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Francis Schaeffer identified a very real phenomenon, that is still with us

It’s been over thirty years since I last read Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There. Given that Schaeffer’s views and the book are part of the founding mythos of Sputnik I thought I should give it another read.

I was interested to see whether the book was still relevant fifty years after it was first published. As I have had some unexpected time on my hands I have just finished my re-reading of The God Who Is There and the two subsequent ones: Escape from Reason and He Is There and He Is Not Silent (see footnote). So, how does it read now?

It is, fundamentally, a book with one idea: philosophy from Aquinas onward has resulted in a de-coupling of the human understanding of man, the world and the universe (‘below the line’ in Schaeffer’s terminology) from questions of meaning, purpose and morals in human life (‘above the line’). The line that separates the two is ‘the line of despair’. Different aspects of human activity come under the line of despair at different points: philosophy going first, then the arts, music, writing and at last general culture: that stepped descent gives us Schaeffer’s staircase, so beloved of Jonny Mellor.

Because the book was written in the 1960s it doesn’t get any further than the existentialists and their attempts at self-realisation through a final experience or authenticating experience. There is no treatment of any of the post-modern thought that we have been living with since then, but much of what we have seen over the last thirty to forty years – for example, deconstructionism and suspicion of grand narratives – is a further outworking of the initial crossing of the line of despair. I am clear Schaeffer identified a real phenomenon; one that is still with us.

As an example, shortly after I had finished the book I read a review of Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. After a couple of columns of positive remarks the reviewer, Steven Poole, homed in on Sapolsky’s determinism: he does not believe in free will as ‘every human action is inescapably caused by preceding events in the world, including events in the brain.’ Yet, Sapolsky still urges his readers to think carefully about their actions, and is optimistic for the gradual improvement of humanity.  As Poole concludes:

Yet the question remains: if human beings are simply reactive robots, slaves to natural law who are causally buffeted by a zillion factors of biology and circumstance, why would we have any say in whether things will get better? Either they will or they won’t, but on this magisterial account it seems that we can’t really choose to do anything about it.

If Schaeffer had read that he would have given a sad sigh of recognition, as it is almost a textbook expression of the consequences of the decoupling of the ‘upper storey’ (human meaning and purpose) from the “lower storey’ (finite knowledge of nature) produced by the line of despair.

That is the big picture. There were two other, smaller things that struck me; first, at the end of chapter 4 of Escape from Reason, he comments on the role of philosophy:

The interesting thing today is that as existentialism and, in a different way, “defining philosophy” have become antiphilosophies, the real philosophic expressions have tended to pass over to those who do not occupy the chairs of philosophy – the novelists, the film producers, the jazz musicians, and even the teenage gangs in their violence. These are the people who are asking and struggling with the big questions in our day. (p244 in the single volume)

As artists we do not have to limit ourselves to addressing the questions of the philosophers or to wait for them to come up with answers we can propagate: we are commissioned to do our own thinking.

Secondly, Schaeffer takes the view that Christian faith frees us in the realm of the imagination:

The Christian may have fantasy and imagination without being threatened. Modern man cannot have daydreams and fantasies without being threatened. The Christian should be the person who is alive, whose imagination absolutely boils, which moves, which produces something a bit different from God’s world because God made us to be creative. (He Is There and He Is Not Silent, chapter 4, p340)

For me, that is an absolutely liberating thought, a call to make and create. Let’s get on with it.

Footnote:All three of Schaeffer’s books referred to here are available in a single hardback volume – Francis A Schaeffer Trilogy –  with the revised text from Schaeffer’s complete works, from  Crossway, for under £10 from a certain on-line shop

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