An Analysis Of Francis Schaeffer’s “The Church At The End Of The 20th Century”
Francis Schaeffer has been characterized as an Elijah to the late twentieth century. Though not as inspired in the same direct sense as his Biblical forebears, Francis Schaeffer did articulate a vision of the future remarkable in its accuracy and a message startling in its relevancy. Schaeffer was able to accomplish this by extrapolating from the cultural situation of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and projecting these trends into the future where the implications of these assumptions would have the time necessary to fester over into a comprehensive dystopian milieu. Schaeffer’s “The Church At The End 20th Century”, from a standpoint a tad less than nearly a half century in the past, explored a world not unlike our own where Western society has abandoned its Judeo-Christian foundations and stands poised to lose not only its order but also its liberty as a consequence.
Throughout the corpus of his life’s work, Francis Schaeffer categorized ideas as the primary force motivating history. Richard Pierard in “Reflections On Francis Schaeffer” says regarding Schaeffer’s philosophy of history, “People’s world views or presuppositions determine the direction of their political and social institutions and their scientific endeavors (199).” “The Church At The End Of The 20th Century” attempts to show how such distorted thinking comes to impact the structures of civilized existence such as the institutions of government and culture.
Francis Schaeffer concluded that the confusion and chaos rampant at the end of the twentieth century were traceable to the rejection of the Judeo-Christian foundations upon which Western civilization once sat. However, as a result, modern man has not drifted along as before, blissfully unencumbered by the burdens classical theism strove to address. Instead the whole world has pretty much started falling apart. In the first chapter titled “The Roots Of The Student Revolution”, Schaeffer provides a summary of the streams of thought he saw as establishing the backdrop of the contemporary world drama.
Having abandoned the Judeo-Christian worldview, modern man has also forfeited many of the benefits inherent to that particular body of thought. Being the God of both the physical realm and its order as well as the realm of the spirit and its yearning for freedom, those turning their backs on the God of the Bible inevitably end up losing an essential balance between these two pillars of existence.
Much of the social confusion characterizing the contemporary world is understandable in terms of these extremes dancing unfettered across America’s cultural landscape. In the mind of Schaeffer, philosophies and perspectives seemingly light-years apart to the casual observer were in the final analysis interconnected in that they stemmed from the same root problem.
A number of thinkers who have abandoned Judeo-Christian principles have attempted to find ultimate answers in an understanding of science construed though their materialistic philosophy excluding life’s spiritual component. Schaeffer referred to this approach as “modern modern science” (13).
Schaeffer deliberately distinguished between modern science and modern modern science in an attempt to emphasize the difference between the two epistemological approaches. Schaeffer stressed that modern science in fact arose amidst a Christian framework. The methodology’s earliest practitioners believed that one could understand the operation of the physical universe since it had been imbued with a sense of orderliness by its rational creator.
However, modern modern science would step beyond the confines of such a paradigm to exclude the role of God by arguing that the universe is a closed system complete in itself. But by eliminating the need for a personal Creator, modern modern science also eliminates those aspects of man transcending the sum of his material parts or those qualities Schaffer cleverly referred to as “the mannishness of man”.
When the cosmos is reduced to mere matter, man can no longer be seen as possessing those qualities that distinguish him from the proverbial furniture of the universe. Instead of arising as responses to metaphysical verities, things such as emotions, thoughts, and acts of creativity are reduced to nothing more than responses to electro-chemical biological stimuli. The aspirations the Declaration of Independence gives rise to become no different than the reaction to the gastrointestinal conditions sparking heartburn and may in fact possibly be interrelated.
The hypothesis of man as little more than an empty bag of mostly water, as the infamous Crystalline Entity put it on one episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, does not fit the data or provide much comfort on a cold night when we consider the aspects of existence seeming to rise above the immediacy of our biological functions. Such inadequacy no doubt provokes a response from those not willing to accept how divine revelation fills in these blanks but who realize that the cold scientism of Mr. Spock does not quite cut it either.
Schaeffer pointed out that assorted brands of mysticism are often, surprisingly, the children of scientism’s ultimate consequences. With rationalism found wanting, modern man feels he must step beyond reason and make what Schaeffer refers to as “a leap upstairs” in order to find meaning in nonrational experience.
Writing along similar lines, James Sire says of existentialism in “The Universe Next Door”, “….against the absurdity of the objective world, the authentic person must revolt and create value (100).” Values are not arrived at in a rational manner through contemplation upon transcendent criteria but through an intuitive choice based upon feeling much more akin to a mystical experience whether we decide to embrace New Age pantheism or various forms of political activism.
In such a situation, one is reminded of the famous statement in “The Charge Of The Light Brigade”: “Ours is not reason why. Ours is but to do or die.” The human heart realizes that there are things worth valuing beyond the concrete material universe even if it cannot justify the basis for this belief. However, when rational standards are abandoned, chaos of some sort is usually bound to follow.
Perhaps the most ironic thing of this entire discussion is that, the further each alternative gets from the Judeo-Christian standard, the more allegedly objective rationalism and subjective romanticism come to resemble one another. Schaeffer argued that, without some kind of transcendent reference point, even the imposing intellectual monolith of contemporary science breaks down into personal preference and social utility.
Schaeffer illustrated this by highlighting how Cambridge Anthropologist Edmund Leach preferred a theory of evolution whereby all human races descended from one common ancestor rather than arising separately from one another (92). Leach based such a conclusion on no other criteria than that the theory of a single common ancestor fit better with the notions of racial harmony.
No longer are scientific decisions to be made in light of the facts or data available at the time but in reference to the same kind of subjective criteria by which we would decide whether to wear a red or blue tie to work tomorrow. Right answers and wrong answers become predicated on their usefulness to society or at least to those wielding power. One might say objectively that objectivity is not quite what it use to be.
Things might not be so bad if adherents of these worldviews sat in a corner and kept quiet amongst themselves. Yet the ironic thing is that those convinced that no objective truth exists seem the most bent on inflicting their version of it upon everyone else in the attempt to remold society in their own image. Regarding the application of secularist perspectives, Schaeffer was perceptive in realizing that —- as in the realm of thought —- these non-Biblical approaches to social organization end up in the same place as well.
Schaeffer elaborates upon what he sees as three alternatives to a society built upon Christian foundations. Despite the differences in these systems, each bears a striking similarity.
The first alternative Schaeffer warns about is hedonism, defined as each doing their own thing. The second alternative is what Schaeffer refers to as “the dictatorship of 51%” or what social scientists and political theorists classify as pure democracy where there are no absolutes or standards beyond what is determined by the electorate, in a focus group, or by a committee. The third possibility Schaeffer foresaw was some kind of dictatorship, either in the form of one-man rule or by an elite technocratic bureaucracy.
As with scientism and the subjectivism from which the aforementioned approaches to politics and social organization derive their foundations, it would seem on the first view that anarchism and the various forms of authoritarianism would have little in common. But once again, closer investigation reveals that each shares a startling degree of similarity.
Anarchy promises liberation through the abolition of all traditional standards and institutions. This is either an empty promise or the proponents of this particular outlook do not fully realize what they are advocating.
Without eternal standards through which rights and property are respected, freedom rests on a most precarious foundation. For while the adherents of the various form of Leftism claim to stand for freedom and rights, this concern extends only to those professing an ideology similar to their own or pursuing related ends. Schaeffer illustrates this in the case of one student radical in Paris who told a caller to radio program, “…you just shut up — I’ll never give you a chance to speak (Schaeffer, 32).”
So much for freedom of expression. One cannot argue that such incidents merely reflect the heat of the moment and do not represent the true sentiments of those advocating total social revolution. Similar sentiments have been expressed by the very theoreticians of this movement as normative operating procedure.
Herbert Marcuse is quoted in “Left Of Liberal” as saying, “Certain things cannot be said, certain things cannot be expressed…which promote aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination (Bouscaren, 13).” In other words, those seeking a world of absolute decentralization in terms of morals just as much as politics would set themselves up as an elite imposing their own arbitrary standards with the same radical rigor they employed in their conflict to rend asunder the traditional order. Francis Fukuyama, author of the acclaimed “The End Of History & The Last Man” noted in a May 22, 2000 Time magazine article titled “Will Socialism Make A Comeback” that a socialistic anarchism will come to exert influence over the world of the twenty-first century without having to assume the formal reins of government by orchestrating disruptive protests like those that now regularly taken place during global financial summits in an attempt to alter world policy.
Francis Schaeffer has been with the Lord since the early 1980’s. Yet the thought of this visionary Presbyterian continues to provide considerable insight into a world tottering on the edge of chaos and encouragement for Evangelicals having to navigate a variety of perplexing issues. Schaeffer realized that one could not avoid the dangers of the contemporary world by simply ignoring arenas such as politics and other forms of social engagement since such forces have the power to impact all facets of existence in a mass society. Schaeffer addressed the impact of worldviews upon different aspects of culture in the chapter “Modern Man The Manipulator”.
Particularly startling is the accuracy of Schaeffer’s predictions regarding technological development. Schaeffer warned, “Very soon, all of us will be living in an electronic village hooked up to a huge computer, and we will be able to know what everybody else in the world thinks. The majority opinion will become law in that hour (97).”
Today, this prediction finds itself on the verge of fulfillment. Leaders such as Newt Gingrich and as far back as Ross Perot have suggested that the networking capability of the Internet be utilized for the purposes of referenda in order to decide major issues facing the nation. However, Schaeffer correctly warned of the manipulation likely to result from the use of this technology by and against individuals not adequately grounded in the truths that do not change regardless of the latest digital innovations. The Information Superhighway can take the websurfer either to the accumulated knowledge of mankind or the electronic equivalent of a red-light district.
Some will dismiss Schaeffer’s injunctions as Evangelical eschatological hysteria, especially when he speculates about the bio-electronic manipulation of individuals in reference to a May 22, 1970 International Herald Tribune article about monkey controlled by radio receivers implanted into their brains (98). That is until one reads the May 22, 2000 edition of Time Magazine predicting that prison guards may someday be obsolete thanks to implantable biochips that could be used to modify inmate behavior. Then one realizes that Francis Schaeffer’s understanding of human nature is truly holistic, comprehending the present in light of the past and the future in relation to the present.
It would not be much of an overstatement to say that Francis Schaeffer played a primary role in awakening Evangelicals to the precarious state of the world around them. One cannot discount the influence of Schaeffer upon the contemporary Evangelical mind. Regarding Schaeffer’s influence, Clark Pinnock writes in “Reflections On Francis Schaeffer”, “He [Schaeffer] enlisted in this task fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Tim LaHaye who, although they were world-denying dispensationalists at first, quickly became culture-reclaiming activists (Pinnock, 179).” In other words, Schaeffer helped Evangelicalism realize that the world and human endeavor possessed value beyond the number of souls that could be saved, central though individual salvation may be.
Schaeffer in no way sought to undermine the centrality of the individual, but rather hoped to expand Evangelical concerns to encompass all areas of thought and creation since the God the Christian served was the master of these as well. It was out of this sanctity for the individual created in the image of God that Schaeffer believed it was imperative for believers to engage in these other areas. Key to accomplishing this mission, Schaeffer believed each individual must take stock of their personal beliefs. Schaeffer often lamented that most people caught their presuppositions like they would the measles —- quite haphazardly.
Such reflection was just not to be a Sunday school exercise. Schaeffer saw it as groundwork for intensive apologetic conflict and engagement with a decaying world. Though himself a Presbyterian minister and evangelist, Schaeffer hoped to inspire Christians to get involved as salt and light in all academic disciplines and intellectual pursuits. Schaeffer said that the best thing a Christian scientist could do would be to invent a computer for the individual designed to counter the centralizing tendency of intrusive databases (Schaeffer, 99). No where did he conclude that learning was off limits to the believer since it had often been employed for questionable purposes.
I Chronicles 12:32 praises the children of Issachar for understanding the times in which they lived. Our own era stands witness to a rate of change unprecedented in the pages of history. Like the men of Issachar, Francis Schaeffer will be remembered as one of the few capable of rising above the confusion of the moment to determine the overall place of our times in relation to God’s providence and the consequences that will result from ignoring it.
By Frederick Meekins