31 août 2008

Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity (note de lectura)

The author of this notice is Silviu Man.


(originally published in French as La Subversion du Christianisme, Éditions du Seuil, 1984)


Kirkegaard : Christendom is an effort of the human race to go back walking on all fours, to get rid of Christianity, to do it knavishly under the pretext that this is Christianity, claiming that it is Christianity perfected.

Kirkegaard : In the Christianity of Christendom the Cross has become something like the child’s hobby-horse and trumpet.

The Holy Spirit is a power that augments human action when we choose to do God’s will.

To be like God is to be able to declare that this is good and that is bad. This is what Adam and Eve acquired, and this was not the cause of the break, for there is absolutely nothing to guarantee that our declaration will correspond to God’s. Thus to establish a morality is necessarily to do wrong. This does not mean that a mere suppression of morality (current, banal, social etc.) will restore the good.

The Old Testament commandments and Paul’s admonitions are not in any sense morality. On the one side they are the frontier between what brings life and what brings death, on the other side they are examples, metaphors, analogies or parables that incite us to invention. When Jesus consciously and deliberately breaks the commandments that have become moral, when he makes of transgression a kind of constant conduct that his disciples must adopt, and when Paul brutally asks why we should keep commandments that have become merely human commandments, they are aiming not just at the Jewish law but at all morality.

A Christianity that has fashioned a morality – and what a morality! – the most strict, the most moralistic, the most debilitating, the one that most reduces adherents to infants and renders them impossible, or, if I were to be malicious, I should say the one that makes of them happy imbeciles, who are sure of their salvation if they obey this morality, a morality that consists in chastity, absolute obedience (which in unheard-of fashions ends up as the supreme value in Christianity), sacrifice etc.


How has it come about that the development of Christianity and the church has given birth to a society, a civilization, a culture that are completely opposite to what we read in the Bible, to what is indisputably the text of the law, the prophets, Jesus, and Paul? ->
Theologians never expressly desired or taught ideas and dogmas directly contrary to revelation.

When Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world, he says clearly what he intends to say. He does not validate any worldly kingdom (even if the ruler be a Christian).

It seems to me that everything goes back to a phenomenal change in the understanding of revelation, namely, the transition from history to philosophy. […] [All the theologians] seek an answer by way of ontological thinking. All regard the biblical text or known revelation as points of departure for philosophy, whether by translation into philosophical terms or as references of thought. They had intellectual, metaphysical and epistemological questions, etc. and they adduced the biblical text with a view to providing a system of answers to their questions. They used the biblical text to meet their own needs instead of listening what it really was (even Calvin, alas!). In other words, once the transition was made from history to philosophy, all that they said was completely correct and true. They expressed a profound and authentic faith marked by the concern for truth. Yet it was all completely falsified by the initial transition. This is why the deviations were stronger than the truth they retained. Very soon they forgot the essential point, that God does not reveal by means of a philosophical system or moral code or a metaphysical construction. He enters human history and accompanies his people. […] There is nothing else but history, temporal (not eternal) history, lay (not sacred) history, a history that tells us that God is with and for us, but that does not speak about God in himself, or provide any theory about God.

Biblical law, however, is true only because it is God who speaks it. It draws its truth from God.

To do his work God does not send a book of metaphysics or a sacred book of Gnostic revelations or a complete epistemological system or a perfected wisdom. He sends a man.

A familiar example of the mutation to which revelation was actually subjected is its contamination by the Greek idea of the immortality of soul. […] The soul is as mortal as the body. But there is a resurrection. Out of the nothingness that human life becomes, God creates anew the being that was dead. This a creation by grace; there is no immortal soul intrinsic to us.

To convert! This great word has been diluted. The people of the third century and later have been converted to Christianity in morality and religion, but they have kept intact their mode of thinking. Conversion is needed in the mode of thinking, too.

Instead of the essentially a-theological (I do not say atheistic) presentation of both the Old Testament and the gospel, we have science, inquiry, validation, problematics, philosophy. The content of revelation is inevitably thought of in an alien form. The “signifying” element is changed. A theology is elaborated*. In my view, this is the first factor of subversion.

* I am not setting theological thought, as bad, in antithesis to pietism or spontaneous faith or a nonintellectual faith, as good. I like some theologians, and what they have done is necessary. I am simply stressing the specific danger posed by the entry of philosophy into Christianity, and the disasters that followed theological exuberance from the third to the sixteenth century.

Another factor of deformation was Christianity’s very success.

Christianity spread along with the mystery religions, and by the way of counteraction mystery gained an entry into Christian theology.

Ambiguity arose, however, for mystery may denote both what is inexplicable and in its pagan sense the celebration of an ecstatic if not orgiastic communion. The two senses are easily confused. The mystery religions are essentially religions of escape, and Christianity was undoubtedly received also as a religion of escape from the world, as a religion of compensation (either in festivals or in the world to come) that leaves the world to its fate, that involved withdrawal from it (hence ascetic tendencies, the hermits, etc.), but that also leads to an acceptance of one’s own lot, whatever it may be, without any attempt to change it, since there is always a way out, a way of escape.

Evangelism had at first been rigorous and scrupulous, but now the goal was the numbers. It was no longer a question of one-by-one conversion, of house churches, but of large gatherings.

In the primitive church personal conversion brought entry and presupposed preparatory training. When the church became an affair of the masses, it became impossible to be sure of the authenticity of each convert.

Success brought Christianity to the imperial family and the governing elite […] by a definitive link the acceptance of one power or authority, alliance with one secular power, leads inevitably to a combination with every social force. […] We have to allow that the conversions were in good faith and even true faith. But we also have to consider the countereffect. The adherence of the wealthy of the empire to Christianity brings another relation to the powers.

Traditional histories are happy to record the many foundations of the period that under Christian auspices care for the sick, the poor, and abandoned children. Large gifts are also given to the church itself, and involuntarily (for it did not have as yet a thirst for riches) the church itself became progressively wealthy.

By the very fact of wealth and numbers the original forms of the church, namely, community of life and goods, began to disappear; they could not continue. The extreme differences between social strata made them impossible. The church solidifies. The fact of numbers, of money that has to be managed, and of the relation to power inevitably leads to the institution. […] The transformation of the church into an institution is the main fact that corresponds to its growing wealth.
In the fourth and fifth centuries, then, we see a slide away from love and grace to service and “social action”. But this completely changes the Christian perspective. And it correlates with the rise of population, the break between a clergy of priests and a laypeople, and the dominance within the church of the rich and powerful. […] This was the real break in the church.

Our only reproach against the church leaders and theologians is that they set about justifying and legitimating the powers by trying to show that there is no contradiction, particularly between wealth and Jesus Christ, using the (undeniable) strand in the Old Testament that treats riches as a tangible proof of divine blessing. The worm was in the fruit.

After a period of independence that came with the spread of Christianity, they [women] were relegated to a lower order. This is all the more interesting because the gospel and the first church was never hostile to women nor treated them as minors, and the situation of women in the Roman empire (particularly in the East) was relatively favorable. In spite of this, when Christianity became a power or authority, this worked against women. A strange perversion, yet fully understandable when we allow that women represent precisely the most innovative elements in Christianity : grace, love, charity, a concern for living creatures, nonviolence, an interest on little things, the hope of new beginnings – the very elements that Christianity was setting aside in favor of glory and success. […] Christianity took this course by reason of mutation that led it to adopt the values of conquest, power, and domination (in a good cause!).

The little flock yields to the masses. How can masses of this kind conceivably be organized as a community?

The state, he [Kirkegaard – “The Instant” 5,5] argues, bears a direct relation to numbers. When a state decays, numbers decline and the state disappears. The whole concept of it is void. The relation of Christianity to numbers is different. A single Christian gives it reality. Christianity bears indeed an inverse relation to numbers. When all become Christians, the concept of Christianity is void. The concept is indeed a polemical one. One can be Christian only in opposition. When opposition is suppressed, there is no more sense in saying ‘Christian’. Christendom has astutely abolished Christianity by making us all Christians. The concept ‘Christian’, then, bears an inverse relation to numbers, whereas that of the state bears a direct relation. Nevertheless, the two concepts have been combined, to the great advantage of nonsense and the priests. In Christendom there is not the slightest idea of what Christianity is. People cannot see or understand that Christianity has been abolished by its propagation.

The words and teachings of priests and bishops were blindly accepted. People attempted to live their lives in some conformity with the commands that were given by the church and that very quickly became pure and simple morality. […] The glorious freedom that is in Christ could not be tolerated. It was replaced by clear and strict commandments.

Morality and ritual are the great means of defense against the perversion of all order that resulted from the new entry of the masses into the church with no authenticity of faith.

Masses, however, mean order and morality.

The church adapted itself integrally to the pagan world. It accepted its forms and even its morality. This brought with it two serious consequences. First, Christianity became what one might call the structural ideology of this particular society. […] Its prophetic proclamation, welcomed at the first among the religions of escape, changes into a religion that gives cohesion to society.

The second result of the entry of the masses was that when Christianity became a religion of the masses, and the church and the elite could be sure of keeping back the truth, the whole population had to become Christian. […] What control could there be over those who were not intellectuals? Only over their moral and lifestyle. We can thus understand why importance was increasingly given to confession, to auricular confession, than to a codification of morality, of faults and penalties (as in the Irish Penitentials of the sixth centuries, which enjoyed considerable success).

An effort is made to achieve objective conduct without reference to the spiritual life, without knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. Once this enormity was invented, the next step was intellectual construction of an identity between Christian morality and natural morality. […] The way opens, then, for the sapping work of theologians of all kinds, then of lawyers, in an attempt to explain that Jesus wanted to say something other than what is written, or that these commandments are meant only for a spiritual elite and are simply counsels for others, or that the order given to the rich young ruler was meant for him alone. In other words, the texts have been wrested in all kinds of ways so that we should not be driven into a corner or forced to recognize the distance between God and us.

In the first centuries the intellectuals and theologians simply pass it by silence [Freedom in Christ]. They talk a lot about faith and love and other virtues. When Greek thought invades the church, they rediscover freedom in the terms of this philosophy but with no reference to the great proclamation of the Bible.

Perfect freedom, spiritual as well a political or social, freedom because liberation by God from new bondage is the supreme mutation that was not just proclaimed or ideologized but achieved, is accomplished in us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; in him fate ceases to exist and we are radically free. All this is contained already in the first act of liberation from Egypt. It is the constant promise of the God of Abraham. It is effected in the incarnation. But it is strictly intolerable in the fullness of its implications. It is psychologically unbearable. It carries frightening social risks and is politically insulting to every form of power. It was not possible. On every social level and in every culture, people have found it impossible to take up this freedom and accept its implications. This is the basic impossibility, the unanimous refusal of all people, which has resulted in the rejection of Christian freedom. A risk with no cover, a joyful and perilous acrobatic feat with no net! It was not what we wanted.

We have to recognize that everything in revelation is formulated in antithetical fashion (in a dialectical way from certain standpoints). It unites two contrary truths that are truth only as they come together. I say advisedly that everything that Bible presents takes this form. We never find a single, logically connected truth followed by another truth deduced from it. There is no logic in the biblical revelation. There is no “either-or”, only “both-and”. (e.g. The Wholly Other, absolutely transcendent God and God who enters human history, revealing himself as the hidden God).

The truth in made up of the actual contradictions. Each aspect of truth us true only because it is linked to its radical opposite. If I say that God is transcendent and stop here, this is not the biblical God. If I say only that Jesus Christ is God, this is not the gospel. […] Unconsciously but all the more seriously, in splitting the two aspects, we have rendered each part false and deceptive. […] A first result of this dissolution is the multiplication of heresies.

We perceive a conflict between the mode of revelation and the most deep-seated tendency of the Western mind to set everything in a clear light.

Carl Amery (La fin de la Providence, Paris : Éd. du Seuil, 1976) : humanity has gone on from success to success, that all the series of problems we now face are the result of this success, and that in a word “total crises is the immediate consequence of total success”.


The sacred is not the same thing as the religious. […] The sacred and the holy are not the same thing.

The sacred is relative to three aspects of human life : space, time and society.

The sacred exists only as it is collective, as it is accepted and lived out in common.

Regarding our own epoch, we may say that my analysis of the sacred (Les nouveaux possédés, Paris : Fayard, 1973) shows that it revolves around the twofold axis of “technology/sex” and “nation-state/revolution”. We should not forget that the sacred is always ambivalent and the axis around which it is grouped has two opposing poles.

I. Desacralization by Christianity

In the place of the visible (which is always a form of the sacred), the Bible sets the word as the only link with God. God speaks. We speak. That is all.

Christian thought radicalizes transcendence, the total break between God and the world, which can be healed only by the incarnation, on the basis of which no development of the sacred is possible.

II. The sacralization of Christianity. The resacralization of nature and society by Christianity

When Christianity defeated the other religions of the Roman world and eliminated the traditional form of the sacred among the pagan populations, what belonged to the conquered was transferred to the conqueror.

Once recognition is accorded to the little local deities, it has necessarily to be admitted that certain places, the places dedicated to or by deities, are special.

The first Christians had no particular reverence for the places where believers met and where they heard God’s Word and celebrated the sacraments.

With this restoration of regular sacrifice, a large element of the sacred makes a massive entry into Christianity with two important consequences. The first has to do with the opus operatum. The sacrament works autonomously. It depends on neither the celebrant, the recipient, nor God’s action. (e.g. communion, baptism) […] The object has the power.

Along the same lines is the reappearance in the church of the importance of the visible. […] We worship best when we see (in spite of the saying of Jesus that those are blessed who do not see and yet still believe).

The second change brought about by the new view of sacrifice (a pagan view and not at all a Christian one) was to give saving and propitiatory value to the sacrifice itself. If we want to please God, we have to offer him something.

The word sacred, which is almost never used in the New Testament, also comes back into current use. […] It marks the reappearance of the sacred, which Jewish and Christian thought had originally combated with living power. This monumental historical setback seems to me to be one of the most flagrant proofs that the sacred is integral to human existence, that the active (I do not say objective) force that constantly leads us to reconstitute a sacred universe is a permanent one.


God’s revelation has nothing whatever to do with morality. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. (see J. Ellul – Le Vouloir et le Faire, Geneva : Labor et Fides, 1977).

What Jesus says in the Gospels is not morality.

There is no moral system in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

The revelation of Jesus Christ is against morality.

As Genesis shows us, the origin of the sin in the world is not knowledge, as is often said (as though God were interdicting our intellectual development, which would be absurd), it is the knowledge of good and evil. In this context knowledge means decision. What is not acceptable to God is that we should decide on our own what is good and what is evil. What God decides, whatever it may be, is the good. If then, we decide what the good is, we substitute our own will for God’s. We construct a morality what we say (and do) what is good, and it is then that we are radically sinners.

“All things are lawful”, Paul twice proclaims. “Nothing is impure”, he teaches. […] Love, which can not be regulated, categorized or analyzed into principles or commandments, takes the place of law. The relationship with others is not one of duty but of love.

Revelation is an attack on all morality, as is wonderfully shown by the parables of the kingdom of heaven, that of the prodigal son, that of the talents, that of the eleventh-hour laborers, that of the unfaithful steward, and many other. In all parables the person who serves as an example has not lived a moral life. The one who is rejected is the one who has lived a moral life.

Love obeys no morality and gives birth to no morality. None of the great categories of revealed truth is relative to morality or can give birth to it; freedom, truth, light, Word and holiness do not belong at all to the order of morality. What they evoke is a mode of being, a model of life that is very free, that involves constant risks, that is constantly renewed. The Christian life is contrary to morality because it is not repetitive.

One of the basic dramas in the history of Christianity, then, has been the transformation of this free Word into morality. This was the most decisive mutation to the Christian setback.

We may live truly by the Spirit in a community like that described in Acts; but if we do there will have to be a small number of truly converted believers who are fully adult both in their humanity and in their faith and can bear the risk of freedom. A numerical limit will be imposed. This corresponds to Jesus’ own dealings with its disciples (a maximum of seventy) and his statement that they will always be a little flock.

It is absurd to describe all traditional societies as patriarchal. (e.g. in Roman society in the 1st century AD, woman had equal rights with men, except for voting in elections; in the Seleucid empire in the 1st century BC and later; in the Germanic tribes that invaded Europe, they even took part in battles). […] The common mistake of nonhistorians is to think that because this was the position in the nineteenth century (a regression of the status of women in every field), it must have been worse in the sixteenth, and worse again in the thirteenth etc. They have a naïve belief in constant progress.

Eve is inferior, it is said, because she was created after Adam. This superb logic makes Adam inferior to the great Saurians after which he was created. Creation is in fact an ascending act, and Eve, who is created last, comes at the climax as its crown and completion. Again, it is said that Eve is inferior because she is not made out of primal clay but out of a part of Adam. This is equally absurd reasoning, for Adam, who carried the name Earth, is made out of an inanimate matter, but Eve, who carries the name Life, is made out of animate and hence superior matter.

There is in fact a theological reason for her being tempted first. If she is the supreme achievement and perfection of creation, it is through her that the serpent must attack the rest. She does not resist. But neither does the man.

In the first creation story, we have only one being, and if he evil is done, is done by this one being, no matter by which aspect it commences. The women is not without the man, nor the man without the man, as Paul reminds us.

Paul adds that the women is the glory of man : she reveals him; she shows what a human being truly is. […] [relating to the temptation:] She shows him to be weak, undiscerning, fluctuating, ambitious, desirous of equality with God, etc. She simply reveals this. Both are equally at fault, and the condemnation (as commentators and theologians should remember) is more severe for the man, since he is given no hope, whereas the woman has a double promise and carries a double hope, namely, that she will transmit life and her posterity will crush the serpent.

Naturally it has been noted that he [Jesus Christ] chooses only men as his disciples. But to this one may make the radical reply that he first reveals his resurrection to women. […] We should also remember that women have spiritual gifts, such as deaconate, prophecy and speaking in tongues (Acts 2; 12 ;21).

Paul affirms total equality when he says that in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free.

For people of that era the social problem, the place one occupied in society, was not as essential or dramatic as it is today. […] Hierarchy and inequality were “normal”.

Jesus expressly told his disciples not to act like the great ones and leader who ruled them. He gave an example by washing their feet. Thus the social hierarchy that (inevitably) exists is spiritually reversed.

Christ so loved the church that he gave himself for it (the reference being to the crucifixion); he nourishes the church and cares for it. Thus the husband is not a macho. He is not a glorious, authoritarian male. He is called upon to bear the cross (i.e. the condemnation) for the wife.

What has dictated the adoption of this position [towards women] by church fathers, theologians, and church authorities, what has provoked Christian antifeminism (which is not as serious as is made out), is essentially the fact of the transition from the revelation of God to ecclesiastical or social order, or from spiritual field to the moral.

The second stage in the triumph of morality in the church and Christianity comes with the Germanic “invasions” – from the 4th to the 7th century : a general dishonesty, all forms of killing are good in every stratum of society etc.

The third great wave of immorality that the church has to face (prior to our own) is that of the 14th and 15th century : wars, revolts, brigandage, Black Death, a frenzy of pleasure, sorcery, magic, incantation, black masses etc.

[As a consequence] the popes use laws to fight the corruption of the clergy. The church uses organization in its fight for unity. It turns to an increasingly stricter morality in its battle against the current immorality. […] The church embraces all society. It baptizes it officially as a Christian society. It takes charge of political and social problems. It seeks to establish social order and to apply Christian principles in every sphere. Thus revelation becomes morality – the supreme betrayal of the prophets, of the gospel, and of the first Christian generation. For the more this Christian (and official) morality develops, the more hypocrisy and Pharisaism develops also. This was inevitable.

I believe that the victory of the law over the gospel, of morality over love, is probably the essential reason for the adoption of an antifeminist stance.

A moralistic attitude is essentially a masculine one. It is an attitude of judgement, of stiffness, of rigidity, or the calculation of debits and assets, of classification, of designation, of the establishment of what should and should not be done, etc. None of this is by nature feminine.

In periods of vast immorality to which we refer, women did not try to master all problems by moral and legal rules. They tried to set up interhuman relationships on a basis of understanding, love, toleration, flexibility, and the sheltering of the weak. They obviously did not have immediate success. This response was hardly adequate or strong enough to the brutality of the age.


The jurist is the theologian. Theology becomes no less legal that philosophical. Life is set in law no less and even more than in ethics. Everything religious becomes legal. Judges handle religious matters, and jurisprudence becomes theology. This gives an enormous boost to the juridicizing of Christendom. Canon law expands after the pattern found in Islam.

Royal power becomes religious nor merely in an alliance with the church but under the influence of Islam, which was more of a theocracy than the West ever was: a theocracy in which God is indeed the sole king, but the true representative of God on earth is the political head.

It has been shown that the Crusades had economic objectives, or that they were stirred up by the popes for various political motives such as that of securing papal preeminence by exhausting the kingdoms, or reforging the weakening unity of the church, or again that they were a means whereby the kings ruined the barons who were challenging their power, or again that the bankers of Genoa, Florence and Barcelona instigated them so as to be able to lend money to the crusaders to make fabulous profits, etc. One fact, however, is a radical one, namely, the crusade is an imitation of the jihad. […] The nonviolence of Jesus Christ changes into a war in conflict which was waged by the foe.

With the Muslim idea of a holy war the idea is born that a war may be good even if it is not motivated by religious intentions so long as it is waged by a legitimate king.

The Muslim idea that faith is natural negated the unique redemptive worth of death of Jesus Christ. If human nature is not totally incapable of having access to God [the soul being, as it is said, by nature Christian], if it is naturally in harmony with the will of God, what is the point of the death of Jesus Christ? […] Unwittingly the imitation of Islam robs the death of Jesus Christ of its ultimate seriousness.

Mysticism is not essentially Christian. I would even say that in its final form is more anti-Christian. […] Paul alludes to his own experience; he knew a man who was lifted up to the third heaven, and he could not say whether this was with or without the body. But he was not intentionally seeking union with God.

The antithesis is even more radical if one accepts the common etymology whereby “mystic” comes from muein, to be mute or speechless. How can this be when God’s work is wholly that of the Word? […] If we follow Jesus, it is not a matter of looking up in heaven (“Why do you look up in heaven?” etc.) but of being on earth and concretely living the will of God that was done in Jesus Christ.

We do not have to enter into a dialogue with God, or into a monologue that, like Job’s, demands a response from God, but simply have to submit to the unchanging and, in a true sense, inhuman will of God.

From now on destiny and divine omniscience are conjoined. Believers can live in perfect peace because they know that everything was written in advance and they can change nothing. […] And this derives from Muslim thinking.

Neither Christianity nor the church ever denied that women have souls. […] This is a question that was in reality posed by Muslim theologians.

Not all at once but progressively under Christian influence (and not because of the technical improvements, as is often stated today), slavery disappeared in the Roman empire. It persisted, however, in the remote corners of the Carolingian empire.
In the Middle Ages the traffic in slaves would undoubtedly have led to excommunication.

Could a hundred French sailors, even though armed with muskets, attack a tribe of several hundred hardy warriors and seize a cargo of slaves? Such an idea is pure fiction. For centuries the Muslims had regularly cropped the black continent for slaves. Seizing Africans as slaves was a Muslim practice from at least the tenth century.

In the eleventh century fifteen great slave markets were set up by the Arabs in black Africa. […] Slaves were the main item in Muslim trade from the tenth century to the fifteenth. […] It was by following this practice, which had been established for many centuries, that the Western sailors obtained slaves so easily.

Christians are accused of invading the whole world and justifying the capitalist system. […] The judgment against us is a crushing one. Las Casas is entirely right. But who invented colonizing? Islam. Inconstestably so!

Christians did not invent the holy war and the slave trade. Their great fault was to imitate Islam. Sometimes it was direct imitation by following the example of Islam. Sometimes it was inverse imitation by doing the same thing in order to combat Islam, as in the Crusades. Either way, the tragedy was that the church completely forgot the truth of the gospel.


I. The starting point

The biblical view is not just apolitical but antipolitical in the sense that it refuses to confer any value on political power, or in the sense that it regards political power as idolatrous, inevitably entailing idolatry. (e.g. Satan offers to give Jesus all the kingdoms of the world ; Jesus refuses to answer the question about the tax ; Jesus pays the (political) temple tax with the two coins taken from the mouth of a fish ; his relation to the Zealots make the same point ; his order to Peter not to defend him ; he will not play any part in the political drama between those who collaborate with the Romans and those who oppose them ; his proclamation : “My kingdom is not of this world” ; the answer to Pilate : “You should have no power over me if it were not given to you from above”).

II. Subversion by power

How is it that the cross, an instrument of punishment, especially for slaves, and the sign of the historical defeat for Jesus on the human level, can now be presented as a sign of political and military victory? The cross signifies salvation by attesting to the love of God going even to death for us. It has this meaning and no other. It cannot possibly be a sign of military victory. Above all, it cannot be a sign given by a powerful political leader. What the cross signifies is the weakness and humility of God.

Once the church is ready to associate with instituted power it is obliged to associate with all and sundry forms of the state. The scandal is that each time the church seeks to justify both its adaptation and the existing power. It continues to legitimize the state and to be an instrument of its propaganda. […] In so doing, it [the church] disavows its martyrs. Martyrs are not agitators or obstinate people. They are primarily dedicated to God. They want to obey God, not men.

The result of this alienation of revelation in and on behalf of the political power are many. We shall consider three of them :

1) first is the astounding fact that the church itself becomes a state. The pope becomes a head of state. […] Once the pope becomes a head of state, he is forced to act as a political ruler. […] Successively, until the thirteenth century, the papal state come to include new areas.

2) a second result of politicization was a rapid breakup into nations. [Until this moment] people could have an image of one Christendom that had one head at Rome and was coincident with an unfragmented church, catholic and universal.

3) Legal and administrative contagion is the third result. Politics produces law. […] In the fourth and fifth centuries Roman law was changed for the better under Christian influence : the protection of slaves, the elevation of the legal status of women, new legal perspectives on marriage and the family, the softening of criminal law etc.

Christianity has become a religion of conformity, of integration into the social body. It has come to be regarded as useful for social cohesion (the exact opposite of what it is in its source and truth). Alternatively, it has become a flight from political or concrete reality, a flight into the spiritual world, into the cultivation of inner life, into mysticism, and hence an evasion of the present world. The two perversions are complementary. Theologically they negate the incarnation by separating the physical (to which one submits) and the Spirit (who enables one to veil one’s face from the physical).

The peoples are dependent in every area, and the church contributes to cultural and ideological dependence. But the churches created in, say, Latin America are churches of the poor with a native origin. Existing on the periphery of the mother church, they carry a primary evangelical truth. There is in them, he thinks, a revival of experienced revelation.

We must desacralize and dechristianize the system. To bear witness to the truth of God, we must renounce Christian society and fight for social justice, that is, combat the natural tendency of societies to constitute themselves in unequal fashion. On the basis of atheism a more just structure of society is possible. Atheism gives revealed truth a chance to rediscover itself.


We face the astonishing phenomenon of a whole society that is nihilist. There have been such societies before. Every society, when at its end and about to vanish, denies its own values. But this has usually gone hand in hand with disintegration. The odd thing about our society is that its nihilism is associated with power. It does not presage collapse. It does not challenge the rigid structures of our economy and technology. It seems to be an exact double or inverse replica of our productivity, consumption and efficiency. The living nihilism provoked by the nonacceptance of this society is not explicit, nor is it taken up by certain acknowledged leaders.

Intellectuals and novelists who (sometimes involuntarily) formulate it (e.g. Henry Miller) are read and adopted insofar as they express the common sentiment and reflect their time, not as they invent and initiate.

The subject is hated. It is eliminated. The object triumphs. Above all, nothing triumphs. The nihilism is ultimately that of meaning. Nothing makes sense, neither the work or the written page. To look for meaning is a sign of weakness, of intellectual deficiency. Structural linguistics comes in here.

More deeply, nihilism means a refusal to consider the real at an level, and especially in one’s own actions. […] The inability to create values is inevitably doubled by the refusal to face reality no matter what it may be.

I. The responsibility

It seems to me that Christianity’s responsibility for the rise of nihilism leads us to three themes : absolute transcendence, desacralization, and sin.

The Judeo-Christian God, affirmed to be the Wholly Other, absolute and transcendent, is no longer on earth (nowithstanding the incarnation).

Transcendence is on the one hand a removing of God from the world, a reduction of the latter to its mere reality with no purpose, no signification, no third dimension. It is also on the other hand the relativization of everything in this world, and ultimately its total devaluation. It leaves us literally alone and defenseless. We had invented the sacred. We had sacralized things in order to protect ourselves and give ourselves meaning. But Christianity with the absoluteness of its revelation destroyed the sacred and put nothing in its place. Only those who have faith can live.

When Christianity assimilates or annihilates values and social practices, the rejection of Christianity leads to nihilism. This includes a nihilism of social and political practices. What this implies is the possibility of adopting orientations without measure and of pushing them to extremes because there is no longer any external criterion by which to contest the excess. Means become a law unto themselves. This nihilism disguises itself as freedom. Foolish people today never stop wanting to overcome the taboos of morality and law.

We need hardly insist on the well-known fact that desacralization has permitted the development of technology and the unlimited exploitation of the world. In our very nihilism we have believed that everything is legitimate, and Christians have tried to support this possibility from Genesis, arguing that God has appointed thee human race to exploit the earth (we are left “free” to do as we like with it, even to destroy it!), or that creation is simply a rough outline and it is up to us to develop it.

Because of the sin all the works of civilization are marked by the infamy of their origin.

A strange thing has happened, then, for we have ended up by being convinced that sin (especially original sin) no longer counts, that there is no responsibility, that we can do as we like with no limits, and the result is not conduct that is open to the good and liberated for it, but frantic egoism, scorn for others, a desire for aggrandizement and domination. Once we begin to attain to the conviction that we are not sinners, what we see around as? What is brought to us by the thousands of pictures transmitted by television? Epidemics, famines, massacres, genocides, revolutions everywhere leading to innumerable executions even when the intentions are of the best, the installation of bloody and capricious dictatorships, socialism transformed into an instrument of oppression, of murder, and of hatred, the spoliation of the planet by the technology. Pictures of hell are set before our eyes every day.

II. The contradiction

The first error is to think that a state or society can be made Christian. Christianity has always been a personal mutation on the basis of faith in the revelation. It is not a collective thing. There is no plurality except in the church, a specific body that is not a society and even the less a power. The second error is to judge Christianity by collective works that carry the whole socioeconomic magma with some intermingled fragments of Christian ideology.

The Christian faith is in fact an antinihilism. The Bible in its basic structure rules out all nihilism.

- creation : this is obviously not described in terms of a concrete reality in the Genesis story. The aim is not to explain existing things. Here is no myth of origins. […] The existing world exists only in virtue of this will [of the Creator] and with reference to it. No pessimism or nihilism, then, is possible.

Nothing depends on historical chance. Circumstantial events obviously have their importance, for in them we express our relationship (positive or negative) with the Creator and open up, or close off, the possibility of something new. But because the world is creation, it rests on the divine love, not on human decisions. When we think of it as creation, it rest on the divine love, not on human decisions. When we think of it as creation, we cannot put forth our omnipotence in exploitation or destruction. Our means are limited by the very fact that we have to do with creation and not just nature or any kind of milieu.

- history is given a meaning, that it does not have this intrinsically (for then we might destroy it), but it receives it. […] God is God in history. […] He writes his acts on history.

The combination of the fulfillment of a [God’s] old promise and the appearance of a new one means that we are summoned to live out the actual situation in hope. This leads to action. Action is not in vain. No matter how small it may be, it is not futile for us to get involved. For the fulfillment of God’s promise is always a combination of commandments, imperatives, and interventions (not constraining or final) coming from God and from our initiatives, which may be aberrant or negative but are never ultimate or irreparable, never fall into the nothingness of the pas, are nor destined for hell, and are taken up by God in constantly new situations until the last and truly new situation comes – the novum that God accomplishes as the recapitulation of all human enterprises as they reach at last their transcendent consummation.

III. The inversion

We must try to understand how revelation could be so inverted as to become a source of the contemporary nihilism. We can discern three processes :

1. the transforming of a living movement of relationship into an achieved and definite situation : the mistake of the disciples when they saw the configuration and proposed to set up tents so that they could remain in the ineffable light in company with Moses and Elijah. It is the mistake of an attempt to solidify in an arrested, comprehensible, and explicable system that which is in unforeseeable movement toward some outcome […] It leads to the attempt to change what is living explicitly and implicitly into something fixed. It leads to the establishing of powers (e.g. in the church) and power relationships ;

2. objectifying : changing the truth of revelation that the Creator gives in a personal relationship in such a way that as an arrested and frozen text it becomes and objective law, a closed revelation, a text that has its own validity. […] It [the received Word] has to be studied for its own sake. It is true in the letter and content. It may thus be generalized, applied everywhere and to all. It has its own significant structure. It is objective; it is endowed with “scientific” objectivity. Once this attitude is adopted, the contradiction obviously arises at once in an effort to show that this text is uncertain, that it is not objective, that it rests on dubious testimonies, that it is relative to its finite cultural setting, etc. When this happens, all that remains is replacement, but we have see that after Christianity replacement is impossible. Whatever appears is a Christian substitute for a rejected Christianity.

3. dissociation : already the process of objectification is also one of dissociation. It breaks the link between the Word and him who speaks it, between person and proclamation (e.g. the fact that the word of Jesus is true only because it is he who speaks it). […] Revelation does not hold up and it is not antinihilist unless one holds all the elements together in indissoluble fashion, unless the transcendent God is also he who incarnates himself in history, unless the hidden God is also he who reveals himself – and reciprocally the revealed God is also the hidden God – unless holiness (separation) is the condition of love (and vice versa), unless faith produces works and works are necessarily the product of faith, unless everything is done by God and yet we have also to do everything, unless God is sovereignly free and we are free also (not conditional in any way in spite the foreknowledge and predestination), unless salvation is granted by pure grace and works are useless, and yet works are strictly indispensable before God..

When we dissociate, when we choose (a text, an aspect, or a truth) trying to construct a rational and noncontradictory system, we plunge tragically into nihilism. (e.g. the “disastrous and ridiculous” debate about sin, dividing it into personal and original sin : What is forgotten here is simply that the Bible does not describe sin and sinners in this way. We learn about sin only on the base of the proclamation of grace and pardon […]Christianity then falls justly under the charge of having crushed people with guilt and chained them to evil. To get out, to escape this evil, there is then negation of God’s will for us, of the law, of all morality, etc. There is thus an entry into nihilism).

In these last three cases what disappears is the active, actualized, living and changing presence of the being who gives meaning.

We have to ask, then, why in revelation it is always the new and living part that finally disappears. The answer is that in revelation it is precisely this part that cannot be fixed or grasped, that is nor rational or objectifiable, so that it always seems to us that when we come upon a reality of this type we can be sure of nothing. Always – and today more than ever – we like things that we can count on, obvious certainties, a secure future, simple duties, a clearcut line of conduct. The uncertainty of fluctuating things like love and grace horrifies us. Saying that God loves us grants us no reassurance. We would prefer it if he gave us fifty things to do, so that when we had done them we could be in peace. We do not want an ongoing relationship with God. We prefer a rule. It does not satisfy us that God shows grace to us and frees us. We prefer to bind him by out virtues and to be sure he has no freedom to do with us as he chooses.

We have built up the idea of a nature that is a point of reference for us since it is created by God. To be in conformity with nature ought to be enough.

We have overvalued law, making it an expression of God’s will. We have replaced the sovereignty of love with that of politics, and liberty with duties.

Action is merely for the sake of action, power for the sake of power, fulfillment for the sake of fulfillment, growth by the sake of growth. These things simply fill the void left by the situation that has arisen because we have an inactive God. None of them can finally satisfy us.


What the New Testament really means by being a Christian is the very opposite of what is natural to us. It is thus a scandal.

As Kirkegaard says, nothing displeases or revolts us more than New Testament Christianity when it is properly proclaimed.

If revelation is intolerable, it is not because of its mythical or legendary dress. On the contrary, this is what risks constantly becoming more acceptable, but by changing its nature, taking it as the sacred, the supernatural, and as religion. The intolerable element is deeper than that. […] It is completely intolerable for us to live in a religiously deserted universe, in a desacralized world. We need a religion. […] We refashion God’s revelation as a religion with its own legends, myths and mysteries, ecstasies, and religiosity.

We can have neither stability, routine, collective permanence, association, nor group cohesion if we want to live by revelation.

God’s order is not organization and institution (cf. the difference between judges and kings). It is not the same in every time and place. It is not a matter of repetition and habit. On the contrary, it resides in the fact that it constantly posits something new, a new beginning. Our God is a God of beginnings. There is in him no redundancy or circularity. Thus, if the church wants to be faithful to his revelation, it will be completely mobile, fluid, renascent, bubbling, creative, inventive, adventurous and imaginative. It will never be perennial, and can never be organized and institutionalized. If the gates of death are not going to prevail against it, this is not because it is a good, solid, well-organized fortress, but because it is alive; it is Life – that is, as mobile, changing, and surprising as life.

A society can have no stability if its members are not just and justified by belonging to it. But the revelation of God at Sinai at the revelation of Jesus Christ come inexorably to contradict and contest and exclude this passionate desire and irreducible need.

We have to admit that there is no place for human dignity in the Bible. The one condition for coming to the eucharist is the admission that we are not worthy.

Nietzsche was right. He expressed the natural and normal thinking of the natural and normal people. He was not a demonic destroyer of Christianity. He was not a philosophical genius. He was simply a natural human being taking seriously that the Bible says and as energetically as possible rejecting it as unacceptable.

Faith? It does not belong to me. It is given. It makes me alive. It is at the heart of all my acts and thoughts. It is not an object that I can take and set aside as I please. It comes down on me like a hawk. It grasps me and takes me, possibly where I do not want to go.

We need stability, certitude, and constancy. We are all jurists before God. But grace is not a juridical matter. We have an absolute need to be owners. […] We need to be owners of our lives. How glorious to be able to say that our body is ours, that we own our qualities and destiny.

It is not true that people want to be free. They want the advantages of independence without the duties or difficulties of freedom. Freedom is hard to live with. It is terrible. It is a venture. It devours and demands. It is a constant battle, for around us are always traps to rob us of it. But in particular freedom itself allows us no rest. It requires incessant emulation and questioning. It presupposes alert attention, ruling out habit and institution. It demands that I be always fresh, always ready, never hiding behind precedents or past defeats. It brings breaks and conflicts. It yields to no constraint and exercises no constraint. For there is freedom only in permanent self-control and love of neighbour.

Love presupposes freedom and freedom expands only in love. This is why de Sade is the supreme liar of our ages. What he showed and taught others is the way of slavery under the banner of freedom. Freedom can never exert power. There is full coincidence between weakness and freedom. Similarly, freedom can never mean possession. There is an exact coincidence between freedom and nonpossession. Freedom, then, is not merely a merry child childish romp in a garden of flowers. It is this too, for it generates great waves of joy, but these cannot be separated from severe asceticism, conflict, and the absence of arms and conquests. This is why those who suddenly find themselves in a situation of freedom lose their heads or soon want to return to bondage. […] Better slavery with a guaranteed minimum wage!

What people want when they talk about freedom is not being a subject to others, being able to have their own dreams or go where they want to go. Hardly more. They definitely do not want to have to take charge of their own lives and be responsible for what they do. This means that they do not really want freedom.

Security is always inevitably bought at the cost of freedom no matter whether it be granted by a private master, by an insurance company (a capitalist power), by an organism like Social Security (which through its information network becomes a general and total controlling agent), or by the state. […] There is an exact equilibrium. The more security and guarantees we want against things, the less free we are. Tyrants are not to be feared today, but our frantic need of security us. Freedom inevitably means insecurity and responsibility.

Yet we want an air of freedom, an appearance of liberty. We want to vote. We want a party system. We want to travel. We want to choose doctors and schools. In relation to such trivialities we dare to talk of freedom.

Freedom is indivisible. Freedom of thought means freedom of action.

The first offense [for people] is to learn that the break with God has brought bondage and subjection to the determinisms and necessities that progressively change into destiny. The second revulsion comes from learning that God risks launching us into the venture of freedom that we do not want at any price. […]Christian freedom is intolerable.

The whole Sermon on the Mount is unacceptable if it is taken seriously. The preferred interpretation finds in it the sweet folly of a good and generous prophet who did not really know what he was talking about. Or else this teaching is reserved for the saints, the perfect, not for the world at large. Or else each piece is detached so as to prove exegetically that it does not really mean what it seems to on a first reading.

Revelation demands renunciation – the renunciation of illusions, of historic hopes, of references to our own abilities or number or sense of justice.

Have confidence in his Word and not in a rational program. Enter on a way on which you will gradually find answers but with no guaranteed substance.

Grace is intolerable, the Father is unbearable, weakness is discouraging, freedom is unlivable, spiritualization is deceptive. […] What we are summoned to do is something out of the ordinary. We are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. No less. All else is perversion.


The Bible refers to six evil powers : Mammon, the prince of this world, the prince of lies, Satan, the devil, and death.

There is no infernal world of hierarchy of fallen angels with superimposed eons. There is nothing behind it. We are told about the powers that are concretely at work in the human world and have no other reality or mystery.

The essential purpose of evil powers is not to lead people to hell. I have already explained elsewhere that in this regard their total defeat is already secured, for all we are saved in Christ and nothing can alter this.

What seems to me to be biblically certain is that the evil powers make earth a hell, and that there is no hell but this earth of ours that is said to be a delightful garden. What they do is precisely this: they destroy all that Jesus came to bring. In so doing, they disrupt our relations with God and others, especially the relations created by Jesus Christ. Misery, not perdition, is the issue.

1. Mammon

The Christian life is not a matter of having but of being spiritual in Christ. When this is weak, having immediately becomes dominant. Mammon sets up its law in the church precisely to the degree that the church loses its relationship with Jesus Christ. But Mammon is a power that waits patiently for faith to fail. In its abundance it prevents faith from coming to birth. The logic is implacable. What use is faith or hope when we have everything and need only a little more to spend?

2. The prince of this world

No expression of power and dominion either is or can be willed by the God of Jesus Christ. […] Every expression of power on earth and in the course of human history belongs to his [prince of this world] domain. (This is why Jesus worked so few miracles of power in the Gospels).

Against it [the church], the prince of this world can do nothing. He does not even know it. He knows only what is visible, apparent, and formalized – the “world”.

3. The prince of lies

This one transforms truth into a thing, an idea, opinion, or dogma, into philosophy, science, experience, or reality, and reality into apparent truth. In the New Testament lying has a very precise sense. It bears no connection with our petty everyday untruths, with the denials of the guilty who do not want to own their deeds, with mistakes, with the camouflage of data, with all that we call falsehood in general. Jesus puts an end to all such things when he tells us to swear by nothing but simply to let our yes be yes and our no be no. In other words, we ourselves are to be whole in our words. But this is not the problem of lying. It refers to Jesus’ own person. Lying in the New Testament is the ascribing of a false identity to Jesus. He himself is the truth in person. Hence lying takes three forms :

1. transforming of Jesus into an idea (e.g. in politics, metaphysical systems, dogmatics)

2. transforming of Jesus into an idol : After Pilate asked What is truth? the first lie was the way in which the soldiers put on him a purple robe and a crown imitating that of Caesar, and he was then presented to the people with the words : Behold the man. […] Whenever we use Jesus Christ in our human schemes to ground, justify, and explain ourselves, then inevitably we disguise him, and the result is a lie.

3. reffering Jesus back to the church : Since only faith in Jesus Christ ensures salvation, what a temptation is for the church to proclaim that there is no salvation outside the church. The church certainly is the body of Christ, but this truth, instead of being received as a fleeting and ever-new grace, is regarded as an acquisition, a possession, a state : a fixed, objective, unchangeable reality.

To investigate Buddhism, or to seek truth in and by science, psychoanalysis, etc. may all be an error, but it is not a lie so long as we do not mix in Jesus Christ. This being so, we can understand why the prince of lies attacks the church first. This is his main target. This is where he establishes his stronghold. Outside we simply have flashes of light by which the prince of lies leads the enlightened astray.

4. Satan

Instead of letting grace and pardon rule, and admitting that the worst sinner who represents before God receives pardon from God, the church interposed confession to a priest, who because he is a priest is no less a man on the one side and a representative of the institution on the other. […] Searching out the sin thus became the main thing, the dominant and constant thing, the thing on which the church insisted. The subsequent pardon became a kind of formality.

5. The devil, the diabolos, the divider

Even with the secularization of society, there has remained in our Western world a strange sacralization of social things. The church sacralized the state. As the power of the church has waned, the state has remained sacred. Similarly the search for “truth” in Christian politics led to a sacralizing of political conflicts, and they have retained this character even with the church’s decline. The church declared that its adversary was heretical and an incarnation of absolute evil. This idea has persisted in the world. Every enemy has now become, not a human adversary, but a demonic being.

When devastation occurs in the holy place, the church, and when despair and solitude take hold in the church, we have the final demonic and infernal action that the powers can mount.

Spiritual liberty had to enter politics for the state to become the coldest of cold monsters.

In the Old Testament we constantly see God’s plan defeated, for God does not force or mechanizes us.

Believers [by the Holy Spirit] are those who have the wisdom and strength to rob material realities of their seductive power, to unmask them for what they are, no more, and to put them in the service of God, diverting them totally from their own law. But there is never an imperial triumph. No head of state is inspired by the Holy Spirit. No capitalist achieves success by the Holy Spirit. Science and technology do not develop under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The success of powers, then, is the direct opposite. They have achieved an explosive victory, using the very truth of Christ to advance their own grandeur.


The cross that is planted at the heart of the history cannot be uprooted. The risen Christ is with us to the end of the world. The Holy Spirit acts in secret and with infinite patience. There is a church that is constantly born and reborn.

It [death] convinces us there is no future, that there is nothing beyond itself, that there is no God, no Creator, no Savior. In addition to the destruction of life, it brings a loss of confidence in the possibility of a Creator. This is death.

Both Israel and the church continue to exist in history in defiance of all appearances and every probability. […] But if this is so, it is not because of some natural goodness of the church, some intrinsic being, some immortal soul. It is solely because God remains faithful to his promise.

The striking thing in the church’s history is that through the tremendous perversion, when everything seems to be eaten by termites, there have always been resurgences of truth.

In reality, as Christians are in the banal situations of ordinary life, of the global mediocrity of society, of everyday problems of no great interest, of constant diversion, faith burns low, makes no great responses, expresses nothing, produces no exemplary conduct. The banal and the everyday are the worst destroyers, because they express tepidity.

There can be a revival only in relation to the world. (e.g. Cardinal Wyszynsky)

The renewal of the church takes place in conditions in which the church is forced back to its origins.

Precisely because it is Word, it can be spoken afresh at any time. And then everything begins again.

No, we cannot bypass organization, institution, or ethics. But we have to be aware that no matter how honest and scrupulous may be those who create and direct them, they cannot fail to be a transgression, such as the order of the Beatitudes or the parables of the kingdom of heaven.

The process [of the relation between the will of God and human organization] is not one of destruction, of pure negation. But precisely as all these commandments, precepts, institutions, and ceremonies are set up in transgression of the Word of God, when the Word of God makes itself heard again and is newly grasped again (my God has convinced me, and I remain convinced, that the two are indispensable and correlative), then there is a transgression of the transgression.

Transformation of the church does not begin at its human head but with an explosion originating with those on the fringe.

Christ may sometimes rest, even for long periods, as he was hidden in the body of that little Jewish man.

Social intolerability of revelation (p. 158)

Romain Gary – Les Clowns lyriques (Paris : Gallimard, 1980)

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