Sacrament and Anti-sacrament: On the Media Criticism of Jacques Ellul and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

ellul chardin

Pere Pierre Marie Teilhard de Chardin and Jacques Ellul were two twentieth-century French Christian theologians who happened to integrate theories of mediated communication into their works. They did so in distinctly different ways, from distinctly different perspectives, for distinctly different reasons. It shouldn’t surprise us that they came to distinctly different conclusions, each of which we should consider and understand, for each has implications for our ethical decision-making processes in a complex, highly-developed technological society.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born in 1881 in Auvergne, France. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-en-Provence in March of 1899, studying theology, geology, and paleontology, and was ordained into the Society of Jesus in August of 1911. He interrupted his studies during the First World War to serve as a stretcher bearer in the French Medic Corps (winning the Croix de Guerre in 1915), an experience of death and violence so profoundly disturbing that it forced Teilhard to confront and try to make meaning of some of the most confounding paradoxes of the human experience: the meaning of life and death, of violence in a universe created by a loving God, and the seeming incompatibility of science and faith. Could these things be explained? Understood? Could science and faith be reconciled?

After the war, he lectured in Science at the Jesuit College in Cairo, held a position as Professor of Geology at the Institute Catholique de Paris, and received his Doctorate in Paleontology from the Institute of Human Paleontology in Paris in 1922. Later that same year he went on an expedition in China where he was involved in the discovery and identification of the fossil remains of Sinanthropus, or “Peking Man,” in 1929.

Teilhard’s career was marked by ecclesiastical controversy. He lamented what he saw to be an artificial wall between science and theology; he wished desperately to knock that wall down. He believed in the presence of God in all creation, both spiritual and material. For Teilhard the scientist, the material world was a source of Divine mystery and wonder, providing a vision of God’s loving providence; for Teilhard the theologian, the truth of a divinely-directed evolution was self-evident.

While in China, he put his thoughts on paper in what he called “a little book on piety”: The Divine Milieu. In it, Teilhard stated his belief that the Divine permeates all of creation, that there is “a little bit of God,” if you will, in every rock, every tree, every running stream. As these things seem to happen, a copy of the manuscript found its way to Rome, attracting the attention of ecclesiastical authorities at the Vatican. The reaction against Teilhard’s “modernist” heresies was immediate and severe. He was removed from his teaching positions and instructed not to publish any of his observations on religion and science. A monitum was placed on his works, warning that they “abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine,” effectively banning them “to protect the minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers.” This monitum stands today.

It was only after his death in 1955 that over a dozen of Teilhard’s manuscripts, journal notes, diaries, and private letters – cannily given by Teilhard to a small group of Jesuit and lay friends – were edited and prepared for publication. Ostensibly the writings of a scientist, these works give eloquent witness to Teilhard’s love of God and God’s creation. Despite his protests to the contrary, and not surprisingly, they lack the rigor and objectivity that scientific method demands, and the consequent reaction of the established scientific community has been just as harsh as that of Rome. Yet Teilhard has found, in the last forty years, a solid and cult-like following among lay and religious Christians, some scientists, ecologists, and Internet aficionados.

Jacques Ellul was born on January 6, 1912 in Bordeaux, France. Some sources claim a Catholic baptism even though Ellul’s father was a skeptic and “Voltairian”(Ellul, 1981, p.2) and his mother a Protestant who didn’t attend services according to her husband’s wishes. Ellul himself states that his early years were not influenced by religion in any formal sense. (Ibid.)

As a young man Ellul was familiar with the docks and longshoremen of Bordeaux, with their labor and their lives. Ellul became an enthusiast of the writings of Karl Marx at age 19 (having already lapsed into a not-unexpected atheism in his early teenage years), and then at age 22 he converted to Reformed Christianity (he never, however, completely abandoned Marx or his ideas). Ellul fought with the French resistance during World War II and the National Liberation Movement in 1944.

Educated at the Universities of Bordeaux and Paris, he taught Sociology and the History of Law at the Universities of Montpelier and Strausbourg. In 1946 he returned to Bordeaux where he lived, wrote, served as Deputy Mayor, and taught until his death in 1994.

In his 40 books and hundreds of articles, Ellul’s dominant theme has been the threat to human freedom – and to Christianity – posed by modern technology. In his sociological works, his tone is objective, his method scholarly and meticulous, his perspective a sociological one. Few of his books are overtly theological; several of his books, including Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes and The Technological Society are required reading in many mass communication curricula.

I came into contact with Teilhard and Ellul at different times in different ways. Thirty years ago, a (former) Jesuit friend of mine who knew of my academic interest in communication suggested that I read Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man because of Teilhard’s championing of what he called the noosphere. This friend saw the connection to the thought of Marshall McLuhan and thought I would be intrigued by Teilhard.

I encountered Ellul in graduate school, at first in a course on sociological propaganda. His views on the technologically-mediated world of our own creation were so at odds with Teilhard’s that I was immediately intrigued. I went on to read The Technological Society and The Technological Bluff for some other classes, but it wasn’t until many years later that I came across a copy of The Presence of the Kingdom, Ellul’s 1948 theological work about the place and role of the Christian in the technologically-developed world. Ellul the theologian – a respected and world-renowned theologian – was a revelation to me. In retrospect, however, I realize that there had always been in even Ellul’s most overtly secular work a dual theme, subtly stated; a yin and yang of life in a highly developed technological society: sin and sacrament.

The things in these two lives held in common – the cultural milieu, the experience of war, the 20th century – contrasted against their almost entirely contradictory perspectives, provide a compelling reason to examine their ideas more closely, particularly those that deal with technologies of communication.

I’ve chosen five concepts common in the works of both men to contrast their approaches; I’m hopeful that these points will throw light on their opposing theologies, if you will, of communication. They are 1) evolution, 2) progress, 3) technology, 4) man, and 5) God. These themes are present in the works of each man – although they do not necessarily appear under the labels I’ve given them – and their perspectives on these themes are consistently opposed. It is instructive to look closely at each point and to consider what Teilhard and Ellul has to say about them.

1. Evolution

Teilhard, forbidden by the Vatican to write or teach on any issue which could be construed as theological, nonetheless constructed a model of creation and evolution that is profoundly reverential and God-centered, even as he attempted to maintain a façade of scientific objectivity and detachment. For Teilhard, evolution is a Divinely-directed process. There is indeed a power, an intelligence, which drives and directs evolution toward a pre-ordained end. There are no accidents in Teilhard’s view of evolution; or, at the very least, what appear to humans as accidents are in fact inevitabilities pre-programmed – by God – into the process.

The origin of the cosmos, the moment of creation (what science now considers within the framework of “the big bang”), Teilhard calls “the Alpha point.” Throughout the process of evolution, Teilhard tells us, there is a progression of states of being. This progression is marked by combining matter in aggregations of ever-increasing complexity and “interiorization.” The aggregates themselves, and the tendency for matter to combine in such ways, are the result of cosmic (we may read “Divine”) intelligence. These combinations of matter creating new, more complex, and more interiorized forms of matter are limited, however, by the relative complexity of each form. Each new form manifests some outer “face” consistent with its material makeup, but each also encloses some “inner” state of being, a proto-consciousness, which both directs and limits its material development.

These limits are defined by either environmental influences or by a heightened interior “drive” that pushes the form forward as a result of a mutually beneficial synergy with that environment. At the moment these limitations are reached, three possibilities present themselves for the form:

  1. extinction;
  2. stasis (having reached the limitations of its interiority, the mineral, for example, remains a mineral);
  3. evolution to a higher form of complexity and consciousness.

This progressive process explains the propensity of electrons combining to form atoms, of atoms to become molecules, of elemental molecules to become compounds, of inorganic compounds to become organic, of organic compounds to become organisms, or life.

The evolution of life follows the same path so that some of the simplest organisms, directed by an ineluctable drive to develop, to grow to the limits of their consciousness, become, if and when the opportunity arises, more complex and more conscious.

The appearance of man on Earth, according to Teilhard, marks the end of biological evolution. Man is different, he says, and he is different in a way which can neither be accidental or unanticipated. Man is the first and only creature in the universe to have a consciousness so highly developed that it is self-conscious. “Man discovers,” Teilhard tells us, “that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.” (Teilhard, 1959, p. 221) From this point forward, evolution continues not as a biological phenomenon, but as a phenomenon of consciousness, of intellect, of spirit.

This evolution of the within of man will continue until there is true unity of spirit. Directed by interior energies which compel being both to unite and to move forward, the phenomenon of man will culminate in, to use Teilhard’s colorful phrase, “a paroxysm of harmonized complexity.” (Ibid., p. 262) This will be the end times spoken of in the Bible, what Teilhard calls the “Christification of the universe,” the pleroma, the Omega point. All of creation and all of evolution is a directed and pre-determined journey from Alpha to Omega.

Ellul, on the other hand, will have none of this.

Ellul’s education, training, and experience as a sociologist does not allow him to look upon anything like a “phenomenon of man” except in the most narrow of views, the here and now. He will not consider evolution as a directed process or man having a pre-determined fate. Rather, he looks at the human situation as it exists now, to evaluate it in its current condition. He rejects the notion of Divine direction in human affairs or pre-determinism in evolution. To Ellul, history (and, by extension, evolution) is a dialectical process. History, he says, is open and the way before us is ambiguous. The particular future that lies before us is not determined for us, but dependent on us; on the choices human beings make among a number of possibilities we can’t see clearly leading us in directions we don’t necessarily know.

Recognizing this, however, it is also important to note that Ellul has written that he sees a distinct directionality to the course of human affairs, and the body of his work gives an indication of where he thinks we’re going. And it isn’t pretty. Human history is the story of series after series of tragic mistakes made on the basis of equally tragic choices. Ellul, fairly or unfairly, has been called deterministic (a characterization he rejects), even fatalistic in his view of human history and the future of humanity. But he acknowledges that human beings have it in their power to choose their course, to determine and direct their own future, if only they will make the difficult choices – and make them correctly.

(If) man – if each one of us – abdicates his responsibilities with regard to values; if each one of us limits himself to leading a trivial existence in a technological civilization, with greater adaptation and increasing success as his sole objectives; if we do not even consider the possibility of making a stand against these determinants, then everything will happen as I have described it, and the determinants will be transformed into inevitabilities… Fatalism is not involved; it is rather a question of probability, and I have indicated what I think to be its most likely development. (Ellul, 1964, pp. xxix-xxx)

2. Progress

 Teilhard looked upon evolution as a Divinely-directed process with a clear and unambiguous direction whose fulfillment is the fulfillment of all creation. The idea of progress, therefore, is implicit in his work, and Teilhard’s faith in the idea of progress is a function of his overall Christian faith. But ever the scientist, he also cites biology to justify progress as a powerful determinant of evolution. The (now largely discredited) theory of recapitulation – summed up in Ernst Haeckel’s phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” – suggests for Teilhard a law of irreversibility in evolution. Since, he tells us, “a being stores traces of each phase that it goes through, it is incapable, by construction, of returning exactly to any of the states through which it has passed.” (Teilhard, 1966, p. 49)

As we noted earlier, Teilhard considered biological evolution to have ended with the emergence of oh human beings. But the process of evolution goes on, he says, and must continue to do so in a way that reflects the principle of progress. Interior energies impel us toward unity of consciousness. “Life moves toward unification,” (Teilhard, 1964, p. 72) and it is man’s complex consciousness which promises this progressive movement. What is the end of progress? Fulfillment of man’s – and the universe’s – evolution: The Omega point. Humankind will achieve a collective consciousness, our “interior” knowledge, that cosmic or Divine knowledge, will become exteriorized by the same forces that have impelled evolution since creation, and mankind will complete its evolutionary progress in its ultimate and highest form: the unified and universal body of Christ.

For Ellul, however, progress is simply another human myth, as tantalizing in its promise as it is cataclysmic in its fulfillment; a dangerous fantasy which needs to be openly rejected:

I refuse to believe in the ‘progress’ of humanity, when I see from year to year the lowering of standards among men I know, whose lives I follow, in the midst of whom I live – when I see how they lose their sense of responsibility, their seriousness in work, their recognition of a true authority, their desire for a decent life – when I see them weighed down by anxiety about what the great ones of the world are plotting, by the fear that penetrates our world, by the hatred which they feel for a terrible phantom which they cannot even name; when I see them cornered by circumstances, and, as they suffer, becoming thieves and frauds, embittered, avaricious, selfish, unbelieving, full of resistance and rancor; or when I see them engaged in a desperate struggle, which comes from the depths of their being, against something they do not know. (Ellul, 1948, p. 99)

Secondly, Ellul suggests that rather than progressing along a road which will lead us inexorably toward some mystical “Omega point,” a state of being marked by universal good will and a global consciousness imbued with Divine love, man has created for himself, by consistently choosing the worldly over the Divine, a culture of death, and Ellul sees no evidence that we are willing to change our collective direction:

Our whole civilization needs to be examined, and by each person, on the plane of his individual destiny, which may not be heroic, but which is certainly a human destiny, and cannot exist without genuine communication with the human beings who surround him.

Here we … come upon one of the characteristics of our day: the “will-to-death,” one of the forms of universal suicide toward which Satan is gradually leading man. Satan makes people gradually get used to this idea of suicide: suicide in enjoyment or despair, intellectual or moral suicide, and thus people are ready for the total suicide which is slowly preparing, and will involve the whole world, body and soul. (Ibid., p. 96)

Thirdly, Ellul believes that the idea of progress, and particularly that of technological progress, is fundamentally illusory, transient, and a distraction from reality – a fatal distraction from truth. “Progress” as a social concept has become an end in itself, rather than the means to some greater end.

Everybody today is aware of the general aim of civilization, and it seems futile and old-fashioned to ask questions about it. Everybody has vague ideas about “progress,” and it seems that this notion of progress might be capable of replacing the pursuit of ends. People think that whenever there is change there is progress… (Ibid., p 53)

This difference of opinion about human progress demands that we turn our attention to another discussion, one of a concept which is critical to our understanding of these two thinkers: the idea of technology’s place in the history of humankind.

3. Technology

It is not at all surprising – but still necessary to point out – that Teilhard sees all technological change (“progress”) as a natural consequence of human intelligence, and an inevitable part of human evolution. Human technologies are not “artificial,” but natural phenomena created by a being who partakes in a very high level of cosmic (i.e., Divine) consciousness. We may legitimately infer from this that Teilhard would agree that God’s work on Earth is man’s work, as man is God’s worker. God gave human beings the intelligence to create solutions to problems, and it is an abdication of a lofty responsibility to distance oneself from the man-made in favor of the natural.

…(Is) it not precisely the world itself which, culminating in thought, expects us to think out again the instinctive impulses of nature so as to perfect them? Reflective substance requires reflective treatment… We need and are irresistibly being led to create, by means of and beyond all physics, a science of human energetics. (Teilhard, 1959, p. 283)

The technologies human beings create are marked by a sort of moral neutrality. The significance of any technology is not what we might do with it, but what we actually do with it. And what we actually do with a technology is largely dependent on what it allows us to do – or forces us to do. So rather than viewing the splitting of the atom, the explosive release of nuclear energy, and the creation of an atomic bomb as singularly catastrophic events in human evolution, Teilhard instead seeks out the positive. The nuclear age, while beginning as one of tension, fear, and anxiety, or implied and expressed threats, and of the obliteration of hundreds of thousands of human beings, has forced human beings to step back from the brink of confrontation and to seek compromise and entente. “The atomic age,” Teilhard tells us, “is not the age of destruction, but of union in research.” (Teilhard, 1964, p. 147) Because it acts to further focus man’s consciousness upon himself, technology must act as an agent of progress: “Peace…is certain: it is only a matter of time. Inevitably, with an inevitability which is nothing but the supreme expression of liberty, we are moving laboriously and self-critically towards it.” (Ibid., p. 153)

What makes Teilhard’s stance on technology particularly interesting from the point of view of media and communication scholarship is his belief that technological progress is central to the culmination of human evolution. If mankind is to unite into some kind of “super-body,” the indivisible body of Christ, then communication technologies must be at the center of this transformation. Let’s consider why this must be so from Teilhard’s unique perspective.

The evolution of matter, as Teilhard explained it, brought us to an eventual and inevitable point where enormous bodies of chemical compounds, minerals, and elements followed a mutual attraction and formed baryspheres: nascent planets. Some planets, such as Earth, formed a hydrosphere of hydrogen and oxygen – necessary for life – and an atmosphere. All these factors create the possibility of (and will eventually nourish) a biosphere, the envelopment of the planet in life. With human beings the final phase in evolution begins, with a new layer slowly blanketing the Earth, a layer of thought, a layer of intelligence, a layer of consciousness: the noosphere. As mankind evolved, humans created new techniques and technologies which helped to spread this layer of consciousness. The various technical apparatus of communication constitutes “a machine which creates, helping to assemble, and to concentrate in the form of an ever more deeply penetrating organism, all the reflective elements upon earth.” (Ibid. p. 167) Teilhard saw radio and television as media promising the “direct inter-communication of brains” which “link us all in a sort of ‘etherized consciousness.” (Ibid.) Computers promise to move information at the “speed of thought.” (Ibid.) Even though Teilhard didn’t live to see the era of global satellite and telecommunication network technologies, he anticipates the magnitude of their potential, and is widely credited in cyber circles for creating, in his noosphere, the conceptual foundation for the Internet. “What Teilhard was saying here can be summed up in a few words,” notes cyber-guru John Perry Barlow. “The point of all evolution up to this stage is the creation of a collective organism of Mind.”

Not surprisingly, Ellul disagrees. “An expression that caused great excitement was that television was changing our world into a small village. I do not accept that.” (Ellul, 1990, p. 334) He sees technology as nothing less than the instrument of human self-destruction. He believes that we have created for ourselves a “technological society,” an entirely artificial reality which is predicated upon the all-encompassing values of efficiency, convenience, productivity, speed, progress, etc., and to which we are totally subjected and subjugated. “Let no one say that man is the agent of technical progress…and that it is he who chooses among possible techniques… He can decide only in favor of the technique that gives the maximum efficiency. But this is not his choice.”(Ellul, 1964, p. 80) “(The) human being must be completely subjected to an omnipotent technique, and all his acts and thoughts must be the objects of the human techniques.”(Ibid., p. 410) But going even further, Ellul turns Teilhard’s entire concept of Christification on its head, portraying the unity Teilhard envisions as an even greater threat to human freedom. “When psychological techniques, in close cooperation with material techniques, have at last succeeded in creating unity, all possible diversity will have disappeared and the human race will have become a bloc of complete and irrational solidarity.” (Ibid.)

Technology, once mere tools used to extend human capabilities through time and space, now become the instruments of enslavement and suicide.

From this perspective, technology certainly appears to be a behavioral determinant, inconsistent with the Christian concept of free will. But Ellul – Marxian enthusiast and Christian theologian – embraces the paradox and disagrees with this criticism: “I don’t believe in a permanent determinism, in the inexorable course of nature. Fate operates when people give up.” (Ellul, 1982, p. 106) How is it, then, that technology creates such an environment for man that he is so ready, so willing, so able to “give up”?

First of all, as Ellul explains, technology creates a total environment which is antithetical to nature. It is no more possible (we might even say desirable) for modern man to avoid technology than it is for him to avoid breathing. In fact, it is much simpler for man to avoid himself (his thoughts, dreams, fear; his sense of the transcendent) than to avoid technology. In order to be comfortable in a milieu which is totally artificial and separated from nature, he must be constantly indoctrinated about the “rightness” and (paradoxically) the “naturalness” of this totally artificial environment:

When a society becomes increasingly totalitarian (and I say “society” and not “state”), it creates more and more difficulties of adaptation and requires its citizens to be conformist in the same degree. Thus, this technique becomes all the more necessary. I have no doubt that it makes men better balanced and “happier.” And there is the danger. It makes men happy in a milieu that normally would have made them unhappy, if they had not been worked on, molded, and formed for just that milieu. What looks like the apex of humanism is in fact the pinnacle of human submission… (Ellul, 1964, p. 348)

Secondly, technology destroys ends as we know them. While giving lip service to high-flung concepts as “the greater good of man” or “the pursuit of happiness,” the technological means do not directly affect these abstract ends, or even “man” in the abstract, but affect flesh-and-blood man, without regard to his greater good or happiness. Flesh-and-blood man, therefore, in accepting his subservience to “man in the abstract,” becomes (willingly or unwillingly) part of the means to an end that exists only in the abstract. “In reality, today what justifies the means is the means itself, for in our day everything that ‘succeeds,’ everything that is effective, everything in itself ‘efficient,’ is justified.” (Ellul, 1989, p. 57)

It is easy to appreciate, in a world where flesh-and-blood man is reduced to the level of mere means at the service of “man in the abstract,” that respect for the lives of those who are not “useful” (the elderly, the poor, the physically or mentally disabled, the undesirable) is not a high priority. By creating a world in which efficiency and utility are the measure of value, technology destroys the critical sense:

(Means) have become so exclusive that they exclude everything that does not help their progress, everything that is not suitable for their development. On the one hand, then, the means destroys all that threaten its development: thus technics will attack and ruin successively the moral judgment (and in consequence morality as a whole); the humanism which claims to subordinate all things to man (but technics does not admit that it can be limited by the interests of man); all the activity in which man expresses himself freely for the disinterested pleasure in the activity itself, for everything must be “useful” … and all spiritual awareness (because it is essential that man should be blind, in order that he may be a good slave of the means he creates). Technics will abolish the critical sense, in order to be able to develop freely (as everyone thinks) for the greater good of humanity. (Ibid., p 61)

Technology, in such a society, is always justified because it frees us from choice, thus making life easier.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significant in its relation to our overall comparison, Ellul tells us that technology destroys human communication. Communication technologies make available to man more and more pieces of information of various types, but the individual bits of information have, by and large, nothing to do with man’s life.

(Every day) he himself has a number – a very limited number perhaps – of genuine experiences, but he is so embedded in his habits that he doesn’t even know it! On the other hand, every day he learns a thousand things from his newspaper and his radio – and very important, very sensational things. Can he help it, that his little personal experiences – which deal, perhaps, with the excellence of a plum or the condition of a razor blade – are drowned in this flood of important illusions concerning the atom bomb, the fate of Germany, strikes, and the like? Now these are facts of which he will never know the reality. (Ibid. p. 83)

Our contemporaries only see the presentations that are given them by the press, the radio, propaganda, and publicity. The man of the present day does not believe in his own experiences, in his own judgment, in his own thought: he leaves all that to what he sees in print or hears on the radio. In his eyes, a fact becomes true when he has read an account of it in the paper… What he has himself seen does not count, if it has not been officially interpreted, if there is not a crowd of people who share his opinion. (Ibid., p. 82)

This fundamental separation from his own individual intellect is one of the factors which makes it so easy for man to “give up,” for he himself – we ourselves – have no idea of the meaning of life. We have no sense of the transcendent, only of the here-and-now “facts” of our artificial technological society, and “if God is no longer regarded as true in our day it is because he does not seem to be a fact.” (Ibid. p. 27)

Technologies also destroy human communication as a result of their need to integrate man into the technological society. They do this by fascinating man, amusing him, and distracting him from the essentially artificial and alienating nature of modern life.

Today everyone is “distracted” by civilization; indeed, we might say that our whole civilization, from its games and sports up to serious business, has arranged everything in order to achieve this distraction… (Man’s) way of life, his amusements, his work, his political parties, etc. – all this absorbs modern man to such an extent that he easily falls prey to these ways of acquiring information. Their influence is strengthened by the man who uses them, who is profoundly incapable of meditation and reflection. (Ibid., p. 87)

Television is one of the chief forces that exercises fascination in our society… Its power to fascinate is much greater than that of the cinema. We may also quote the hours spent in watching it (4 hours a day on average in France, 7 hours in the USA). These figures give us some idea of its influence on ideas, opinions, and political orientation. On this level television has much more power than any other medium. It affects the psyche and the personality… (Ellul, 1990, p. 332)

(Television) has no message apart from itself. It does not transmit anything, whether information, thought, or artistic creation. It is itself the message. What it implants in us as message is itself. The pictures that it presents have no meaning. This is why they must be short and striking. Dancing is more televisual than yoga, a papal visit than meditation, war than peace, violence than nonviolence, the shouting of a charismatic leader than reflection that expresses ideas, conflict and competition than cooperation. Ecology does not go over well on television. Non-messages go over best. All that remains is a general haze out of which only the screen itself emerges. We are given no information about reality. (Ibid. p. 333)

Ellul’s analysis of technology and its evolution leads him to the stark conclusion that human beings have created a nightmare reality through which they sleepwalk aimlessly: a world without human communication. In such a world, he asks us, what is the meaning of Christianity?

4. Man

From all that we have seen so far in Teilhard’s work, we can infer the following fundamental assumptions about the human person: we represent the highest point in biological evolution; we hold the promise of further evolution on the spiritual or intellectual plane; we represent the phase of evolution responsible for the creation of the noosphere, instrumental in the exteriorization of cosmic (Divine) intelligence which resides within us; and that we ourselves will be instrumental in the creation of the Omega point, the Christification of the Universe.

But in man we confront, for the first time in evolution, the problem of sin. Teilhard suggests to us that it is unconsciousness – what I interpret in his work as a failure to be fully present to our world – that is the foundation of sin. This is the sin that results from our failure to share in the creation and fulfillment of the universal body of Christ, and all the benefits that flow from it. This sin, along with the sins of solitude and fear (Teilhard, 1966, p. 74), which allows us to inhibit and avoid our own interior forces compelling us to unite, are the sins peculiar to man because they imply an active turning away from the collective reality of humanity. Other sins experienced and committed by human beings, such as disorder and failure, decomposition and chaos, and, significantly, the evil of growth, are systemic evils and a transitory part of the evolutionary process and resemble “nothing so much as a way of the Cross.” (Teilhard, 1959, p. 313) Ultimately, however, man’s recognition of sin is an index of his ability to confront it and rectify it.

Once again, Teilhard’s faith is matched by Ellul’s skepticism. Man is far from being the paragon of creation, he says, not because he is not the most highly evolved creature, but because of all creatures, man is the one who has not lived to the limits of his potential, and has not done so because he has chosen not to do so.

Ellul the sociologist concludes that man, when he hasn’t completely ignored – or allowed himself to be distracted from – the difficult choices he must make, has made consistently poor choices. And we continue to make them. Human beings abdicate responsibility for our own freedom, and by doing so are complicit in our enslavement. This is our sin.

Freedom is not static but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won. The moment man stops and resigns himself, he becomes subject to determinism. He is most enslaved when he thinks he is comfortably settled in freedom. (Ellul, 1964, p. xxxiii)

Sin, for Ellul, consists in just such an abdication of responsibility and the consequent acquiescence to determinism.

5. God

 Despite the fact that he was officially banned from theological writing, and indeed because his own Jesuit Order would not allow Teilhard to publish his thoughts (all of his books were published, as were many not-for-publication notes, journals, and letters, posthumously by his estate), we have very strong statements of Teilhard’s belief in the centrality of God to the process of evolution. In the text of his “scientific” works (and at this point it is rather meaningless for me to pretend that I see Teilhard more as a scientist than a theologian unacceptable to the Church), he may speak about the interior proto-consciousness of matter, or of the tangential and radial energies that bind us together, but we can be fairly certain that he is speaking, respectively, of the Divine knowledge (logos) he believes to be at the center of all things, and of Divine love. “Christ is the instrument, the centre, the end of all animate and material creation, by Him all things are created, sanctified, made alive.” (Teilhard, 1964, p. 304) For, without God to give meaning to the cosmos, the planet, the struggle and growth of life, humanity’s very existence is little more than a curious accident of the universe, a stone skipped across a vast cosmic lake which, once it has run its course and sunken into the dark depths of oblivion, will leave little more than a ripple in time to be seen by – no one.

Ellul agrees – to a point. His faith in God – if we judge him not only by his words but also his actions – is very strong indeed. Yet again he parts company with Teilhard in the essential point of view of his faith. Where Teilhard proclaims the inevitability of evolution, to the belief that man has a destiny to which God has pre-ordained him, Ellul prophesies that all will be lost and humankind doomed if we don’t take action. “[If] we let ourselves drift along the stream of history, without knowing it, we shall have chosen the power of suicide, which is at the heart of the world.” (Ellul, 1948, p. 31) The role of the Christian in modern life should be that of revolutionary: “This, then, is the revolutionary situation: to be revolutionary is to judge the world by its present state, by actual facts, in the name of a truth which does not yet exist (but which is coming) – and it is to do so because we believe this truth to be more genuine and more real than the reality which surrounds us. Consequently it means bringing the future into the present as an explosive force.” (Ibid. p. 38)

God will not save us at the last minute, Ellul is telling us, from ourselves. Nothing is pre-determined. Nothing is given. Salvation is not automatic. We must be lulled into thinking that we can rest easily, assured of our own salvation. For being part of a systematic culture of death, unquestioning, acquiescent in its ascendancy, we are complicit in our own enslavement, and that of others. We must stop being merely means. “The whole object of ethics is not to attain an end…but to manifest the gift which has been given us, the gift of grace and peace, of love and of the Holy Spirit; that is, the very end pursued by God and miraculously present in us.” (Ibid. p. 67)

And whereas Teilhard’s eschatology is, in a sense, tied to his overall perspective of man in evolution (that is to say, a creature not yet fully developed, not yet capable of achieving Omega), Ellul insists that the eschaton is now. “The point from which we ought to start is that in the work of God the ends and the means are identical. Thus when Jesus Christ is present the Kingdom has ‘come upon’ us.” (Ibid. p. 64) A rejection of the modern world, and all it entails and implies, coupled with a renewed commitment to living our lives as intelligent, transcendent, and immortal souls is the essence of revolutionary Christianity.

It is the fact of living, with all its consequences, with all that it involves, which is the revolutionary act par excellence; at the same time this is the solution of the problem of the end and the means. In a civilization that has lost the meaning of life, the most useful thing a Christian can do is live – and life, understood from the point of view of faith, has an extraordinary explosive force. (Ibid. p. 77)

In considering these five points, it becomes clear that Teilhard and Ellul present us with a clear choice between two orientations toward each of the points, and two distinct courses of action we might consider for our lives. Do we live our lives in an imperfect world the best we can in the hope – a hope, we must in fairness admit, informed by a profound faith in an infinitely loving and merciful God – that God does indeed have a plan for all creation that we, at our present level of intellectual and spiritual development, are simply unable to understand? Or do we take greater responsibility for ourselves and our world and accept a more active role in creating the future, in forging our own destinies? Should we assume, like Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds, and that time and progress – that mysterious and ineffable force of nature – will bring improvements to the human material and spiritual condition? Or should we recoil in horror and disgust from this world we have created (or are, at the very least, complicit in creating through our poor choices)? Do we live in a world where we see human beings reaching out to each other – especially through the agency of new communication technologies – sharing their love and laughter, their travails and tears? Or do we live in a world where we are becoming more and more isolated from one another and more and more alienated from ourselves? Do we live in a world of growing global communication? Or do we live in a world of growing global lunacy? Is everything changing? Is anything changing?

I think about Ellul’s prophetic warnings in this way: just as God has given us sacraments – visible signs of God’s love for us which confer grace and help us to become closer to God, human beings have given themselves anti-sacraments. These anti-sacraments are acts which, by their very commission, symbolize and actualize our turning away from God, and which confer upon us, perhaps, a measure of anti-grace: a pride, hubris, or over-arching self-confidence which help us to avoid God and isolate ourselves from God’s love. Our communication technologies, like all technologies which serve us by allowing us to do more things more quickly, more easily, and more efficiently (More! More! More! More!), necessarily put a distance between us and the world we claim to be experiencing. Such reality-distancing instruments seem to be more naturally a part of an anti-sacramental, rather than a sacramental world, and facilitate anti-sacramental, rather than sacramental attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

I confess I share Jacques Ellul’s suspicions about the direction of our technological “progress.” I share his profound disappointment with the society we have created, and with the uses to which we have put some of the most spectacular new communication technologies imaginable. I share his conviction that our nation, our culture, our world is more concerned with “bottom-line” values of efficiency, productivity, and economic expansion than with what I see as more human (and more Christian) values of sharing, ideas and resources, voicing concerns, expressing care and love: real human communication.

And yet…and yet…I can’t help but believe that there is (something like) truth in Teilhard’s arguments. Or perhaps it is that I so want to believe. I believe, in a way not terribly unlike Teilhard, that we are moving in a direction, and that that movement is directed – in some way – by an intelligence incomprehensibly greater than ours. I believe we are an imperfect species, but through the grace of God we have the gift to bring ourselves to completion. That gift is our human intelligence, a gift that is nurtured and strengthened by our search for meaningful information, our search for truth. But, like Ellul, I find it difficult to be certain about any of this and, in fact, my understanding of human history convinces me we need to make our decisions more seriously, more conscientiously, and with an eye toward the future and not merely the immediate results.

There are so many caveats attached to Teilhard’s ideas. Are we, in fact, looking for truth? Or are we looking for support for our prejudices? If I am correct in both my beliefs and my doubts then it becomes critical that we takes steps – all of us – to be sure that the information we seek and find and use is meaningful, and that our search is for truth, not fascination, amusement, distraction, or support for prejudice. And what this demands is that we be conscious, awake, and aware of the world, our actual world, and actively engaged in it. It also demands that we be conscious and awake to ourselves and to one another; our joys, sorrows, concerns, fears, and hopes. On this one point both Teilhard and Ellul agree. Neither unconsciousness nor distraction will help us. I believe, like Ellul, that we make our destiny, that the future is open, that we are responsible for our choices, and that there are no guarantees that God, in the last moments of the universe, will save us from ourselves. Like Teilhard, I believe and hope and pray that we are headed in the right direction, that the phenomenon of man is a meaningful one, and that God created us for a purpose which we will understand perfectly in the fullness of time.

But I know that how we get to our destination is every bit as important as the fact that we get there at all. What we need to do is to show that we are agreed upon our direction, to prove that human life, indeed, has meaning, and to prove that we are worthy of the purpose – whatever it might be – for which we were created.

Like Ellul, however, I’m not sure I expect this to happen any time soon.

Sources Cited

Ellul, J. (1948-1967). The presence of the Kingdom. New York: Seabury Press.

Ellul, J. (1967). The technological society. New York: Knopf.

Ellul, J., & Vanderburg, W. H. (1981). Perspectives on our age: Jacques Ellul speaks on his life and work. New York: Seabury Press.

Ellul, J., & Garrigou-Lagrange, M. (1982). In season, out of season: An introduction to the thought of Jacques Ellul (1st U.S. ed.). San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Ellul, J. (1990). The technological bluff. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans.

Teilhard, P., Huxley, J., & Wall, B. (1959). The phenomenon of man. New York: Harper.

Teilhard, P. (1964). The future of man. London: Collins.

Teilhard, P. (1966). The vision of the past. New York: Harper & Row.

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About the Contributor

Peter Fallon

Peter K. Fallon
Peter K. Fallon is Professor of Media Studies at Roosevelt University. A veteran of more than two decades in television, Fallon left NBC News in 1999 to teach at Molloy College in New York in their Department of Communication Arts. His 2005 book Printing, Literacy, and Education in Eighteenth Century Ireland: Why the Irish Speak English was the winner of the Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in 2007, and his second book, The Metaphysics of Media: Toward an End to Postmodern Cynicism and the Construction of a Virtuous Reality, won the Lewis Mumford Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Technology for 2010. His newest book, Cultural Defiance, Cultural Deviance, was published in March of 2013. Fallon recently completed a two-year term as editor of EME: Explorations in Media Ecology, the international scholarly journal of the Media Ecology Association. His personal website is His next book is a reconsideration of Jacques Ellul’s “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes” to reflect the digital technological shift that’s taken place since Ellul’s death in 1993. It is (tentatively) titled “Propaganda 2.1: A Handbook for Peaceful Totalitarian Rule.” 


  1. I’ve struggled with the appeal of both Ellul and Teilhard de Chardin. Thank you so much for this substantial and careful summary and synthesis of the two. I’m glad to know that others are laboring to understand the significance of their words in our daily lives.

  2. I was very glad to read again the insights from Ellul, but I think one thing is missing from the article, that both Ellul and Teilhard were aware of. They both were writing in relation to or contrasting from or bouncing off of commonly known Catholic views. Sacrament, to Catholics has a certain meaning. There are seven. They mean Jesus not in the past, not in the future, but right now at the altar and in human affairs. We are commanded to observe these sacraments until the Second Coming. Technology doesn’t affect them in any way. Media criticism is very important. I’m not saying it’s not. But both these men would have taken for granted this understanding of the sacraments.

    • This view of the sacraments might well apply to Teilhard, but it certainly does not to Ellul, who was a traditional Reformed thinker, meaning that he did not question the Reformed emphasis on repudiating a eRoman Catholic account of the sacraments. However you might synchronise the ideas of the two thinkers, it would be a mistake to try to do so at the point of their views of the sacraments.

  3. Intriguing essay. Thanks so much for this.

  4. Christian Roy says:

    The glaring omission here is that Ellul’s mentor Bernard Charbonneau thoroughly debunked _Teilhard de Chardin, prophète d’un âge totalitaire_ in his first published book (1963) at the height of the man’s popularity. Ellul wholly subscribed to his friend’s devastating critique.

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