Ellul

Ellul on God’s Unified Means and End

This entry is part 21 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing my read-through of Ellul’s Presence, we are still in Chapter 3. As we have seen, Ellul believes that Christians are engaged in a spiritual struggle against the supremacy of “means,” which have eliminated any common “ends” except for imaginary ones created only to justify each new set of means.

But Ellul refuses to recommend any specific actions for Christians to take against this totalitarian system, because that would essentially be “opposing one technique to others.” This is similar to the way that he has argued against the existence of ethical guidelines outside of any specific, individual situation.

Instead, Ellul wants to point us toward “an old Christian road, abandoned for some two hundred years, and which leads in the opposite direction from the triumphal path of modern techniques.”

Now that it’s been nearly three hundred years of abandonment, let’s see if the same path might still work.

“For Christians, there is no separation between end and means.”

Christ the Incarnation is God’s means for human salvation; but where “Jesus Christ is present, the kingdom has come.”

In our society, means has consumed end; ends are simply made up, and continually revised as necessary, to justify and accommodate self-generating means. (What are we trying to achieve? Whatever our means will allow!) But in Christianity, “the means never appears except as the realized presence of the end.”

Purely by happenstance this morning, I read Mark 4. It’s the parable of the sower. What caught my eye (and reminded me to get back to Ellul and this blog) was that the Kingdom of God was described not as a place, but a process. The sower is the Word, Jesus; his presence is the Kingdom.

In God, all is unity. The end of history is God’s kingdom, and yet it is God’s kingdom, through the presence of Christ and activity of the Spirit through the followers of Christ, that is redeeming the world and bringing about, well, itself. End and means, together.

The same must be true of the Christian life, Ellul says. We have to oppose our “slavery to means.” But how can we fight technique with itself? Churches (in Ellul’s time and even more in our own) try to combat the world by imitating it; they write strategic plans, implement programs, focus on bottom-line “action and results.” This, Ellul says, is “bound to fail.”

Instead, we must remember that the church and all its members are both God’s means, and the presence of the end (God’s Kingdom), all at once.

“God establishes his end and it is this end that is represented through our means.”

Most Christians go about their daily business and append God to it. This is “radically anti-Christian,” Ellul says, because it creates a separation between our work and God’s work — we say, God’s will be done, etc., while ignoring the fact that God’s will is done through us.

There is a very practical significance to understanding that Christians are God’s means and end.

For example: are we to strive for justice on earth, or are we to be just ourselves, “bearers of justice”? Are we to work for peace on earth, or are we to be peaceful ourselves? “For where the peaceful are, there peace reigns.”

Try to think of it this way. Is justice something to be attained, something external that can only be accomplished through action? Or are you a just person? Is peace something that exists outside of yourself, something to be found and argued for and delivered? Or are you a peaceful person?

Justice and peace, Ellul says, are gifts from God. These are God’s good goals that can only be expressed through our lives (means and end in unity). We have already been given grace, peace, love, justification — which are God’s ends — and by expressing them in our lives, we are also the means.

Human means are rooted in “pride and power.” Based on the techniques we have developed, and are developing, we try to accomplish something — whether it’s colonization of Mars, or criminal justice reform. It’s something we believe we can do.

But in (as) God’s Kingdom, we are not called to achieve, but to be.

“I am quite familiar with the reproach that will likely be made.”

Ellul already knows that your response to the above will likely be an eye-rolling scoff. This can’t be right, can it? It’s so individualistic, even selfish; goals like justice and peace require collective action, and political organization, and institutional reform. The problems aren’t found in “individual consciousness” but in society at large. Addressing those problems will require “adequate means.”

To which Ellul says: wrong!

In God, just as there is no separation between end and means, there is neither a separation between individual and community. Yes, God is in relationship with every individual human being, but God is the same for all. Our peace and justice are not ours, they are gifts from God. These are not individual means and ends, but God’s unified means and end. They unite as individuals into a collective through the activity of the Spirit.

When we decide to take charge of these goals, build a rational plan to put them into place, then we deny God by refusing to let go of “the anthropocentric dilemma,” whether you are talking about individuals or collective action. Our focus should be on God. If all Christians act as God’s presence (salt, light, sheep), as we are called to do, then this could hardly be called individualism.

As far as institutional reform — the very mention of which just reminds me of the similarities between Ellul’s world of 80 years ago, and today — then Ellul says that Christians who believe that human institutions can change human behavior are either hypocrites or liars.

It is Marxism, Ellul says, to believe in the existence of a human condition (which can be modified by external structures) but not a human nature (which cannot). And it is hypocritical for Christians to refuse to look at “the problem of the human in its fullness” and instead focus on its environment. He says:

“We turn our eyes from the being’s picture in order to look only at the frame. If it is true that the frame can more or less enhance the picture, it is not true that it is what gives the picture its value. And if we act in this way, it means that we refuse to be fully involved to this venture.” (emphasis added)

This doesn’t mean that there’s no value to reforming institutions, only that it is not our priority, and as we have discussed before, what passes today for reform is merely a struggle for power. Left or right, allegedly Christian or not, sides are wrestling for institutional control, not against our civilizational structures.

The truly Christian, on the other hand, has a “fundamental position” which is “a pure and simple expression of the presence of the end in the world.” This may lead to the valid pursuit of reform, but it is this presence that can carry out the transformation. (And, I would argue here based on what Ellul has said so far, Christians might validly pursue worldly reform, based on their faith, but never worldly power.)

“Institutional reforms must come out of the church’s faith,” Ellul writes, “and not from the technical competence of specialists, whether Christian or otherwise.”

Books In and Out of Season

I admire people like Joel Miller who are able to plan out their reading, which seems infinitely preferable to my habit of perusing my to-be-read shelves (now numerous, spanning multiple rooms) waiting for a certain inspired curiosity to fall on my head like, well, a book from a high shelf.

But I doubt I will ever be able to join the ranks of the planners. Instead, every time I must choose my next book, I’m seized with a bit of paralysis. What’s the book for me right now? is one of the questions with which I struggle. And, is it a book I want to have read, or one I want to read? — which are sometimes the same, sometimes not.

This is why my husband rolls his eyes at how many books I bring whenever we go anywhere, weighing down the luggage. Well, I don’t know what I will feel like reading when I finish the one I’m reading right now! I must have choices.

Unfortunately, once I defeat the paralysis and answer the questions, sometimes those answers are wrong.

I have a habit of accumulating books that make sense for a certain time and place in my life, but then never getting around to reading them — until, possibly, they are well past their season.

For example, John Fowles’ The Magus has existed in a corner of my shelves in various editions throughout multiple housing situations since I was in high school. I didn’t know much about it, but as a young man (boy) the idea of it, as encapsulated in whatever marketing copy was on the back of that original tattered paperback, thrilled me.

But I always put off reading it, imagining it would be an experience I could savor at any time. Last summer I found a very nice Modern Library edition at a bookstore in Maine, and then last week, when asking myself, What’s the book for me right now?, I decided to answer myself, Why, it must be The Magus, finally.

Oof. Wrong answer. 700 pages of, to be frank, absolute shit, which does not qualify as the most insightful book review ever written, I agree. But this book started off as the sort of faux intellectual potboiler I would ordinarily enjoy, and very quickly devolved into what can only be termed a “hate read.” I finished it only because I couldn’t believe it was as bad as it was. I sometimes wondered if Fowles was pulling my leg.

But, no. This was his first book, though he worked on it for years and published it as his third, and then later revised it again in 1977. (If this edition was an improvement, I shudder to think what the original was like.) Fowles was as serious as the seriously despicable-yet-dull narrator he had created.

I hated this book so much that I don’t even want to dwell on all the reasons why I hated it — the complete misunderstanding of women (or men), of sex, of religion, of simple adult human living and decision-making. I wasn’t bothered by how horrible all of the characters were, I was bothered by how boring they all were, despite the author’s desperate, interminable attempts to make them all seem so sinister and twisty and interesting.

Anyway. Even Fowles admitted in a foreword that he didn’t quite understand the book’s popularity, and that said popularity seemed to be centered among adolescents. If I’d read the book when it first caught my eye, instead of putting it off for 30 or so years, I might have found it just as transformative as some of the gaga Amazon reviewers. I was a pompous ass, after all — God is dead, so let’s drink coffee, and all that crap — and the book’s naive ramblings and endless circularities would probably have struck me as profound when I didn’t know what profundity was.

This isn’t the only time this has happened; I had a similar experience with John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was first published when I was in college, and reviews convinced me so thoroughly that I would love the book, that I always held off on reading it until there might be a time when I felt the need for a truly transformative reading experience. Such a time finally came, and I read the novel while in the waiting room every day for six weeks undergoing radiation treatments.

And oh my God, I hated that book, all of it, every word. Again, perhaps I would have loved it, if I experienced it earlier in life.

I know, some will say — life’s too short, stop reading if you don’t like it. And generally, I do; there are lots of books I’ve started and set aside, but I don’t hate those books, they just weren’t for me at that time. (Some of them I return to, and find it has become the right time.) The books I loathe, for some reason, I tend to finish. It may be that the books which engender such strong feelings have other compensatory traits that drive me forward.

So I’ve learned that the books I self-consciously put aside as a younger self to read later may not scratch any particular itch I develop in, shall we say, middle age. But I’m not sure this lesson is compelling enough to change my haphazard approach to selecting books, even though a schedule, or at least a goal, might be helpful. For example, I’ve been toying with the idea of declaring 2024 a “big book” year, and focus on finishing a few big novels I feel guilty about not having read.

But I’m hesitant to make a commitment. After all, any fiction I read is in addition to all of the Kierkegaard, Ellul and similar authors I am determined to continue absorbing. Can one actually read Either/Or and Moby-Dick in the same year?

Hmm. Come to think of it, perhaps one can and should.