realism

Ellul on Christian Realism

This entry is part 16 of 24 in the series Presence in the Modern World

In the last section, Ellul called out the fact that Christians know “how the story ends” — with the Kingdom of God. But they are still called to live fully in the world’s present reality, pointing their fellow human beings toward Christ, rather than to withdraw and wait for the end.

So Christians must live in the here and now, but as citizens of the Kingdom of God. This means that all political and social facts and proposals are to be evaluated in light of what Christians know about the Kingdom — and not in light of any particular principles and morals.

Because, and this is the bit that may surprise many American Christians, “there are no Christian principles.” (emphasis added)

“There is the person of Christ,” Ellul writes, “who is the principle of all things.” But Christianity cannot be reduced to mere principles or “philosophical doctrine” or guidelines for moral living. “The Christian life does not result from a cause but is directed toward an end. This is what changes human perspectives completely and makes the Christian life unique from any other.”

Ellul points out that the history of Christian political stances has been disastrous; throughout church history (up to and including the present day), Christians have done horrible things in the name of “Christian principles.” Ellul believes that this will always be the case whenever anyone, left or right, tries to reduce the kingdom to a political philosophy.

Instead, given their unique orientation toward the future, Christians must approach political and social situations with realism — not one based on “efficiency or success,” but on the perspective of God’s Kingdom. In any given situation, “Christians can move right or left, can be liberal or socialist, according to the circumstances and the position that seems more conformed to God’s will at this time.” (italics in original)

Christians should be “open to all human action” that can be examined in light of God’s guidance, and “questioned thoroughly.” But, Ellul says, “Christians can never consider themselves tied to a past or to a principle.”

There is no one Christian stance that must be followed in all things, for all time. In fact, “positions that seem contradictory can be equally sound” if they “express in history a faithfulness to God’s design.”

Scripture offers “main themes” of how our “action can be oriented” and the “outlines of an order”, but not any “system or political principles.” Minus those principles or any specific moralism, it falls on Christians themselves, with God’s guidance, to decide if a particular thing seems to conform with the coming of God’s Kingdom, how it looks from the perspective of that kingdom, and if it can be “used for God’s glory.”

In a footnote, David Gill explains Ellul’s viewpoint as less chaotic than it sounds at first. “We follow a Commander, not a set of abstract commands. There will be guidance, and it will be consistent with the character of God … not at all the whim of human interest and desire. But God is alive, and our situations always have novel aspects, and we are unique individuals. No stand-alone system of principles and rules can ever be allowed to threaten or replace that existential reality.” (emphasis added)

So in any particular situation, Christians might very well disagree with each other in good faith, as long as they are patiently approaching each situation independently and uniquely from the standpoint of God’s kingdom, and not merely responding to their own political and cultural biases.

Christians must live under the actuality of Christ’s Lordship. Ellul says that this “actual lordship” is the “objective element” of the Christian’s current (revolutionary) situation. In recognizing that Christ is Lord, and that God’s Kingdom is both now and not yet, Christians are called to evaluate their daily lives and existing realities through the subjective lens of “hope.”

“This is a difficult position, full of pitfalls and dangers,” Ellul writes, “but it is also the only one that appears true to the Christian life. And we have never been told that the Christian life should be easy or secure.”