“They Unchained the Monster”

January 1999By Daniel Nichols

Daniel Nichols, who was the Editor of the now-defunct Catholic magazine Caelum et Terra, is a freelance writer.

Sources & Trajectories: Eight Early Articles by Jacques Ellul That Set the Stage.  By Jacques EllulTranslation and Commentary by Marva J. Dawn. Eerdmans. 208 pages. $30.



The French thinker Jacques Ellul is best known for his critique of technological modernity, beginning with his book The Technological Society (translated into English in 1964, 10 years after it was published in French). His thought was wide-ranging — he wrote on prayer, politics, Scripture, ethics, and much more. But it is his analysis of technique in modern civilization, of the domination of the human by the technological, that remains most influential.

Ellul’s faith was Christian, intensely so. It is, indeed, startling to see such childlike faith in a modern intellectual. This faith was the fruit of what Ellul called “a brutal and very sudden conversion” when he was 20. After some tentative interest in Catholicism, Ellul joined the French Reformed Church. (His father was an unbeliever with an Orthodox background, his mother a believing Protestant.) It was Calvinism, tempered and reoriented by Karl Barth, that gave structure to Ellul’s prophetic intuitions, though it also created inner tensions that render his thought sometimes at odds with those very intuitions.

The book opens with Ellul’s preface to his first major article, “Chronicle of the Problems of Civilization,” published in 1946. Ellul states dramatically his apocalyptic view of civilization after World War II. “We are at an absolutely decisive point — such as there has never been before.” Against the many economists and political thinkers proposing “technical solutions” for problems, Ellul contended that such “realism” assumes relativism and rationalism, and argued that the roots of the contemporary crisis were spiritual. Ellul pointed out the moral vacuum at the heart of the modern world’s appeal to success and its infatuation with the triumphs of technique: “the result of political realism…is exactly the disappearance of the person” and “political realism leads to the annihilation of civilization and of humankind.”

(Why “humankind” and not “man”? In her preface the translator states that she has rendered Ellul into “inclusive language,” a dubious effort on which I will remark later.)

Such passages exemplify Ellul’s passion. “Prophetic” is the inevitable word for his work. A fiery courage shines through his writing. But prophets have flaws, and Ellul’s emerge in some of the essays that follow.

In “On Christian Pessimism,” Ellul sketches his essentially Calvinist worldview. While Catholics (and the Eastern Orthodox) share his belief in the Fall and in sin, they would find his views too pessimistic.

Another essay, “The Meaning of Freedom According to St. Paul,” is more radically Protestant. A Catholic cannot follow Ellul far, for the Catholic is soon immersed in a Protestant dualism of Law vs. Freedom. While Ellul’s initial, bare statements suggest antinomianism, he — like a good Protestant — backs away from that abyss. Everything is permitted, he says, but we are to do all things for the glory of God, which he interprets as meaning for the edification of others. It isn’t a big leap, though, from the edification of others to the opinion of others, and the path to freedom in the spirit may detour toward the respectability of the bourgeois or the rigid right-thinking of the Pharisee. (St. Peter warned us that St. Paul’s writings were tricky, didn’t he?)

In the essays “The Contemporaneity of the Reformation” and “Christian Faith and Social Reality,” we see that Ellul’s Protestant dualism cuts through his very soul: It is a matter not only of Law vs. Freedom but of Nature vs. Grace. To quote Ellul: “Assuredly one of the most important consequences of the Reformation with regard to the world was…desacralization…. The Reformers remind [us] vigorously that God is in heaven and…that the world is the locus of the Prince of this world; that…the world is the world. It is in no way inhabited by sacred powers…there is no mystery in the world….”

Ellul says that the point of medieval (i.e., Western Catholic) civilization had been “finding in everything the point of connection between nature and grace, between the reality of the world and the truth of God, between the humanly possible and the demand of the Spirit….” Ellul is delighted that “here the Reformers brutally interfere with this subtle, delicate construction…. There is no sacrality in the world, neither the state nor even the church is sacred anymore. Things are the way they are; there aren’t any spirits in them at all; matter is matter…. There is nothing venerable in nature…nothing is in itself, by itself, prohibited…no possible continuity exists between nature and grace.”

A Catholic polemicist could not have stated the Reformed position more starkly. Ellul, of course, notes the dualism with approval, for once the sacred is banished from the world — and a Christian social order is not possible — the individual can only respond personally to the Word of God. “The individual is thus summoned to becoming aware, and this was without a doubt [another] great work of the Reformation….”

Here we see the dualism that severed Ellul’s own soul. The inner contradiction is this: Ellul — Christian environmentalist, critic of technology, enemy of depersonalization — affirms the very ideas that set in motion the forces he spent his life fighting. He does so in the name of Protestant individualism. In this, Ellul, the eloquent critic of modernity, reveals himself to be thoroughly modern.

Yet Ellul sometimes sees the connection: “the enterprise of the Reformers ended in failure. By their liberation of the world and engaging in a tension with it…they unchained the monster, and the monster was too strong for them.” But contradicting this, he says elsewhere: “It is not for us today to ask whether [the Reformers] succeeded. But it is assuredly asked of us today to adopt the same attitude.”

What blind faith in the Calvinist outlook! But why shouldn’t we ask whether the Reformers succeeded? And if our questioning leads us to suspect that the Reformers did not simply unchain the monster but in fact created it, might that not bring us to an existential point of decision?

It is astonishing that Ellul, monster-fighter extraordinaire, never reached this point. Whence came this adherence to the Calvinist Reformation even in the face of its monstrous consequences?

We can only speculate. Ellul wrote elsewhere of his initial interest in Catholicism, but said, “It did not greatly excite me” and “I felt…that Protestantism was closer to the Bible.” And while much of his religious writing is an implicit argument with Catholic holism, he only rarely mentions the Church. In this volume his one explicit mention of the Church is almost comic in its wrongheadedness. He calls her an “enormous machinery of rules, of laws, of moralities, of organizations.” He makes no mention of sacrament, mystery, or sanctity. How strangely errant — like a man who, seeing the wall round a garden, would describe a garden as something stiff and hard, composed of mortar and stone.

But since Ellul describes the Reformed tradition as “opposed…to mystery,” perhaps external structure is all he can see. And perhaps his wild misunderstanding of the nature of the Church — not uncommon, after all, among Protestants — was enough to compel his unswerving allegiance to the Reformation, even while he acknowledged its failures and applauded (in The Technological Society) the limits that medieval (i.e., Catholic) culture put on technological development. In a desacralized world, where there is “no mystery in the world,” the progression from theocentric to anthropocentric to technocentric society, which Ellul named 50 years before Neil Postman, becomes inevitable.

These problems should not discourage one from reading Ellul’s social criticism. His Calvinism does not enter those works. Few have analyzed the technological milieu so brilliantly, and readers often assume from the tone of his work that he is a Catholic. In fact, many Catholic Workers have adopted him as a patron.

As for Sources and Trajectories, it is a well-conceived presentation, with background sketches that introduce each essay and an afterword that tells us where in Ellul’s later work these early ideas are elaborated. All this is helpful to a reader making Ellul’s acquaintance for the first time. But a warning: The translator, Marva J. Dawn, says in her preface that “because of Ellul’s emphasis on the person, his abhorrence of violence, and his very great kindness to visitors (myself included), I think he would be using inclusive language by now….”

At the risk of being thought impersonal, violent, and possibly unkind to visitors, I must disagree. Her imposition of an avowed politico-linguistic program upon Ellul is a disservice all round. First, she is a translator, not a redactor, and taking liberties with his text can only arouse a reader’s distrust. Second, making one of the most incisive critics of our century’s conformist and time-serving politics sound “politically correct” is absurdly off the mark. I haven’t Ellul’s original French before me, but when Dawn represents him as writing “the average person…from her own personal perspective,” I am dubious. Third, so-called inclusive language is sometimes exclusive, as in the above sentence. (It is also exclusive when “man” is replaced by “men and women,” which excludes children, infants, and unborn babies.) Moreover, so-called inclusive language is sometimes ungrammatical and almost always clumsy.

Where other translations of Ellul simply employ the collective “man,” Dawn gives us now “humankind,” now “people,” now “average person.” I notice, however, that she doesn’t spare us the masculine when Satan is mentioned: The traditional patriarchal title “Prince of this world” appears several times, not emended by Dawn to read “Prince or Princess of this world.”

I don’t know what else Dawn has imposed on Ellul’s work, but certainly her banishment of the simple collective “man” results in wooliness and a reduction of his impact, for “man” is concrete and resonant — particular and universal at once — and all of Dawn’s makeshift substitutes are partial and abstract. Dawn speculates that Ellul would have welcomed her imposition of a feminist program. Because he is dead, he is unable to confirm that. But he died in 1994, long after the “inclusive language” bandwagon was rolling, so I doubt that he would have been happy with Dawn’s interventions. Ellul possessed an uncanny ability to transcend the foolishness of his times, and he is poorly served by making him speak a fad dialect of English.



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