A Feature Review of
Faith Seeking Conviviality: Reflections on Ivan Illich, Christian Mission, and the Promise of Life Together
Samuel Ewell III
Reviewed by Grant William Currier
“Progress” is a decisive word, whether used as a noun or a verb, yet it is a necessary word. As Samuel E. Ewell III observes in his recent Faith Seeking Conviviality: Reflections on Ivan Illich, Christian Mission, and the Promise of Life Together, “Like learning a language, learning the gospel by immersion into Christ and the kingdom he inaugurates also takes time, is dynamic, and is challenging. In fact, it takes a lifetime.” Ewell explores that immersion and that progress in holiness, and, as all travelers might expect, the path forward is uneven. Ewell outlines his purposes—which are so multifold that it risks being overlooked—by focusing on how significantly his lived experiences have shaped his understanding of Ivan Illich, and the converse: how he understands his life through Illich. Ewell has locational and annunciational purposes: theology is active, and, like a disguised verbal, requires careful consideration in its performance. Theology demands careful consideration for how the where of theology is done, for how place influences the what is being done. Illich has significant contributions still to be made to theology, and Faith Seeking Conviviality is less a critical examination of Illich than it is a heart-felt examination of a life well lived and its meaning for how Christianity, as “intercultural mission,” is lived in spirit and in truth.
Before starting his argument proper, Ewell rejects the specialist understanding of “mission” as an “exotic, overseas activity carried out by a select few,” offering in its stead the “active participation in God’s purpose as God’s people, beginning from wherever we are placed.” For Ewell and Illich, the locational and the annunciational are two benches that support the rich feast of faith. The table spread between these two benches is “conviviality,” an elusive but important term for Illich, and the crossbeam on which Ewell’s argument rests.
Ewell is right: Illich and his thought deserve to be far better known and examined in and out of Christian circles. A devoted and erudite priest, immigrant to and later emigrant from America, Illich worked in multiple Latin American nations where he significantly developed his thoughts on conviviality, not identical to but not far from “cultural kenosis.”
Labeled as a “radical” by the American government, Illich later went on to revoke his priesthood to make his life among those in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he pursued a simpler life of service less reliant on the church as institution. He worked to “expose the myopias and excesses of American exceptionalism” as he sought to understand the Incarnated Christ and aimed to live out the significance of that Incarnation.
This sort of living does not come easily. Like a symphony, it requires precise harmony. Ewell understands his own approach musically and structures his work accordingly. The contrapuntal inclusions— each of the three parts begins with a virada section and concludes with an “Interlude”—forecast the emphasis of each upcoming “Part” by relating Ewell’s own lumbering and loving experiences while living in Brazil.Though unusual, the rhythm is pleasant and demonstrates part of Ewell’s intent: learning is organic, clumsy, lengthy, but allows for growth that becomes relational.
I hesitate to put forth Ewell’s thesis for a few reasons. First, I found a clear thesis difficult to find; one (soft) criticism I have of the current volume is it aims to do too much: it tells us the development of Ewell’s socio-religious life in Brazil, how this life influenced his understanding of conviviality, how Illich too lived among a people not-his-own-who-became-his-own, and how Illich’s profound thought pertains today. But Ewell’s conclusion argues that faith seeking conviviality is akin to “entering someone else’s garden,” demonstrating the nuances of cultivating relationships and the shared life of the harvest. This is an apt metaphor, for produce is nowadays more of a product, a distinction that infuriates the Illichian vein in Ewell, for products require the exploitation and dehumanization of individuals and communities, even if the intention is toward abundance.
There is a confluence of terms here that push the reader toward…what? An understanding of Illich’s thought? Toward incarnational living, or incarnational witness? It’s more likely to push the reader toward around: whether diagnosing modern thought and theology as either Promethean or Epimethean, identifying agriculture as domiciliar or industrial, using apophatic anthropology in place of cataphatic, understanding the Christian life as lyrically or epically theodramatic, and labelling humanity as homo sapiens, industrialis, miserabilis, and others, the confluence of all these terms belies the purpose of Ewell’s revelational experience in “someone else’s garden,” and none of this supports the claim of the work’s introduction and conclusion: simplicity, perhaps amateurism (“one who thinks and acts out of love”), is best. Though there is a logic to Ewell’s argument, it is separated by the use of its own terms, so that the “tools” it gives us are more dropped on us à la Wile E. Coyote than handed to us in apprenticeship.
There are two metaphors both Illich and Ewell focus on as demonstrative tools: the school and the garden. These, by far the strongest tools offered here, abound in “Part 2—Detours: Navigating (Dis)Order and Progress,” particularly the chapter “Ivan Illich and the Prophetic Imagination.” Likening Illich to the ancient Israelite prophets, Ewell states Illich “exposes its [the West’s consumptive nature] false expectations and inability to satisfy.” Illich “criticizes the false consciousness of a dominant culture” and “energizes others to seek an alternative vision of the future animated by the power of God’s hope not human expectations.” Largely drawing from Deschooling Society, Ewell summarizes Illich’s critical concern not as ontological or operational, but as cultivational: “What does schooling do to us?” Illich has no favorable answers, particularly as pertains to institutionalized schooling, which ultimately assembles (certainly not cultivates) production mindsets.
The distinction between produce and product comes down to an understanding of tools, as Illich makes clear in his Tools for Conviviality. There are convivial tools and industrial tools, the latter being regressive even as the ability to make greater and more tools increases.
Whether what Ewell concludes offers little that is new or renewed is of little importance. What matters is being reminded and renewing our call to cultivate. We can often forget things we’ve long known for certain; the more sunlight a room has, the more dust is revealed. What I find this volume lacks is a wider applicability beyond understanding one man’s growth in understanding his own theology within the theology of another individual. Readers are removed from this circle even as we are told of the conversation happening within it. Though theology is “done” by individuals, it is never individualistic. It is convivial, a term of paramount importance in understanding Illich’s work and Ewell’s hope in “cultivating a convivial way of life” (25). The penultimate chapter and the conclusion have a strong agricultural focus, and the conclusion’s abundance of food-related examples (of the 46 footnotes in this chapter, only 3 are from Illich) makes one wonder to what application we are being pointed beyond the soil.
Perhaps we aren’t being pointed beyond it. Perhaps conviviality needn’t be more than being and seeing the hands of Christ in our wounded soil.