Dialectic refers to an exchange of words, especially one in which contraries are not excluded.1

By refusing to exclude “contraries” we are forced to deal with the inconsistencies in our world. The other option available to us – other than thinking dialectically – is working to resolve the tensions that come when two realities come in contact and are in conflict with one another.

Fundamentalism in religion does not deal dialectically. Rather, those subscribing to a Fundamentalist faith must – underscore must – find a way to reconcile contradictions. This, however, becomes a problem for believers when revelation – namely the Bible – evidently proposes contradictory ideas and realities. For instance, how can God be holy (separated from creation) and still be incarnated in the person of Jesus? Or, if salvation depends on grace, why are good works so important, even necessary?

Jacques Ellul, the French theologian philosopher, worked all his life within a dialectic framework and approach. Many people are confused when they read Ellul for this very reason. When one compares one of his books against another, it is possible to find opposing viewpoints, within one author’s ideas! The primary reason he uses dialectic in this way is he believes “reality is fraught with contradictory and opposing elements… [and] so is our means for apprehending that reality.”2 He chooses to use dialectic as an “epistemological tool” or method toward gaining knowledge about reality.3

This worked for Ellul, but for many this poses numerous challenges. For one, linear logic appears to be ignored when dialectic approaches are applied to certain problems. But, at least for Ellul, he did not completely reject Reason, per se. In fact, he claimed that giving up reason altogether leads only to “the irrational” in a negative sense.4 But, clearly, Ellul was concerned with pushing reason beyond its apparently limited abilities.

Those of us reared in Modern churches (“Modern” in the sense of the modern era) lean toward the fundamentalist goals. Personally, the longer I live, engage my world, and examine scripture, the more I find inconsistencies. And, in my opinion, these inconsistencies are better “solved” not through “reasoning out” the conflicts, but instead finding the tension dialectically between the spiritual truth and the sociological reality (two realms in which Ellul constantly dealt) and resolving to live with this tension and find meaning within it.

What does this discussion have to do with art? Art – whether multi-media, music, painting, drama, poetry, or whatever else – is especially given to illustrating (not just visually) worlds in tension. For example, it is simpler to make a painting that conveys the sociological reality of the poor, while simultaneously alluding to the hope found in spiritual reality, than it is to just talk about it, reason it out.

Even with art, our faculty of human reason will not be entirely satisfied. Still, the ambiguity of shapes, the inference of shades of light, the subtle implication (rather than outright definition) of non-rhetorical communication, the availability of fantastic juxtaposition in art and how this can refer to unseen, spiritual truth, all of these things and more argue that art is often a better choice when the need for communicating conflicting realities is present.

Among the many things this “means,” one thing is certain. Those who are called to “lead worship” in our post-modern age ought to embrace more and more the benefits inherent in dialogue spurred by artistic depictions over and above dialogue that is simple a response to the “preached” Word of God.

The question to grapple with is: How can we “preach” the gospel without strict linear reason? After all, God’s upside down kingdom is much less reasonable than the fundamentalists would have us believe. It is not irrational in the strict sense. But, it is certainly opposed to our human ideas about reality and how the universe ought to function.

1Daniel B. Clendenin, Introduction to The Presence of the Kingdom by Jacques Ellul (Colorado Springs, CO:Helmers & Howard, 1989), xxvii.

2Ibid., xxx.


4Katherine Temple, “The Sociology of Jacques Ellul,” in Research in Philosophy and Technology, vol. 3, p.225.

These ideas ©2009 Eric Herron unless otherwise noted.