Laypeople of the World, Unite (I Mean, Unite Two Opposing Concepts and Hold Them in Tension)

This entry is part 4 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing with my (extremely slow) reading of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World. There’s still a lot of Chapter 1 left, so if I don’t step up the pace, this book may take the better part of my remaining life to finish. And it’s not even a very long book!

In the last post, I talked about Ellul’s contention that “it is by living and receiving the gospel that political, economic, and other problems can be resolved.”

This is done through accepting the tension (and “liv[ing] it out to the full“) between knowing that it is impossible to make the world less sinful, while still refusing to accept it the way that it is.

It’s up to laypeople to live out this tension and present “theological truth” to the world, because, as he wrote earlier in the chapter, “for them in particular there is no separation from the world” — and the clergy “does not understand the world’s situation.”

Unfortunately, modern laypeople tend to compartmentalize their faith aside from the rest of their life, or else they have reduced it to a “moral system” (which is not theological truth, or even faith). Since God uses “a material medium, human means, to act by his Spirit,” and this material medium — the laity living out their faith, in tension, in full — does not exist to any great extent, “the gospel no longer affects the world.”

We (laypeople) live and act in the midst of economic, political, and ideological realities, and our role is not to pick and choose amongst these forces to find the “best” ones, but to recognize that they are all sinful and “cannot be improved in some other way.” Our role instead is to demonstrate “Jesus Christ’s forgiveness” for all of these sinful realities.

Ellul says that laypeople are not “guinea pigs” — and I think perhaps here he means that they are not merely being dispatched by the church to attempt a seemingly impossible task, but instead their very existence (if they are “liv[ing] out the tension each day of their lives”) is what actually enables the church to understand the world’s dire situation, and the world to recognize the spiritual problems it is trying (and failing) to solve with other means. The layperson is where the world and the church connect.

I think that failure of the laity to recognize the importance of our role may be the biggest problem the church faces, not only in mainline denominations such as my Episcopal Church, but across the spectrum. We compartmentalize, and we moralize (on left and right), and everything else is up to the clergy and the church staff; that’s what we pay them for, right?