Nowhere Man, Welcome to the Machine

In one of his earliest and most accessible books, The Presence of the Kingdom, sociologist Jacques Ellul introduces us to his unique perspective by inviting us to live out the truth of Romans 12:1-2, in which the Apostle Paul writes,

I beseech you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)

Living in the world is always “a stumbling block for our faith” (9). Therefore, Christians are called to resist conforming to the world’s mold through “a new way of understanding” that arises from bringing everything into the light of Jesus Christ (xiii). Without this critical perspective, we will unconsciously and involuntarily adhere to the unstated rules and taboos of our present age. Because of our constantly shifting cultural setting, the call to resist “conformity to this world” is a new responsibility for each generation.

Truths in Tension

Ellul incorporates a dialectical method in leading Christians to “a new way of understanding.” Through the means of dialectic there is an exchange and dialogue between two different points of view: “dialectic is a procedure that does not exclude contraries, but includes them” (xxvii). The point is not resolution, but rather, holding together tensions that exist in reality: “Dialectic tension exists between ideology and reality, action and consequences, the whole and the parts, social and spiritual reality” (xxix).

Because of Ellul’s unwillingness to bring the dialogue to a clear and simple resolution, he is often mistaken for holding extreme views, when in fact, he simply nuances his statements to allow the tensions to remain. Numerous examples could be offered:

  • On the Use of Reason: To give up the function of reason altogether leads to the retreat into the irrational. At the same time, [Ellul] warns against the tendency to try to force reason to exceed its limits. Human reason must recognize its boundaries and avoid… the fallacies of both rationalism and irrationalism. (xxxi)
  • On Civil Law: While recognizing the God-appointed role of civil law, the Christian never imagines that it can embody true justice or goodness. Human law exists as “an intermediate entity” between God’s original covenant and the final eschaton. It is a relative institution, but not merely relative, “because God endows it with dignity.” (xxxv)
  • On the State: “The biblical perspective sees the state as ordained by God, in harmony with the divine order, and at the same time as the Beast of the Abyss, the Great Babylon.” It has been given the sword to restrain evil and promote good but at the same time has inflicted pain and suffering upon untold millions… Christians must never separate themselves from the political arena, for that would grant the state more uncontested power, but their involvement must involve “a subtle interplay of No and Yes, of approval and rejection, of caution and support.” (xxxv)
  • On Money: “The Bible contains contradictory texts about wealth.” Several New Testament passages seem to condemn it and refer to it as a demon or false god, while some Old Testament texts “present wealth as a blessing, willed by God and pleasing to Him.” (xxxvi)
  • On the World: Ellul argues for “the Bible’s double affirmation” about the world, that it is both loved and lost.” The dialectic sees the world as the realm of absolute rebellion and radical evil, but still of infinite value to God because of his irrevocable love. (xxxvi)
  • On the City: The city is the purest form of technique, the epitome of human pride and self-sufficiency, but at the same time the model of the heavenly Jerusalem. (xxxvi)

Ellul’s intense commitment to dialectic arises from his expertise in sociology. For him, theology must always remain in interaction with sociology. “Sociology… forces theology to be relevant by identifying the pertinent questions and strategic factors that shape human life at any given point. It also forces theology to remain concrete, for its constant temptation is to drift off into the purely abstract and ideal” (xxxii). However, the interaction is mutually beneficial: “Theology likewise provides a critical counterpoint for sociology, primarily by forcing it to be wholistic” so that it does not neglect the spiritual nature of people. (xxxiii)

This dialectic harmonizes well with the Christian message, for dialectical tensions characterize the Christian life: “We are invited to take part in a dialectic, to be in the world but not of it” (xxxvi). We live within this tension of “in” and “of”.

Nowhere Man, Welcome to the Machine

Ellul calls us to reject the values of our current technological society. Ellul is not against technology itself. Technical progress is “neither exclusively positive nor totally negative… [and] I would certainly never wish to maintain that technology was to be deplored” (xl). However, he warns that technology brings with it certain unquestioned values that eventually dehumanize if they are not critiqued and challenged.

For example, in a technological society, efficiency is valued to the detriment of human life and relationships. Characteristics of efficiency – “precision, rapidity, certainty, continuity, universality” (90) – are unquestioned values in a technological society. These things become values in and of themselves. In a society that does not know its end, the means become the end; efficiency and precision become their own justification. The “means and ends are separated, so that technical means no longer have any end except absolute, rational efficiency (‘the one best way’) and are no longer subject to outside value judgments” (xl).

In a society which holds technology and techniques in unquestioned esteem, human beings become just another means without an end.[1]

The first great fact that emerges from our civilization is that today everything has become “means.” There is no longer an “end;” we do not know whither we are going. We have forgotten our collective ends, and we possess great means: we set huge machines in motion in order to arrive nowhere… Thus man—who used to be the end of this whole humanist system of means—man, who is still proclaimed as an “end” in political speeches, has in reality himself become the “means” of the very means which ought to serve him: as, for instance, in economics or the State. (51)

“In this terrible dance of means which have been unleashed, no one knows where we are going, the aim of life has been forgotten, the end has been left behind. Man has set out at tremendous speed— to go nowhere” (57).

This is one way the world seeks to conform us to its mold. “Our civilization, which claims to exert no restraint, tries to dominate man as a whole, and to confine him within narrow limits, where all his gestures, and his secret thoughts, will be controlled by the social machine. This represents the triumph of means.” (63-64)

The Revolution

Ellul calls Christians to “break this dictatorship” (64). “Christians must enter into a conflict ‘not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness’ (Eph. 6:12). And they ought to know that this conflict, which is primarily spiritual, at least at first, is a life and death struggle. (64)

The “powers and principalities” of this world cannot be changed. Christ has both triumphed over them and will triumph over them in the end, but in the meantime, Christians must remain aware that the “powers and principalities” cannot be transformed. They simply are a feature of fallen man and the societies he creates! This is the reason why seeking to “improve the world” solely through reforming institutions or refining ideologies will always fail. This does not mean that a Christian does not participate in these things; it is impossible not to do so. Rather, it means a Christian does not place ultimate hope in institutions, ideologies, politics, or civil laws as having sacred value – the sacred quality of bringing salvation. Ellul’s fine line (one could say “tension”) is expressed well:

Improving the world: we must give up the idea that we can decrease our sin by our virtues. We must give up believing that we can “improve” the world… At the same time, if we take this situation of the Christian seriously, we must refuse to further the disintegrating tendency in the world. We must not say to ourselves, “We can’t do anything about it!” To talk like this is to play into the hands of the Prince of this world. (9)

Our task is not to “reform” the principalities and powers, but to resist them in the conflict of faith, not through the same means (techniques), but with the “weapons” of faith, hope, love, justice, peace, and prayer.

With “renewed minds” (Romans 12:2) seeking “the truth in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21-23), we need “a transformation of our ways of understanding, of looking at facts” (80). In opposition to the technological society “the Christian way… refuses to separate means and ends. In Jesus Christ the means and the ends are joined” (xl). “Thus when Jesus Christ is present the Kingdom has “come upon” us” (64).

We must commit our lives in concrete ways to our belief that God has come upon us in Christ and that a definitive event in the past has significance for the present and future, that is, that there is a hopeful end, and that the destiny of humankind is not to be cogs in the machine, but to be glorified in Christ.

Our participation in this revolution must not be in ideologies – whether left or right. Our participation must be personal and concrete. Ellul chides the absurdity of holding a belief but refusing to fully commit to it. After he states that it is our “duty to commit our lives in concrete ways to our beliefs” he states: “This simply means that one cannot be a Communist intellectual and put aside a nice little capital sum… it means that one cannot be an anarchist writer and have contracts with respectable publishers; that one cannot be a proletarian poet and travel first-class” (101). The “failure to commit one’s life” negates the belief.

A Call to Live

The call is not to action, but to life. In a technological society which worships efficiency, precision, and rapidity, it is vital to distinguish between action and life. Ellul writes,

Our world is entirely directed toward action. Everything is interpreted in terms of action… indeed, our world is so obsessed by activity that it is in danger of losing its life…

At the same time our world tends to eliminate, almost wholly, the life of the individual. By the formation of masses, by the artificial creation of myths, by standardizing our living, and so on, there is a general movement toward uniformity, which leads man more and more to forget himself as he is caught up in this general tendency of our mechanical civilization. A man who spends all his time in action, by that very fact ceases to live. A man who spends his days rushing about in his car for hours at a time, at a speed of sixty miles an hour, has the sensation of living on speed, of intense activity and of “gaining time,” but actually a mental torpor creeps over him. He becomes less and less alive; more and more he is simply an automaton in a machine. He has reflexes and sensations, it is true, but no judgment, and no awareness of anything beyond. In the perfect working of his engine he has lost his soul. (74-75)

He continues,

We have lost the meaning of true action, which is the testimony of a profound life, action which comes from the heart, which is the product of faith, and not of myth, or of propaganda, or of Mammon! What matters is to live, and not to act. In this world, this is a revolutionary attitude, for the world only desires (utilitarian) action and has no desire for life at all. We cannot exaggerate the significance of the fact of being spiritually alive.

In a civilization which has lost the meaning of life, the most useful thing a Christian can do is to live—and life, understood from the point of view of faith, has an extraordinary explosive force. We are not aware of it, because we only believe in “efficiency,” and life is not efficient. But this life alone can break the illusions of the modern world by showing everyone the utter powerlessness of a mechanistic view. (77)

…when I speak of “life”… I simply mean the expression of the Holy Spirit, working within us, expressing himself in our actual life, through our words, our habits, and our decisions. (76, 77-78)

Join the Real Battle

To resist conforming to the world’s mold through “a new way of understanding” we must reject the values of our technological society, namely, the idolatry of efficiency, the dehumanization of humankind to a mere means, and the loss of any communal or historical sense of an end that can judge the means.

To be truly revolutionary is to live as witnesses of Christ as agents of love, justice, and peace in the world. This is not efficient! But this is living in light of the intervention of God in human history in Christ and the irreversible end of history guaranteed by Christ’s present and coming kingdom.

This, then, is the revolutionary situation: to be revolutionary is to judge the world by its present state, by actual facts, in the name of a truth which does not yet exist (but which is coming)—and it is to do so because we believe this truth to be more genuine and more real than the reality which surrounds us. Consequently it means bringing the future into the present as an explosive force. It means believing that future events are more important and more true than present events; it means understanding the present in the light of the future, dominating it by the future, in the same way as the historian dominates the past. (38-39)

There is no doubt that this is a difficult attitude, full of snares and dangers, but it is also the only attitude which seems to be in line with the Christian life; we were never told that this would be either easy or secure. (42)


[1] Ellul defines technique not as machinery or any device or procedure, but as “nothing more than means and the ensemble of means.” (xl)

Quotes excerpted from The Presence of the Kingdom by Jacques Ellul.

2 comments on “Nowhere Man, Welcome to the Machine

  1. Scott Canatsey on said:

    I really enjoy Ellul. Been reading some of his work online, since you turned me onto this guy a few weeks ago. I appreciate his position and how technology has “killed” the craftsman. All the steps and processes are divided so as not to be connected fully in the process of creation. Very insightful. Efficiency and production are “king” in the capitalistic and consumer driven society. The end result of pure pragmatism. That philosophy has driven our country for most of the last hundred years.
    Glad some of us still choose to be creative and fully express ourselves and not be part of the “assembly line”.

  2. Julio Cesar Basurto on said:

    Excellent article!

    Also the article “When less is better…” of Oct. 4, 2010.
    I was looking for something that support than “not always more means better”…such as “two dads” or “two moms”…

    thanks and God Bless Your!

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