Before this summer I knew nothing of Jacques Ellul. I discovered the late French theologian and social critic almost by accident, when I glanced into his book, The Humiliation of the Word, and heard a voice that, as they say, “spoke to my condition” (La Parole humiliée, 1981; ET Erdmans, 1985).
It’s no secret that philosophy adores the supreme importance of language. But Ellul takes this principle much more seriously than most philosophers. For him Truth itself is a realm that must be made independent of all images and sense data – in order that it may become the sole provenance of the Word.
“language … permits us to go beyond the reality of mere existence to… something different from the sensually verifiable universe. Language is not bound to reality, but to its capacity to create this different universe, which you may call surreal, meta-real, or metaphysical. For the sake of convenience we will call it the order of truth. The word is the creator, founder, and producer of truth.” (1.2)
But Ellul compensates the materialist generously for this wholesale dethronement of images and other sense data from the court of Truth – he readily concedes to these lesser forms the illustrious name ‘Reality.’
I don’t know if this move would appease our shrill acolytes of ‘Science’ who – unlike the professionals within its working ranks – believe ‘the Method’ to be the universal solvent of all really tough human problems. But a materialist who does not thoroughly understand that accuracy is a value existing on a level completely different from veracity or honesty is probably not equipped for understanding Ellul.
Theologians, too, may find it hard to give up words like ‘image’ and ‘reality’ in honor of Truth – until they remember that this concession is at least in keeping with teachings that have never equated truth-seeking with pursuit of images or of the data of the five senses.
By differentiating Truth from Reality – and by relegating so much interesting stuff to ‘Reality,’ Ellul makes it clear he does not aim to dismiss the significance of images and sense data. He is determined only to prevent all such categorically foreign elements from obscuring the search for Truth.
And by differentiating Word from Image, Ellul does not intend to exclude language from its function in Reality. It is clear that language has given an evolutionary advantage to the speaking race of animals – by which they might overcome non-speaking predators who were better endowed with speed, strength, endurance, intuition, reflex, habit. But I think Ellul views this evolutionary advantage of language as only an epiphenomenon of the Word. Yes, language is the secret of material mastery, but its real essence as the Word is to be the guide in attainments that transcend material forms of success.
“What is Truth?” Ellul hears the question being asked, but wisely avoids definitions of Truth in terms of observable or identifiable content. Instead he recommends we discover what belongs to the domain of Truth ourselves, by seeking to understand it as the object of our highest human endeavor.
“Anything concerned with the ultimate destination of a human being belongs to the domain of Truth. And by ‘destination’ in this sense I mean ‘meaning and direction in life’. We can add to this everything that refers to the establishment of a scale of values which allows a person to make significant personal decisions, and everything related to the debate over Justice and Love and their definition.” (1.3)
I’m not sure I have ever underlined a book more often than I did this one. Jacques Ellul makes me want to go back to Kant’s epoch-making arguments for the primacy of Practical Reason (First and Second Critiques) and reopen the whole discussion on behalf of religion that Fichte more or less fumbled, and that Schleiermacher seems only to have made ambiguous to modern minds.