Loss of Transcendence - Lesson 23

Life of Jacques Ellul

In this lesson, you explore the life and work of Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher, sociologist, and theologian. You will gain an understanding of his concept of the loss of transcendence and his critique of modern society's reliance on technology. As you delve deeper into his writings, such as "The Technological Society" and "Anarchy and Christianity," you will grasp the importance of his thoughts on the intersections of faith, technology, and politics. Through examining the reception and impact of his work, you will appreciate the lasting contributions Ellul has made to theology and society.

James Houston
Loss of Transcendence
Lesson 23
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Life of Jacques Ellul

TH730-23: Life of Jacques Ellul

I. Introduction to Jacques Ellul

A. Biographical Information

B. Academic and Professional Achievements

II. Ellul's Theological Perspective

A. The Loss of Transcendence

B. The Technological Society

C. Anarchy and Christianity

III. Impact and Influence of Ellul's Work

A. Reception by Theological and Secular Communities

B. Lasting Contributions to Theology and Society

  • 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


Life of Jacques Ellul

Lesson Transcript


What we’ve been saying therefore is that these two great prophets of our time, Lewis and Ellul, they are both saying the same thing and that is they’re alarmed about the secularisation process that’s going on within the communication of Christianity today and within the life of the Church.

Now let’s look more closely at Jacques Ellul’s own life. He was born in the city of Bordeaux in the South West of France. And after the war, he was elected deputy mayor of the city for 18 months, between 1944 and1946, but he couldn’t stand its bureaucracy so he left as soon as he could. He had been expelled from his first university post at Strasbourg by the Vichy Government. He had escaped, as we’ve seen, into the French countryside, where he lived as a peasant hidden by peasant farmers. So you could say that Ellul’s first prejudice against technology was that he had become a peasant. And this marked his whole future, for there he saw that their resistance as peasants was not only against the Nazis, but also against the technical innovations that were changing the traditional ways of life of the French peasantry. And so one of the things that therefore was so important for him was this formative period of his life.

Well, after the war he was, now he’s considered a hero. Now he’s reinstated as Professor of the History of Law and Institutions in Bordeaux University. And now from his much more exalted position, he’s able to do battle more publicly against technological society through various legal and environmental issues. And this is where he himself became one of the pioneers in environmentalism. He was an early conservationist seeking to preserve the Aquitaine coast, the South West coast of France, against modernist tourism. He saw that the biological and cultural heritage was being lost by this new pragmatism for profit and money. He lost that battle politically. He saw the whole coastline destroyed in his time. But his attempt to awaken Christians to their technical entrapment also largely failed and so perhaps Ellul might have done better if he had emigrated to Africa to live in an African community where there they would understand what he was talking about. It’s tragic that we have to go back to primitive man to learn wisdom in how we relate to our environment.


Now what we want to look at is the radical sense that Ellul had about space and time. Ellul parallels Oswald Spengler’s book The Decline of the West, which had been published in 1938, in which Spengler predicted that, with its top-heaviness, the West was morally in decline already. And what Spengler was arguing was that to sustain a civilisation, you need to have both a logic of time as well as a logic of space: that we live within this grid of time and space, not just having space and time. The logic of technology, however, is the logic that space has to be defeated, so that the quicker you can get from London to New York, the better; hence, the popularity of the Concorde that took you there in four hours.

My son, as a businessman, decided before it disappeared that he would have a try, so he booked his engagements in London and then his engagements in New York with a gap of four hours and discovered that he nearly went ill. He was ill with vertigo after he had had experienced the conquest of space. Time still mattered. But of course, the time that matters technologically is simply meaningless time that you think is important time. Time means money. That’s why you say I’ve no time for it. But when you say I’ve no time for it, you’re really saying I don’t value it. So it’s what you value that matters. But, of course, the body clock is not the Concorde clock. And my own daughter, who’s a flight attendant, and my two sons-in-law, who are pilots, will tell you that airline crews have one of the ten most difficult jobs on Earth. They’re always living all through every week in different time zones and so this vertigo is a constant wear and tear on their bodies. And it can be too on their spirits unless they have a positive attitude beyond it.

So Spengler was arguing that the logic of time has a moral significance also. And here, he’s speaking about time as history, time as tradition. The loss of history is the loss of real time, the interpretation of time. And so Ellul, reflecting on Spengler’s brilliant insights, believes that there are three phases in man’s history: pre-history when there was no such grid of time and space, where man was absorbed in nature. It’s the kind of thing that Buddhist time is sill involved in, you see, where you get absorbed in the forest of nature. And, of course, that absorption is to be a pantheist: everything around you is deified in that world. Well, that’s pre-history. But for some people it’s still contemporary history, if you go to Japan, especially. Time is lost by nature.


But then, of course, the time that all Christians like Ellul or Spengler too were concerned about is Christian time, where time is meaningful because God has entered into it. The incarnation has revolutionised the logic of time. Time is now meaningful. And that’s why the urgency with which the Apostle speaks about that now is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation. Time has a linear progression from a beginning to an end and we’re responsible within that linearity. So that’s Christian time. And then Spengler speaks about post-history. In other words, what we’re concerned about is the life to come.

Jürgen Moltmann, the German theologian, as he reflected on these three categories that Ellul is spelling out after Spengler, says I think that he got all this in a revised form from the pioneering sociologist Auguste Comte in the late 19th century, who, as the prophet of progress, theorises on three stages of progress: the progress of the religious, and here he is referring to pre-history, to that or the natural interpretation that Ellul has; secondly, the metaphysical, that’s more sophisticated about its understanding of the religious life; and then the positive, and he himself was a prophet of positivism. He sees this as a future state that is a progressive stage of progress. So Comte sees the positive as the final stage, that you go from one degree of progress to another. But the problem about living with positivism is—and Comte himself recognised this—you can’t go any further. It becomes a dead end street. You’ve entered into a cul-de-sac that you call progress. It’s like a moving staircase: it keeps revolving around. So really according to Moltmann, what Ellul has done is to turn Comte on his head and to see that technology, which is what leads to the final dehumanisation of man, has no prospects beyond itself. It gives no fulfilment for the humanisation of man at all.

Now, we’ve already critiqued Borgmann and seeing him rather skin-deep. Because what Borgmann is saying is what technology does is to give us the promise of freedom, that technology frees you to do other things. It does, of course. You can put all the dirty dishes in the washing machine and then it frees you to get on with your studies, as I do every morning. Or you have an irrigation system in your garden and it frees you from now watering the flowers while you’re away on holiday. We know that all sorts of gadgets give us this freedom, but what is this freedom for? It’s ultimately cultivating more narcissism. It doesn’t free you personally. It cheats you because what is does is to give you a false definition of your own personal freedom. It promises you freedom for yourself, which in Christian theology would indicate that really it’s the bondage of the self. It’s freedom from the self that is Christian freedom. So the significance of Jesus’ promise in John 8: 31–33, 34 is that he gives us freedom in two categories. He says if the truth shall make you free, you are free indeed.


But technology camouflages that truth by saying yes, you’ve got freedom not to wash dishes or water the flowers, but that’s trivial; freedom from yourself is freedom from bondage. And that’s what the truth gives us: awareness of that. And how is that freedom to be attained? Jesus goes on to say if the son shall make you free, you are free indeed. What does it mean to be free in sonship? It means to be selfless like our Lord. It means freedom from the self to be for the other. It means freedom to love the neighbour as yourself, to redefine your identity from the individual by alterity to be for the other. It gives you a new definition of who you are. And so the vocabulary that we should begin to cultivate as Christians is we’re never to be individuals. We’re always to be persons.

And, of course, the world has no clue as to what we mean by being a person, because it’s to enter into the divine life of the Trinity where the Father is for the Son and the Son is for the Other, and the Holy Spirit is the one that binds the Father and the Son in a unity of infinite communion. That’s what it is to be a person. And, of course, we can’t begin to talk that language to secularists. They think we’re crazy. But that’s really what we should be avoiding. And so this is what preserves us from being dehumanised by technology.


There are many practical things that you and I can do. And I’m surprised at the number of Christian leaders that keep bugging me to be on LinkedIn. I’ve got more than 2–300 who are lined up to say I want to be on LinkedIn with you. And if I have the patience to reply, I say if you want to send me an email, fine, I’ll respond, but I’m not going to join that package of communication. And that’s what it is to be more personal.


Well, this is what Ellul was watching in his period of time. So for space to he redefined so radically as it is by technology is to forget that time doesn’t forget and therefore time with all its complexity, [which is paid, 00:16:05] leads to profound spiritual disorientation. So what Ellul does is to place hope, history, God’s purposes and sovereignty through time as therefore what gives us hope. It’s appropriate historiography that God has a purpose and that purpose is going to be fulfilled. And it’s that that gives us hope for the future.