How Jacques Ellul Helps Us Grapple with It All
“It’s the question that drives us, Neo. It’s the question that brought you here. You know the question, just as I did.”
“What is the Matrix?”
“The answer is out there, Neo. It’s looking for you. And it will find you if you want it to.”
That’s right. Cheesy quotes from The Matrix. But there is a lot of truth in the telling of that tale. We live in a cultural, an historical moment with a predominant narrative, a story that is told about our society and how it works. But cracks have started to appear over the last few years. Inconsistencies. Hypocrisies. Crisis after crisis, none of them handled well. Something is wrong, but what? Where did things go wrong? How do these things actually work?
The answers seem like they should exist, if just beyond our field of vision. But when we turn our heads to look, the thing we thought we saw isn’t there. But the feeling stays with us: something is wrong. What have we missed? The thing is, there are people who did and do see, and they tried and do try to prepare us and warn us. They predicted much of the shape and character of the moment we are now living. Jacques Ellul is one such author.
Ellul was a French sociologist, historian, philosopher and theologian who did most of his writing from 1950-1990. A Marxist in his late teens, he converted to Christianity at the age of 20, a journey that began with a theophanic experience while reading Faust when he was 17. He was deeply influenced in his Christian faith by Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth. Ellul was a layman in the Reformed Church of France.
Why read Ellul? I would argue that the primary value in reading him is not so much for the answers he gives to the problems we face, but rather for his piercing analysis of the problems themselves. Central to this analysis is our relationship to technology. What is technology? It is the embodiment of the idea of “Progress.” Perhaps deeper than this, it is power; the power to harness and control nature; the power to harness and control resources and people at scale; the power to make obscene amounts of money. Mostly, though, “Progress” promises us the power to save ourselves from the human condition. So, what is it and how does it work?
This seems like an obvious sort of question in a society like ours where the use of technology is ubiquitous. But it is not nearly as straightforward as one might assume. We tend to look at technology in terms of devices and machines. This is a component of technology, but not its most important part. The device is the end product, the visible manifestation of something that is essentially, at its heart, a way of thinking about the world. Many technologies are implemented and used without there ever being a physical device to represent it. The technical pattern of thinking is the “product.” Ellul calls this way of thinking, “technique.”
“Technique has now become almost completely independent of the machine.”
What is technique? It is a way of thinking about the world that abstracts and rationalizes all knowledge. Prior to the advent of the technical system and the rise of technique, mankind used tools and technology, but they did so within the context of an embedded, organic situation in which knowledge was contained within memory and community. The knowledge of how to use tools was held within persons and was taught through processes of formal and informal apprenticeship and socialization. Adaptations were slow. Often, one tool was put to many uses. What was decisive was the skill of the craftsman to get the most out of his tools. Across society, this was the case in numerous situations. Laws were simple and traditional and held largely within the memory of the community. A handful of rules could be applied to a wide range of situations by the wisdom and skill of the members of the society.
Then at a certain point, these embedded processes began to be examined, and the essentials were abstracted and developed into systems that could be reproduced in different contexts. Also, it could be progressively improved through observation and feedback loops. The idea is to come up with the one best way of doing everything. The other possibility is developing a machine that can replace human at work. The goal is to reduce human variability, producing consistent reliable results regardless of persons. No longer is the knowledge vested in people. Instead, it now lies in policies, procedures, programming, devices, and machines. Persons are now “trained” to adapt themselves to the system rather than the other way around. This approach is immensely powerful and allows you to harness resources and people and produce consistent results, achieving economies of scale unimagined by people living in the pre-technical society.
Think about the difference this way, in terms of a family Christmas dinner. You have a set of multi-generational traditions surrounding the whole Christmas celebration. It’s all embedded in the memory of the family. Everyone new, whether spouse or child, is folded into these traditions, to the way the family does things. Perhaps these new members of the family make suggestions, bringing new ideas with them. Perhaps they are rejected. Or they might be folded into the complex of traditions after being carefully tested and adapted to the culture of the family. This is the way everything was done prior to the advent of technique. Now, we go on Amazon and order what seems like the perfect book: “Planning a Magical Christmas: A Foolproof 12 Step Guide” and follow the step-by-step process, including everything from decorations to, menu planning, invitations and even implementing “traditions.” The later example is nearly ubiquitous across our society in everything from manufacturing quality control processes, to teaching methodologies to growing churches. Everything in life can be abstracted, refined, and turned into a policy or a repeatable process thus bringing consistent outcomes.
This way of thinking, argues Ellul, has a number of identifiable characteristics:
- Rationality. Technique is always the application of rationality. It is never organic. Any rationally conceived plan, solution, method, approach, system and so forth is thus technical in nature, regardless of its outward form or its place in the historical progression of technical development. Thus, something like the American constitutional plan, because of its inherent rationality (i.e. It did not emerge organically. A group of men met together and developed the system. A planning committee.) is essentially a technique-based solution. Whether this rationality is applied to building rockets, running the government, or growing churches, these approaches are technical in nature.
- Artificiality. At its heart, technique is opposed to nature. It is ideological. Technique never emerges naturally or organically. It is always developed and imposed. It is the creation of an artificial system. Technique destroys, eliminates, and subordinates the natural world and makes it impossible to enter into a truly symbiotic relationship with it.
- Automatism. Technique is always pursuing the “one best way” to do anything. Whether that is a political system, or running a Fortune 500 company, or testing intelligence, or teaching students, there is always a single “best way” or a “best practice” for everything. If this single best way has not been yet found, the quest is to continually refine existing techniques until it is. The goal of technique is always working to achieve the most efficient way of doing anything.
- Self-Augmentation. Once it reaches a tipping point, which we passed long ago, technique will proliferate almost without human intervention. One technique suggests the next. It becomes the default way to approach every problem, every new situation. Modern man is so absorbed in technique, so convinced of its superiority, that without exception he is oriented towards technical progress. Technical progress is equated with human progress.
- Technical progress is non-reversible. What this means is that there is an axiomatic nature to technique. Technique and the technical are seen as a sign of progress. Non-technical means are at best seen as quaint, but generally as backward or retrograde. To reject technique is to reject the very idea of human progress. All flaws in technique thus must be fixed by new and supposedly better techniques.
- Technical progress is always geometric in nature. As the technical system proliferates, its complexity and sophistication grow exponentially. Thus, the problems which accompany it will also grow exponentially. But because of the abstract, rationalized nature of technique, the whole system becomes increasingly abstract in nature.
- Monism. The technical phenomenon embraces all the separate techniques in order to form a single seamless technical whole. This is a process of self-augmentation, where techniques now depend upon and reinforce other techniques. It is a single grand entity that encompasses much of life and strives to include all things within its purview. Everything must be subjected to technical rationalization and control. In this sense, technique, as an ideology, is inherently totalitarian in nature. It desires to subordinate all things to its exigencies. More than this, it insists that all thinking be in accord with the demands of technique.
But this technological system is not value-neutral. This is a common mistake when thinking about technology and technique, argues Ellul. It is neither good, bad or neutral. Rather, technique does not care. It is ambivalent. All technique has its own internal telos that will be realized. Ellul argues that this ambivalence has four distinct characteristics:
First, all technical progress has its price.
In other words, there is a cost to using technique and technology. You cannot opt out of paying the price when you use a technology. Every technique—plan method, system—every technology—machine, device, tool—will have positives, that is, good things that come from its implementation; and it will also have negatives, that is, bad or evil things that come as a result of its use. There is no escaping this two-fold nature of technique. All technology has its positives and its negatives, its good and its bad. The technology does not care. When you use it, you will get both. Very often the benefits are front-loaded, making it easy to sell the “obvious” benefits of its implementation.
Second, at each stage it raises more and greater problems than it solves.
Every time you use technology and technique to solve a problem—usually one generated in the first place by technique—there will be positives for sure, but you will generate more problems than you solved. Those problems will grow with each new layer of technology. They will grow in number, complexity and abstraction along a curve that is exponential. As society becomes more technically sophisticated, so too will its problems grow in direct relationship to the level of complexity.
Third, its harmful effects are inseparable from its beneficial effects.
This states more boldly and expands upon the first point. Bad effects will come from the use of every technology. There is nothing you can do in terms of design or planning to prevent the negative effects from coming because they are directly tied to the benefits you receive from its implementation.
Fourth, it has a great number of unforeseen effects.
Not only can you not gain benefits from technology without the accompanying harms, but there are also a whole lot of both good and bad effects that you cannot account for in advance. There is no amount of planning or testing that will reveal all of the effects of a technique, both good and bad. And as we noted in the first rule, while the benefits are front loaded, very often the costs, the ills, harms, and evils which come from the introduction of techniques and technologies come later. By the time the harms begin to manifest themselves, often the benefits have long been accrued. This leads to a cycle in which the next round of technological innovation always seems to promise to solve the problems of the last.
But the technical system has its own telos. It is part of a broader way of thinking that is largely utopian in nature. It is rooted in the notions of the scientific process. You come up with a thesis, then develop a means to test it and once tested you use the results to generate a new, improved, thesis that is then tested again with new results. This is largely how the whole technical system works, whether it is the development of new machines and devices or in the improvement of managerial systems, there is this idea of constant improvement. The goal is to perfect the technology or come up with the one best way to do everything. This is why, at its heart, technological systems are fundamentally progressive in nature.
Marshall McLuhan observed something similar with his dictum, “The medium is the message.” He argued that the fact of the use of a technology was more important than the content. For example, a significant impact of the automobile is how it changes the nature of mobility rather than the content of any one trip you might make. The real significance of the lightbulb is the fact of the lightbulb and not any one particular room you might light up. The real significance of the television is the effect of watching it and its place and role in our lives rather than any one show you might watch. It is obviously better to watch wholesome programming as opposed to porn, but in either case, you are being shaped by the “fact” of the television. You are a couch potato with a three-second attention span. So too, the real significance of the administrative state is the “fact” of the administrative state, not any one set of policies. Also, the fact of a systems approach to “church growth” is more important than their specific Christian content. These systems are inherently “progressive” in nature.
At a deeper level, there really is no such thing as a “conservative” policy regime when discussing the technique. All policy regimes use the same basic operating system, that of technique. Thus, they conform to the seven characteristics of technique talked about above. Because this technical orientation is, as McLuhan says, the true “content,” management systems will take on technical characteristics, that is, they are defined by the medium of technique. This is why all bureaucracies whether small or large, public or private, end up looking and functioning much the same. The system as a whole is driven by an ideological bent: that of technique which is fundamentally in harmony with liberalism as the two share most of the same characteristics rooted in a belief in human progress and self-salvation. The system of the technical administrative state was built by liberals for liberalism. If you ever wondered why Conquest’s second law — “Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing” — is true, this is why. Once you embrace technical and administrative systems, no matter how powerful they are or how useful they are for bringing consistent results, once you embrace technique, you begin a battle against the natural ideological inclinations of technical thinking. This is true for government, business and nonprofits, as well as seemingly tradition-bound organizations like churches. Once you begin the process of using technical systems to grow churches you are essentially embracing the progressive content of the technical system itself.
The purpose of the enframing of the technical world, if it can be given an intent, is to cut us off from God. It does this largely by offering us power, the power of technique. Do you want the power to grow your church at your command? Well, there is this technical system that will give you that power. In that regard, our first and primary act of resistance is to connect ourselves to the real presence of God, to genuinely participate in the divine essence, to root ourselves in the same power by which Jesus fed the 5,000 and the 4,000. Instead, we too readily reach for the yeast of the technical.
There is a real desire today among Christians to seize and wield the state for themselves. But at its heart, the state is a technical system. It has its own telos that is alien to the Christian faith. In many ways, as the Christian faith was pushed into the private realm, the technical administrative state in all its forms, in business, government, NGOs and nonprofits –wherever technique is at work and dominates the thinking of people there too is “the state” (yes, your technique driven mega-church is part of “the state”)—has moved to fill the vacuum that was left behind. Into this void, the technical administrative state rushed in to fill the metaphysical reality of God, faith, and church. The administrative state in all its forms is at once a god and a religion. This is really where the problem and the battle with technique lies. We are battling a god that is as tangible as any idol. But it brings power. This power brings the promise that we can save ourselves, even if our intent is to “save” our churches from shrinking. So, how do you battle a god?
You do so by reigniting a living relationship among the people of God in the God of gods, testified to in scriptures, our living supernatural transcendent God. We show the world the path to something that the technical regime cannot give them: God. Not in the abstract. Not the clockwinder God. But God who can be met and experienced.
“…he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature…” 2 Peter 1:4
Theology. We generally, especially in the West, think of this word as meaning something along the lines of “words about God” or “talk about God.” And so, we have invested significant effort in talking about God. Scripture, as the written word, becomes a natural data set of words for our analysis. This is why the idea of a closed canon is so important. Not all words are proper words about God. The canonical books of the Bible as the acknowledged “words from God” naturally become the source from which we properly and rightly form “words about God.” This is why a spiritual gift like prophecy becomes complicated for some. If this is really a word from God, is it on the same level as scripture? This is not a light question with an easy answer. Does a God-given word of prophecy today undermine the very idea of scripture? Of theology?
“Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols.” 1 Corinthians 12:1-2
This opening to Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts struck me as odd for a long time. Then I realized that he was drawing a contrast between our God and all other gods, including the technical system. Their gods are mute idols. Our God is not. Our God is the God who speaks, who speaks through his Spirit.
“The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.” 1 Corinthians 2:10b-13
What Paul is saying here is that it is the Spirit of God who draws us into the presence of God and ministers to us the very heart of God, who teaches us the deep essence of God himself. The analogy here is between us as persons and God as the divine person. Think of knowing a friend, a spouse. When you know that thing that makes them uniquely them, that is shared with no one else, is there even a language for that? That is the “language” we are being taught. The language of the very essence of God himself, a language beyond words.
This is the language of wisdom. This is the language of the Spirit. This is the teaching that will inform you in the moment as to whether or not you should correct the fool or not. In this sense, “theology” is not so much “words about God,” but rather “words to God” or better “words with God.” Or maybe the true content of theology is those Spirit-taught words which cannot be translated. You can meet and know God, but like seeing the essence of your spouse, this knowledge is part of your union with the divine essence. Prayer is the heart of theology. We enter the Holy of Holies to participate in the divine essence, the divine nature. We speak with God about spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.
We look at the rational parsing of the words of scripture as the ground of theology. But theology is so much more. The words of scripture are, as Augustine taught us, not things unto themselves, but rather they are signs which point us and lead us into the divine presence. The ground of theology is not scripture, but the essence of God himself, from which the words of scripture come. God grounds our faith. God grounds our knowledge. He is the substance of our prayers. We experience God as the ground, the datum for knowledge. But this is not the knowledge of the technical, rational world, which seeks to harness rational knowing to turn it into the power of machines and systems of management and control. Knowledge of God is a knowledge that can use words, but at the same time does not seek to contain God within words. Just as with the essence of all persons, so too with God. There is something beyond words. Yet it is a reality that can be communicated to us with Spirit-taught words.
The technical regime claims that such things are not possible. It wishes to systematize and rationalize all things, even our knowledge of God. It would deny the direct experience of the living God to us. And yet, look all around. See the lost. See the lonely. People hunger for meaning. For purpose. For God. And not some knockoff substitute for God. They want the real thing. God’s promises remain:
“If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11:13
This is the ground, the foundation, the source of our faith, our life, our knowledge and even our resistance to the regime. Even if it is never toppled, we can still be islands of resistance, islands of refuge. Politics is all well and good. We may desire to seize the political system. But it was not made for us or for divine purposes. It is fundamentally progressive in nature. As is the vast expanse of our society. We should offer a meaningful alternative. We should pray. We can become theologians, people who talk with God. The technical system tells you such things are impossible. They will mock you for it. But this is where it begins. This is how we topple the god that we know as “the administrative state.” You make sanctuaries for the living God in your heart, mind and spirit. You make sanctuaries for the living God within communities of believers. The work of resistance begins with the work of prayer. Theology. Words with God.
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