TECHNIQUE or KINDLY LIGHT?
by Vernard Eller
Dr. Eller submitted this essay to House Church Central in 1993.
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Two very different ways of proceeding are indicated by our two phrases , "technique" on the one hand and "kindly light" on the other. And as the church makes its way through the world, it 1S imperative that we give deliberate thought and attention as to which guide we should be following. As soon as we use the word "technique," we are in effect stepping onto personal turf of the contemporary French social historian and Christian thinker Jacques Ellul. Beginning in 1954 with his groundbreaking book, The Technological Society, he has continued his study of technique with books and articles, lectures and Interviews right down to the 'present day. His thesis is that "technique" has become totalitarian and is inexorably driving modern society into the abyss. Among what the Apostle Paul calls "the principalities and powers" and "world rulers of the present darkness," Ellul would nominate "technique" as current arch villain.
Ellul's Frenchword is "technique"; yet when translated into English it regularly comes out as "technology" and so inevitably suggests to us all the instrumentation, mechanics, and electronics of high-tech gadgetry. However, Ellul's concern is much broader than that and actually centers elsewhere. By "technique" he intends the pervasive modern mindset that gives primal value to the human skills of "problem-solving--that is, our quite impressive ability in setting goals, reducing them to manageable objectives, and then devising the most efficient steps and methods for getting things into the shape we have in mind for them. And our political, societal, psychological, sociological , organizational, advertising and propaganda techn1que-efficiency in handl1ng people is every bit as notable as our technological efficiency with equipment. There is no denying that our expert technique has accomplished a great deal of human good-and is itself as much as necessary to the functioning of modern society. Yet Ellul's argument is that all such accomplishment will be nothing worth if that technical mindset effectively destroys our true humanity in the process, On one front, the technical expert, the practitioner of technique, becomes something less than a full-fledged human being when he capitulates to the system and accepts its evaluation of him as being essentially its functionary, a professional technique-manipulator. On the other front, all of us who become the objects of technique-efficiency are being treated as much less than full-fledged human beings when we cave in to being manipulated as those “units” which are most amenable to the technical procedures of the system.
To make the point with one illustration out of innumerable possibilities: the human way of "going to work" is to meander through the fields--enjoying the birds and flowers until one comes to the place for that day's hoeing; the technique-efficient way of going to work is what is tellingly called “mass transit." And in our day, the practice of technique-efficiency is the only' "doing" worth doing at all-just as "problem solving" is the only "doing" that has any significance at all. You haven't done anything if it doesn't show "results" in terms of measureable objectives. Ellul observes that, with us, technique has become totalitarian--that is, we take it as being the only means for solving whatever problem we face. Thus, on the one hand, whether appropriate or not, we will recast every human problematic into terms that are amenable to the methods of professional technique. On the other hand, regarding human problematics that will not so reduce (such th1ngs as theological questions and the "meaning" of life), our tendency is simply to ignore them in favor of spending our time on what we are good at, where we are confident we can produce results. Consequently, regarding (say) Christian education in the local congregation, we get much more professional help on the techniques of group process than we do on the biblical-theological content which presumably is what the education is all about.
Ellul speaks mainly of the totalitarianism of technique-efficiency in the world; my concern here is with how it has taken over the church. There is of course, a side of the church (the secondary side, the church as a human social institution) where at least a modicum of technique is surely altogether proper. Yet we dare never neglect the prior side of the church (as body of Christ) where human technique must be firmly prevented from displacing the primacy of God’s will and way for his people. In those things m which our call is to be faithful, it is Idolatrous for us to bow down before technique-efficiency out of our love of success.
For me, this technique-totalitarianism within the church reached a crisis upon my recent introduction to one of our denominational programs. (I need to qualify that the program itself did not turn out to be nearly as technique- dominated as the advance material indicated; so my criticism is not at all of that program , but only or the mentality revealed in its literature.)
I received a large, professionally done (and undoubtedly expensive) "manual of procedure"--which "programming" is perhaps the prime requisite and ultimate symbol of TECHNIQUE. Inside, first off, the program was Identified .as A Comprehensive Strategy for the Renewal of Congregations--a wording as completely indigenous to technique-efficiency as it is foreign to anything the New Testament ever talks about. And from the biblical standpoint, I would argue that whatever our comprehensive strategy might produce, it could be nothing scripture would recognize as "congregational renewal." That one either happens by the Spirt of God or it doesn't happen at all. And the Spirit of God is perhaps the last thing 10 the world that will conform itself to human technique.
In the manual, then, the first assignment was (as always and invariably with strategic technique planning) to set goals for ourselves by envisioning what we would like our congregation to be in three years time (dream big!), An anecdote from Lloyd Ogilvie was shared about how he had visited a parishioner, a top corporation executive in whose office were two desk calendars side by side. One of these scheduled current responsibilities and events; the other was dated for ten years in the future, noting matters this planner wanted and was determined to make be the case then. Quite apart from any' opinion regarding the procedure, I was deeply offended at the easy assumption that what works for big business unquestionably must be right (God's will} for the church. To the contrary, my feeling was that, at every point, scripture would challenge Ogilvie s assumption rather than run with it. But no, Ellul is correct that technique-efficiency has carried the day--and that as much in the church as in the world.
But if not the world's way of technique, what is the alternative, Christ's way for the church? The answer came to me in the very process of my sharing, with my wife my unhappiness over the manual. So, as a Christian rebuttal, I propose the hymn by John Henry Newman--written, I understand when he was agonizing over the critical problem of his own religious career, whether he would remain in the Church of England or convert to Roman Catholicism. His approach is the very opposite of determining where he wanted to be ten years hence.
Lead, kindly Light,
Amid th' encircling gloom,
L  : : : : :Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark,
And I am far from home;
: : : : :Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet;
I do not ask to see
The distant scene-
One step enough for me.
In his second stanza, then, Newman tells that he had not always wanted the leading of the kindly Light. No, earlier, "I loved to choose and see my path"--though he now recognizes that as an indication that “pride ruled my will." Is it not the case that the diametric difference between the way of technique-efficiency and the way of the kindly Light bases in Newman's perception that he is lost in the encircling gloom of a dark night far from home? He knows himself to be in desperate need of a kindly Light, his only hope. Yet our perception as technicalized moderns is just the opposite: we are fully ''homed in" on the target of where we intend to be ten years from now and have every confidence that our expert techniques will get us there on schedule. A kindly light is the last thing for which we feel any need and thus the last thing of which we will admit even the existence. No, Newman's' “one step enough" is simply a mark of his cowardly dependence and low self-image, a failure of faith in our true human potential.
However, my impression is that if we were to go to scripture--our professed rule of faith and practice, remember-we would find it standing totally with Newman and totally against our self-confident faith in human technique-efficiency, My impression is that scripture would agree with Newman that our great love "to choose and see our paths" is not a mark of commendable human initiative and farsightedness but only of the fact that "pride does indeed rule our wills." The world, of course, has no option except to go the way of technique-even if that ultimately spells our dehumanization. But the church is not caught in such a bind; it knows a kindly Light that offers to guide our feet all the way home.
Let it not be said that I have tried to outlaw any and all use of technique-efficiency in the life of the church. I am, of course, recommending that we stop "centering" there, stop investing the whole of our time" energy, and faith there. Yet, even while admitting the inadequacy of our technique and, conversely, our need for the Kindly Light--even while being, well content with the one step that is enough, there certainly is still room for a degree of modest and realistic technique-planning at the same time. As Jesus almost put it: "Seek first God's kingly rule and the leading of his kindly' Light, and there will be plenty of time and place for some of these human competencies to come to you as well."