the fact

Ellul on the Revolutionary Spirit Against the Facts

This entry is part 12 of 19 in the series Presence in the Modern World

Since chapter 2 of Presence in the Modern World is titled “Revolutionary Christianity,” at this point one might ask exactly what Jacques Ellul means by the word “revolutionary.” It’s a spirit, he says, that has existed for as long as human society has existed, a spirit that “has been a necessary part of social life. It has always meant the affirmation of a truth of a spiritual order over against the error of the moment.” (emphasis added)

In Ellul’s mind, everything else that calls itself revolutionary — from the communist and fascist ideologies from the time of his writing, to today’s self-proclaimed “anti-woke” activists “battling” school administrators — are not revolutionary at all, because they have not only accepted, but are actually participating in, “the error of the moment.”

The error underlying the current moment, the structures of our civilization as briefly described in the earlier pages of this chapter, lie, according to Ellul, in our respect for, and worship of, “the fact.”

The fact, Ellul says, is considered to be the final arbiter. The fact cannot be questioned; no judgment can be brought to bear on the fact, the fact is to be bowed down before. “Everything that is a fact can be justified by that alone.”

As a civilization, we have decided that facts and truth are synonymous. (In that world, Ellul notes, God cannot be true, because he does not look like a fact.)

Now hold on, one might say, how can you say that facts are indisputed given the dizzying controversies of the past few years surrounding conspiracy theories, “alternative facts,” and the like?

It seems to me that these controversies actually support Ellul’s contention, because every case involves the disputation of asserted facts with a different set of asserted facts.

But, one continues in protest, anti-vaxxers are alleging things that are untrue!

I certainly don’t disagree with that. I’m simply pointing out that in none of these controversies are people, on either side, questioning whether or not a fact is good or evil, whether or not that fact should exist at all; they are responding by appealing to the authority of something else they call a fact.

This gets quite confusing, I admit, but I think it’s an important point. David Gill writes a clarifying footnote on page 22, reproduced here in full:

“What have been lost are such things as purpose, human values, revelation, community, tradition, paradox, and mystery. Facts are disconnected, measurable phenomena that are available to our senses. They come at us in a blizzard of factoids and bits. We survey them, count them, and call them ‘established facts,’ and believe them to be reality.” (emphasis added)

To me, those last couple of sentences describe both, for example, Fox News and MSNBC. Whether you are a watcher of one or the other, you are worshipping at the altar of what you believe to be an “established fact.” The 2020 election was criminally rigged, or it wasn’t; whether or not the “facts” being appealed to on either side are objectively “factual” or not, the proponent of each believes them to be reality. They argue by asserting “facts,” no matter how silly those facts might sound to each other. Conspiracy-minded January 6 rioters are dismissed as “living in an alternate reality,” but I think that Ellul would argue that they are living very much in the same reality as their political opponents.

Ellul uses the example of the atomic bomb — something top of mind at the time of the book’s writing (and which should probably be more top of mind now). All the questions asked about the bomb, he wrote, were secondary: who should be allowed to use it, how will it be controlled, shall we use this force for war or peace, etc. The primary question, the one question that only human beings can ask because only humans know the difference between good and evil (which is beyond and superior to The Fact) is, can this fact be allowed to exist?

Replace “atomic bomb” with “AI” and consider these same issues.

There have always been “alternative facts” — they are what parties and voters argue about. It is not that they are fighting over the existence of a particular fact, but that they oppose one alleged fact with another. The process, Ellul says, is always the same: a fact is taken up, be it “the proletariat” or “money” or “critical race theory” or “QAnon,” and turned into a God of sorts. “It is then imposed on a whole group of people, bluntly and simply, because all modern people in their hearts embrace the worship of the fact.”

As noted in an earlier part of this chapter, our current political differences are merely about power and who will wield it. Since, as Ellul writes, “the fact of the future is preferred to the fact that is currently on the way out,” new “alternative facts” are being introduced all the time. A cacophonous Internet blasting us with “factoids and bits” may make it simpler for one fact to replace another as perceived truth in our minds, because we have this preference for the future. This might make everything feel more unstable, but it doesn’t really undermine the civilizational structure.

Ellul’s revolutionary spirit is total. It can’t be merely an affirmation of truth or freedom — which truths, which freedoms? — or the affirmation of some political party, doctrine, or ideology (see earlier post on solving sin by human means). Ellul says that we will either have the current civilization of mass, technological conformity — “hell organized on earth for the physiological happiness of all” — or we will have … something else.

But we don’t know what that something else might be, because it must be “made by conscious human beings.” If we unconsciously follow along “the course of history,” then we have chosen the side of the world’s will to suicide.

At the end of this particular section, though, Ellul throws his hands up and admits that, given the way that society is structured, a revolutionary consciousness (which is, remember, “the affirmation of a truth of a spiritual order”) is “almost impotent.” We can’t even see who might have this revolutionary consciousness in the first place.