R. S. Thomas, “The Absence”

Today, instead of opening a book at random, or even flipping through to find a poem that strikes my interest, I turn to one of my favorite poems. R. S. Thomas was apparently quite the character, a grouchy parish priest in a hardscrabble Welsh village; his love for his country and fellow citizens was so fierce that one can see in a lot of his regional poetry why that emotion can sometimes be confused with its opposite.

This is the first poem of his I ever read — or rather, heard, since it was read to me in a seminar a few years back — and it has stayed with me ever since, earmarked inside Thomas’ Collected Poems, 1945-1990 on my bedside table.

The Absence

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resource have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

R. S. Thomas

The other day someone said to me, “I don’t think faith and reason are incompatible, I think they are both equally valid.” As I nodded politely, I thought: Really? Or is this just evidence of the compartmentalization we all do in this modern age, segregating spiritual and scientific into their own spheres?

We say, faith and reason are surely compatible, because look, they reference different things, they are useful in different ways! But this reduces faith to a frame of reference, a utilitarian tool, something that “comes in handy” when you need solace or comfort, or a way to explain away the unexplainable, or an ancient and mysterious ritual to zhush up your boring life, or an excuse to get together with similar people and do “good deeds” for the needy. For all of the actual business of daily living, let’s face it, what we call “faith” doesn’t come into play.

True faith starts when we realize that God is not here for us at certain times or to fulfill certain needs. In fact, God is never going to make himself known at all; he’s never going to act in a way that can’t be explained by some other means.

Seek solace, get silence.

And yet we still recognize that there is an emptiness within us, Pascal’s God-shaped hole, that demands God’s existence, and is quite literally the only thing we can offer him.

Jorge Luis Borges, “Everness”

It isn’t necessarily my goal to always cite poems to which I happen to open a book at random, but for the second time in a row, I can’t help myself, after reading the random poem in question. This translation comes from Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems:

Everness

One thing does not exist: Oblivion.
God saves the metal and he saves the dross,
And his prophetic memory guards from loss
The moons to come, and those of evenings gone.
Everything is: the shadows in the glass
Which, in between the day’s two twilights, you
Have scattered by the thousands, or shall strew
Henceforward in the mirrors that you pass.
And everything is part of that diverse
Crystalline memory, the universe;
Whoever through its endless mazes wanders
Hears door on door click shut behind his stride,
And only from the sunset’s farther side
Shall view at last the Archetypes and the Splendors.

Jorge Luis Borges (Richard Wilbur, trans.)

Lately, deep inside volume one of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, I’ve been thinking a lot about the despair of belief and the relief of doubt. How those who claim that they “doubt” too much to believe in God are taking such an easy and really silly path, as if doubt matters or is even interesting.

To look inside ourselves and see that we, in fact, are not alone — that there is an Other — with full access to our individual consciousnesses and histories, which even we as human beings do not have because of our tendency to both forget and lie to ourselves — is absolutely frightening.

Wish as we might, there is no oblivion; there is no forgetting. Everything is, everything that was continues to be.

There are, however, doors that click shut behind us.

To me that’s the sound of mercy, which is not the same as forgetting. Isn’t it both more valuable and more terrifying to be fully known, to be actually seen — everything we are, everything we’ve done, all the horrible things we’ve thought and imagined and planned, all of which together comprise Us As Ourselves, not loosely-connected diapsalmata, not generic “individuals,” but actual Individuals — and yet still be welcomed with love?

What We Encounter When We Encounter the Bible

First in an occasional series of posts ruminating on Jessica Martin’s book, Holiness & Desire (2020).

Growing up submerged in the evangelical sub-culture of the 1980s, which claimed, with a certain desperation, that the Bible was “historically accurate,” I remember a lot of people talking about the search for Noah’s Ark. There was excitement in the air: modern techniques, such as satellite imagery, were going to prove once and for all that the Flood happened, that the Bible was true, for God’s sake (in the weakest possible sense of the word true).

People are probably still searching for the Ark, but I’m not interested enough to Google it. I know about that stupid amusement park in Kentucky or wherever, and that there are certainly a lot of people still claiming “historical accuracy” for the Bible.

Of course, it’s always been a very selective sort of historical accuracy, which I figured out even as a young child. The Bible is factually accurate, we were told, except when it was speaking, you know, figuratively. “Camel, eye of the needle? Well, that’s just a metaphor, kid.” (And these folks were exceedingly liberal in their approach to interpreting metaphors. Except for those who didn’t understand metaphor at all, they insisted that Eye of the Needle was slang for a certain low gate, and Jesus just meant that rich people should watch their heads.)

So, as I was saying, some of these Christians were very interested in finding Noah’s Ark because they thought it would legitimize their beliefs before the broader secular culture (and thus legitimize themselves to their own Enlightenment-soaked minds, pitifully pleading for intellectual affirmation). But I don’t recall hearing about any explorers seeking out the ruins of the Tower of Babel. (Doesn’t mean it’s not a thing; again, no Googling here.)

Holiness & Desire | Jessica Martin

As a kid entranced by the act of reading from a very early age, I found the story of Babel much more fascinating than the one about all those animals on a boat. In Jessica Martin’s book Holiness & Desire, she describes the tale as a “weird thought-experiment” in which people “use their perfect communication powers to threaten heaven: language makes them gods.”

The Babel narrative is brief (only 9 verses long), and strangely wedged between the Flood and the beginning of Abram’s story. Pre-Flood, humans had multiplied (inter-breeding with angels along the way, somehow), and had become so wicked that “every imagination of the thoughts of [each person’s] heart was evil continually.”

Post-Flood, though, human beings came together in a remarkable spirit of cooperation, which the God of this fable found offensive and threatening for some reason.

Martin describes Babel as “another Fall story” that is not about hubris, as I was taught as a child (despite the non-literalness of that interpretation), and is not even really about language, but about understanding. Babel shows that “human systems of meaning are fractured: our edifices, real and imagined, cannot hold; we need God as a relationship cornerstone.”

Genesis specifically says that all this trouble began because there was “one language and few words” – and God’s reaction in the tale was not to addle our brains, or punish or eliminate us like he did with the Flood, but simply to make it impossible for us to understand each other.

Babel is not some alternative history of linguistic development, but an attempt to explain why humans are separated from each other, not only geographically but mentally. Obviously you don’t need to speak different languages to misunderstand each other. (Just look around.)

Perhaps, by scattering people into smaller groups, the God of Babel was actually trying to help humans understand each other better. As Martin says, “Our meaningful communications with each other are embodied. Face-to-face we take more information from tone and body language than we do from words.” (emphasis original)

The substitutes we create for this non-verbal form of communication – whether it’s an emoji in a text, or a sentence structure and phrasing meant to convey my sarcastic sense of humor – are often easily misconstrued.

And yet, one can not only trace the history of civilization through the adoption and use of written language, but God has chosen to communicate with human beings through written language. (Perhaps in another post we can talk about why this choice and not, say, ecstatic mystical visions, the existence of which I do not necessarily deny.)

Yes, as a Christian, I’m talking about the Bible here. But which Bible am I talking about?

Is it the Bible of the literalist church of my youth, which derided Catholics for believing in “non-Biblical” doctrines, yet believed itself in the Trinity (which can only be called Biblical in the same sense that a “right to privacy” can be called constitutional)?*

Is it the Bible of the congregation in my current Episcopal parish, which dutifully listens to each week’s lectionary readings slightly less attentively than they might listen to a co-worker describe a dream they had last night?

Is it the Bible I read when I was a kid, when the story of Sodom and Gomorrah filled me with fear of what I was becoming, or the Bible I read last week, when I was jarred to discover that this same story said more about God’s mercy than his judgment? (Re-read it and see; God was absolutely determined to save Lot despite the man’s ditherings and disbelief.)

These are all the same books, or collections of books, translated (and mis-translated) over the centuries. The only difference between them can be found in the way in which people read them and relate to them.

As a Christian, I accept these books as more than mere texts, and therefore I read them differently than others might read them. As Martin says, “I assent because my acceptance of the Scriptures as holy is not individual but collective and trans-historical … I will treat the letters of Paul and the other letters of the early Christian communities included in the New Testament on a different footing from the collection of early teachings we call the Didache. I will treat the four canonical gospels on a different footing from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.”

But though I may accept the Biblical canon as more than mere text, these books are still texts. They were written by humans, across multiple spans of time, for multiple reasons, be those reasons historical, genealogical, poetical, or evangelical.

Whatever those human reasons may have been, if the Bible is to be more than mere text, then I have to accept that the books were written as a human response to God’s revelation.

But humans have trouble understanding each other, let alone God. When I read the Bible, I am interpreting another human being’s interpretation of God’s revelation; in many cases, actually, I am interpreting an interpretation of an interpretation, etc.

Reading is always a conversation between author and reader. Sometimes it’s easy to answer the question, what is the author trying to say here, and sometimes it’s difficult.

But reading the Bible as a Christian is even more complex, because this conversation is not with the human authors, who had their own agendas and philosophical limitations, but with the God whose revelation the writers are describing or exploring.

As Martin says, “This isn’t just playing about with words. The word ‘conversation’ describes mutually successful communication: it can also mean the sexual act … The etymology of ‘conversation’ itself refers neither to language nor to touch, but to mutuality.”

A conversation is a relationship, and Martin describes her reading of the Bible as exactly that, using intentionally provocative, relationship-oriented words like “vulnerable” and “violent.” By choosing to speak to humans through written communication, she says that God makes himself “vulnerable” to being misunderstood; by claiming that every word of the text is divinely-sourced, inerrantists trap themselves in a “form of intimate violence,” “the human reader … a blank to be filled.”

Martin compares reading the Scriptures to a relationship with a spouse, where the inevitable disagreements, misunderstandings, and arguments begin from, and lead back toward, a place of trust, “because love underpins the conversation, love makes it possible.” That trust, she says, “goes both ways. I am not expected to be ‘mute and spiritless’ before its holy voice. But I must know how to listen.”

I wonder, however, if the intimacy of Martin’s metaphor actually isn’t quite intimate enough. When reading the Biblical books in order, you can’t help but notice how jarring it is, jumbled, passages veering sharply between hatred and condescension, passion and politics, judgment and affection.

If reading the Bible is like anything, it’s not so much like a relationship as it’s like my own life experience – the same sort of experience we all have but can never really explain, and usually don’t even try: how we move through the day in our own mental spaces, our own jumble of emotions and memories and half-cocked outrages.

Our individual lives can’t be explained to other people in any way that makes sense unless we impose a structure onto it. Someone asks, “What did you do this morning?” I might reply, “Oh, not much, got up, walked the dog, took a shower, responded to some emails.”

But that doesn’t begin to describe the actual richness of activity that happened to me during and in between those events: the petty grievances remembered, the fantasies imagined, the plans considered and discarded.

In the same way, whenever we encounter another person, we impose a structure on their life that can never resemble their actual existence. It can only be thus; we simply can’t know any more of somebody else than what we can see or hear.

There’s the woman exchanging a chipper greeting across a gas pump as you both fuel your car. And there’s the woman that afternoon you see running her car through a busy crosswalk while scrolling on her phone. Are they the same woman?

Even in the most intimate of relationships, even as you grow closer to each other, and continually learn more about each other, you still have no choice but to impose a mental structure on each other’s life, to explain the other to yourself in a way that you can understand. You know that this is the sort of person he is, until one day he does something out of character, but then it’s no longer out of character, because that is the sort of person he is.

The only person we can’t impose this structure upon, the only person who remains completely inexplicable to us even when we ardently try to explain him or her, even though we can hardly think about anything else, is us, ourselves.

It’s why classes about memoir writing talk about themes and organization, not memory. Try writing a memoir that feels to the reader exactly as it felt to live; no matter the actual events described, you’d wind up with something both dull and horrifying.

Which is, to me, exactly what it feels like to read the Bible. It’s as if God is speaking to me, through the experience of these other human beings, in a way that feels to me like actual human experience. At times nonsensical, at times disagreeable, at times beautiful, but never objective, dictated statements of “fact.”

The Bible itself is so disorganized, so self-contradictory and multi-layered, that academic theologians continue to capstone their careers with books titled “Systematic Theology” that attempt to convert Christianity into some sort of coherent way of thought. You won’t find a systematic theology in the Bible unless you weave it together yourself.

As Martin says, “Few bits of the Bible offer fortune-cookie generality, stuff that can be slapped onto human condition … Often the piece of Scripture you find will undermine some previous religious code, show the presence of God in an unexpected place. Following rigid behavioural rules as a way to salvation is undermined within the Scriptures about as often as it is recommended.”

I think that the only way that humans ever “change” is when their experience allows them to change. And when we encounter the Bible, we encounter it as who we are, in our experience, at that time. In that reading, we find our experience reflected back to us.

That’s how I can read the Sodom and Gomorrah story now and find myself amazed at God’s mercy, while relegating the whole “burning the city” thing to a minor plot point, and ignoring the whole “hospitality or homosexuality” debate altogether. Notice that I’m not saying these other parts of the story aren’t worthy of consideration; I’m saying that, as with everything else in my life, I can only experience the Bible, only experience God through the Bible, as I am able to experience it (and him) right now.

Also, please don’t accuse me of saying that the Bible doesn’t show us a way to actual truth (in the fullest sense of that word), because I believe that it does, but it can only show us the truth that we are able to see. We are always the same individual, but not always the same person.

In that way, we are exactly like the human beings who wrote the Bible. They could only see what they were able to see, and that’s what they wrote down. All we can do is read it, and try – try, as we are able right now – to understand.

* To be clear, I think that both of these things are there to be found in their appropriate places.

Ellul on the True Value of Means

Continuing my read-through of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, we are still in Chapter 3. As discussed in the last post, in God, means and end are unified: the end is God’s Kingdom, and it is God’s Kingdom, through the presence of Christ and his followers, that will bring about that end.

On a more practical level, what are Christians to do about the means of modern humanity, the ones whose ends are simply created to justify those means? We already know that Ellul does not advocate withdrawal from the culture in which we live; quite the opposite.

First, we have to recognize that these means (and he lists some: “money, mechanical power, propaganda, the cinema, the press, modern conveniences, or means of communication, all this pandaemonium of noise”) are in no way effective at bringing about the true end. None of them will result in God’s Kingdom.

Ok, you say, maybe not God’s Kingdom, but that doesn’t have to be the only end, does it? We are adapting our means to more immediate, material goals, not aiming for the whole, spiritual enchilada.

That’s bullshit, Ellul insists (not a direct quote). For one thing, the very idea of Progress is synonymous with a misguided attempt to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth — in piecemeal, step by step, with small improvements in the lot of humanity. The coming of the Kingdom, Ellul says, will not be gradual, but “catastrophic.”

And for another thing, Ellul says that you cannot separate, for example, the material and the spiritual, or grace and law, etc. “In reality, the two orders, of preservation and redemption, are not separate but integrated with each other. All the actions of human beings are in submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

This means that even humanity’s means are essentially ordered to the one true end — the Kingdom — rather than whatever end toward which they claim to strive. We must view all of these modern techniques from the perspective of “this end that is already present in the means that God uses.”

This doesn’t represent an arbitrary rejection or “casting off” of our modern civilization’s means. Instead, we are to judge, accept or reject, humanity’s means based on their value to God’s means and end. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about any of our means or structures; they are neither bad nor good; they must simply be judged on “their eschatological content, their ability to be integrated into the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

We are not to look at these modern techniques and structures as means at all, but only as content, as activities. These are simply things that human beings do. As Christians, our one task is to act as God’s presence and prepare for the preservation of the world by showing it the way of salvation. Where do these particular human activities fit into our task? They can be useful, Ellul says, unless they are not.

I’m old enough to remember when the Internet was going to bring people together. This is not the way it panned out. Now, AI is going to — do something good, we’re told. Something something medical breakthroughs, something something problem-solving, I don’t know.

The point is that these technologies are created and pushed because of what they will do. In the mid-90s, when I eagerly climbed online, the cultural and political climate assured everyone of the good things (ends) that would be brought about by these new capabilities. If we had looked at it as an activity (not as a means), evaluated the Internet as the content that it was (not what we imagined it might be), then perhaps we could have properly judged it.

AI, same thing. Etc.

Ellul’s recommended approach is to view and judge all of these techniques and institutions and structures, not based on their consequences (which we should know by now never materialize as predicted, at least not without many unintended consequences as well), but on their actual content, as purely temporary activities from the perspective of the kingdom.

The world looks at what it is doing in terms of how it believes or wants those activities to affect the future. Humans labor under the false notion that the present will inform the future. Christians, Ellul insists, already know the future, and in God, it is the future that informs the present.

So yes, we might seek institutional reforms should we find a Scriptural basis for it, and use modern techniques, understanding that all these things are temporary, with no value beyond their role in helping us further God’s presence (which is never, remember, about political power, or “Progress”). But we also must reject those things whose content and activity has no value to the Kingdom.

There is no end but God. There is no means but God. All else is disposable.

But how can we stop this stance from becoming just one more ineffective ideology?

Ellul on God’s Unified Means and End

This entry is part 21 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing my read-through of Ellul’s Presence, we are still in Chapter 3. As we have seen, Ellul believes that Christians are engaged in a spiritual struggle against the supremacy of “means,” which have eliminated any common “ends” except for imaginary ones created only to justify each new set of means.

But Ellul refuses to recommend any specific actions for Christians to take against this totalitarian system, because that would essentially be “opposing one technique to others.” This is similar to the way that he has argued against the existence of ethical guidelines outside of any specific, individual situation.

Instead, Ellul wants to point us toward “an old Christian road, abandoned for some two hundred years, and which leads in the opposite direction from the triumphal path of modern techniques.”

Now that it’s been nearly three hundred years of abandonment, let’s see if the same path might still work.

“For Christians, there is no separation between end and means.”

Christ the Incarnation is God’s means for human salvation; but where “Jesus Christ is present, the kingdom has come.”

In our society, means has consumed end; ends are simply made up, and continually revised as necessary, to justify and accommodate self-generating means. (What are we trying to achieve? Whatever our means will allow!) But in Christianity, “the means never appears except as the realized presence of the end.”

Purely by happenstance this morning, I read Mark 4. It’s the parable of the sower. What caught my eye (and reminded me to get back to Ellul and this blog) was that the Kingdom of God was described not as a place, but a process. The sower is the Word, Jesus; his presence is the Kingdom.

In God, all is unity. The end of history is God’s kingdom, and yet it is God’s kingdom, through the presence of Christ and activity of the Spirit through the followers of Christ, that is redeeming the world and bringing about, well, itself. End and means, together.

The same must be true of the Christian life, Ellul says. We have to oppose our “slavery to means.” But how can we fight technique with itself? Churches (in Ellul’s time and even more in our own) try to combat the world by imitating it; they write strategic plans, implement programs, focus on bottom-line “action and results.” This, Ellul says, is “bound to fail.”

Instead, we must remember that the church and all its members are both God’s means, and the presence of the end (God’s Kingdom), all at once.

“God establishes his end and it is this end that is represented through our means.”

Most Christians go about their daily business and append God to it. This is “radically anti-Christian,” Ellul says, because it creates a separation between our work and God’s work — we say, God’s will be done, etc., while ignoring the fact that God’s will is done through us.

There is a very practical significance to understanding that Christians are God’s means and end.

For example: are we to strive for justice on earth, or are we to be just ourselves, “bearers of justice”? Are we to work for peace on earth, or are we to be peaceful ourselves? “For where the peaceful are, there peace reigns.”

Try to think of it this way. Is justice something to be attained, something external that can only be accomplished through action? Or are you a just person? Is peace something that exists outside of yourself, something to be found and argued for and delivered? Or are you a peaceful person?

Justice and peace, Ellul says, are gifts from God. These are God’s good goals that can only be expressed through our lives (means and end in unity). We have already been given grace, peace, love, justification — which are God’s ends — and by expressing them in our lives, we are also the means.

Human means are rooted in “pride and power.” Based on the techniques we have developed, and are developing, we try to accomplish something — whether it’s colonization of Mars, or criminal justice reform. It’s something we believe we can do.

But in (as) God’s Kingdom, we are not called to achieve, but to be.

“I am quite familiar with the reproach that will likely be made.”

Ellul already knows that your response to the above will likely be an eye-rolling scoff. This can’t be right, can it? It’s so individualistic, even selfish; goals like justice and peace require collective action, and political organization, and institutional reform. The problems aren’t found in “individual consciousness” but in society at large. Addressing those problems will require “adequate means.”

To which Ellul says: wrong!

In God, just as there is no separation between end and means, there is neither a separation between individual and community. Yes, God is in relationship with every individual human being, but God is the same for all. Our peace and justice are not ours, they are gifts from God. These are not individual means and ends, but God’s unified means and end. They unite as individuals into a collective through the activity of the Spirit.

When we decide to take charge of these goals, build a rational plan to put them into place, then we deny God by refusing to let go of “the anthropocentric dilemma,” whether you are talking about individuals or collective action. Our focus should be on God. If all Christians act as God’s presence (salt, light, sheep), as we are called to do, then this could hardly be called individualism.

As far as institutional reform — the very mention of which just reminds me of the similarities between Ellul’s world of 80 years ago, and today — then Ellul says that Christians who believe that human institutions can change human behavior are either hypocrites or liars.

It is Marxism, Ellul says, to believe in the existence of a human condition (which can be modified by external structures) but not a human nature (which cannot). And it is hypocritical for Christians to refuse to look at “the problem of the human in its fullness” and instead focus on its environment. He says:

“We turn our eyes from the being’s picture in order to look only at the frame. If it is true that the frame can more or less enhance the picture, it is not true that it is what gives the picture its value. And if we act in this way, it means that we refuse to be fully involved to this venture.” (emphasis added)

This doesn’t mean that there’s no value to reforming institutions, only that it is not our priority, and as we have discussed before, what passes today for reform is merely a struggle for power. Left or right, allegedly Christian or not, sides are wrestling for institutional control, not against our civilizational structures.

The truly Christian, on the other hand, has a “fundamental position” which is “a pure and simple expression of the presence of the end in the world.” This may lead to the valid pursuit of reform, but it is this presence that can carry out the transformation. (And, I would argue here based on what Ellul has said so far, Christians might validly pursue worldly reform, based on their faith, but never worldly power.)

“Institutional reforms must come out of the church’s faith,” Ellul writes, “and not from the technical competence of specialists, whether Christian or otherwise.”

That Which We Measure May Be Forgotten

It’s the end of a year and a new one beckons, another way in which we humans try to control things by measuring them. I am as guilty of this sort of thing as any, and probably more than most — how much time have I wasted over the last few years meticulously noting down everything I eat into a food journal, for literally no actual purpose?

I also track the books I read, movies and TV I watch, and my opinions about them, etc., for only slightly greater purpose — unlike the food journal, the book lists might be revisited once or twice in the future. These lists also let me do things like this, an end of year summary that will certainly be of interest to no one but me. (Of course, the same can be said of all the other articles on this little WordPress outpost.)

For many unmeasurable reasons, this has been a very good year. Below are some of the things that can be weighed, tracked and listed.

Books

I finished 64 books this year, down a bit from prior years, but then this is also the year I dove eagerly down the Kierkegaard rabbit hole. It started with a Catherine Project reading group of Fear & Trembling, continued with another CP group tackling Sickness Unto Death, and then a courageous few of us decided to stick together for The Concept of Anxiety. We’ve also read a few of Kierky’s discourses, including the three contained in The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air.

All of these books rank naturally as my best reads of the year, probably the best reads of my life; in January, our group begins Part 1 of Either/Or, and I begin thinking about how to actually turn Kierkegaard’s insights into personal action (or to use more precise words, inwardness and reflection).

I am still, of course, unfinished with Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, which I am reading at perhaps the slowest pace of any book in my life. I’m glad to be doing so. God willing, I will continue notating my way through it here at the blog through 2024.

A few other books I read and loved this year:

Cleanness, by Garth Greenwell (2020) — Beautiful writing about a messy life (and is there any other kind?).

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin (2009) — Quiet and wonderful. How did it ever become a movie?

Secret City, by James Kirchick (2022) — Long but fascinating.

Black Water, by Joyce Carol Oates (1992) — Should have read this a long time ago, but I am a latecomer to JCO’s work.

Jessica Fayer, by John L’Heureux (1976) — I read two L’Heureux novels in 2023 as part of my ongoing meander through his work; this one shows its age, but is a provocative examination of how death creates meaning for even the most desultory life. (The other one, The Handmaid of Desire, a weak attempt at academic satire, was mediocre.)

Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, by Rowan Williams (2018) — Small but dense, worth rereading again. Also convinced me that I really need to read Iain McGilchrist, if only his books weren’t so damn massive.

Works of Mercy, by Sally Thomas (2022) — A first novel from a Catholic poet; funny and heartbreaking.

Howards End, by E. M. Forster (1910) — A good friend convinced me to read this as part of a group, and I didn’t regret it.

Philosopher of the Heart, by Clare Carlisle (2019) — A very good biography of Kierkegaard, though there are others I plan to read as well.

How to Inhabit Time, by James K. A. Smith (2022), and For the Time Being, by W. H. Auden (1944) — I didn’t plan on ending the year reading these particular two books, or imagine that they would wind up being such a one-two punch.

Movies

Not a lot of movies this year, though we wound up actually going to the movies more than I would have expected, and mostly just for fun: Barbie (which was more serious than most people seem to think), the new Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible films (which were both more fun than most people seem to think), Theater Camp (which was hilarious). Also saw both Vertigo and Shadow of a Doubt on the big screen, which were terrific experiences.

Passages, which I wrote about here, was the best new film I saw all year; I still enjoy thinking about it.

Finally, we stumbled across Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise on the Criterion Channel, and what the actual fuck? Amazing weirdness; I can’t believe I’d never heard of it, let alone never seen it before.

Television

Not a lot of TV this year, and hopefully even less next year. But we finally got around to watching the third season of Atlanta, and it was such pure genius that we are putting off watching the fourth and final season until we feel a craving for something perfectly sublime.

Also, Somebody Somewhere on HBO (or whatever they call it now) is heart-wrenching and hilarious and beautifully acted; and the first season of Poker Face was just sheer fun; and All Creatures Great and Small starts every year on the perfect note. (New season next week!)

This Blog

This will be the 44th post since June 27. It feels weird to launch a blog in 2023, knowing that, unlike the glory days of 2005, it will be pretty much impossible for anyone to find it. But I’ve never really felt at home anywhere else, and whether anyone else ever reads any of these posts or not, I still feel a particular moment of apprehensive excitement when I press the “publish” button. Here’s hoping I am able to do so even more frequently in 2024.

Ellul on Self-Justifying Means

This entry is part 19 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

There was a time when society might grapple honestly with whether or not particular means were appropriate to a desired end. But ends have vanished into abstraction and are no longer necessary to justify means, which justify themselves in the answer to a simple question: Do they work?

“In reality, what justifies the means today is whatever succeeds,” Ellul writes as we continue Chapter 3 of Presence. “Whatever is effective, whatever possesses in itself an ‘efficiency,’ is justified. By applying means, a result is produced. This result is judged by these simplistic criteria of ‘more’: larger, faster, more precise, and so on … What succeeds is good, what fails is bad.” (emphasis added)

Value judgments relate to ends, not means. “Once the means becomes a matter of technique it knows no bounds.” Certainly some technical achievements — like atomic weapons, concentration camps, painless euthanasia of the disabled and depressed — are considered shocking and awful to most people. But not to all; as Ellul points out, a “Russian communist does not recoil from camps in Siberia, or a Nazi from extermination camps.” Citizens tend to accept whatever means are normalized within their own particular society or sub-culture, as long as those means are successful and meet their technical objectives (which are not ends, Ellul carefully points out).

The self-justification of means results, Ellul says, in three outcomes:

  1. Human beings are no longer able to choose between means. Technique chooses instead, demonstrating which means is truly effective, and there is no reason for people to refuse it.
  2. Technique is considered neutral, and so extends into all areas. His example: if a table is neutral, then so must be a machine; then so must be the state, the division of labor, propaganda, and on to nuclear missiles and concentration camps. When we say something is neutral, we mean that it is good.
  3. Since means no longer require ends, the ends that get proposed are “useless or inadequate” ones. Technique moves itself forward, step by step, and with each step, human beings create new ends to justify those means. Remember when the Internet was going to make citizens more knowledgeable, connect communities, ease loneliness, etc.? It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t; with each step technique takes, we create new ends to explain those means, which will only create new means for which we create new ends.

“Technical human beings do not need goals in life,” Ellul writes, “they are content with the instant success of means. In fact, we have got hold here of the primary reason … that the church and Christianity have lost ground. If the church no longer seems relevant in the world, it is because of the new situation of the problem of means.”

Never mind that some self-consciously moralistic people are still “scandalized” by the idea that a brutal or alienating technique might be excused by its loftily stated goal. I can’t help but return once again to the (already exhausted) example of AI. Politicians, bureaucrats, corporate leaders pretend to “grapple” with the “ramifications” of this technology. They hold conferences, issue memos, testify before Congress, propose regulations — but who has said, why should we do any of this at all? (And if they do, how can the response be anything but an eye-rolling dismissal of their naiveté? Genies, bottles, toothpaste, tubes.)

Ellul on Christian Realism

This entry is part 16 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

In the last section, Ellul called out the fact that Christians know “how the story ends” — with the Kingdom of God. But they are still called to live fully in the world’s present reality, pointing their fellow human beings toward Christ, rather than to withdraw and wait for the end.

So Christians must live in the here and now, but as citizens of the Kingdom of God. This means that all political and social facts and proposals are to be evaluated in light of what Christians know about the Kingdom — and not in light of any particular principles and morals.

Because, and this is the bit that may surprise many American Christians, “there are no Christian principles.” (emphasis added)

“There is the person of Christ,” Ellul writes, “who is the principle of all things.” But Christianity cannot be reduced to mere principles or “philosophical doctrine” or guidelines for moral living. “The Christian life does not result from a cause but is directed toward an end. This is what changes human perspectives completely and makes the Christian life unique from any other.”

Ellul points out that the history of Christian political stances has been disastrous; throughout church history (up to and including the present day), Christians have done horrible things in the name of “Christian principles.” Ellul believes that this will always be the case whenever anyone, left or right, tries to reduce the kingdom to a political philosophy.

Instead, given their unique orientation toward the future, Christians must approach political and social situations with realism — not one based on “efficiency or success,” but on the perspective of God’s Kingdom. In any given situation, “Christians can move right or left, can be liberal or socialist, according to the circumstances and the position that seems more conformed to God’s will at this time.” (italics in original)

Christians should be “open to all human action” that can be examined in light of God’s guidance, and “questioned thoroughly.” But, Ellul says, “Christians can never consider themselves tied to a past or to a principle.”

There is no one Christian stance that must be followed in all things, for all time. In fact, “positions that seem contradictory can be equally sound” if they “express in history a faithfulness to God’s design.”

Scripture offers “main themes” of how our “action can be oriented” and the “outlines of an order”, but not any “system or political principles.” Minus those principles or any specific moralism, it falls on Christians themselves, with God’s guidance, to decide if a particular thing seems to conform with the coming of God’s Kingdom, how it looks from the perspective of that kingdom, and if it can be “used for God’s glory.”

In a footnote, David Gill explains Ellul’s viewpoint as less chaotic than it sounds at first. “We follow a Commander, not a set of abstract commands. There will be guidance, and it will be consistent with the character of God … not at all the whim of human interest and desire. But God is alive, and our situations always have novel aspects, and we are unique individuals. No stand-alone system of principles and rules can ever be allowed to threaten or replace that existential reality.” (emphasis added)

So in any particular situation, Christians might very well disagree with each other in good faith, as long as they are patiently approaching each situation independently and uniquely from the standpoint of God’s kingdom, and not merely responding to their own political and cultural biases.

Christians must live under the actuality of Christ’s Lordship. Ellul says that this “actual lordship” is the “objective element” of the Christian’s current (revolutionary) situation. In recognizing that Christ is Lord, and that God’s Kingdom is both now and not yet, Christians are called to evaluate their daily lives and existing realities through the subjective lens of “hope.”

“This is a difficult position, full of pitfalls and dangers,” Ellul writes, “but it is also the only one that appears true to the Christian life. And we have never been told that the Christian life should be easy or secure.”

Ellul on Living into the Future

This entry is part 15 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Imagine you suddenly found yourself transported into the world of your favorite book or film, a new character in the midst of a story whose ending you knew very well. You would be surrounded by characters for whom that ending may not even be conceivable. Accepted by those characters as one of their own, with your own agency and role to play, would you involve yourself in the story’s action, or simply stand and observe, awaiting the inevitable outcome?

This is essentially the situation in which Christians find themselves, according to Ellul, as we continue in Chapter 2. But simply observing the story unfold, smug in our own knowledge of the ending, is not the choice we are called to make. It’s not even an option for faithful Christians, Ellul says.

Essentially, Christians know that history has a direction, and they know how it’s going to end, in the coming of Christ and the Kingdom of God. “Without this direction,” Ellul writes, “history is an explosion of insanity.”

The role of Christians is to bring this eschaton into the present day. Christians are able to view current political and social realities, somewhat objectively, in the light of what is “more authentic, more real” — Christ’s imminent return. (As noted earlier, as far as Christians are concerned, the end times are always imminent.) And they are supposed to live out this reality in their daily lives.

This does not mean, as has already been said over and over again in these chapters, that Christians are supposed to try and turn the world into the Kingdom of God. It won’t work, and it’s not their role anyway — instead, Christians play a prophetic role. Note that prophets did not merely announce the coming events, Ellul writes: “Prophets are those who live out the event now and who make it real and present to the world around them.”

Which means what, exactly?

Well, so far Ellul has told us that Christians live in a state of permanent revolution — one that may indirectly lead to government or economic changes, but not “necessarily lead to direct conflict with authority” — by virtue of the fact that their ultimate loyalty lies with the Kingdom of God, and not the world. Yet they they still must live and work and act within the world’s present realities. Now we see that Christians must do this living and working and acting, with an orientation to the future — the future coming of the Kingdom of God.

Christians are not to be oriented toward the past. Ellul writes that “those who know they are saved by Christ are not people attached jealously or fearfully to a past, however glorious it may be.” (So, it’s a big “no” to the right-wing movements openly longing for the culture and economy of 1950s America, no matter how distorted their vision of that decade.)

Instead, Christians are to “judge the present time by virtue of a meta-historical fact. This fact’s intervention in the present time is the only thing capable of freeing civilization from the suffocating social and political structures under which it is slowly weakening and dying.”

In a world where we have seen that all existing institutions, parties and governments accept the underlying structures of modern civilization, then one wonders exactly how Christians can live their lives challenging these structures. And not privately challenging them, but challenging in such a way that they “make it real and present to the world around them.”

Perhaps it will become clearer as we continue with Chapter 2.

Ellul on Being Christian in a Disordered World

This entry is part 14 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

In last Sunday’s gospel reading, Jesus responded to a question about taxes with his famous remark to give to Caesar what is his, and to God what is his (Matthew 22).

Often when I’ve heard this gospel preached (usually around pledge time, coincidentally), it’s been framed as Jesus being clever — threading a needle so as not to offend the Romans, and risk prison, or the Jews, and risk dismissal as some sort of collaborator with the oppressing power.

I don’t think Jesus feared either of those things, and I sure don’t think he was spinning his remark like some shrewd political operator. Treating the remark in this way treats it too lightly, as does treating it as an excuse to talk about church tithing. I think it was a much deeper and more important comment than that, about the way in which Christians are to live in this world. So important that it was included in all three synoptic gospels — remember, the Virgin Birth was in only two!

This comes to mind as I move to the next section of chapter 2 in Presence in the Modern World, where Ellul says that, although it is a “well-known truth” that Christians belong to two cities,” it’s not something that is deeply understood in terms of daily living.

We are citizens of the nation where we live; we have social obligations, family obligations, governmental obligations; we must work to earn money, we participate in community and cultural activities. We’re not able to shirk these things, and importantly, we’re not called or commanded by God to shirk them. Nor are we called to “compartmentalize” and be Christians only on Sundays.

But Christians must consider their life in this world to be a temporary situation. They “belong” to a different city. They are something like foreigners temporarily residing in a country where they’re not citizens. They must play by the rules of the host country, adapt to the customs where necessary to get by, pay whatever fees or taxes are owed, conform with the laws; but still, their ultimate loyalty and allegiance lies with their own state, where they are full citizens, and to which they intend to return.

Ellul says that these Christians can be like ambassadors, defending the interests of their own city while living and working within a different city. Or he says it may be even better to think of them as spies, infiltrating the world and creating the conditions that will allow the Kingdom of God to burst forth.

No matter what a Christian’s situation in the world might be, their first loyalty must lie with God, yet they can’t abandon the world. It’s not their choice when to “return” to where they belong, so they must accept the inherent tension of belonging to two cities.

Ah, tension! Remember that from Chapter 1? There Ellul spoke of the need for Christians to embrace the tension that came from knowing that they could never make the world less sinful, but neither could they accept the world as it is.

This tension, of living in the world while not being of it, is actually the same tension, but, as Ellul writes, “transcribed into social, political, and economic reality.”

(Notice what he didn’t mention there? Cultural reality. But it’s almost always the cultural component that American Christians focus on when they talk about “being in the world, not of it.” If your argument against the prevailing culture leads to little more than the endorsement of a lucrative sub-culture, then you’re not embracing the tension, you’re just participating in the existing structures.)

This tension can’t be resolved. As Christians, though we are completely bound up in the world’s material reality, we must consider ourselves oppositional to that reality. We “must accept that the opposition between this world and the kingdom of God is total.”

But that doesn’t mean that we can sit smugly back, content that our side is “the right side,” and watch fellow humans suffer through the consequences of their bad choices. We can never forget that we are bound to our fellow humans, not only through social and economic and legal structures, but also because God has called us to be bound to them.

Christians, Ellul writes, “need to immerse themselves in social and political problems so that they can act in the world, not in the hope of making it a paradise, but only of rendering it tolerable.” (emphasis added)

It’s not our job to perfect the world (since we cannot), or to choose the right political party, or to try and create a utopia by forcing everyone else to live in accordance with our own cultural views, or even to “make the kingdom of God come.” It’s our task to try and ensure that the gospel can be both proclaimed and heard, so that “all people may hear truly the good news of salvation and resurrection.” (italics in original)

There are, Ellul says, three ways in which Christians must go here. It’s important to note that this represents a “strategic direction,” as David Gill writes in a footnote on page 29; Ellul thought it was impossible to create any sort of specific formula for Christian life and action.

  • First, understanding what God has revealed to them about humanity, they must “seek out the social and political conditions” that allow human beings to “live and develop” as God has commanded.
  • Second, they must recognize that God has placed them in “a certain setting” for God’s own reasons, and so they must accept the limitations of that setting. They are to work so that God’s desired order “might be embodied in particular, existing institutions and organizations,” without actually causing “the society that they live in to be destroyed.” (The original translated text is a bit confusing here; it sounds to me as if Ellul is saying that Christians are not called to be either docile societal sheep or “burn-it-all-down” reactionaries.)
  • Finally, the above points only mean something if everything is “oriented toward the proclamation of salvation.” This means that the top priority of Christians is to ensure that these institutions are not “closed” and that they can’t “claim to be complete, absolute.” These institutions cannot be allowed to prevent people from hearing the gospel. (This is not, I think, the same thing as requiring people to listen to the gospel, which does not lend to hearing “truly.”)

In following this strategic direction, Christians will fall victim to two fundamental errors, Ellul says. One, they will assume that constant progress will lead to the establishment of God’s kingdom. And/or two, they believe that if they achieve certain outcomes or reforms, “this order that God desires would come about.”

Nope. To repeat yet again, there is nothing that we can do in this world that will perfect it, or even meet God’s demands, which are “infinite, as is his pardon.” All solutions to economic, political or social problems are temporary. This is why Christians are in a permanent state of revolution. They are always called to “continually question” everything that is “termed progress, discoveries, facts, established results, reality, and so on.”

(I have to admire “reality” being thrown in there to be questioned right before “and so on.”)

Remember, the world has a will to suicide; no matter its current order, the world is “moving constantly toward disorder.” It’s a world in which Christians have no choice but to live, and we must accept our obligations toward that world and to our fellow human beings (which includes joyful obligations). To “render unto Caesar.” But if we forget that we belong to God, not the world, and lose ourselves in the world’s political and economic realities — or if we compartmentalize and keep separate our faith from our material life — then we will fail to “render unto God.”