Ten theses in the praise of inutility

Ten theses in the praise of inutility

Jacques Ellul: The Politics of God and the Politics of Man1. The most profound and unsettling piece ever written about inutility from a Christian perspective comes from the pen of Jacques Ellul in the middle of the sixties: “Meditation on Inutility” in The Politics of God and the Politics of Man (1972, French original 1966).

2. In modern society we seem to be obsessed with activism, results, and success. The most important is to get things done and to see (measureable) results. When asked to introduce ourselves, the first thing that comes to mind is what we do (or maybe what we have, as a result of what we have done). Why? Of course there are a lot of complex historical and socio-political reasons. But one important reason is the rise of the technological society or system. As Ellul convincingly has shown in several books, the technological society brings its own morality with it. That morality builds on axioms such as “what can be done, should be done”, “the more efficiency, the better”, and “the faster, the better”. Doesn’t such a morality encourage accomplishments and activism? Doesn’t such a morality proclaim inutility to be a sin, maybe the worst sin of all? And instead we are encouraged to sing our praise to one or another form of utilitarism and get trapped in a perverted understanding of what is worthwhile and useful, as well as of happiness and pain.

3. This obsession with results and success is unfortunately as common in the church. You don’t find this only in such stupid and contradictory phenomena as the prosperity gospel et al and the all too common ways of using God, church, and salvation as gadgets (or means). You also find this obsession in all those well-meaning, but shortsighted, talks about ”building the Kingdom of God”, ”God has no other hands but our hands”, “we must be in charge of our history”, “we must show responsibility”, “we can’t just be sitting here talking and praying, we must do something”, as well as in our ceaseless striving for relevance and finding the right methods (or, we may say, the right technique) for making the church grow or changing the world.

4. In view of all this, it is strange that the Christian story doesn't seem to portray the role of humanity in general or the people of God in particular to be found in activism, results, and success. With reference to the Second Book of Kings and Jesus talk about “unworthy servants” (Luke 17) and after meditating on such “useless services” commanded by God as tilling a perfect garden (Eden), doing good works, striving for wisdom, preaching, praying, and proclaiming the good news, Ellul asserts: “we have nothing to achieve, nothing to win, nothing to provide.” And that is good and hopeful news! This is not to say that everything is vanity, this is not a verdict we pass before we do these acts. It is instead to say that these acts do not "carry with them their own goal and efficacy”, it is a verdict we pass after we have done what is commanded. To hopefully be able to give this verdict is to taste the grace and freedom of God.

5. In Jesus Christ the praise of inutility reaches its climax. Nowhere do we find Jesus striving for accomplishments or success. Instead his whole life is a “no” to them. Jesus says no to these idols in the beginning of his ministry when he refuses to save the world using the way of “realism” (see his temptations). He says no to them during his ministry, where he turns his back on the way of results (for instance, just count how many followers he has at the end of his life - is it maybe two or three?). He says no to them in the end of his ministry on earth, in his silence before his accusers - this “obstinate uselessness” as Rowan Williams calls it - and in going the way of vulnerability to its end. His whole life seems to be concerned with one thing, and one thing only: faithfulness to his Father, which means love for the world.

6. So the other side of inutility is faithfulness, faithfulness to the God who is friendship and whose love overflows in friendship. And, as you know, friendship dies when it should be useful. But also: there is no straight line between faithfulness and success. The line between them, if there is any, spells “resurrection”. And resurrection is not measurable victory or statistical success, it is new creation. Or in the words of Leonard Cohen: “Love is not a victory march.”

7. This faithfulness lives by and expresses itself in grace and freedom. Grace means that it is not up to us to save the world or ourselves, it is God’s business. Freedom means a service to God that is not stuck in necessities or “consequential" reasoning, or in a worry about usefulness or efficacy. In grace and freedom faithfulness makes possible the task of “dwelling vulnerably at the edges” (Romand Coles) and taking time for peace and a “politics of gentleness”.

8. In our utilitarian culture, where we suffer from the compulsion to always do something useful and be helpful, prayer is a pain in the ass. It is so because prayer is being useless. Of course, we also try to make prayer useful, making it a means to an end, but that is a dead end since the essence of prayer is wasting time with God. Henri Nouwen says: “Prayer is being unbusy with God instead of being busy with other things. Prayer is primarily to do nothing useful or productive in the presence of God.” And as such it is working with the grain of the universe which lives by and towards God’s sabbath.

9. While striving for utilitiy goes hand in hand with a longing for “happiness”, inutility goes hand in hand with a longing for beauty. This longing takes us beyond our faith in “solutions” and happy endings, and moves us towards the “simple” gestures of love, marked by presence and patience. On the way of inutility we can descry that something can still be beautiful even if it is not happy.

10. In short: we don’t need God, we worship God.

(The inspiration to use the ten theses format comes from Kim Fabricius. On this blog you find some nice quotes from him here.)

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Posted by Bengt Rasmusson

Bengt Rasmusson är teolog, förläggare och mediakonsult.

Bengt Rasmusson is a theologian, publisher and a media consultant.

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