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

This entry is part 9 of 24 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: Stop Making Sense

This entry is part 6 of 24 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!

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.

Sin & Scandal

This entry is part 2 of 24 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.