We Cannot Solve Sin’s Consequences by Human Means

This entry is part 3 of 24 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.