The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture
By: Jonathan Harris
When I was probably around ten years old my church went through the video series How Should We Then Live? for Sunday night services. I remembered it being an interesting series, but the detail and importance had either since escaped my brain or weren’t realized at the time. Last week I decided to rent the book which inspired the video series for review. To put it simply, It is probably among the top 4 or 5 books I’ve ever read. I quickly logged into my Amazon account to order the book for future reference. I obviously can’t relay in detail everything that I found useful from its pages, but I would like to highlight a couple things I found interesting. First I’ll give a brief overview.
Francis Schaeffer, a top Christian intellectual standing within the ranks of Augustine and C.S. Lewis is a world-class philosopher and founder of the European based L’Abri Christian centers. L’Abri, which is described as both an educational establishment and retreat center has locations all over the world and has been the base for many intellectuals including Dr. Os Guinness. Within the pages of How Shall We Then Live? lies the astute observations of Schaeffer as he analyzes Western Civilization from the Roman Empire to the present. The relevance of such a study? In Schaeffer’s words, “I believe people are as they think. The choices we make in the next decade will mold irrevocably the direction of our culture. . . and the lives of our children.” The philosophic, scientific, and religious “lines” are traced through history to give us a basic understanding of the presuppositions of cultures, and it is these presuppositions that effect the way we think. As the Word of God says, “As a man thinketh, so is he.” The most fascinating reflections Schaeffer makes, in my opinion, lie in the area of art. I never realized how affected the arts (whether it’s paintings, music, or movies) were by the underlying philosophies of the day. In fact, the artists brush is really a delayed material essence of the philosopher’s thoughts. When we look at a sculpture from Constantine’s day we can see the contrast between it and a sculpture from the 2nd Century. A general apathy associated with bombastic music, sexualized themes in art, and authoritarian government replaced the previous base. We see that the early church catacomb frescos held onto a true view of man, while the later Roman church corrupted man and deified him. This lead towards the Renaissance paintings in which nature had a proper place (unlike the Roman Catholic influence) but man’s place was at the center of it. The autonomous (seen well in Michelangelo’s David) was the new rule. The Reformation works of art in contrast gave nature a place, but man was not at its center. Schaeffer of course goes on to our time and gives much detail citing many examples in architecture, paintings, music, and eventually other forms of media.
The main point of Schaeffer’s overview of history is this: Society needs a base by which to build. If the foundation is faulty the entire structure will be faulty and eventually come crumbling down. Humanism in all forms is a faulty foundation, not just because it denies God value, but because in pushing God out of the picture man is left without value. The Reformation base, previously seen in the Northern European countries and the United States stands in stark contrast to the Renaissance or Enlightenment bass, seen in Southern Europe and most purely in the French Revolution. Of course the nations previously holding to Reformation principles are now adopting humanism at alarming rates (Schaeffer also addresses this problem in the final chapters, as well as in A Christian Manifesto which directly addresses America and the Christian tradition of civil disobedience). Society today is a disjointed (we can see this so clearly in art) culture holding to a rationalistic view of science and technology, while finding meaning through subjective means. Pure rationalism is viewed as depressing because humans will come to the conclusion that “God is dead” and associated absurdity (Rene Descartes and a string of philosophers came to the same failing conclusion), robbing themselves of meaning, thus we find a more and more relativistic culture emerging. It is interesting that Schaeffer didn’t live to see what we call “postmodernism” today, but he foretasted it based on the philosophies he saw permeating the culture. We are living in the shadow of Rouseau, Kant, and Kierkegaard, all trying to desperately find meaning or unification in the particulars of life, and all miserably failing. The particulars- i.e. an apple, your finger, the molecules in your finger, yourself, an object of any kind, need meaning to hold them together- this has been the quest of every deep thinker, but the only unity is found in God Himself. Starting with man, nothing can be built and stand. Rationalism won’t give us logic or morality. It only gives us hopelessness. Starting with the presupposition of the Reformers, and Jesus himself- that God gives the particulars meaning, is the only way to build a culture. What’s Schaefer’s main concern for today? Totalitarian government. When a society has no reason to be moral, when it becomes autonomous, when meaning is robbed, the ensuing chaos can only be controlled by the bayonet. Most people will vote for a strong power to protect them when people won’t regulate themselves. As Schaeffer says, “To make no decision in regard to the growth of authoritarian government is already a decision for it.” We must make a decision today. Will we return to our base of God, and the order He brings to life, or will we surrender to the disorder of humanism? The choice is ours.
My review is nowhere near as complete as I’d like it, but I know if I kept going I’d end up giving a transcript of the book. Please, I urge you, pick up a copy of this book. It’s a must read for every person as it will give a clear indication of where we are today, how we got here, and where we are going.