Ellul on Self-Justifying Means

This entry is part 19 of 19 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 the Disappearing End

This entry is part 18 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

As we begin at long last Chapter 3 of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, we come to his first exploration on technique, that for which he became best known and which he later explored in multiple books, most famously The Technological Society.

When one thinks of “means and ends,” the questions that come to mind are philosophical: Can the end justify the means? Are these the “right means for the right ends”? Ellul says that these questions are no longer relevant, or that at least they cannot be asked in the same way, because they no longer represent philosophical abstractions but the concrete fact of “technique.”

Ellul argues that modern life has become concretely, and specifically, about means; there is no longer any “end” in sight. With enormous and innovative means at their disposal, our modern societies have turned the human beings they were meant to serve into mere servants themselves. Politicians pay lip service to “men and women” as the beneficiaries of their programs, but who are these men and women?

What, for example, is the role of the individual human being in America today? We all know the answer: to participate in the economy. We must make things that can be bought so that we can buy things. “Thus, humanity is transformed into an instrument of these modern gods that are our means,” Ellul writes, “and we do it with the good intention of making humanity happy.” But who is this humanity we are told will benefit from our work, from the programs of politicians, bureaucrats and corporations? It doesn’t exist, and never will, as anything other than an abstraction.

But lest you think I (or Ellul) am specifically criticizing the market economy here, there is no difference to be found in socialism, either. Writing as he was in the 1940s, Ellul found as strong an example for his ideas in communism as he did in Western capitalism. In communism, he wrote that “we have an admirable political machine that perpetuates itself by means (because the dictatorship of the proletariat is also a means), with a view to illusory and hypothetical ends. And to produce the happiness of future people, those of the present day are sacrificed.”

Though I try to avoid social media these days, one can’t avoid the lust for “socialism” among many on the left today. They criticize the market for the same reasons Ellul does, that it turns humans into mere producers and consumers. But they have embraced the same mistaken notion of means versus ends. Whether capitalist or socialist or somewhere in between, everyone accepts the same abstract ends (happiness, justice, “humanity”) without question, so that they can focus on their own preferred concrete means.

But these ends (and I repeat myself here, for emphasis) simply do not exist. “We do still talk about happiness, freedom, or justice,” Ellul writes, “but we no longer know their content or conditions … Once these ends have become implicit in people’s hearts and minds, they no longer have any formative power. They no longer have any creative capacity. They are dead illusions that have been stored away among the props of the contemporary scene.”

Think about the state of AI, and the latest pointless kerfuffles over related corporate leadership. Just a few months ago, I might have used the (equally content-less) phrase “cryptocurrency” instead of AI. “Social media” would also work in exactly the same way. None of these things can be said to “matter” in any meaningful way. They are created because they can be created, not because they are doing any good. That is the nature of modern means, Ellul points out, which cannot lead to ends, but only create more means: “genius is no longer necessary for the majority of technical discoveries, but having arrived at a certain stage the next discovery comes along almost as a matter of course…”

This is true in every field — technical, financial, political, industrial. “It doesn’t matter that people do not need these new products,” Ellul wrote nearly eighty years ago, “or that these new creations are completely useless. One means generates another. A particular one is used, for why would it not be? Why would it be called useless?”

Ellul uses airplanes and medicine as further examples of the abstraction of means and ends. We congratulate ourselves when speed records are shattered, but what is the point of saving time? (I can only look through my long and extensive Amazon purchase history, or all of the unused apps in my Mac’s Applications folder, and ask myself what all the time-saving things I’ve purchased have actually meant for me.)

Or medical research that produces new cures. Ellul asks, “[W]hat is the point of the life that we take so much care to preserve? What is time for? What is life worth, when precisely through the interplay of the means set in motion through this civilization, time and life no longer have any meaning, when human beings really do not know what to do with their time, and when life is more absurd than ever, because the spiritual foundations of time and life have been destroyed in their hearts?”

In a world with a will toward suicide, whose relentless drive toward its own destruction becomes more apparent all the time, is it any wonder that “ends” have been turned into happy abstractions by those who can only see history as a series of random occurrences? “Human beings,” Ellul writes, “have set off at astronomically high speeds toward nowhere.”

Ellul on Christian Freedom

This entry is part 17 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Having declared that “everyday facts” should be approached through the lens of a specifically Christian realism, rather than any nonexistent “Christian principles,” Ellul concludes chapter two by pointing out that this realism must also extend to more than just those “facts.”

Christians, as Ellul said earlier, are always in a state of permanent revolution against the world, and that includes the civilizational structures (the bureaucratic state, technique and efficiency, etc.) that shape the modern world. In the present situation, “Christians no longer act according to this unconscious impulse that has made them, at all times in which the church was alive, the bearers of a profound revolution.” (emphasis added)

Instead, they act as if they are merely the the same “sociological beings” as the rest of the world, and “no longer seem to understand Christian freedom.” They simply accept contemporary underlying structures (the bureaucratic state, technique and efficiency, mass society, etc.) without question, believing that all they have to do is choose the “right ideas” and then try to implement them with political power. Churches themselves, Ellul writes, “have been bogged down in the lowest politics or the highest ‘spirituality’.”

Since Christians are no longer “unconscious” in their reaction against the world’s reality, Ellul says they must become conscious revolutionaries. Note an important footnote from David Gill, on page 37, referring to later clarifying writings from Ellul: “The only true and authentic revolution of today is that of the individual against mass society.”

But how can Christian individuals, as conscious as they may become, going to be able to change these fundamental structures? It will be, Ellul concedes, a “long effort.”

First, he says that Christians must become aware of the present reality and the ways in which it is manifesting the world’s will toward suicide. Then, they “must pursue a way of life that does not differentiate them from others but enables them to elude the influence of structures.” Instead of rejecting the modern world outright, Ellul calls for Christians to “sift” it; success will not come from trying to attack the structures directly, or to try and reconstruct the world “from every fragment.”

Ellul has been very clear in this book that he is not calling for either monastic withdrawal from the world, or some sort of violent struggle against it. Instead, Christians must be realistic about their situation, become conscious of the ways in which the world is working to control them, and try to lead lives of “Christian freedom” to the greatest extent possible within that world.

Perhaps communities that follow this sort of thinking will provide the “seeds of a new civilization,” but Ellul says that Christians shouldn’t even think about that. Such thoughts are mere “enticing vistas” that will distract Christians from taking “up a revolutionary stance” and divert their attention into utopian thinking.

Ellul admits that this sounds like “an intellectual or spiritual process” but it is much more than that; he says that “it is an extremely difficult decision to make — this decision to break with the ways of the present age.”

In short, Christians are here to preserve the world, not to save it.

Ellul on Christian Realism

This entry is part 16 of 19 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 19 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 19 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.”

Don’t forget, you’re alive.

A few years ago, a high-concept app called WeCroak gained a bit of buzz in circles both mainstream and religious. Installed on your phone, several times a day the app will send you a reminder that says, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”

What peace, many wrote, to be reminded that our existence is but a blink of time! The argument you are currently having with your spouse, the project due this morning that completely slipped your Wordle-playing mind, the cruel things you snarled at the customer service rep over the phone last night: Who cares? None of it matters! Soon, you’ll be dead.

In his book Low Anthropology, Christian author David Zahl writes that, in addition to reducing anxiety by focusing the user on something beyond the present, the app also reminds us that all people experience death, of themselves and others, which makes grief a bridge across difference. “[L]oss is a touchpoint with our fellow citizens,” he writes, “however differently we may interpret that loss. More than that … it motivates sympathetic outreach to others who are suffering, regardless of what else we may or may not have in common.”

Which may be true, although you might think otherwise if you’ve ever seen how toxic Twitter can get following the tragic death of anyone associated with either political party.

I thought of this app today because I’ve been reading Kierkegaard (of course), and though I’m not in a position to presume to fully understand his work, it occurred to me that the reminder I need several times a day is not that I’m going to die, but that I’m alive.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard wrote, “If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness … if a vast, never appeased emptiness hid beneath everything, what would life be then but despair?”

His point (despite his morose reputation) is that life is not despair, or not despair alone. Because we do, in fact, have eternal consciousness. (Later, in Sickness Unto Death, he wrote, “If there were nothing eternal in a man, he could not despair at all.”)

I know about death. I’ve seen loved ones die, and I was told, a few years ago, that I was going to die myself — and not in the usual, happens-to-all-of-us sort of way.

Tell me I’m mortal and I’m apt to roll my eyes at the obvious. I mean, I get the utility of it: Yes, someday I’ll be dead and none of this will matter, and with any luck it will happen before I have to go to that dentist appointment next Tuesday.

What I need is an app that will remind me several times a day that I’m alive, and eternal, and to ponder that, even if only for a moment.

Ellul on the State of Permanent Christian Revolution

This entry is part 13 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Having explained his concept of “revolutionary spirit” and shown how most things described as revolutionary are mere power struggles, Ellul moves toward the meat of Chapter 2 by bringing Christianity more directly into the picture.

Christianity, Ellul says, is revolutionary, not in the sense of action but in situation. Christians exist in a revolutionary situation, a “state of permanent revolution.” Underlying a theme from the first chapter, Christians are called to exist in the world as signs that point toward God, and here Ellul says that Christians contribute to the world’s preservation by simply “being, in the world’s midst, a revolutionary and inexhaustible power.”

He admits that this seems like a paradox, since Christians of his time were “the most conformist, docile of all people.” I would argue that this is still true, even in a 21st century nation that seems plagued by hostile, angry “Christians” pursuing political domination. There is nothing more conformist to the state than trying to gain control of it in order to use its power for your own ends.

But, Ellul says, the Holy Spirit does not depend on human choices and works (intervenes) irrespective of what we do. He writes, “That the Christian situation is revolutionary is not due to a stance of the human mind or will. It is so by necessity, and it cannot be otherwise insofar as Christ is acting in his church.” The Holy Spirit, in Ellul’s vision, is a presence directly active in human history, not just the peaceful dove floating down from Heaven that we sometimes imagine.

Ellul takes pains to note that the Christian revolution is against the world, not against any existing governments. “One can be conformist toward the government and yet revolutionary toward the world,” he writes. “The idea of revolution goes deeper here; it does not essentially have to do with changing a form of the state or an economic form but precisely with changing a civilization’s structures, which must constantly be called into question.”

This may indirectly lead to changes in government or economic structures, Ellul says, but “it does not necessarily lead to direct conflict with authority.”

Ellul on the Revolutionary Spirit Against the Facts

This entry is part 12 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Since chapter 2 of Presence in the Modern World is titled “Revolutionary Christianity,” at this point one might ask exactly what Jacques Ellul means by the word “revolutionary.” It’s a spirit, he says, that has existed for as long as human society has existed, a spirit that “has been a necessary part of social life. It has always meant the affirmation of a truth of a spiritual order over against the error of the moment.” (emphasis added)

In Ellul’s mind, everything else that calls itself revolutionary — from the communist and fascist ideologies from the time of his writing, to today’s self-proclaimed “anti-woke” activists “battling” school administrators — are not revolutionary at all, because they have not only accepted, but are actually participating in, “the error of the moment.”

The error underlying the current moment, the structures of our civilization as briefly described in the earlier pages of this chapter, lie, according to Ellul, in our respect for, and worship of, “the fact.”

The fact, Ellul says, is considered to be the final arbiter. The fact cannot be questioned; no judgment can be brought to bear on the fact, the fact is to be bowed down before. “Everything that is a fact can be justified by that alone.”

As a civilization, we have decided that facts and truth are synonymous. (In that world, Ellul notes, God cannot be true, because he does not look like a fact.)

Now hold on, one might say, how can you say that facts are indisputed given the dizzying controversies of the past few years surrounding conspiracy theories, “alternative facts,” and the like?

It seems to me that these controversies actually support Ellul’s contention, because every case involves the disputation of asserted facts with a different set of asserted facts.

But, one continues in protest, anti-vaxxers are alleging things that are untrue!

I certainly don’t disagree with that. I’m simply pointing out that in none of these controversies are people, on either side, questioning whether or not a fact is good or evil, whether or not that fact should exist at all; they are responding by appealing to the authority of something else they call a fact.

This gets quite confusing, I admit, but I think it’s an important point. David Gill writes a clarifying footnote on page 22, reproduced here in full:

“What have been lost are such things as purpose, human values, revelation, community, tradition, paradox, and mystery. Facts are disconnected, measurable phenomena that are available to our senses. They come at us in a blizzard of factoids and bits. We survey them, count them, and call them ‘established facts,’ and believe them to be reality.” (emphasis added)

To me, those last couple of sentences describe both, for example, Fox News and MSNBC. Whether you are a watcher of one or the other, you are worshipping at the altar of what you believe to be an “established fact.” The 2020 election was criminally rigged, or it wasn’t; whether or not the “facts” being appealed to on either side are objectively “factual” or not, the proponent of each believes them to be reality. They argue by asserting “facts,” no matter how silly those facts might sound to each other. Conspiracy-minded January 6 rioters are dismissed as “living in an alternate reality,” but I think that Ellul would argue that they are living very much in the same reality as their political opponents.

Ellul uses the example of the atomic bomb — something top of mind at the time of the book’s writing (and which should probably be more top of mind now). All the questions asked about the bomb, he wrote, were secondary: who should be allowed to use it, how will it be controlled, shall we use this force for war or peace, etc. The primary question, the one question that only human beings can ask because only humans know the difference between good and evil (which is beyond and superior to The Fact) is, can this fact be allowed to exist?

Replace “atomic bomb” with “AI” and consider these same issues.

There have always been “alternative facts” — they are what parties and voters argue about. It is not that they are fighting over the existence of a particular fact, but that they oppose one alleged fact with another. The process, Ellul says, is always the same: a fact is taken up, be it “the proletariat” or “money” or “critical race theory” or “QAnon,” and turned into a God of sorts. “It is then imposed on a whole group of people, bluntly and simply, because all modern people in their hearts embrace the worship of the fact.”

As noted in an earlier part of this chapter, our current political differences are merely about power and who will wield it. Since, as Ellul writes, “the fact of the future is preferred to the fact that is currently on the way out,” new “alternative facts” are being introduced all the time. A cacophonous Internet blasting us with “factoids and bits” may make it simpler for one fact to replace another as perceived truth in our minds, because we have this preference for the future. This might make everything feel more unstable, but it doesn’t really undermine the civilizational structure.

Ellul’s revolutionary spirit is total. It can’t be merely an affirmation of truth or freedom — which truths, which freedoms? — or the affirmation of some political party, doctrine, or ideology (see earlier post on solving sin by human means). Ellul says that we will either have the current civilization of mass, technological conformity — “hell organized on earth for the physiological happiness of all” — or we will have … something else.

But we don’t know what that something else might be, because it must be “made by conscious human beings.” If we unconsciously follow along “the course of history,” then we have chosen the side of the world’s will to suicide.

At the end of this particular section, though, Ellul throws his hands up and admits that, given the way that society is structured, a revolutionary consciousness (which is, remember, “the affirmation of a truth of a spiritual order”) is “almost impotent.” We can’t even see who might have this revolutionary consciousness in the first place.

Determinism Means You Can Do Anything You Want

I actually feel sorry for this guy. I have some quick thoughts about this admittedly condensed NYT interview with Stanford neurologist (and “genius grant” recipient) Robert Sapolsky.

  • Sapolsky contends, the interviewer says, that “biology, hormones, childhood and life circumstances coalesce to produce actions that we merely feel were ours to choose.” This is actually not a denial of free will. Circumstances narrow choices. Choices narrow choices. Morality narrows choices. Choices are narrow, and sometimes, maybe even often, you don’t really have a choice. You still have free will.
  • I don’t think that “free will” means that you can do anything you want, at any time. In fact, that statement would more appropriately summarize Sapolsky’s deterministic argument. Because, if free will is a myth, and you can’t be held responsible for your actions, then aside from physics etc., what is there to limit your choices in any particular situation?
  • Sapolsky believes that this avoidance of responsibility is “liberating.” This is like saying a week’s vacation at the beach is relaxing. Yes, and so what?
  • He says this feeling of liberation is because, for “most people,” “life has been about being blamed and punished and deprived and ignored for things they have no control over.” Um, has it? Don’t ask this guy to take care of your plants while you’re enjoying that week at the beach.
  • He’s a biologist (turned neurologist) and apparently, he believes that this gives him expert insight into human behavior, when in fact all he is doing is applying the principles of one particular field to a completely different one. For example, he says that you can prove to him that free will exists if you can prove the existence of neurons controlling every decision you make that act independently of all the other neurons. Sigh. This just shows how STEM education without an in-depth humanities requirement is destructive …
  • because Sapolsky doesn’t know what a metaphor is. You see, he keeps referring to humans as machines, biological machines. Except that humans are not machines; that is a metaphor. As Iain McGilchrist wrote: “Just as a joke is robbed of power when it has to be explained, metaphors and symbols lose their power when rendered explicit … Is it logical, or just a matter of faith, to believe that logic has no limits? Is it logical to rule out the possibility, understood for millennia, that there was a difference between the sort of knowledge that is available to logos and the sort that is available to mythos? Is it logical, or an assertion of faith, to assign reality to only one of these kinds of knowledge? Is it logical, or just a dogma, to assume that all will be understood, as long as we only carry on applying the model of the machine? Is there a cost to this approach, which, though it makes us powerful manipulators, puts us out of touch with so much that gives life value?”
  • Sapolsky, at least in this interview, doesn’t even pretend that his viewpoint is actionable. His “machine-ness” comes to mind maybe “once every three and a half weeks or so.” Otherwise he’s just, you know, living his life — making decisions — like any other human being.
  • He has even less of a grasp on how human society works. Don’t worry about everything sinking into chaos, he says, because there are “societal mechanisms for having dangerous people not be dangerous, or for having gifted people do the things society needs to function.” As if … these societal “mechanisms” have some sort of independent ontological status? Societal mechanisms exist because humans form societies and agree, collectively, on what those rules are. Take a look around if you want to know what it’s like when people stop agreeing on those rules. It’s only going to get worse.
  • Finally, Sapolsky admits, “At some point, it doesn’t make a difference whether your feelings are real or whether your feeling of feelings being real is the case.” Then why even have the conversation? He seems to specifically limit the applicability of his argument to areas where thinking in this way might support his own political opinions.
  • A few weeks ago, I told a friend that I didn’t think “determinism” could ever rise above the level of college dorm bull session because it’s simply not actionable. Even if it were somehow proven to be true, that free will is false, there’s literally no way to go through one hour, let alone one day or one lifetime, as if it were true. Based on this interview, Sapolsky agrees. And yet he chose to write a book about it anyway.