“I find that in the course of what we now call the second millennium it grew out of the Church and become, in my opinion, not a post-Christian reality, but a perverted Christian reality.”

So states Ivan Illich in The Rivers North of the Future. Throughout his meandering conversation, describing the loss of the conspiratio from the liturgy, the systematic removal of contingency from the world, the late medieval attempt to abolish ‘superstitious’ rituals of devotion in favor of greater self-introspection, it’s difficult to see where, if at all, he has gone wrong in his assessment. With this in mind it’s no surprise that Illich has won the praise of Charles Taylor (who penned the forward to the book) and John Milbank.

Of interest to me is the way Illich links the criminalization of sin to the rise of the modern nation state. Like Foucault, Illich traces the genealogy of the forum internum whereby “people began to be taught what a court is by being told that they have to accuse themselves with true sorrow for having offended God and with a true desire for amendment” (90).

The counter-Reformation brought this belief system came to a head, creating the conceptual space for the nation state:

“At the Council of Trent… the Roman Catholic Church presented itself as a societas perfecta, as a law-based church, whose laws were obligatory for its members in conscience. This self-understanding was reflected in the legal and philosophical thinking of the time, which had begun to portray the state in the same terms, that is a perfect society whose citizens internalize the laws and constitution of the state as the demands of conscience. In other words, through the criminalization of sin, the basis was created for a new way of feeling citizenship as a command of conscience. The Church laid the groundwork by abolishing, or, at least diminishing and making permeable the frontier between what is true and what is commanded; and, on this ground, the state was later able to claim an allegiance founded on conscience” (92-3).

Conscience takes on a new meaning and thereby forms a new politics; no longer bound by a “we,” but as a self-subsisting  “I” at an ever-constant vigilance with and against itself. Reminiscent of Wittgenstein, Illich writes, “The ‘I’ which is always the singular ‘we’ begins to disappear, and there appears a new ‘I’ protected by that strange wall of privacy which runs a few inches from my nose” (98).

How to unravel this “juridical order on self-conception, and established inner forum” (98)? For Illich, the answer is a constant distrust of institutions, weather of schools, health care, social programs, etc.

It’s tempting to claim that Illich goes too far with his disease toward institutions, as if he’s pitting spirit against form in some cliché anti-modernist jargon. But that would be to miss Illich’s more profound point about modernity-as-perversion. What we’ve ultimately lost, according to Illich, is the sense of charity-as-societal bond, agape as a driving social principle. If Illich were to have a social program, it would the parable of the Good Samaritan based upon the question, who is my neighborhood? It is the somebody who happens across my path. It is an ethics based on contingency, best seen as a network depicted as “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” (Taylor, Foreword, xii).