This is the twelfth entry in a series of posts testifying about my conversion to liberation theology. For previous posts, here are the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh.
I have been writing a series about my conversion to liberation theology. This has worried some of my readers. One even took the trouble of sending me the Vatican’s ‘Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation.”‘ He shared with me his primary concern with my first post, the one where I simply made the announcement about this series and said little else. He said that there was a lot of enthusiasm and little substance and that sudden conversions are to be doubted.
In this, he sounds a little bit like the Holy Cross priest who taught me creative writing in high school. Conversion, my mentor said, is very difficult to write about. Conversions are seldom convincing. You can talk about an experience that is profound and that might feel like an earthquake at the time. But to show that there is a real before and after is very difficult, if not impossible, to do. Most of the time, what comes after is more of the same.
But this is not how the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor uses the word conversion. I promised in one of my earlier posts to talk about Taylor, as he’s the other half of the duo that is responsible for my work on ‘grounded theologies’ in human geography. Now I will make good on my word.
Taylor’s tome A Secular Age has often been read as an attempt to account for a change in the ‘conditions of belief.’ As Taylor puts it, 500 years ago, it was unimaginable to believe in God. 500 years later (Taylor continues), God needs to be made relevant to a world that is doing just fine without him. Taylor’s stated aim therefore seems to be to account for what happened. This is why you should never take authors at their word. This is also why you should not read evangelicals who have read Taylor who might give you a digest of the big book and pretend that you’ve read Taylor. Do your own homework.
Taylor’s account of secularization has very little to do with what people believe in. It has much more to do with a word he uses over and over again in the book: Reform. He first uses this term to describe developments in the medieval Latin Church. Taylor’s story about the ‘West’ is therefore very precise. It has to do with something that happened in the ‘Western Church,’ the church in the city that was the western capital of the Roman Empire, the First Rome. ‘What I’m calling “Reform” here,’ Taylor explains, ‘expressed a profound dissatisfaction with the hierarchical equilibrium between lay life and the renunciative vocations’ (p. 61). Here, Taylor is talking about the difference between two modes of life in the church. On the one hand, there are people living their everyday lives. They might be working, raising families, or even governing; this isn’t a matter of class, so ‘lay life’ refers to anyone from slaves and peasants up to the ruling class. On the other hand, there are the people who live as if the end of the world has already come. These might be monastics who spend their lives praying for the world, or they might be clergy in the church who enact the liturgies to bring the lay people into a glimpse of the world to come when we truly eat the Body and Blood of Christ and live in a world where all creation has been renewed.
In Taylor’s account, the ‘reform’ of the Latin Church began before the Protestant Reformation. As bids to eliminate what seemed like a two-tiered system of Christianity, ‘reforms’ were attempts to get the lay people to practice spiritual devotions with as much intensity as those in the renunciative vocations. The idea soon became that you should be able live fully in the world and become holy through deep spiritual practices. Taylor suggests that this required a reform of the Church as an institution, and following the insights of a number of other scholars of the Latin Church, he says that the first reform that happened was the papal revolution in which ecclesial authority became centralized in the Vatican. One reform led to another reform, and in time, the ‘impulse to Reform’ divided the Church as an institution, led to the formation of city-states where laws could be used to reform their population, and eventually developed into a ‘secular’ society – a society in the world – where the institutions of the world – state, market, civil society – were devoted to the mental reform of their people into citizens who acted civilly.
It’s debatable whether Taylor likes this state of affairs. On the one hand, he writes so glowingly of a ‘Catholic modernity‘ that incorporates these modern institutional impulses into Catholic practice (much like Henri de Lubac does in Catholicism, really) that it’s easy to think that Taylor has accepted that Reform is not ever going away. But then there’s this passage in A Secular Age:
But however incomplete and hesitantly followed the turnings taken at Vatican II, it has clearly relativized the old Reform-clerical complex. It has opened a field in which you don’t have to be deeply read in the history of the Church to see that the dominant spiritual fashion of recent centuries is not normative. Which is not to say that this whole spirituality, aspiring to a full devotion to God, and fuelled by abnegation and a strong image of sexual purity, is to be in turn condemned. This would be a clerical-Reform way of dealing with the Reform-clerical complex! (pp. 503-4).
What Taylor is talking about here is that after the Second Vatican Council in the Latin Church (with profound implications for the autonomy of Eastern Catholics too), the opening has been made for the Church to say that it’s not about reform. There can be different intensities of spirituality in the Church as people work out in their everyday lives how they might relate to God. But the most fully intense kind of spiritual practice that might be found in monastic movements is also a good thing. There is no need for a centralized institutional authority to harmonize these intensities.
The hidden hand behind this insight is Ivan Illich. Criticizing the identification of ‘the Chrisitan life with a life lived in conformity with the norms of our civilization,’ Taylor contends that ‘as Ivan Illich has so forcefully argued, something is lost when we take the way of living together that the Gospel points us to and make of it a code of rules enforced by organizations erected for this purpose.’ Writing this in his chapter on Conversions, he continues: ‘I want to follow Illich’s argument a bit more fully, because as should become evident, his story is quite close to the one I have been trying to tell in these pages. Indeed, I have learned a lot from him’ (p. 737).
To be quite honest, I did not know who Ivan Illich was when I first read A Secular Age. I knew that Tolstoy had a short story called ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich,’ and I assumed it was the same guy. Of course, I had not read the Tolstoy story either, priding myself in having read War and Peace and Anna Karenina in the eighth grade and thinking that I’d had enough of Tolstoy for the rest of my life. I also never thought I’d become Orthodox (in communion with Rome).
In any case, all I knew about Ivan Illich (or Ilyich, because I didn’t know the difference yet) was that he was dead because Tolstoy said he was (so ignorant). Taylor also made him sound really interesting. Illich was positively prophetic. I didn’t know that Ilyich wasn’t.
As Taylor tells the story, secularization happened through the consolidation of civilizing power in modern institutions, and as it is in Illich, it began in the Church. Relations thus became less personal – that is, between persons – and more about impersonal policies, bureaucracies, and faceless powers – what Taylor calls the ‘Great Disembedding.’ ‘This final phase of the Great Disembedding was largely powered by Christianity,’ Taylor asserts. ‘But it was also in a sense a “corruption” of it, in Ivan Illich’s memorable phrase. Powered by it, because the gospel is a disembedding.’ Channeling Illich, Taylor explains what he means in the parable of the Good Samaritan:
I mentioned above the calls to break away from the established solidarities. But this demand is there even more strongly in a parable like the story of the Good Samaritan, as Illich explains. It is not said, but inescapably implied. If the Samaritan had followed the demands of sacred social boundaries, he would never have stopped to help the wounded Jew. It is plain that the Kingdom involves another kind of solidarity altogether, one which would bring us into a network of agape.
Here’s where the corruption comes in: what we got was not a network of agape, but rather a disciplined society in which categorical relations have primacy, and therefore norms. But it nevertheless all started by the laudable attempt to fight back the demands of the “world,” and then make it over. (p. 158).
In other words, Illich and Taylor are telling roughly the same story. Reform is a noble impulse to get the masses to become more spiritual. But this doesn’t lead to a ‘network of agape’ because it’s really not about people. It’s about institutions. which become both more efficient and more invisible. Soon, the work of the entire institutional society is to reform people. There is a darkness here, where the codes of reform ‘become idolatrous traps, which tempt us to complicity in violence.’ They become ‘the crutch for our sense of moral superiority’: ‘We even give our own goodness its crowning proof when we wage war on evil. We will do battle against axes of evil and networks of terror; and then we discover to our surprise and horror that we are reproducing the evil we defined ourselves against’ (p. 743).
Ivan Illich’s initial intervention here was to call for the abolition of a number of institutions. The medical industry should be abolished so that healthcare can become a personal relation between caregiver and the sick who can receive treatment as persons. Schools should be abandoned in favor of ‘webs of learning’ because education doesn’t happen in them anyway. And in a series of essays that really got him in trouble, he even advocated for the exposure of the Church’s charity organizations as colonizing institutions that were more interested in their own survival than in helping people. Taylor, of course, says that this view is ‘radical’ and has a different kind of takeaway:
We can’t live without codes, legal ones which are essential to the rule of law, moral ones which we have to inculcate in each new generation. But even if we an’t fully escape the nomocratic-judicialized-objectified world, it is terribly important to see that that is not all there is, that it is in many ways dehumanizing, alienating; that it often generates dilemmas that it cannot see, and in driving forward, acts with great ruthlessness and cruelty. The various modes of political correctness, from Left and Right, illustrate this every day. (p. 743).
The philosophers of education Rosa Bruno-Jofre and Jon Igelmo Zaldívar show that Illich also came to think that he was ‘largely barking up the wrong tree’ in his later work, so Taylor might not be that far off. Illich’s point, as Taylor puts it, is not really abolition. The ‘network of agape…can only be created in enfleshment. Agape moves outward from the guts; the New Testament word for “taking pity,” splangnizesthai, places the response in the bowels. We cease being able to make sense of this the more we go along with these alienating self-images. Resurrection only makes sense when we take seriously enfleshment…i.e. overcome excarnation’ (p. 741).
Illich’s work, in other words, is about conversion. If that’s the case, ‘conversion’ in the way that both he and Taylor use it is not a ‘before’ and ‘after’ phenomenon. In the context of modern secularization, it has to do with changing one’s mind from thinking that institutions will save the world to feeling truly connected with other persons at the level of the gut. Taylor’s two other examples bear this out. They are Charles Péguy (as channeled through the personalist philosopher Emmanuel Mounier) and Gerard Manley Hopkins, both of whom were also converted to a radical view of the world prioritizing persons, not things, machines, and institutional power.
But this series has been about my conversion to liberation theology. This is what has worried some of my readers, as if the use of the term ‘liberation theology’ automatically refers to the canon of Gutiérrez, Alves, Miranda, Segundo, the Boff brothers, and Sobrino and means that I will go off and join something like the Sandinistas. But properly speaking, these are the spiritual and intellectual children of some working in Latin America in the 1960s for liberation, and those figures were none other than Archbishop Hélder Câmara and the Latin American bishops aligned with their people that culminated in their 1968 meeting in Medellín, Paulo Freire, and Ivan Illich. Maybe Michel de Certeau too, considering how he spent time in Latin America before going back to Paris in 1968 to join the student protests.
There is a story of how I got there too. When Sam Rocha and I met, I was doing a postdoctoral fellowship in Seattle. He was working on his book Folk Phenomenology: Education, Study, and the Human Person, and at some writing retreats at my apartment, he had me read it. It was some of the strangest stuff I’d ever read. It begins with primal mythology. It morphs into philosophical musings on the person. It waxes hilarious about what Sam calls the ‘gospel of schoolvation.’ It proceeds toward theology. It outlines a full-blown Latin and Byzantine account of the person. It ends with the mystery of eros. At the time, I was also reading a good deal of Asian American literature, and a lot of the good stuff like John Okada’s No-No Boy, Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, Hisaye Yamamoto’s Seventeen Syllables, Toshio Mori’s Yokohama, California, and the anthology Aiiieeeee! resonated with this kind of thing. It had also brought me back to the work of James Baldwin, the African American writer who changed my life when I was sixteen when I read The Fire Next Time, didn’t understand it, and started writing about the Chinese church anyway.
I am still writing about the Chinese church. Because of that, I am what they call a ‘social scientist’: I look at societies, study them, and try to come up with a theory to explain how they work. Usually, we are dependent on theorists. As I read Sam’s book, I fell in love with the way he thought about the world. Then and there, I asked him: Sam, will you be my theorist?
Sam tells me that the fruit of that bizarre proposal is that I had to become a person. Certainly, he helped. He invited me to present at the Society for the Philosophical Study of Education (SPSE), because of which I have a paper in review now on model minorities and their ‘miseducation’ in a philosophy of education journal. After being thoroughly confused at that conference, he advised me to read Ivan Illich, beginning with ‘To Hell with Good Intentions.’ It was because of this that at a later SPSE meeting, I could understand the keynote speaker Babette Babich, who did an extended reading of Illich’s later work on textuality and called him the ‘Slavoj Žižek of the 1970s.’ This has made me a big fan of Babich’s work; I watch her lectures online obsessively. A few years later, Sam became my editor on Patheos. He ordered me to read Tolstoy’s ‘Death of Ivan Ilyich’ before blogging. Because of Sam, I have read both Ivan Illich and ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich.’
The difference between Ivan Illich and Ivan Ilyich is that Illich lived his life fully as a person and Ilyich did not. Illich blew threw life criticizing institutions and messing them up, at first in his Puerto Rican parish in New York, then at the Catholic University of Puerto Rico, then at his center at Cuernavaca in Mexico, and finally in his life as a mature scholar of modernity and the scripting of the mind in his old age. Ilyich worked his way through institutions in Russia to become a judge with a decent family life, only to discover he had cancer and regret on his deathbed that, apart from his happy childhood, he didn’t fully live, calculating as he did through his entire life how to get ahead by marrying a socialite and playing politics with colleagues. Illich and Ilyich are a pair, two sides of a coin; Sam assigns them both for further reading at the end of his Primer for Philosophy and Education.
This is what liberation theology is, at the end of the day. Of course theologies of liberation feature Marxist analyses of the world; Marx, as my spiritual father says, had the best analysis of the circulation of capital and its institutional structures anyway, so why not use his diagnosis? Marx, moreover, has a very good understanding of commodity fetishization and how ideology basically consists of fantasy. As Slavoj Žižek reminds us in his first book The Sublime Object of Ideology, Freud did not invent the psychoanalytic symptom; Marx did.
But liberation theology is not necessarily about Marx, for Marx, or in favor of Marxianism, Marxism, class warfare, or communism. If we consider how modern institutions – including communist ones – do their oppressing, it’s through ideology. Ideology in this sense is colonization par excellence. It’s an institution that lives in your head, spinning stories about how your life is structured and how reality is and how things should be. Liberation, as shown by Illich, Freire, Certeau, Žižek, Okihiro, and Taylor, begins with freeing the consciousness. That in turn starts with becoming conscious of how much of what we think is unchangeable reality is just ideological fiction. It means becoming aware that we’ve always already been living our everyday lives with a half-baked acquiescence toward these institutions and that even unconsciously, we’ve just been poaching them to make sense of who we are. It then requires us to become truly educated, to learn the difference between fantasy and reality. Only then can we act for our own freedom. Action in the material world, in other words, requires rigorous discernment. You cannot become a materialist – a person committed to concrete practice in a world that is material as opposed to fictional – without what Freire calls conscientzação, the dialogical process by which one becomes conscious of one’s own consciousness so that what appears as fixed reality may in fact be a mystifying fantasy to be dismantled for a new truly socially just order to emerge.
Becoming conscious of my own consciousness required me to realize that much of evangelical therapy and even Radical Orthodoxy was ideology. That’s the painful journey I’ve recounted in this series of posts. It led to a conversion from institution to person, from cerebral fantasy to gut communion. Scholarly work is becoming about discernment and connection. Teaching is becoming what Freire and his friend bell hooks call a ‘practice of freedom.’ In becoming Eastern Catholic in the process, I have fallen in love with the Church again as the communion of saints, flawed as it is, with a new attentiveness to the dangers of institutionalization that has led to its death time and time again.
But what does this have to do with my work on Chinese Christians and colonized religions? I said that this would be the last post, but I lied. In the final post, I’ll have to testify about where my conversion has led.