We do live in history, and this age is hard to bear.
Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment
To be of one’s time means to attend to the nature of the times. It means resisting the siren call of the day’s enthusiasms—zeal for environmentalism, sustainability, multiculturalism, global fixes, et alia—in order to stay mindful of the root character of those enthusiasms and their ultimate ends. In short, it means becoming a critic of one’s time. Jacques Ellul, devoted to the life of the spirit no less than the life of the mind, was a critic of the highest order.
One of the major interpreters of the twentieth century, his name is less recognized now than it was before his death twenty years ago. It is certainly not as familiar as our own decade needs it to be. By sweet providence, Ellul was born on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1912. It was a fitting birthdate for a man whose insights are as revelatory now as in the years of their creation. A man with the courage of his intuition, he addressed fellow Christians with the passion—and dismay—of the Latter Prophets:
The Church is the Bride, but she can be an adulteress. The Church is a community founded by the Holy Spirit, but she may become a community in which the Holy Spirit can no longer speak.
Ellul lived an extraordinary life, leaving a rich and masterful legacy. Active in the French Resistance and deputy mayor of Bordeaux in the immediate post-war years, he was a professor of law and social history at the University of Bordeaux and its Institute of Political Studies from 1946 until 1980. A Marxist at 19, he converted to Christianity at 22. He came of age intellectually in the 1930s within the circle surrounding Emmanuel Mounier and his journal L’Espirit. Ellul drew on Mounier’s personalist philosophy of individual engagement. A Protestant, he was initiated into the same tenets of French personalism which took flesh in this country in the Catholic Worker movement under the tutelage of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day.
Ellul became known here in the 1960s for The Technological Society, published first in France ten years earlier. It is an astringent assessment of the threat to man’s personal and spiritual freedom posed by the technological world and the reach of its imperatives. But the range of his criticism and theological insight was far wider, cutting deep into the totalitarian aims and conceits of modern bureaucracy. By la technique, he meant the drive to rationalize and make efficient the myriad workings of human society. He cited politics—la politique—as another manifestation of the technicians’ illusory quest for political solutions to everything, including moral and cultural problems. Like Karl Barth, he took the fall of man with great seriousness.
As someone who had lived politics from the inside, he did not dismiss politics. Hardly that. His aim was to demythologize it, rein in its totalizing impulses. He wrote The Political Illusion in the spirit of the biblical prophets who called their own times to remember that the true essence of history resides not in political victories or defeats but in God’s judgment on man’s dealings. Rejecting politics as the ultimate guidepost, he cautioned against powers that collectivize man via political channels. Such powers are supported by the Church at great risk to the gospel. By collaborating with the confusion of political or ideological symbols for religious ones, the Church unwittingly subordinates man’s ultimate end to temporal ones. And confounds his freedom.
[Christians} rush to the defense of political religion, and assert that Christianity is meaningful only in terms of political commitment. In truth, it is their religious mentality which plays a trick on them. As Christianity collapses as a religion, they look about them in bewilderment . . . hoping to discover where the religious is to be incarnated in their time. Since they are religious, they are drawn automatically into the political sphere like iron filings to a magnet.
Ellul was unsparing toward the ardent irrationality—“purely religious and mythical”—exhibited by men of science when they go political. At the same time, he was equally severe on religious men who confuse politics, including the political postures of men of science, with an avenue to the Kingdom of God. He was harsh toward what he deemed an illusory regard for the absolutizing pretensions of modern bureaucracy, secular or ecclesiastic. Ellul was no friend to the reach of the managerial state, to ideological drift toward collectivism, or to the hubris of schemes for world management.
The Meaning of the City (1970) is first among my favorites. For Ellul, the city, from the days of Cain to our own, represents both the pinnacle of man’s handiwork and the prime site of his rebellion. Charged with the poetry of biblical allusions, the book remains a startling theological reflection on modern urbanized culture. Babylon is his synecdoche for the historical sweep of mortal man’s monumental, and monumentally flawed, instincts and achievements. Rome, Berlin, Paris, Venice, New York—add Vatican City, as well—they are all the same city for there is “only one Babel”:
All the cities of the world are brought together in her, she is the synthesis of them all (Dan. 3 and 4; Rev 14 and 18). She is the head and the standard for the other cities. She is the very home of civilization and when the great city vanishes, there is no more civilization, a world disappears. She is the one struck in war, and she is the first to be struck in the war between the Lord and the powers of the world.
While his The Betrayal of the West (1975) acknowledges the West’s historic sins, Ellul understands them as the common sins of every civilization. What is peculiar to the West, and to it alone, are its virtues. In his words, the West “represents values for which there is no substitute. . . . The end of the West today would mean the end of any possible civilization.”
We are caught up by a kind of doom from which, it seems, nothing can rescue us, for even the disciples of Christ are rushing headlong to destruction. Only the rejection of everything Western, of everything the West has produced, can now satisfy the very men of the West. Throughout Europe and America we are watching a kind of mystery unfold; we are swept along in a vast procession of flagellants who slash at themselves and each other with the most horrendous of whips. . . . We have smeared ourselves with paint and blood to show our contempt for all that created the great civilization from which we spring. We even scourge ourselves hysterically for crimes we did not commit. In short, we show enthusiastic joy only at what denies, destroys, and degrades all the works of the West.
Despite early attachment to Marxism and continuing sympathy with aspects of its critiques, he rejected its solutions and mourned its encroachment on Christian thinking: “Christianity celebrates its marriage with Marxism and proceeds to slay the old, impotent flesh that was once the glory of the world.”
Ellul understood that the powers and principalities St. Paul warned against are changelings. They mutate with the times, costumed in new movements, sporting new slogans. In his later years, Ellul turned his attention to the dangers of a resurgent Islam. Forthright and prescient, he kept his eye on the enemy as it advanced. And he had the courage to name it.