A Teacher’s Review of How Should We Then Live?
I first read Schaeffer’s book How Should We Then Live? in 1978. I have read it many times since then, and have taught the book and the video series quite a few times as well. I have lectured on Francis Schaeffer, and I have read quite a few of his books and several biographies. While he was not a great stylist like C. S. Lewis, his writings, although not as popular today, are still worthwhile reading for serious Christians.
How Should We Then Live is not a textbook on Western Civilization. It supplements textbooks and interprets the flow of history. It very much reflects the cultural concerns of the 1960s and 70s. It presents a wide range of ideas and issues. The approach is somewhat scattered like buckshot from a shotgun. Great philosophers are given anywhere from a sentence to a paragraph. The big movements in history occupy anywhere from a few to a dozen pages of text.
Schaeffer writes at points like a brilliant man with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). He references philosophy, jumps to a historical event, quotes a book, explains a work of art, mentions a piece of music, and notes several other names and events in passing. This might all happen on the same page. Then Schaeffer returns in the book and video series to some well rehearsed messages about God speaking propositional truth, about the choices between human autonomy and Christianity, and about the direction of history with implications for the future. To a large degree, Schaeffer recycles his themes and major points from his previous writings.
The philosopher will find Schaeffer’s treatment of philosophy both inadequate and misleading. The historian will find his conclusions too simple. The art critic will object to his artistic interpretations. Fellow Christians will either object to Schaeffer’s efforts to overly involve Christians in cultural affairs or will find his prescriptions for cultural interaction lacking. Questions arise from the text. Was there ever a Christian consensus as dominant as Schaeffer implies? Are we really threatened by authoritarian government or ruling elites? Is Reason bound to lead to Non-Reason?
Object to your heart’s content. Schaeffer makes the reader think. Schaeffer was a teacher and preacher rather than a scholar. He is, to borrow from Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” a fox, for he knows or at least introduces, many things.
History, philosophy, ethics, law, economics, art, architecture, literature, music, sociology, psychology, and theology are not merely separate courses taught in separate buildings on a college campus. Together, these academic disciplines are a unified whole. They comprise different aspects of worldviews. They unite cultures. Granted, they are taught in those different buildings in separate classes often because there is so much to each discipline. But Schaeffer ventures into the task of connecting the dots, uniting the disparate ideas and looking for cohesion or, if it is the case, fragmentation. Men live by presuppositions, as he tells us in the first chapter. And men live by contradictory presuppositions in many cases. So, he calls upon Christians (first) and others to connect their random ideas into a coherent whole.
Schaeffer was not the first or only Christian thinker to put so many different items into one box. Christian worldview thinking has a long history; in fact, the Bible itself is the first source for uniting the many different areas of life. The Church Fathers built upon the Biblical foundation to address lots of cultural and philosophical issues. Augustine, in particular, was a very powerful worldview thinking Christian. Such works as The City of God, Confessions, and On Christian Doctrine are prime sources for the range of Augustine’s thought.
The Reformers were focused on doctrines related to salvation and church life, but they also ventured into areas of family life, politics, art, and culture. Then in 1898, Abraham Kuyper gave his famous Stone Lectures, which became the book titled Lectures on Calvinism, which has defined Christian worldview thinking ever since then. (I grant that lots of Christian thinkers are skipped in this 2 paragraph summary. Christian thinkers such as Christopher Dawson, G. K. Chesterton, James Orr, and others were pushing the same God-honoring agenda.)
In the Twentieth Century, comprehensive Christian thought and application fell out of favor. Christianity came under attack from a variety of fronts. The response was a retreat into pietism. Christians focused on evangelism and “spiritual matters.” The world of culture, politics, ethics, and philosophy came to be dominated by non-Christian systems of thought.
There were, however, Christian thinkers who kept venturing beyond the realms of Bible study and theology. Of course, the Bible and theology were battlegrounds as well, and quite a few Christians, such as Benjamin Warfield and J. Gresham Machen, devoted their energies to a defense of the faith. Beyond and yet linked to these theological wars were any number of 20th century ISMs that encroached upon areas of Christian interest.
Christians like Herman Dooyeweerd and D. H. Vollenhoven ventured into the realm of philosophy. In the early 1960s, R. J. Rushdoony began writing scholarly works on history, politics, and education from a Christian perspective. C. Gregg Singer wrote on American history. Gordon Clark wrote on philosophy, education, and other topics as well. With issues ranging from Communism to Darwinism to Existentialism, some Christian thinkers (most of whom were Reformed) felt compelled to move beyond the stained glass enclosures of the church to reclaim the world for Christ.
Neither the thinkers referred to above nor Francis Schaeffer invented the idea of Christians thinking worldviewishly. They were merely going back to what the faithful had done for centuries and playing catch up. So, some hefty tomes and scholarly books were written. The reading audiences were small, but there were core groups that digested the books and ideas.
Schaeffer’s great gift was his ability to connect messages to broader audiences. While most Christian intellectuals spoke to one another or wrote within narrow circles, Schaeffer connected to the broader evangelical community and to a generation that was young, restless, and anything, but reformed.
He actually accomplished what John Stott speaks about in his book Between Two Worlds. The Christian, particularly the past in the case of Stott’s book, is to have one foot in the Bible and the other in the world. Schaeffer did exactly that.
Schaeffer in My Classroom
Teaching Schaeffer in the classroom of a Christian school creates some problems. First, How Should We Then Live? Is now a 40 year old book with many outdated references and concerns. Second, Schaeffer is not as complex as many philosophers, but his terminology, such as “the mannishness of man,” “universals and particulars,” and “non-reason” is perplexing to younger readers. Third, his style and organization is not top notch. Fourth, much of what he says sounds commonplace in a Christian school. It hardly sounds earthshaking and worldview view toppling.
When Schaeffer says that God has spoken to us through His Word and Jesus’ death on the cross is the answer to man’s ultimate problems, Christian students yawn or gaze blankly. The revolutionary, paradigm exploding, earth shaking radicalism of such statements is the normal course of speech in a Christian setting. I tell my students that it is like a person on a cattle ranch eating a steak dinner.
One of the greatest challenges of mastering Schaeffer’s book for my students is learning and sorting out all of the names and events covered in the book. This book is a history of philosophy, a course in art and music appreciation, a survey of literature, an application of theology, a discussion of issues and trends of the middle to late 20th century, a political treatise, and more.
My students had a list of nearly 150 names of people and events that they had to learn. Now do you sort out Existential philosophers, Impressionist painters, Renaissance sculptors, and Reformation preachers all at once? The answer is “slowly and carefully.”
A careful study through Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live is the best means of beginning an acquaintance with many of the essential names and terms in Western Civilization. It is just a beginning point. It is one that is worth reading, or watching in the case of the videos, repeatedly.
I never fail to be impressed with each viewing of Schaeffer’s work. I question him, argue with him, disagree with him, and applaud him with each venture. Thank God for giving us such a man.