means and ends

Ellul on the True Value of Means

This entry is part 22 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing my read-through of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, we are still in Chapter 3. As discussed in the last post, in God, means and end are unified: the end is God’s Kingdom, and it is God’s Kingdom, through the presence of Christ and his followers, that will bring about that end.

On a more practical level, what are Christians to do about the means of modern humanity, the ones whose ends are simply created to justify those means? We already know that Ellul does not advocate withdrawal from the culture in which we live; quite the opposite.

First, we have to recognize that these means (and he lists some: “money, mechanical power, propaganda, the cinema, the press, modern conveniences, or means of communication, all this pandaemonium of noise”) are in no way effective at bringing about the true end. None of them will result in God’s Kingdom.

Ok, you say, maybe not God’s Kingdom, but that doesn’t have to be the only end, does it? We are adapting our means to more immediate, material goals, not aiming for the whole, spiritual enchilada.

That’s bullshit, Ellul insists (not a direct quote). For one thing, the very idea of Progress is synonymous with a misguided attempt to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth — in piecemeal, step by step, with small improvements in the lot of humanity. The coming of the Kingdom, Ellul says, will not be gradual, but “catastrophic.”

And for another thing, Ellul says that you cannot separate, for example, the material and the spiritual, or grace and law, etc. “In reality, the two orders, of preservation and redemption, are not separate but integrated with each other. All the actions of human beings are in submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

This means that even humanity’s means are essentially ordered to the one true end — the Kingdom — rather than whatever end toward which they claim to strive. We must view all of these modern techniques from the perspective of “this end that is already present in the means that God uses.”

This doesn’t represent an arbitrary rejection or “casting off” of our modern civilization’s means. Instead, we are to judge, accept or reject, humanity’s means based on their value to God’s means and end. There is nothing intrinsically valuable about any of our means or structures; they are neither bad nor good; they must simply be judged on “their eschatological content, their ability to be integrated into the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”

We are not to look at these modern techniques and structures as means at all, but only as content, as activities. These are simply things that human beings do. As Christians, our one task is to act as God’s presence and prepare for the preservation of the world by showing it the way of salvation. Where do these particular human activities fit into our task? They can be useful, Ellul says, unless they are not.

I’m old enough to remember when the Internet was going to bring people together. This is not the way it panned out. Now, AI is going to — do something good, we’re told. Something something medical breakthroughs, something something problem-solving, I don’t know.

The point is that these technologies are created and pushed because of what they will do. In the mid-90s, when I eagerly climbed online, the cultural and political climate assured everyone of the good things (ends) that would be brought about by these new capabilities. If we had looked at it as an activity (not as a means), evaluated the Internet as the content that it was (not what we imagined it might be), then perhaps we could have properly judged it.

AI, same thing. Etc.

Ellul’s recommended approach is to view and judge all of these techniques and institutions and structures, not based on their consequences (which we should know by now never materialize as predicted, at least not without many unintended consequences as well), but on their actual content, as purely temporary activities from the perspective of the kingdom.

The world looks at what it is doing in terms of how it believes or wants those activities to affect the future. Humans labor under the false notion that the present will inform the future. Christians, Ellul insists, already know the future, and in God, it is the future that informs the present.

So yes, we might seek institutional reforms should we find a Scriptural basis for it, and use modern techniques, understanding that all these things are temporary, with no value beyond their role in helping us further God’s presence (which is never, remember, about political power, or “Progress”). But we also must reject those things whose content and activity has no value to the Kingdom.

There is no end but God. There is no means but God. All else is disposable.

But how can we stop this stance from becoming just one more ineffective ideology?

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.”

Ellul on the Illusion of Inner Freedom

This entry is part 20 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing in chapter 3, Ellul dwells a bit more on the meaning of means, which is “that they are totalitarian. Our civilization is entirely one of means, and means affect every domain. They respect nothing.”

There are two angles from which to consider the totalitarianism of means.

First, means destroy everything that might hinder their advance. Morality? It falls before technique (if it works, how can it be immoral?). Humanism falls, because technique will not be limited to the interest of human beings. (Paging AI, again.) “Gratuitiousness” — anything for its own sake, such as art — is flatly rejected; everything must serve. (What’s the point of art with no market value? Is it even art?)

Instead of accepting human values, means will construct their own. What Ellul calls the “new myths” — such as state, nation, race, labor, parties — are mere props for means. Humans accept these illusions because they hide the “appalling desiccation of the world” created by means.

Second, means relentlessly extend their dominion over all aspects of human existence. Humans, Ellul says, are just as much objects of technique as material goods. We are hacking our lives, not just living them; psychological problems, spiritual problems, “self-knowledge” — these are all grist for the mill of means. One “solution” leads to another to another. We never stop working on ourselves because we are actually being worked upon. Ellul writes:

“Because human beings have become objects and the spiritual is classed among spiritual means, existence no longer has any possible meaning. Existentialism, the philosophy of our time, is correct to remind us that our existence is such, but it is incorrect in saying that human beings are free to restore meaning to their lives. The irreversible triumph of means eliminates any freedom for human beings to follow this path.”

We have all been captured in a trap laid by means, whose triumph is total. “It is useless to act smart and claim inner freedom,” Ellul writes. “When a freedom is not a part of my life, it is false.”

Ellul claims that this predicament is especially hard on Christians because, while it has always been impossible to live out one’s faith fully as Christian, that was always because of inner weakness. Now, it is made even more impossible (if you’ll pardon the expression) because of the external world.

This external world, controlled by means, constrains modern humans not only physically, but mentally. It is totalitarian precisely because it changes the ways in which humans value themselves and others. Historically, Ellul believes that all ancient “civilizations have exercised certain constraints, but they left to each person a wide field of freedom and invididuality. The Roman slave or the medieval serf was more free, more individual, more socially human (I do not see materially content) than is the modern worker or Soviet functionary.”

I think that Ellul is suggesting here that, even in a world of limited social mobility and physical constraint, people were allowed the freedom to think for themselves. In the modern world (and Ellul does not deny the benefits of modern medical and scientific advances), societies claim to be free from constraints, but actually they try to “seize human beings in their totality and confine them within a detailed framework, in which all their gestures and secret thoughts will be controlled by the social system.”

Under the system of means, our human “inner freedom” is an illusion. The modern social system makes it twice-over “impossible” to live out one’s Christian faith, by layering this external framework on top of our inner weaknesses. As David Gill notes in a footnote on page 50, Ellul is arguing dialectically here, that it is impossible to live as a Christian but also, because we are called to resist and act against both internal and external forces, possible. We must ensure the continued “social expression” of Christianity by fighting “to the death” (in a specifically spiritual sense) against the primacy of means.

Ellul on Self-Justifying Means

This entry is part 19 of 23 in the series Presence in the Modern World

There was a time when society might grapple honestly with whether or not particular means were appropriate to a desired end. But ends have vanished into abstraction and are no longer necessary to justify means, which justify themselves in the answer to a simple question: Do they work?

“In reality, what justifies the means today is whatever succeeds,” Ellul writes as we continue Chapter 3 of Presence. “Whatever is effective, whatever possesses in itself an ‘efficiency,’ is justified. By applying means, a result is produced. This result is judged by these simplistic criteria of ‘more’: larger, faster, more precise, and so on … What succeeds is good, what fails is bad.” (emphasis added)

Value judgments relate to ends, not means. “Once the means becomes a matter of technique it knows no bounds.” Certainly some technical achievements — like atomic weapons, concentration camps, painless euthanasia of the disabled and depressed — are considered shocking and awful to most people. But not to all; as Ellul points out, a “Russian communist does not recoil from camps in Siberia, or a Nazi from extermination camps.” Citizens tend to accept whatever means are normalized within their own particular society or sub-culture, as long as those means are successful and meet their technical objectives (which are not ends, Ellul carefully points out).

The self-justification of means results, Ellul says, in three outcomes:

  1. Human beings are no longer able to choose between means. Technique chooses instead, demonstrating which means is truly effective, and there is no reason for people to refuse it.
  2. Technique is considered neutral, and so extends into all areas. His example: if a table is neutral, then so must be a machine; then so must be the state, the division of labor, propaganda, and on to nuclear missiles and concentration camps. When we say something is neutral, we mean that it is good.
  3. Since means no longer require ends, the ends that get proposed are “useless or inadequate” ones. Technique moves itself forward, step by step, and with each step, human beings create new ends to justify those means. Remember when the Internet was going to make citizens more knowledgeable, connect communities, ease loneliness, etc.? It doesn’t matter if you do or don’t; with each step technique takes, we create new ends to explain those means, which will only create new means for which we create new ends.

“Technical human beings do not need goals in life,” Ellul writes, “they are content with the instant success of means. In fact, we have got hold here of the primary reason … that the church and Christianity have lost ground. If the church no longer seems relevant in the world, it is because of the new situation of the problem of means.”

Never mind that some self-consciously moralistic people are still “scandalized” by the idea that a brutal or alienating technique might be excused by its loftily stated goal. I can’t help but return once again to the (already exhausted) example of AI. Politicians, bureaucrats, corporate leaders pretend to “grapple” with the “ramifications” of this technology. They hold conferences, issue memos, testify before Congress, propose regulations — but who has said, why should we do any of this at all? (And if they do, how can the response be anything but an eye-rolling dismissal of their naiveté? Genies, bottles, toothpaste, tubes.)