Tuesday, November 11, 2014

How Should We Then Live? by Francis Schaeffer (Book Review #106 of 2014)


How Should We Then Live? (L'Abri 50th Anniversary Edition): The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture


This was the free audiobook of the month on ChristianAudio.com last month. I read Colson and Pearcey's How Now Shall We Live in college, which is a much longer updated version of this book with more applications. I recommend that as a follow-up text. Books on church history, histories of Europe in the Middle Ages would be helpful as prerequisites, as well as overviews of philosophy, before reading Schaeffer's work.

This book is a fairly brief summary of the development of Western culture through its art and architecture, as well as a defense of the Christian world view's role in preserving culture and promoting principles of liberty. Schaeffer beings by examining the way art and architecture changed from the Roman empire to the Middle Ages. Christians, Schaeffer remarks, were remarkably resistant to syncretism, refusing to worship idols or caesars or adopt these practices into their worship. Schaeffer holds up many examples but this contrasts with his later observations of how the Catholic Church incorporated Greek philosophy into its theology, persecuting Galileo and Copernicus when their findings contradicted Aristotle (and not the Bible, which modern "new atheists" often purport). He defends the Reformation against accusations that it was antithical to art and culture. The Refomers did not go about criticizing art for art's sake, but were highly supportive of art that was based in truths. They simply rejected art that was contrary to those truths that society and law were based upon-- namely that of a biblical world view. Likewise, Schaeffer writes, the Renaissance wasn't made possible simply because of the re-discovery of "lost" Greek works, but by having a Christian worldview as the basis for exploring those works. This contradicts some historians like Norman Cantor (Schaeffer doesn't mention these, I reviewed Cantor's work earlier this year) who argue that the Church had to re-address Aristotelian philosophy as their works were translated into Latin in the 11th century as Muslims and Jews had already been doing in their own languages for centuries. Schaeffer traces the development of humanism and determinism out of the Renaissance as parallel with the development of biblical theology out of the Reformation.

There is quite a bit of a disconnect as Schaeffer leaves out various details. Disconnect between the Luther that Schaeffer espouses and Luther's many statements inciting violence, hatred of the Jews, etc. He doesn't discuss the theocratic nature of European governments; you don't see Calvin burning anyone at the stake for heresy under state law. Schaeffer does write, however, that the Reformers and Christianity obviously got race wrong. But he points out that it was Christians like William Wilberforce who were instrumental in ending chattel slavery.

The power of this book comes in Schaeffer's examination of the logical conclusions of humanism and determinism and how earlier scholars like Newton and Da Vinci rejected determinism because they read to anti-biblical conclusion. Explanations of time + chance are problematic because neither time nor chance are forces that can do anything. Ultimately, cosmologists and biologists alike are convinced that we are ultimately machines. This is what Leonardo Da Vinci also determined was the natural conclusion of mathematics. Mathematics leads us to particulars (via Aristotle) but only lead us to humanity being a machine-- which Da Vinci rejected as incompatible with a worldview that included belief in a deity defining absolute truths. If we are simply machines, then we have no moral basis for any of our laws or society-- who defines what? Hence, the American Revolution differed from the French Revolution because it was based on a Christian belief that all men are endowed by a Creator with inalienable rights. The French revolution had no such basis, it was simply an overthrow of the order and rooted in humanism-- hence it led to violence, chaos, and the rise of another dictator. Schaeffer recounts how those conclusions played out in the USSR and China, still very Communist when he wrote this in 1976. He looks at policy prescriptions from the 1960s and 1970s by psychologists and philosophers-- including putting LSD in the water, Galbraith's desire (along with various "futurists") to have society ruled by an elite cadre of technocrats. "Who rules the rulers?" asks Schaeffer, pointing out that the psychologists and psychiatrists that determine the fitness of these rulers ultimately are the king-makers holding power. These prescriptions reminded me a lot of Plato's Republic, though Schaeffer does not draw that parallel.

What determines truth? The 51% of majority rule? America's founding fathers found that anathema, drawing on the work of earlier political philosophers. The tyranny of the majority can be cruel indeed. Young people today believe that the only basis for our laws should be majority will, which does not bode well for minority rights when they have also been indocrinated in the humanistic doctrine that we are all simply machines with no afterlife to consider.

Schaeffer has prescience about global terrorism: People will be willing to give up liberty in exchange for strong agents pledged to fight against the lack of economic power and security as a result of terrorist activity. Schaeffer quotes Gibbons' in pointing out that Rome had five characteristics in its decline: 1. A mounting love of show and luxury. 2. A widening gap between rich and poor. 3. Obsession with sex. 4. Freakishness in the arts and enthusiasms pretending to be creativity (reality TV and Jackass, anyone?). 5. An increased desire to live off the State. "It all sounds so familiar. We have come a long road since our first chapter, and we are back in Rome."

The book is brief and skips over perhaps too many details. Items such as the difficulties of Thomas Aquinas' thought are "much richer than we can discuss here..." among others. But I would recommend every Christian (and non-Christian) read this book. It is worth reading while reading Hitchens, Dawkins, or other "new atheists," as Schaeffer makes a strongly logical argument in contrast with theirs. Decide for yourself which society you prefer. 4.5 stars out of 5.

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