Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World
By Jacques Ellul
Publisher: Harper & Row
Review Author: John F. Maguire
Jacques Ellul’s Living Faith is a neo-Barthian blast against a world bestridden by pride, greed, egocentric anxieties, eroticism, drugs, sloth, abuse of power, and terror. In the midst of this darkness Ellul bears witness, in a highly self-critical form, to “the specificity, the unique and irreplaceable character of the Christian faith.” “We shall see,” he writes, “that faith, in bringing forth the works of repentance, gives a point-by-point answer to our excesses and our misery.”
In discussing the relationship between faith and history, however, Ellul comes to identify this world of darkness — i.e., “the world” in the hamartiological sense — with history as such. This prevents him from arriving at an adequate theology of the Incarnate Word in history, not to say an adequate theology of Christ’s mystical Body in its historical sojourn. For Ellul, “History as we know it, restless, troubled, topsy-turvy, is a dismal platitude without a single event, eventus, a coming from outside.” Only pure faith can break into history’s “restless monotony.”
Ellul’s pure faith — a naked and formless pistis — saves him from succumbing to any spiritualism of gnostic flight from a hateful world, but at the same time it confines him to a spiritualism of pistic flight. Thus the act of faith loses its Incarnational form.
The first and last act of faith is to acknowledge that we are strangers and exiles, and that perhaps we also have to take an interest, by accident as it were, in what’s happening in this temporary place called the world. But no more than that.
Which tells us something of why Ellul dispatches the historical struggle for human rights with one sharp thrust: Society has become so corrupt that human rights have somehow become superstructural. “In this context ‘rights’ run clean contrary to the gospel of grace.” The consensus of Christendom is that the exact opposite is true. This consensus affirms that the validity of human rights is grounded both in an ontology of the human person (as effective subject of rights and duties) and in Christology — in man’s participation in Christ’s dignity and royalty as firstborn of all creation.
Although a lawyer as well as a theologian, Ellul is unable to find a place in his thought for this affirmation. “When you insist on human rights and women’s rights and the workers’ rights, what does it mean without human beings?” he asks.
A puzzling question perhaps, until one realizes that Ellul believes that through sin man has lost his “true” humanity and therefore has lost every right which derives from this humanity. Human rights are superstructural so long as there is no “true” humanity at “the foundations,” that is, so long as humanity is not restored by the grace of Christ. But, we may briefly reply, this is to confuse the order of redemption with the order of creation.
In addition, it leads to a rejection of the central principle of Christian social doctrine: the common good of persons. “Stop proclaiming the value of your personal welfare and the common good,” we are hectored.
That abominable fraud is never anything more than greed, cupidity, and individual egoism, made seemingly legitimate by the qualifier “common,” which simply means “stronger” or “dominant.”
Much of Ellul’s rhetoric is barely distinguishable from language torn hot and bloody from some excessively right — or left-wing tract, and I daresay that it even appears that “dialectical theology” au style éllulien sometimes joins hands with “dialectical materialism” au style constipé: both identify the Church’s defense of the common good as a form of ideological fraud.
I would be on dangerous ground if I tried to trace too closely a connection between Ellul and Barth. Although both men posit a real antithesis between religion and revelation (between belief and faith; between gnosis and pistis), demoting the former in the name of the latter, Karl Barth moved beyond the naked pistis of Melancthon to discover a true gnosis of beauty contained in revelation in its inner dimension, and therefore (in his Church Dogmatics) could come to a fuller appreciation of the biblical circumincession of Christian belief (true gnosis) and Christian faith (true pistis).
Ellul, however, heads in the opposite direction; he regresses behind the back of Barth, intensifying the extreme opposition between faith and religious beliefs which Barth posited in his early Letter to the Romans. As Ellul puts it, “Of course, I consider Christian beliefs obstacles [to faith].” Indeed, “Faith shatters all religion and everything spiritual.”
This “faith” — “a terrible caustic substance, a burning acid” — corrodes everything, Ellul says; and I am not inclined to disagree, so pistic is his conception of faith that it acquires the corrosiveness of a solipsism: “Faith leaves nothing intact…because it’s awareness of faith itself.”
Ellul’s attitude toward the religion of the Polish people is indicative. Religion has its limited raison d’être only on the level of sociology; here it can become “the deepest self of the people.” Thus the Poles are praised for their steadfast Catholicity in the face of 40 years of official antireligious propaganda, but Ellul’s pisticism constrains him to add that “one could qualify this religion as nothing but ritual and superstition: the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, the attachment to religious forms and authorities, and so forth.”
For Ellul it is a foregone conclusion that religions do nothing but assure group identity (as with Durkheim and Maurras) and foster illusions (as with Feuerbach and Marx). Against all the religions, then, he opposes his pistic supra-religion, “a non-stop shuttling back and forth from remembrance to prophecy, from anamnesis to apocalypse” — a “faith” too diastatic (too disruptive, too “divisive”) to resonate to ecclesial ritual (even if this ritual is the liturgical form of the eucharistic anamnesis of Calvary); a “faith” too restless and agitated to harmonize remembrance (certainly the memory of Mary’s prophetic words “all generations will call me blessed”) and apocalypse (Mary as the Woman of the Apocalypse).
But happily there is no real antithesis between belief and faith because the power of believing (as habitus fidei vivae, as “living faith”) does not reside primarily in the believer himself, but in God, who indwells the believer even as he reveals himself. Nor is there an antithesis between religion and revelation, since, as Hans Urs von Balthasar put it, “the Messiah himself inherits the interior realities of the religions of all peoples, in so far as these contain theophanies and not demonologies.”
Still, when it is not solipsistic, there is an irruptive beauty in Ellul’s conception of faith, imaged by “only the huge index finger of John the Baptist on the Isenheim Altarpiece, pointing to the crucified Christ.”
©1983 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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