The domain of Truth – Jacques Ellul

Before this summer I knew nothing of Jacques Ellul.  I discovered the late French theologian and social critic almost by accident, when I glanced into his book, The Humiliation of the Word, and heard a voice that, as they say, “spoke to my condition” (La Parole humiliée, 1981; ET Erdmans, 1985).

Jacques Ellul (1912-1994)

It’s no secret that philosophy adores the supreme importance of language.  But Ellul takes this principle much more seriously than most philosophers. For him the Word has become the sole provenance of Truth. Which means that Truth must be considered independently of all images and sense data.

“language … permits us to go beyond the reality of mere existence to… something different from the sensually verifiable universe.  Language is not bound to reality, but to its capacity to create this different universe, which you may call surreal, meta-real, or metaphysical. For the sake of convenience we will call it the order of truth. The word is the creator, founder, and producer of truth.” (1.2)

Ellul compensates for this wholesale dethronement of images and other sense data from the court of Truth by readily conceding to them the illustrious name ‘Reality.’

By differentiating Truth from Reality – and by relegating so much interesting stuff to ‘Reality,’ Ellul makes it clear he does not aim to dismiss the significance of images and sense data.  He is determined only to prevent all such categorically foreign elements from obscuring the search for Truth.

I don’t know if Ellul’s generous concession can appease the most shrill acolytes of science, who – unlike actual scientists – believe scientific method to be the universal solvent of all really tough human problems.  But we are probably not equipped for understanding Ellul if we do not thoroughly understand that accuracy is an epistemological value existing on a lower moral level than veracity.

Theologians, too, may find it hard to give up words like ‘image’ and ‘reality’ in honor of Truth – until they remember that this concession is at least in keeping with teachings that have never equated truth-seeking with pursuit of images or of the data of the five senses.

When Ellul differentiates Word from Image, he does not separate language from ‘reality’ – he merely assigns it a certain dominance.  In one example, language shows its power over images and sense data by the fact that the race of speakers hold a distinct evolutionary advantage over non-speaking predators (though we are less endowed with speed, strength, endurance, intuition, reflex, etc.). But Ellul does not view evolutionary advantage as a standard of Truth – in fact he views the evolutionary gains of language as only an epiphenomenon of the Word. While he would admit that language is the secret of material mastery, he would insist that its real essence as the Word unlocks higher attainments that utterly transcend all material forms of success.

“What is Truth?”  Ellul hears the question being asked, but wisely avoids definitions of Truth in terms of observable or identifiable content. Instead he recommends we discover what belongs to the domain of Truth ourselves, by seeking to understand it as the object of our highest human endeavor.

“Anything concerned with the ultimate destination of a human being belongs to the domain of Truth.  And by ‘destination’ in this sense I mean ‘meaning and direction in life’. We can add to this everything that refers to the establishment of a scale of values which allows a person to make significant personal decisions, and everything related to the debate over Justice and Love and their definition.” (1.3)

I’m not sure I have ever underlined a book more often than I did this one.  Jacques Ellul makes me want to go back to Kant’s epoch-making arguments for the primacy of Practical Reason (First and Second Critiques) and reopen the whole discussion on behalf of religion that Fichte more or less fumbled, and that Schleiermacher seems only to have made ambiguous to modern minds.

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I might like Pete Rollins on the Apocalypse

Pete Rollins is planning a talk in Belfast in September to explain that The Apocalypse isn’t coming – it’s already happened.

“Fundamentalist Christianity has long expressed a view of apocalypse as some future event that will consume the present world and replace it with a new one. Yet while this is a bloody and destructive vision, I will argue that it is inherently conservative in nature… For those who hold to such a vision are willing to imagine absolutely everything around them changing so that their present values and beliefs can remain utterly unchanged.  In contrast I will argue that a Christian apocalypse describes something much more radical, namely an event that fundamentally ruptures and re-configures our longings, hopes and desires…”

This resonates with me, although I’m waiting to see where Rollins will take it.  If he has not forgotten his Greek, he will oblige us I hope with a vision of a true ‘apocalypse’ – not earth-scorching destruction but paradigm-shattering revelation.

In January I articulated my own growing sense that the Apocalypse is already history when I called out the folly of Harold (“I did the math”) Camping’s predictions of a Day of Reckoning for May 21 of this year.

All too human!

I see a certain irony in Nietzsche’s reputation as a visionary.  Take, for example, the notorious section of Religious Aphorisms in his 1878 book, Human, all too Human. In this book we have a Nietzsche who admittedly cuts the figure of a kind of modern-day Jeremiah.  He offers great call-outs of Christianity for its outworn creeds and forms, pagan throw-backs, and ritual perversions.  On the other hand, I suspect I could find most of these same kinds of criticisms of ‘religion’ in the Bible itself.

Overall I think Nietzsche’s book fails to confirm his alleged prophetic credentials. When a Voltaire (to whom the book is dedicated) cries out “ecrasez l’infame,” we see that he refers to the superstitious abuses of a certain corrupt institution and walk of life – and rightly so.  But Nietzsche’s alienation from God is complete, and this explains what I see as his fatal flaw.  For he includes in one sweeping condemnation not only the oddities and obvious antiquities of religion’s outward form and teachings – he condemns the religious consciousness itself and the spiritual ground of religion. Dude.

The atheistic perspective on the human quest for God has one critical disadvantage in comparison to the spiritual perspective. Because the spiritually minded prophet enjoys the same insights into the farce of objective creedal and ritual trivia as the atheist – the prophets of Israel condemn these abuses with the same prophetic ardor as a Nietzsche.  The advantage of the spiritual eye is that it is able to see the folly of the sectarian and the secularist – both confuse these trivia of human religion for the substance of the quest for God.

In a new English translation of Nietzsche’s book (by Gary Handwerk, in The Complete Works, Vol. 3, Stanford 1995) I find the title of his infamous aphorism 113 is rendered, Christianity as anachronism.  In my unprofessional opinion I think this is a better rendering of Nietzsche’s meaning than was Walter Kaufmann’s “Christianity as antiquity”  (Viking, 1954, p.52). But herein lies the irony I mentioned at the beginning of my post.

The illusory holy grail for swashbucklers like Nietzsche is the notion that he will find (or has found) an omnipotent psychological explanation of religion, by which the religious consciousness is reduced to elements of illusion and self-consideration. I think Nietzsche himself must have looked for the dawn of a day in which it would simply be unnecessary for philosophers to distinguish between the reality of religious consciousness and the absurdity of some of Christianity’s (or any religion’s) peculiar expressions and outward forms. What he saw was the coming of just such a pseudo-philosopher as Richard Dawkins.

But if it is a category error to confuse the human quest for God with the antique or anachronistic forms of human religion, this quest cannot be explained or replaced by a scientific paradigm or a secular parody of consciousness. We need a return to a philosophy that recognizes that the scientific method by definition can function only on the ‘objective’ outskirts of religion, art, and consciousness (i.e. a return to Kant); the atheist only apes the method of science when he swaggers into the midst of the human quest demanding that it be judged in terms of a strictly physical or scientific humanities and psychology.

It is a false assumption that the student may approach the reality of man independently of an approach to the reality of God. This false start has contributed to the spectacle of our modern faculties of ‘Human Sciences’ – characterized by various irreconcilable schools of thought, each supported by a tissue of footnoted cross-references to great piles of like-minded studies. I suggest that this dreary edifice is the academic version of the ugly, dysfunctional modernist Pruitt-Igoe apartments inspired by Le Corbusier. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972 has been characterized by Charles Jencks as “the end of modern architecture.” What is needed is a postmodernist critique that shall render the whole 100-year modernist cul-de-sac in the Humanities to the cool of library storage – where the fallacy of man without God can be studied as a curiosity of history – the supreme anachronism of the ‘modern’ age.

‘Day of Shame’ for some pulpits in the U.S.

Unfortunately for our democracy, some Protestant pastors will not be celebrating a true Reformation Sunday this weekend.  They worship instead an unorthodox holy day of their own making – they are ending a season of lawbreaking and profane secular involvement with a feast day of Mammon which ought to be called The Last Sunday before Elections. The unholy season started on Sept. 26, with a thing called ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday.’

It is not clear how many preachers plan this Sunday to use the authority of their high calling to allege some kind of divine sanction of blessing or damnation for their own personal political choices.  The braver of these ignorant shepherds have already sent tape recordings of their Sept 26 sermons to the IRS, at the suggestion of the so-called Pulpit Freedom movement, which hopes to aid them if any lawsuits are initiated by the Government.

These pastors seem to misunderstand the perfectly legal connection the IRS is making between their tax-exempt status and the restriction that they not interfere with their local, state, and national commerce or politics.

All right then.  I would hope the IRS will exercise due diligence in taking up a limited number of these challenges.  The most air-tight cases are probably few, but let’s begin with those where there is hard evidence that a pastor has endorsed a local, state, or national political group or candidate who also enjoys the privilege of tax exemption on donations made to that particular church.  Look for cases where a state judge or congressman has made a significant donation – particularly if not a member of the church.  Because that’s where we’re headed if the tax-free pulpit endorsement becomes a reality.  Once preachers are free to endorse candidates from the pulpit, a very significant amount of tax-free influence goes up ‘for sale’ which is otherwise purchasable only through taxable media and canvassing outlets.

I don’t doubt that these unsophisticated preachers of God feel very righteous in their decision to go this way.  But seriously, they risk becoming the dupes of astute power brokers who would be very glad to manipulate the churches as ‘combines’ of political and market forces.

Fortunately, most pastors know the ‘Pulpit Freedom’ ruse is wrong

Obviously there are spiritual issues as well.  If you enter one of these stricken congregations this Sunday, expect to witness an overt flouting of both material and spiritual law.

(1) The preacher may blaspheme the will of God by equating it with his own narrow political view.

(2) The preacher may divide the very body of Christ entrusted to his care – by calling their votes either holiness or sin, depending on conformity to his own pompous choice.

(3) The preacher’s church may even enjoy lavish gifts (tax deductible) from the very same local, state, or national office-seeker or party whose views are being touted from the pulpit.

The church’s sacred calling ought to remove it from secular commercial and political affiliation.   Pastors who desire to preach like Jeremiah should be so pious as to end their acceptance of tax-exempt donations.

My problem with evangelical radio

For years I have had my liberal ears scorched by brief daily exposures to evangelical theology on my clock radio, dialed to a local ‘Family Radio’ station.  It’s eye-opening, certainly, and it prevents me from getting too comfortable in bed.

I used to wake up to a regular sermon spot by the late Adrian Rogers (the spot went away after he died).  Preachers like Rogers are fascinating.  Coming on all southern-fried with that big Johnny Cash voice, but I still remember one ‘family sermon’ that got my goat.

He started with an unobjectionable mix of moral and religious exhortation, a simple Doctor Phil wisdom with a Christian spin that would help anyone raising a family.

“Kids learn from example,”
“Parents should practice what they preach,”
“Love heals all wounds,” etc.

Well, yeah.

Next, a touching family story, with a moral (“…which just goes to show you, friends, we’d be lost without our families”)… at which point I’m thinking, “Man he’s right, I would be lost without my family!”

Then he sets a more serious tone.  A call for soul-searching, a gentle scolding, a little “nobody’s perfect,” “make an effort with the kids,” “stay with it for better or for worse,” etc.  All of this secular wisdom and morality; by now I’m thinking, where’s the Gospel?

But there wasn’t going to be any gospel.  Rogers suddenly and very simply forgets everything Jesus stands for.  His voice grows grim with warning tones, he places undue emphasis on some hard-boiled, out-of-the way place in the Bible, and then finds a point Jesus was trying to make and gives it a kind of nasty, judgmental spin that takes the heart right out of it.

I listen in horror as this old silvertongue leads me into dry and drier pastures, apart from all waters, until he takes away all my strength.  He has carefully spread a banquet of perfect calumny and fear in the presence of my enemies.  I hear how there’s a dangerous devourer of families out there, a cosmic enemy, who wants to bring an end to all our families.  All that sweetness and light I find is at stake in a terrific battle with Satan.

Finally – his ‘good news’ – I can be very thankful that this great cosmic evil is being ably challenged by … by Dr. James Dobson (er what!?).

And last comes the clincher:  the devil is very crafty, and the battle is a lot tougher than it needs to be, because a lot of well-meaning but utterly misguided and dangerous efforts are coming from “the Libruls” – who are just making the enemy’s work that much easier… etc.

O.M.G!

Friends, preaching like this has not gone away, and it must certainly be contributing to the destruction of our national discourse.  If our evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ appear unduly scared and angry, it’s because they have been flat-out lied to by their bad-shepherds – about the Bible, about God’s will, and about the motives of over half their fellow Americans.

The rejection of ‘Christian’ economics – a short defense

A recent post over at Diglotting rejects the idea that New Testament principles and example can be normative for economic theory.  I agree in principle, but think this position needs a defense against the usual criticism that it unfairly neutralizes the NT’s apparent sanction of socialism.

My short defense leaves aside the question of specific logia of Jesus and looks only at the example of communalism in the early Jerusalem Christian church (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37).

People often treat this example in accordance with pre-arranged views of the value of their own economic philosophy. Those opposed to communalism will marshal supporting evidence which minimizes the degree to which this compelling example of careless love was manifest in the church; those in favor of communalism will demand that we take the text as it stands.

It is not necessary, however, to paint this communal economy as only a partial socialism, or an outreach to the poor, or the result of expectations that the world should end.  Instead I join those who would ‘take the text as it stands,’ but argue that we have historical evidence ‘standing’ elsewhere in the NT that the communalist program in Jerusalem was opposed to the divine will and unblessed by any success beyond its first 2 decades, after which it collapsed in misery.

From the letters of Paul, dating little later than 20 years after Pentecost, it appears that the church at Jerusalem was not any longer able even to provide for its own poor (Gal2:9ff).  James, Cephas, and John were driven to the humiliating extreme of prevailing upon Paul’s gentile churches to raise funds for this purpose on behalf of the mother church.  But Paul’s own words indicate that the community at large – all the saints – are in poverty.  He calls his fund-raising mission: “contribution for the saints” 1Cor 16:1ff; “relief of the saints” 2Cor 8:1ff; “offering for the saints” 2Cor 9:1ff; “ministry for the saints” Rom 15:25.

I think it stands to reason that, if membership reached a plateau in Jerusalem soon after Pentecost, fresh revenues must have dried up.  The ‘saints’ who had joyously (and rashly) liquidated their property and capital in the early days would eventually fall into extremes of poverty not as individuals but as a group.

We can’t say for sure, because Rome put an end to the experiment not long after Paul’s final infusion of gentile cash – a trip whose necessity was the occasion of his arrest, deportation, imprisonment at Rome, and eventual execution.

My point is that nothing in this communalist form of economy has the ring of God’s infallible will.  Until it collapsed, the love-economy presided over by James, Peter, and John (themselves poor from the beginning) was only a sadly mistaken application of Jesus’ small-group missionary principles to the realities of long-term self-sustaining societies.

NOTE: That the poverty of the Jerusalem Christians was due to their practice of communalism of property and goods has the authority of Augustine (cited by Rt. Rev. A. Robertson, Commentary on First Corinthians (ICC), 1911,  p.382).

No necessary link between atheism and humanism?

[Revised Sept 18, 2010 – changes in boldface]

I recently found a very stimulating set of posts going back to July over at The Immanent Frame, featuring critiques and discussion of Stefanos Geroulanos’ new book, entitled An Atheism that is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (Stanford U Press 2010).

In two related posts, Geroulanos outlines the development of an anti-humanist line of thought among high-profile French atheists writing from 1925-55.  What follows is not a review of the book (there’s a link to the book at the site).  This is a simple Sunday afternoon take-off from my view of the book’s historical thesis.

I suggest that these French writers have uncovered a truth about atheism as well as a “new” negative view of humanism.  This discovery was made available to them in the chaos of their unique experience of the apocalyptic failure of civilization between 1914-1939.  Leaving aside the meaning of this collapse for Christian sectarianism (which is certainly implicated and condemned in that catastrophe as well, in my view), I would argue that the atheist’s sudden aversion to humanism represents more than a ‘localized’ historical artifact.  It seems more likely the case that the intensity of the historical crucible in which they lived and thought had attained the specific toxicity required to show the link between the two to be dissolved – proving atheism and humanism to be ultimately unrelated.

I’m tempted to go so far as to suggest that all philosophical atheisms which call themselves “humanist” are simply naive – that atheism has always had the seed of anti-humanism within it.  Admittedly that’s a bit of a stretch.  I doubt Geroulanos would consent to all or any of my conjectures, but I can say he has caused some wheels to turn from my side.

And I’m perfectly cognizant of the fact that there is a brand of theism whose anthropology might be called anti-humanist as well.  This theistic anti- humanism is not new, however, and I believe it is wrong, and that the true Christianity is one which has the seed of a true pro-humanism within it.  But this could be easily misunderstood.

Still interesting, I think, to consider both atheism and humanism as quite independent impulses rather than joined at the hip, as all of our benevolent and self-righteous new atheists imply.

Tillich: Against idolization of prelimary concerns as ultimate

Ultimate concern is the abstract translation of the great commandment:  “The Lord, our God, the Lord is one; … (etc., Mk 12:29).

“The religious concern is ultimate; it excludes all other concerns from ultimate significance; it makes them preliminary….  Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy.  Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial is boosted into universality, and something essentially finite is given infinite significance (the best example is the contemporary idolatry of religious nationalism).  The conflict between the finite basis of such a concern and its infinite claim leads to a conflict of ultimates; it radically contradicts the biblical commandments….

“Theology cannot and should not give judgments about the aesthetic value of an artistic creation, about the scientific value of a physical theory or a historical conjecture, about the best methods of medical healing or social reconstruction, about the solution of political or international conflicts.  The theologian as theologian is no expert in any matters of preliminary concern.  And, conversely, those who are experts in these matters should not as such claim to be experts in theology.”  (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. I, p.11-13)

I have noticed that Christians are prone to this idolatry described by Tillich when they attempt to discern the relation of their own political and social roles to the text of the great commandment, “… and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  But I see enough value in Tillich’s theological criterion to attempt its use under the conditions he imposes.  Certainly there must be a possible inward response to the biblical command which does not translate these ancient words as a call for an outward theocracy. 

“Physical or historical or psychological insights can become objects of theology, not from the point of view of their cognitive form, but from the point of view of their power of revealing some aspects of that which concerns us ultimately in and through their cognitive form.  Social ideas and actions, legal projects and procedures, political programs and decisions, can become objects of theology, not from the point of view of their social, legal and political form, but from the point of view of their power of actualizing some aspects of that which concerns us ultimately in and through their social, legal, and political forms.” (p.13-14)

Rhetoric, or possibility?  The subtlety of the distinction Tillich draws here is in need of fleshing out (which he does in the rest of his Introduction).  But I have known a few Evangelicals and Catholics for whom it is too much trouble – who interpret the great commandment in a manner Tillich would call idolatrous.  As if nothing in the whole world could be called “subtle” except the so-called devil, and all his works.