Christian humanism: Jesus vs technique

I mentioned this at the BHT the other day, but I was struck by the following passage from Ellul’s Technological Society (see previous post), where he refers to:

…the profound humanism, issue of Renaissance humanism, which still haunted the seventeenth century – it believed not only in knowledge and respect for the human being but in the genuine supremacy of man over means. This humanism, bound up with the idea of universalism, did not allow techniques to grow. Men refused to conform to any uniform law, even when it operated for their own good. (pp.41ff.)

What Ellul doesn’t state expressly here (but what is clear from his other writings), is that this is a Christian humanism to which he referring. Christian humanism is a topic on which Michael Spencer has blogged on a number of occasions, and in this 2005 essay Michael describes the essence of Christian humanism as this:

Christ has joined us in our humanity, and shown us both ourselves and the God at the heart of reality at the same time. The Incarnation demands a consideration of the human person in every aspect of human existence. The God beyond the incarnation is a mystery to us, and scripture does not exist to take us to a theology of God beyond the incarnation.

He continues (emphasis in original):

We do not know the God of Jesus Christ. We know God in and through Jesus Christ, and we know Jesus through the windows of Holy Scripture and the human experience. To remove the human element from our consideration of God, truth and the Gospel is to do damage to the Christian answer to our greatest questions.

Michael contrasts this Christian humanism with “the concept of a God-centered faith that has removed the incarnation from its central place”. A key aspect of Christian humanism is understanding God through the window of our humanity (in particular the perfect humanity of Jesus Christ) and reaching a fuller understanding of our humanity through that same window of the incarnation.

But Ellul points out another key task for a Christian humanism, one which has a direct, practical impact on church life: namely, an insistence on “the genuine supremacy of man over means”. In other words, a rejection of “technique”, with its concern to find the most efficient means of achieving a desired outcome, and its insistence that human beings adapt to it, rather than the other way round.

Ellul argues that a feature of modern society is that we uncritically and unconsciously take for granted technique’s claims for supremacy over us. This is as true of the church as elsewhere. It is particularly obvious in churches that emphasise “seeker-friendliness”, in which what is valued is that way of being church which is perceived to be most effective at producing a growth in numbers, with existing church members being expected to adapt to whatever evangelistic or discipling techniques are currently in favour.

However, none of us living in “the technological society” can escape the mental habits of technique. For those of us who value the doctrines of the Reformation or the historic liturgy of the church, it is all-too easy for us to value them as technique: as that which will be most effective in producing the outcome we desire – namely, the restoration of a particular way of being church, in contrast to the modern charismatic/evangelical way of being church – and to which our fellow Christians will be expected to adapt themselves.

There is no easy answer to this. We cannot escape technique any more than we can escape mammon. But any resistance we are able to mount to this will involve the two key elements outlined above:

  1. A faith that is centred on Jesus: not on doctrines about Jesus, but on Jesus himself.
  2. A conscious awareness of technique – of the present supremacy of means over humanity – so as to be able to resist it and find ways to incarnate the supremacy of humanity over means.

To close, I’d like to quote in full Josh’s post from a day or two ago, which sums up a lot of what I’ve been trying to say. It seems to me that what Josh is rejecting here is doctrine as technique – as a means of achieving a certain outcome in our own Christian walk or in the life of the church. The Christian life is not about the proper application of doctrinal formulations to our lives, but about walking with Jesus, the same Jesus who is revealed most fully in the gospels:

You really can’t sum up the life of Jesus with the doctrine of active obedience. That might be part of it, I guess, but his life isn’t a mask for a doctrine.

I’m at the point in my Christian life now where I really don’t want to hear doctrines about Jesus anymore. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in them, as I understand the importance of the various orthodox dogmas. However, I feel like the stories in the Gospels themselves are far more important. I find myself more and more dealing with life by mentally referring to a Gospel (or sometimes OT) story than by referring to a doctrinal formulation.

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3 Responses to Christian humanism: Jesus vs technique

  1. joel hunter says:

    I really like how you have pulled these different threads together in this post. I’ll be referring to this often.

    I’ve been thinking about Josh’s post, and it seems to me that what is happening is that he is growing in his discipleship beyond the stage of catechesis. “Here is what we believe and why” is an essential stage of spiritual growth, especially for those like you and Josh (and most people I know, for that matter!) whose fundamental commitments regarding those beliefs change. But with nothing to grow into from there, it becomes little more than intellectual play. My experience around really mature believers is that they have regained a profound simplicity to that dimension of their lives.

    So I suppose I’m suggesting that doctrine-as-technique is an appropriate stage early in the Christian life. It is important to confront the significance of Jesus the God-man and God in His trinitarian life. But continual reference to the two natures and hypostases does not help one “deal with life,” as Josh points out.

    I wonder if our difficulty with exalting and acting upon the belief in the supremacy of humanity over means indicates that we are afraid to be free. It’s so much easier to adapt to technique; it’s too much responsibility to measure decisions and actions by some other criterion than efficiency or goal-realization.

    How can “humanity” the species be supreme if the individual in his or her particularity fails to resist the claims and habits of technique’s superiority in their concrete life? “For freedom Christ has set you free” has been haunting me for about two years.

  2. Phil Walker says:

    Forgive a rather concrete thinker: I’m trying to see what this means. Is it basically that people matter more than systems, and that therefore the systems should be designed to meet the needs of the people?

    It seems almost truistic, although I take the point that modern society can feel so impersonalised as to render the truism somewhat less than obvious. But, and perhaps this is just that it’s never occurred to me you could operate otherwise, if I were in a position to be able to change something at (say) church, I would want to do it in discussion with the congregation: a real discussion, with views on all sides being expressed. I’d want to be sure that what we did was to the benefit of those involved, done with their consent, and done with their full understanding. I’d want to treat the other people at church as people, not as fungible congregation units.

    So there’s no question about it, I’d want to do things the best way I could: and that’s damnable technique, am I right? But “the best way” includes treating people as people, because it’s not in anyone’s best interests to be treated as a cog in a machine: that’s anti-technique, yeah? And I’d want to do things the best way because I want the best for people: which is that?

    And have I just reduced the critique of technique to a technique for combatting technique? My head hurts…

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