Take a quick look at Jacques Ellul and the descriptors pile up: historian, thinker, sociologist, philosopher, theologian, anarchist, christian, etc. It’s clear that he’s no one-dimensional academic. Excited to get a better grasp of the thinking that has influenced and challenged 20th century Christendom (not to mention culture in general), I picked up a copy of this slim CBC publication.
In 1979, Willem H. Vanderburg was tasked by the CBC to interview Ellul for a series of radio programs. The public response to the 1979 broadcast and 1980 rebroadcast led to the publication of the interviews.
When you read this book you’ll hear Ellul’s own voice, guided by Vanderburg, one of his personal acquaintances.
Ellul’s Early Life
Ellul was born in the South of France to a poor family. He became enamored at an early age by Marx and developed a disdain for the capitalism. Despite this early affinity, he became disillusioned by the hypocrisy evident in the Communist Party.
In 1932, Ellul became a Christian but didn’t give up Marxism. When he read Marx’s criticisms of Christianity he learned what Christians should not be. His background in Marxism gave him the sociological tools to criticize the established Church (which is not equivalent to the body of Christ).
Academic life was a natural fit for Ellul. He became an assistant lecturer at the University of Strasbourg, but after speech urging his students to stand up to German demands, he was dismissed. He was forced to join the Resistance where he raised sheep and grew potatoes.
Ellul and Technology
For Ellul, there have been two great sociological shifts in human existence. The first was the movement from hunter-gatherer society to agricultural community. As this shift happened, people were ripped from their familiar milieu (direct connection to the land) to a mediated relationship in villages and towns. The second shift is the shift to our technological society.
Technology was despised by Ellul. I should be more specific—he was against “the authoritarian power that the ‘technocrats’ seek to exercise, as well as the fact that technology determines our lives without our being able to intervene or, as yet, to control it” (26). This shift to a technological society has alienated many people. The elderly, for example, are particularly vulnerable.
As the first shift moved the base of power from the best hunter-gatherer to the best politician, the second shift has moved power from the aristocracy to the technical experts (the new, true aristocracy).
In response to our technological milieu, many have sought escape in religion. This explains why religion now usually takes the form of spiritualism.
Our shift to a technological society is especially difficult for the Third World. Western culture has had centuries to make the shift. “How then can the Third World endure the shock, psychologically and sociologically, when it is asked to absorb this technological apparatus and this technological system in just a few years” (77)?
It’s clear that we cannot return to a pre-technological society. We must teach our children to live simultaneously in and against technology—”a very delicate balance” (83).
Religion v. Faith
In light of the extreme challenge raised by our technological society and the changes it has foisted upon humanity, Ellul found firm footing in Christian faith.
It’s important to note that Christian faith is entirely different from religion. Religion is a natural product of every society—the glue which holds society together. Christian revelation is not only dissimilar to religion, it stands in opposition to it. Following Barth, Ellul believes that God is the Wholly Other who cannot be understood unless he reveals himself to us. Where religion comes from a feeling to rise toward God, Christian revelation is God’s descent to us.
In religion, we try to use the deity. In Christian revelation (95):
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 and only rarely in a place where He is expected, a God who is truly beyond our grasp. Thus, the human religious feeling is not at all satisfied by this situation.
Another hallmark of religion is morality. For Ellul, Christian morality is “ultimately an antimorality” (97). While we can genuinely speak of Christian ethics, Christian revelation has no morality. Here Ellul explains the difference (97):
Morality is a kind of catalogue of rules that one must obey. An ethics is an orientation toward life that calls upon us to develop all our possibilities.
Christian revelation offers a reality—an other—that technology can never assimilate that gives the Christian a firm footing from which to criticize the systemic influence of the technological society.
—Jacques Ellul, Jacques Ellul Speaks on His Life and Work, ed. Willem H. Vanderburg, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (Toronto: ON: CBC Enterprises, 1981).