July 28, 2021 Editor

Concerning Life


by David Cayley

June 12, 2021

photo above and to the right (clickable): Cover of David Cayley’s new (massive) book on Ivan Illich:  a brilliant critic of modernity; polyglot; priest; educator; gadfly; peripatetic nomad; (should be called) Doctor of the Church–though adamantly refused by him; saint–above all friend to an array of those who knew him, including David Cayley.

WN: Below is highlighted an article by David Cayley, responding to directed criticisms of his, by extension, Illich’s, explication of modernity’s full embrace of “LIFE”:

Both my interlocutors think that “covidosceptics” are mistaking and abusing Illich’s claim that life has become “an idol” and “a fetish.”

Cayley makes it clear that his two interlocutors are “admired friends,” who nonetheless take strong exception to his characterization of Illich’s understanding about life, one that when,

. . . broadcast on Ideas as “Life As Idol” in 1992, it landed with a very dull thud, occasioning less reaction, I think it’s fair to say, than any other program I ever broadcast on Ideas.  It was as if I had farted, and everyone was politely pretending that I hadn’t.  What I had thought was a dramatic, and perhaps somewhat scandalous claim, passed without comment. Illich had the same reaction when he lectured on the subject in Germany and the United States.  “In neither place,” he told me, “did I get the impression that one person understood what I was speaking about.”[40]  Illich had thought he was pointing to an epochal crisis for Christian faith – “the most powerful idol the Church has had to face in her history” – but, in the meanwhile, this new reality had become so obvious, and so utterly taken-for-granted that it could not even break the surface of attention and register as a topic.  I will return to the reasons for this – powerfully on display in the current pandemic when the saving of “lives” utterly dwarfs and dominates every other consideration – but first let me try to spell out what Illich wanted to say.

I’ll add a few more excerpts below, then point you to the article itself.

Oh: I also encourage you to view more on David Cayley on this website, including on this discussion, here. And you’re in for an intellectual treat any way you turn on his website!

And having now read the book on Illich, I get it better when Cayley says:

The stakes are high here.


A shibboleth is a dividing line, and dividing lines are sharpest when they are razor thin. For the Ephraimites the price of forty-two thousand lives was nothing more than what linguists call an unvoiced fricative. Things are not yet quite so bad with us, but the pandemic has certainly brought division between friends. (And how great, after all, were the differences between Ephraimites and Gileadites, if all that distinguished them was the ability to make this crucial sound?1)

One of the shibboleths dividing us seems to be life. Recently two admired friends have taken issue with me over this word and the interpretation I have given of Ivan Illich’s views on the subject.

The stakes are high here. “Saving lives” has justified every policy adopted to counteract the pandemic during the last year, and life is likely to continue as the sacred sign in which the revised social order that emerges from the pandemic will root its legitimacy. Accordingly, it seems important to seek some clarity on what is now meant by this word.  (I hope my frequent resort to italics will be understood as a way of marking the usage I want to question.). I will begin by trying to understand what is worrying [my friends], then present what I take to be Illich’s view, and conclude with some reflection on the role of life in the present, and emerging, social order.

The way we speak of life is rooted in a civilization once suffused with belief in the Incarnation. And this “Christian ancestry,” is shared with “other key verities defining secular society.” But at the same time the word’s meaning has completely changed. It has become “substantive,” Illich says. By this he means both that it has taken on the character of a stuff – of something palpable – and that it has acquired substance in the more philosophical and theological sense of something that can exist in itself – it has become self-standing and self-sufficient. That life has become a stuff can be seen, Illich claims, in the discourses of law, medicine, economics and ecology – all of which claim this stuff as both their jurisdiction and their justification. The law protects it – in several U.S. states one can even sue for “wrongful life” – medicine extends it – corporations administer it – as manpower or human resources – and ecology studies it. The science of genetics now knows its “language.” Demography and journalism tirelessly count its units. Lives lost index disaster; lives saved index social progress. The pursuit of health prolongs it; technology enhances it. Life is known, as never before and it is managed, as never before.

The stakes are high here.–David Cayley

Life, Illich says, “tends to void” both the moral and the legal “concept of a person.”  For him, it is in “the notion of ‘person’ [that] the humanism of Western humanism is anchored.”  A person possesses a clear boundary, and an inviolable integrity.  A life does not.  One is a person; one can, as the saying goes, “get a life.”  Lives can be evaluated and improved in ways that persons cannot.  A doctor, facing me as a person, faces a certain story and a certain unknown destiny – there is a lot he or she must learn in order to treat me.  A doctor facing me as a life can discern everything he or she needs to know from my test results.  Lives vary, of course, as the skillful physician will recognize, but not quite in the same way that persons vary.

Life, for Illich, was also the sign of a profound change in “religiosity” – a term that he used to refer to the feelings, gestures and barely conscious dispositions that might not be captured by the more formal word religion.  “My nose, my intuition, and also my reason tell me,” he said in 1992, “that we might be at a historical threshold, a watershed, a point of transition to a new stage of religiosity.”

Please click on: Concerning Life

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  1. See Judges 12: 3-6:

    And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right; then they seized him and slew him in the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites.[]


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.