “Who is the King of Glory?” (Ps. 24) More fundamentally, it’s to separate the Good and the Beautiful from the True.

    BTW, When you tackle that analytic problem, you can discover that impassibility, rightly understood, is the condition for the possibility of God’s abundant compassion to all (or more precisely, to each). Best book on this is Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap, Does God Suffer? for the Latin tradition, and Paul Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God for the Greek Patristic tradition. It looks like the poets and theologians have had quite a lot to say to each other.

    Which gets me back to my point about ressourcement… It just may be that we project our modern binary oppositions back onto a tradition that knew them not.

  18. Kevin, I agree completely, but allow me to point out that you cannot leave this question–or any question–in two realms, the analytic and the poetic. Both are sources of knowledge, and both necessary sources. The poetic is actually the higher source, for reasons I won’t go into here. It is the task of theology to synthesize the philosophic and the metaphoric at a higher level. A scholasticism divorced from the mystical and metaphoric becomes a dry rationalism, and frankly modern scholastics often make this mistake. There is a reason–even a good analytic reason–why theology is the Queen of the Sciences and philosophy a mere handmaiden.

  19. Agreed, John, and this is what I hope my example illustrates. Without the poetic, there would be no problem to tackle analytically. And agreed, the poetic is higher. Think of Christology: Arianism and Nestorianism were both very neat and tidy analytic solutions, but they couldn’t capture the heart of the poetic (here liturgical) insight, and so there was more work to be done. Hence Chalcedon.

    One last thing: the reverse is true of your warning about dry scholasticism: the mystical without the scholastic discipline risks degenerating into hysteria or presumption or both, which happens often enough, both in the early modern period and even today.

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