On the Building of Institutions

David Koyzis has stirred the hornets’ nest that is the New Pantagruel editorial board with his his discussion of Jacques Ellul’s short essay Technique and the Opening Chapters of Genesis. Koyzis explains that Ellul, showing his Barthian side, believes that the created order of Eden did not include the development of what Ellul calls Technique–essentially the always-forward progression of technological means which, in Ellul’s words “eliminates or subordinates the natural world”–and therefore, while technology is not necessarily sinful, it is a result of the Fall. To a Neocalvinist like Koyzis, this perspective is flawed because in the Cultural Mandate (Gen. 1:26-28), God commands Adam to multiply (create society) and subdue the Earth (develop technological means). Technique, then, is a part of the created order, and therefore something to be embraced by Christians in an effort to use it glorify God.

Ellul was, much as his contemporary Ivan Illich, distrustful of institutions (schools and governments, for example) as vehicles for the work of Christ. Institutions would simply become corrupt over time (as a result of sin), and while there is also the possibility for reform, the cycle would repeat itself. Illich, more than Ellul, saw this clearly, even at work within the family. Relying on the State, or a school system, to change culture at best wishful thinking, and at worst rather dangerous. For both Ellul and Illich (and this is most visible in Ellul’s Presence of the Kingdom, true Christian action was the act of rolling up one’s sleeves and doing the dirty work of meeting the needs of your fellow man. For Ellul, this meant working with “troubled” youth and fighting for the preservation of the Frech sea coast. Christian action begins with a supple heart, listening for God’s call, and more often than not, when this call comes, the Christian is simply asked to act. Ellul offers no specifics, no policies, no programs (in fact, he says spefically such things can be antithetical to real Christian action)–simply the exhortation that the Church (that is, the body of believers) help those that need it. For the Neocalvinist, however, Christian action often takes the form of polciy and program. Government can be reformed (in the Christian sense) and used for the work of Christ. And (to get back to the point of Ellul’s essay) Technique, being a part of the created order, should be molded by Christian hands.

Reading Ellul and Illich over the past few months, and then reading this essay by Koyzis, has given some voice to the feeling that I am not really a Neocalvinist. While I’m not sure that Ellul’s Edenic vision is correct, I am also uncomfortable with the Neocalvinist faith in progress and the ability of institutions to do the work of Christ. That’s not to say that I am an anarchist who wishes to turn back the clock so we live in caves, or that we should seek to disband governments and school systems, but we absolutely must acknowledge that, living in a fallen world, that these institutions will fail time and again. And, while technological progress may discover latent possibilities in the created order (and this is our job, according to the Neocalvinist view of Genesis), such progress has often done much of the damage to culture and, more importantly, the state of our souls.

I am troubled, much as the tNP folks are, that some Neocalvinists so quickly dismiss thinkers like Ellul and Illich. I don’t expect Koyzis to suddenly embrace an Ellulian or Illichian view of the world (in fact, I reckon that Ellul and Illich would be against such discipleship), but he should be more open to the critiques of modern society that they offer instead of beating them down with the triumphalist hand of Dooyeweerd’s theory of differentiation. Yes, technology can bring about good, as can a government, or a school, but we cannot expect that these things will be completely turned back to God until this world passes away. To expect anything else would be an attempt to immanentize the eschaton. And while technology has in some ways made our lives better, this is a doubled-edged sword, as such progress often reduces the quality of our lives in other, less obvious ways.

So what of the Neocalvinist call to institution building? The goal of, say, the Work Research Foundation is good and proper, and the organization is geniunely trying to bring a Biblical perspective to how we view our jobs and vocations. But in the work, one must realize the limitations and dangers as well, namely that this is a fallen world, and sin cannot be escaped. Institutions will fail thanks to power struggles or corruption, just as they have in the past. Some may succeed, at least for time. Even if, as Koyzis contends, that family, government, and school were indeed part of the Edenic order, we can never hope to attain that on this Earth. So, do your work, but season it with the critiques of Ellul and Illich.