Saturday, October 18, 2014


Here is some more joy from Jacques Ellul.  Painful to read, but important I think.

"Public opinon... is completely oriented in favour of technique; only technical phenomena interest modern men.  The machine has made itself master of the heart and brain both of the average man and of the mob.  What excites the crowd?  Performance..."

In other words, getting things done is all that counts.  Efficiency and achievement rule the day.

"What is important is to go higher and faster; the object of the performance means little.  The act is sufficient unto itself.  Modern man can think only in terms of figures, and the higher the figures the greater his satisfaction.  He looks for nothing beyond the marvellous escape mechanism that technique has allowed him, to offset the very repressions caused by the life technique forces him to lead.  He is reduced in the process to a near nullity."

The means has become the end, and everything genuinely human is in danger of being lost.  As Ellul goes on to say, when the increase in performance becomes the measure of all things, the individual human is lost; he becomes part of the mob, because only the whole can drive performance on.  Collective performance expresses the will to power of the mob, to which the individual will is sublimated.

The results are two-fold.  On the one hand, a mystical devotion to technique, expressing itself in absolute faith in progress; on the other, a "deep conviction that technical problems are the only serious ones.  The amused glance people give the philosopher; the lack of interest displayed in metaphysical and theological questions...; the rejection of the humanities which comes from the conviction that we are living in a technical age and education must correspond to it; the search for the immediately practical, carrying the implication that history is useless..."

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that this is indeed the world we live in.  And I want out.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Killing sin

I have recently finished re-reading John Owen On the Mortification of Sin, something which I do periodically and always find beneficial.  It has been a few years since I last dusted it off, and this time through I noted something I have not spotted before, and which struck me as very different from much of the instruction currently given on personal change.

Owen spends some time setting out what it means to mortify sin, and makes it clear that the power to so comes from the Spirit, and is given only to believers.  Then he gets on to some practical steps, of which there are nine, including "Get a clear sense of... the guilt... the danger... the evil... of the sin", "the first actings of sin to be vigorously opposed", and "Thoughtfulness of the excellence of the majesty of God".  These directions make up the bulk of the work.

But when he is done with them, Owen writes "Now, the things which I have hitherto insisted on are rather of things preparatory to the work aimed at than such as will effect it". In other words, think all you want about the guilt and evil of your sin, put as much effort as you can into meditation on the majesty of God, you still haven't even started to mortify sin.  For the actual battle against sin, Owen has only two directions, and since one of these is really just a reminder that this is the work of the Spirit, there is actually only one thing to do that belongs to the real fight against sin:

"Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin".

That's it.  Of course, we are used to exercising faith in Christ for the forgiving of our sin, but for Owen it is faith also which will kill it.  Setting faith at work here means regarding Christ as the one who will defeat sin in us, actively expecting him to do it, and then waiting for him to come through.

This is as far away from the CBT-disguised-as-sanctification that we often see as you can get.

Two things really strike me about this.  Firstly, it will only work if Jesus really is a gracious Lord, and really has conquered sin.  It's not a technique, but an appeal to a person with power to exercise it mercifully towards us.  It consists in expectation, and waiting, and looking, and longing.  In other words, it throws us absolutely on Christ, and not on any source of peace we can summon up in ourselves.  (Don't speak peace to yourself until God has spoken it to you, Owen says).

Secondly, this clarifies for me that sanctification, no less than justification, is by faith alone, because by Christ alone.  And this is both liberating and glorious.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Homo Economicus

Here is some cheery analysis of the subordination of human beings to economic techniques, from Jacques Ellul, writing originally in 1954:

The bourgeois morality was and is primarily a morality of work...  Work purifies, ennobles; it is a virtue and a remedy.  Work is the only thing that makes life worthwhile; it replaces God and the life of the spirit.  More precisely, it identifies God with work: success becomes a blessing.  God expresses his satisfaction by distributing money to those who have worked well...  This attitude was carried so far that bourgeois civilization neglected every virtue but work.

Sound at all like the Conservative Party Conference?

For the proletariat the result was alienation...  It might be thought that the primacy of the economy over man (or rather the possession of man by the economy) would have come into question.  But unfortunately, the real, not the idealized, proletarian has concentrated entirely on ousting the bourgeoisie and making money...  For the proletariat, as for the bourgeoisie, man is only a machine for production and consumption.

Sound at all like the modern Labour Party?

The counterpart of the necessary reduction of human life to working is its reduction to gorging.  If man does not already have certain needs, they must be created.  The important concern is not the psychic and mental structure of the human being but the uninterrupted flow of any and all goods which invention allows the economy to produce.

In summary:
Money is the principal thing; culture, art, spirit, morality are jokes and not to be taken seriously.  On this point there is once again full agreement between the bourgeoisie and the Communists.

Here's the thing - modern life is not characterised by the conflict between right and left.  That just sits on top of a very substantial agreement over ends and means.  The end is the efficient functioning of the economy, and the means is the efficient marshalling of human capital and the efficient exploitation of natural and artificial resources.  If there is some difference as to how these means are to be established, they are relatively trivial.  Capitalism and Communism are both examples of economic techniques which dehumanise man and turn him into a machine - and therefore each individual into a very small cog in the machine.

How is one to fight against this?  Surely not by planning a better economic or political life; this is just to replace the current technique with another.  We must refuse the invitation to be inhuman, even if that means refusing the invitation to be wealthy and comfortable.  We must live for other things - really live for them, not just use them as distraction and refreshment around the edges of our work.  For Christians and for churches, I think it means resisting the encroachment of technique in the Church.  We are not there to be efficient, or to utilise people, or to complete the plan, but to know and enjoy the living God.

And that is revolutionary.