being

Ellul on Being Alive

This entry is part 23 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

By this point in our lengthy reading of Chapter 3 of Presence in the Modern World, perhaps you find yourself asking (as I do): So, uhhhh, what exactly is it Ellul thinks I’m supposed to be doing here, like, day to day?

That’s what we always look for – a plan, a process, a roadmap to success. Yet all this time, Ellul has continued to insist that there is no plan, other than God’s, and in God’s plan there is no call to action or arms for us to follow.

We are not supposed to be doing anything; we are supposed to be.

Our world, Ellul writes, “is completely oriented toward action. Everything is expressed in actions, nothing is finer than action, and we seek slogans, programs, means of action. Our world is in the process of losing its life because of action.”

Remember, the world’s will always leads to suicide, and it is dragging everyone with it by grinding their individualities down into a mechanical uniformity. In the modern world, humans become a mass, lifestyles are standardized, attention spans segmented by algorithms. People forget themselves as they are swept away into a life of doing, acting, consuming, producing.

“People who spend their time in action,” Ellul writes, “cease in this way even to live. People at the steering wheels of their cars … have the sensation of living through speed, acting, and ‘gaining’ time. But a mental stupor overtakes them, and they become increasingly stupid, a machine operating a machine. They have reflexes and sensations but no judgment or awareness. They have lost their souls in the perfect whir of their engine.”

That was written 80 years ago. It’s 2024; forget the car driving analogy and think instead about the phone in your hand, or the computer on your desk, or, most likely, both. Talk about increasingly stupid! We’re always doing something on our phones, doing something on our computers.

But if Christians are called to be the presence of the end in the modern world, then we have to free ourselves from the world’s demand for doing. We have to, Ellul says emphatically, refuse “the action that the world has proposed to us.”

Just as they did in Ellul’s time, “Christians” today come together to choose action, to decide whether they will march or vote or organize or fight, for Progress or political power or, at the very least, to punish and pulverize their “enemies.” Sometimes these “Christians” still meet in churches, but church is so often now beside the point that they are more likely to connect and rage in subreddits, or Twitch streams, or Twitter threads, or political rallies.

We are all so “imbued with the fundamental doctrines of the world” that we have no choice but to act, right? We must act, and now! People are going to destroy our way of life, or something. If we don’t act, who will?!?

“We have lost the meaning of true action that is the evidence of a deep life,” Ellul writes, “action that comes from the heart, that is the product of faith and not of myth, propaganda, and Mammon! It is a matter of living, not of doing, and that is the revolutionary attitude in this world … We must take seriously the spiritual powers that are enclosed within the fact of being spiritually alive.”

And being alive, for Ellul, is “the complete situation of human beings placed before God.” The world wants all of us to forget that we are unique individuals in relationship with a living God. The world causes this forgetfulness with demands that we orient ourselves toward action, with means improperly separate from ends, with consumerism and ideologies and philosophies that distract us from our state of being.

In the human world, action always takes “the rational form of mechanical means.” All worldly action is designed to make something happen, to achieve something, to influence the future, to gain us physical needs or comforts, to turn us all into markets, all through the use of means that generate new means.

But Christians are called toward a different kind of action, depicted in the Scriptures as seeds that grow, yeast that causes dough to rise, light that dispels the dark – the seed, the yeast, the light are not doing something. They are being. And that, Ellul says, is what is required of us, because “this is how the Holy Spirit works.”

“In a civilization that no longer knows what life is,” Ellul writes, “the most useful thing that Christians can do is precisely to live, and the life held in faith has remarkably explosive power. We no longer realize it, because we no longer believe in anything but efficiency, and life is not efficient. But it – and it alone – can provoke the astonishment of the modern world by revealing to everyone the ineffectiveness of techniques.” (emphasis added)

And so we come to the end of this remarkable chapter with a final reminder from Ellul that he is not, most definitely not, speaking of life as some kind of mysticism or hermetical existence. He is talking about “the expression of the the Holy Spirit working within us and being expressed in our material life through our words, habits, and decisions. We are speaking, then, of rediscovering all that the fullness of personal life signifies for human beings, standing on their own feet, within the world, and who can recognize their neighbors again, because they themselves have been recognized by God.” (emphasis added)

This sounds almost exciting, a glorious rediscovery of what it means to be human, but the word Ellul chooses to describe it is “deflating.” It’s much easier to live one’s life within the constraints of the culture, as a member of a mass, a cog in civilization’s wheel, following the will of the world.

But Ellul tells us we must reject that civilization completely, and to instead leap into uncertainty – into a life where there is actually only one certainty, but it is one that is both promised and granted at the same time: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all the rest will be given to you.”

In the next chapter, “Communication,” Ellul makes a provocative turn toward what he describes as one part of being alive – the Christian intellectual life.