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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About Ben Kautzer

I am currently dwelling in the intangible space of the between. Having finished my MA in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham, I decided to take a bit of a break, return to California, and start applying for PhD programs. That process is finally drawing to a close. This Fall I will be commencing my doctoral research in political theology at either the University of Nottingham, Durham, or Bristol. As of yet, that future still remains (uncomfortably) uncertain. My recent academic pursuits tend to focus on political theology (ecclesiology, ethics, politics, liturgy), biblical theology (scriptural narrative, hermeneutics, philosophy of memory and historical method), and Continental Philosophy (especially phenomenology). View all posts by Ben Kautzer

3 responses to “An Essay Introduction: Reading the Good Samaritan with Ivan Illich

  • Claudio Oliver

    I loved your blog, and am very insteresting in continue searching it. I’m a student of Ivan Illich, here in Brazil, and I wrote my thesis on him.
    I hope to find more good stuff from your blog… really like it
    Claudio

  • Ben Kautzer

    Thanks for the comment, Claudio. It’s good to have crossed paths with someone of similar interests. Ever since I started seriously reading Illich’s work, I’ve been impressed by the diversity of his projects, but also how insightful his writings are regarding the current state of the world. Out of curiosity, what kind of work have you done on Illich thus far?

  • Simon

    “what happens when the works of mercy are taken seriously, once again, as embodied acts of worship?”

    Awesome question. Illich is incredibly challenging here- discomfortingly so.

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