The Rivers North Of The Future

As told to David Cayley. House of Anansi Press, 252 pp, $24.95, softcover.

When Ivan Illich died in 2002, several obituaries painted this monsignor-turned-social critic as a man past his best whose later work lacked the social relevance of his influential debut, Deschooling Society. David Cayley, Illich's friend and colleague since the 1970s, and producer of a radio series for CBC's Ideas and a companion book, Ivan Illich in Conversation (House of Anansi, 1990), presents the best argument against that assessment with this latest volume.

Subtitled The Testament of Ivan Illich, Rivers North consists of a series of transcribed talks and interviews given between 1997 and 1999. They explore a central theme that emerged from Illich's devout (some would say radical) Christian perspective over a life of ministry and study, expressed in the Latin phrase Corruptio optimi quae est pessima ("the corruption of the best is the worst"). As Illich put it, "The church, according to me, attempted to safeguard the newness of the Gospel by institutionalizing it, and in this way the newness got corrupted."

Illich's main metaphor for understanding this view is the parable of the Good Samaritan, which he argued has lost its original meaning. Far from its modern context as an example of proper moral behaviour and Christian charity, it should, he suggested, be understood in its historical context: as the equivalent of a Palestinian assisting a wounded Israeli. To Illich, this act represents a choice to see the divine in the proscribed other; he understood this willingness to transgress social boundaries as necessary to the practice of true Christianity-which, paradoxically, has been subverted by institutions the church itself created to fulfill worthwhile social goals.

Although the centrality of Christianity to the development of western civilization is unarguable, Illich's claim that much of this development springs from a perversion of Christianity invites further debate and study, which the philosopher explicitly welcomed. Vitally important to Illich was the cultivation of collegial friendships across disciplinary and social borders as a context for continual revelation and reevaluation of important ideas. These friendships were, for him, more than a progressive learning forum, but also the highest expression of the Christian faith that guided his life.