Ellul on the True Value of Means

This entry is part 22 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

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 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 the Disappearing End

This entry is part 18 of 24 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 the Revolutionary Spirit Against the Facts

This entry is part 12 of 24 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.

Ephemera, 8/10/23

Maybe the real AI was the stupid things we made along the way.

* * * *

Richard Beck on the subversive nature of the Bible: It “denies the ultimacy” of any political system (we are not citizens of this world), the prophetic tradition opposes oppression and injustice, and the themes throughout the scripture are about emancipation, liberation.

Beck says that the entirety of “political theology” may rest on the simple statement that the Bible exists “to unsettle the nations.” This seems right; those who claim Biblical support (and thus God’s blessing) on their state, or their ideology or particular political beliefs, whether currently in power or only seeking to be, are missing the point entirely. God has no interest in your political debates, he is only interested in justice.

I think it’s important for everyone, no matter left or right or in-between, whether they are in positions of authority, or seeking an electoral victory, or fomenting a revolution, to ask themselves: Why has every human political system in history led to oppression and injustice of some sort? And what makes me think my preferred political outcome would wind up any different?

I can’t help but go back to Ellul: Our world’s will always leads toward suicide. “If Christians work with all their might for a human project, they are only human beings like others and their effort has no added value. But if they accept their specific function as Christians, which does not necessarily involve participating in the world in material or measurable ways, then this is decisive for human history.”

* * * *

Speaking of Ellul, through the end of this month Wipf and Stock is offering a 40% discount on his books; use code IJES40 to purchase from them directly.

Ephemera, 08/07/23

“Got a special celebration on your parish calendar? A.I. can compose a unique hymn for the occasion!” Is this satire?

* * * *

I’ve very recently started reading David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament as part of my morning routine, usually a chapter at a time. Reading the gospel as something both familiar and strange has really fired me up and improved my focus. I’ve been writing lengthy notes on each chapter in my own journal; don’t worry, I’m not subjecting the interwebs to my stream-of-consciousness Biblical babbling. But these readings may lead to some other posts here.

I mention all this just because Richard Beck had a great quote from DBH’s introduction to this translation (which makes a fascinating essay in its own right) which feels perfect for a Monday. Of the shocking and strange message of Christianity (which most of us forget is either shocking or strange, we are so immersed in, or bored by, it), DBH says, “I doubt any of us has ever understood it nearly as well as we imagine.”

* * * *

I still remember the first time I heard Sinead O’Connor. I was a college freshman, and my friend Chris played “The Lion and the Cobra” for me in his dorm room. “Mandinka” is what always gets mentioned, and it’s a great song on a great album, but it’s the very first track, “Jackie,” with its cold and plaintive opening, that haunts me to this day.

I’ve been washing the sand
With my salty tears
Searching the shore
For these long years
And I’ll walk the seas forever more

Ephemera, 07/26/23

Seems to me that the sort of people who sneer at “old books” are the same sort of people who might find it a reasonable idea to use artificial intelligence to “understand reality.”

* * * *

“Nothing anyone is saying is necessarily wrong; it’s just not interesting.” (Adam Kotsko on moralism in cultural criticism)

* * * *

Finished reading Howards End for a Catherine Project reading group. I’m not sure what I expected when I began, but I don’t think I expected quite so much plot. After barreling through the last third just to see what twists awaited poor Leonard and irritating Helen, I had to go back and reread it more slowly in order to enjoy Forster’s language and brilliantly casual insights. In the end I can’t help but think that the Schlegel sisters are horrible people, but not in any unusual way. They are horrible in the same way most people are: striving to find our own happiness while putting out of our minds the thoughts of any wreckage we leave behind (because what else can we do?); clinging to the things we love while the rest of the world changes around us.