Sin & Scandal

This entry is part 2 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing my read-through of Chapter 1 of Jacques Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World. There’s a lot here.

Ellul (perhaps because he was a layperson) is most concerned with the plight of the laity in the modern world, because unlike the clergy, there is no separation between a layperson and the rest of society. “Claiming to be separate becomes more and more difficult, as each person is forced into a world that becomes more intrusive, crushing, and demanding than ever.”

Ellul argues that modern society differs from previous civilizations in the extent to which humans are immersed in the world. “Modern transportation systems, the interconnection of economic institutions, or the rise of democracy” — modern humans are submerged in larger systems from which they cannot easily extricate themselves. (Even moreso now than it was in Ellul’s time, obviously.) For this reason, he says, Christians “cannot consider themselves pure” in comparison to the rest of the world; they are not only individual sinners, but they share in the collective sin of society.

Having just finished reading Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death I’m pondering the difference between SK’s focus on the individual sinner and Ellul’s definition in this chapter. Ellul says that the reason that there is “none righteous” is not that every individual is wicked, “but because all things are confined under sin.” We are related to others in sin extending back across time and generations to the original sin. So the modern world makes clear (through our global inter-connection) what was always a Biblical truth: we share in the sin of all.

Original (hereditary) sin is a difficult concept to grasp (for me!), and I remember being somewhat confused by SK’s brief discussion of it in TSUD. Conceding my lack of familiarity with both authors, I think that there may be a similarity between these two takes on sin, that they might in fact be one, since they both describe sin as essentially a state of being, as opposed to actions or behaviors. This is definitely oppositional to (for lack of a better term) Americanized Christianity, with its emphasis on individual responsibility for specific actions or behaviors.

Laypeople feel this connection to societal sin most acutely, Ellul says. It makes them uncomfortable; it is scandal to be associated with the world’s sins. So they try to escape, in two ways:

  • Separate the material from the spiritual — eg, This is my personal life, and that is my spiritual life, and never the twain etc. They focus their effort on “spiritual problems” apart from everyday life, which is separate, their dayjob, so to speak. This sort of compartmentalization is hypocrisy. “God became incarnate; it is not our job to disincarnate him.”
  • Or, they try to “Christianize” everything. Let’s create a Christian state, Christian movies, Christian books, Christian psychology, etc. This is taking “the world” (of which we are, as noted earlier, specifically not a part), finding what we think is “good” in it, or glossing it with something we think is “good,” and calling it Christian. You can’t reform the world’s activities by “pronouncing a blessing on them.” On the social/cultural side, this is very reminiscent of the evangelical subculture in which I grew up; on the governmental side, more reminiscent of today’s dark illiberal impulses.

In both of these cases, Christians are attempting to “build a bridge” between themselves and the world. This bridge, Ellul says, is “morality” — and he is clearly not using the term in a favorable sense.

This type of bridge, he says, is the “most anti-Christian position possible.” But he also says that there is, in fact, “no possible solution” to the scandal that exists.

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