By Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D
Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. L’Abri 50th Anniversary Edition. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005. Original publication, 1976. 288 pages.
We should be grateful to Crossway publishers for recently reissuing several important works by Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984). At once an evangelist, apologist, theologian, and social critic, Schaeffer’s work inspired a generation of evangelicals to adopt a robust and well-integrated Christian worldview and to live out its convictions courageously. It is a shame and a scandal that some postmodernist-leaning evangelicals have dismissed Schaeffer as an outmoded “rationalist” or “modernist.” There is, in truth, nothing outmoded about this remarkable man’s passion or vision.
I first encountered Schaeffer’s writings a few months after my conversion in the summer of 1976. At the time I was intellectually adrift, unsure of how my faith related to the world of ideas. By reading The God Who is There (InterVarsity Press, 1968) a new, refreshing, and inviting world unfolded before me. Christianity, Schaeffer explained, is not merely something that is personally meaningful and instructive for individual behavior. Christianity is, rather, “true to what is.” It speaks credibly to all the things that matter most. Nothing should be shunted aside as merely “secular,” since Jesus Christ is Lord of all. The Christian has nothing to fear from the world of ideas because the Christian worldview is sufficient to meet the intellectual challenges posed by secular philosophy or by other religions. Moreover, Christianity offers the world “true truth” (as Schaeffer put it) that cannot be found by any other means. Without this revelation, men and women are lost, both philosophically (they do not know who they are) and morally (they do not know how to live).
Schaeffer’s message was heady stuff to young Christian thinkers in the 1970s and early 1980s. He confidently, but not arrogantly, ranged over literature, music, painting, philosophy, theology, and ethics—and seemed to bring it all together conceptually and historically for Christian critique. He painted with a broad and colorful brush, despite his rather lackluster prose. (In his book In Philosophy and Christian Faith [InterVarsity, 1968], Colin Brown referred to his approach as “swashbuckling.”) Despite his lack of professorial status or an earned doctorate, Schaeffer became one of evangelicalism’s most influential thinkers. To borrow a Quaker phrase, he “spoke to the condition” of many searching people. Furthermore, he lived out his convictions about reaching the lost. He considered himself an evangelist above all. His books, which came later in his life, were forged through conversations with young believers and unbelievers who were trying to make sense of intellectual trends sweeping Europe and the United States, such as existentialism, Marxism, and Eastern thought. These conversations were carried on at a retreat center in the Swiss Alps called L’Abri (meaning “shelter”), founded by Schaeffer and his wife Edith (also an author). The Schaeffers lived out a radical theology of community long before the subject became popular among evangelicals.
In this ambitious book, Schaeffer canvasses nothing less than the history of Western civilization up until the time of his writing. (The book was paired with a film series of the same name that is still available.) On one level, scholars might say that the whole project is pretentious. How could this feat be accomplished in one medium-sized volume, especially when written by someone lacking bona fide academic credentials? But Schaeffer did not attempt an encyclopedic effort, as he makes clear in his “Author’s Note.” He focused on how worldviews affect cultures, beginning with ancient Rome, whose polytheistic worldview could not support its civilization. I first read this volume and saw the films while in college in the middle to late 1970s. Schaeffer was covering wide swaths of ground, but what he claimed made sense, given my knowledge as a philosophy major who had taken Western Civilization. (Since most universities stopped requiring Western Civilization courses some years ago, it becomes all the more imperative for those so deprived to study this volume.) Reading the book recently, I was impressed by its clarity, insights, and its qualifications and lack of grandiosity.
Schaeffer argued that there is a flow to biblical history (see his Joshua and the Flow of Biblical History) and a flow to extra-biblical history. As Schaeffer states it in the opening sentences of the book, “There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people. People are unique in the inner life of the mind—what they are in their thought world determines how they act. This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity. It is true of their corporate actions, such as political decisions, and it is true of their personal lives” (19).
Schaeffer spends one chapter each on ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, then moves to the Renaissance, which introduced significant themes into the modern West such as the rediscovery of nature as valuable in itself (seen in its art) and, more auspiciously, the sense of human autonomy from Christian claims on reality as expressed in Scripture. As a man of the Reformation, Schaeffer devotes two chapters to that period, explaining both its history and theological convictions clearly and cogently. He notes that the Reformation worldview was felicitous not only for the church, but for culture as a whole. This is because it challenged ecclesiastical authoritarianism and opened the doors to freedom of religion and representative forms of government—not that this was achieved all at once.
The Enlightenment further developed the Renaissance themes of autonomy from received religious authority and gave anchorage to a more secular worldview. While modern science was inspired by an essentially Christian worldview, which taught that nature was knowable and valuable because created by a good and rational God, secularized science removed God from the picture. This made nature a self-enclosed system, the received view of the institutions of science in the West today. Post-Enlightenment philosophy also lost the sense of unity and purpose given by a Christian worldview and struggled to find any objective meaning in human affairs or the universe as a whole. This was especially evident in existentialism, which heralded the meaninglessness of life as well as the need to assert personal meaning in spite of it all (and for no objective reason whatsoever). While the blush is off the rose of existentialism today, secular postmodernists offer similar answers. They too have escaped from reason into a world of nonsense posing as profundity. (On this see my book, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism [InterVarsity, 2000].)
A veteran of the Fundamentalist-Modernist split, Schaeffer also warns of the dangers of theological liberalism, a theology drained of biblical content but replete with traditional theological words. Schaeffer rightly exposes this as little more than naturalism in religious garb. The Bible is not a record of humans groping about in hopes of encountering the unnamable sacred. It is, rather, God’s true and rational propositional revelation. Schaeffer further explores the “breakdown” of modern art and culture in general, never without strong feeling for the “lostness of modern man,” as he put it.
The last three chapters lament that modern Western society has lost its worldview moorings; it has largely forfeited the Reformation base that helped constitute its greatness. As such, it is imperiled. As Os Guinness put it in The American Hour (Free Press, 1992), post-Christian Western culture is in the throes of a “crisis of moral authority.” Without a transcendent source for meaning and law, societies move into either anarchy or authoritarianism, such as Marxism. In spite of this dire situation, many in the West (including many Christians) opt for pursuing “personal peace and affluence” above any passion for justice and goodness that honor God. Schaeffer thus warns of “sociological law” that is cut off from any stable source of meaning and authority, and instead relies on either the assertion of “arbitrary absolutes” based on a fifty-one percent majority vote or the dictates of a statist government that is unaccountable to either the people or to God. If the state declares the unborn (or anyone else) to possess no rights, their rights are taken away by legal fiat. (Schaeffer elaborated on this point in Whatever Happened to the Human Race, co-authored with C. Everett Koop in 1979.)
Schaeffer also warned that modern culture is susceptible to manipulation through the media, especially through television. “Television manipulates viewers just by its normal way of operating,” because its images seem so compelling. The truth, however, is otherwise because the viewer is not granted a pristine receipt of objective reality, but an “edited symbol or an edited image of the event” (240).
What Schaeffer warned about is happening in our midst today. While America’s Declaration of Independence declares that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights,” society allows abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy. In April of 2005, the world watched as a severely disabled but not terminally ill woman, Terry Schiavo, was dehydrated to death—simply because her legal guardian husband and his lawyer did not want her to live.
One can take issue with Schaeffer at some points. One who paints with a broad bush may blur some themes and obscure others, but the strengths of this book greatly outnumber its weaknesses. How Should We Then Live remains an incisive and prophetic work that should not be ignored. We need big-picture thinkers (or generalists) to help us orient ourselves historically, theologically, and ethically. Francis Schaeffer was such a thinker. Let us give him the last word. “This book is written in the hope that this generation may turn from the greatest wickedness, the placing of any created thing in the place of the Creator, and that this generation may get its feet out of the paths of death and may live” (258).
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy