Thinking through dialectic

At the very end of Ellul par lui-même (see previous posts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4), Jacques Ellul “goes meta”, with an illuminating discussion not of what he thinks, but of how he thinks; and, indeed, how modern humanity in general thinks:

To conclude, I return to the subject of dialectic. Dialectic is a way of thinking and of understanding reality that has become habitual and standard in the western world as a result of Marx’s influence and the rediscovery of the importance of Hegel’s thought.

Dialectic, he continues, is a way of thinking that “doesn’t exclude contraries, but includes them”. That isn’t to say it can be reduced to a simplistic formula of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis”:

Dialectic is infinitely more versatile and profound than that.

Ellul gives the example of a living organism. Rather than there being a “clear and evident opposition between life and death”, it is now apparent that within any living organism there is an equilibrium between the forces that maintain and renew the organism and those that work to destroy it. The organism develops as these equilibriums between “the forces of life and the forces of death” develop and change.

The same situation is found in our historical situation, which has both “positive” and “negative” features: the one cannot simply eliminate the other, and nor can they be combined into like mixing black and white to make grey. Rather, the synthesis comes in a new historical situation that integrates what had previously been contradictory elements.

That all sounds rather abstract, but we can see how it works in more concrete terms by looking at what Ellul considers to be the origin of modern dialectical thought: not Marx or Hegel, nor the ancient Greeks, but the Bible, in particular the Old Testament and St Paul.

What the Old Testament and the writings of St Paul have in common is:

In these two texts, two contradictory things are always affirmed, which we are told come together to bring about a new situation.

As an example, Ellul alludes to two apparently contradictory statements of Paul: “by grace you have been saved … not as the result of works”, and “work out your salvation by fear and trembling”. “You are saved by grace, therefore save yourself by your works”, as Ellul paraphrases it. He continues:

It is a dialectical thought: from the moment you are saved, you are integrated into a narrative, a process which brings about the salvation which you have been given in advance, but which you have to realise, to accomplish, to take in hand. … This is something contradictory, but it is not contradictory when you live it out. … In the course of your life, it is resolved perfectly.

Similarly, in the Old Testament, the people of Israel are liberated from Egypt, but then immediately put under the direction of God. This is an apparent contradiction: surely it amounts to putting a newly-freed people back into a form of slavery? On the contrary:

The Bible tells us that God, having liberated his people, directs them, while at the same time respecting their initiative and independence. They must constantly reclaim the conditions of their liberation, as the Jewish people have done.

To receive God’s freedom is to accept his direction, something that is “difficult to understand intellectually”, but which we live out concretely. Ellul cites Karl Barth to say:

when it is said that on the one hand there is the liberty of God, and on the other hand the liberty that God gives humanity, it is a question of living our human liberty within the liberty of God.

It seems to me that this same dialectical mode of thought can be seen in the “double causation” – divine and natural – by which I’ve suggested before that Thomas Aquinas can help resolve the supposed conflict between “science” and “religion”. As Ellul puts it:

Logically this is impossible, but dialectically it works.

I found this section of Ellul’s book illuminating and liberating. It seemed to reveal to me more clearly how I tend to think: with a certain willingness to hold apparent contradictions in tension, pending further information or new circumstances. It’s probably also why I find Ellul (among others) so congenial a thinker.


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