Francis Schaeffer’s Vision and His Blindspots
Revisiting Francis Schaeffer
I just finished reading Francis Schaeffer’s classic “How Should We Then Live?” It is a fascinating journey of the intellectual thinking and artistic expression of those ideas from ancient Greece and Rome to modern America and Europe. Written in 1976, the book addresses the evolving world-view of the intelligentsia through the ages, and was widely praised at the time for confronting these issues from a Christian perspective. I guess it was unusual for Christians to challenge these views on their own terms.
But the book left me deeply unsatisfied. Schaeffer’s intellectualism leads him to miss or dismiss an awful lot of the human experience, which is even more consequential than whatever the elites may be doing. In particular, like a lot of churchmen he has little regard for capitalism, business, or technology. Like a lot of Protestants he overlooks much of what the Roman Catholic Church contributed to human development. And, like a lot of intellectuals he is uninterested in how the middle classes (the bourgeois) were spending their time.
In some ways the book is prescient, anticipating the cultural deterioration that has come into full flower in recent years. But because it ignores the economic and political aspects of society, it offers little hope for renewal and is far too defeatist in the end.
But before we get into the weaknesses, let’s look at the strengths of his exposition.
While Schaeffer weaves a complex tapestry of how world-views evolve, are tried out and discarded, only to be replaced by new iterations for new generations, it all boils down to two competing ideas –
- Man is autonomous and can invent his own social order, including his own morality and sense of purpose and meaning, based solely on however he feels at the time
- God is in charge, and reveals to man timeless truths about meaning, purpose and values, and mankind is at his best when he tries to live according to those truths.
The conflict between these approaches is not new. Schaeffer notes they go back to ancient Greece and Rome, but I would add that the entire Old Testament is the story of how a single people wrestled with the exact same conflict – would God’s people follow the instructions He laid out, or would they go like sheep – “everyone to his own way?”
Schaeffer argues that the second idea, that God is in charge, reached its height in the Reformation and its return to Biblical teaching. It was the Reformation that laid the foundation for modern civilization, especially the idea that each individual is created in God’s image and so has an innate dignity as a child of God. This in turn leads to democracy and scientific inquiry.
As image bearers of God, humans are creative and inquisitive. The universe was created by a God of reason, so may be known through what became the scientific method. The Reformation believed that people should be encouraged to read the Bible for themselves, so literacy was a core value. Mass education was promoted, and with that the whole idea of self-governance. Churches themselves came to be governed by laymen. Being literate allowed congregations to read, not only words but also music, and to sing hymns of worship for themselves, rather than relying on cantors or priests.
The Reformation taught that while humans are children of God, they are also fallen and are constantly tempted by sin. They therefore need a clear moral code based on the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus. There are absolute rights and wrongs and discipline is necessary for human flourishing. This became the basis of a legal system and the rule of law, not the whim of men. It was also the basis of clear rules of governance.
But most of the book is devoted to the growth and eventual deterioration of the first idea – that man is autonomous. Humanism became the alternative understanding of the universe and powered the Enlightenment – basically the idea promoted by Rousseau that man is essentially good but corrupted by society: “Man was born free, but everywhere he is in chains!”
Schaeffer contrasts the French Revolution, powered by the Enlightenment, with the American Revolution, powered by the Reformation. The French revolution, of course, led to a bloodbath and eventual rule by a strongman, not unlike the later Communist revolutions in Russia and China. Schaeffer argues this is the inevitable consequence of a world-view that rejects the Biblical foundation of morality and allows mankind to make it up as he goes.
A lot of the book is devoted to the particulars of philosophical thought developed by Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and then the Existentialists, and eventually what we think of today as “post-modernism,” and how these ideas are expressed in art. But, as he says repeatedly, no one can actually live according to these ideas. The painter Gauguin was so enamored by Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage” that he deserted his family and went to Tahiti to find it. What he found instead was a cruel, brutish society that could barely survive.
Why should that be surprising to anyone? Only a pampered, spoiled intellectual could possibly entertain the delusion that scratching out survival with the barest of tools and social organization would be ennobling.
But the same applies to all these philosophers. They come up with intellectual constructs that have little bearing on reality and are compelling only in the lofty solons of people who don’t have to work for a living. Each one comes along and is a fad for a while, maybe a generation, and then is discarded as boring and tedious by the next cohort of thinkers. When was the last time you heard anyone discuss Existentialism? Artistically, the ideas are reflected in the desire for newness and shock value. So it devolved from order into disorder — from realism, to impressionism, to cubism, to modernism, to the random scribblings of Jackson Pollack. Similar changes have taken place in music and film. Schaeffer says that this is how the philosophical ideas reach the mass population.
Eventually it devolves into chaos and humans don’t do well in chaos. Politically and economically they will turn to a strong man to restore order, but that order is based on no eternal truth, just on the whim of the strong man (or the State), which can change from time to time. Lacking a Christian foundation, individuals no longer have inherent value. Humans only matter as part of the mass serving the machinery of the State.
He sees a similar deterioration in science, law, and the news media. All have become “post modern” (not a term Schaeffer uses, he uses “modern modern,” but it means the same thing) – the belief that there is no truth, only social constructs and power. The people in power will construct an understanding of phenomenon that enhances their position.
So, rather than seeking for truth, the quest becomes a search for power — if I have the power, I can define what is true and I can define it in a way to suit my predispositions. But, of course, it will not be me alone, it will be my and my buddies. In the Twentieth Century, the power grab adopted a veneer of respectability by defining itself as an enlightened elite rather than a gang of thugs. But it really is no different, as he illustrates with many examples:
- In 1968 Arthur Koestler proposed putting a super tranquilizer into the drinking water to rid man of aggression.
- In 1969 Kermit Krantz (the head of the Gynecology of Obstetrics Department of the University of Kansas) similarly proposed putting birth control chemicals in the drinking water to limit population growth. And others suggested that State could then provide an antidote so it could determine who would have babies.
- Jose Delgado of Yale University predicted to UNESCO that we would soon be able to implant electronic sensors in the brain to control aggression.
- Kenneth Clark, president of the American Psychological Association, in 1971 proposed that all political leaders be required to take anti-aggression drugs.
- Russel V. Lee, Clinical Professor Emeritus at Stanford Medical School suggested all public officials be required to take an annual psychological test and removed from office if they did poorly.
These are all elite academics who feel entitled to exert control over the masses. Schaeffer asks, “who controls the controllers?” Well, no one, of course, except whoever is in power at the moment. It is a profoundly anti-democratic world-view. “The people” have no agency, no dignity. They are just the raw material for an all-powerful State.
These examples were all before 1976 when Schaeffer was writing his book. More recently we have other examples of required conformity to certain ideas such as climate change, homosexual marriage, transgendered pronouns and a whole laundry list of other progressive notions. Violation of the norms can be severely punished.
Schaeffer saw this coming in the sciences (think global warming), law (think the Obergefell decision) and the media (think Trump/Russia collusion). He writes:
“With an elite providing arbitrary absolutes, not just TV but the general apparatus of the mass media can be a vehicle for manipulation. There is no need for collusion or a plot. All that is needed is that the world view of the elite and the world view of the central news media coincide.”
Schaeffer ends with a dismal outlook on the future. He sees a future that includes 1. Economic breakdown and chaos. 2. War, especially nuclear war against the ascendant Communist governments. 3. Violence, “especially random or political violence and indiscriminate terrorism.” 4. Radical redistribution of the wealth of the world, and 5. A growing shortage of food and other natural resources.
And this is where Schaeffer’s lack of interest in the middle class, economics, and technology leads him astray.
He was writing in 1976, the year Jimmy Carter was elected. He was himself influenced by the manipulation of the mass media. The media was at the time hyping all the doomsday scenarios of the Earth Day propaganda, fear of the Soviet Union, the hopelessness of hyper-inflation and economic stagnation, and the oil shortages brought on by the OPEC cartel.
He had no way of knowing that the great middle class would rise up against all the defeatism and elect Ronald Reagan. He didn’t realize that the Soviet Union was a hollow shell. He couldn’t anticipate how technology would create a “Green Revolution” and discover new ways of extracting resources. He was blind to the idea that it would be capitalism that would bring prosperity to the third-world and that global poverty would be slashed, not by forced redistribution but by growing economies.
Schaeffer can be forgiven for failing to predict the future, but he is equally myopic when it comes to the past. Take his treatment of the Middle Ages, which he defines as the years 500 to 1400. He devotes a mere 26 pages, of which 11 are illustrations, to this period of nearly a millennium. He is dismissive of the art of the period as being primitive and not up the standards of the Greeks and the Romans.
True enough, but what enabled Roman art and architecture to flourish was the wealth created by slavery, conquest, and ruthless plunder of other peoples. After the fall of Rome, Europe embarked on a far more noble undertaking – creating a society that could prosper with its own resources.
Schaeffer isn’t the first to fall into the trap of dismissing the middle ages. Rodney Stark writes in “The Victory of Reason,” “The idea that Europe fell into the Dark Ages is a hoax originated by antireligious, and bitterly anti-Catholic eighteenth century intellectuals who were determined to assert the cultural superiority of their own time and who boosted their claim by denigrating previous centuries as – in the words of Voltaire – a time when ‘barbarism, superstition, (and) ignorance covered the face of the world.’”
In fact, the middle ages were a time of enormous technological progress, which in turn bred new ways of organizing society, politics, and economics. It featured, Stark says, “the creation of the first economies that depended primarily on nonhuman power,” especially water and wind power, but also horse power as new plows, horseshoes, and harnesses were developed that allowed for the use of horses rather than oxen for tilling fields. Europe invented chimneys, eyeglasses, and clocks, all of which improved life for ordinary people and helps them become more productive than any people the world had ever seen.
Schaeffer also dismisses the use of profits as a way of powering enterprise. He acknowledges that Catholic monastic orders were pioneers in estate management and agriculture, but bemoans that they became profitable instead of being dedicated to poverty. But these same monasteries also developed systems of banking and accounting that allowed for the creation of capitalism.
Much later in his treatise, Schaeffer looks askance at the World War Two generation and its post-War emphasis on the values of “personal peace and affluence.” He celebrates the young people of the 1960s rebelling against those values, but is saddened that their rebellion deteriorated into equally shallow values of their own. “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll” is hardly the mantra of a generation that is searching for deeper meaning.
Again, his intellectualism creates his own form of elitism. The World War Two generation, having suffered through the Depression and the War probably earned a little personal peace and affluence. Yes, their children (the Baby Boomers) grew up in homes that placed a high value on those qualities and the children found them at best boring and unchallenging.
But there is nothing inherently wrong with personal peace and affluence. Like all such values (fame, wealth, artistic talent) it can be turned to good or to bad. Some people may come to idolize and worship such things, while others realize they are gifts from God and use them as foundations for helping their fellow man. I personally know many families who, having obtained a measure of prosperity, go on to provide substantial funding to missions and charities, and even give of their time and money to go on mission trips to some of the poorest areas of the world.
Similarly with Schaeffer’s dystopian view of the future, he seems to assume that the intellectual elite can actually succeed in their ambitions. What he misses is that, for all their self-regard they simply are not very competent. I have written a book (“Myth Busters: Why Health Reform Always Goes Awry”) about my area of interest, health care, which shows how virtually all of the grand schemes of the elite have failed – not only failed to do what is promised, but actually made conditions worse than they were before. The same is true in just about every policy arena I can think of –- urban planning, programs for the poor, transportation policy, housing policy, dietary guidelines, you name it. The very notion that a small cadre of people can get together and dictate how people should behave is a fantasy. It simply doesn’t work.
And that is the genius of democratic capitalism — that it can respond effectively to billions of daily decisions by hundreds of millions of people in ways that are far beyond what any command and control economy can ever do. And this is a system that can exist only in a Judeo-Christian context, with its foundational belief in the dignity and value of each individual who is made in the image of God. Schaeffer should have known this.
Further, Schaeffer seems intimidated by the power of the rise of the post-modern intellectualism of his time. But he should have known that such a construct carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. He lists dozens of other intellectual fads that aroused intellectuals for a time. They are trendy and fashionable for a while, but they soon get boring and unfulfilling and are discarded for the next “new thing.” In the case of post modernism, when truth is seen as a social construct it quickly devolves into an unseemly power struggle between identity groups, each trying to force its own version of truth on all the other groups. We are seeing this today, as the “LGBTQ community” tries to force its view of trangendered truth onto Feminists, whose interest is in protecting the status of women from male encroachment. Is it fair to women when a man who “identifies” as female dominates women’s sports? Or when “sexual liberation” leads to sexually transmitted disease that leaves women infertile when they would most like to have children? Or when the traditional values of Latino families clash with the prurience of sex-obsessed Hollywood? Or in the conflicts between labor unions and environmentalists over the construction of oil pipelines?
There are hundreds of other examples of similar conflicts that will destroy any ideological coherence in post-modern progressivism. In the face of these conflicts, the two thousand year-old reliable truths of Christianity begin to look like a haven for anyone looking to stand on solid ground. The old hymn says, “On Jesus Christ the rock I stand, all other ground is shifting sand.” Has that ever been more true than it is today?
And that is Francis Schaeffer’s greatest failing, at least in this book – he was overwhelmed by the gloom and didn’t have enough faith in Jesus to heal our society.
Greg Scandlen has over 30 years experience in health care financing. He is an advocate of patient empowerment, consumer choice, and increased competition. As founder of the Council for Affordable Health Insurance in 1991 and Consumers for Health Care Choices in 2004, he helped get Health Savings Accounts enacted and implemented. He is now retired and living in Waynesboro, PA where he is active in his church and local politics.