Ellul: Jesus and the Opposite of Technology

French Historian Jacques Ellul TalkingSo I mentioned last week that Jacques Ellul was a major influence in my spiritual formation. My guess is that most people have never even heard of him, which I hadn’t either until I discovered him in graduate school at West Virginia University. I had just returned from Nepal and was interested in learning more about community development and WVU had one of the top programs at the time. Part of our course work was examining the effects of technology on society.

The class was more theoretical in nature, which I rather enjoyed, and a key piece of the syllabus was Ellul’s major work The Technological Society. To be honest it was a tough read, not unlike Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, so I am assuming it is just because they were both French: way deeper thinkers than me.

The main thrust of the book was to provide for the reader an understanding of technique and technology. He argues that technique (of which technology and things like iPhones and Tesla cars and the interstate highway system are the result) is all pervasive and becoming more so in modern society; in fact, he would go so far to say that it is a kind of power, a force that gives it a personality and something like a will. And that will is exerting itself on the world in very specific ways.

Some of the characteristics of technique he claims are things like: artificiality, rationality, efficiency, monism (makes everything one), universality (is everywhere), autonomy, progress. Of course, he has very long and detailed arguments for each of these (and many more characteristics) but even on the surface we can see that these are pretty evident characteristics of technology, and the underlying motive force of technique.

Now this may or may not be interesting to you; it was somewhat intriguing to me on a philosophical, graduate school level, but I had to take the course, so I read the book. Where things really stared to take off for me, was one day after class when one of my fellow students, asked if I had ever read any of Ellul’s theological books. I know, I had no idea either.

It turns out Ellul wrote just about as much about theology and Jesus as he did about technology. This was interested to me because they seemed to be very different, distinct subjects in my mind. I did a little digging and discovered that, in fact, Ellul’s theological works was intended to be what he called a “counterpoint” to his theories on technology. Two sides of the same coin.

This really interested me and actually became the foundation for my dissertation a couple years later. What I found was that for every characteristic of technique there was an opposing characteristic to be found in Jesus. Where we see the artificiality of technology, we have the supernatural incarnation of Christ; rationality sits opposite the miracles he performed; the imperative of efficiency we have in our technological society is in stark contrast to Jesus’ decision to abandon the city and try to start a new movement on the wilderness, where there are no people. The comparisons (or contrast, I should say) go on and on. There is real tension between Jesus and our ever-dominated culture, a milieu more and more dominated by the power and personality of technique.

If you are thinking this makes me an anti-technologist, a Luddite, then you’d be wrong. Technique, in its position opposite Jesus, actually provides a certain kind of meaning, that is very helpful, necessary I’d say. Kind of like how you need to know what black is, if you are ever going to understand white. Opposites give meaning to one another and this is the important relationship of Christ and technique.

What’s more I have found that there is a very practical aspect to all this: how should we, as Christians live, or perhaps more precisely, engage the technological society, being strangers, like Christ, after all? I think there are some very specific actions we can take. For example, the extreme imperative of rationality required by technique requires a life of trans-rational faith by Christians (I do not think that irrational is necessarily the opposite of rational, but that’s another discussion). Artificiality, what Ellul calls violence against the natural world, probably requires incarnational, supernatural living, the divine mixing with the natural world, not destroying it.

There’s a lot to think about with Ellul and I plan to work some of this out over the next year or so. I believe Ellul is profoundly important for today’s society, and for Christians especially. There are powerful, yet subtle, forces at work still practical ways we can be engaged in the struggle for God’s kingdom. I think Ellul has some brilliant insights and I hope to be able to expound and maybe reintroduce some of his key ideas from decades ago.

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