Returning to Chapter 1 of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World. (Remember, I’m taking these notes as I go, section by section, so I reserve the right to realize later that I’m making incorrect assumptions and assertions! In other words, maybe I’m getting it wrong; feel free to tell me so.)
In my last post, we discussed Ellul’s contention that only laypeople can present “theological truth” to the world, since unlike clergy, they have no separation from the world.
This means that we must live our daily lives as “salt of the earth, light of the world, sheep among wolves” — essentially, pointing the world to Christ — not by following any formula or set of rules, but by the way we act in any particular situation.
It would be easier to grasp Ellul’s point here if he offered concrete examples about what exactly it might mean to live as salt/light/sheep, but maybe he is avoiding examples on purpose. A concrete example would suggest that there is always a single behavior required for a particular situation, or a set of guidelines we can follow for living as Christians. But those guidelines would add up to “morality.”
And that, Ellul says, is the problem: we confuse “Christian ethics” with morality, or virtues. But moral systems are what we use to try and improve the human world, and that’s exactly what we cannot do. We’re so desperate to relieve the tension of living in a sinful world that we create moral systems to try and improve that world. But that world cannot be improved, and Christianity does not equate to morality. (EDIT: Maybe that would more accurately read “that world cannot be made less sinful.” There are things about the world that can be improved at a certain objective level, I think, but the sinfulness — and ultimate collapse — remains.)
If we want to understand this, we need to understand Ellul’s definition of Christian life, which he views as a state of constant struggle between judgment and grace.
At every moment, we are being judged, and we are being forgiven. It is the struggle between these two states that ensures our freedom because, at every moment, we are being “placed in a new situation.” That new situation sets us free from both “satanic fetters” and any pre-determined, legalistic program of morality.
Ellul’s Christian faith certainly reminds me of Kierkegaard and his “individual before God.” For Ellul, there can be no accounting of God’s ethical demands appropriate for every circumstance, because “all Christians are in fact responsible for their works and conscience.” Each individual’s faith is a “living attitude” and that faith is what will determine their individual actions in every circumstance, as opposed to a specific moral guideline.
But, and here’s the requisite complicated rub, just because there are no guidelines, doesn’t mean there isn’t any guidance. We are able to (and in fact, required to) “trace the outlines” of Christian ethics, so that we might better respond in “specific, variable situations.” But these ethics cannot replace the “combat of faith” within each individual Christian for determining their behavior.
So, as we struggle each day to deepen our individual faith in Christ, we decide on which actions to take based on that faith, along with the broad lessons (not hard-and-fast rules) we learn from Christian ethics. Those ethics themselves, Ellul says, should be “continually subject to question, review, and reformulation through the efforts of the whole church community.”
In this discussion of ethics and individual action, Ellul appears to embrace a Kierkegaardian existential faith, while also preserving a role for the church, of which Kierkegaard thought little.
Note: I’m going to try to figure out how to better track these Ellul posts, perhaps by creating a single page listing them in chronological order.