The punishment reserved for unreason and the abandonment of the self is precisely unreason. Spinoza
Surely the confrontation at the present time between Christianity and our western technological society is very valuable and instructive. It is true that Christianity, mongrelized since the seventeenth century, has been in need of a sort of cultural revolution, but the true cultural revolution came from the theology of Karl Barth and not from the current pitiful efforts. It is possible that Christianity may be passing through fire from which it should emerge purified, but that is not at all certain.
When people preach the transformation of Christianity into politics, when they urge us to join with communists, for example, just as Christians joined formerly with monarchists or capitalists, when they affirm Christian pluralism as the only Christian possibility, without stating the strict counterbalance of unity and truth, when they present atheism as one ingredient in faith, or even Christian faith as an ingredient in atheism, and this as something to be desired, as something excellent, not as a tragic necessity, a testimony to our powerlessness to live the faith, then I think we are in the full process of reintegrating secular religion into Christianity, or of the absorption of Christianity by secular religion. At the very moment when one claims to be freeing Christianity from the religious hodgepodge which has burdened it for twenty centuries, and from such religious mistakes as the belief in miracles, or the unconditioned authority of Scripture, or the formulation of the name of God, one reintroduces religion. This is not done in the traditional idiom but, as always, in the contemporary idiom. Thus the theology of the death of God is, above all, a theology of the modern religionizing of Christianity.
That theology, in fact, is based on a certain number of beliefs, taken as uncriticized and unverified postulates and treated as genuine axioms. Thus the world is secularized, modern man is come of age, and everything is integrated into “the cultural.” This primacy of the cultural over everything else, this subordination of Christianity to the cultural, past and present, is the ad hoc expression of the myth of history. Out of this comes an odd reversal : whereas it was Judaism which “invented” history, whereas faith in Christ is what gives meaning to history, we, completely enslaved by the myth of history, have come to think that everything is integrated, inserted into history, and that the truth of Christianity, the revelation, is in reality dependent upon history.
The second pillar of this theology is the myth of science. But, in addition, this entire theology of the death of God is based afterward on the popular beliefs and passions of modern man. To the extent that one takes these beliefs as criteria, one arrives at the conclusion that, since man no longer believes in the biblical God, this God was merely a human construct. It is a wonderful pretense in order to make room for the modern religion. We void what has been revealed on the ground (which is true) that it was mingled with the religious. Meanwhile we open wide the gate to all the current beliefs, and are quite prepared to welcome them. What we have voided is not only the religious, but also the absolute of the revelation.
Christian intellectuals are so imbued with all the modern myths, they live so much in today’s sacred, they participate so much in all the rites, all the beliefs, especially those of political religion, that they fail to realize that, there too, it is a matter of religion. That is the fate of all those who live in a myth. They are incapable of assessing it as myth.
We have to come out of it. This can be through the passage of time, which wears down belief and enables us to step back from the object of myth. It can also be through a shock, which jars one into another orbit of thinking, of interpretation, and of belief. Such had been the shock of Christianity with regard to the ancient myths and religions. Today, however, it is, rather, the shock of science which is driving us out of the Christian orbit, and is opening up to criticism the myths and religions of Judeo-Christianity, as though we were emerging from the religious cosmos.
The fact of the matter is that the theology of the death of God, as a justification of the actual current situation and as a cover for the process of increasing worldliness, is the best way to reintegrate the religious into Christianity, for, in their critique, these theologians focus on the religious which is outmoded. Then they start to apply that critique to the contemporary religious. They are so dominated by this sacred and its beliefs that their one problem really is how to incorporate these into Christianity.
In order to accomplish this, they claim to continue the theological criticism of religion such as Barth had carried out, or also the sociological scouring which I had undertaken. We often heard it said that “Barth stopped half way,” or in connection with me, “There are areas which have escaped Ellul’s sociological critique.” I am supposed to have stopped short through timidity. The valiant modern theologians want to go all the way. This going all the way does not consist in doing away with the “religious surplus” of Christianity, but rather, with the very center from which the critique of the religion is possible.
This is the heart of a revelation, the “extra” point, on the basis of which it is possible to view all the rest, since it is transcendent. It is the nonplace, the unlocated place which enables us to locate the rest. It is the never-achieved prospect in relation to which everything has its place. No serious critique of current religion can be made if there is no transcendent, for every religion necessarily is lived as the pure and simple truth by those who are within it.
Quite obviously, that is just what modern man is living; and the modern Christian as well, whenever he lowers himself to the condition of the average person by voiding the specific character of Christianity. To make Christ’s self-emptying the central doctrine, on the basis of which, alone, everything is to be judged, including the remainder of the revelation, is to assert that the specific character of Christianity is precisely not to have any. It is to preach being steeped in the world, and, if this world is religious, it means adopting the religions of the world.
I must not, of course, be made to say what I am not saying. The great passage of Philippians chapter 2 is one of the central texts. It is the most complete expression of the Incarnation and the cross, but taken alone, and in isolation, it gives a view of the revelation which is just as false as the Decalogue taken alone and treated as the center and heart of the revelation. The theology of the death of God does not want to see the irreducibly different character of the biblical revelation about God (God as the Almighty Creator, etc., not just as humbled and crucified man, etc.), and everything that all the other religions have been able to say about God.
It is this irreducible which makes the transmission of the kerygma and witnessing about God difficult. It is not at all the outmoded quality of the God-notion in a different cultural context. Yet the modern theological trend does away with the irreducible, since it proceeds essentially by reduction. That is the great method and approach. There is the reduction of the multiplicity of textual levels to structures. There is the reduction of the complexity of the message to a single theme. There is a reduction of the multiplicity of facets of the revelation to a single aspect. There is a reduction of the revealed to the cultural, a reduction of the cultural to the political, and a reduction of the two dimensions to the one horizontal dimension, etc.
The reduction process is the anti-revelation. It also consists in favoring whatever we find suitable about God, and eliminating the impractical. But by that very fact, one makes it impossible truly to desacralize and seriously to do away with religion. Every reduction goes along with the acceptance of the sacred and of the religioU!., for it is indeed true that the revelation of the living God is desacralizing.
When God enters the picture he destroys man’s sacred. It is true that he secularizes (and, to be sure, that he opens the door to man’s action on a secularized nature), but one forgets that it is the word of God which secularizes, and not philosophy, science, or technology- that this word of God is independent of our analyses, and that either it is given in the Bible and in the incarnation or it is just our imagination. It is forgotten that in this word of God there is attestation of man’s sin, of the rupture between man and God, of man’s situation within evil. To void that, to reduce it is, on the one hand, to render the remainder of the revelation completely meaningless, and on the other hand, it is to prevent oneself any longer from seeing modern man’s sacralizing, for this man creates a sacred for himself and finds himself a religion only in order to counter the prior situation. To deny that situation is to accept, without seeing it, the religion created by man in an uncritical manner. Any critique could be applied only to outmoded and dead religions of the past, which man has abandoned because they no longer do him any good.
So we can say that the “secularization” stemming from the rejection, or reduction, of the revealed truth is the opposite of the desacralizing of things and of religions stemming from the revealed truth. It is the opposite because the first secularization is never anything but the enthroning of new religions.
Here once again we encounter Harvey Cox’s childishness, when he sings the praises of scientific exorcism: “Exorcism is that process by which the stubborn deposits of town and tribal pasts are scraped from the social consciousness of man and he is freed to face his world matter of factly” (The Secular City, p. 1 34). And science, of course, is the great handmaid of exorcism-as though he had never heard of the house which was swept and garnished. Scientific exorcism, like psychoanalysis, is in fact the very remarkable operation whereby one sweeps the heart and mind of man, airs it out, and cleanses it. Then, when the house is empty and open, seven other demons come in to take the place of the one. Consequent upon this scientific operation, modern man is much more religious, much more dependent, much more sacralized than ever before, and more insidiously so.
What we have just said concerning secularization/desacralization can be repeated in connection with religion. Everything being said about the opposition between the revelation in Jesus Christ and religion is right enough, but it is the revelation, not science or reason or modern culture, which destroys religion. Furthermore, there is no overlapping of those two procedures. There is, rather, a strict antinomy. The elimination of the traditional religions by modern culture is a process which creates new religions, and that is all.
In other words, modern Christian intellectuals, theologians, journalists, and clergy have made a gigantic mistake in their interpretation of the contemporary world, and that, in turn, leads to a gigantic mistake in the orientation of Christian and church action.
It seems to me that throughout the history of the church there have finally been three phenomenal mistakes, on which all the rest hangs. I am referring to mistakes more fundamental than the heresies, which were differences in the manner of explicating and understanding what was revealed. What I am thinking of has to do with mistakes concerning the relations between the church and the world, concerning the church’s situation in the world. The difference is as follows: in navigation, one must make an observation, calculate the declination and drift, plot the course, and read the compass. If the compass is off, everything else is off. Whether one prefers sails or motor power no longer matters. In either case, the course is not what had been intended. Such, in my view, is the difference between mistakes of orientation and heresies:
- The first such mistake can be listed as Constantinism. This must not be taken merely as an acceptance of the state and an agreement with the political power. From the outset it is an orientation toward wanting to win over to Christianity the rich, the powerful, the control centers-which necessitated the creation of a neo-Christianity.
- The second such mistake can be called the cultural mistake. It is the incorporation into Christianity of all the cultural values. By that action, Christianity becomes the receptacle for all the civilizations of the past, the establisher of culture and a synthesis of the philosophies-which necessitates the elaboration of another neo-Christianity .
- The third such mistake is the one we are now making, that of believing that we have to locate ourselves in a world that is lay, secularized, scientific, and rational, and that we should build a neo-Christianity in those terms.
But the first question concerning this gross error in the assessment of our times concerns its origin. Surely the psycho-intellectual soil was prepared for it. Political, scientific, and technological pressures, the upheavals (of various kinds) in our society, and dechristianization, all prepared Christians to follow that path. But the trigger, the “reason,” and at the same time the justification, for following this conformist trend was the dissemination of Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. Surely one has read into these passages more than they say explicitly, and has separated them from the corpus of Bonhoeffer’s work, whereas what we should do is to interpret them on the basis of that work, in which case they lose part of their impact.
But, after all, the letters are there, and indeed they offer a diagnosis of our society and a Christian orientation which appear to me fundamentally false. If the demonstration has been produced that our western world is sacral, that the thinking of modern man is developing in terms of myth, and that the secular religions are triumphant, then we need to ask whence comes the great mistake of Bonhoeffer.
To begin with, how can he say that the modern world is not religious, that man is becoming adult and rational, when he himself lived in the midst of the most formidable mystical, religious, and irrational outburst that we have known for three centuries? It is a mysterious blindness. Whatever respect one might have for a man who put his life on the line in political action (which, to be sure, he had to carry out), whatever admiration one might have for a theological work of the first order, however cautious one ought to be in speaking of an authority considered indisputable by Christian intellectuals, one cannot help saying that he was mistaken, and wondering about that incredible blindness.
It seems to me that there can be only three explanatory hypotheses. One is that he was greatly troubled and traumatized by his arrest, imprisonment, and interrogations. That would be nothing against him. In spite of his spiritual greatness, he could very well have gone through a crisis of discouragement, uncertainty. and perhaps even panic. From then on, his famous “questioning,” the calling into question, the new theological problematic, did not come from his faith or from any special lucidity, but from his troubles as a prisoner, from the fact that he was virtually condemned to death. Secondarily, that brought about a false view of the world.
A second explanation is that, with complete clarity, he may have felt that nazism, and the period in which he was living, was simply an accident. I can understand this on the level of purely political and sociological appraisals. This wave of fury was only one wave in a worldwide tidal movement in the opposite direction. Hitlerism was only an epiphenomenon without special significance. One had only to let this wave of fury go by, and his country would come back afterward to the modern world, the basic nature of which was nonreligious, adult, etc. After all, such mistakes can be excused. I personally made a similar mistake when I believed with all my heart in the formula we came up with in 1 944: “From Resistance to Revolution.” It is nonetheless a terrible misunderstanding, and nothing is to be gained from passages based on such an error. The unpardonable people are those who, ten or twenty years later, use those thoughts as a basis for a new theology, a new way for Christians to be present to the world, a new ecclesiology.
Finally, a third explanation is that Bonhoeffer’s attitude was prophetic. That is to say, it was an affirmation of the faith in the face of the reality, a proclamation of the message notwithstanding the events. A declaration is indeed prophetic when faith returns to its foundation despite the obvious. The negation of the religious character of Hitlerism, even the refusal quite simply to see it, could only be faith’s surpassing of the circumstances. “You imagine that the situation is such and such? By no means. In truth it is quite other than that, and here’s how. …”
To be sure, the ardent admirers of Bonhoeffer are tempted to adopt this interpretation. What bothers me, however, is first of all that the prophetic attitude is generally an affirmation of the unshakable revelation and the certainty of faith in the face of the obvious political situation, or of the questions raised by events. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, would seem to be going in the opposite direction. What we have is a calling in question of the faith, of theology, of the church (which can perfectly well be prophetic) in the name of a certain new fact of society. I cannot see that the prophets would ever be oriented in that direction (especially when they were harshly attacking the rituals and religions of their own times).
Another thing which bothers me is that the prophets generally received some confirmation of their political clearheadedness. They had seen through appearances, and more profoundly than other people. Ten or twenty years later, their interpretation was confirmed (which gives rise to the whole rationalistic explanation by historians of prophecy post eventurn). In the present instance, however, nothing that Bonhoeffer says about our society is confirmed. That is why I still question the reasons for this attitude of Bonhoeffer, which may be accidental. It seems to me a mistake to build on such dubious foundations.
Without getting into the fundamental debate on the mistaken interpretation of the modern world by Christians, I would at least like to raise three questions. The first relates to the fuzziness and the conceptual uncertainty of the statements about the world’s being grown up. What do you mean by world? By being grown up? In connection with the secular city, we have already seen the emptiness of these terms, as well as their lack of precision. It is hard to believe that our society could be characterized by the few features listed by Cox. The “world,” is that the society? Adult man, is that a reference to man in himself? In that case, I don’t know what it is we could be talking about. If we are talking about really living people, then there should at least be some serious analytical study of their behavior, opinions, etc. But one is content with general statements. And then, what is an adult? It’s a little too easy to reply, “He who has killed the Father,” or, “He who takes his destiny in his own hands.” A lunatic neither does nor claims to do anything different from that.
My second question has to do with the future of this declared secularization. It is too easily forgotten that throughout the course of history there have been other periods of secularization. China has known at least one long period of secularization, and Rome as well. That can seem odd, accustomed as we are to the reassuring vision of the Roman Pantheon. The fact is that in the fifth century B.C., during the transition from kingship to republic, there was a powerful laicizing trend in Rome. To be sure, it was not a laicization based on scientific knowledge, but it was nonetheless real. This secularization and laicization that we are reveling in are not the first. Only our ignorance of history allows us to think that.
A wave of that type is speedily absorbed every time. It disappears into the sand, leaving only some foam to be scattered by the wind. The laicized societies have inevitably become religious once again, but religious with a difference. Only a telescoping of history, a conceited ignorance, and a sketchy survey would allow one to characterize the whole history of humanity as religious up to the eighteenth century. We need only ask ourselves what will be left of the period of laicization and secularization, from about 1880 to 1930, for man to consider in the year 3000 (if our society is genuinely committed to a neo-religious phase). Our experience is not unique. Secularization is always an intermediate stage between a religious society on the way out and the appearance of a new religious structuring.
My third question has to do, again, with the death of God. It may be perfectly all right, in the intellectual domain, to abandon the “God hypothesis.” Scientific honesty and intellectual rigor would have it that we no longer speak of God today. (But is this really a scientific requirement, or is it, as for Galileo, a partisan extension of the scientific method? It isn’t so simple as the disdainful eliminators of the “stopgap God” think, when they would exclude him, step by step, from his domain as fast as science develops!) So at least the question ought to be raised whether, with this change in intellectual premises and scientific presuppositions, there is necessarily involved a change in the relationship to the revealed God, a different way of explicating the faith, a need to adapt Christianity to a world supposedly grown up, and finally, a mode of Christian life and faith no longer commensurate with what had been known before. I see no inevitable link, no logical consequence, from the one domain to the other. The theologians of the various currents of “new theology,” in the wake of Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, etc., seem to me mostly to be giving way to panic.
This flagrant error and panic entail a no less flagrant consequence. If in fact we are faced with a secularized and desacralized society, with man grown up and demythologized, etc., then we need to change the biblical message, the expounding of the faith, the church’s presence and Christian ethics in those terms. But what if that view of the world is false? In that case, this whole painful structure we see going up before our eyes rests on thin air, for the reinterpretation being attempted is not derived from the facts themselves, but from our interpretation of the facts. We must realize that social facts and historical events never act of themselves, but only through the interpretation placed upon them. If the latter is basically false, it entails reactions, statements, adjustments, and interventions which are also false, hence out of tune and inappropriate, which is always catastrophic, and often mortal for the group that has thus interpreted the events incorrectly. If perchance our world is not in fact secularized, laicized, and grown up, but rather, is sacral and religious, what will be the consequences of our Christian efforts at adjustment?
First of all, it is obvious that Christians are letting other religions grow and develop, and since the latter are nothing other than “fantasy interpretations” of what people are factually living, with technology, economic growth, the expansion of political power and of the institutions of the state, it is obvious that people will more and more fall away from Christianity and tum to the new sacred. The phenomenon of dechristianization goes on apace, but it is no longer a dechristianization resulting from science and secularization, but from the derivative growth of a religion of the world which occupies the former secularized universe.
When that happens, Christianity sustains a double loss of impact. First of all, it doesn’t even imagine itself capable of entering into conflict with the new sacred. It fights nothing which seduces, captivates, wins away, fascinates, and hypnotizes modem man. To the contrary, it plays its part through its renunciation, since, on the one hand, it accepts, blesses, and legitimizes the facts (techniques, politics) on the basis of which the myths and religions are blossoming, and, on the other hand, it in no way contests the enticing power of those “ideologies.” It is putting up an off-balance fight and mounting great battles against windmills. Modem Christianity is incapable of tackling the current false and seductive spiritual forces. It prefers to assail those of yesterday, which are already dead.
In the second place, Christianity is losing its impact through endless self-criticism, a self-criticism which is just as false as its attacks. There is, in fact, no end to criticism of the parish, of morality, of theology, of the language, etc. It is a criticism based on what one imagines to be the reality of modern society, but since one is mistaken about that reality, the enormous amount of work means exactly nothing. Even if the method were valid (to criticize Christianity and the church on the basis of a point of view of the world held to be true), it would still at least be necessary to have a correct view of this world and of this society. But now, if one were to become aware that this point of view of the world is one of a non-Christian myth, or of a non-Christian religion, it is obvious that Christians would be unwilling to make their mea culpa, their self-criticism, on the basis of that point of view. They would be unwilling to do so precisely because they have been assured that it is a nonreligious point of view, and that is the very reason why it seems valid to them.
In other words, Christian self-criticism on the basis of science, history, and sociology can be perfectly valid. But in making such self-criticism, Christians must not imagine that they are thereby penetrating the culture of our western society, or that they are in the slightest degree in tune with the average person living in that society. The latter understands nothing of scientific language, though he believes in the ideology of science. The consequence is a complete absence of interest on the part of non-Christians in all the braggadocio, swagger, and grandiloquence of Christians over their aggiornamento. Christians can vote for the pill, revolution, abortion, free sex, and the marriage of priests; and against imperialism, unequal opportunity, etc. They should be aware that that interests no one but other Christians, who are congratulating one another.
The man in the street chuckles a bit, and he definitely is not tempted to enter a church or believe the Christian word. The militant, of course, is happy to have an ally, but he isn’t at all interested in whatever is Christian about him. From then on, this mistaken appraisal should normally lead to the disappearance of traditional Christians disheartened by the changes of which they have no understanding, and by the lack of any new Christians coming in. The more Christianity is modernized, the more it will lose its place, and the more the last Christians will be isolated. The proponents of the new hermeneutics and the neo-Christians will very shortly be the most lonely people in our society.
We mustn’t delude ourselves about the “dialogue with nonChristians.” Who are the non-Christians in question? If we look around us in France, we note that they are always former Christians, such as G. Mury and R. Garaudy. If they are prepared for dialogue, if they are interested in what is going on in the churches, that is because they have received a good, solid Christian training, and have, since their youth, been alerted and warned of these problems, but the others completely scoff at it.
Insofar as Christianity remains a religion, it is on a par with other religions. It talks with them as equals, and can attract people for religious motives. The same would be true today. For the people of the West at the present time-seized with anguish and fear, with the prestige of science, with the fascination of almightiness, with the frenzy over consumer goods-if Christianity is to make contact with them, is to find them where they are, it must be more religious than ever. It must recover its authentic festivals, its mystic ecstasies, its mystery, its sacramental rites (I am not saying it should keep the same rites and mysteries), its sacred priesthood, its supreme, undisputed authority, its miracles, its timeless way of life. It must banish discussion, theology, criticism, democracy, and the incognito. In so doing it will enter the lists and get into the race with the other current religions, and with no small chance of winning. It will gather many new converts into the fold once again. But be not deceived. It will be a case of a religious revival. I have tried to show above that certain bold moves of “the new theology” are unwittingly tending in that direction.
If one does not adopt this line, then it has to be understood that Christianity is a break with our society, as it has always been a break with the world, of which our society is but one aspect. But the situation is complex. It is true that the church and Christianity live on a cultural past which needs to be criticized, not in accordance with the imperative of science and the maturity of modern man, but in accordance with its own inherent critique, in accordance with the power native to the revelation, and which periodically bursts out of the ecclesiastical and theological covering placed upon it.
Conversely, if one adopts the line indicated above, one is not likely to reach an agreement and a mutual understanding with our society and our contemporaries. To the contrary, this Christianity coming back to its own origins (not necessarily those attested by modern exegesis!) will be even less grasped and understood, for Christianity’s self-criticism involves, by the act itself, the rediscovery within Christianity of what remains the most completely incomprehensible for man, and at once the critique and the rejection of man’s religious paths, modern as well as ancient.
Apart from an unfortunate spirit of syncretism or of resignation, there is no reason to consider that our times are the dawn of the Lord’s promises, promises now taken up and fulfilled by man himself. Faced with the religions which man sets up for himself, the only Christian attitude possible is one of struggle and elimination, not in order to substitute a Christian religion for the others, but to get man out of the religious trap from which he is far from emerging! In other words, it is a resumption of the struggle of the prophets and of the early Christians.
What? Desacralization? Demythicization? Demythologizing? Dereligionizing? Isn’t that precisely what all the intellectual Christians are saying today? Isn’t what I was writing on that subject thirty years ago now banal, a well-established opinion, an obvious commonplace? Everybody’s doing it, and it is no longer especially interesting. To the contrary, I contend that that represents a great misunderstanding. When I was setting forth the need to desacralize and demythicize, I was viewing the realities of the world from the standpoint of the truth of the gospel, whereas the path now being taken is one of demythicizing Holy Scripture and of dereligionizing the church from the standpoint of the truths of the world. As far as political and social realities are concerned, that is easy. Let each day take care of itself. The world is desacralizing itself through its own drives.
The prophetic message now goes about like this: “Our Yahweh is a concentration of our dreams, desires and hopes as Jews. Happily, the chariots of the Chaldeans, the agricultural techniques of the Egyptians, and the commerce of Tyre will enable us to realize those dreams. Thanks to them, we can attest that our Yahweh is not so false as all that. …” The message of the first Christians now is : “Our experience of the resurrected Christ will be able to be attested thanks to the unification of the world (as by Rome), and his universal Lordship will be concretized thanks to the means of communication and the mass media. Ifhe is the Son of God, that is because in this new universe we can easily unite all peoples, and his resurrection is merely the symbol of the Augustan identity which fulfills the designs of God. …”
That is the diametric opposite to what the entire biblical message cries out to us. The power to desacralize is solely and uniquely the power of the gospel, of the word of God contained in Holy Scripture, and of a word preserved in its text, of a word which we have no need to demythicize, to dissect, to come out with, because in its form, inseparable from its content, it conveys the only possible truth, through an actualized decision on the part of God (here I remain ultraclassical, since classicism is the only possible outcome in the face of the gods of this world). It is the word which demythicizes, provided we leave it in its integrity and do not pretend to demythicize it, in the name of what? It is the word which desacralizes the church as fast as the sacred keeps coming back. It is the word which destroys that religion which would smother the faith and the revelation among Christians.
But that is on condition that we leave it its freedom, and neither cover it with the wrappings of tradition and theology, of moralities and rites-making a mummy out of it-nor expurgate it, cut it to pieces and scatter it, like the membra disjecta of Orpheus-making an experimental corpse out of it. All that is necessary is to let the explosive power of the word act, just as it is. There soon takes place a self-cleansing of the church and of Christians, but provided we take that path.
This cannot help being accompanied by the work of desacralization and of secularization against the gods of the present world. That means seeing to it that technical objects are never anything but objects, reduced to utility, measured with a cold eye, and scorned for their always base usage-being sure that they in no way give meaning to life. It means seeing to it that technology is nothing more than an ensemble of means, which need to be put through the mill of truth, an ensemble of useful procedures, interesting of course, but which do not enrich life, do not open a door to spiritual progress, and in no way characterize man.
It means seeing to it that science is one possible representation among others of the world in which we live, and never is the key to truth. It means working to see that the state be strictly lay and secular, refusing, in consequence, to accept any political ideology put out by it, whether Gaullist, or communist or democratic. It means looking upon it as a useful manager, acceptable, of course, as administrator, but ne sutor ultra crepidam [“Let the cobbler stick to his last ”]. We reject the nation-state structure, and the state providence role, whether it be as an object of adoration, of confidence, or of hope. It means seeing history as an interesting novel of the human adventure, and nothing more. Nothing more-not the great goddess who enables us to live.
So we must be iconoclasts, but not of the statue of Jesus Christ nor of God. For the destruction of those statues, a conjunction of forces is at work. On the one hand, as we were saying, the word of God is taking the matter in hand, but the world is also on the attack. We can only applaud the destruction of the divine idol fabricated by Christian traitors, a destruction wrought by Nietzsche and Bakunin, but we don’t have to resume their accusations or dance a scalp dance around the true God of Jesus Christ. That the God envisaged by Voltaire and that envisaged by Bakunin are dying is well and good, but we have to take into account that this in no way refers to the God-creator of the cosmos, the God working miracles in answer to prayer, the God of Sinai, God the Father, the Almighty God, transcendent and sovereign. To claim to do away with that God in the name of Nietzsche’s critique is, on the one hand, to apply that critique where he did not apply it, and on the other hand, to confuse this God, who is the God of Jesus Christ, with the rationalized idol of Christian lukewarmness.
Iconoclasts, yes. That really means destroying the gods of the world which Christians see without observing them. It means standing up to them while taking them for prince charmings-gods of the stadium, of speed, of consumer goods, of utility, of money, of efficiency, of knowledge, of delirium, of sex, of folly, of revolution, of agnostic learning, of politics, of ideologies, of psychoanalysis, of class, of race, gods of the world calling for unheard-of holocausts. The person who attacks the biblical God in order to demythicize him and desacralize him, instead of attacking these divinities, is giving millions of people over to death, not only to spiritual death but also to physical death. That is where Christian responsibility rests.
Millions of people are suffering from hunger, but there are millions of people who are dying from the divine power of political ideology. The person who takes the political route in order to save people, so that people should no longer be exploited, should no longer be victims of war, that person is the surest guarantor of exploitation to come and of further wars, for he is given over to the worship of the political god. If he is not Christian, he cannot do otherwise, and is not responsible. If he is Christian, he is responsible. I am saying that it is the Christian cronies and companions of the communists in 1 944 who are responsible for the millions of victims of Stalin, holocausts of the political god. The same is true today with Mao. It isn’t a matter of political choice. It is a matter of the worship of a god and of a sacred calling.
Precisely as Jean Brun emphasizes, demythologizing “should be applied, not to the myths ordinarily attacked, but to the very attempts which pretend to deliver us from them.” The former myths are known. They are recognized as such, and are no longer dangerous. Once recognized as a myth, the latter no longer means anything. It is childish for Christian intellectuals to sing their paeans to myths which no longer exist, and the biblical myths first of all, while the truly living myths are those not recognized as such. That is when prophetic lucidity, coming from the Holy Spirit, should enable Christians to designate them and earmark them. Again, to be sure, it is important not to reject the power of the Holy Spirit in advance, and then pretend to make Scripture contemporary and vital through hermeneutics. If Christians do not fulfill this role, no one will.
It will be said that the old revelation serves no good purpose in the newness of our times. Modernity has nothing in common with the biblical period, so, for the very purpose of fulfilling that role, why wouldn’t the biblical message have need of refreshment, rejuvenation, and renovation in the direction of modernity? And that is indeed the problem. Should the message be remodeled, or is it meaningful as it is? I am surely fully cognizant of the novelty of this age, yet I am immediately struck by the modernity of the biblical proclamation. When Scripture tells us that man is dominated by the spirit of power and of conquest, by the spirit of independence and surfeit, that he wants to put together a world for himself, and himself alone, to the exclusion of God, that he wants to exploit the world for himself, and that he proclaims, “Where then is God? What can this inoperative, unseen and illogical God do?” is that indeed an old-fashioned speech in need of being demythologized?
Doubtless the Bible calls that attitude pride, sin, a break with God-and condemns it. The modern world, on the other hand, is convinced that finally, in this manner, man will realize his potential, fulfill himself, mature, become adult, and take charge of his own destiny. But has the Bible ever said anything other than that? It says, in fact, that man thinks to take his own destiny in hand when he makes his own law for himself, when he kills God, and fabricates for himself gods according to his own measure, “who walk before us.” Christians, no doubt, instead of preserving the judgment of the Bible concerning this attempt on the part of man, have given their allegiance to the attempt itself. They approve the secular city and triumphal man, responsible in his own right and to himself, and attaining, finally, his majority.
Has the Bible ever said anything other than that the people of Israel were constantly brought to give their allegiance to that conquest of man by himself, that almost inevitably they gave approval to the political power, to the amassing of riches, to the advance of wisdom (science), and that that is where they put their success? They associate themselves with human conquests. I see nothing new, relative to the biblical elucidation, either in the amazing advance of science, technology, and contemporary politics, or in the attachment of Christians to those marvelous successes. The judgment which Scripture brings to bear on these efforts and accomplishments is in no way a product of a cultural atmosphere stemming from a sacral environment with a religious distrust of every conquest on the part of man. To the contrary, it is the product of a rejection of that cultural environment. It is a rejection of it, both as a sacral, religious milieu and as an expression of man’s will to power.
The forms have changed. The problem remains the same. The proportion of human success is incommensurate with the minor successes of the Egyptians and the Chaldeans, but the meaning of the primary judgment is the same. The difficulty man is getting himself into is the same. There is no need for the response to go through demythologizing and the death of God. It is available Immediately.
That is why I both agree and disagree with Rudolf Bultmann’s famous formula: “If formerly the Word of God had to snatch the word ‘God’ from idolatry, today it has to snatch God from anonymity and pseudonymity” (Foi et Parole). I agree, because it is indeed true that the modem gods are no longer known explicitly by the name of God, and there is no need to snatch God from that confusion. To the contrary, it is a question of restoring the specificity of the name of God out of undifferentiated anonymity, and of reaffirming the uniqueness of the God of Jesus Christ in the midst of the idols. I disagree, however, because this can be implemented only by a clear and open fight against idolatry.
The latter has not disappeared; far from it. If there is no need to withdraw the word “God” from idolatrous confusion, there is a need to give it meaning, by denunciation, challenge, and accusation against the veiled, hidden, and secret gods, who besiege and seduce all the more effectively because they do not openly declare themselves as gods.
It is clear that the task facing Christians and the church differs entirely according to whether we think of ourselves as being in a secularized, social, lay, and grown-up world which is ready to hear a demythicized, rationalized, explicated, and humanized gospel the world and the gospel being in full and spontaneous harmony because both want to be nonreligious—or whether we think of ourselves as being in a world inhabited by hidden gods, a world haunted by myths and dreams, throbbing with irrational impulses, swaying from mystique to mystique, a world in which the Christian revelation has once again to play its role as negator and destroyer of the sacred obsessions, of the religious phantasmagoria, in order to liberate man and bring him, not to the self his demons are making him want to be, but to the self his Father wills him to be.
At the mention of a struggle of faith against the modern idols, which are the real ones, I immediately hear indignant protests: “So here we are, being put back into the mind-set of the Middle Ages. Ellul is inviting us to take part in a crusade against the infidels and, at the very least, to adopt a completely superannuated apologetic.” That would be a total misconception, not only a misconception about my thinking, which is not serious, but a misconception with respect to the realities. Crusade and apologetic are, in fact, institutions specific to the age of Christendom. There cannot be a crusade unless there is a Christian world facing a non-Christian world. There cannot be an apologetic unless the non-Christian is included in the problematic of the obvious posed by the Christian. No longer are we in that situation. To suppose that it is still possible to have a crusade or an apologetic is to be out of your mind.
What I am talking about here can have no more to do with crusade than did the rejection of “Caesar” during the first century of Christianity. I can’t imagine the few faithful in Corinth or Rome launching a crusade against the army of the Princeps. We have come back to that stage. The fight of faith lies ahead of us. It is necessary, if we believe that there is truth in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, as set forth in Scripture.
Surely that implies that the modern religions and the modern sacred are errors or lies. Of course, if we feel it necessary to reject all distinction between error and truth, that is our privilege, but then, for goodness’ sake, let’s stop talking about Jesus Christ, who is designated as the Truth. If need be, we could recover “Christianity” as an “ism,” and make it into a nice amalgam of anything we please, but that is not what the Bible is talking to us about.
The fight of faith to which we are committed is not a fight against man. It is not a question of destroying him, of convincing him that he is wrong. It is a fight for his freedom. Reinserted into a sacred, a prisoner of his myths, he is completely alienated in his neo-religions this brave “modern man.” Every religion is both necessary and alienating. To smash these idols, to desacralize these mysteries, to assert the falseness of these religions is to undertake the one, finally indispensable liberation of the person of our times.