Christianity and the Ideological World

This latest post written by Jacob Woolbright for the course Bible Study That Matters Spring 2015. Please take the time to read this post, Christianity and the Ideological World. Jacob came out of nowhere, and though a “new kid on the block” at King, he has demonstrated astonishing talent in his course work. He has a an excellent analytical mind, and he nuances like a ninja.

Jacob Woolbright, King University
Jacob Woolbright, King University

I’m Jacob Woolbright, at least I think I am. I live in Middle Tennessee, and have for all 29 years of my life. I’m pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in History and Religious Studies. I have worked in public finance for Putnam County Government for six years. I enjoy the outdoors, philosophy, and playing music. I plan to pursue a Masters of Arts in Religious Studies in the near future.

A few years ago I was introduced to Jacques Ellul. No, I never met him; I was surfing YouTube for videos on the different currents of libertarianism and there was a video on the ideas of technology and how it has affected the everyday lives of people as a collective whole. It was in French (Ellul was French) so I had to follow the English subtitles carefully, but what I read made sense.

This post is not about technology–sorry for the tease. This is about something else; something that runs deep into anti-authoritarian thought, yet is mixed with the philosophy of Christianity.

Jacques Ellul was a Christian anarchist, as well as being a sociologist, and an anti-capitalist. Ellul’s views of economics were closer to that of Bakunin’s (Google him, if you do not know the name) collectivist anarchism, but his religious views were most definitely at odds with that of Bakunin’s. I guess you could say Ellul was his own person, yet he was a man that gave his life to Christ.

Many think that Christianity and anarchism cannot mix, so some consider Ellul a crazy man, but I must say, he made great points in favor of anarchism. Which “anarchy”, or in the Greek, αναρχία, the transliteration being anarchía, literally means “without rulers”. An meaning “without,” and arkhos meaning “ruler.”

If we, the Christian, compartmentalize and distinguish the difference between the metaphysical and the worldly, then it is not a contradiction to be a Christian anarchist.

If you are following closely, and if you are familiar with Romans 13, then you might be disagreeing with me at this point.

Paul says this in Romans 13:1-5: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. (NRSV)

I, personally, hold to the view of Stanley Hauerwas, that we cannot read Romans 13 until objectively, carefully reading Romans 12. In Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (NRSV) We must read Romans in an rational, organized order, instead of just falling on Romans 13 to make the point to be obedient to anyone in charge. If we “discern what is the will of God” then we will get true leadership, leadership that Paul wants us to have in Romans 13. This post, though, is about what is also found in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world,” a world which is full of ideologies; therefore, it is logical for the Christian to be anti-ideology also.

One argument to the above is that “anti-ideology” is, in fact, an ideology. It’s like the nihilist not having a worldview; well, actually not having a worldview could be considered a worldview. I do not find this to be the case when it is based on Christian thought. Ellul points out in Jesus and Marx: From Gospel to Ideology that “”Ideology” has become a hackneyed topic for discussion, because it can mean just about anything.

In day-to-day usage, people us ideology to mean “any opinion different from mine”–always with an unfavorable connotation.” [1] So, Ellul is making the point that ideologies lack objectivity and require a somewhat postmodernist mindset in order to just be an opinion that is simply there for opposition’s sake. We can see the idea of political ideology within the philosophy of American Christianity on a daily basis. We have the Christian Right, the Christian Left, progressive Christians, conservative Christians t0 name just a few. All of these oppose each other to a certain degree and disparage the idea of an ecumenical church. Much of this, though, is the syncretism of human made ideologies– not the objective Word of God.

There is danger in the mixing of the metaphysical, spiritual realm where the Christian sees God, and ideologies. The Christian cannot mix the ideas of the world and the foundations given by Christ.

Ellul makes his point even more clear in Anarchy and Christianity, “As I have noted already, the church was monarchist under the kings, imperialist under Napoleon, and republican under the Republic, and now the church (the Protestant Church at least) is becoming socialist in France. This runs contrary to the orientation of Paul, namely, that we are not to be conformed to the ideas of the present world. In the ideological and political world, it is a buffer.” [2] What does Ellul mean by the word “buffer?” (Jacob, I think you need to say more here–if the church follows the spirit of the age then what does one do with Paul’s very strong statements in 13? You need to come back to this and explain better.)

Many Christians have staunch nationalistic sentiments. This, of course, is the mixing of an ideology and Christianity; thus, resulting in what Ellul argued against. In Ellul’s time in France, state-socialism was gaining more and more popularity. The Christians in France at this time were mixing the ideas of Marx with Christianity. In the United States we can see this today as well, maybe not Marxism, but other nationalistic ideas.

Ellul’s fear of mixing ideologies and Christianity is not an archaic one. Nationalism is alive and well in the United States and elsewhere. This is the threat Ellul warned against; this is the threat he warned us about, yet it is happening; the mixing of manmade ideologies, which will always fail, with the teachings of Christ. The “buffer” that was mentioned earlier has become so commonplace that many think that it cannot be changed. The idea that we can actually have more of an Early Church mentality, before the Constantinian shift (as Ellul would call it), seems too farfetched to the Christians of today.

Now, this is actually starting to come across as an ode to Jacques Ellul. I guess we could even start our own ideology called “Ellulism” and put it among the ranks of all the other “ism”‘s, but what Ellul brought forth is revolutionary in a time when Christianity needs a more radical approach. I was raised Southern Baptist (although I have since left the SBC) and I can tell you right now that there is a dullness within the church, and I know enough to know that it is not only within the SBC, but within many denominations.

Could this radical anti-ideology mindset help Christianity?

Yes, I think so, but we have to always remember that we are human and we are always going to drift back, or backslide, as I often hear it called. I see this comparable to living a Christian lifestyle. The Christian knows that he or she is not perfect but each one reserves perfection for Christ, but the Christian still tries to be Christ-like. If we fail at this then why try? It is our regeneration in accepting Christ that makes us keep putting forth the effort. When the regenerated Christian sins then that Christian has the heavy burden of sin on his or her heart; thus, they seek forgiveness. The same could be offered to the Christian’s rejection of worldly ideologies. Yes, we will fall back into their alluring ways, but if our main focus stays on Christ then we will come out of this trance.

I write this as someone who has flirted with many different ideologies. This may come across as hypocritical, since I myself have been within the realms of ideologies, but I never felt at home with any of them. Growing up I supported social conservativism, but it felt hollow and superficial, especially when it was blended into the hell, fire, and brimstone sermons I grew up hearing. The logical antithesis (using Hegelian lingo) was liberalism.

So, I tried that out and was miserable as well. Libertarianism (the American variety)? Tried it, didn’t much care for it. All of these and others did nothing for me. So, I rejected them. Rejecting them gave me more philosophical room for theology. This ended up mending a broken relationship with Christ. Thus, I speak as someone who has been there and done that, and I’m asking you, my reader, to at least consider this idea. There is true freedom when one breaks the chains of worldly ideologies. I set out on a journey to find something of this world to believe in and found nothing, and I am happy with that.

So, what now? It’s up to you. I’ve taken my journey, and have made peace with the happiness of nothingness; of no worldly ideology to rule my life. I ask you to at least contemplate it, and one day hopefully you will choose. As Mr. Ellul wrote in The Ethics of Freedom, “Choice is the most tangible expression of freedom.” [3] I find freedom in no ideology.

 

 

 

 

References:

[1] Ellul, Jacques. Jesus and Marx: From Gospel to Ideology. Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock, 2012.

[2] Ellul, Jacques, and Geoffrey William Bromiley. Anarchy and Christianity. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011.

[3] Ellul, Jacques. The Ethics of Freedom. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.