Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 21

Jacques Ellul - Critique of Technological Society

In this lesson, you will explore Jacques Ellul's critique of technological society and its consequences for humanity. Ellul's ideas about technological determinism, the relationship between technique and technology, and the effects of technology on society and individuals will be discussed. You will also examine the theological implications of Ellul's critique, such as the loss of transcendence, the autonomous technological system, and the need for a countercultural response. Finally, you will consider the relevance and application of Ellul's ideas in contemporary challenges and potential solutions.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 21
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Jacques Ellul - Critique of Technological Society

TH730-21: Jacques Ellul - Critique of Technological Society

I. Introduction to Jacques Ellul

A. Background and Influence

B. Key Concepts and Ideas

II. Critique of Technological Society

A. Technological Determinism

B. The Relationship between Technique and Technology

C. Effects of Technology on Society and Individuals

III. Theological Implications of Ellul's Critique

A. The Loss of Transcendence

B. The Autonomous Technological System

C. The Need for a Countercultural Response

IV. Relevance and Application of Ellul's Ideas Today

A. Contemporary Challenges

B. Potential Solutions and Alternatives

  • Explore the loss of transcendence in modernity, examining its historical and philosophical context, defining transcendence and immanence from biblical and historical perspectives, exploring the impact of various movements on theology, and considering responses to the loss of transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you will gain insight into the Greek world's origins of language and culture, the evolution of Greek history and thought, and the differences between Greek and Roman history. By examining the works of Luke as a Roman historian, you will better understand the cosmic and intimate nature of Christian history.
  • The Christian historiographical revolution redefined history as linear and purposeful, contrasting with ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish approaches and profoundly impacting the study and writing of history.
  • In this lesson, you gain a deep understanding of the Dark Ages, the Reformation, and the factors that led to the loss and eventual restoration of transcendence in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Reformation and Enlightenment's historical contexts, key figures, and events, as well as their impact on society, religion, and the loss of transcendence, ultimately discovering ways to reclaim transcendence in the modern world.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the loss of transcendence in modern society, its consequences, the role of Christianity in addressing the issue, and strategies for engaging with secular culture and promoting spiritual renewal.
  • This lesson teaches you about Radical Christianity, its importance, and how to cultivate it through deepening your relationship with God, prioritizing spiritual growth, and practicing radical love and social justice in a world experiencing a loss of transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you grasp the factors contributing to the loss of biblical authority and learn strategies to reaffirm its importance in Christianity.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into contemporary biblical criticism, its methodologies, impact on theology, and learn to appreciate its contributions while recognizing its limitations.
  • By examining biblical criticism and its various forms, you gain insight into how Christians can respond thoughtfully, affirming Scripture's authority while engaging with criticisms and maintaining a commitment to truth.
  • By examining the loss of the soul, you'll understand its diminishing importance in modern life and learn to integrate science and spirituality for a holistic, transcendent perspective.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into classical interpretations of the soul and their interaction with Christian theology, while also understanding their modern theological implications.
  • This lesson equips you with a comprehensive understanding of the embodiment of faith, its historical development, theological implications, and practical applications in the Christian life.
  • By studying this lesson on embodiment in community, soul, and culture, you will learn how these concepts impact spiritual formation and shape your understanding of Christian faith and practice.
  • The lesson on embodiment and self-sacrifice offers insights into the New Testament, emphasizing Jesus' incarnation, the human body as the Holy Spirit's temple, and self-sacrifice as a key Christian virtue, while providing theological and practical applications.
  • This lesson equips you to understand the biblical concept of sin, the factors contributing to its loss, and offers practical steps to reintroduce sin in teaching and preaching for a more complete Christian faith.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the cardinal sins and their contemporary significance, learning how to identify and combat them in modern society for personal and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into C.S. Lewis's critique of the loss of transcendence in modern society, his theological perspectives, and his emphasis on imagination in Christianity.
  • This lesson offers an in-depth analysis of the theological differences between Oxford and Cambridge and their impact on the loss of transcendence in modern theology.
  • What then did Lewis write about in The Abolition of Man? The symbol is that the immediate threat is not the abolition of man, but the abolition that there are men without chests. And he means that being without a chest is living two dimensionally and not three dimensionally. It’s not that you just live in space and time, but that you live with space, time and God or, indeed, space, time and morals. And so really it’s simply to live an amoral life. And you begin to lose your emotional life when you live with amorality.

  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into Jacques Ellul's critique of technological society, its consequences, theological implications, and the need for a countercultural response in the face of modern challenges.
  • This lesson guides you in understanding the loss of transcendence, seeking understanding, and retaining hope amidst the challenges of modern society.
  • You gain insight into Jacques Ellul's life, his views on the loss of transcendence, and the influence of his work on theology and society.
  • You will learn about the concept of technique in the modern world, its characteristics, societal effects, and the spiritual implications it holds for faith and transcendence.
  • In this lesson, you gain insights into the implications of technique on society, its challenges, and ways to respond from a biblical perspective, ultimately aiming to strengthen human connections and reclaim transcendence.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insights into the Psalms' structure, types, role in ancient worship, and their significance in modern Christian life, prayer, and spiritual growth.
  • In this lesson, you will explore the role of domestic involvement in the Psalter, its significance in Ancient Israel's worship, and the impact of the Psalms on the community, values, and beliefs.
  • Gain insights into the connection between biblical eschatology and secularity, understanding key aspects and themes while learning to reclaim the transcendent in eschatology.
  • This lesson offers insight into the theological tensions between immanence and transcendence, their impact on modern theology and worship, and the practical steps for reintegrating them into the Christian life.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the concepts of immanence and transcendence, their effects on theology and culture, and the importance of integrating both for a balanced Christian worldview.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into time and eternity, God's relationship with them, and their impact on human experience and theological concepts such as soteriology, eschatology, and Christian living.
  • Gain insight into Old Testament concepts of time, the role of numbers and patterns, the significance of time in biblical prophecy, and the theological implications concerning God's sovereignty and human responsibility.
  • This lesson provides insight into the New Testament's complex understanding of time, addressing concepts such as the Kingdom of God, the present age, and eternal life, and offering guidance for Christian living.
  • In this lesson, you gain insight into the loss of transcendence in modern society and learn how to recover and foster a transcendent view within your personal faith and church life.

This course on the loss and recovery of transcendence in our contemporary culture is, of course, appropriate for all Christians, but, I think, especially for us here in North America, for the political prominence of a Christian religious culture that we’ve had in North America that makes us all the more exposed to the secularisation of contemporary Christianity. 

Dr. James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Jacques Ellul - Critique of Technological Society
Lesson Transcript


Shall we pray. Lord, we know that we are continually swamped and totally caught up in the whole nature of our technological society today. It’s very difficult for us to be able to stand outside of it and to know how we can control it in our own lives. We know that our sufficiency is alone of you and we realise, Lord, too often that there are rival gods that are so persuasive. So help us to be clear-minded to your call, for your call is to make us free, free in the sonship of our Lord Jesus. So help us to know the difference between pseudo-freedom and our freedom that is in Christ. And so we pray that you will give us clarity and understanding as we give this lecture this morning. We pray all of this in the name of our Lord Jesus, truly the Son of God. Amen.

This morning, we’re going to look at the technological society and how Jacques Ellul, a Frenchman, has demonstrated for us perhaps more eloquently than any other thinker to the present moment on the threat of this universality of technique. It’s appropriate that it’s a Frenchman who is giving us this critique because the French have always assumed that the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century was the revolution to end all revolutions. They were wrong. The revolution that we find is unprecedented in human history is what we call now the tech revolution. And we’re looking at something that is totally unprecedented in the history of mankind.

So at the same time as being dogmatic about that statement, everything else that we say this morning can never be dogmatic. There’s a fluidity. There’s a paradoxical character to what we’re talking about which means that we can only do so like etching. It can never be a broad landscape that we’re describing when we’re describing the tech world. It’s full of innuendoes and paradoxes and consequently we can only be suggestive and give by hints and glances what this whole seductive area is for us to consider.

And so perhaps we might start by indicating about the seduction of technology. As you look at your television, as I often do, you get these curious adverts that now with the use of technology you can find your own unique genes and discover your own unique self, that you can discover your ancestors in a way that you never imagined you could understand your ancestors’ background. And you can create your own business like no one has ever created a business before so that even teenagers are now starting to create their own enterprise. All this is very seductive and it reminds me of a parable of the caterpillar.


The caterpillar was crawling along one day and he saw in front of him a great heaving pillar. It turned out that this pillar was a great mass of other caterpillars and they were all climbing over each other and, of course, those that were being most energetic were the ones who wanted to climb to the top and see things over the shoulders of everybody else. And so he thought it seemed as if everybody’s doing it. I’d better join the competition. He started climbing. It was a terrific effort. He poured his life out on this energetic climb over everybody else. And the closer he got to the top, the more he found people returning, murmuring it’s not worth it. The view’s just not worth it. So, pretty exhausted by this time, he decides well, perhaps the majority vote seems to be that it’s not worth going any further, so I better go back and take a rest.

And so he climbed down and settled on a fence and lay down and died, becoming just simply a chrysalis—a dead little thing. But one day he burst out of his chrysalis and became a butterfly and now he could fly over the whole heaving mass of other caterpillars that he had once been and he now has a view that they didn’t have. Of course, the moral of this is that we too have to have our chrysalis. We too have to have our metanoia to see things from God’s Kingdom point of view and not from the kingdom of men. And so it’s the moral that he who loves his life shall lose it, but that the transformed life is the life by which we see things differently. And so we might say we’re taking a butterfly’s view of the tech revolution this morning.

One of the things that, again, we have to appreciate is that you have to live in the underground in order to get that view. That when we live a complacent life that is not sacrificial and that is not in danger then, of course, we’re not able to have the perspective that people like the great writers of literature, like Dostoyevsky or indeed Tolstoy or, indeed, John Bunyan or, indeed, Jacques Ellul, have given to us. One of the first things that Ellul did that no one else had done before him was to blow the whistle about the universality of technology. He calls it technique for short—[La Technique 00:07:39] is the title of the French original book that we now call The Technological SocietyLiving the Word, Resisting the world: The Life and Thought of Jacques Ellul is therefore a very good book you could read as an introduction to all his thinking that was published some years ago by Andrew Goddard.


But of course, Ellul was not the first to blow the whistle. Perhaps some of the first people to blow the whistle were people who were alarmed in England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century there. These were the humble craftsmen who were alarmed by the mechanisation of weaving of cloth and the innovation of the textile manufactures of the cotton mills of Lancashire where there was this first impact of a massive new technology in the 18th century in the colonial trade that was developed with especially China and the Far East. The first city to make this protest against the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution was Nottingham, where mass riots occurred between 1811 and 1813, just a few years after the French Revolution. These were organised craftsman who saw the vested interests of their own livelihood and their own way of life being destroyed and so they destroyed the new textile machines as being their enemy. They attempted to destroy the whole of this new fabrication and, of course, were severely repressed and some of their leaders were hanged publicly. And ever since, there have been various reactions generated by technical innovations, but always these voices of protest have eventually been muted. So whatever we may think of Jacques Ellul, at least his voice is still being heard. It’s not muted.

We were talking yesterday of C.S. Lewis. And Lewis was himself aware of the growing threat of technology, but, as you see, his focus was really not sociological so much as literary. He was, as we said, focusing on language and against the use of scientism in language. But there have been other voices as well. In a sense, an initiative voice, which was really a voice responding to Jacques Ellul’s own writings is that of the Canadian philosopher George Grant, who just recently died. He was the grandson of one of the former governor generals of Canada. He was born in 1918 and he died in 1988. He was a liberal Presbyterian in his persuasion and his influence. And yet at the same time, he was aware of the significance of the voice of Ellul.


So he wasn’t original. He himself had had a mystical experience of God. He had a genuine Christian faith, but certainly he was not theologically as astute as Ellul was. His protest was really therefore rather fuzzy. We could call him a Christian Platonist rather than a Christian prophet because it was more from a neo-Platonic point of view that he upheld the need for transcendence, but it wasn’t being Biblically upheld. And so, of course, in his case he was not able to end his life with any hope. In fact, he ended his life in despair. He didn’t have the Christian hope. He didn’t have that radical hope that Ellul has and that’s why we as Christians when we radically critique our culture, have to have a radical faith and the radical hope that is commensurate with what we’re being so radical about.