Monthly Archives: June 2009

An Essay Introduction: Reading the Good Samaritan with Ivan Illich

Here is a completely rewritten introduction for a paper I gave at the Grandeur of Reason Conference held in Rome last September, originally entitled: “The Political Subjugation of the Works of Mercy: Recovering the Church from the Therapeutic Arm of the State.” Anyone who was there and actually heard the original are not likely to recognize this one. A few weeks after the conference, I skimmed through what I had presented only to discover how much work needed to be done. Of course, here I am now rereading my attempt to fix it and thinking much the same thing. Alas. I wrote this a while ago, but I think it tackles a few different angles of what I’ve been working on.

– – – – –

In his iconoclastic theological reflections on modernity, the Catholic philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich argues that the Incarnation of Christ created a rupture, radically exposing humanity to a new depth of relationality and loving, fundamentally transgressing the docile normativity of our moral sensibilities. In the divine Word made flesh, both the social policing and rationalist establishment of the boundaries of charity are at once disjointed from their cultural moorings, disbanded, and transfigured in the light of risen One; for Love has shown itself in our midst as the concrete universal; the ethical has found its content in a person: Jesus of Nazareth. Whoever sees him sees the Father (Jn. 14.6-10); “whoever loves another, loves him in the person of that other” (1 Jn. 4.11-12).[1] Any loving performance, any embodiment of goodness is only truthful to the extent it participates in the life of God.

For Illich, the enfleshment of the Son—the pivoting axis of human history—opens up an unprecedented dimension of charity at once subversive, unbounded, and “highly ambiguous because of the way in which it explodes certain universal assumptions about the conditions under which love are possible.”[2] Family, race, culture, wealth, nation no longer concretely demarcate the bounds of the neighbor. Illich maintains that in Christ I am beckoned into a startling freedom to choose whom I will love and where I will love. “And this deeply threatens the traditional basis for ethics, which was always an ethnos, an historically given ‘we’ which precedes any pronunciation of the word ‘I.’”[3] To elucidate this paradigmatic rupture, Illich appeals to a radicalized reading of the Good Samaritan.

According to the Gospel of Luke, a challenge is raised to Jesus: But who, then, is this other, this neighbor? Through his persistent questioning, an expert of the law reveals a primal yearning for the intimation of limits. He grasps desperately for a frame of reference, for a categorical delimitation identifying where the commitment of charity can safely cease. He expects Jesus to tell him what he wants to hear: a line in the sand revealing who is, and consequentially who is not, a neighbor for whom I am responsible.

Jesus responds with a parable. A traveler on his way from Jerusalem is attacked by bandits, ruthlessly beaten, stripped naked, and left for dead in a ditch. A priest comes along and after him a Levite, but both pass him by. Finally, a Samaritan (that is, an outsider, excluded and despised), sees the man, binds and dresses his wounds, and takes him to an inn to care for him without charge. Jesus then returns the question: Who was a neighbor? The one who had mercy on him (Lk. 10.35-37).

In saying “go and do likewise,” what Jesus tells the inquisitive lawyer is not to go and find neighbors “out there,” but to choose to be a neighbor to the one you happen upon, even if he is a Samaritan. Far beyond the unilateral transfer of disinterested aid, the Samaritan is moved by the call of this wounded man. His response opens the possibility of a new relation of charity that transgresses both the predetermined “we” of our tightly regulated social boundaries, and the “I” of our own illusions of autonomous self-sufficiency. Through an encounter of sheer contingency, a proportionality is opened between the Samaritan and the wounded man that clears the space for the creation of a new “we,” a new bond of reciprocity, a new communion.[4] This network of relation seeping outwards, extending into the unnamed territory at the fringes of the “acceptable” is what Illich calls the church. This fitting together comes from God and “became possible because God became flesh.” As such, this agapeic community is not an inherent human possibility; it is a revealed possibility and thus a gift. The Christian tradition calls the means of grace (i.e., the gifts of food and drink, prayer and compassion, shelter and hospitality) through which we enter into a neighboring relation with one in need, the “works of mercy.”

While the Incarnation opens this revealed horizon of relationality cultivated through the personal performance of the works of mercy, Illich nevertheless contends that this horizon also carries with it the possibility of its rejection, corruption, and subjugation. “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.”[5] According to Illich, the gradual institutionalization of the church from rise of Western Christendom paved the way of secularization and facilitated the rational bureaucratization of human interaction through the systematic parsing of the world into neat categorical divisions: public/private, secular/religious, fact/value, objective/subjective.[6] As Charles Taylor concludes, “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.”[7]

In our contemporary secular age, the church’s works of mercy are frequently appealed to as one of the few means through which the church can safely enter the public sphere. Religious institutions and their practice of charity are seen as a powerful means of tackling our more pervasive social problems. However, torn from their ecclesiological context and pressed into the service of the state, these practices are too often converted into bureaucratic mechanisms for the efficient redistribution of resources designed to pragmatically “solve” the very problems created by the political establishment itself. Reduced via a political nominalism, only those practices intelligible to a church that buttresses the socio-political system are deemed worth maintaining. Indubitably, thoroughly tackling such an ambitious agenda lies far beyond the scope of the present essay. Nonetheless, I hope to tease out some of the critical implications of Illich’s thesis by suggesting that a faithful, alternative theopolitical imagination capable of confronting the bureaucratic institutionalization and philanthropic domestication of Christian charity begins by reframing the works of mercy at the heart of the church’s liturgical politics of the everyday. In other words, perhaps a fruitful path forward is to risk raising the question: what happens when the works of mercy are taken seriously, once again, as embodied acts of worship?


[1] Cayley, D., The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2005), p. 47.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 197.

[5] Ibid., p. 56.

[6] On the pervasiveness of secular dichotomization, see McIntire, C. T., “Transcending Dichotomies in History and Religion”, History and Theory, Theme Issue 45 (2006), 80-92; Gregory, B. S., “The Other Confessional History: On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion”, History and Theory, Theme Issue 45 (2006), 132-149.

[7] Taylor, C. A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 740.

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Maximus on the proper ends of financial administration

“There are three reasons for the love of money: pleasure-seeking, vainglory, and lack of faith. And more serious than the other two is lack of faith.

“The hedonist loves money because with it he lives in luxury; the vain person because with it he can be praised; the person who lacks faith because he can hide it and keep it while in fear of hunger, or old age, or illness, or exile. He lays his hope on it rather than on God the maker and provider of the whole creation, even of the last and least of living things.

“There are four kinds of people who acquire money, the three just mentioned and the financial administrator. Obviously only he acquires it for the right reason: so that he might never run short in relieving each one’s need.”

— Maximus the Confessor, The Four Hundred Chapters on Love 3.17-19

So when was the last time you heard someone suggest that ‘financial administrators’ were reputable, virtuous human beings, let alone people who acquire money for all the ‘right reasons’? For that matter, when was the last time you heard someone suggest that the only proper acquisition of wealth was for the ceaseless outpouring of generosity upon the needs of ‘the last and least’? Luxury and celebrity, hoarding and strategically managed self-sufficiency . . . are these not the ‘virtues’ of our bureaucratic clerics of consumptive economic management? Perhaps I’m being anachronistic here, but I can’t help but wonder if Maximus’ use of ‘obviously’ implies more than a hint of polemical irony. Either way, the underly point remains poignant: money is not itself an evil, but neither is it an end; for Maximus, its true worth and genuine usefulness is made manifest in the just and compassonate relieving of needs.


Mere belief?

In continuing to reflect on Maximus’ Four Hundred Chapters on Love, I have frequently found myself conflicted about what I find there. In reading this text, one gets the sense that there are multiple layers of philosophical and theological thought at play, each being carefully grafted into a common project. It seems like Maximus is bending and tweaking variant schools of thought (from hellenistic neo-platonism to monastic orthodoxy to biblical theology) and radically redefining them according to the cruciform shape of his distinctively trinitarian metaphysics. This integration is some times smoother than others. Regardless, his language regarding the body, passions, contemplation, holiness, asceticism, and the like acts as a constant reminder against my presumptions that his use of such paradigms complies univocally with our modernly-shaped understanding of things. The more I push into his work, the more I begin to appreciate the subtlety of Maximus’ thought.

Some of this theological and exegetical layering can be seen in the following chapter:

Do not say, as the divine Jeremiah tells us, that you are the Lord’s temple. And do not say that ‘mere faith in our Lord Jesus Christ can save me.’ For this is impossible unless you acquire love for him through works. For in what concerns mere believing, ‘even the devils believe and tremble’ (1.39).

For a long time, this chapter puzzled me. I was initially drawn to it because of the way it clearly illuminates where Maximus sits on the question of the relation between faith and works in the economy of salvation. However, the first sentence seems a bit contradictory, irrelevant, and if not simply bizarre. Are we not told explicitly by St. Paul that Christians are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6.19)? Does not this gratuitous divine indwelling produce well-springs of life manifesting in both faith and deed? Secondly, what does this (negative) reference to the temple have to do with a stark refusal of a sola fide conception of salvation? How does this stern admonition advance his overall agenda?

It was only after I managed to chase down the original text from ‘the divine Jeremiah’ that these questions found any sense of intelligibility. When read alongside the biblical text, it becomes patently obvious that what Maximus is offering in this chapter on love is not an abstract universalized theological or philosophical platitude, but a (continuing) biblical exegesis of the question of the church’s participation in incarnate out pouring of divine charity. Of course, Maximus’ adherence to Scripture at this point heavily qualifies the nature of this participation. For any such movement to be faithful, such ‘works of love’ must embody itself truthfully, humbly, compassionately, and justly.

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: ‘Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message:

‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless’ (Jeremiah 7.1-9).

It is in close conversation with this biblical narrative that Maximus responds:

If it is a mark of love to be patient and kind, the one who acts contentiously or wickedly clearly makes himself a stranger to love, and the one who is a stranger to love is a stranger to God, since ‘God is love’ (1.38).

Do not say, as the divine Jeremiah tells us, that you are the Lord’s temple. And do not say that ‘mere faith in our Lord Jesus Christ can save me.’ For this is impossible unless you acquire love for him through works. For in what concerns mere believing, ‘even the devils believe and tremble’ (1.39).

The work of love is the deliberate doing of good to one’s neighbor as well as long-suffering and patience and the use of all things in the proper way (1.40).


An initial survey of the literature

One of my ongoing projects has been to trace the origins of the doctrine of the works of mercy. Thus far, my approach remains methodologically opportunistic if not haphazard. I suppose this results in part from the fact that despite the countless theological works that presuppose the framework of the works of mercy for their intelligiblity, I have yet to come across any rigorous, thorough, and detailed theological study on the subject itself. Instead, the discussion seems to be divided into several fairly distinct camps.

(1) There are quite a few contemporary projects on “hospitality” that tend to rest at the intersection between political, liturgical, and practical/pastoral theology. Examples of such works include: Catherine D. Pohl’s Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Practice; Elizabeth Newman’s Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers; John Koenig’s New Testament Hospitality: Partnership with Strangers as Promise and Mission; Thomas R. Hawkins’ Sharing the Search: A Theology of Christian Hospitality; Patrick R. Keifert’s Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism; Arthur Sutherland’s I was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality; and quite a few others.

(2) Then you have works that deal with the works of mercy explicitly, but not necessarily from a rigorously historical or robustly theological perspective. This might include the works of Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the surrounding secondar literature such as Dan McKanan’s The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation. One could also cite here the writings of Jean Vanier. And there are also a few more popular level books on the subject like Mitch Finley’s The Corporal & Spiritual Works of Mercy: Living Christian Love and Compassion and James F. Keenan’s The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism.

(3) Additionally, in terms of academic research quite a few pariscope studies have focused their attention on isolated instances of works of mercy throughout the church’s history. To be honest, I am less familiar with this side of the table. However, I’ve found a few works that look promising. On the one hand, there are more general books like John Bossy’s Christianity and the West 1400-1700; Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Alters; and Ian Williams’ The Alms Trade: Charities, Past, Present, and Future. On the other hand, there are other much more concentrated books like Miri Rubin’s Charity and Community in Medieval Cambridge and John Henderson’s Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence.

(4) Then there is a massive amount of work done relating to particular works of mercy (on visiting the sick or feeding the hungry, etc.).

(5) There are also the more exegetical books dealing with the topic from a more strictly biblical perspective.

(6) Finally, there are a few works that are a bit difficult to categorize, such as Jon Sobrino’s The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross; Kelly S. Johnson’s The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics.

It seems I have a lot of reading to do.


Vanity, charity, and intentionality

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

— Matthew 6.1-4

“There are many things done by man which are noble in themselves but still because of some reason are not noble. For example, fasts and vigils, prayer and psalmody, almsgiving and hospitality are noble in themselves, but when they are done out of vainglory they are no longer noble.

“God searches the intention of everything that we do, whether we do it for him or for any other motive.

“When you hear the Scripture saying, ‘You will render to each one according to his works,’ know that God will reward good works but not those done apart from a right intention. For God’s judgment looks not on what is done but to the intention behind it.”

— Maximus the Confessor, The Four Hundred Chapters on Love 2.35-37


Maximus on the beatitudes: Rightly naming the blessed

As evidenced by the last few posts, I’ve recently been doing some thinking with Maximus the Confessor. Thus far, I have concentrated my efforts of his work, The Four Hundred Chapters on Love. With even a prefatory reading of the text certain guiding themes soon emerge that drastically illuminate the shape of Maximus’ overall project. Much of the work could fall (roughly) into what we might term “ethics” (virtue, neighbor love, the right ordering of desire and action, etc.). It must be stated right away that such “ethical issues” do not exist categorically as such. For Maximus, they belong first and foremost to the order of charity and are therefore inseparable from questions of worship, participation in the divine life, contemplation, aesthetics, and mysticism. The movement of faith into action is very important for Maximus because it denotes a space in which humanity becomes enfolded into the charitable presence of God; in loving the neighbor, the Christian comes to know what love is and therefore encounters — albeit dimly at first — the one who is himself Love. “Many people have said much about love, but only in seeking it among Christ’s disciples will you find it, for only they have the true love, the teacher of love [. . .] Therefore, the one who possesses love possesses God himself, since ‘God is Love.’ To him be glory forever” (4.100).

One theme that caught my attention is the question of intentionality. In caring for the neighbor, in serving the poor, in performing works of mercy, what do our intentions have to do with it so long as the job gets done, the hungry are fed, the sick are visited, the dead are buried, and so forth? Is not the internal disposition of the giver somewhat irrelevant to such situations? Ought we not rather focus our energy on a more “results-based” model of charity? My guess is that Maximus would find such questions unintelligible. Within his participatory ontology, actions are not measured by their results alone (or even primarily), but are always more appropriately understood in terms of faithfulness or unfaithfulness, righteousness or wickedness. In other words, the motivation and the reason have everything to do with what constitutes a just and commendable performance of charity. For “God searches the intention of everything that we do, whether we do it for him or for any other motive” (2.36).

Maximus explores this theme of intentionality most clearly through his suggestive interpretation of the beatitudes. The text reads as follows:

“The world has many poor in spirit, but not in the right way; and many who mourn, but over money matters and loss of children; and many who are meek, but in the face of impure passions; and many who hunger and thirst, but to rob another’s goods and to profit unjustly. And there are many who are merciful, but to the body and to its comforts; and clean of heart, but out of vanity; and peacemakers, but who subject the soul to the flesh; and many who suffer persecution, but because they are disorderly; many who are reproached, but for shameful sins. Instead, only those are blessed who do and suffer these things for Christ and following his example. For what reason? ‘Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven,’ and ‘they shall see God,’ and so forth. So that it is not because they do and suffer these things that they are blessed (since those just mentioned do the same), but because they do and suffer them for Christ and following his example.

“In everything that we do God looks at the intention, as has frequently been said, whether we do it for him or for any other motive. Therefore when we wish to do something good, let us not have human applause in view but rather God, so that always looking to him we might do everything on his account; otherwise we shall undergo the labor and still lose the reward” (3.47-48).

This analysis has interesting implications for our current understanding of charity and mercy. Ultimately, the basic point being communicated is the fundamental biblical principle that we are to serve Christ in each of these actions; that these practices are gifts consecrated through the vivifying power of the Holy Spirit and offered back unto the Father in thanksgiving (Colossians 3.17). Of course, such a perspective also lends itself to distortions, corruptions, and perversions. When our free response of charity and mercy is reduced to juridical confines of a duty, moral obligation, or law, we then risk suffocating the reciprocal bond of this agapeic relationality. As Ivan Illich argues, when we attempt rigidly control this intentionality, “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.”

While this is a danger (and one the church has again and again fallen into), nonetheless I think it is a perversion (rather than a description) of the vision Maximus is offering here. When Christ is the ultimate end of our actions, our charity, our loving kindness, that does not mean that these things are no longer directed to the recepient of the gift. Quite the contrary. Faithful performances of such gifts are made all the more meaningful the deeper they participate in the life of God, which is to say the deeper they pattern themselves after the likeness of the Son.

“The one who loves Christ thoroughly imitates him as much as he can. Thus Christ did not cease to do good to men. Treated ungratefully and blasphemed, he was patient; beaten and put to death by them, he endured, not thinking ill of anyone at all. These three are the works of love of neighbor in the absence of which a person who says he loves Christ or possesses his kingdom deceives himself. For he says, ‘Not the one who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father.’ And again, ‘The one who loves me will keep my commandments,’ and so forth” (4.55).


Maximus’ exegetical reflections on Psalm 23

The LORD is my shepherd,
       I shall not want. 
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
       He leads me beside quiet waters. 

The active life is ‘a place of pasture’; knowledge of created things is ‘water of refreshment’ (Maximus the Confessor, The Four Hundred Chapters on Love, 2.95).

He restores my soul;
       He guides me in the paths of righteousness
       For His name’s sake. 
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
       I fear no evil, for You are with me;

Death is, properly speaking, separation from God, and ‘the sting of death is sin.’ In taking it on, Adam was banished at once from the tree of life, from Paradise, and from God, whereupon there followed of necessity the death of the body. On the other hand life is, properly speaking, the one who says, ‘I am the life.’ By his death he brought back to life again the one who had died (2.93).

Human life is a ‘shadow of death.’ Thus if anyone is with God and God is with him he clearly can say, ‘For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil because you are with me’ (2.96).

       Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. 

The rod is said to signify God’s judgment and his staff his Providence. Thus the one has obtained knoweldge of these things can say, ‘Your rod and staff have given me comfort’ (2.99).

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
       You have anointed my head with oil;
       My cup overflows. 
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
       And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

‘You have prepared a table for me, etc.’ Table here signifies practical virtue, for this has been prepared by Christ ‘against those who afflict us.’ The oil which annoints the mind is the contemplation of creatures, the cup of God is the knowledge of God itself; his mercy is his Word and God. For through his incarnation he pursues us all days until he gets hold of those who are to be saved, as he did with Paul. The house is the kingdom in which all the saints will be restored. The length of days means eternal life (3.2).