Posts Tagged ‘Tools for Conviviality’

Ivan Illich on what’s wrong with the world

October 16, 2020

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was a Catholic priest and philosopher famous in the 1970s for his criticisms of modern institutions, including compulsory education. modern medicine and most technology.

I read his Tools for Conviviality when it first came out in 1973.  He thought technology should be limited to what he called tools—devices such as sewing machines (my example, not his) that served the needs of households, rather than textile machinery in factories, to which human beings had to adapt themselves’  I thought his ideas interesting but impractical.

Now it seems that our high-tech civilization may not be sustainable, due to global warming, exhaustion of natural resources, and the fragility of complex supply chains, not to mention war and revolution.  So maybe Maybe Illich’s ideas are worth a second look.

On the recommendation of e-mail pen pals, I recently read THE RIVERS NORTH OF THE FUTURE: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley.  It contains a short biography of Illich and a series of interviews by Cayley, a writer and broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., in 1997 and 1999.

This is deep stuff, and I don’t think I fully understand it.  What follows is what I got out of the book, not a summary of what’s in the book.

Illich’s contention was that the modern world is a product of the corruption of Christianity.  The basic ideas of secular liberalism, such as the equal dignity and worth of all persons and the duty of the strong to protect the weak, originated in Christianity, but have become distorted by being torn from their Christian context.

Jesus taught that the two great commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself, Illich wrote.  To illustrate what he meant, he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

A member of a despised group, like a Palestinian Arab in Israel today, helped a stranger, a Jew, who had been beaten, robbed and left by the roadside.  Nobody would have said that the Samaritan was obligated to help. Two high-status members of the Jew’s own community had passed by on the other side.  But the stranger acted as his neighbor.

It was the custom among early Christians to set extra place at the table in case a hungry stranger came by in need of food and shelter.  The stranger could be Jesus–who showed us that God in the form of human flesh. 

Over time Christian villagers set aside separate buildings for the poor.  And then the church came to set rules about giving, such as tithing.  And now we have the modern, impersonal welfare bureaucracy.

So charity has become a matter of following rules and helping organizations.  There are individuals who would do what the Good Samaritan in the parable did, but they are rare and generally regarded as eccentric.

Illich said the corruption of Christianity was in the “criminalization of sin.”  Sin is a breaking of the relationship between a human and God, including the image of God manifested in another human being, he wrote.  But the church came to define sin as a breaking of certain rules.

But given human nature as it is, what would you expect?

Jesus told the people that Moses gave them laws “because of your hardness of heart”—meaning they were not capable of being guided by the law of love.  But are people today any different from what they were 2000 years ago?

Consider what Jesus expected of his Apostles.  Quit your job.  Leave your family.  Give away all your possessions to the poor. Don’t plan for the future; God will take care of you.

Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.  Love even your enemies.  Criticize yourself, not other people.  And if you pretty much do all these things, don’t pat yourself on the back.  Any repentant sinner is just as good as you are.

It is really something that the first generations of Christians were actually able to live at that level of intensity.

It’s not surprising to me that later generations developed a dialed-down version that ordinary people, even people as weak and selfish as I am, could accept.  Even so, in every century, there was a St Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day who tried to live out the original teaching/

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