mass society

Ellul on Christian Freedom

This entry is part 17 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Having declared that “everyday facts” should be approached through the lens of a specifically Christian realism, rather than any nonexistent “Christian principles,” Ellul concludes chapter two by pointing out that this realism must also extend to more than just those “facts.”

Christians, as Ellul said earlier, are always in a state of permanent revolution against the world, and that includes the civilizational structures (the bureaucratic state, technique and efficiency, etc.) that shape the modern world. In the present situation, “Christians no longer act according to this unconscious impulse that has made them, at all times in which the church was alive, the bearers of a profound revolution.” (emphasis added)

Instead, they act as if they are merely the the same “sociological beings” as the rest of the world, and “no longer seem to understand Christian freedom.” They simply accept contemporary underlying structures (the bureaucratic state, technique and efficiency, mass society, etc.) without question, believing that all they have to do is choose the “right ideas” and then try to implement them with political power. Churches themselves, Ellul writes, “have been bogged down in the lowest politics or the highest ‘spirituality’.”

Since Christians are no longer “unconscious” in their reaction against the world’s reality, Ellul says they must become conscious revolutionaries. Note an important footnote from David Gill, on page 37, referring to later clarifying writings from Ellul: “The only true and authentic revolution of today is that of the individual against mass society.”

But how can Christian individuals, as conscious as they may become, going to be able to change these fundamental structures? It will be, Ellul concedes, a “long effort.”

First, he says that Christians must become aware of the present reality and the ways in which it is manifesting the world’s will toward suicide. Then, they “must pursue a way of life that does not differentiate them from others but enables them to elude the influence of structures.” Instead of rejecting the modern world outright, Ellul calls for Christians to “sift” it; success will not come from trying to attack the structures directly, or to try and reconstruct the world “from every fragment.”

Ellul has been very clear in this book that he is not calling for either monastic withdrawal from the world, or some sort of violent struggle against it. Instead, Christians must be realistic about their situation, become conscious of the ways in which the world is working to control them, and try to lead lives of “Christian freedom” to the greatest extent possible within that world.

Perhaps communities that follow this sort of thinking will provide the “seeds of a new civilization,” but Ellul says that Christians shouldn’t even think about that. Such thoughts are mere “enticing vistas” that will distract Christians from taking “up a revolutionary stance” and divert their attention into utopian thinking.

Ellul admits that this sounds like “an intellectual or spiritual process” but it is much more than that; he says that “it is an extremely difficult decision to make — this decision to break with the ways of the present age.”

In short, Christians are here to preserve the world, not to save it.