As we have seen, in his book Hope in Time of Abandonment Jacques Ellul argues that western society is a society which has lost its hope. But why is this? Ellul answers this with what he describes as his “deepest conviction”:
It is my belief that we have entered upon the age of abandonment, that God has turned away from us and is leaving us to our fate. (p.71)
This is not to say that God has turned away from all individuals. Rather, this is a matter of God’s relationship to society as a whole:
[I]t is from our history, our societies, our cultures, our science and our politics that God is absent. He is keeping quiet, and has shut himself up in his silence and in his night.
Ellul continues by arguing that God’s silence is “not the fault of a general wickedness”, or of injustices within society. “It is not the unbelievers who are keeping God away,” he writes. Rather, it is a combination of “structures” and of failings by Christians and the church, “who do not know how to be what God expects of them”. Hence Ellul goes on to examined the “signs of abandonment within the church”.
The failings of the church include theological failings, mainly those of post-war liberal theology in the mainline churches (though it should be stressed that Ellul’s own theology is not always especially “orthodox”). Theologians have made a “diagnostic error about man”, stating that humanity has “come of age”, whereas in fact humanity has lost hope and is living in God’s silence. Theologians had also made a “diagnostic error about God”, declaring that “God is dead”, whereas in fact God has (Ellul argues) absented himself.
One of the most telling symptoms identified by Ellul is that of “the mediocrity of the church” (pp.132ff.). “Big things are no longer being done in the Church, things that are striking, heartwarming, moving,” he writes. This shows itself in the refusal “to dare to declare that a given statement is heretical” or to “set forth a confession of faith”, because “that might say something revolting which science has warned us to be suspicious of”.
It also shows itself in the tendency to replace a distinctively Christian proclamation with “the Church of political involvement”, whether that be the politics of the right (as in 19th century France) or the left (as in the 20th century), or in the constant prayers for the Holy Spirit to guide church meetings and synods which turn out to be a “deadly bore” that bear “irrefutable witness that the Holy Spirit is not there”, or in an approach to ecumenism that is entirely administrative and political in nature.
One of Ellul’s observations on the state of the church that hit home with particular force was his accusation of “dryness” (pp.139ff.):
The third observation which is obvious is the lack of outreach in witnessing, the lack of transmission of the Christian message. In the face of this incapacity for evangelization and mission, tons of literature have been published. … I shall say just one thing: “If God doesn’t speak, who will be heeded?”
Ellul states that
In spite of modern research, I continue firmly to believe that it is by the action of the Holy Spirit (assuming, of course, that man has done his part for the proclamation and preaching of the Gospel) that people’s ears are opened and they are made to hear. It is the Holy Spirit who provides the meaning and who brings about the reception of the Word.
The problem is that “the Holy Spirit is no longer speaking”. One of the “facts” that Ellul employs in support of this assertion is the combination of “the widespread indifference to the Gospel” with “the increase in religious mentality”. Ellul’s words here, written in 1962, sound as topical today as they did then:
At the very time when the Gospel is being rejected, flouted and ridiculed, modern man is showing a keen interest religious problems. Literature about God (provided it is not clearly and explicitly Christian) succeeds in the footsteps of erotic literature. … The fact that man turns to religion, or to religions, at the same time that he rejects the revelation of God and of Jesus Christ is a plain indication that God remains strictly hidden.
What do I think of Ellul’s argument? Well, while I wouldn’t put it as strongly as Ellul – with his assertion that “[God’s] word as such is no longer being spoken” – I’ve often found myself wondering if many western countries (particularly in Europe) are experiencing what Amos described as a “famine … of hearing the words of the Lord”; that God might be passing us by for a time, with the harvest now mainly occurring elsewhere in the world.
Article V of the Augsburg Confession states that:
…through the Word and the sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel.
It’s easy for Lutherans to focus on the positive instrumentality of the Word and sacraments in such a way that we miss that final aspect of the Holy Spirit’s mysterious work, effecting faith “where and when it pleases God in those who hear the gospel”. Ellul’s statement that “the Holy Spirit is no longer speaking”, while hyperbolic, finds some confirmation when we consider the limited impact that the proclamation of the gospel in Word and sacraments has in our society today.
Even in the church, the centre of devotional gravity has shifted away from the Word and sacraments to other things: charismatic gifts, upbeat music, acts of service, political involvement. Not that all these things are wrong in themselves, but that the apparent lack of power in the Word and sacraments, the apparent need to employ other means to bring and keep people in, provides some confirmation that the Holy Spirit is not working as powerfully in the church as we might wish to believe.