Jacques Ellul in 1990
January 6, 1912|
May 19, 1994 (aged 82)|
Non-conformists of the 1930s
Jacques Ellul (; French: [?lyl]; January 6, 1912 - May 19, 1994) was a French philosopher, sociologist, lay theologian, and professor who was a noted Christian anarchist. Ellul was a longtime Professor of History and the Sociology of Institutions on the Faculty of Law and Economic Sciences at the University of Bordeaux. A prolific writer, he authored 58 books and more than a thousand articles over his lifetime, many of which discussed propaganda, the impact of technology on society, and the interaction between religion and politics. The dominant theme of his work proved to be the threat to human freedom and religion created by modern technology. Among his most influential books are The Technological Society and Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes.
Considered by many a philosopher, Ellul was by training a sociologist who approached the question of technology and human action from a dialectical viewpoint. His constant concern was the emergence of a technological tyranny over humanity. As a philosopher and theologian, he further explored the religiosity of the technological society. In 2000 the International Jacques Ellul Society was founded by a group of former Ellul students. The society, which includes scholars from a variety of disciplines, is devoted to continuing Ellul's legacy and discussing the contemporary relevance and implications of his work.
Jacques Ellul was born in Bordeaux, France on 6 January 1912 to Marthe Mendes (Protestant; French-Portuguese) and Joseph Ellul (initially an Orthodox Christian, but then a Voltarian deist by conviction; born in Malta of an Italo-Maltese father and Serb mother). As a teenager he wanted to be a naval officer but his father made him read law. He married Yvette Lensvelt in 1937.
Ellul was educated at the universities of Bordeaux and Paris. In World War II, he was a leader in the French resistance. For his efforts to save Jews he was awarded the title Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 2001. He was a layman in the Reformed Church of France and attained a high position within it as part of the National Council.
Ellul was best friends with Bernard Charbonneau, who was also a writer from the Aquitaine region and a protagonist of the French personalism movement. They met through the Protestant Student Federation during the academic school year of 1929-1930. Both men acknowledged the great influence one had on each other.
By the early 1930s, Ellul's three primary sources of inspiration were Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, and Karl Barth. Ellul was first introduced to the ideas of Karl Marx during an economics lecture course taught by Joseph Benzacar in 1929-30; Ellul studied Marx and became a prolific exegete of his theories. During this same period, he also came across the Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard. According to Ellul, Marx and Kierkegaard were his two greatest influences, and the only two authors of which he read all of their work. Also, he considered Karl Barth, who was a leader of the resistance against the German state church in World War II, the greatest theologian of the 20th century. In addition to these intellectual influences, Ellul also said that his father played a great role in his life and considered him his role model.
These ideological influences earned him both devoted followers and vicious enemies. In large measure, and especially in those of his books concerned with theological matters, Ellul restates the viewpoints held by Barth, whose polar dialectic of the Word of God, in which the Gospel both judges and renews the world, shaped Ellul's theological perspective. In Jacques Ellul: A Systemic Exposition Darrell J. Fasching claimed Ellul believed "That which desacralizes a given reality, itself in turn becomes the new sacred reality".
In 1932, after what he describes as "a very brutal and very sudden conversion", Ellul professed himself a Christian. Ellul believes he was about 17 (1929-30) and spending the summer with some friends in Blanquefort, France. While translating Faust alone in the house, Ellul knew (without seeing or hearing anything) he was in the presence of a something so astounding, so overwhelming, which entered the very center of his being. He jumped on a bike and fled, concluding eventually that he had been in the presence of God. This experience started the conversion process which Ellul said then continued over a period of years thereafter.
He was also prominent in the worldwide ecumenical movement, although he later became sharply critical of the movement for what he felt were indiscriminate endorsements of political establishments, primarily of the Left. However, he was no friendlier in his assessment of those of the Right; he fashioned an explicitly anti-political stance as an alternative to both.
Ellul has been credited with coining the phrase, "Think globally, act locally." He often said that he was born in Bordeaux by chance, but that it was by choice that he spent almost all his academic career there.
On 19 May 1994, after a long illness, he died in his house in Pessac, just a mile or two from the University of Bordeaux campus and surrounded by those closest to him. His wife had died a few years prior, on 16 April 1991.
While Ellul is perhaps most noted for his sociological work, especially his discussions of technology, he saw his theological work as an essential aspect of his career, and began publishing theological discussions early, with such books as The Presence of the Kingdom (1948).
Although a son of the minority French Reformed tradition and thus a spiritual heir of thinkers like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, Ellul departed substantially from Reformed doctrinal traditions, but unlike other European Protestant thinkers, utterly rejected the influence of philosophical idealism or romanticism upon his beliefs about God and human faith. In articulating his theological ideas, he mainly drew upon the corpus of works by the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth and the critiques of European state Christianity made by Dane Søren Kierkegaard. Thus, some have considered him one of the more ardent expositors of dialectical theology, which was in decline elsewhere in the Western theological scene during Ellul's heyday. Much like Barth, Ellul had no use for either liberal theology (to him dominated by Enlightenment notions about the goodness of humanity and thus rendered puerile by its naïveté) or orthodox Protestantism (e.g., fundamentalism or scholastic Calvinism, both of which to him refuse to acknowledge the radical freedom of God and humanity) and maintained a roughly un-Catholic view of the Bible, theology, and the churches.
One particular theological movement that aroused his ire was death of God theology. Some within this movement held the conviction that the traditional Christian conceptions of God and humanity arise from a primitive consciousness, one that most civilized people have quite overcome. This line of thought affirmed the ethical teachings of Jesus but rejected the idea that he represented anything more than a highly accomplished human being. Ellul attacked this school, and practitioners of it such as Harvey Cox, as out of accord not with Christian doctrinal traditions, but reality itself, namely what he perceived as the irreducible religiosity of the human race, a devotion that has worshiped idols such as rulers, nations, and in more recent times, materialism, scientism, technology and economics. To Ellul, people use such fallen images, or powers, as a substitute for God, and are, in turn, used by them, with no possible appeal to innocence or neutrality, which, although possible theoretically, does not in fact exist. Ellul thus renovates in a non-legalistic manner the traditional Christian understanding of original sin and espouses a thoroughgoing pessimism about human capabilities, a view most sharply evidenced in his The Meaning of the City. Ellul stated that one of the problems with these "new theologies" was:
|"||In consequence of the desire to make the message (kerygma) valid for all, to see all men as in the presence of God, to increase the universality of the lordship of Jesus Christ, to insist on the value of mankind generally (to the detriment of the Christian), to insist on the value of the world (to the detriment of the Church), one comes to the point of denying whatever can only be specifically Christian.||"|
|"||The ultimate purpose of the whole death-of-God system is to justify a certain kind of behavior on the part of Christians in relation to society--a kind of behavior that is dictated by conformism to the modern world. So a justificatory formula is manufactured; and alas, it often turns out that theology merely amounts to a justification of the behavior of pretend-Christians. The theology of the death of God reinforces this evil tendency. It justifies a sociological impulsion. That is the kind of theology it really is, unconsciously. Nor do the marvelous intellectual operations its proponents perform with every appearance of seriousness make it less profoundly false.||"|
Ellul espouses views on salvation, the sovereignty of God, and ethical action that appear to take a deliberately contrarian stance toward established, "mainstream" opinion. For instance, in the book What I Believe, he declared himself to be a Christian Universalist, writing "that all people from the beginning of time are saved by God in Jesus Christ, that they have all been recipients of His grace no matter what they have done." Ellul formulated this stance not from any liberal or humanistic sympathies, but in the main from an extremely high view of God's transcendence, that God is totally free to do what God pleases. Any attempts to modify that freedom from merely human standards of righteousness and justice amount to sin, to putting oneself in God's place, which is precisely what Adam and Eve sought to do in the creation myths in Genesis. This highly unusual juxtaposition of original sin and universal salvation has repelled liberal and conservative critics and commentators alike, who charge that such views amount to antinomianism, denying that God's laws are binding upon human beings. In most of his theologically-oriented writings, Ellul effectively dismisses those charges as stemming from a radical confusion between religions as human phenomena and the unique claims of the Christian faith, which are not predicated upon human achievement or moral integrity whatsoever.
|"||In the Bible, however, we find a God who escapes us totally, whom we absolutely cannot influence, or dominate, much less punish; a God who reveals Himself when He wants to reveal Himself, a God who is very often in a place where He is not expected, a God who is truly beyond our grasp. Thus, the human religious feeling is not at all satisfied by this situation... God descends to humanity and joins us where we are.||"|
|"||...the presence of faith in Jesus Christ alters reality. We also believe that hope is in no way an escape into the future, but that it is an active force, now, and that love leads us to a deeper understanding of reality. Love is probably the most realistic possible understanding of our existence. It is not an illusion. On the contrary, it is reality itself.||"|
The Ellulian concept of technique is briefly defined within the "Notes to Reader" section of The Technological Society (1964). It is "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity." He states here as well that the term technique is not solely machines, technology, or a procedure used to attain an end.
What many consider to be Ellul's most important work, The Technological Society (1964) was originally published in French as La Technique: L'enjeu du siècle (literally, "The Stake of the Century"). In it, Ellul set forth seven characteristics of modern technology that make efficiency a necessity: rationality, artificiality, automatism of technical choice, self-augmentation, monism, universalism, and autonomy. The rationality of technique enforces logical and mechanical organization through division of labor, the setting of production standards, etc. And it creates an artificial system which "eliminates or subordinates the natural world."
Regarding technology, instead of it being subservient to humanity, "human beings have to adapt to it, and accept total change." As an example, Ellul offered the diminished value of the humanities to a technological society. As people begin to question the value of learning ancient languages and history, they question those things which, on the surface, do little to advance their financial and technical state. According to Ellul, this misplaced emphasis is one of the problems with modern education, as it produces a situation in which immense stress is placed on information in our schools. The focus in those schools is to prepare young people to enter the world of information, to be able to work with computers but knowing only their reasoning, their language, their combinations, and the connections between them. This movement is invading the whole intellectual domain and also that of conscience.
Ellul's commitment to scrutinize technological development is expressed as such:
|"||[W]hat is at issue here is evaluating the danger of what might happen to our humanity in the present half-century, and distinguishing between what we want to keep and what we are ready to lose, between what we can welcome as legitimate human development and what we should reject with our last ounce of strength as dehumanization. I cannot think that choices of this kind are unimportant.||"|
The sacred then, as classically defined, is the object of both hope and fear, both fascination and dread. Once, nature was the all-encompassing environment and power upon which human beings were dependent in life and death, and so was experienced as sacred. The Reformation desacralized the church in the name of the Bible, and the Bible became the sacred book. But since then, scientism (through Charles Darwin's theory of evolution) and reason (higher criticism and liberal theology) have desacralized the scriptures, and the sciences, particularly those applied sciences that are amenable to the aims of collective economic production (be it capitalist, socialist, or communist), have been elevated to the position of sacred in Western culture. Today, he argues, the technological society is generally held sacred (cf. Saint Steve Jobs). Since he defines technique as "the totality of methods rationally arrived at, and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity", it is clear that his sociological analysis focuses not on the society of machines as such, but on the society of "efficient techniques":
|"||Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.||"|
It is useless, he argues, to think that a distinction can be made between technique and its use, for techniques have specific social and psychological consequences independent of human desires. There can be no room for moral considerations in their use:
|"||Not even the moral conversion of the technicians could make a difference. At best, they would cease to be good technicians. In the end, technique has only one principle, efficient ordering.||"|
Ellul identified himself as a Christian Anarchist. Ellul explained his view in this way: "By anarchy I mean first an absolute rejection of violence." And, "...Jesus was not only a socialist but an anarchist - and I want to stress here that I regard anarchism as the fullest and most serious form of socialism." For him, this meant that nation-states, as the primary sources of violence in the modern era, should neither be praised nor feared, but continually questioned and challenged. For Ellul, human government is largely irrelevant in that the revelation of God contained in Scripture is sufficient and exclusive. That is, being a Christian means pledging absolute allegiance to Christ, which makes other laws redundant at best or counter to the revelation of God at worst. Despite the initial attraction of some evangelicals to his thinking because of his high view of Biblical texts (i.e., generally eschewing the historical-critical method), this position alienated some conservative Protestants. Later, he would attract a following among adherents of more ethically-compatible traditions such as the Anabaptists and the house church movement. Similar political ideas to Ellul's appear in the writings of a corresponding friend of his, the American William Stringfellow, and long-time admirer Vernard Eller, author of Christian Anarchy. Ellul identified the State and political power as the Beast in the Book of Revelation.
Jacques Ellul discusses anarchy on a few pages in The Ethics of Freedom and in more detail within his later work, Anarchy & Christianity. Although he does admit that anarchy does not seem to be a direct expression of Christian freedom, he concludes that the absolute power he sees within the current (as of 1991) nation-state can only be responded to with an absolute negative position (i.e. anarchy). He states that his intention is not to establish an anarchist society or the total destruction of the state. His initial point in Anarchy & Christianity is that he is led toward anarchy by his commitment to an absolute rejection of violence. However, Ellul does not entertain the idea that all Christians in all places and all times will refrain from violence. Rather, he insisted that violence could not be reconciled with the God of Love, and thus, true freedom. A Christian that chooses the path of violence must admit that he or she is abandoning the path of freedom and committing to the way of necessity.
During the Spanish Civil War Spanish anarchist friends of Ellul's soon-to-be wife came to France in search of weapons. He tried to get some for them through an old school friend of his and claimed that this was probably the one time in his life when he was sufficiently motivated to commit an act of violence. He did not go with the anarchists primarily because he had only recently met the woman that would become his wife and did not wish to leave her.
Ellul states in The Subversion of Christianity that he thinks "that the biblical teaching is clear. It always contests political power. It incites to 'counterpower,' to 'positive' criticism, to an irreducible dialogue (like that between king and prophet in Israel), to antistatism, to a decentralizing of the relation, to an extreme relativizing of everything political, to an anti-ideology, to a questioning of all that claims either power or dominion (in other words, of all things political), and finally, if we may use a modern term, to a kind of "anarchism" (so long as we do not relate the term to the anarchist teaching of the nineteenth century)."
Ellul states in Violence that idealism serves to justify the use of violence, including:
|"||...there is generous idealism of so many young men who risk imprisonment or death rather than participate in a war they condemn only because they idealize and whitewash their country's enemy. Those young men are heroes and fools both. They are repelled by the violence they see--the massive, enormous violence that cries to heaven. And they are right. But seeing this highly visible violence, they forthwith make lambs, saints, and martyrs of its victims. For they close their eyes to what the enemy is really like, to his cruelty, his violence, his lies. They overlook his real intentions; they overlook the fact that he would use terrible violence if he won power. Poor young men, totally unknowing, uncomprehending, blind, perceiving only what is happening now! So they side with the enemy and countenance the enemy's violence. In France, before the Second World War, a great many people sided with the Nazis. Hadn't the Nazis, out of their generosity, protested against the violence done the Sudeten Germans, the Croats, the Germans of Danzig? Hadn't they declared that they would defend the rights of the poor and the unemployed, the victims exploited by the capitalists? Their admiration of the Nazis cost those people dearly. Again, after the war, many French people sided with communism, 'the party of the poor, the proletariat.' A few years later they were stunned by the declarations of the Twentieth Communist Congress and by Moscow's suppression of the Hungarian revolt. This is the kind of idealism that must be combated and radically condemned."||"|
3. pacifist idealism (beliefs and lifestyles which are only possible within a larger violence-based society)
4. Christian idealism (which is always concerned with the moral goodness of the human world). This leads to concepts of progressiveness and unreserved participation with good conscience in political or scientific action. "In their idyllic world, harshness, torture, and war seem abnormal and almost incomprehensible. But it is only gross, highly visible, undeniable violence that evokes this scandalized reaction. They deny the existence of masked, secret, covert violence--insofar as this can be concealed..."
Ellul believed that social justice and true freedom were incompatible. He rejected any attempt to reconcile them. He believed that a Christian could choose to join a movement for justice, but in doing so, must admit that this fight for justice is necessarily, and at the same time, a fight against all forms of freedom. While social justice provides a guarantee against the risk of bondage, it simultaneously subjects a life to necessities. Ellul believed that when a Christian decides to act it must be in a way that is specifically Christian. "Christians must never identify themselves with this or that political or economic movement. Rather, they must bring to social movements what they alone can provide. Only so can they signalize the kingdom. So far as they act like the others--even to forward social justice, equality, etc.--I say that there is no sense and nothing specifically Christian in acting like the others. In fact the political and revolutionary attitude proper to the Christian is radically different than the attitude of others; it is specifically Christian or else it is nothing.
In Violence Ellul states his belief that only God is able to establish justice and God alone who will institute the kingdom at the end of time. He acknowledges that some have used this as an excuse to do nothing, but also points out how some death-of-God advocates use this to claim that "we ourselves must undertake to establish social justice". Ellul maintained that without a belief in the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of God, love and the pursuit for justice becomes selective for the only relation left is the horizontal one. Ellul asks how we are to define justice and claims that followers of death-of-God theology and/or philosophy clung to Matthew 25 stating that justice requires them to feed the poor. Ellul says that many European Christians rushed into socialist circles (and with this began to accept the movement's tactics of violence, propaganda, etc.) mistakenly thinking socialism would assure justice when in fact it only pursues justice for the chosen and/or interesting poor whose condition (as a victim of capitalism or some other socialist enemy) is consistent with the socialist ideology.:76-77
|"||...Jesus Christ has not come to establish social justice any more than he has come to establish the power of the state or the reign of money or art. Jesus Christ has come to save men, and all that matters is that men may come to know him. We are adept at finding reasons-good theological, political, or practical reasons, for camouflaging this. But the real reason is that we let ourselves be impressed and dominated by the forces of the world, by the press, by public opinion, by the political game, by appeals to justice, liberty, peace, the poverty of the third world, and the Christian civilization of the west, all of which play on our inclinations and weaknesses. Modern protestants are in the main prepared to be all things to all men, like St. Paul, but unfortunately this is not in order that they may save some but in order that they may be like all men.:254-255||"|
Ellul states in The Subversion of Christianity that "to proclaim the class conflict and the 'classical' revolutionary struggle is to stop at the same point as those who defend their goods and organizations. This may be useful socially but it is not at all Christian in spite of the disconcerting efforts of theologies of revolution. Revelation demands this renunciation-the renunciation of illusions, of historic hopes, of references to our own abilities or numbers or sense of justice. We are to tell people and thus to increase their awareness (the offense of the ruling classes is that of trying to blind and deaden the awareness of those whom they dominate). Renounce everything in order to be everything. Trust in no human means, for God will provide (we cannot say where, when, or how). Have confidence in his Word and not in a rational program. Enter on a way on which you will gradually find answers but with no guaranteed substance. All this is difficult, much more so than recruiting guerillas, instigating terrorism, or stirring up the masses. And this is why the gospel is so intolerable, intolerable to myself as I speak, as I say all this to myself and others, intolerable for readers, who can only shrug their shoulders." 
|"||If the disciples had wanted their preaching to be effective, to recruit good people, to move the crowds, to launch a movement, they would have made the message more material. They would have formulated material goals in the economic, social, and political spheres. This would have stirred people up; this would have been the easy way. To declare, however, that the kingdom is not of this world, that freedom is not achieved by revolt, that rebellion serves no purpose, that there neither is nor will be any paradise on earth, that there is no social justice, that the only justice resides in God and comes from him, that we are not to look for responsibility and culpability in others but first in ourselves, all this is to ask for defeat, for it is to say intolerable things.||"|
Ellul discusses these topics in detail in his landmark work, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. He viewed the power of the media as another example of technology exerting control over human destiny. As a mechanism of change, the media are almost invariably manipulated by special interests, whether of the market or the state.
Also within Propaganda Ellul claims that "it is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image". Additionally, people become "caught in a web of facts they have been given. They cannot even form a choice or a judgment in other areas or on other subjects. Thus the mechanisms of modern information induce a sort of hypnosis in the individual, who cannot get out of the field that has been laid out for him by the information". "It is not true that he can choose freely with regard to what is presented to him as the truth. And because rational propaganda thus creates an irrational situation, it remains, above all, propaganda--that is, an inner control over the individual by a social force, which means that it deprives him of himself".
|"||The individual who burns with desire for action but does not know what to do is a common type in our society. He wants to act for the sake of justice, peace, progress, but does not know how. If propaganda can show him this 'how' then it has won the game; action will surely follow".||"|
In response to an invitation from Protestant associations, Ellul visited Germany twice (1934 and 1935). On the second visit he attended a Nazi meeting out of curiosity which influenced his later work on propaganda and its ability to unify a group.
"To throw this wager or secular faith into the boldest possible relief, Ellul places it in dialectical contrast with Biblical faith. As a dialectical contrast to "La Technique," for instance, Ellul writes Sans feu ni lieu (published in 1975, although written much earlier.)"
In explaining the significance of freedom and the purpose for resisting the enslavement of humans via acculturation (or sociological bondage), Ellul rejects the notion that this is due to some supposed supreme importance linked to humanity. He states that modern enslavement expresses how authority, signification, and value are attached to humanity and the beliefs and institutions it creates. This leads to an exaltation of the nation or state, money, technology, art, morality, the party, etc. The work of humanity is glorified and worshiped, while simultaneously enslaving humankind.
|"||...man himself is exalted, and paradoxical though it may seem to be, this means the crushing of man. Man's enslavement is the reverse side of the glory, value, and importance that are ascribed to him. The more a society magnifies human greatness, the more one will see men alienated, enslaved, imprisoned, and tortured, in it. Humanism prepares the ground for the anti-human. We do not say that this is an intellectual paradox. All one need do is read history. Men have never been so oppressed as in societies which set man at the pinnacle of values and exalt his greatness or make him the measure of all things. For in such societies freedom is detached from its purpose, which is, we affirm, the glory of God.||"|
|"||Before God I am a human being... But I am caught in a situation from which there is truly and radically no escape, in a spider's web I cannot break. If I am to continue to be a living human being, someone must come to free me. In other words, God is not trying to humiliate me. What is mortally affronted in this situation is not my humanity or my dignity. It is my pride, the vainglorious declaration that I can do it all myself. This we cannot accept. In our own eyes we have to declare ourselves to be righteous and free. We do not want grace. Fundamentally what we want is self-justification. There thus commences the patient work of reinterpreting revelation so as to make of it a Christianity that will glorify humanity and in which humanity will be able to take credit for its own righteousness.||"|