Summary of “HOW SHALL WE THEN LIVE?” by Francis Schaeffer


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In his book How Shall We Then Live? Schaefer presents a history of western civilization that is very helpful.  The fact remains that ideas have consequences and Rome’s influence and example is insightful.

 The Roman Impact on Western Civilization

Our presuppositions (i.e., things we assume to be true without arguing for them) naturally work themselves out through our actions.  Roman culture has left its’ mark on Western culture with the good and the bad.  Once the gods and the polis could no longer sustain civilization, the people looked to an authoritarian Caesar.  This cruel task master eventually contributed to the inevitable destruction of Rome from within.  Why?  Because it’s ultimate ground or base was a finite manIt was under Rome’s ruthless persecution that Christianity actually flourished because their base is placed in a personal infinite benevolent God whose revelation was absolute and final.

Contrasting the Renaissance from the Reformation is instructive.  During the Renaissance period, man was understood to be the measure of all things.  As such, no ultimate reference point obtained (but the finite creature).  This resulted in the lack of meaning to particulars because no absolutes were present.  No answer could be given for both the greatness of man and his cruelty.

The Reformation contrarily emphasized the supremacy of God as revealed in the Bible in all of life.  As such, an ultimate reference point obtained (the infinite uncreated Creator) which gave meaning to particulars.  Thus, absolute truth obtained, the dilemma of man’s greatness and cruelty were explained and Christ’s work of redemption on our behalf was the solution offered.  Thus, while culture mattered, it was to come under the lordship of Christ.

The Enlightenment among other things ultimately jettisoned absolutes which resulted in the discarding of true freedom and civility.  It was in this setting where the maxim “Might Makes Right” would flourish.  Man-centeredness practically results in an ultimate blood bath—French Revolution.  Contrarily, God-centeredness is the base for true civility to obtain because it affords freedom with restraints.  That’s the essential difference between these two Worldviews as considered in the Enlightenment.  A “utopia” awaits…but only oppression results.

Modern Science owes flourishing not to a Darwinian naturalistic worldview, but to the Christian Worldview.  As creator God both made and sustains everything that exists and thus provides uniformity to natural causes in an open system.  This cause/effect reality spurred scientists to discover with confidence the world and its phenomenon (contra a Buddhist or Pantheistic worldview that denies the real world for illusion).

The disciplines of Science and Philosophy started rotting at the tap root when the God who is there was jettisoned.  A prevailing presupposition for example is that matter is eternal (i.e., the physical is the only reality) which if true means that there is no being with free will, man is only a machine.  When this is the case, the notion of “ought” is discarded because there’s no soul choosing, only a mechanism determined to act according to a “design”.

When man is the measure of all things, all we have are particulars, no universals and thus achieving a unifying hub evades us.  When this takes place, only despair awaits and that’s where modern man is today.

Ideas matter and eventually express themselves with vicious force.  A potent venue through which ideas are spread is the academy whose idea of reality overflows into the public sector…often poisoning the soul of men, dismembering the fabric of culture, and offering the carcasses of humanity to the elite and powerful to devour.         Personal peace and affluence is a case in point.

When peace and affluence are attained and remain the goal of life, people will at any cost fight to maintain that status quo.  But there’s a price to pay here,  for to live in this “peace” or “safety” requires an elite ruling class that offers protection from harm and insulation from “raiders“.  If those ruling operate under the worldview that man is the measure of all things, thus denying the God who is there, we end up with monstrous results (e.g., Nazism, Marxism, Communism, Fascism, etc.).  Inevitably, those who “save the day” become “tyrants”.  But why does this occur?

This tyrant arises because finite creatures don’t have the capacity of the Creator to be “ultimate”, “absolute”.  When this occurs; the weak and poor, the old and helpless will be in grave danger.  Schaeffer put it like this: “if there are no absolutes by which to judge a society, then society becomes absolute” [pg.224]. This state of affairs ultimately leads to chaos, stirs people to cry out for relief, gives way to the tyrant rescuer, which leads to injustice, and what the mighty elite say justice is…then it is.  Conclusion, we’re back at Rome.

When the Christian consensus no longer obtains which gave us freedom with restraints, because of its view of man and justice, what results is a manipulative elite that ariseSaid “rulers” through a naturalistic framework in science, sociology, and psychology will de-humanize people such that the weak will be discarded, exploited and brutally murdered.  Quote: “When freedom destroys order, the yearning for order will destroy freedom” [pg.244]. This is ominous and however we are manipulated be it through media, music, computers, etc., the end will be an authoritarian ruler.  Rome is a scary example.

What alternatives therefore remain?  The Achilles heel of the West is personal peace and affluence and when these idols are threatened a forced order will be summoned and the forfeiture of freedom will be simultaneously exacted.  But, the other alternative is the Christian worldview where the God who is there is the absolute reference point to which we anchor all of reality.  It is here where freedom with order can co-exist, rulers can be held in check, and justice for the voiceless marginalized can be exercised.  The fact is, according to Schaeffer, “To make no decision in regard to the growth of authoritarian government is already a decision for it.” [pg. 255]

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