Dialectical Theology and Jacques Ellul: An Introductory Exposition (Fortress Press, 2014)

[1] My first exposure to Jacques Ellul was in the work of Marva Dawn. Dawn’s ph.D. dissertation was titled, “The Concept of ‘The Principalities and Powers’ in the Work of Jacques Ellul.” Many of her popular works engage Ellul’s oeuvre quite directly. As a reader, I was always fascinated with Dawn’s engagement with Ellul, but not enough to read him first hand.

[2] Later, while writing a book on media and faith, I decided I needed to at least have a sense of Ellul’s work, and read A Technological Society. I checked out, but never read, his book on propaganda. It was too dismal, too scary; I had to drop it. I never went back to read more Ellul after that, at least in part, because he wrote so much. Where should one begin?

[3] Marva Dawn read Ellul deeply and extensively for her dissertation, to the point of translating a set of early essays that had never before appeared in English (http://www.amazon.com/Sources-Trajectories-Eight-Articles-Jacques/dp/1592444466/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1432661889&sr=8-1&keywords=marva+dawn+ellul). ​

[4] At one point, in correspondence with Dawn as she was writing her dissertation, Ellul was asked his views on the powers. After asking to be understood in a dialectical fashion, he wrote his views in reply. I will not offer his response in this review; however it can be accessed online by following the link below: https://kcflynn.wordpress.com/2009/06/21/ellul-and-the-nature-of-the-powers/.

[5] What I want to attend to is the initial caveat, that he wished to be understood in dialectical fashion. Dialectical fashion. That’s the main thing with Ellul, for Ellul himself, and also for the author of this recent appraisal of Ellul’s work, Jacob E. Van Vleet’s Dialectical Theology and Jacques Ellul: An Introductory Exposition. To read Ellul non-dialectically is dangerous.

[6] So dangerous, in fact, that Van Vleet begins his book naming Ellul’s impact on Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Kaczynski had read Ellul on technology, but never on Christianity. As a result, Ted and others risk coming “to see Ellul as merely a neo-Luddite or a fatalist calling for a complete overthrow of ‘the system.'” (2)

[7] It was a relief to learn this about Ellul. Van Vleet helped me, as an admittedly novice reader of Ellul, to see that I may not have been adequately equipped to read him well. Ellul wrote over fifty books, almost all of which were either philosophical or theological. I had peered into the philosophy of technology. My only hint of his theology was second-hand, through the wonderful writings of Marva Dawn. I needed an “introductory exposition.” This is what Van Vleet offers.

[8] Van Vleet’s thesis is that Ellul, when read non-dialectically, is understood as a fatalistic philosopher, a shallow theologian, or both. It is only by maintaining the dialectical tension of his theology and his philosophy of technology that one comes to a full understanding of his work.

[9] It is not surprising, looking at Ellul’s influences, that he worked dialectically. In fact, the notability of Ellul’s dialecticism is more surprising given the number of dialectical thinkers who influenced the 20th century. Van Vleet notes a number of formative influences on Ellul’s uniquely dialectical thought in a series of historical chapters, including the influence of Karl Marx’s dialectical view of history, Søren Kierkegaard’s paradox, Karl Barth’s dialectical inclusion and the dialectic of Scripture and Christology.

[10] Van Vleet never sugar coats Ellul. He admits that Ellul is difficult to understand, overly verbose, repetitive and even contradicts himself at times. Rather than understanding these as barriers to interpreting Ellul, Van Vleet suggests these contradictions and barriers to be the unifying guide to Ellul’s work.

[11] So what exactly is dialectic, particularly, dialectic theology? Toward the middle of the book, Van Vleet offers a set of principles as a helpful summary and primer to dialectical theology:

Principle 1: The absolute transcendence of God.

Principle 2: The absolute separation between God and humans.

Principle 3: The distinction between religion and revelation.

Principle 4: One’s relationship with God is ultimately subjective.

Principle 5: God’s gift of self-disclosure as found in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

Principle 6: The best way to understand ourselves and God is through a dialectical method (such as in the dialectical tension of necessity and freedom).

[12] It is important to situate all of Ellul’s meditations on technology in dialectical tension with this dialectical theology. Consider his work on technology; Ellul comes to see that absolutely everything in the modern era is saturated by technology: “Having becomes a universum of means and media, technology (technique) is in fact the environment of man. These mediations are so generalized, extended, multiplied, that they have come to make up a new universe; we have witnessed the emergence of the technological environment” (89). Technique has, in this way, infiltrated every aspect of human life.

[13] Ellul understands all of this technique under the aspect of necessity. The artifice of technology will increasingly govern the natural, reducing, or eliminating, our free will. When technology creates problems, it creates problems only solvable by more technology or techniques. It is an inescapable progression.

[14] For Ellul, this rise of technique has inevitable ethical consequences, namely the rise of a new “technical morality” (108). Technique for Ellul brings with it an independent set of values and morals. Examples of this technical morality include but are not limited to the elimination of all moral systems that do not concern progress, efficiency, or production; ordering; and instrumentalization of individuals. Ellul, dialectician that he is, stands opposed to these instrumentalized and technological moralities, even while cataloging them in his work as inevitable consequences of the rise of a technological society.

[15] Van Vleet offers a brief comparison of Ellul to two other philosophers of technology, Marcuse and Heidegger, and notes in particular how Ellul’s dialectic informs his thought. Whereas Heidegger believes humans can remain “free” over against the rise of new technologies, Ellul warns of an illusion that technology does not dominate us. As interesting as Heidegger’s reflections on technology are (and they really are!), they are weak precisely because they lack dialectical tension.

[16] Van Vleet continues in his work with analysis of Ellul’s two other central themes: propaganda and politics. Ellul understands propaganda itself to function as a kind of inescapable technology. In addition, he understands politics as functioning in the same fashion.

[17] This is where Ellul’s Christian theology becomes interesting, precisely in its dialectic. Christians are just as bound by necessity and just as trapped in technique and its entailments as anyone else. Nevertheless, one can live paradoxically free in Christ. “Through faith in the Word, one can begin to live an authentically significant and free life–even within the constraints of necessity,” (217).

[18] According to chapter six, Christian faith in a technological society takes the form of hope, non-violence, and anarchism. One can live in hope because God is Wholly Other, beyond technique and its entailments. One can live free by refusing all forms of violence, while the realm of necessity is dominated by it. One can live free of power by giving up power, investing in local and immediate community rather than politics at large (218).

[19] Karl Barth wrote something along the lines of, “We cannot speak of God; therefore we must speak of God.” Something akin to this is at work in Ellul. We cannot live free of a technological society; therefore we must live free of it. It is precisely in this dialectic that the Christian lives, between their complete bondage to technique, and the promised freedom they have in Christ. Depart from the dialectic in either direction, either towards the Unabomber’s violent resistance or toward various forms of Christian escapism, and the dialectic is lost. Look technique right in the eye, always with an ear for the voice of the coming Christ, and all kinds of things will be alright, even when they aren’t.

Clint Schnekloth

Clint Schnekloth is a pastor and author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He also blogs at http://lutheranconfessions.blogspot.com.