Christian responses to a technological society

I’ve just finished reading Ellul par lui-même, the book based on Jacques Ellul’s 1979 Canadian radio interviews with William Vanderburg (see previous posts 1 | 2 | 3). If you want an introduction to Ellul’s life and thought then this is an excellent place to start. The English equivalent would seem to be Perspectives on our Age: I say “equivalent”, because it seems to be an abridged/rearranged version rather than a straight translation.

In the closing chapter, Ellul bemoans the attitudes he saw around him in the church at that time: of strong personal faith being combined either with ignorance about the world around, or else a wholly superficial engagement, particularly in politics. In late 70s France, the fashion in the church, as he saw it, was to be moralisingly leftist, “full of good sentiments”, but without truly understanding the world in which we live.

Not that understanding Ellul’s perspective on our world comes easily. As William Vanderburg observes in his Afterword:

We are so habituated to the value of efficiency that it is very difficult to understand that that value is contrary to all the values of every other civilisation.

So as we unlearn our unthinking absorption of the “value of efficiency”, what are the responses that Christians should have to the world of technology and efficiency in which we find ourselves? Ellul outlines three.

The first response is that which Christians should have towards technology. Ellul is often regarded as being simply anti-technology, in a way that makes it easy to criticise him (“what about medical advances that save so many lives?”, etc.). In fact, Ellul writes:

It is certainly not a question of rejecting technique, of being anti-technique or holding out judgment against it. For it is not for us to judge: God alone is judge. Human works serve God in the construction of the heavenly Jerusalem. According to the book of Revelation, the glory of the nations will enter into the heavenly Jerusalem, and the glory of the nations includes technique.

So if our attitude is not to be one of outright rejection of “technique”, what is the proper Christian response to a world dominated by technology and the pursuit of efficiency? Ellul continues:

It is a question of having a critical acceptance of technique.

This “critical acceptance” of technique must be coupled with an “iconoclastic” attitude in which we attack, not technique itself, but the “divine and religious character” that technology and efficiency have acquired in our society.

Secondly, Christians must be bearers of hope in our society, a society which (as Ellul argues earlier in the book) the dominance of technique has made the most anxious and neurotic in history. This is not a merely human hope (“éspoir”), in the sense that we “hope” the weather will be better tomorrow, and we “hope” the economy will pick up in the next few years. Rather, it is the deep and certain hope (“ésperance”) founded on the love of God: the hope that is “the presence of a possible love”, even if all else appears lost. “Holding onto this hope gives us the courage to live today.”

Third, Christians must be bearers of liberty in our society. As technique becomes more and more rigorous, human freedom becomes ever more restricted and human action ever more predetermined: we must live or work in this way, because that is the most efficient means of achieving the desired outcome. But, as St Paul says, “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free”: and to be given freedom in Christ is to reject all fatalism.

The Christian ethic is an ethic of freedom, which should lead Christians to work against all forms of determinism, and to recover for all people the possibility of choice; rather than allowing us all to be treated as parts in a machine.

Ellul concludes:

These three observations on the Christian faith don’t represent the sum total of what the Christian is called to do. But they do represent how a Christian must live in a technological society.

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