Presence in the Modern World

Ephemera, 8/31/23

Justin E. H. Smith in his meandering essay on Generation X:

“In order to be a suitable candidate for redemption, a being must of course be flawed. It was long thought that to be this way was simply the general condition of humanity, but today, if you were to seek to learn about our peculiar species by studying the daily tide of social-media discourse, you could easily come away with the impression that it is the condition of only some people (roughly half of them) while the rest are consistently righteous … To identify some work of art, literature, or entertainment as problematic is not overtly to seek to censor, nor to call categorically for moral condemnation. It is simply to taint public perception, to inform readers or viewers that enjoyment of the work in question will likely result in some sort of subtle social sanctioning. It is a weasel word, employed by people who lack not only the courage of their convictions but also anything beyond convictions … “

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Along those lines, this piece claims to be against the “binary” of good and bad books, but it seems actually to be about the need for people to be nicer to other people when talking about the books they like. Ok, sure. Essentially another entry in the modern dominant genre of discourse, which can be described as, “I’m not an asshole, but boy, what about those other assholes, huh?”

There remains, in fact, good and bad (and mediocre) literature; I’ve hated some good, loved some bad, and passed the time with (and written) some mediocre. Also, the thing about human beings (see Smith’s quote above) is that we’re all assholes.

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Minor housekeeping note: since my series of notes on Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World is spiralling out of control, I’ve created a series page listing them in chronological order, including the corresponding page numbers in the book. You can also access the series from the Archives page, and in the header to each series post, which lists the number.

Ellul: The World’s Will Is Always a Will to Suicide

This entry is part 9 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Let’s see if I can wrap up my notes on Chapter 1 of Jacques Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World. In the last post, we discussed the redemption of time, and how it depends solely on Christian “behavior and preaching.”

Ellul concludes the chapter by noting that, if Christians are going to participate in the world’s preservation, they must put themselves at the point where two different wills collide: the will of the Lord, and the will of the world.

God’s will is revealed in Scripture, and it is both “judgment and forgiveness, law and grace, commandment and promise.” God’s will never changes, even if it must be explained in a way that makes sense during each era.

There are no political, economic, or social conditions through which the world can preserve itself on its own. In other words, there can be no heaven created on earth no matter how mightily we strive toward the justice that the gospel demands, because the world’s preservation depends on salvation. Ellul: “For God is not preserving the world on the one hand and saving it on the other. He is preserving it by saving it, and he is saving it by using this preservation.” (italics in original)

The will to preserve the world, and the way it will be preserved; and the will for the world’s salvation, and the way the gospel will be proclaimed — these are the same thing. Christians have to make this will “incarnate in a real world,” the present world in which we live, through actions and words alike.

This means that those actions and words must be oriented toward the actual world in which we live, not a world that no longer exists, or that we imagine used to exist. Yet even as we live fully in the present reality, and seek to reach our fellow humans also living through the same moment, we must remember that God’s will never changes.

Neither does the world’s will ever change. “The world’s will is always a will to death, a will to suicide.” If the world is not moving toward God — and it cannot be, it is burdened by sin, a fallen world — then it is moving toward death. Those are the only options. If we try to build a “City of God” here on Earth, and ignore the fact that the world is heading toward its demise, then we will fail. Remember, the world cannot preserve itself; its preservation depends on its salvation. We can’t make the world less sinful by human means.

Instead, our job is to place ourselves where this world’s suicidal will is most active, and apply our efforts toward promoting the world’s preservation and salvation right there, where it is most needed. When we do this, “we understand that the work of preaching necessarily goes along with the work of material redemption.”

We end with a more full understanding of the tension into which we must live as Christians. I read it as:

  • The world is sinful, and we can’t accept it the way it is, but neither can we make it less sinful.
  • The world’s will always leads to death, but we are still called to work toward “material redemption” and the preservation of the world.
  • We must proclaim the gospel in a way that makes sense in the context of the world’s current situation, without distorting the content or unity of God’s unchanging will.
  • We must do our work where it is needed most, living fully in the present reality as it currently exists, not placing ourselves outside of it.

Ellul says that the following chapters of the book will look at the “contemporary manifestations” of the world’s suicidal will and explore a Christian response to each. I may not note each chapter as granularly as I did this one!

Ellul: Walking the Talk, Redeeming the Time

This entry is part 8 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

A friend of mine who has been following along with my blog posts about Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World asked if, based on the discussion of actions in this post, Ellul was dismissive of “the way words are also actions?”

Here we come to the answer, which is no, he isn’t dismissive; in fact, he believes that the two are inseparable.

Christians and churches, Ellul said (and again, note that he sees a role for both the individual and the institution), must recognize the true spiritual reality of the world in which we live, and “seek after and preach the order of God” and that this is the work that only they can accomplish. If they don’t do this work, then everything else they do is futile. (He doesn’t say they shouldn’t do anything else. Only that they must do that which only they can do.)

Ellul wrote this book during the period of reconstruction immediately following World War II. It was essentially a global reset, a chance to build a new world order. Specifically in this work, he is addressing the events of that time, and calling for Christians and churches to focus on their spiritual work first rather than to only support what the world itself is doing. He says that everything the world was doing would only result in more disorder if the church didn’t fulfill its role.

And of course, ultimately, that’s what happened (the disorder, I mean). (Read Alan Jacobs’ book In the Year of Our Lord 1943 for a fascinating discussion of how Christian intellectuals of the time, including Ellul, attempted to steer the world toward a more “human level” and failed.)

But I don’t believe that Ellul’s guidance was only meant for the time in which he lived, or even only for specific times of global unrest or reset. Although, is there ever a time when there isn’t global unrest, or the possibility of reset? I’ve lived now through multiple eras of anticipated long-term peace that turned into fear and disorder, and I’m not that old. Anyway, I suspect as we continue in reading Ellul we will see that, despite this book’s age, many of his descriptions and definitions of modern problems remain not only relevant, but even more true (if such a thing is possible), today.

Whatever time we live in, it always requires redemption. As humans we live in “time” (not only a specific era, but “time” itself), time is enslaved, and requires redemption to be free. He brings up two Pauline passages, from Colossians 4 and Ephesians 5, and places them side by side in a table, which I will recreate here:

Colossians 4:5-6Ephesians 5:15-17
Walk in wisdom toward those who are outsideSee that you walk circumspectly, as the wise.
Redeem the time.Redeem the time.
Let your speech always be accompanied by grace, seasoned with salt.Understand what the will of the Lord is.

Studying these passages is a way to study the situation of Christians living in the world. Our time is captive and requires redemption; this redemption lies at the “pivot point between conduct (and thus the question of ethics) and preaching — between good works, which are the fruit of wisdom, and the knowledge of God’s will.” Redeeming the time is literally the center of Christian life, and “there can be no separation between preaching and behavior.”

Remember that Ellul’s explanation of the “light” role for Christians revolved around the fact that Christianity makes sense of history, providing a structure and an endpoint; without Christianity, history is just a series of random events.

Along that same line, Christians, individually and collectively, are given a unique meaning in the own time in which they live, as well as time/history overall. The redemption of time depends on Christian actions and words alike.

Which actually leads directly back to the tension in which we live. Remember, we can’t make the world less sinful, but neither can we accept it as it is. Our job is to work towards redeeming the time, by performing our specific Christian function.

Ellul: Thoughts & Prayers

This entry is part 7 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Let’s continue on with Chapter 1 of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, shall we? Blog post #5, and I haven’t even finished page 12 yet!

Earlier, commenter Mike mentioned salt’s use for preservation in the ancient Near East, which was a bit of a foretaste of the next section.

As we’ve seen, Ellul believes that we must accept that we cannot make the world less sinful, but neither can we accept it as it is. This is the tension in which we must live, because we “must participate in the world’s preservation.” It is not our job as Christians to simply shrug off the world, retreat, and wait for it to pass; we “really must work toward” its preservation.

The problem is that, when it comes to saving the world, we try to do so by doing those things that the world thinks are best. Like, trying to win elections, pass legislation, or, in the global crisis most recent to Ellul’s writing of this book, going to war with Hitler.

Now, very important: Ellul did NOT think that the world should not have gone to war with Hitler. Nor did he think that Christians themselves should not have joined the military to go to war with Hitler. He states unequivocally that the world was completely right to have fought and destroyed Hitler, just as, post-war, the reconstruction efforts were also wholly appropriate and good things to do.

His point is that, by limiting their own efforts to the same efforts being undertaken by the world, the Christians were failing to do what only they, as Christians, could do. And since the underlying causes of all the world’s problems are spiritual issues, it is that which only Christians can do which can actually solve those crises.

Now, specifically speaking, what could Christians have done before and during World War II that the rest of the world could not? Well, bear with me now, one thing is: pray. He wrote:

“… in facing up to Hitler, if it is true that he represented a Satanic power, there was first a spiritual battle to wage. Prayer is what should have been decisive, but we no longer have confidence in the extraordinary power of prayer! Prayer was the exorcism that drives out demons by the Holy Spirit, the armor of faith. It is quite possible that if Christians had truly acted according to these means, while everyone else was thinking of material warfare (which was also necessary) or simply of blessing the guns, the result would not have been this horrifying triumph of the Hitlerian spirit that we see now throughout the world. The world today is reaping what Christians have sown. In the face of spiritual power, Christians called “to arms!” and fought materially. Materially triumphant, we are spiritually vanquished.

(italics in original; bold emphasis added)

So. Let me be clear that I am not generally the sort of person who is comfortable with the idea of saying something like, “Maybe World War II would have gone better, or even been avoided, if only Christians had prayed more diligently.”

But I’m also open to trying to become that sort of person, because, as Ellul points out (but which we already knew), the world’s attempts to solve its own crises continue to fail.

  • Defeat Hitler, and that’s great! But did it lead to some sort of global spiritual awakening or world peace? Well, no.
  • Defeat the Soviet Union, and end the cold war — awesome! But did it lead to some sort of global spiritual awakening or world peace? Well, no.
  • Defeat Osama bin Laden — terrific! But … well, you know.

The fact is that you can play this game for pretty much everything. We get together and solve a problem — Christians and world working together in lockstep — and nothing gets solved; somehow, things get worse. (We elected Obama, a black man, president! And then … Donald Trump.)

I think it is possible to make genuine improvements in the lives of human beings, and obviously I think we should do so, whether that’s by providing food to local families or by funding vaccine development with federal tax dollars. But every time we do make a genuine difference in one area, it seems, something else gets worse.

Let’s take, for example, something non-controversial (kidding!), like guns in America and the whole fight over “thoughts and prayers.”

To paint with a broad stripe, and I will focus only on the wings of the American church: conservatives respond to the latest shooting tragedy with “thoughts and prayers” for the families involved, and progressives sneer and demand that maybe they try doing something instead.

It seems to me, thinking from the perspective Ellul offers in this chapter, that both sides are getting a lot wrong.

For one thing, everyone knows that the sort of people who tweet “thoughts and prayers” aren’t actually praying for anything in a meaningful way. It’s something you say. It’s well-wishing, basically. Any prayers said are for the comfort of the families and souls of the murdered, which is nice, but not the same thing as praying for the Holy Spirit to exorcise the demons that are leading to these mass murders in the first place.

Whoa, did that last sentence make you wince a bit? It did me. I’m trying to imagine someone adding a line like that to the Prayers of the People at next Sunday’s Eucharist.

No, the progressives at your local mainline church will absolutely say a special prayer in the wake of a horrible shooting tragedy, but usually it will be about asking God to please give our government’s leaders “the courage” to stop gun violence.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that, in the model prayer Jesus gave us, there was not a single line petitioning God to change other people.

This kind of prayer and sentiment is evidence that our fellow parishioners have completely bought into the idea that the world’s problems are material problems, not spiritual problems, and that as Christians, they believe that their role is to advocate for material solutions to those problems. Which is not specifically a Christian role at all.

Personally, I believe that governments at all levels should be working on material solutions to the tragic issue of gun violence in America. But I’m no longer naive enough to believe that whatever solutions they arrive at will actually be a solution to senseless tragedy. And supporting or opposing a particular political solution has nothing to do with being a Christian, if non-Christians can support or oppose it, too.

According to Ellul, for those of us who desperately want these sorts of tragedies to end, praying — actually praying — for the Holy Spirit to exorcise demons is one of the primary methods by which we can preserve the world.

I certainly don’t think Christians should sneer at prayer as “doing nothing,” even if the people who claim to be praying are on the other side of a political divide.

Ellul: Stop Making Sense

This entry is part 6 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Let’s keep going with Chapter 1 of Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World, because by God, I want to finish it.

In the last post — well, let’s see if I can summarize Ellul thus far (and please correct me where I’m wrong):

  • Christians should live fully in the sinful world, understanding that we can neither make it less sinful, nor accept it as it is.
  • Societal problems — economic, social, political — are all caused solely by the underlying spiritual problem of sin.
  • Therefore, our role as Christians is to point other people toward the only solution to that spiritual problem, Jesus Christ.
  • One way we do this is by how we act (and react) in daily life.
  • Our actions should be tailored to specific situations, informed by a living, ever-deepening, individual faith in God, and consistent with the broad guidance of Christian ethics.
  • Christian ethics are not a “moral system,” or rules that must be followed in every circumstance. Instead, they are broad, general outlines to be considered.
  • Christian ethics are also subject to ongoing review and change by the broader church community.

Whew, ok.

Does this mean that a Christian can do, willy-nilly, whatever she claims that her faith is leading her to do? No; she still must objectively consider the implications of her actions, and that’s where ethics come in. Ethics are what we use to evaluate our actions before deciding what to do in a specific circumstance.

Now remember, this whole question of Christian ethics came up when Ellul was talking about how laypeople need to live in the world as salt (manifest God’s covenant), light (bear witness to salvation), and sheep (reflect ongoing sacrifice).

Ellul is not talking about being nice, or doing those good things that everyone would recognize as good. In fact, he says that, when we live and act in accordance with our faith and true Christian ethics, our works won’t even make any sense to the world. Everything we do should point directly to God, should only make sense “in the light of Jesus Christ.”

In other words: if your church is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving money to the poor, these are certainly good things, but are they specifically pointing people toward Jesus Christ? Do those you serve understand the difference between you and every other nonprofit, non-sectarian, community service organization? Is there a difference?

Ellul says that everything we do must be oriented toward the “combat of faith” with the world, and should result in glory to God. If we simply do what the world already thinks it would be good for us to do, then the world will have no reason to look to God.

This is a difficult concept. Most of us think that “being Christians in the world” means, for example, running a food bank, donating clothing, or, perhaps, advocating for certain legislation or political outcomes. Ellul says that none of these activities matter in and of themselves. If the world already thinks that your actions are “good,” or at least understandable, then there’s no reason to look past those actions toward God. (Your political advocacy, even dressed up in Christian language, keeps people focused on the world, not God, and won’t make the world any less sinful, or save your society from collapse, in any event.)

Now, I don’t think that Ellul is saying that we shouldn’t be feeding the hungry or fighting oppression. I think he is saying that our goal is not to solve the world’s problems, because we cannot, but to bear witness to the only one who can solve those problems.

It’s easy to volunteer at a soup kitchen, or drop off a bag of canned goods, and then just go about the rest of our day. Instead, about everything that we do, before we do it, we should be asking: is this pointing the world toward Christ? And I don’t mean in some abstract, “Maybe If I’m Nice Someone Will Ask Me Why and Then I’ll Be Sure to Mention God” kind of way.

Finally, remember that when we treat ethics as absolute guidelines or specific moral instructions, we are actually rejecting the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives.

Are we done with Chapter 1 yet? Ha, hardly. Up next: Praying for Hitler!

Ellul: Do Not Confuse Christian Ethics with Morality

This entry is part 5 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

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.

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

This entry is part 4 of 19 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?

We Cannot Solve Sin’s Consequences by Human Means

This entry is part 3 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Resuming my read-through of Jacques Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World. I got sidetracked for a while with life, vacation, other writings and readings. There is still quite a bit of Chapter 1 to muddle through.

In my last post, I mentioned Ellul’s contention that the world is now so interconnected that all of us share some responsibility for sins, even if they are corporate, institutional or cultural sins; it is “scandal” for Christians to be associated with the world’s sins, but there is no solution to this scandal.

In fact, as Ellul continues in Section 2 of Chapter 1, simply living in the world — which is something he says Christians must not try to avoid — is, always has been, and will remain, a scandal. “We have no right to accustom ourselves to this world or spread a veil of Christian illusion over it,” Ellul says.

The world is “the domain of Satan” and all of us who live here, including Christians, are affected by the consequences of sin because we’re all sinners, and through our connections to others, participants in the world’s sinful condition. (A footnote explicates Ellul’s belief that Satan is “only the composite, the synthesis, the sum total of all the accusations brought by people against other people in the world.” Which is not a terribly clarifying footnote, really.)

Christian virtues will not “offset” these sins. Trying to change the world so that humankind might be “less wicked, if not less unhappy, living in it” is futile. At the same time — and here things get a bit complicated — we cannot reconcile ourselves to the wickedness, either. “We must not tell ourselves that we can do nothing about it,” even though Ellul has just said that we can do nothing about it.

In other words: the tension, oh the tension, of two truthful statements completely opposite in meaning. “On the one hand, we cannot make this world less sinful; on the other, we cannot accept it as it is.”

He compares this tension to that we feel being caught between sin and grace — we are sinners; we have received, and will receive, grace — and admits that this is an “uncomfortable” position. But it can’t be avoided: accept the tension, and live accordingly, he says.

Which means what, exactly?

It means not falling for the same false choices presented by most people and groups in society. They try to solve the economic, social, and political problems around us by using “technical means or moral criteria,” because they cannot see the underlying spiritual causes behind all of these problems. They don’t see sin.

Since they don’t and can’t solve the spiritual crises that they don’t or won’t see, they create “solutions” that just make the existing problems get worse “until what they have called their civilization reaches the point of collapse.”

As Christians, Ellul says that our role is not to see these problems in the same way as others, or to offer technical or moral “solutions” to these problems. Instead, we must look to the spiritual reality beneath the corporeal difficulties, and respond to these problems with the only actual solution: “it is by living and receiving the gospel that political, economic, and other problems can be resolved.”

At this point in the reading, I’m not sure specifically how this sort of thing would look in everyday life. Going back to Ellul’s point that we are Salt, Light, Sheep, even those metaphors-not-metaphors are pretty abstract: we are to live our lives as signs that point others to God. I find myself longing for a listicle of “24 ways to live and receive the gospel today.”

Actually, writing that last sentence made me shudder, and it certainly feels opposite to Ellul’s point. Almost, but not quite, as opposite, as trying to, on the one hand, “return” the government to an illusory “Christian” past; or, on the other, solve every human problem with a bureaucratic government program. (Oversimplifying both sides here.) Both of those proposed “solutions” rely exactly on the technical and moral means that Ellul claims move civilization closer to ruin.

To respond to the crises of our time “in a human way that is not a lie or pretense,” Christians have to embrace the uncomfortable tension: we cannot remove sin from the world, or solve the problems caused by sin using human means; but neither can we accept the sinful world as it is.

Sin & Scandal

This entry is part 2 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Continuing my read-through of Chapter 1 of Jacques Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World. There’s a lot here.

Ellul (perhaps because he was a layperson) is most concerned with the plight of the laity in the modern world, because unlike the clergy, there is no separation between a layperson and the rest of society. “Claiming to be separate becomes more and more difficult, as each person is forced into a world that becomes more intrusive, crushing, and demanding than ever.”

Ellul argues that modern society differs from previous civilizations in the extent to which humans are immersed in the world. “Modern transportation systems, the interconnection of economic institutions, or the rise of democracy” — modern humans are submerged in larger systems from which they cannot easily extricate themselves. (Even moreso now than it was in Ellul’s time, obviously.) For this reason, he says, Christians “cannot consider themselves pure” in comparison to the rest of the world; they are not only individual sinners, but they share in the collective sin of society.

Having just finished reading Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death I’m pondering the difference between SK’s focus on the individual sinner and Ellul’s definition in this chapter. Ellul says that the reason that there is “none righteous” is not that every individual is wicked, “but because all things are confined under sin.” We are related to others in sin extending back across time and generations to the original sin. So the modern world makes clear (through our global inter-connection) what was always a Biblical truth: we share in the sin of all.

Original (hereditary) sin is a difficult concept to grasp (for me!), and I remember being somewhat confused by SK’s brief discussion of it in TSUD. Conceding my lack of familiarity with both authors, I think that there may be a similarity between these two takes on sin, that they might in fact be one, since they both describe sin as essentially a state of being, as opposed to actions or behaviors. This is definitely oppositional to (for lack of a better term) Americanized Christianity, with its emphasis on individual responsibility for specific actions or behaviors.

Laypeople feel this connection to societal sin most acutely, Ellul says. It makes them uncomfortable; it is scandal to be associated with the world’s sins. So they try to escape, in two ways:

  • Separate the material from the spiritual — eg, This is my personal life, and that is my spiritual life, and never the twain etc. They focus their effort on “spiritual problems” apart from everyday life, which is separate, their dayjob, so to speak. This sort of compartmentalization is hypocrisy. “God became incarnate; it is not our job to disincarnate him.”
  • Or, they try to “Christianize” everything. Let’s create a Christian state, Christian movies, Christian books, Christian psychology, etc. This is taking “the world” (of which we are, as noted earlier, specifically not a part), finding what we think is “good” in it, or glossing it with something we think is “good,” and calling it Christian. You can’t reform the world’s activities by “pronouncing a blessing on them.” On the social/cultural side, this is very reminiscent of the evangelical subculture in which I grew up; on the governmental side, more reminiscent of today’s dark illiberal impulses.

In both of these cases, Christians are attempting to “build a bridge” between themselves and the world. This bridge, Ellul says, is “morality” — and he is clearly not using the term in a favorable sense.

This type of bridge, he says, is the “most anti-Christian position possible.” But he also says that there is, in fact, “no possible solution” to the scandal that exists.

Salt, Light, Sheep

This entry is part 1 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Started reading Jacques Ellul’s Presence in the Modern World a while back and set it aside because I had to read some Kierkegaard for a couple of Catherine Project groups, and I can only take so much. After those months of strenuous mental exercise, I’m returning to the Ellul and it feels a tiny bit lighter, like picking up a 50 lb weight after months of picking up 75 lb weights every day. (Or whatever weight analogy might make sense here, I don’t know.)

I’ll be posting some notes as I make my way through Presence — notes in the broadest and quickest sense possible; I’m not aiming for essays here.

According to the foreword to this edition by Ted Lewis, this is the foundational text in Ellul’s surprisingly large oeuvre. It combines both his sociological insights — the thoughts later expanded in such works as Propaganda and The Technological Society — with his theological vision. He was apparently unhappy that people were not reading these two types of works in dialogue with each other, since that is how he wrote them:

“On the one hand he was unveiling a dark vision of technological totalitarianism that pulls every facet of Western culture (and every person) into its vortex; on the other hand, he was presenting a theological vision where human freedom and responsibility could lead to a hopeful future.” (Ted Lewis, foreword)

According to the first chapter, “The Christian in the World,” that “hopeful future” may depend on your perspective. The world is “heading toward death” and the role of Christians, on a planet not our home, is not to change the world’s trajectory but to serve as signposts for those who still cling to it.

Christians “are not called on to select the human activities that they consider good and then participate in them.” Christians have a “specific function” as Christians that is decisive for the world’s fate.

Ellul locates three images from the Bible — You are the salt of the earth, You are the light of the world, I send you out as sheep among the wolves — and states that these metaphors, despite being actual metaphors, are not “similes or special terms to use when speaking of Christians,” they are “not figures of speech or pretty pictures.”

They are also, he says, not possibilities for Christian life; they are what we are here to do, how we are meant to live.

  • “Salt” is the sign of the Covenant, according to Leviticus. First and foremost, we are here to show the world that there is an alternative to the death toward which it is hurtling. If we are not here to demonstrate and point to God, then the world will not know that there is a God.
  • Christians shine the “light” on history and make sense of it all. Christianity provides the logic of history, which is otherwise just a series of random events. We are a sign of the end toward which all is headed, where God has already won.
  • Christians are not to be wolves, seeking spiritual dominance; they are to be sacrificial “sheep” and accept the domination of others. “They are sheep not because their action or sacrifice has a purifying effect on the world, but because in the world’s midst they are the true, living and ever renewed sign of the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.”

In just these first few pages Ellul has staked out a very counter-cultural claim — counter to not only the broader culture but also certainly to the Christian culture in the U.S. I’m reminded of Kierkegaard (still percolating in my mind) and his scorn for the Christendom of his day. A century later and Ellul was just as derogatory towards the church of his time (which sounds similar to the church of ours).

If Christians do not fulfill their specific function as Salt/Light/Sheep, Ellul says that “they are not fulfilling their role and are betraying Jesus Christ and the world also. Christians can always strive to do good works and exhaust themselves in religious or social activity, but this will signify absolutely nothing if they do not accomplish the one mission that Jesus Christ charges them with specifically — to be, first, a sign.(emphasis added)