Thursday, April 10, 2008


Recently I've been reading The Subversion of Christianity, by Jacques Ellul. It's a challenging book, both because Ellul leaves the reader with so much to process and unpack, and because he turns our traditional understanding of what Christianity is upside down.

We intuitively understand that the nature of our relationship with God sets Christianity apart from other faiths. We have a direct line of connection to the Creator of the universe, whose Spirit guides us in all things. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work in theory; in practice Christianity has overwhelmingly been a religion that differs from other religions only in its details.

The law is routinely laid down for us by our spiritual leaders, who emphasize doctrines and codes of conduct over getting to know the God who wants to connect with us directly. There are rituals to observe (even in non-liturgical churches), things to be held sacred at all costs, and a particular language to be employed.

But is that what Christianity is supposed to be? Ellul argues otherwise. Over the course of his book he examines a multitude of trends that have steered the church away from biblical Christianity - everything from Greek philosophy and Roman (and barbarian) paganism to the inevitable dilemma created by the influx of large numbers of converts into a community distinguished by its intimacy.

Ellul provides more material for discussion than I'm likely to ever get around to addressing (I have at least a few posts in mind already, and I'm only halfway through the book). By way of introduction, here are a few of Ellul's thoughts about the church's tendency toward looking like whatever culture it finds itself in.

But what has been the result? A Christianity that is itself a religion. The best, it might be said, the peak of religious history. (The bothersome thing is that Islam comes after it!) A religion classed as monotheistic. A religion marked by all the traits of religion: myths, legends, rites, holy things, beliefs, clergy, etc.

A Christianity that has fashioned a morality - and what a morality! - the most strict, the most moralistic, the most debilitating, the one that most reduces adherents to infants and renders them irresponsible, or, if I were to be malicious, I should say the one that makes of them happy imbeciles, who are sure of their salvation if they obey this morality, a morality that consists of chastity, absolute obedience (which in unheard-of fashion ends up as the supreme value in Christianity), sacrifice, etc.

A Christianity that has become totally conservative in every domain - political, economic, social, etc. - which nothing can budge or change. Political power, that is good. Whatever challenges or criticizes it, that is evil.

... Christianity has become a constant force of antisubversion. It has been put in the service of the state, for example, by Louis XIV or Napoleon. It has been put in the service of capitalism by the nineteenth-century middle class. It champions the moral order.

We find exactly the same inversion in the cultural sphere. Christianity imbibes cultures like a sponge. Dominated by Greco-Roman culture, it became territorial and feudal (benefices) in the feudal world with all the beliefs... that back it. It then became bourgeois, urban, and argentiferous with the capitalist system. It is now becoming socialist with the diffusion of socialism. It helped to spread Western culture throughout the world when the West was conquering and subjugating the world. Today it is letting itself be permeated by the values of African, Oriental, and American Indian cultures.

Always quick to justify itself, it claims to be on the side of the weak. Tomorrow we might have adjustment to Islam as today we have adjustment to Marxism. We now have a rationalist or liberal Christianity as we used to have an Aristotelian or Platonic Christianity in a mockery of being "all things to all men." (pages 17-18)

Many Christian thinkers have expounded on what they see as threats to the faith. Where Ellul differs from the rest is that he does not do so in moralistic terms. Where others might rail against perceived heresy or warn of impending doom in the light of society's moral decline, Ellul merely points out where the church has departed from the direction set by the biblical authors. Where others have been quick to expose and declare war on those they see as enemies of the faith, Ellul sympathetically seeks to understand how and why events unfolded in the manner that they did.

I'm not far enough along in the book to be able to say what (if any) solutions Ellul offers for the church. In any case, I am enjoying reading the thoughts of somebody who came to many of the same conclusions I have via a different path.


non-metaphysical stephen said...

Ah, my favorite theological book! Keep us posted as to how it changes your perspective.

Craig L. Adams said...

Thanks for starting this series of reflections on Ellul. He is certainly a challenging thinker.