Ellul’s Religious World

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Never have people believed as much, everything and nothing. The modern world is above all else a religious world. It is loaded with religions–communism, Maoism, nationalism, revolution–all are purely and specifically religious attitudes. The modern world is not really secularized, in spite of all the absurd ballyhoo based on a whole series of misconceptions, and on an extremely superficial analysis. This is essentially a world of the sacred. The political enemy is “damned.” Wars are ideological wars, that is to say, wars of religion. Social movements are sacred. Revolution is an act of God. Technology belongs to the domain of the sacred, and science even more so. The most that can be said is that modern humans have completely desacralized the natural environment, they have transferred all the sacred to the cultural and the social. One need only observe the entranced state of those who talk revolution, or the complete irrationality of discourses on politics, irrespective of the specific question under discussion. The modern world is overflowing with myths. It is constantly producing myth, but they are no longer the same myths as before, and they no longer come by the same process. This contradicts the superficial view that humanity, attached to ancestral forms of myth, is being demythologized. We are caught up in the development myths (and those of underdevelopment), in the myths of self-management and growth, as well as in the myths of fascism and imperialism. World and humanity are crammed with faith, with religion, with belief, with mythology.

Jacques Ellul, Essential Spiritual Writings, p. 40

Right on, Ellul.

These words, sourced from Hope in Time of Abandonment, were written in 1972.

Vaccination, the Divine Image, and the Creation Mandate

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One aspect of God’s having created us in his image is that we are capable not only of knowing truths about the world but also truths about ourselves. We can know, for instance, that human testimony is only significantly reliable when there are multiple witnesses (see Deut. 19:16; 2 Cor. 13:1), that bearing false witness is an abomination (see Prov. 6:16-19), that a true witness gives honest evidence (see Prov. 12:17), and that “a truthful witness saves lives” (Prov. 14:25). We also know that only untrained, overly credulous people believe everything and that the prudent give thought to their steps (see Prov. 14:15). We have an obligation, in other words, to discover truths that should guide us regarding what we should believe (see Prov. 26:22-25; 1 John 4:1). The discovery of reliable methods for discovering medical truths is one step towards fulfilling that obligation, no matter whether the search for those methods is the result of conscious obedience to the creation mandate or not.

Mark Talbot, The Bible and COVID Vaccines

Mark Talbot argues that scientific discovery, the advancement of medicine, and the development and deployment of vaccinations flow naturally from ideas that are found in the early words of Genesis, particularly God’s command in Genesis 1:26: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

As seen in the block quotation above, Talbot believes the human capacity for knowledge and for discovery of truth is grounded in what it means to be created in the divine image. Talbot believes medical advances, and the methods by which discoveries are made making those advances possible, are the result of common grace, evidenced by his claim that “conscience obedience to the creation mandate” matters not. He writes, “Virtually any human being, simply by being made in God’s image, may serve as one of God’s providential instruments to discover some feature of his creation that conveys the health and healing that, ultimately, comes only as a gift from him. The COVID vaccine is, I think, one of those gifts.”

Talbot’s article drives toward answering the question, “So should Christians take this vaccine? I think so.” The development of COVID vaccines and their effectiveness in mitigating the disease is a sign, for Talbot, of God working through human beings to alleviate suffering. Talbot draws a parallel to smallpox, noting that many of us who are alive today are likely here because of advances in medicine that prevented a very significant percentage of deaths. Talbot admits that the COVID vaccines, like the inoculation against smallpox, do pose a risk to those who receive them. But, nevertheless, Talbot argues that the positive benefit outweighs that risk.

This article does leave a couple of ethical questions unaddressed, including concern as to the kind of research methods used in the advancement of medical science are permissible and whether or not certain methodologies (such as experimentation on animals, human stem cells, and like matters) should or should not be verboten, especially in light of the fact that Talbot’s argument does, in part, appear to be utilitarian. Furthermore, by citing the example of Washington’s inoculation of the Continental Army against smallpox, Talbot appears to endorse vaccine mandates.

Our existence is ethically complex. I received the vaccine, and I am thankful to be living today, when the advancement of medicine has made so many good and wonderful things possible. What a time to be alive! But as a Christian , I continue to discern good from evil with regard to not only what we can achieve through medicine, but how we make those discoveries and advances. I lean towards emphasis on personal responsibility, freedom, and conscience rights, and so I do have some concerns about the public health policy that could be inferred from Talbot’s article; I think persuasion is better than coercion.

I doubt the majority of persons, even among Christians, who received a COVID vaccination gave more than a passing thought to the theological underpinnings and biblical justifications for the advancement of medicine and the grounds upon which we might choose to inject a foreign substance into the body in the hope we are protected from a contagion. But there you have it. It is possible, and necessary, to think about such questions biblically and theologically and to test whether or not such decisions are wise, good, and in keeping with righteousness.

How do you know?

I understand the sentiment. But how do you know those prayers were ignored?

And if you cannot know whether those prayers were ignored, rather than answered in the negative or not according to your timing and preference, is the best response really to burn down a house of worship? The symbol here, I’m guessing, is meant to suggest the abandonment of faith.

Anger toward God when things don’t go your way is understandable. I’ve been angry with God. But to abandon faith altogether when life don’t go as you’d prefer is like saying, “God, I don’t think you are competent to manage the cosmos. You are not seeing the big picture and making very wrong calls. I could do it better.”

What the Bible Says About Suffering

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The reality is that the Bible doesn’t tell us everything we might wish to know about suffering, but it doesn’t set us adrift either. The Bible simply keeps God front and center. God knows about suffering. God cares about suffering. God is at work in the midst of suffering. God is at work against suffering. God reigns over suffering. God suffers. God will one day declare final victory over suffering.

Brian Han Gregg, What Does the Bible Say About Suffering?

The Bible isn’t silent about suffering. It doesn’t address it exhaustively, either. We’re not given a definitive “why” in every circumstance. Not all mysteries are resolved this side of the veil dividing time from eternity. But the Bible does tell a story of a God who suffers, who is well acquainted with grief, who draws near to us when we suffer, and who sustains us through suffering.

God is in the mix, somewhere operative in the suffering, somehow working in and through the pain.

God is the Measure

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Against all the many varieties of contemporary humanism, the Bible asserts that God is the measure of all things, not humans. Worshiping God, understanding God, and bearing witness to God must all be decisively different because of the difference of who God is and the difference in the way he reveals himself. The Copernican Revolution changes its thinking and living forever, and in every way. Because of who God is, it is completely and absolutely impossible for “Man” alone to the measure of all things. To be sure, of all the life forms on earth only humans measure the world and life as we do. But those very measuring rods–reason, nature, and the scientific method–need to be measure and justified themselves, and none of them can justify themselves by themselves.

The truth, rather, is that “humanity before God” is the measure of all things, the standard of human responsibility, and the secret to a life lived well. None of us will understand or live life well until we see ourselves as individual women and men in relation to the One who is our Father, our Creator, and our judge. Such is the power of the sun that the earth goes round the sun, and not the sun around the earth. Faith in God is a revolutionary faith with a calling to turn the world the right way up.

Os Guinness, The Magna Carta of Humanity

Guinness observes that humankind has a tendency to define humanity downward, while the faith of the Bible defines humanity upward–as beings created in the image of God. This makes a tremendous difference, Guinness notes, in not only how we regard ourselves, but in how we regard one another. This belief endows the individual with dignity and worth, reminds the individual that they are accountable to their Creator, and charges the individual with the responsible to regard their neighbor, likewise, as a divine image-bearer. Regarding God as the measure of all things has implications for the individual, but also for the community.

The Preacher Shouldn’t Be There to Talk About You, Even Though They Likely Will

First, even if you lived a wretched life, the preacher shouldn’t lie about that. Maybe they should tell us the truth. Maybe the best thing we could hear is that you were a rotten person. Maybe we should make it a goal to live as exemplars of virtue, rather than as warnings against vice.

Second, the proper focus of a Christian funeral is God, not the deceased. A death is only the occasion for gathering. A Christian funeral is a service of worship. We hope we can give thanks for the person who has died. Sadly, there are cases where this is very hard to do.

Third, if you live in such a way as to be remembered by others as a “good” person, I do not want to dismiss the positive outcomes that could result from such an aim. But beware. We do good things all the time from bad motives. It would be better to live for the glory of God, realizing that all is a gift, than from a self-aggrandizing motivation.

Fourth, at a bare minimum, the truth that should be told at a Christian funeral is the truth of the gospel: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That is why we can grieve, but not as those who are without hope.

The Church: Critic of the Prevailing Political Order

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A genuinely penetrating critique of liberalism must start from the universal Christian confession of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” The church isn’t merely another social institution, but the family of the heavenly Father, the body and bride of the incarnate Son, the temple of the Spirit. Through the word, the Spirit gathers and knits us together. In the waters of baptism, we’re made members of Christ and of one another. At the table, we become one body because we all partake of the one loaf that is the body of Christ. For paedobaptists at least, membership in Christ and one another is inter-generational. To the naked eye, the ties that bind members of the church across time and space look fragile. Word, water, bread, and wine are surely no match for blood, flag, and soil. But the Spirit of the living God works in and through the fragile things of earth to form a communal body like no other, a solidarity in the Spirit.

The sheer existence of the church challenges liberalism’s claim to monopolize social order. Here is a differently constituted community of men, women, and children. Consent is real, but the will that makes the church isn’t the will of man or the flesh, but the will of God. Here is a sacramentally and spiritually formed body, living divine life in the flesh and manifesting the spiritual unity of the Father and Son (cf. John 17:20–21). If she does nothing else, the church stands as a witness against the imperialistic hubris of liberalism.

Paul says the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ form “one new man,” a new humanity, the fulfilled humanity (Eph. 2:15). As the body of the Last Adam, the church provides a glimpse of the final destiny of human society. She is the most human of human communities, and, precisely because of her utter uniqueness, she serves as a model and aspiration for other communities. The church has a distinctive rationale for popular participation, grounded not in a common human nature but in every member’s share of the common Spirit. That unique ecclesial form of “democracy” inspires experiments in participatory politics. As a catholic communion, the church embodies the hope for an international peace that embraces every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. International networks, nations, local communities, and families can become false churches, rivals to the body of Christ. When leavened by the church, such groupings can become shadows and images of the divine communion of the church.

Peter J. Leithart, First Things, “The Ecclesiology of Liberalism

Leithart’s essay is worth reading in full, and while I think the applications will be most clearly apparent to Catholics, there is something here all Christians can glean from: the church is not “merely another social institution” but the body of Christ. In its fullest sense, church is categorically unique, a challenge to all ideologies and political philosophies. And as such, participation in church radically changes our engagement with and degree of participation in any and all other spheres.

It might be helpful to make sure you grasp what Leithart is addressing here when he writes about “liberalism,” a term that means many things, but here refers to the dominant political philosophy in the Western world.

So why do I think this important?

I think we participate in the life of the church for any number of reasons while missing out on many of the larger claims that participation in such a body might make upon our lives. If you are a member of a congregation, you are now linked with brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers in an extended kinship that is not depended on common biological ancestry. You have received adoption into God’s family. You have been conferred status as a co-heir with Christ. You are deemed an “ambassador” of God’s kingdom, and a citizen of the heavenly realms.

Those are political realities that not only have implications for eternity, but for the here and now.

Tim Keller on Death

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Most particularly for me as a Christian, Jesus’s costly love, death, and resurrection had become not just something I believed and filed away, but a hope that sustained me all day. I pray this prayer daily. Occasionally it electrifies, but ultimately it always calms:

And as I lay down in sleep and rose this morning only by your grace, keep me in the joyful, lively remembrance that whatever happens, I will someday know my final rising, because Jesus Christ lay down in death for me, and rose for my justification.

As this spiritual reality grows, what are the effects on how I live? One of the most difficult results to explain is what happened to my joys and fears. Since my diagnosis, Kathy and I have come to see that the more we tried to make a heaven out of this world—the more we grounded our comfort and security in it—the less we were able to enjoy it.

Timothy J. Keller in The Atlantic, “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death

Among Jonathan Edwards’ resolutions, his ninth was this: “Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.”

The modern age has revolutionized our thinking about death, mostly by keeping us from thinking much about it at all. Timothy Keller’s essay, which, as the title suggests, is firstly about his faith while also being about his death, cedes as much. Keller, a pastor for many years, confesses that he too, at least in part, had been taken in by the prevalent assumption that we’ll somehow get out of life alive.

Keller has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The counsel and comfort he had offered to parishioners through the years was suddenly up for a fresh examination. At 70, Keller looked ahead to many more years of life. His diagnosis revealed that death was nearer than assumed.

His essay is worth reading in full. His fullest wisdom, solidified through his experience of his confrontation with death, is to live as a heavenly minded person, not as a way of escapism from this world, but as a means of entering into gratitude for this world and everything God has accomplished and will accomplish through his glorious work of redemption, initiated, enacted, and one day fully realized in the already and even yet coming kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Beware Potted Theology

Philosopher Susan Stebbing has something important to say to us about thinking clearly. Peter West, writing for Aeon, pass along this crucial insight of Stebbing:

What does thinking clearly involve? One important step, Stebbing argues, is to train ourselves out of bad habits of thinking. For example, she describes what she calls ‘potted thinking’. This is oversimplifying ideas using crude characterizations or slogans. While slogans aren’t always a bad thing, Stebbing thinks that they have a tendency to oversimplify more nuanced or sophisticated views and to hide the intricacies of an idea behind a catchy phrase. . . .

To the contemporary reader, this metaphor is perhaps a little dated, with her talk of ‘potted thinking’, because Stebbing is drawing a comparison with potted meat: a vacuum-packed product such as Spam that you might find in a wartime ration pack. She is careful to explain that we should always stop and examine the metaphors we see being used in public discourse. (As she puts it: ‘Do not accept the metaphor too hastily’!) With that in mind, she explains the metaphor:

Potted meat is sometimes a convenient form of food; it may be tasty, it contains some nourishment. But its nutritive value is not equivalent to that of the fresh meat from which it was potted. Also, it must have originally been made from fresh meat, and must not be allowed to grow stale. Similarly, a potted belief is convenient; it can be stated briefly, sometimes also in a snappy manner likely to attract attention.

Her point is that potted thinking takes something that once had high ‘nutritive value’ and packages it in a way that’s easier to sell but harder to find any genuine nourishment in. The worst type of potted thinking, according to Stebbing, is when we grow into the habit of ‘using words repeated parrot-fashion’ – put another way, when we start talking in slogans that have no thought or consideration behind them at all.

I thought of our preaching, often characterized by sound bites and sloganeering, catchy phrases and displays of cleverness, perhaps a distillation of something true, but processed nonetheless.

The New Testament speaks of the difference between solid food and milk. Hebrews 5:14 says, “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Hebrews 5:12, in the same passage, contains this rebuke: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!”

1 Peter 2:2-3 says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”

The challenge in preaching is to offer the Word of God in a helpful way, a way that fosters maturity and invites growth, that aids each person in thinking clearly about the gospel for themselves.

We want people to receive the full nutritional value that comes via knowledge of the truth, not a potted theological substitute.

“Kneeling Theologians”

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“[W]hat can perhaps be most fruitfully taken from his work is not so much a set of doctrinal positions as an example of the integration of theological reflection with the life of faith. The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst once remarked that theology is, properly understood, ‘engaged contemplation’ (Multiple Echo (London, 1979) 151). Part of the persuasiveness of von Balthasar’s theological writing lies in the fact that it is not primarily critical but contemplative. To describe his work in these terms is not to suggest that it is the fruit of private mystical experience rather than the public self-manifestation of God; nor is it to envisage the theologian’s task as necessitating withdrawal. What is meant is rather that as contemplative theology it is born of a fundamentally receptive attitude of spirit and mind towards God’s self-disclosure. Its origin is not critical inquiry but rapture; its most characteristic attitude is that of being utterly overwhelmed by the splendour of God. It is for these reasons that there is for von Balthasar the closest possible correlation between theological reflection and the life of prayer, and that he has called for more ‘kneeling theologians’ (Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln, 1960) 224). If orthodox theology is not infrequently both unintelligent and unimaginative, it may well be that the fault lies not so much in a defective grasp of the truth as in a defective spirituality.”

John Webster, here, via Ken Myers, “Why Theologians Should Be on Their Knees

I like this idea. But I am among those who believe that the work of theology is first a work of prayer and second a task of service. Theologians do not firstly serve the academy, though they are found there in official capacities, but rather theologians dedicate themselves to a discipline of inquiry that is intended for service to the Lord and, by extension, to the people of God, the church.

Not all understand the discipline in this way.