Schaeffer Checks the Pulse of Western Civilization

Shaffer_06172014Francis A. Schaeffer. 2005.  How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Orig Pub 1976).  Wheaton: Crossway Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a believer in the risen Christ, life sometimes resembles being stuck in a zombie invasion.  Zombies hate living people and desire their destruction.  Conversation with zombies can be challenging. Still, Christians are called to live sacrificially sharing their very lives with zombies on the hope that they too can live.  Jesus said:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:24 ESV)

While we were still zombies, Jesus died on the cross for us [1].

How should we then live?

This question taken from Ezekiel 33:10 where Ezekiel reviews his calling as prophet.  In the original call statement, Ezekiel writes:

Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand… (Ezekiel 3:17-18 ESV)

Ezekiel must prophesy exactly as God instructs or his own salvation is at risk.

This watchman motif motivated Francis Schaeffer to write his book—How should we then live? (257-258) He outlines this motif in the final chapter addressed specifically to Christians.  The chapter begins with a warning against dichotomous thinking:  separating values (non-reason) from reason (255) [2].  This dichotomy has its origins in Greek thought (Platonic dualism; Gnosticism) where the mind (reason) was elevated over the body (values).

This re-emergence of dichotomous thinking in the modern era is a Christian heresy, in part, because it rejects the divinity of Christ who was bodily resurrected from the grave. The risen Christ is no ghost (spirit only) and no zombie (body without spirit).  Dichotomous thinking (a kind of schizophrenia) leads one to believe that God can only be approached through emotional experiences or, alternatively, only through theology.  By contrast, the New Testament teaches unity of mind and body—faith and action [3].  For example, James writes:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. (James 1:22-24 ESV)

The splitting of mind and body (or faith from action) robs the Gospel of its power to transform lives and of its moral teaching. By contrast, the resurrection of Christ accredits Jesus’ divinity (Acts 17:31) and lays claim to the whole of us—both our minds and bodies.  Schaeffer especially sees dichotomous thinking leaving us to accept authoritarian rule because it facilitates manipulation (256-257).

Schaeffer’s point about the manipulative potential of dichotomous thinking is like a bad movie re-run.  During the Second World War, for example, economists of the Vienna School justified working for Adolf Hitler through the development of philosophical school called logical positivism.  In this paradigm, politicians set the goals and economists simply find the most efficient way to execute them.  The guard arguing that he was only following orders when gassing prisoners, for example, is applying logical positivism. In this manner, economists (and prison guards) tried to escape moral judgment by making no judgments at all [4].

Schaeffer’s book is a survey of key philosophical developments in history, politics, and art dating back to ancient Rome.  It is written in 13 chapters:

  1. Ancient Rome;
  2. The Middle Ages;
  3. The Renaissance;
  4. The Reformation;
  5. The Reformation—Continued;
  6. The Enlightenment;
  7. The Rise of Modern Science;
  8. The Breakdown in Philosophy and Science;
  9. Modern Philosophy and Modern Theology;
  10. Modern Art, Music, Literature, and Films;
  11. Our Society;
  12. Manipulation and the New Elite; and
  13. The Alternatives (7).

If you are one of those who think that this is a book written to justify positions of one generation over another, perhaps you should read with particular care.

For example, the Renaissance and the Reformation occurred at almost the same time—Renaissance thinkers accepted dichotomous thinking while Reformation thinkers refused to (79-81).  Reformation thinkers refused to accept dichotomous thinking and relied on the Bible to discern God’s truth—an absolute standard for ethics.  In some sense, the enlightenment simply revisited this same split.  Dichotomous thinking remains popular today because it supports humanism and relativism [5].

In all his writing, Schaeffer covers a lot of ground.  The details of his discussion are fascinating and provide context for understanding the vast changes occurring in our time.  Unless you are a student of Western Civilization, be prepared to be challenged.  How Should We Then Live? is a classic.  Thank you Crossway Books for keeping it in print.

 

[1] For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person– though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die–but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8 ESV)

[2] Schaeffer felt so strongly about this topic of dichotomous thinking that he wrote an entire book on the subject:  Francis Schaeffer.  2006.  Escape from Reason:  A Penetrating Analysis of Trends in Modern Thinking.  Downers Grove:  IVP Press.

[3] An interesting  example of this integrative principle arises in the biblical idea of beauty.  “Our modern images feature surface and finish; Old Testament images present structure and character.  Modern images are narrow and restrictive; theirs were broad and inclusive…For us beauty is primarily visual; their idea of beauty included sensations of light, color, sound, smell, and even taste” Dyrness, William A. 2001. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, page 81.

[4] Hannah Arendt studied this problem at great length.  For example, read her book:   1987.  The Life of the Mind:  The Groundbreaking Investigation of How We Think.  New York:  Harcourt, Inc.

[5] In Paul’s Letter to the Galatians he confronts the problem of false teachers who added the Gospel of Christ other teaching.  Paul writes:   I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-7 ESV)  In the Galatian context, the added teaching was over-reliance on the Law of Moses.  In our context, the added teaching is primarily philosophical or social.

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