Jacques Ellul was a French philosopher, sociologist, lay theologian, and professor who was a noted Christian anarchist. Ellul was a longtime Professor of History and the Sociology of Institutions on the Faculty of Law and Economic Sciences at the University of Bordeaux. A prolific writer, he authored more than 60 books and more than 600 articles over his lifetime, many of which discussed propaganda, the impact of technology on society, and the interaction between religion and politics. The dominant theme of his work proved to be the threat to human freedom and religion created by modern technology. Among his most influential books are The Technological Society and .
Considered by many a philosopher, Ellul was trained as a sociologist, and approached the question of technology and human action from a dialectical viewpoint. His writings are frequently concerned with the emergence of a technological tyranny over humanity. As a philosopher and theologian, he further explored the religiosity of the technological society. In 2000 the International Jacques Ellul Society was founded by a group of former Ellul students. The society, which includes scholars from a variety of disciplines, is devoted to continuing Ellul's legacy and discussing the contemporary relevance and implications of his work.
Life and influencesJacques Ellul was born in Bordeaux, France, on January 6, 1912, to Marthe Mendes and Joseph Ellul. As a teenager he wanted to be a naval officer but his father made him study law. He married Yvette Lensvelt in 1937.
Ellul was educated at the universities of Bordeaux and Paris. In World War II, he was a leader in the French resistance. For his efforts to save Jews he was awarded the title Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 2001. He was a layman in the Reformed Church of France and attained a high position within it as part of the National Council.
Ellul was best friends with Bernard Charbonneau, who was also a writer from the Aquitaine region and a protagonist of the French personalism movement. They met through the Protestant Student Federation during the academic school year of 1929–1930. Both men acknowledged the great influence each had on the other.
By the early 1930s, Ellul's three primary sources of inspiration were Karl Marx, Søren Kierkegaard, and Karl Barth. Ellul was first introduced to the ideas of Karl Marx during an economics lecture course taught by Joseph Benzacar in 1929–30; Ellul studied Marx and became a prolific of his theories. During this same period, he also came across the Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard. According to Ellul, Marx and Kierkegaard were his two greatest influences, and the only two authors whose work he read in its entirety. Also, he considered Karl Barth, who was a leader of the resistance against the German state church in World War II, the greatest theologian of the 20th century. In addition to these intellectual influences, Ellul also said that his father played a great role in his life and considered him his role model.
These ideological influences earned him both devoted followers and vicious enemies. In large measure, and especially in those of his books concerned with theological matters, Ellul restates the viewpoints held by Barth, whose polar dialectic of the Word of God, in which the Gospel both judges and renews the world, shaped Ellul's theological perspective. In Jacques Ellul: A Systemic Exposition Darrell J. Fasching claimed Ellul believed "That which desacralizes a given reality, itself in turn becomes the new sacred reality".
In 1932, after what he describes as "a very brutal and very sudden conversion", Ellul professed himself a Christian. Ellul believes he was about 17 and spending the summer with some friends in Blanquefort, France. While translating Faust alone in the house, Ellul knew he was in the presence of a something so astounding, so overwhelming, which entered the very center of his being. He jumped on a bike and fled, concluding eventually that he had been in the presence of God. This experience started the conversion process which Ellul said then continued over a period of years thereafter.
He was also prominent in the worldwide ecumenical movement, although he later became sharply critical of the movement for what he felt were indiscriminate endorsements of political establishments, primarily of the Left. However, he was no friendlier in his assessment of those of the Right; he fashioned an explicitly anti-political stance as an alternative to both.
Ellul has been credited with coining the phrase, "Think globally, act locally." He often said that he was born in Bordeaux by chance, but that it was by choice that he spent almost all his academic career there.
On 19 May 1994, after a long illness, he died in his house in Pessac, just a mile or two from the University of Bordeaux campus and surrounded by those closest to him. His wife had died a few years prior, on 16 April 1991.
TheologyWhile Ellul is perhaps most noted for his sociological work, especially his discussions of technology, he saw his theological work as an essential aspect of his career, and began publishing theological discussions early, with such books as The Presence of the Kingdom.
Although a son of the minority French Reformed tradition and thus a spiritual heir of thinkers like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, Ellul departed substantially from Reformed doctrinal traditions, but unlike other European Protestant thinkers, utterly rejected the influence of philosophical idealism or romanticism upon his beliefs about God and human faith. In articulating his theological ideas, he mainly drew upon the corpus of works by the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth and the critiques of European state Christianity made by Dane Søren Kierkegaard. Thus, some have considered him one of the more ardent expositors of dialectical theology, which was in decline elsewhere in the Western theological scene during Ellul's heyday. Much like Barth, Ellul had no use for either liberal theology or orthodox Protestantism and maintained a roughly un-Catholic view of the Bible, theology, and the churches.
One particular theological movement that aroused his ire was death of God theology. Some within this movement held the conviction that the traditional Christian conceptions of God and humanity arise from a primitive consciousness, one that most civilized people have quite overcome. This line of thought affirmed the ethical teachings of Jesus but rejected the idea that he represented anything more than a highly accomplished human being. Ellul attacked this school, and practitioners of it such as Harvey Cox, as out of accord not with Christian doctrinal traditions, but reality itself, namely what he perceived as the irreducible religiosity of the human race, a devotion that has worshiped idols such as rulers, nations, and in more recent times, materialism, scientism, technology and economics. To Ellul, people use such fallen images, or powers, as a substitute for God, and are, in turn, used by them, with no possible appeal to innocence or neutrality, which, although possible theoretically, does not in fact exist. Ellul thus renovates in a non-legalistic manner the traditional Christian understanding of original sin and espouses a thoroughgoing pessimism about human capabilities, a view most sharply evidenced in his The Meaning of the City. Ellul stated that one of the problems with these "new theologies" was:
Ellul espouses views on salvation, the sovereignty of God, and ethical action that appear to take a deliberately contrarian stance toward established, "mainstream" opinion. For instance, in the book What I Believe, he declared himself to be a Christian Universalist, writing "that all people from the beginning of time are saved by God in Jesus Christ, that they have all been recipients of His grace no matter what they have done." Ellul formulated this stance not from any liberal or humanistic sympathies, but in the main from an extremely high view of God's transcendence, that God is totally free to do what God pleases. Any attempts to modify that freedom from merely human standards of righteousness and justice amount to sin, to putting oneself in God's place, which is precisely what Adam and Eve sought to do in the creation myths in Genesis. This highly unusual juxtaposition of original sin and universal salvation has repelled liberal and conservative critics and commentators alike, who charge that such views amount to antinomianism, denying that God's laws are binding upon human beings. In most of his theologically-oriented writings, Ellul effectively dismisses those charges as stemming from a radical confusion between religions as human phenomena and the unique claims of the Christian faith, which are not predicated upon human achievement or moral integrity whatsoever.
On techniqueThe Ellulian concept of technique is briefly defined within the "Notes to Reader" section of The Technological Society. It is "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity." He states here as well that the term technique is not solely machines, technology, or a procedure used to attain an end.
What many consider to be Ellul's most important work, The Technological Society, was originally published in French as La Technique: L'enjeu du siècle. In it, Ellul set forth seven characteristics of modern technology that make efficiency a necessity: rationality, artificiality, automatism of technical choice, self-augmentation, monism, universalism, and autonomy. The rationality of technique enforces logical and mechanical organization through division of labor, the setting of production standards, etc. And it creates an artificial system which "eliminates or subordinates the natural world."
Regarding technology, instead of it being subservient to humanity, "human beings have to adapt to it, and accept total change." As an example, Ellul offered the diminished value of the humanities to a technological society. As people begin to question the value of learning ancient languages and history, they question those things which, on the surface, do little to advance their financial and technical state. According to Ellul, this misplaced emphasis is one of the problems with modern education, as it produces a situation in which immense stress is placed on information in our schools. The focus in those schools is to prepare young people to enter the world of information, to be able to work with computers but knowing only their reasoning, their language, their combinations, and the connections between them. This movement is invading the whole intellectual domain and also that of conscience.
Ellul's commitment to scrutinize technological development is expressed as such:
The sacred then, as classically defined, is the object of both hope and fear, both fascination and dread. Once, nature was the all-encompassing environment and power upon which human beings were dependent in life and death, and so was experienced as sacred. The Reformation desacralized the church in the name of the Bible, and the Bible became the sacred book. But since then, scientism and reason have desacralized the scriptures, and the sciences, particularly those applied sciences that are amenable to the aims of collective economic production, have been elevated to the position of sacred in Western culture. Today, he argues, the technological society is generally held sacred. Since he defines technique as "the totality of methods rationally arrived at, and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity", it is clear that his sociological analysis focuses not on the society of machines as such, but on the society of "efficient techniques":
It is useless, he argues, to think that a distinction can be made between technique and its use, for techniques have specific social and psychological consequences independent of human desires. There can be no room for moral considerations in their use:
On anarchy and violenceEllul identified himself as a Christian Anarchist. Ellul explained his view in this way: "By anarchy I mean first an absolute rejection of violence." And, "... Jesus was not only a socialist but an anarchist – and I want to stress here that I regard anarchism as the fullest and most serious form of socialism." For him, this meant that nation-states, as the primary sources of violence in the modern era, should neither be praised nor feared, but continually questioned and challenged. For Ellul, human government is largely irrelevant in that the revelation of God contained in Scripture is sufficient and exclusive. That is, being a Christian means pledging absolute allegiance to Christ, which makes other laws redundant at best or counter to the revelation of God at worst. Despite the initial attraction of some evangelicals to his thinking because of his high view of Biblical texts, this position alienated some conservative Protestants. Later, he would attract a following among adherents of more ethically-compatible traditions such as the Anabaptists and the house church movement. Similar political ideas to Ellul's appear in the writings of a corresponding friend of his, the American William Stringfellow, and long-time admirer Vernard Eller, author of Christian Anarchy. Ellul identified the State and political power as the Beast in the Book of Revelation.
Jacques Ellul discusses anarchy on a few pages in The Ethics of Freedom and in more detail within his later work, Anarchy & Christianity. Although he does admit that anarchy does not seem to be a direct expression of Christian freedom, he concludes that the absolute power he sees within the current nation-state can only be responded to with an absolute negative position. He states that his intention is not to establish an anarchist society or the total destruction of the state. His initial point in Anarchy & Christianity is that he is led toward anarchy by his commitment to an absolute rejection of violence. However, Ellul does not entertain the idea that all Christians in all places and all times will refrain from violence. Rather, he insisted that violence could not be reconciled with the God of Love, and thus, true freedom. A Christian that chooses the path of violence must admit that he or she is abandoning the path of freedom and committing to the way of necessity.
During the Spanish Civil War Spanish anarchist friends of Ellul's soon-to-be wife came to France in search of weapons. He tried to get some for them through an old school friend of his and claimed that this was probably the one time in his life when he was sufficiently motivated to commit an act of violence. He did not go with the anarchists primarily because he had only recently met the woman that would become his wife and did not wish to leave her.
Ellul states in The Subversion of Christianity that he thinks "that the biblical teaching is clear. It always contests political power. It incites to 'counterpower,' to 'positive' criticism, to an irreducible dialogue, to antistatism, to a decentralizing of the relation, to an extreme relativizing of everything political, to an anti-ideology, to a questioning of all that claims either power or dominion, and finally, if we may use a modern term, to a kind of "anarchism"."
Ellul states in Violence that idealism serves to justify the use of violence, including:
- revolutionary idealism
- generous idealism
4. Christian idealism. This leads to concepts of progressiveness and unreserved participation with good conscience in political or scientific action. "In their idyllic world, harshness, torture, and war seem abnormal and almost incomprehensible. But it is only gross, highly visible, undeniable violence that evokes this scandalized reaction. They deny the existence of masked, secret, covert violence—insofar as this can be concealed..."
On justiceEllul believed that social justice and true freedom were incompatible. He rejected any attempt to reconcile them. He believed that a Christian could choose to join a movement for justice, but in doing so, must admit that this fight for justice is necessarily, and at the same time, a fight against all forms of freedom. While social justice provides a guarantee against the risk of bondage, it simultaneously subjects a life to necessities. Ellul believed that when a Christian decides to act it must be in a way that is specifically Christian. "Christians must never identify themselves with this or that political or economic movement. Rather, they must bring to social movements what they alone can provide. Only so can they signalize the kingdom. So far as they act like the others—even to forward social justice, equality, etc.—I say that there is no sense and nothing specifically Christian in acting like the others. In fact the political and revolutionary attitude proper to the Christian is radically different than the attitude of others; it is specifically Christian or else it is nothing.
In Violence Ellul states his belief that only God is able to establish justice and God alone who will institute the kingdom at the end of time. He acknowledges that some have used this as an excuse to do nothing, but also points out how some death-of-God advocates use this to claim that "we ourselves must undertake to establish social justice". Ellul maintained that without a belief in the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of God, love and the pursuit for justice becomes selective for the only relation left is the horizontal one. Ellul asks how we are to define justice and claims that followers of death-of-God theology and/or philosophy clung to Matthew 25 stating that justice requires them to feed the poor. Ellul says that many European Christians rushed into socialist circles mistakenly thinking socialism would assure justice when in fact it only pursues justice for the chosen and/or interesting poor whose condition is consistent with the socialist ideology.
Ellul states in The Subversion of Christianity that "to proclaim the class conflict and the 'classical' revolutionary struggle is to stop at the same point as those who defend their goods and organizations. This may be useful socially but it is not at all Christian in spite of the disconcerting efforts of theologies of revolution. Revelation demands this renunciation-the renunciation of illusions, of historic hopes, of references to our own abilities or numbers or sense of justice. We are to tell people and thus to increase their awareness. Renounce everything in order to be everything. Trust in no human means, for God will provide. Have confidence in his Word and not in a rational program. Enter on a way on which you will gradually find answers but with no guaranteed substance. All this is difficult, much more so than recruiting guerillas, instigating terrorism, or stirring up the masses. And this is why the gospel is so intolerable, intolerable to myself as I speak, as I say all this to myself and others, intolerable for readers, who can only shrug their shoulders."
On media, propaganda, and informationEllul discusses these topics in detail in his landmark work, . He viewed the power of the media as another example of technology exerting control over human destiny. As a mechanism of change, the media are almost invariably manipulated by special interests, whether of the market or the state.
Also within Propaganda Ellul claims that "it is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image". Additionally, people become "caught in a web of facts they have been given. They cannot even form a choice or a judgment in other areas or on other subjects. Thus the mechanisms of modern information induce a sort of hypnosis in the individual, who cannot get out of the field that has been laid out for him by the information". "It is not true that he can choose freely with regard to what is presented to him as the truth. And because rational propaganda thus creates an irrational situation, it remains, above all, propaganda—that is, an inner control over the individual by a social force, which means that it deprives him of himself".
Ellul agreed with :fr:Jules Monnerot |Jules Monnerot who stated that "All individual passion leads to the suppression of all critical judgment with regard to the object of that passion".
In response to an invitation from Protestant associations, Ellul visited Germany twice. On the second visit he attended a Nazi meeting out of curiosity which influenced his later work on propaganda and its ability to unify a group.
"To throw this wager or secular faith into the boldest possible relief, Ellul places it in dialectical contrast with Biblical faith. As a dialectical contrast to "La Technique," for instance, Ellul writes Sans feu ni lieu "
On humanismIn explaining the significance of freedom and the purpose for resisting the enslavement of humans via acculturation, Ellul rejects the notion that this is due to some supposed supreme importance linked to humanity. He states that modern enslavement expresses how authority, signification, and value are attached to humanity and the beliefs and institutions it creates. This leads to an exaltation of the nation or state, money, technology, art, morality, the party, etc. The work of humanity is glorified and worshiped, while simultaneously enslaving humankind.
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- Le fondement théologique du droit. Neuchâtel: Delachaux & Niestlé, 1946.
- *The Theological Foundation of Law. Trans. Marguerite Wieser. Garden City NY: Doubleday, 1960. London: SCM, 1961. New York: Seabury, 1969.
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- *The Presence of the Kingdom. Trans. Olive Wyon. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1951. London: SCM, 1951. New York: Seabury, 1967. Colorado Springs: Helmers and Howard, 1989.
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- *Money and Power. Trans. LaVonne Neff. Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984. Basingstoke, England: Marshall Pickering, 1986. Wipf & Stock, 2009
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- *The Technological Society. Trans. John Wilkinson. New York: Knopf, 1964. London: Jonathan Cape, 1965. Rev. ed.: New York: Knopf/Vintage, 1967. with introduction by Robert K. Merton. This may be his best-known work; Aldous Huxley brought the French edition to the attention of an English publisher, and thus brought it to English readers. Theodore Kaczynski had a copy in his cabin and said he read it several times—his "manifesto" addresses similar themes. See Alston Chase. 2003. "Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist," W.W. Norton & Co., p. 111, 331.
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- Histoire de la propagande. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967, 1976.
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- Sans feu ni lieu: Signification biblique de la Grande Ville. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.
- *The Meaning of the City. Trans. Dennis Pardee. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. Carlisle, Cumbria, England: Paternoster, 1997.
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- De la révolution aux révoltes. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1972.
- L'espérance oubliée. Paris: Gallimard, 1972.
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- Éthique de la liberté, 2 vols. Geneva: Labor et Fides, I:1973, II:1974.
- *The Ethics of Freedom. Trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976. London: Mowbrays, 1976.
- Les nouveaux possédés. Paris: Arthème Fayard, 1973.
- *The New Demons. Trans. C. Edward Hopkin. New York: Seabury, 1975. London: Mowbrays, 1975.
- L'Apocalypse: Architecture en mouvement. Paris: Desclée, 1975.
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- Le système technicien. Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1977. Paris : Le cherche-midi 2004 & 2012.
- *The Technological Society. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. New York: Continuum, 1980.
- L'idéologie marxiste chrétienne. Paris: Centurion, 1979.
- *Jesus and Marx: From Gospel to Ideology. Trans. Joyce Main Hanks. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988. Wipf & Stock, 2012.
- L'empire du non-sens: L'art et la société technicienne. Paris: Press Universitaires de France, 1980.
- La foi au prix du doute: "Encore quarante jours..." Paris: Hachette, 1980.
- *Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World. Trans. Peter Heinegg. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983. Wipf & Stock, 2012.
- La Parole humiliée. Paris: Seuil, 1981.
- *The Humiliation of the Word. Trans. Joyce Main Hanks. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.
- Changer de révolution: L'inéluctable prolétariat. Paris: Seuil, 1982.
- Les combats de la liberté. Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1984. Paris: Centurion, 1984.
- La subversion du Christianisme. Paris: Seuil, 1984, 1994. Paris: La Table Ronde, 2001 & 2012
- *The Subversion of Christianity. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986. Wipf & Stock, 2011.
- Conférence sur l'Apocalypse de Jean. Nantes: AREFPPI, 1985.
- Un chrétien pour Israël. Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 1986.
- La Genèse aujourd'hui. Avec François Tosquelles. Ligné: AREFPPI, 1987.
- La raison d'être: Méditation sur l'Ecclésiaste. Paris: Seuil, 1987
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- Anarchie et Christianisme. Lyon: Atelier de Création Libertaire, 1988. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1998.
- *Anarchy and Christianity. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991. Wipf & Stock, 2011.
- Le bluff technologique. Paris: Hachette, 1988, 2004 & 2012.
- *The Technological Bluff. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
- Ce que je crois. Paris: Grasset and Fasquelle, 1989.
- *What I Believe. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
- Ce Dieu injuste...?: Théologie chrétienne pour le peuple d'Israël. Paris: Arléa, 1991, 1999.
- * An Unjust God ? A Christian Theology of Israel in light of Romans 9–11. Trans. Anne-Marie Andreasson-Hogg. Wipf & Stock, 2012.
- Si tu es le Fils de Dieu: Souffrances et tentations de Jésus. Paris: Centurion, 1991.
- *If You are the Son of God: The Suffering and Temptations of Jesus. Trans. Anne-Marie Andreasson-Hogg. Wipf & Stock, 2014.
- Déviances et déviants dans notre société intolérante. Toulouse: Érés, 1992.
- Silences: Poèmes. Bordeaux: Opales, 1995.
- Oratorio: Les quatre cavaliers de l'Apocalypse. Bordeaux: Opales, 1997.
- Sources and Trajectories: Eight Early Articles by Jacques Ellul that Set the Stage. Trans./ed. Marva J. Dawn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
- "A temps et à contretemps: Entretiens avec Madeleine Garrigou-Lagrange". Paris: Centurion, 1981.
- "In Season, Out of Season: An Introduction to the Thought of Jacques Ellul: Interviews by Madeleine Garrigou-Lagrange." Trans. Lani K. Niles. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1982.
- "Perspectives on Our Age: Jacques Ellul Speaks on His Life and Work". Ed. Willem H. Vanderburg. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. Toronto: CBC, 1981. New York: Seabury, 1981. Concord, Ontario: House of Anansi, 1997.
- "L'homme à lui-même: Correspondance". Avec Didier Nordon. Paris: Félin, 1992.
- "Entretiens avec Jacques Ellul". Patrick Chastenet. Paris: Table Ronde, 1994.
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