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Title: Presence in the postmodern world : a dynamic reading of time, crisis, and communication in the theological ethics of Jacques Ellul
Author: Rollison, Jacob Donald
ISNI:       0000 0004 7432 0138
Awarding Body: University of Aberdeen
Current Institution: University of Aberdeen
Date of Award: 2018
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This thesis provides a broad reading of the writings of Jacques Ellul focused on presence as a driving theme of his theological-ethical works. Drawing on numerous rare, unpublished and untranslated primary sources, this reading suggests that presence was a central and guiding theme of his work from its inception in the mid-1930s to its planned conclusion in La raison d'être (1987). Focusing on presence further elucidates a personal crisis which Ellul underwent in the late 1960s, described in the opening pages of L'espérance oubliée (1972). Part one, Architecture, focuses on some of Ellul's major theological and sociological sources as providing material structuring Ellul's understanding of the present. Chapter one treats Ellul's 1987 book Reason for Being: Meditations on Ecclesiastes, in which Ellul reads his two chief theological sources, the book of Ecclesiastes and the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard, through each other. The result is first, that Kierkegaard's chief focus on contemporaneity with Christ is modified, stripped of its philosophical fixity; this provides the model for Ellul's time. Second, Kierkegaard's irony is challenged by Ecclesiastes' rigorous seriousness towards words; this informs Ellul's more serious irony. Time, language, and humanity are linked in this approach to the present. Chapter two focuses on Karl Marx and Ellul's early understanding of institutions. Synthesizing from books made from his courses on Marx, Ellul's Marxist reasons for opposing philosophical fixity are displayed (complementing his theological reasons). Marx's influence is also noticeable in Ellul's time, language, and approach to humanity. This implies that rather than having one unified dialectical method between his sociology and theology, discerning which of these latter plays more heavily at a given moment is a matter of personal discernment. Part two, Movement, treats changes in Ellul' Chapter three establishes continuity in Ellul's use of presence from 1936—1964. 'Presence' describes a mutually implicating three-part dialogue: first, a communicative dialogue between sign and presence; second, an incarnational dialogue between body and spirit; and third, a dialogue between time and space. This dialogue is evident in all of Ellul's major theological-ethical works. It unites time, language, and humanity, grounding an ethic of signification. Focusing on presence offers a fresh understanding of Ellul's theological-ethical vision. Chapter four highlights crises in Ellul's life and thought, and in French society. In the 1960s, France was transitioning from an extended period of institutional and cultural stability to a time of crises, from an intellectual atmosphere of 'critical humanism' to one of 'theoretical antihumanism.' The latter is visible in the rise to popularity of structuralism—a term encompassing diverse projects united by a Nietzschean critique of presence, including critiques of the human, of language, and of history. Ellul engaged deeply with at least one major work employing this critique, Michel Foucault's Les mots et les choses (1966). Ellul's reaction to this critique is clearly visible in his texts from this era; read in the context of other events in French society and Ellul's life, the structuralist critique of presence certainly would have contributed to, if not constituted, a crisis for Ellul. Chapter five treats Ellul's response to this crisis. First, Ellul offers sociological criticism of structuralism. Second, he questions presence theologically, suggesting that in the moment of God's abandonment on the cross, Christ's hopeful, communicative address to God is God's presence. Against structuralist views of language as violent, in the new, image-saturated societal context, language is perhaps the only non-violent means of expression; the fragility of linguistic presence is humanity's only hope for true community. Ellul's theology of presence changes to hope as its new mode, and his ethics of signification shifts from a Barthian approach to signs and institutions to a Kierkegaardian incognito. The conclusion uses Ellul's response to these critiques to respond to questions from the introduction, drawing on scripture to propose a protestant theological response to structuralism. Ellul gave an early, in-depth, and original response to this critical moment of thought with subsequent global influence. His is a suggestive proposal for those interested in formulating contemporary theological ethics of media and communication for the postmodern age.
Supervisor: Brock, Brian Sponsor: University of Aberdeen
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Christian ethics